Anyone who was a nerd in the 80s knows about Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), one of the first and certainly defining Role Playing Game (RPG) that led to the creation of many others. D&D is to RPGs like Tolkien is to the fantasy genre, everything pays homage to it whether or not it wants to admit it. Originally, created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974, the game was the first of its kind, focusing on a small group of intrepid adventurers rather than large scale “wargames” familiar to the two creators. However, the scope of this article starts in 1997 when Wizards of the Coast bought the license for D&D from Gygax and Arneson. A new edition of D&D was quickly released in 2000, referred to as 3rd edition D&D. For many, this was their debut into the D&D world, or even RPGs in general. Third Edition introduced the d20 system, which many future RPGs would use despite complaints about its complexity. Bloated mechanics could not stop the d20 system from becoming the gold standard in RPGs.
This brings us to 4th edition D&D. A bold revision by Wizards of the Coast, the core dice rolling mechanics remained the same, but just about everything else changed. The bloated complexity of 3rd edition had been streamlined and replaced with a system that allowed players more options while simultaneously simplifying its core. Unfortunately, 4th edition was hated by much of the older fan base who felt that Wizards of the Coast had betrayed the spirit of the game. Many joked that 4th edition was more a board game than an RPG. Their spite (and that of several frustrated Wizards of the Coast staff) spawned the RPG Pathfinder, their own version of D&D that more closely reflected the past.
So how did D&D manage to survive after all this? The answer is simple, but the method is complex. The answer is that they started to focusing less on D&D being the defining RPG, and more on making it an RPG for beginners. In making the game simpler, they made it more accessible for people who had never played before. They took advantage of the fact that an entire new market segment had yet to experience RPGs, and made it so those people could join without a lot of pain points.
Making the game easier was only the first step though. Soon afterwards, Wizards of the Coast started promoting “Dungeon Delves,” one-session premade mini-adventures so a DM could use it to introduce people to D&D. On top of this, their web presence was expanded greatly, to the point that their mainstay Dragon and Dungeon magazines were switched to an online format. A series of humorous videos were posted on YouTube to promote the product, and a monthly subscription service allowed access to a large variety of online products. This only improved when they created 5th edition, teaming up with developers such as Roll20. Making it so people running their D&D adventures online through Roll20 could take advantage of premade tools for the campaign within the program.
So, did Wizards of the Coast do it right? Yes. They listened to their market, which initially seems counter intuitive considering how many people hated 4th edition. However, Wizards of the Coast knew that there was an extensive market segment not playing their game, a new generation of people who were aware of D&D from pop culture, family, or other various sources. They rebranded 4th edition and decided to focus on that market. Yes, they lost customers initially, but through the use of modern technology and a bold strategy they were able to create the most popular and highest selling RPG of all time.