Ville Kankainen: One D&D – Participatory culture or a mediatized marketing strategy?

Wizards of the Coast is planning to release One D&D in 2024. It will update the classic role-playing game into digital era. Credits: Wizards of the Coast.

In my doctoral studies, I have investigated how material and digital experiences become blended in contemporary tabletop gaming. Apart from hybrid board games, which bring together mobile applications and analog board games, there are wider patterns of hybrid play emerging in the mediatization of everyday life. These patterns change how tabletop games are created, used, and valued as they are experienced in context that blends material and digital aesthetics of play. In this blog post, I will discuss one example that highlights this development.

Wizards of the Coast (WoC) has announced it will release One D&D – a mediatized experience of the iconic role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons in 2024. This becomes in the wake of WoC (a subsidiary of toy conglomerate Hasbro) acquiring an online platform for character and campaign management D&D Beyond from Fandom in May2022. One D&D entered into an extended period of open testing phase in September 2022, which, according to publisher, will last at least by the end of 2023.

Wizards of the Coast is aiming to release the latest version of classic role-playing game in 2024. How will the heralded hybridity of One D&D affect the future of tabletop game role-playing? Credits to video: Wizards of the Coast.

WoC advertises this phase as a participatory process, where it will release new material on a piecemeal basis for registered users to test and give feedback on. One D&D will be a new edition of the classic role-playing game. It will be a hybrid publication, accessible both online and in printed format. It is accompanied by D&D Beyond, and a virtual tabletop heralded as “D&D digital play experience”. Together these three elements will provide an experience, that according to the publisher, will change D&D experience forever.

This development reflects the mediatization of analog gaming experiences, which has been going on in recent years. During the Covid-19 induced social isolation D&D Beyond grew immensely popular, reflecting the larger trend of digitized tabletop gaming. This continued the popularization of the D&D brand that has been going on with popular culture icons like Netflix’s Stranger Things and gameplay streaming phenomena Critical Role. Blending together materially grounded play experiences and recent digital culture trends, D&D has grown beyond a game towards a full-blown media franchise. Introducing a virtual tabletop as an official part of the game is capitalizing on the trend of extending tabletop game experiences into online media.

The approach taken by WoC reflects their larger mediatization strategy that started already with combining the material and digital gaming experiences of Magic: The Gathering. It seems evident, that WoC is invested in crossmedia strategy for catering the expanding fanbase and to draw in new audiences. Most recent success in this dual-purpose strategy seems to be Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, a blockbuster movie serving both the longstanding fanbase, and larger fantasy hungry audiences.

One D&D will feature a digital tabletop as an integral, although not mandatory, element of the play experience. This is a good example how Wizard of the Coast utilizes hybrid play in their marketing strategy. Credits: Wizards of the Coast.

According to the publisher, the title “One D&D” means that the game will finally be “complete”, instead of recurring iterations of the core ruleset. For a more critical observer, this seems rather as an adaptation of analog gaming experience to commercial realities of platformization and attention economy. Online format allows more dynamic content development meaning that once completely material and unconnected gaming experience can be fully subjugated under online marketing principles. Similarly, one should approach cautiously the advertisements praising the participatory nature of the development process. Especially as early 2023 saw One D&D “OGL controversy”, when WoC introduced major limitations to its open game license, cutting opportunities for smaller ecosystem actors to publish D&D content. Instead of being truly participatory, as visioned by Henry Jenkins, the approach of WoC contain elements to control, dictate, and capitalize the participatory elements of the hobby culture, where also fan-communities are overseen by the publisher. On one hand, it is enlightening to see the varying affordances of different media forms being utilized in new ways, while on the other hand there is a risk of this smothering the emergent forms of play and creative practices in and around games like D&D.

To conclude, One D&D is still a good representative on how material and digital experiences become blurred with mediatization of play. It shows the unfettered nature of play around brands like Dungeons and Dragons as the binaries we are used to are crumbling. The abundance of content allowed by cultural changes like digital distribution, transmedia brands, and novel economic models will keep on shaping tabletop gaming experiences long into the future. Opportunities are wide, but is cultural agency of publics at stake, when mediatization is harnessed for hybrid play?

Author bio and contact info:

Ville Kankainen is a doctoral researcher in Tampere University Game Research Lab, and a game designer with a portfolio of board and educational games. Kankainen is currently finalizing his PhD dissertation on hybrid play in contemporary tabletop gaming. His research interests focus on hybrid play, contextual game experiences, tabletop game culture, game design, and game based learning.

Doctoral researcher Ville Kankainen. Photo credit: Jonne Renvall.

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