Saturday, November 7, 2009

Just an imprint.

I'm not a very happy camper right now, and it's because a certain snake has once again reared it's head in the Garden.  That Snake is Ryan Dancey and the Garden is RPG companies.

In an interview with Gamasutra, CCP's (The publishers of the MMO EVE Online,) Ryan Dancey had this to say about White Wolf Publishing. (CCP acquired White Wolf a couple years ago)

 "It's just an imprint... White Wolf used to have a fairly large staff. It doesn't anymore. It's focusing primarily on the World of Darkness RPG products. It's not doing some of the things it used to do; board games and other card games and things. The focus of the company [CCP] is on making MMOs and our legacy table top business is a legacy business."

This line might not be raising the dander in  many folks, as it did mine, so let me take you on a little history tour, and show you why this might make someone's blood come to a bit of a rolling boil.

Way back in 1997, Ryan was part of a company called Five Rings Publishing.  It was, in association with AEG, publishing/writing the hit CCG Legend of the 5 Rings.  That's quite an accomplishment, but Ryan managed to accomplish quite a bit more.   The deal that allowed Wizards of the Coast to purchase TSR inc was brokered by FRPG and Mr Dancey had a huge hand in it.  So much of a hand that along with WotC being able to buy TSR, they also purchased FRPG.

A few years later, the star of our show resurfaces when WotC publishes the Third Edition of the best known RPG of all time...Dungeons and Dragons.  Ryan's hand in this was quite big...he was one of the primary creators of the OGL and the D20 open gaming license.  He even was quoted at one point saying that there were too many gaming companies and too many gaming systems, and people needed to have just one good robust system with many genres, with everyone publishing stuff for the One Game. (Rumors that one of Ryan's first bosses was in actuality named Morgoth are unsubstantiated)  I'm sure that many of the publishers of then-successful games were a bit taken aback at this man basically telling people that his goal was either to drive them out of business or make them convert their companies over to being subservient publishers of HIS company's games.

Anyone who played RPG's a few years ago can certainly remember the D20 boom.  Everything was D20.  Games that should NEVER have been translated into D20 were (Deadlands.. I'm looking at you) and because anyone and their inept dog who could type a few words was able to put out a craptastic D20 game.  There was SO much chaff that it was nearly impossible to find the wheat.  Many gamers (and more than a few retailers) were getting burned by buying just the most horrible D20 products which eventually caused a significant backlash against anything and everything D20.   Where once the term D20 made eyebrows raise and people want to take a look, it became a warning sign, a pariah, and something to avoid, and a general source of ridicule.  D20 went from untouchable, to damn near unsellable.

Many good companies got their start off of D20 ; Green Ronin and Goodman games are two that come to mind, and MANY companies quickly started churning out D20 products.  Pinnacle, Atlas, White Wolf and frankly just about everyone involved in the industry, with the exception of a few.  ( To this day the thought of what would have happened had Palladium actually made D20 Rifts still makes me break out in a cold sweat)

It was a couple of years after D20 made it's splash, that Mr Dancey ran for Treasurer of  GAMA, the Game Manufacturers Association.  GAMA is the organization that puts on the Origins Game show as well as the GAMA Trade Show.  To many people, GAMA is as relevant as a third nipple, and to others its a vital part of helping to promote companies that don't have marketing budgets that resemble the GDP of small countries.  It provides educational material, helps to show gaming in a good light, helps game manufacturers network and make connections, and acts to give the gaming industry something akin to a unified voice.   The GTS is one of the only places that retailers can talk to publishers in a more business to business atmosphere.

Mr Dancey had been part of a group called FixGama.  FixGama was dedicated to...wait for it...Fixing GAMA.  GAMA wasn't perfect, not by a long stretch.  The problems with the Origins awards were long and too numerous to go into here.  Ryan Dancey launched an initiative to address these issues and reform GAMA from within.  This is all well and good.  Many of the things he advocated were things that really did need to get looked at and worked on.   He was elected Treasurer of GAMA along with a few other members of the FixGAMA cabal.

