Matt M. Casey -- CleverMoveGames.com
Tens of thousands of gamers flocked to downtown Indianapolis last week for Gen Con, a convention that’s kind of like the Indy 500 for gamers. And many of them came focused on one thing: the new version of Dungeons and Dragons.
Dungeons and Dragons has some passionate fans. Danielle Neary jokes that the game saved her marriage. She started playing 22-years ago when she was 12.
"It was under the bleachers at summer camp, second edition, and I was the girl in the group," Danielle said. "It actually wasn’t the best first D&D experience. But it had me hooked."
D&D is a role playing game, which is different from games like Monopoly or Scrabble. Players take the role of characters in a fantasy world orchestrated by a game master. Their actions are limited only by loose rules. It’s a little like an improvisational play.
Seven years ago, Danielle introduced her husband, John, to Dungeons and Dragons.
"I get into it. I like creating the characters and living them, living them in the different stories," John said. "It’s a great escape and I just love it."
But in 2008, they stopped buying new D&D products.
Hasbro, who bought the D&D brand in 1999, had released a new, fourth edition of the game that focused on battle, and felt — to some — more like a video game.
"If you look at the amazon.com review of it were people either loved it or they really hated it. What we found was people who liked battling monsters like the combat portion of the game," said Mike Mearls, senior manager of Dungeons & Dragons research and development. "For people who were more into D&D for the storytelling aspect of it, they weren’t anywhere near as happy."
He helped make the game’s 4th edition. In the years after it reached stores, he watched sales drop.
According to data collected by website ICV2, Pathfinder surpassed D&D as the best-selling role playing game in the second quarter of 2011. In the fall of 2012, D&D fell to third place.
Those lost sales translated to a loss in brand-value, which was a problem for Hasbro.
"When D&D started, fantasy was really a niche genre. What we’ve seen in the 40 years since is that fantasy is everywhere," Mearls said. "'Game of Thrones' being one of the most popular TV shows. 'The Lord of the Rings' movies and 'The Hobbit' and 'Harry Potter' topping the bestseller lists and the box office charts. So, in looking at fantasy as a whole and looking at D&D what we’re really looking to do is expand into those areas."
Turning to Fans for Help
Today, D&D fans can already experience the brand through board games, novels, online video games and — beginning in October — a serial comic book. But the value of those products depends on D&D maintaining and growing its core audience.
So, Hasbro moved quickly. By 2012, the company announced that it was working on a fifth edition, and it turned to its fans for help.
"You know, D&D is 40 years old, there’s a lot of things around the culture," Mearls said. "More accessible than it’s ever been."
Last week, during Gen Con at the Indiana Convention Center, Mearls and Hasbro learned whether or not their quest succeeded.
If players liked Hasbro’s new version, D&D would return with new strength. If they didn’t, Hasbro had a problem.
So, how did it do?
"I played a fifth edition PVP last night, and it was absolutely incredible," Danielle said. "...It was just simple to jump into without reading the players handbook cover to cover."
And Danielle wasn’t alone. Players from around the country gathered at tables inside a D&D castle to adventure in the new version of the game.
"The reaction so far has been great," Mearls said. "People use the word elegant which to me is the best thing you can say about a game. If a game’s elegant, that’s like, 'Yes! Victory.'"
And that victory could keep D&D going another 40 years.
Matt M. Casey runs the site CleverMoveGames.com. If you or someone you know is interested in Dungeons and Dragons, you can find out more at a local specialty game store.