One of the many ways the Internet has changed video games is the fairly recent concept of “early access”. This is essentially a form of paid beta testing (or even alpha testing) used to offset the increasingly ridonkulous costs of developing a video game. One of the most infamous examples is Minecraft, which allowed interest parties to pay a reduced rate for the game for the “privilege” of playing before the formal release, when the game is buggier, has fewer features, and is generally less polished. Early access is becoming increasingly common in video games, with many Steam games offering Alpha access, and even a voice on development issues and feature priority.
In many ways, the public playtest of D&D Next was a form of Early Access and beta testing.
So why stop at just the playtest?
Take Our Money!
A reality of the publishing business is that printing books takes time. There’s a three to four month delay from layout, editing & proofing and the books reaching the stores. But this delay doesn’t exist when publishing online. The difference between a PDF sold to fans and one sent to the printers is as little as tweaking margination and adding bookmarks, a couple hours work to a skilled InDesign-er. It’s very possible to begin selling PDFs well before the physical books are ready.
If WotC is planning for a July release of 5th Edition, the books need to be finished by around March or April. Which means they could release the PDF to the public around the same time.
This is not that unusual. Many Kickstarters offer digital access as soon as possible, to tide over backers while the physical book is finished. I was reading Shadows of Esteren months before my hard copy arrived and am still waiting for my dead tree version of Ultimate Psionic despite having flipped through much of the book.
So many campaigns and games are in a holding pattern, waiting for the next edition of D&D to be released. There are a few tentative Next campaigns, muddling through with the unfinished rules. Just having usable monsters and more balanced math would make an immediate and positive difference to people’s games. After two years of hype, people want to start playing again, there’s a strong desire to just move on and resume gaming normally. Early access to the PDFs would allow that.
There’s also the months long gap between the end of the playtest and publication. Half the anniversary year is being wasted on non-content. People who hear about D&D between now and July-ish will have difficulty starting to play the game. An unfinished game with content gaps and broken monsters does not offer the best first impression. I’ve seen several forum posts by people asking the best way to get into the game and there’s no real satisfying answer. If they start playing 4e or Pathfinder that’s a sale gone. Waiting isn’t an option because people will get distracted or have other financial challenges demanding money; it’s basically forced procrastination.
Having the rules out early would allow 3rd Party Publishers to begin writing content and generating books and also allow fans to start writing house rules or e-publishing their monsters and magic items (I know the second I have the rules – providing there is some sort of OGL – I’ll be adding crunch to this blog). More people could set up D&D based events for summer conventions, both large and small. This gets the game into the public’s eye sooner, keeps people talking about D&D longer. And as newly released games are a little bare bones, having 3rd Party Products to flesh out the experience encourages people to buy immediately rather than wait for the product line to mature.
Early Access also allows WotC to start republishing Dragon and Dungeon sooner, as submitters will have a better framework to work with, knowing the rules, final math, and seeing the content holes.
There’s also the possibility of further playtesting. We haven’t had a chance to publically playtest any of the rules modules for the game, to give feedback on whether they meet our needs. Having the rules out early would allow WotC to release playtests of future books now, when there’s the most time to make revisions and corrections.
Last Minute Fixes
A huge boon for WotC is having a few thousand extra editors look at their book. If the PDFs are published a few weeks before the files are sent to the publisher this gives them some time to fix more egregious mistakes, catch some typos, and otherwise jigger with the balance. Given the last two editions had some pretty serious errors at launch, this might be pretty important for the longevity of the game.
The twenty month public playtest was really more of a concept test. Not a lot of feedback from the surveys made their way into balancing the game, because much of that was handled after the playtest ended. The public playtest was all about making the edition feel like D&D. So the benefits of having 200,000 people looking over you game for errors was lost.
In addition to forum, blog, and podcast reviews, a simple form system might be the best way to look for problematic mechanics. Something on the website where you can fill in the book, page number, and type of problem (typo, numerical imbalance, combination imbalance, unclear mechanic), and space for a few sentences explaining the problem. This allows them to quickly fix all the small editing and numerical corrections, as well as look at some last minute fine tuning.
A form system is also handy because they can look at the pages everyone is talking about. If there is a dozen people talking about a problem with “page 123” then it can be a lower priority than if seven hundred people are all having a problem with something on page “321”. And it allows people to post problems as encountered rather than trying to remember the full list when filling out a survey.
Having two or three weeks where they can only make minor corrections to the book would also give WotC time to make a fantastic Index. A game system can live or die based on the quality of its index, and one as potentially heavy as D&D absolutely needs a rock solid index.
D&D has been hemorrhaging players the last few years. Possibly as much as half-a-decade. 4th Edition cost some players, the rise of Pathfinder took some players, and the myriad other game systems buoyed by Kickstarter and the absence of D&D are capturing interest. There’s so many options for gamers at the moment.
Right now, D&D is fighting some of the worst competition it has ever faced. People are playing other games and the fanbase is fractured.
The sooner the books are released the sooner D&D can start recapturing its market share. If the PDFs are out sooner it will encourage people to wrap up other games and campaigns sooner, being a reminder that 5e is almost out. The longer it takes for the edition to be released the more people that will try other games because they have time. If a group has just purchased a new RPG, be it Numenera or Dungeon World, even if they want to play 5e more they might hold off because they just bought new books. It’s a sunk cost.