Friday, August 27, 2010

What Wizards of the Coast is Doing Wrong with Their "Encounters" Program

Yesterday was a great day for this blog.  I posted about my frustration that Wizards of the Coast is using KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS as the basis for their next Encounters Program adventure.  I ended up getting more visitors than usual and received some good comments.

Slight correction before the main piece -- I would like to note that while the "KEEP" is barred from me a KEEP isn't, the Chaos Scar (thematically an updated Caves of Chaos) aren't and they are a part of the new DDI Adventure Path. Wizards is giving me half of what I would like to see.

I thought I would take today to expand on my thought regarding what Wizards of the Coast is doing wrong in the coordination of the program, respond to some of the comments I received yesterday, and to offer some thoughts for improvement.  I am a firm believer that any critic of a given program should have something positive to offer.  Otherwise, you are just complaining and not contributing.  Consumers have an obligation to participate actively in the marketing and sales decisions of the companies they support.  They cannot just say, "I don't like this."  Consumers also need to say, "this is what I want."  Companies then have an obligation to respond to their customers needs and desires.

This is especially true when dealing with customer intimacy and marketing endeavors of a corporation.  The RPGA, and the Encounters Program, are both marketing vehicles for Wizards and examples of an attempt at a customer intimacy approach to their market activities.

Let me dispel an impression I may have made yesterday.  I am not an opponent of the Encounters program.  As I wrote yesterday, "I think that Encounter D&D Play events are good for gaming in general and good for local retailers."

I stand by that statement.  Organized play is a great idea, and Encounters is one of the best approaches to organized play in existence.   It is far superior to the Living Campaigns of the past -- which actually suffer from my "if you don't play, you can never get the adventure" problem worse than Encounters.  They also suffered from the, "there were adventures in the Scarlet Brotherhood?  Really?  Hmmm... Never heard about those" syndrome.

Here are the main Strengths of the Encounters program as I see it:

1) High quality encounter based adventures.
2) Graphically appealing components.
3) Ability to be played in a short period of time.
4) They occur on Wednesdays which is "New Comics Day." This maximizes the ability of the game/comic store to introduce comic buyers to the gaming hobby.
5) They are easy to run.
6) They are effectively used to market the latest Wizards products.

The program has quite a few Strengths and those need to be noted. The program also has Weaknesses, some Opportunities for improvement, and some Threats from other programs.

Before I get into those, I thought that I would address some of the good comments I received yesterday.

Anonymous (2) wrote, "their main purpose IS to get you into the shops to play, since obviously you are attracted to play it. I know we can be busy, but it is either go to shop or not KOTB at all."

This misses the point of my complaint entirely, and is also wrong. Wizards of the Coast's main purpose is to get me to go into shops to purchase their products and to have products to sell to me. That's how you make a profit. You make products for consumption and consumers purchase them. That's the way you typically maximize shareholder value, in both the short and long term. You also happen to maximize stakeholder value if in offering products, you listen to your consumers to see what they want -- and then provide it. If there are enough shareholders who want KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS, but cannot make it to stores every Wednesday for months in order to "experience" it, then Wizards is losing value by not eventually offering it for sale. Notice the "eventually" there. That is key. I think stores deserve exclusivity for a time, but that the company benefits by eventually making it available. Wizards makes no money on people selling stuff on eBay after the fact.

Acrobatic Flea, a significant blogger and fellow Villains and Vigilantes fan, wrote "Are we 100% sure the 'Encounters' adventures will never be available to the general public. I'm sure I heard a mumbling on a Gen Con podcast that they might be at some stage -- but I could be misremembering."

I hope Flea is right, though I think that Wizards should do more than "mumble in a Gen Con" podcast if selling them is their intent. They need to do more than "casual" viral marketing, they need to make a clear statement. Something like, "Encounters adventures will be available 6 months after the cycle is complete."

MJ Harnish points out that "crowded, noisy, and often unpleasant smelling game stores" may not be the best place to promote a play at home game.

