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.