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Bubbles and Barriers

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WotC’s announced plans for the 4th edition version of the Open Gaming License are dramatically more restrictive than the 3rd ed iteration. Most notably, they provide early access, and a head start window, to companies ponying up $5000 for the privilege.

More power to them! I applaud WotC’s efforts to lessen the potential bubble effect of another wave of third-party support products for D&D. Temporarily increasing the barrier to entry into the D&D support business will, I hope, avert a repeat of the tragedy of the commons we experienced the last time around. Or decrease its magnitude, at least.

The hobby gaming sector is extremely susceptible to fads, crazes, gluts and bubbles. The RPG category is still struggling to right itself after the fallout from the 3E bubble. Bubbles kill retail stores. Even as the Internet becomes a growing center of gaming activity, we still need a network of good physical stores. We’d be in a much better place if we hadn’t lost waves of stores during past bubbles. Yes, better-managed stores act as product gatekeepers and don’t get hurt so badly when booms go bust. But when a badly managed store dies, it loses its potential to eventually evolve into a well-run store. Its going out of business sale hurts even its savvy local competitors. Its death prevents bank managers from granting a loan to the next potential store owner. Meanwhile, its unpaid accounts ripple back up the chain, burning distributors, publishers, and freelancers.

Discussions of the OGL often get sidetracked by nomenclature. No, the new license will not really be open in the sense that open licensed software projects are, but then the original iteration wasn’t either. It never became the community design collaboration that some envisioned; you didn’t see outside groups developing significant rules structures which were then folded into the main game. It is a licensing scheme in which third parties promote D&D and cement its market share in exchange for access to that market share. It’s in the interest of the entire hobby to see the terms of the scheme drafted in a way that maximizes its positive effects and dampens its negative impact.

The $5000 access fee is a blunt and imperfect instrument. It keeps the basement operations in the starting blocks, but doesn’t stop a couple of well-funded entities from pumping out deluges of quickie products. It may dissuade some established companies from entering the fray, depriving players of some hypothetical high-quality products. Overall, though, it should go at least some distance toward better matching the quantity of products produced to the market’s ability to absorb them. More finely tuned approaches to the problem, like quality inspection by WotC designers or outside committees, are either financially or organizationally unfeasible. A coarse solution is better than none at all.

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