Gleemax’s Failure and other thoughts

July 30th, 2008

At this point, it’s pretty old news that Wizard of the Coast‘s Gleemax is dead.  (My excuse?  I don’t do news; I do commentary.)  At least, Gleemax will be dead in September, presuming one can consider it “alive” now.  And Wizards’ publishing arm is going to be pulling back to focus on its Magic: the Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons brands after the end of 2008.

There’s a lot of discussion about what exactly this means.  Randy Buehler’s post (which I thank Critical Hits for referring me to) reads, in part:

Wizards of the Coast has made the decision to pull down its Gleemax social networking site in order to focus on other aspects of our digital initiatives, especially Magic Online and Dungeons & Dragons Insider. We continue to believe that fostering online community is an important part of taking care of our customers, but until we have our games up and running at a quality level we can be proud of, it will be the games themselves that receive the lion’s share of our attention and resources. (emphasis added)

Chatty DM finds this an encouraging sign.  His is the guardedly optimistic approach:  that WotC has realized it’s overextended itself, trying to offer too much too soon, and is scaling back to concentrate on their key properties.  And, moreover, that this signifies a change in their… corporate policy, I suppose.  A redefinition of their scope of operations.  Working on doing a couple of things well, rather than a lot of things piecemeal.

I’d like to believe that.  Maybe I’m just a cynic, but I remember WotC’s earlier foray into the internet with the third-edition E-Tools.  In particular, I remember that grand promises were made, and that in the end the tools were delivered past deadline and missing promised features.  And that what features there were were not necessarily user-friendly.

And now I see that WotC is scaling back its online operations to focus on D&D Insider and Magic Online.  I haven’t much experience with Magic Online, so I’ll leave that aside.  But D&DI seems an awful lot like Web Tools to me.  This marvelous online interface, pushed as a key selling point of the new edition as early as its announcement at last year’s Gencon, was nowhere to be seen at release.  Now it’s two months later, and still there’s no real sign of it.  There’ve been a few Dungeon and Dragon magazine articles posted — and, to give credit where credit’s due, those that I’ve read have mostly been pretty good (though the illusion spells Class Acts was full of problematic material) — but the online reference material?  Scanned, incomplete, and often erroneous.  The virtual gaming stuff?  Nowhere to be seen.

I foresee a lot of it turning out to be vaporware or crippled.  Just like E-Tools.  Which makes me wonder whether WotC has really learned anything about online applications from its last debacle.

So, back to Gleemax.  It was intended as a social networking site for gamers.  This is a plausible mission statement, I think.  I’m not going to authoritatively weigh in on whether such a specialized site would be necessary or sustainable, because I haven’t done any research on the matter, but my gut feeling is that it could have been.

But Gleemax wasn’t that site.  It was handled pretty poorly.  Not only the technical aspects, although the various troubles in that area would have been bad enough.  The marketing wasn’t there, either.  I remember looking into it at Gencon:  what’s with the brain in a jar?  Oh, it’s a website?  Oh, a forum.  Okay.  How’s it different from the official Wizards forums?  Just the color scheme, or…?  Hm, not implemented yet?  Um… okay.  Thanks for the brain-in-a-jar stress ball thing and the mark on my card for the dice-roll giveaway thing.

And then I went home and didn’t even think about Gleemax for most of a year.  Until 4e came out, and I decided to peek back in the Wizards forums, and found that they were now using a Gleemax login.  And that the account I’d registered at Gencon couldn’t post because it was too old.  And, hm, what was Gleemax again?  Oh, well, there’s the forum I wanted.

Now, I’m no stranger to D&D or WotC.  I’ve been a D&D player and GM for decades.  True, in the last year, before the release of 4e, I was pretty lightly involved — but I did read Dragon, and occasionally I dropped in on rec.games.frp.dnd on Usenet.  So why didn’t I know what Gleemax was?

Maybe I was just being particularly oblivious, but if so, I wasn’t alone.  Others consdier Wizards’ marketing pretty consistently “off” over the course of the last year, too.  Some heavy-handedness for 4e, some muddled messages for Gleemax…

But enough of that.  Scaling back the publishing arm is the news I find very interesting.  I find it interesting because, to my knowledge, while WotC’s digital endeavors had been plagued with mistakes, the physical publishing had been going pretty well.  Perhaps this was limited to their roleplaying and card games, though.  Or perhaps they’re bleeding money and just have to cut back on anything that’s not profitable for them, or even anything that’s not profitable enough.  Or perhaps, optimistically, they’ve decided to focus their business on what they do well, and step out of some of their side ventures even if those ventures are pulling a modest profit.

Nothing wrong with any of that, mind you.  WotC is a business, after all.  I’m a little concerned about what it might mean for their Avalon Hill division (board games), if the truth lies among the more pessimistic possibilities, but it’s still business.

The thing is, if the business end had been handled better, it could have been much more.  Here’s hoping that Wizards really is refocusing on D&DI, and that that means greater attention and ultimately a solid product.  But somehow, I’m not optimistic.

*

In other news… I’ve posted another update to my 4e monk project.  Playtesting this step took quite a bit longer than I’d expected, due to some personal issues.  Life does have a habit of getting in the way of a good game, doesn’t it?  I consider this version a playable beta, although more needs to be done — in particular, the paragon paths warrant some more testing.  If any of you would care to playtest, I’d greatly appreciate any feedback.

I haven’t abandoned my Skybreaker posts; the campaign has just been on hiatus for a little while.  Figured I should mention it, in case anyone’s reading those.  In the meantime, I’ve been running my 3.5e game, and it’s a very strange experience after playing 4e.  More on this in a future post.

Gnome Stew has a cool little article about placing the DMG’s Fallcrest into the Forgotten Realms.  I was hoping for a little more detail about the changes to be made, but I enjoyed the article anyway.  I’m pretty fond of the 4e DMG, and Fallcrest is a very solid setting, considering the small number of pages it takes up.

(Edit for tag update, 8/29/08)

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