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.