Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Discussion: The Commodification of Fun

This is meant to be the introduction to a discussion. It's hardly original, I guess, as James Mal over at Grognardia has talked about this before (he called it "brandification" if I recall and I'm a little too lazy to go digging through his prolific writings to find the exact articles while I'm supposed to be earning a paycheck) and James Raggi over at LotFP has his truly infamous I Hate Fun article that links in here, and I'm sorry if I missed others as I know it's been a topic of discussion around here for a long time.

I suppose that this concept is at its most prominent in the WOTC advertisement and talking points about their new 4th edition, though as far as I can tell it's been somewhat pulled back lately, but it was very prominent with 3rd edition and 2nd edition as well. The powers that be at TSR and then at WOTC realized that selling modules to 1 out of 7 gamers (or, lets be generous and say 1 out of 4) just wasn't a good way to "grow the brand" and make money hand over fist. If only 25% of your targeted audience was going to be shelling out cash for your product, then you were essentially doomed to a niche of the niche market that is gaming. Not only that, modules have somewhat limited replay value: once you've played through The Tomb of Horrors once you won't be too surprised by the sphere of anihilation in the devil face.

The solution? Well, the solution for TSR/WOTC was two-fold. First, and most famously, was to publish books aimed not just at the DM, but at every player at the table. "Holy shit a complete book about elves with two hundred pages of elf specific mechanics and material?! I have to get one of those!" I don't, honestly, have a problem with this. Whatever your opinion of the quality of the material, I don't think anybody would begrudge the publishers the desire to sell something to more than just the DM. Not only that, it's this, I would argue, that kept D&D alive for some time and propelled it to being even more acceptable today than ever before even to the point of a prime time commercial advertising D&D.

Second, and this is where I take umbrage, there arose a trend towards "official" materials for games. Official expansions to already existing worlds, the thing that utterly destroyed Forgotten Realms, almost in a literal sense as WOTC had to rain down an apocalypse on the setting in order to divorce itself from what had come before. Official expanded rules, officialy sanctioned methodology, and on and on until the coup de grace came when it seemed that WOTC attempted to convince us to buy official fun by convincing us that previous versions of the game were truly "unfun" (a word I have grown to absolutely despise over the years).

Lest I paint myself into a rhetorical corner here, I'm going to say now that I don't think that this is a phenomenon unique to those money grubbing bastards at T$R or the Coastal Wizards. If anything, it started with the Gary himself. I remember a Sage Advice column (I think it was Sage Advice at least) where he responded to a letter about alternate rules or house rules or something saying that anybody who wasn't playing AD&D according to the letter of the rules set down in the three core books simply wasn't playing the same game. Somebody, I'm sure, will remind me of the exact verbiage at some point. What I remember most about the whole thing was thinking what a pompous jackass the man was and if this guy was really the same one who had written about taking the rules and making them your own.

I suppose, in retrospect, that I understand what he was getting at in less than politic language, and even agree with him to a certain point, but it sparked a moment of worry that here was the creator of the game engaging in delineating the difference between official D&D/AD&D and "that other stuff" and going so far as to say that alternate rules not printed by him fell into the later category. In a strange sort of way, I think that Gary spelled his own doom at TSR in that way.

So now comes the question. Has D&D, the enjoyment of that game . . . has "fun" . . . become commodified? Become dependent to a greater or lesser extent upon continued purchasing of official published material? Is it to the detriment or benefit of the game at large? Where do these lines get drawn?

My inclination is to say that, in regards to the current incarnation of the "official" D&D game (i.e., fourth edition), the answer is yes most assuredly. More strongly so because WOTC's "expanded core" concept. It was just as true in 3.x when, in order to accord with whatever character concept somebody had, new material was continualy published to further refine and define these concepts to the point where a knight and a samurai weren't just variations of fighters, but were unique and individualized classes and, in the case of the samurai, several unique classes.

Is it a benifit or a detriment? This I don't have a real answer for. On the one hand, I will decry the vast majority of the schlock published over the last several years by WOTC as exactly what it is: bird cage liner. However, at the same time, I seriously doubt that D&D would have survived today in a continually published form if not for the books we today call crap and the money grubbing bastards that distribute them in expansion pack games.

Or am I just a lunatic?

Your thoughts?


  1. I think there may be something to the idea that the shear mass of D&D products out there does contribute to the longevity of the game.
    There was some debate recently about wether or not the flood of new material out there for the Old School rennaissance was a good or bad thing. Some thought too much mediocre game literature damaged the OSR.
    I think that every piece of game lit out there, good or bad, is a hook, or entry point, for first time gamers. All that stuff floating around out there, in used book stores, yard sales, what have you, is going to be some little kids first exposure to gaming. Even the terrible stuff will at least catch the attention of those who could be future gamers. They can sort out what appeals to them once they've caught the disease.
    Even the crappy stuff will serve as a vector for game fever.

  2. I certainly agree with you that more published materials is, for the most part, a good thing. It gives at least the illusion that the game is alive and well and, more importantly, it provides extra "hooks" as you say to draw in interested parties. Somebody might pick up an S&W module just to see if it can be adapted to his own D20 game, but might from there go for the whole kit and kaboodle and grab the core book too.

    The problem with it is, though, that just too much dross and the gems are buried too deep to find by all but the most determined or independantly wealthy gamers.

  3. You are thinking of one of Gygax's more infamous articles there. I have read it a few times, and I have seen it in a different light on each occasion, sometimes better, sometimes worse. The bottom line is that D&D is at war with itself in the form of two distinct play styles. On the one hand you have people who want to play "by the rules" and the more rules the better. On the other side you have the folks who want to play within the spirit of the game (by which I mean the loosely defined parameters). Official rules expansions appeal strongly to the former group, and the subset of that group that wants an "official" campaign world, rather than just the sketch of one to flesh out as you like.

    No good or bad, I suppose, just business.

  4. No good or bad, I suppose, just business.

    I realize that. This is just a matter of looking at things differently. As time has gone by, the war, as you call it, seems to have swung drastically in favor of the camp that likes official rules supplements and meanwhile the opposition is relegated to a sort of resistance movement camped out in the blogs of the internet.

    It's just a strange thing to realize that D&D is, more so than usual in my eye, undergoing a massive identity crisis not so much as to how it should behave, but what, fundamentally, it is in the first place.