In January of this year, Wizards of the Coast earned the anger of a wide swath of the roleplaying industry by trying to revoke the OGL, an open license that they’d actively encouraged people to build their businesses upon, saying that it was forever. Eleven months later, Wizards’ parent company Hasbro has laid off 1,100 employees, bringing their total for the year to 1,900, which is about 30% of their workforce. The newest layoff has cut deeply into Wizards of the Coast as well.

It’s hard not to link the two events as bookends, but is there actually any relation?

Wizards of the Coast certainly treated the response to their OGL skullduggery as if it were an existential threat. And, it might have been. The boycott of D&D Beyond was apparently enough of a blip for them to take notice, and every indication continues to be that they think that electronic subscriptions and DLCs are the future of D&D. Meanwhile, the upcoming release of the first D&D movie to have any likelihood of mass-market success meant that a continuing PR problem was clearly a bad choice. Finally, other members of the industry announcing competitive products had to have been unnerving. No, no one has ever managed to overtake D&D, except in very limited & unusual circumstances in 1997 and 2013, but Wizards has to recognize MCDM as a particular threat, given that much of the success of D&D 5e appears to have been free-riding on the coattails of streamers such as … Matt Colville, the founder of MCDM

But, the worst of those dangers were past by the end of January. Wizards dumped D&D 5e into the Creative Commons and repeatedly stated that their upcoming 50th anniversary revision would be compatible with the existing books. Angers dimmed. Life returned to normal. Even when Wizards continued stumbling through the year by sending the strike-busting Pinkertons after a Magic: The Gathering fan, even after they (accidentally, sort of) published AI art in Bigby Presents: Glory of the Giants, it was more of a business-as-usual kerfluffle, not the mass uprising that Wizards’ attack on the OGL precipitated.

In fact, just looking at their finances and their mass-market penetration (and not their reputational damage) Wizards apparently did great in 2023. Dungeons & Dragons is now out there as a well-beloved movie, a streaming TV channel, and (soon) postage stamps. Baldur’s Gate 3 was very well-received and is spreading the brand even further. The computer game also got namechecked in Hasbro’s third-quarter report alongside the Lord of the Rings sets for Magic: The Gathering as major revenue drivers. In fact, Wizards seems to be rolling in money even as Hasbro’s toy business is crashing. The OGL crisis appears to be far in the past.

Which makes it all the more surprising that Hasbro cut Wizards deeply during their Christmas layoffs this year. What’s even more shocking are the names that got cut. It included Mike Mearls, the core developer of D&D 5e and a major contributor to Baldur’s Gate 3 and Magic: The Gathering. Senior Developmental Editor Eytan Bernstein. Head of Publishing & Licensing Liz Schuh (who took “voluntary” early retirement). Art Director Breeanna Heiss. Art Manager Rob Sather. Director of Software Engineering David Hartless. Product Manager Chris Lindsay, the architect of the DM’s Guild. Obviously, there were many, many more, but the loss of operational capacity and institutional memory from the senior employees cut is stunning.

The thing is, this has all happened before. Major layoffs, many of them at Christmas, have occurred frequently since Hasbro brought Wizards of the Coast in 1999. There was an arbitrary 10% cut in 2000, also while Wizards was making money, and Wizards Employee #1 Lisa Stevens was one of those let go. D&D 3e designer Jonathan Tweet was laid off in 2008 along with Director of Digital Game Design Andrew Finch and podcaster David Noonan, literally one of the voices of D&D (even before the streaming of Actual Plays took off). D&D 4e designer Rob Heinsoo went the next year, very shortly after the release of his own edition of the game. In 2011, Wizards let go Rich Baker and Steve Winter, two stars from the TSR days.

Wizards of the Coast under Hasbro has been a meatgrinder for its employees for more than twenty years. It’s late-stage capitalism at its worst, putting profits and stockholders above the people making the company work and even above good business sense. The constant loss of experience is unfathomable, and it’s a wonder that it hasn’t entirely destroyed the company. Hasbro is very lucky that there’s such a pent-up desire to work in the tabletop game industry, and that they’re one of the few games in town for a well-paying job in that field. It’s what’s allowed them to constantly replace their Christmas casualties with highly skilled, often brilliant, employees.

The thing is, there’s still a cost. And that’s what brings us back to the OGL disaster at the start of the year. It’s not that there’s a cause and effect leading from the OGL backlash to the layoffs, but instead the reverse. Wizards’ disastrous misunderstanding of the OGL, the roleplaying industry, and fandom that led off the year was a result of Hasbro’s purposeful destruction of Wizards’ institutional memory, year after year, decade after decade. Though some of their staff warned them, they just didn’t know enough to avoid jamming their foot into the bear trap.

And now that Christmas has rolled around once again, Hasbro has doubled down on that plan with a massive 20% layoff (30% for the year). It doesn’t make any sense, except to stockholders. But as Wizards prepares to turn the calendar page on the 50th anniversary year for D&D they’re poorer than ever for the many employees that they’ve shown the door.

And if 2023 is any indication, there’s another disaster right around the corner.

It’s very near the end of the year, which means it’s almost time for The Year in Roleplaying, which is scheduled for January 1st. Hit the Subscribe button at the right to be notified when the report of Wizard’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad year (and lots of other stuff that went on in 2023) is published.

6 thoughts on “Is the OGL Era Over? (Part Four)”
  1. I always appreciate your historical analysis, Shannon! I keep hearing that D&D beat Pathfinder in 2013. I share my public sources here:

    I completely understand where you are coming from with the loss of institutional memory. I think the dual firing of Rich Baker and Steve Winter was probably the one I wrestled with the most, even when closer friends lost their jobs. I mean, Baker and Winter? Many years later I understood that the D&D manager during a layoff had a layoff budget and they had the terrible job of deciding how to apply it. Do you fire your one or two top employees? A really top employee and two of medium cost? Several medium-salary employees? Someone who has been around a lot and has a higher salary plus someone up-and-coming? I was told there was never a right answer, which is what made it all the more painful. So, I think that who is fired is often more a numbers game with no good outcome than a lack of the manager or company appreciating the value of specific staff.

    When it comes to institutional memory and the OGL, I’m not sure this would help. According to Kyle, the people with institutional memories were in the room. According to Robin Laws and Ken Hite on their podcast, in the pre-4E era it was the D&D manager, with tons of institutional history, who wanted to end the OGL back then! It was by the barest of margins that they instead rolled out the disastrous 4E version instead of also trying to rescind the 3E OGL. While I agree institutional memory is important, I am not sure it was lacking in either of those cases.

    1. Re: 4e Sales

      I believe Owen and Chris, but Chris was also specifically talking about the lifespan, Owen was talking about overall print runs. The unusual circumstances in 2013 include WotC pretty much _not_ producing D&D 4e books, just like TSR didn’t when they were basically out-of-business in 1997. Did D&D _still_ outsell PF based on previously produced products and their classic reprints? Maybe. Or maybe not. But apparently not in hobby stores. (But that all was too much complexity for this brief mention.)

      But I changed the “unusual circumstances” to “limited & unusual circumstances” which provides a hair more explanation.

      Re: Institutional Memory

      I think there’s a big difference between one or two people having the memory and so many people having the memory that it forms a general understanding. And Hasbro has been trimming it away from Wizards bit by bit, year by year.

      Mind you, you might be able to have an infinite amount of memory in design, but if management is filled with people who don’t understand the business, it doesn’t matter. And that’s clearly been some of the issue.

  2. Sorry if this is naïve, but just where is Hasbro hemorrhaging money? Wouldn’t it be best to cut that rather than the places it ‘was’ making money?


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