This week, the geek world was given much to talk about when Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro-owned publisher of various tabletop and collectible card games, announced that it would be releasing a fifth edition of the famed role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons.
Clearly, Wizards and Hasbro are putting a lot into this, given that news of 5E, as fans are already calling the new iteration of D&D, has been picked up by major news outlets such as CNN, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and other outlets.
Gamers often cast a skeptical eye at media coverage of their admittedly nerdy hobby, as it is the kind of thing most folks really do not understand. Role-playing games got started in earnest in the 1970s and 1980s, with Dungeons & Dragons leading the way. In these games, players create heroic alter egos whose role they assume while engaging in adventures that exist mainly in the imagination of the players. While role-playing games typically are played with a group of people at a table, there is not necessarily a board or game pieces to use. (You can, but they are generally not required.) The game, as it were, almost entirely takes place in the minds of the players and the referee in what some might consider an exercise in group story telling. When the adventure gets to the point where the outcome of a development is uncertain (a battle with a dragon, say), then multi-sided dice are typically thrown and complicated rules are consulted to determine what happens next. It is not a game for folks who don't want to give their brains and analytical thinking a workout.
Role-players have often been chided for their nerdy hobby, and when Dungeons & Dragons really took off in the 1980s, there was a concern among misguided parents and educators that the game was really a vector for inculcating kids into nefarious cult behavior. These concerns proved unfounded, and the RPG hobby became a lucrative game-publishing business with television, movie and video game spinoffs.
That last development is the one that most concerns Wizards of the Coast, as they have slowly and surely been losing players to computer games like World of Warcraft. Sales figures for RPG publishers remain guarded statistics (this I know because I used to write these things for a living some years ago), and by most accounts, sales for tabletop RPGs peaked in the mid-1990s and have been on an inexorable slide since, thanks largely to the advent of multiplayer computer RPGs that are, in many ways, much easier to play.
This prompted Wizards to reinvent Dungeons & Dragons in 2008, with the game's fourth edition. The point of that new edition was to re-write the rules so the game played out more like one of the video games D&D to which was losing so much market share. Apparently it didn't work, because here we are, not even four years later, and not only is Wizards putting out yet another edition of the game, but this time they are turning to their fans to help develop it.
The crowdsourcing of D&D is a pretty interesting decision for a number of reasons. For starters, the nature of RPGs is open-ended and encourages the players to further develop the game by writing their own rules and background information. This is a good thing in that it essentially gives gamers the chance for unlimited value from a single purchase. This is a bad thing in that it has helped to cultivate a legion of hyper-opinionated fans who often argue amongst themselves over what are sometimes called "edition wars."
This is what makes Wizards' decision to crowdsource D&D a curious one. As gamer comic Penny Arcade points out, a lot of RPGers aren't necessarily the kind of folks you really want to turn to when trying to revitalize what has become a billion-dollar brand over the years, as what makes a fun game for them personally might not translate into a product that would appeal to millions of buyers you want to lure back into the fold.
That said, Wizards has a weird reputational issue with the RPG community at large, and it is one the insurance world can probably appreciate. Most RPG publishers are really small, quasi-professional outfits or mom-and-pop operations. Wizards, in stark contrast, has always been the big dog of the market, commanding a very large market share of all RPG purchases. As a company, it was far bigger than its competitors and it behaved as a largish corporate outfit. This has led more than a few fans to distrust the company on general principle. That it was subsequently bought by Hasbro - the world's largest toymaker - has not helped on that front.
So while the decision to crowdsource D&D5E's development looks like a good way to ensure the new rules go in a direction the players really want, it is also a cagey way to engage those who have fallen away from the game but not from the hobby, assuring skeptical players that Wizards really does take an interest in what its fans have to say and think about a product that for many, is more than a product, and even more than a hobby. It is a way of life.
I bring all of this up because as a former game writer, and as an uber-geek who still plays RPGs, I will be viewing the D&D5E discussions from a safe distance. I personally don't have an interest in getting in on the public playtesting but I do find the exercise to be an interesting one. It makes me think about the insurance world's need to engage its buyers more proactively, and I find myself wondering, what if insurers crowdsourced policy development? I know it sounds crazy, but policy wording has always been one of those things in which the industry behaves very strangely. You'd think that out of competitive pressures insurers would be constantly trying new and novel ways to craft their insurance agreements, but as Doug French pointed out in an earlier blog of mine, this is an industry that does not reward first leaders. It rewards second followers. And to that end, policy development remains a slow and conservative process. Id' say this is less the case in the L&H world than in the P&C world, but still, product innovation in insurance is nothing compared to many other consumer industries.
Now, there's some good cause for this. These products are, after all, legal contracts with large sums of money attached to them, so you definitely want to measure twice and cut once when designing them. Policy development is not the place to apply loosey-goosey actuarial principles. That said, the industry is always scratching its head over how to engage its buyers and how to entice people to buy more insurance. How better than a build-your-own policy? What if some insurer figured a way to reach out to the public and have them help build the optimal policy? If nothing else, it would provide a good bellwether for what the public really wants (so much the better to sell to) and it would also be a great way for folks to learn more about insurance itself. Despite efforts to explain policies to the public, the reality is that the moment you try to look under the hood of any given insurance policy, it gets difficult to understand. The insurer who can design a policy-building toolkit, or a policy that is truly modular in design, with components that can be added and subtracted like so many LEGO blocks will have a product that not only will be easier to sell, but it can help rewrite in the public's mind what insurance is really all about.
Just as D&D5E's open playtesting is really all about reassuring a wayward fan base that Dungeons & Dragons is still a game worth caring about, and that Wizards is still their kind of people, so too could the insurance-buying process be reinvented in the same way. Now, this would require a quantum leap in thinking from the industry, but just imagine for a moment what your policyholder engagement might be. Imagine how this could dovetail with online sales and social media. Imagine how this could help drive advertising and reputational management. In the RPG world, when you roll a 20-sides die to determine an outcome, a "1" is considered a fumble - the worst failure you can have. A "20," on the other hand, is a "critical" - the best success you can get. Sometimes you get bonuses and modifiers you can add to your roll so you can hedge your results, but a natural 20 remains the height of victory.
Will crowdsourcing D&D5E be a fumble, a natural 20 or somewhere in between? I'm guessing the last option, since tabletop RPGs seem to have crossed the event horizon from mainstream cultural phenomenon back to niche interest. They will never go away, but they will never again reach their apex, either. Insurance is not subject to the same forces, though it could definitely benefit from dealing in its customers on a more profound basis. With any die roll there is the prospect of failure, but as any gamer will tell you, if you never roll the dice at all, you're likely to end up as goblin fodder.