Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Lessons from History: The Death of TSR

I was recently reading Ryan Dancey’s account of TSR’s demise. He (I think rightly) summarized the downfall of TSR as follows: “I know now what killed TSR. It wasn't trading card games. It wasn't Dragon Dice. It wasn't the success of other companies. It was a near total inability to listen to its customers, hear what they were saying, and make changes to make those customers happy. TSR died because it was deaf.” He sharply contrasts TSR’s approach with that of Wizards of the Coast: “At Wizards of the Coast, we pay close attention to the voice of the customer. We ask questions. We listen. We react.”

Since the release of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, I can’t help but wonder if WotC is now following in TSR’s footsteps, forgetting the lessons of the past. Indeed, witnessing the current events at WotC is like reading the history of TSR in the mid 90s: laying off/disenfranchising employees responsible for past success, a new edition with floundering sales, modeling significant portions of D&D after other types of non-rpg games, a severe fracturing of the customer base, competition nipping at their heels (and surpassing them in some cases), flooding the market with more product than anyone is buying, etc.

TSR became hopelessly locked in a failing business strategy due to an unwillingness on the part of their leadership to listen (and acquiesce) to their customer base. They adapted the attitude of “we know better than you” and, as a result, their customers abandoned them. Likewise, before 4th edition was even released (and despite the fact that long time fans were bemoaning the changes) WotC had already wed itself to the new system (hence the 4th edition “trailer” narrator promising “the game will remain the same”). I’m hearing echoes of yesteryear. Here’s hoping that WotC will recognize what happens to those who ignore their customers.


  1. Truthfully, Lorraine Williams killed TSR.

    The fact that TSR was tone-deaf was due to her distain for her customers.

    I think that WOTC is listening to their customers. That is, the customers that are most likely to pay for additional content.

  2. Paladin,

    I, too, think Lorraine Williams killed TSR through her disdain for gamers, sheer obstinacy, and refusal to listen to their customer base. Sad, indeed.

    I’d like to think that WotC is listening to their current customer base but the tremendous success of Pathfinder makes me wonder (especially, given that Pathfinder has outsold 4e in some quarters and has certainly bested D&D in fan driven awards such as the ENnies). It seems the 3.X community was telling them they didn’t want another edition but WotC insisted they knew better than their fans. I may well be wrong, it just strikes me as the precise atmosphere leading up the release of 2nd edition in 1989. I hope I’m wrong. I’m not a fan (or patron) of WotC but I’d hate to see D&D die (even though I dislike its current incarnation).

  3. It's really not very much like the 80s (or gods forbid, the early-mid 90s, when TSR was totally imploding).

    People do buy the 4E stuff; though Mike Mearls has indicated that he thinks they went a bit off course, and Essentials represents a correction.

    The early-mid 90s were the heyday of Spellfire, of "T$R" trying to crush fan-made internet (and later web)sites, of bad and unsupported games like the Amazing Engine, etc, etc.

    Pathfinder doing well in the Ennies makes sense; it's a well-made product, and the folks who dislike 4E and feel disenfranchised by it latch onto Pathfinder with emotional fervor. What's the old customer service maxim? An unhappy customer tells ten people; a happy customer tells one. The Unhappy folks are the guys motived to go and vote for Pathfinder.