To a certain extent, I agree. I would never want to game at THE LAST GRENADIER (though it has a wonderful selection of games and I shop there) or The War House (where I picked up a copy of Supergame 1st edition for cover price), but I would game at Emerald Knight Comics and Games, Game Empire, or Aero Hobbies (one of the places Eric John Holmes used to game). Some game stores are frightening, others are welcoming. It all depends on how the store is structured.

Anonynos and Callin make similar points about the value of using the game store, and both state that "sometimes you have to be a part of something to get a benefit from it" and "making the adventure exclusive gives it more value than if you could simply walk up and buy it."

I agree with these two regarding the value of having the games in the store, and regarding a "window" of exclusivity. Where is disagree is the following. I don't think making an adventure "exclusive" gives it more value. It gives it more secondary market value -- more eBay value. That isn't value for the shareholders or for the majority of stakeholders. Let's say someone participated in the full run of KEEP, and loved every minute. They want to share that experience with a gaming group that they put together based on the excitement that the Encounter created. They want to run KEEP for their friends. Guess what? They can't. They can't share the experience that brought them into the hobby. That is a HUGE problem and a marketing failure. Wizards makes no profit, and generates no good will, from something selling on eBay. This would be true if the adventure were "TEMPLE OF THE UNSEEN PURPLE HAZE" (which I now want to play), or KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS.

I don't think Wizards hates me, in fact I have good relations with a couple of their employees. I also have a gamer crush on Shelly Mazzanoble and hope that we can play "Barovia: The Real Ravenloft" rpg someday. Wizards is filled with hard working people I respect. I have defended them on repeated occasions.

What I do think they are telling me that they don't want my money, or to listen to my desires as a customer -- a desire to buy a product that they are already making. I'm not asking them to remake their products in the image of my whims, I am asking them to let me buy their stuff. That isn't a very "precious" position, that is a consumers position.

Now onto the Weaknesses of the Encounters program:

1) Game play is limited to Wednesdays.
2) Limited audience -- since game stores are primarily frequented by gamers, and comic books are a dying medium, the program isn't as far reaching as it could be.
3) Products are never made available to wider public as purchases.
4) Doesn't necessarily encourage the purchase of D&D products. Everything needed for players is provided at no cost. Overall, a good thing but does allow for some small number of free riders.
5) Coordination of program is still relatively weak and "cellular."

Opportunities:

1) Provide Encounters adventures to High School and College clubs. Possibly require some kind of proof of club status.
2) Expand Encounters program to libraries.
3) Allow those who have participated as players an opportunity to buy the last week's episode.
4) Allow the sale of the products to the general gaming public 6 months after the end of an Encounter season. This ensures that the products are "fresh" with recent releases.

Threats:

1) Other organized play. Paizo's Pathfinder Society allows the purchase of their Pathfinder Society adventures by the public. Purchases are limited to pdf, and don't include the excellent maps, tokens, and cards that Encounters contain, but still a threat.
2) Gamer resentment. The more that gamers feel left out, the more likely they are to go to other companies.
3) MMORPGS -- as always.
4) Eurogaming nights at FLGS's -- these are both a threat and a bonus. Wizards recent release of D&D themed games will help balance this threat, but opposing game days of any type are a threat.
5) Shrinking FLGS marketplace. The number of FLGS has declined significantly and Encounters is dependent on that market. Yes, it is helping to ensure the continuation of the FLGS market by promoting the FLGS, but this can only go so far. Possibly limit purchases of past Encounter seasons to stores who ran the season.

I'm sure that I could think up a lot more points under each category, including strengths. The program is a good one, but it is one that I think needs improvement if it doesn't want to make "home gamers" feel excluded from the larger community and if it doesn't contribute to the "D&D Narrative." The great thing about the old adventures was that everyone had played them. This gave gamers a shared experiences and helps to expand the community.

As I wrote yesterday, WotC how about you hook a supporter up?
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