January 27, 2010

Interview with Obsidian Portal (Part 2)

Note: This is the second part of my interview with Obsidian Portal's Co-Founder Micah Wedemeyer and Creative Director Dan Albright. We started off in the first half talking about OP's past and current state of affairs. In the second half, we jump right in talking about OP's biggest competitor around the corner: Wizards of the Coast's DDI.
... Continued from Part 1.

TCM: Looking over the 10,000+ campaigns that are currently being hosted on Obsidian Portal, roughly 47% of them are for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, with 3rd Edition D&D making up another 21%. OP also hosts campaigns for more than 100 additional game systems, albeit at far fewer numbers. Granted, 4E is the most popular table-top RPG around, but I'm wondering if this preference among your users may also represent a difference in how 4E players think in terms of the use of technology or an online service such as Obsidian Portal. I mean, Wizards of the Coast's D&D Insider service is basically betting on people's interest in mingling technology with their traditionally pen and paper games. Can you comment on that? How much of OP’s success, if any, do you think is a result of being at the right place, at the right time, with the Web 2.0 and the release of WotC’s DDI?
ALBRIGHT: Well if this were any other place, or any other time, it would be a different story, obviously. I think that 4e is the most popular because WoTC is the biggest brand in the industry and they’re products are in every FLGS in the country, if not the world. And their products make it into book stores like Barnes & Nobles, whereas products for other companies don’t. I think if Namco/Bandai (the biggest competitor to WoTC owner, Hasbro) were to buy an rpg franchise like Savage Worlds, then we’d see some big competition in that realm.
     We love gaming. We love sitting around the table and building worlds. We’re not all about one setting or one set of rules. That’s too limiting. I feel that it’s my job as Content Director to remind people that there are other systems out there besides DnD 4e, but that’s not because I don’t like DnD 4e.
     I DM two 4e games that meet on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. My 9 year old step-son is cutting his table-top RPG teeth on 4e DnD. The reason why I feel we need to add new systems every Thursday and link to free systems every Friday is to help keep the industry in balance. I feel that competition is healthy, and when there’s no competition, the best get lax in their efforts. By promoting the underdogs, the best companies have to keep their teeth sharp, so-to-speak.
     As for the DDI, I have a subscription myself. It’s a great tool and we’d love to have some kind of API integration with it.
WEDEMEYER: What you say about Web 2.0 is very true. My introduction to other Web 2.0 tools is what convinced me that something like OP could work. Plus, the programming platform we use (Ruby on Rails) was just appearing on the scene when I decided to start work on OP.
     I think very little of our success is related to the WotC DDI toolset. The tools that OP provides are very RPG-agnostic, and would have been just as useful back in the 70s playing first edition D&D.
     From what I’ve seen, many of the people that utilize OP to the fullest are not playing D&D. I don’t want to start a fight here, but suffice it to say that many story-oriented gamers move away from D&D. Sure, you can roleplay just fine in D&D, but if combat’s not your thing, or you don’t like the fantasy setting, or you want a system that heavily emphasizes role playing then it’s time to start looking around.
     For these people, they use OP to better tell the story and organize everything. So, I would disagree that 4E or D&D players are more open. Instead, my explanation for the majority of D&D campaigns is just that I think more people are playing D&D than other systems. I think that may change in the future, though.

TCM: Looking down the road ahead, WotC’s DDI tool-set is expected to overlap with what OP currently offers. How do you expect OP will be able to effectively compete with WotC once (if) DDI reaches the full tool-set they say is coming?
ALBRIGHT:We’ll stay competitive by offering support for non WoTC systems. 4th edition isn’t going to be their top dog forever. Eventually they will have a 5th edition. When that happens, all the people who put their effort into creating, managing, and maintaining their 4th edition campaigns will be up a creek without a vorpel paddle when DDI moves on to the new edition and rule set. Just like with D&D 3.5. However, when that day comes, everyone with an Obsidian Portal campaign won’t even blink as they keep on keepin’ on.
     We’ll stay competitive by being agile and on our toes. We’re a small group so we can respond to changes in the community’s interest much faster. We are building a community around us using the existing social media structure, and we’re not making a new Facebook or Twitter or what-have-you. We run Obsidian Portal as a labor of love, and our paychecks, our livelihood, our bills aren’t dependent on selling a new product that breaks or out dates our old product while alienating that product’s fan base. Now if WoTC was interested in a team up that’s another story all together…
WEDEMEYER: I’m confident that WotC will be able to create a pretty impressive product. For one, their current DDI team seems to be executing very well, compared to the Gleemax days. Secondly, they have OP as an example of how to get started. I know they’re aware of us, and I imagine that they will “borrow” a lot of their ideas from us. I hesitate to say “steal” since I can’t claim that OP is doing anything really innovative. We are just trying to meet the needs of gamers, and I imagine WotC will do the same. But, they will have OP as a blueprint to start from, while we essentially had nothing.
     I also think that OP will be able to compete effectively for many reasons.
     First, one advantage is simplicity. We don’t have to deal with all kinds of rules errata and such. Instead, we focus on the core role playing experience and leave the 'rules-lawyering' to others. WotC has to make sure that all their tools handle all the rules they make. That sounds like a major headache to me.
     Second, looking to the future, I can only see more and more different game systems. We will continue to be as system-agnostic as possible and thereby support the growing constellation of systems. Have you tried Dark Heresy? Mouse Guard? Savage Worlds? These games are amazingly fun, and you can manage them natively on OP without fighting the system. I don’t see that happening with the WotC tools.
     Third, I’m not convinced that WotC can crush us. Assuming they stole all our D&D 4E users, we’d lose over half our user-base. But, we’d still have a big chunk. Plus, it’s unrealistic to think that 100% of D&D 4E users will prefer the WotC tools to ours, or that 100% of our users will switch en-masse. Instead, there will be a period where some people move over to WotC. So, even in the worst case we’ll lose a lot of people, but it won’t be a sky-is-falling moment.
     Finally, OP is free and the WotC tools are not. Sure, OP has a premium plan, and we really want people to subscribe to it, but it’s perfectly usable with a free account. We’ll have to wait and see how WotC approaches that.

