Wizards Of The Coast – Driving The Pacific Coast Highway…To Oblivion

I was once at a sales meeting where a hot-shot seminar guy came in and talked about his experience with the Olympics. He was an Olympic rower, and he was on a Scull team. They had not a hope in hell of winning, or even less, not embarrasing themselves and their country. So, they get this idea in their head…to completely abandon ANYTHING that doesn’t make the boat go faster. They practiced, trained, and devoted every single fiber of their collective humanity toward doing one thing: making the boat go faster. In a totally unexpected turn of events, not only did they not embarrass themselves, they won the Olympic gold medal. Pretty cool story, and very motivational. There’s a lesson for everyone there: abandon things that are not useful toward achieving the goal, and in short, determining “what makes the boat go faster.”

I wish to God I could remember that guy’s name. I would send an e-mail to the management at Wizards, because they clearly don’t know how to make their boat go faster. Let me tell you what I know, or at least believe I know: when Wizards got bought by Hasbro, they looked pretty good. Nearly ten years later, they look like the poster child for a dysfunctional family. They’ve alienated their core by continually reimaging of D&D and revision after revision of the core rules, their loss of the LucasArts license, their patent mismanagement, and their clear inability to understand what consumers want. If you put it in the context of the old idiom, “You don’t shit where you eat” they look like a dog that’s been fed a pound of ex-lax and chained an inch from their bowl. I simply cannot understand why a company with such promise and such strong branding can possibly destroy the legacy left to them by Peter Atkinson. It’s a damned shame, really.

So, Wizards wants to be known as “The Magic Guys”, and I get that. It’s profitable, and it’s still very popular, many years after its original launch. That’s great. The problem is that eventually, as all things do, Magic will wane in popularity, and what is their exit strategy? Is their fallback going to be Dungeons and Dragons, the game they’ve taken in circles for 9 years now, upgrading from Revision 3 to Revision 3.5, then changing the game’s core tenets for the most part with Revision 4? Don’t they realize that with each passing revision, they alienate those who bought all the previous iterations, and eventually they’ll have nothing left? It’s as if they believe that the “Star Wars Expanded Universe” model that LucasArts has cashed in on by introducing new books and characters on an almost daily basis will work for them, not realizing that Star Wars is about as mainstream as Apple Pie where Dungeons and Dragons is not nearly as ingrained in popular culture.

Wizards also had a golden opportunity to cash in on the reprint wagon with their recent reimagining of Betrayal on House on the Hill, but they opted to use cheap, flimsy materials and a wave of consumer buyer’s remorse and bad reviews are clearly staining thier image in the marketplace even further. They could’ve gone the way of FFG or Games Workshop, making a premium product that commanded a higher MSRP, based upon the clear demand for the product, but instead, as usual, they undervalued the license, made a poor quality product, and must either absorb costs for replacements or lose whatever goodwill in the market that they still retain. It’s a tough spot, and again, this all points to one of two things: the lack of understanding of their market and core consumer base, or mismanagement.

There is a huge demand for old MB/Avalon Hill licenses, such as Fortress: America, but they’ve opted to completely avoid reprinting these games in favor of cheap plastic miniatures for the sole purpose of blind packaging them to increase profits based on repeat buys. To me, it seems like they’re preying on gamers’ inherent OCD completist gene, but that’s just me. Magic is no different in that the people with the most money are inherently more able to be competitive in the tournament circuit, which seems to be a big part of their business model. I can’t for the life of me understand how they feel that this can be perpetually successful as I know far more EX-Magic players than I do NEW Magic players. It baffles me.

They’ve also recently come out with Castle Ravenloft, which is a decent game in its own right, but the market is begging for a high adventure light RPG game, such as Hasbro’s “Dungeons and Dragons Fantasy Adventure Boardgame” which never released in the United States, but has a huge cult following. The recent release of FFG’s reprinting of the Games Workshop classic, Dungeonquest, should’ve signalled to someone over at Wizards that the demand is there, but instead of filling that market need, they created an incredibly light co-op adventure game with magnificent components, and it could’ve been so much more. A game like that could set them up with expansion dollars for years to come and open up an entire new market. Maybe people might actually look at them as a real player in the market again, which the market conclusively does not at this point. I know I’m not alone as viewing Wizards as nothing more than “The Magic Guys” these days, and with my deep history with Dungeons and Dragons, it’s a bloody shame.

Now, just today, they’ve yet again pissed in their own bowl by cancelling HeroScape, one of the all-time most popular, classic light wargames. HeroScape is nothing short than Craig Van Ness’s Magnum Opus, his masterpiece, and to this day not a single game can possibly eclipse its rabid fans, its tight gameplay, and its marketability. In the past few years, they’ve slowly eroded any hope of its success by walking away from the big box stores, starting with Target and ending with WalMart, and now they have virtually no avenue but online brokers and rinky-dink FLGSs to sell their wares. Further, they got rid of “Classic” HeroScape entirely, in favor of “D&D-izing” the license, further alienating their customers and damaging the Wizards brand. They then, to add insult to injury, changed the miniatures’ bases about a year ago, or so, which in and of itself isn’t a big deal, but it made consumers feel as if the HeroScape brand was no longer what it once was, and that Wizards had irrevocably tainted the line. There is still an incredibly strong fanbase for HeroScape, a huge market for the game, and if anyone with any semblance of brand management and sales skill would’ve come to the rescue, it would still be a profitable and lucrative line for them to carry.

So, in short, I wonder to myself who is steering the ship over at Wizards, and perhaps they should take a note from yesterday’s national elections in the United States: people are tired of being run in circles, and although we can’t vote the management of Wizards out of office at the ballot box, we most certainly can do so with our wallets, and in this recession, I don’t really believe that they can afford to alienate any more of their constituents. Someone had better learn, and fast, what makes the boat go faster.

Good Luck, Wizards, you’re certainly going to need it.

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