It’s been quite some time since I’ve written about Dungeons & Dragons, but today’s news that the upcoming edition will release the core rules for the system through a free downloadable PDF has caught my attention. Mike Mearls’ announced that Basic Dungeons & Dragons will be available at no cost, “Anyone can download it from our website. We want to put D&D in as many hands as possible, and a free, digital file is the best way to do that.” Basic D&D will include rules to create characters (up to 20th level), essential monsters, magic items, and information needed to run adventures in wilderness, dungeon and urban environments. So after two-plus years of product development by a team of talented designers and playtesting by legions of fans, the core components of “the greatest gaming hobby ever invented” will be given away – for free.
The news strikes a chord for me because the future of roleplaying game distribution is something I have written about previously. In November 2012 – back when the game was being referred to as D&D Next – I explored how the concept of non-ownership would likely affect roleplaying games:
It seems safe to say that exploring viable digital distribution systems is essential to the future growth - and survival - of tabletop roleplaying games. The old way of buying books, movies and music are fading away and being replaced with new means of product delivery. Without innovation to meet the demands of those who prefer non-ownership, RPGs will suffer a nasty fate...
To summarize, non-ownership is the general trend for consumers to be perfectly content to not own a product. For example, many people no longer purchase physical copies of movies or music; instead, they purchase a subscription to a service like Netflix or Spotify. Even when people do purchase media such as books or music, many of the purchases are digital (e.g., Kindle, iTunes) and no physical product is passed along to the consumer.
Wizards of the Coast is speaking loudly to the non-owners out there, “Welcome to the party.”
Free Access + Ego Depletion = Profits
The decision to “give away” a portion of the core rules for Dungeons & Dragons mirrors the model video games have been using for years. Free-to-play games are often augmented by additional components that can be purchased by the player. Also known as Freemium (Free + Premium), the business model has been shown to be effective with earning a profit being the primary objective:
Freemium is a business model, employed with the main objective of making money. Adopting this new business model is a way of adapting to the changing market and the conditions of production . . . In a traditional economy, it would not make sense to distribute 100 free CDs in order to sell 2 concert tickets, 3 T-shirts or 4 paid CDs. The cost of producing and distributing the actual records will simply be too high compared to the revenue. Once you are able to produce and distribute the music with computers, this changes. The marginal cost of distributing each album is close to zero. This means that only a small percentage of users need to buy something, for this model to be proﬁtable.
I recently discussed SolForge, which is a free-to-play collectible trading card game available on PC and iPad/iPhone. The game can be played infinitely for free, but players have the option of buying individual or packs of cards with money. The free-to-play model opens the door to the widest audience and hopes that a percentage of those who play the game will upgrade their experience with real dollars.
The approach works, and it works by slowing breaking down the players will to resist making a purchase in the game. I can attest to this process firsthand; I initially vowed I would not pay money to play SolForge. But then I got attached to the game, and I wanted to support the product to ensure it thrives. The decision to spend money on SolForge evolved over numerous months until finally one weekend, I bought some in-game gold and bought some packs of cards. It was equally a long, drawn-out thought process and an impulse buy. The same model could work for Dungeons & Dragons, and Wizards of the Coast is banking on that.
My decision to spend money on SolForge (and embarrassingly two years prior on The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth) can partially be explained by the psychological concept known as ego depletion, which describes our personal willpower or self-control to be a finite resource. In other words, our resolve to engage in or avoid a certain behavior has a limit. An article appearing in the Journal of Consumer Psychology summarized research on ego depletion:
Laboratory studies designed to investigate ego depletion soon found that, sure enough, brief acts of self-control were enough to produce changes in subsequent, seemingly unrelated behaviors—suggesting that the first acts had depleted some resource needed for optimal functioning.
This relates directly to consumer behavior because as consumers’ egos are depleted, their decisions become more impulsive. For example, consumers eat more junk food, watch trashier movies, and spend more impulsively – or spend money on a free-to-play game they initially swore they would never do. Even the choice to not spend money on a product takes a certain amount of energy. The more one plays a game that is free-to-play, the more energy he or she must exert to avoid spending money on the game.
If 1,000 people who would normally not play a tabletop RPG download Basic D&D because it is free, then it expands the consumer base. Perhaps only 1% of the people who download Basic D&D ever spend any money on additional books or game accessories; those 10 individual might spend an average of $30 on D&D supplies. That is $300 that would have never been gleaned from consumers for the product because those consumers would not be engaged in the product otherwise.
Enthusiasts of Dungeons & Dragons are going to download Basic D&D for free, and most likely buy extra books and accessories for a price. Wizards is hoping the money lost from hardcore fans downloading Basic – and choosing to stop there rather than buying more materials – will be made back by new (or returning) fans who engaged the product through the free PDF. It is an interesting and innovative strategy, and something that seems essential in this era of non-ownership to engage the widest-possible audience.
What do others think of the decision?