TCM: OK, I'm going to go out on a limb here: You said “OP is doing anything really innovative”; the fans of OP and myself might disagree. I could see a huge advantage of creating a FB App for Obsidian Portal that uses the Facebook Connect API to connect with OP’s existing database. From a game master’s point of view – updating campaign information and having it show up where my players already “live” (on FB) would be hugely beneficial. So, beyond marketing OP on Facebook and building a fan base there – do you have any plans to develop a version of OP that makes use of Facebook’s API?
WEDEMEYER: See previous answer ;) The answer, as always, is “someday”. I really hope to do some of the Facebook stuff sooner, rather than later, though. I’m actually quite familiar with the Facebook API and Facebook Connect, thanks to my previous job. I’m confident that we could do some really cool stuff, like pushing your OP updates into your Facebook stream, for all your friends to see. Again, it’s just a matter of somehow finding a 25th and 26th hour in the day.

TCM: Speaking of Facebook, I’ve noticed that OP has a very active presence there, much more so than many other RPG companies. How much of an impact has FB and other social media channels had on OP subscriber base?
WEDEMEYER: That’s all Dan. I did a piss-poor job of managing that stuff before Dan arrived. He has turned up community engagement to 11. This level of interaction and customer support is one of the things that we think will help us grow and endure.
    I can’t quote any statistics about growth or conversion from social media (since we don’t really know), but what we do know is that thanks to Dan’s efforts, people are much more engaged with OP and we love it.
ALBRIGHT: Honestly I just really like interacting with the people on the fan page. They’re a hoot, and the ideas they share make us all better gamers. I haven’t looked at the metrics lately, but I’m sure it’s not hurting us to be friendly and active.

TCM: Any plans for Obsidian Portal Mobile? Having access to OP and all my campaign notes and resources through my iPhone (or other mobile device) – even if it’s a lite version – would be incredible. Any plans or comments about that? Is there a mobile.obsidianportal.com URL in the works for the future?
ALBRIGHT: Personally I’d love to see a mobile.obsidianportal.com. I think we’d be crazy not to have it. Not everyone plays at the table with a laptop. But every group has at least one player with a smart phone.
WEDEMEYER: Again, see my previous comment ;) Seriously though, here I'd have to say no. There’s a common conception amongst tech enthusiasts and "gadgeteers" that they’re part of the mainstream. This is very much not the case. Most people still do not have iPhones. The same is true with Twitter accounts. So, although these things seem commonplace to some of us, we’re still a minority.
     That’s not to say that we ignore technological minorities, just that we try and focus our time to get the most bang for the buck. I think a Facebook Connect tie-in would be useful to a lot of people, and would also be fairly quick to do. On the flip side, optimizing the entire site for the entire constellation of mobile devices would be very difficult, and the audience served would be quite small.
     Moreover, I don’t have an iPhone, and I try not to program features that I wouldn’t use. That may sound selfish, and it probably is, but it also means that the main programmer is constantly testing the features of the site and figuring out ways to improve them. Believe me, the features that have the most polish and work the best are the ones that I use every time I run my game. It’s called eating your own dog food, and it’s a very effective way of managing development.

TCM: Alright, last question. Blue sky here. Where do you think the table top gaming industry will be in the next 5 years? What changes do you think would have to be made for table top roleplaying games to reenter the mainstream for social gaming?
WEDEMEYER: I really don’t know the answer to this one. My gut feeling is that it will continue to shrink, but then again I’m a very cynical person. While I believe that tabletop gaming is the pinnacle of gaming, it’s getting harder and harder to compete with the ease of introduction to MMORPGs. Plus, the MMOs are getting quite good. So, even though I think they’ll never, never be as good as the tabletop experience, it will get progressively harder to convince younger gamers to turn off the computer and pick up the dice. It would be like telling someone, “Yeah, I know the ice cream cone you’re eating is delicious, but I swear that this other, more difficult to find ice cream is even better!”
     I really hope I’m wrong about this, as like I said, I think tabletop gaming is truly amazing. It’s like I told my wife the other day: “One day, when I’m dead, I won’t be able to play D&D anymore. That thought saddens me.”
ALBRIGHT: The table top gaming industry needs more showboating big leaguers. It needs more advertising outside of FLGS and websites like Obsidian Portal. They need to take a page from Nintendo and Microsoft and try to expand the player base into new demographics. They need to sell their core products in the board game isle of stores like Walmart and Target, otherwise we’re going to see continued shrinkage. WoTC is owned by Hasbro. Why not make combat-centric RPGs that use Hasbro products like G.I.Joe or Transformers and sell those in the toy isles?


I would personally like to thank Micah Wedemeyer and Dan Albright for the opportunity to interview them and get the skinny on Obsidian Portal and how it's going to fit in the future landscape of our hobby. It was a real pleasure interviewing them!

If you have any questions for them; please feel free to leave them below in the comments. I'm sure they'll be taking a look and will no doubt be interested what TCM readers have to say!

1 comment:

  1. Great interview - OP has become a fantastic tool in it's own right.


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