Then things went to hell.

I'll let the official press release take it from here.

Ryan Dancey tendered his resignation as Treasurer of the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA), Thursday. Dancey, who was elected at the Annual Membership Meeting a month ago, disclosed to the board shortly after his election that he had penetrated the GAMA Board of Directors e-mail list and had been reading board e-mails for some time. He certified to the board that no one else knew about this breach and that information gleaned from the action was not disseminated to any third party.

Last week, the board of directors informed members of the former board. Wednesday, the board informed the Full-Voting Membership at large. In the wake of discussion on the FVM e-mail list, Dancey decided it was best to resign.

"Over the past several weeks it has become obvious to me that the important work the Board was elected to undertake has taken a back seat to dealing with the issue of my access to GAMA's internal communications prior to the election," he wrote in his letter of resignation. "As I am aware of the number and nature of the immediate issues confronting the Board, and as I believe that the Board needs to address those issues as fast as possible, I believe that my continued service as GAMA Treasurer has become an impediment to that work, which must be removed."

"I hope that Ryan's resignation will aid us in moving forward," GAMA President Don Perrin said.

Dancey's resignation became effective at midnight PDT on the 29th. A successor has not yet been selected. Perrin indicated that further information on that subject would be forthcoming soon.

Yes.  He got access to private e-mails, and though it's not mentioned here, he used the information he read about there to get himself and some of his cohorts elected. He took things that were said on those private forums and use them in very subtle and manipulative ways for his own benefit.  He violated the privacy of a good number of people, and damaged an essentially good organizations reputation.  He completely confessed to this, and the  issue is not whether Ryan was guilty at all, but how guilty he was.  At one point in time, there were considerations of criminal charges being brought against, him.  Sadly, that never happened as there wasn't a clear indication of monetary damages.

The aftermath of this was that Mr Dancey basically became something akin to a leper in most gaming circles.  There were some who saluted his "bravery" in doing what he did, but others saw through that smoke and saw a smarmy dickweed, who felt that anyone who wasn't WotC was one step underneath sewer slime.

Let's fast forward a few years, and this...person.. becomes CCP's Chief Marketing officer.  This is also the same company that has purchased White Wolf Publishing.  White Wolf, at one point the #2 RPG producer (and it's arguable that at some points they were doing better than TSR), at one point the producers of games that totally broke the molds of table top gaming, are now being told that they are.....

"just an imprint"

Just a little side company making little side things.  He even goes so far as to call them a legacy business.  You don't call something a 'legacy business' if you have much respect for something and/or it's future.  It's a very slick way of being very dismissive.  You use that term to refer to business that are "out-moded" or "obsolete".

CCP's Marketing director basically said that his "I give a crap factor" for White Wolf Publishing can be measured in microgiveashits.  There wasn't anything AT ALL positive in what he said.  No "we're looking for to working with them to bring out some great things".   There wasn't anything at all like "with White Wolf's publishing prowess, we can move EVE online into other markets".  There wasn't anything at all to give someone who loves White Wolf Games a glimmer of hope for their company's future.  He even made a SPECIFIC point to mention that the staff had been cut and how CCP's business model was MMO's.

Back in 2007 he even made some predictions for the industry.

"As a result of this change, look for White Wolf to become ultimately focused on its MMORPG offering, and by the end of 2007, to have reduced its paper-based publishing business to a shell entity, providing reprints of its games to a dwindling number of buyers."

You can almost hear the derision in that statement there.

He recently said that WoTC was in a 'death spiral' for it's reaction to pull PDF offering from places such as Drivethru RPG, and in a review of Warhammer Fantasy RP, he even called it a "a clever derivative of D&D 3rd Edition" despite the fact that though the revamp of WFRP came out after D20, it was still so based in it's original form which predated D20 for MANY years.

