Will gamers be able to outplay the insatiable capitalists?

Forty years ago, a guy from the next street told me about this cool new game “Tunnels and Trolls”. Something about his explanation eluded me. Was it a computer game like Pac-Man or Chuckie Egg? A board game like Risk or Monopoly? no There was no computer, nor, as a rule, a whiteboard. Much of the game took place in the imagination, with players taking on the roles of heroic warriors or powerful wizards. “Game Master” described the setting, used a combination of dice and judgment to decide what was possible, and even ad-libbed all the cameos in the drama. It was a “role-playing game”, a radical new way to have fun. At the age of 11, I was fascinated.

RPGs are having a moment in the spotlight — a moment that offers valuable lessons for the rest of the economy. The oldest and by far the most popular game, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), boasts tens of millions of players, including celebrities such as Vin Diesel, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Anderson Cooper, Stephen Colbert and Deborah Ann Woll. A big-budget movie is inevitable, and D&D is looking to join Marvel and Star Wars as a major entertainment brand.

But with power comes responsibility, and in recent weeks the hobby has been shaken by the question: who owns our game? The answer to this question is not obvious. D&D is owned by Wizards of the Coast, which is now a subsidiary of toy and game giant Hasbro. Hasbro clearly owns the trademarks and many of the creative incarnations of the game’s monsters, fantasy worlds, and fantasy spells.

But the core idea of ​​the role-playing game, although closely related to D&D and its creation in the 1970s by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, is not protected by copyright. My hobby gate, Tunnels & Trolls, winked at their intellectual debt to D&D. The rules were different, but the basic idea remained the same.

Moreover, this fundamental idea means that the pleasure of the game is created in the process of playing. The players come up with their own characters, and the game master usually develops the script from scratch. The suggestion that Hasbro owns what happens at the gaming table makes as much sense as the suggestion that a dinner conversation sparked by a New Yorker article is Condé Nast’s property.

Hasbro certainly didn’t try to claim ownership of the gaming experience. But he made a clumsy lunge for a bigger piece of the pie. Back in 2000, Wizards of the Coast published the Open Gaming License (OGL), allowing other publishers to create D&D compatible content. (Intellectual property buffs assume this compatible material has always been legal, but the fact that it was recorded in black and white appeased the sprawling cottage industry of role-playing game publishers.)

The OGL seemed irreversible, but in January of this year, journalist Linda Kodega reported on a leaked proposal that suggested Hasbro was going to rip the OGL apart and replace it with something far more onerous. After huge outrage from gamers and small publishers, Hasbro conceded and even accepted the more standard and liberal Creative Commons license. Ten thousand semi-professional game writers breathed a sigh of relief.

While I have little sympathy for Hasbro, I understand the momentum behind their ill-fated land grab. To put it ugly, these games are difficult to “monetize”—or, as an economist would put it, they generate huge consumer surplus. For example, my favorite game is Dragon Warriors. It cost me £10.50 which was not much even for a teenager in the 1980s. To do this, I bought a game that 40 years later I still love and play. Publisher, Corgi, and authors, Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson benefited financially from my purchase of the game, but their profits were minuscule compared to mine.

Hasbro does a better job of siphoning money from gamers, but faces the same problem. You can download the rules for free or pay about $25 for starter kit. For less than $200 gamers can purchase all major publications in a glossy hardcover, and they don’t have to spend a dime to enjoy their games for a lifetime.

So what is a predatory capitalist to do? The real money is in repeat purchases. Football makes a huge profit, but not from the sale of soccer balls. Instead, sell tickets to watch celebrities play as well as branded t-shirts, TV subscriptions, and bets on who can win.

The board game hobby is smaller, but the principle is the same. Wizards of the Coast has made a small fortune selling trading cards for the card game and provides subscription-based digital game tools. Games Workshop, the game retailer that sold me my first copy of Tunnels & Trolls, has ditched RPGs in favor of wargames, a hobby that sells countless minifigures.

In games, as in many other areas of life, good things are free (or almost free), and companies make money by selling us accessories. From Internet searches to penicillin and toilet flushes, the world is full of products that have great value but cost very little. This is a reason to be thankful and vigilant: right now, someone somewhere is trying to figure out how to sell you a monthly subscription to your own toilet.

But vigilance can work. Hasbro’s attempt to squeeze more money out of gamers has drawn the attention of younger gamers to what we scammers have been insisting on for decades: we own the games. Once you’ve got the idea of ​​role-playing – just like you could ever get the idea of ​​football or conversation – you don’t need anything expensive to keep playing forever. You just need friends and a little imagination.

Written and first published in Financial Times February 17, 2023

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