A .5-Baked Theory

I talk to lots of people in the adventure game industry. We chat about all sorts of things, but the conversation often turns to questions like, “How’s it going?” In this case, “it” usually means “sales.” The answer I hear most lately is, “Not so good.”

This is particularly true of d20 publishers, which most major RPG companies (with a few notable exceptions) are these days. The question then becomes, “Why?”

There are lots of theories. Some people figure this is the long-predicted shakedown from the “glut” of d20 product on the market. The market only needs so many different books on elves, the notion goes. Eventually, people stop buying them.

While that could be it, I think there’s a simpler (numeric, even) answer to why sales seemed to fall off the edge of a cliff this summer: 3.5.

Version 3.5 of the Dungeons & Dragons core rulebooks shipped this past July. They cleaned up some of the mistakes in the 3.0 set, tweaked a few rules, and made enough substantial changes for the game to feel a bit different.

I’m not complaining that Wizards of the Coast put out this revision too soon. Some companies only wait a year between new editions. Others take much longer, but three years isn’t unreasonable, particularly for such a complex and well-played game. There’s nothing like having over a million people play a game to highlight rough edges that no amount of playtesting could sand down, and good designers like to try to fix such things.

The first crack in most d20 publishers’ sales curves came when Wizards announced that 3.5 was coming. Lots of publishers stopped putting out 3.0 products immediately. Sword & Sorcery, for instance, didn’t release a new d20 product for three or four months. After all, who wants to publish a book made for rules that would be updated within a quarter of a year or less?

When 3.5 came out, then, many companies had a pent-up backlog of products ready to roll. These all hit the market nearly at once as people strove to be the first to capitalize on the hoped-for demand generated by the new d20 edition. The market went from famine to feast, and it understandably choked. Even the most die-hard fans can only buy so many new books in a month.

Still, I’m guessing that not everyone who was playing 3.0 was willing to shell out the $90 they needed to fully upgrade to version 3.5. This means that we now have two camps of d20 System players. Those who jumped on the new edition when it came out and those who are satisfied with the three-year-old classic.

The players who refused to upgrade to 3.5 now find themselves faces with shelves of products that are only good with the rules with which they don’t play. Needless to say, they’re not buying many of those books.

So what’s a d20 publisher to do? Well, if you’re savvy, you might give people a chance to sidegrade to something else. If you’re going to have to pop for the new rules, why not go all the way and get a book full of wholly new stuff?

Monte Cook did just that with his smash-hit Arcana Unearthed “alternative player’s handbook” from his Malhavoc Press. Mongoose seems to have scored a similar hit with its Mongoose Pocket Player’s Handbook, which gives you all the rules you need to play with for only $20, making the hurdle to upgrading a lot more reasonable.

There’s no way for Wizards to put this genie back in the bottle, and they probably wouldn’t want to anyhow. Still, I’d be interested to see how their own sales numbers on supplements have fared since the release of 3.5. That would tell us a lot about when we might expect to see 4.0.