I think what we're seeing here is perhaps one of the greatest cases of Schadenfreude I've ever seen. The D20 bubble burst and caused a good deal of misfortune for many, publishers, retailers and distributors.  If D20 had continued to be the juggernaut that Dancey envisioned, perhaps he would not seem to bitter to the hobby that put him on the map. 

I truly feel sorry for White Wolf at this point.  I feel for the writers who toil to put out great books for it, and I feel for the fans.  I think it's obvious at this point that CCP's Director of Marketing will NEVER allow White Wolf to even try to be anything more than "just an imprint" and a "legacy business".  He's written them off, I cannot see anything but a long, slow decline into utter irrelevance for White Wolf now, based on this attitude from it's corporate parent.

It bothers me that this person, who at one time screwed over the biggest industry organization is now back in the circle again of having some influence over what was a great RPG company.

It bothers me that this person, who at one time basically wanted gaming companies to play by his way or hit the highway, can't even be bothered to feel that it's worth it to work to build the brand of what was one of the most popular RPG brands.

I guess it mostly bothers me that once again, this man is being given a platform to pontificate from.


  1. I agree with most of your comments about Dancey.

    Where you go off the rails is this part: "anyone and their inept dog who could type a few words was able to put out a craptastic D20 game."

    Yes, there were a lot of games, and a lot of bad ones at that.

    But most of them were not put out by "anyone and their dog".

    The company making most of those games was called Mongoose, and it was (is?) a well-capitalized huge company.

    The fact that retailers bought the 18 Mongoose d20 books sight unseen that came out monthly (28 during Christmas season), then couldn't sell them all, is not the fault of small-press publishers.

    Retailers could have spent a little time learning which companies made good products and which were just churning out stuff ASAP.

    But that would have been work.

    Either way, blaming the little guys, when companies like Mongoose and Green Ronin accounted for 95% of that "glut", always gets my goat.

    The guy and his dog companies generally made a few books a year.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to respond to this post.

    First off let me say that there was indeed a LOT of good gaming products out there that were published for D20. A whole ton of them. Many of the good ones were from some VERY tiny publishers, and certainly some of the biggest dogs came from some of the larger houses.

    I was not trying to imply anything with regard to small publisher versus large publisher. Both had their hits and both had their stinkers.

    What I was trying to get at was that there were a lot of books that were just BAD. Just. Plain. Bad. Small publisher or large, a bad book is bad, and while at the beginning there were far more good ones than bad, eventually the 'chum' began to clog the waters.

    I do have to take a bit of exception to the "But that would have been work".

    I, as a retailer, do a TON of work. I wear MANY different hats, I have to coordinate miniatures games, card games,RPG. I have to maintain finances, keep the store clean, and make sure that everything is in order.

    Just as people blaming the small press publishers gets your goat, people thinking that game retailers just sit around doing nothing is what gets mine.

    At one point, there was just too much stuff coming out to be able to make truly informed decisions on stuff. Distributors could barely keep up on the stuff, and sometimes products would just appear there without any kind of adequate solicitations before hand which would allow me to do good research on a lot of them.

    In order for me to keep up, keep product coming in, sometimes we just had to order blind. If a game store down the road gets it's new releases a few days earlier, that's where the customers will go. Such is the mercenary nature of retail.

    Did I make some bad buying decisions during that time? Yep. Sure did. Not going to sit here and claim that I was just an innocent victim.

    I will say though that there was some stuff that really shouldn't have seen the light of day back in those times. Weather it be from one of the larger houses where an editor really should have had the sac to say "this is junk..and it shouldn't have our name on it", to the small press companies as well.

    No one is immune from doing a bad job. I know it's happened on my end from time to time, and it does happen at the publishing companies.. large and small.

  3. Right, but you could say that about any industry.

    How many movies are made every year? How many are bad? Same with novels.

