Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Touching on TSR again

I really am not trying to pick on TSR, but I often find myself looking at companies and examining business decisions they made, and playing monday morning quarterback.

And make no mistake, that's what I'm doing. It's a lot easier for me to make these calls and I'm probably wrong anyway ;)

And in a way, this is another appendage to my "Thoughts on TSR" post in which I remarked that TSR seemed to purposely try NOT to give their customers what they wanted.

Does anyone remember when TSR had the Conan license?

To my mind, of all the inexplicable decisions TSR made in NOT exploiting its game engine, the most successful game engine on the market at the time, and maybe of ALL time, nothing is more glaring than the fact that they had the Conan license, at the HEIGHT of the popularity of the Arnold Swarzenegger movies and released a box set game for it using...

A percentile dice system, no character classes. The rules amounted to 32 pages. The rest of the box set was information about Hyboria.

The game failed miserably, at which point TSR produced some modules based on Robert E Howard books, containing D&D versions of Conan characters, at which point they allowed the license to lapse.

There are many reasons to make a Conan game non-D&D if you are TSR.

Those that spring to mind:

1. David Cook, who Monte Cook described as "the rock star of TSR" just wanted to create his own game. And had enough mojo internally to get it done.

2. The powers that be at TSR were afraid their IP D&D worlds would be overshadowed by Hyboria and would no longer be the default world for D&D games.

I call this the "let's kill Greyhawk because we don't entirely own it" theory of TSR management.

3. They really felt D&D was bad game engine for Conan.

I call this the "we couldn't find our asses with both hands and the Hubble Telescope" theory of TSR management.

4. The RE Howard estate would not allow TSR to release a full-fledged Conan game for the D&D engine.

I call this the "no one fucking understands the insane demands of Cthulhoid Cultists who own IP rights and TSR should never have signed this crazy deal" theory of TSR management.

Regardless of which of these theories you subscribe to, nowhere will you find "our customers were clamoring for a Conan game that had a system incompatible with the TRUCKLOAD of sword and sorcery stuff we'd already bought from you".

In other words, while I don't know why they DID release Conan as a completely new game system, I know why they didn't.

They didn't have the interests and desires of their customers foremost on their minds.


mikelaff said...

I'm curious how you would contrast the old TSR with the 3e-Era WOTC and the current 4e WOTC.

Chuck said...

I think it's a MUCH better company in the 3e era in a lot of ways.

Having Star Wars and d20 Modern use the same basic game engine as 3e is a prime example of what TSR should have done with Gamma World and Conan.

I'd also say that TSR should have spent a lot more time and energy on AD&D crunch books, like Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures.

These books, written or shepherded by Gygax (he wrote Unearthed Arcana and seemed to be a sort of editor in chief on OA) were huge profit makers for TSR.

So naturally, instead of making more like them, books their audience clearly had a HUGE pent-up demand for, they made a new edition of the game that featured more settings than they could support.

Because, as near as I can tell, the guys who worked there each wanted their own sandbox to play in.

As for how it's being run now, I'd say it's a mixed bag. Wizards seems a bit of a multiple personality to me these days.

They don't seem to know if they want to be TSR, holding tightly onto all their IP (including their game engines) or if they want to be the company of the OGL.

At the moment, they seem to be trying to be both at the same time, which is really bizarre to watch.

And in their moves to make 4e more "video gamey" and stressing the Digital Initiative, they seem to have decided that their competition is World of Warcraft.

This part I actually agree with.

mikelaff said...

FWIW - I hear very good things about ConanD20

Masada (aka: Curtis) said...

The D&D phenom was a surprise to about everybody. Gygax and crew were not marketers or business majors (afaik). They made a lot of mistakes.

Looking back now my impression is that TSR felt they were going to be "the RPG company". They were going to have the lock on any roleplay-ish game and thus they had dominion over all game systems. This didn't work out so well for them and (as you point out) totally missed the customer mark.

WotC today seems to suffer from the reverse problem. They are so focused on what the market will buy, they seem to have discarded traditional RPG products in favor of more marketable products. What if 51% of their customers want miniatures and pokemon? Should they dump RPG?

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