When Ryan Dancey set up the OGL and the d20 System license (which allows people to use the Dungeons & Dragons rules system for free), he relied on the idea that a game isn’t just a set of rules. It’s a network of people who know and play the game. When you buy a copy of a game, you’re buying into that network.
The larger the network, the more valuable it is. Dungeons & Dragons already had the largest roleplaying game network around, but the d20 System license cemented its position by letting any publisher or fan legally tap into the network (and, by doing so, growing the network too).
One perhaps unforeseen side-effect of this is that anyone who publishes OGL/d20 System material produces a commodity, defined in economic terms as “a physical substance which is interchangeable with another product of the same type.”
Clearly, I’m oversimplifying matters, but work with me for a moment. From across the store, one d20 product is pretty much like another. Once you get closer and start to examine them, loads of variables crop up, like the quality of the writing, the concept, the artwork, the rules, and so on.
If you have five different d20 products in front of you, you can easily pick out the differences. If you have 500, though, many of the more subtle differences are lost in the vastness, like stars in the night sky.
Most consumers don’t have the time to examine each of the products available, so they rely on certain shortcuts instead. They might follow a particular publisher or (more rarely, it seems) a writer.
Many people, for instance, only purchase official Dungeons & Dragons products from Wizards of the Coast. As the originator and keeper of the “official” flame, Wizards has established a position that gives them a huge advantage over everyone else. The rest of the publishers have to rely on the time-tested method for distinguishing one brand of a commodity from another: marketing.
It used to be that traditional marketing (advertising) didn’t do much for a roleplaying game publisher. Advertising the next Deadlands supplement didn’t mean a whole lot, since if you wanted another Deadlands supplement, you didn’t have anywhere else to go. You had to buy it from Pinnacle.
If you want a new d20 supplement, though, you have an overabundance of choices. How can a consumer even start to weed through them all? Marketing can show them the way.
Before d20, all the roleplaying game publishers developed competing game-networks, not all of which overlapped. Today, most of those publishers are battling it out over pieces of the same network. When you’re selling essentially the same thing as everyone else, positioning in the market becomes more important than ever.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the companies that regularly and aggressively market their d20 products (through advertising, conventions, internet presence, fan clubs, and so on) are those who are rising to the top of the d20 heap. It’s one of the few ways to stand out of the roiling crowd. Quality is another, of course, but you have to get someone to actually pick up a book–or even buy it–before they can make a solid judgment about its quality.
The corollary of this is that quality doesn’t matter as much as you (or I) might want it to. I’d like to think that the best products always make the best sales, but that’s patently not so. Good marketing can build access to the network of players that’s hard to beat by any other means. Ideally you get quality products and top-level marketing together. Then there’s little stopping you.