    I don't think d20's problems had anything to do with a "glut", or the percentage of that glut that was bad.

    d20 was still *extremely* dominant until 3.5, which meant that many d20 products fell out of favor, because suddenly they were less compatible with the market leader (D&D).

    This led to a lesser period, with fewer products, which was reduced even further with the release of 4e.

    For example, as someone who made largely modern products, 3.5 affected our sales very little, I suspect in large part, because there was no "d20 Modern 3.5" and so there was still strong compatibility with the market leader.

    In short, I always felt the glut was a convenient excuse, because some people had an easier time laying the market's problems at the smallest producers, rather than the company really to blame for a lot of those d20 products no longer selling: Wizards of the Coast.

    They moved aggressively to 3.5 and left a lot of retailers with a lot of product customers naturally saw as obsolete.

    They had turned 3e products into X-Box games, while the new hotness was the 360.

    That move is what did *real* damage to the market, and what led many of the "mod majors" to abandon d20, not because it was a bad system or because its brand name was seen as inferior, but because companies like Green Ronin realized they were at Wizards' mercy the more closely they tried to support them.

    Remember Testament? It was gutted by coming out so soon before 3.5 and after that, Green Ronin began to move to OGL games with their own brand identity, distinct from Wizards, such as M&M and True20.

  4. Consider me subscribed. There are far far too few retailers who are writing there own blogs. I hope you keep it up.

    This post on Ryan Dancey was... insightful ... but being a new very tiny publisher myself (Nevermet Press) I have nothing to add unfortunately.

  5. I saw this post first on Berin's new network then Jonathan referred me here. It was informative to say the least and got me ticked as well. I'd know about what Dancey had said and that it wasn't complementary, I'd also known about his association with D20 from some conversations he'd had in the comment threads on RPGpundit's site, but I wasn't aware of the GAMA stuff.

    It's really a shame that such a smart business mind that could be helping the RPG industry realize it's niche better has decided to drag it down instead. I'm in favor of CCP building the World of Darkness and Exalted IP's into MMORPG and wish them nothing but success at it, but I really feel for the guys at White Wolf right now in that they have a guy associated with them saying toxic things and they can't speak out to refute anything because he's a superior in their parent company. If it were just some random blogger they could at least say something.

  6. Hey again Chuck! thanks again for the comments.

    As to the "well other industries do this". Sure they do, and since I'm not involved in them, I don't kvetch when I see this stuff happen. :)

    You do bring up some very good points, and frankly ones that I had not considered.

    I can certainly see where the switchover had some effect on sales, but, from my experience, and what I _directly saw_ in my store, there were were only a few people who after 3.5 came out wouldn't buy the third party stuff that came out for 3.0. We actually sold Testament pretty well. ( I attribute that to having a Russian Orthodox priest working as my store manager at the time, and he pimped that book out pretty hard.)

    Most people still bought the older stuff, as most of what I had wasn't really significantly changed from 3.0 to 3.5. Adventures still worked just fine, and only minor tweaks were needed to make things compatible.

    I also DO know from direct conversations with people that some of them felt 'burned' by buying product that was bad. Yeah. some of them should have done some more product research, sure, but there's only so much that impersonal descriptions on the net can say. Some of them, after being burned by a couple of bad D20 products, didn't want anything to do with the brand anymore, and either moved on to other RPG's or fell back into previous editions or previously released product.

    I think it would be best to say this about the whole D20 bubble/burst is that there were several factors out there that contributed to a lot of the problems the RPG industry saw then and is still feeling now.

    1) Retailers were not selective enough in bringing in product for their stores.
    2) The 3.5 changeover provided enough of a tripping block that a lot of the momentum in the D20 market stumbled, and never fully recovered.
    3) Some manufacturers (yes..the big guys too, and given that they were bigger were responsible for a greater percentage) were putting out junk, which soured some customers perceptions of the D20 branding.