The Bazaar #41: Gaming Company / Consumer Interactions
By now you've have likely heard of the incident involving Wizards of the Coast (wait, again?!) a Magic: The Gathering (MtG) enthusiast and YouTuber, Dan Cannon. As reported on Gizmodo, this Youtuber ordered a set of cards, and the distributor accidentally shipped some not-yet-released product; the distributor was sitting on a release embargo set for 12 May 2023. Some folks from the Pinkerton Agency allegedly “harass” his neighbours and then showed up at his home demanding the return of the product using, let’s say, some less than savoury techniques. Now, I've absolutely no interest in covering MtG, or the various leaks that have happened. What does intrigue me though is the outreach activities of gaming companies and expectations from the gaming community, specifically contrasting the recent WotC controversies with how Palladium Books has handled things.
Copyright Infringement. Something of a bugbear for the gaming industry, the strength of an IP is a vital aspect to the TTRPG. Any lack of defence to the IP means another company/person can use that imagery/idea for their own use, diluting the effectiveness of a company’s brand. Palladium Books presented an IP challenge of the Trion Worlds’ Rift: Planes of Telara MMO, which ultimately led to a “joint stipulation of dismissal,” effectively killing the claim. Games Workshop has been vociferous in their pursuit of copyright claims, and have sent out several very public cease and desist notices that did little to endear them to the community. Defending an IP is a tricky thing, a necessary evil that often times paints the one protecting their IP in a negative light, even if they are 100% correct - and no, Game Workshop, you can't claim copyright to the term Space Marine.
Who Are Pinkerton? The first time I heard it, I thought Gizmodo was using the name in a derogatory sense. This term has some pretty charged history, much of it not applicable, but a lot of it floating around there making a lot of white noise. Little did I know this is still a going concern company. Two bits I found worth considering:
Anti-Pinkerton Act (1893). Contracted by Congress in the 1800s, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency became known for violent strikebreaking activities, culminating in the subject act. It is said they formed the blueprint for the formation of the Secret Service.
Pinkerton Agency. If the fluff on their website is to be believed, this corporation leverages 171 years of history (as of 2021); apparently this includes the issues leading to the previously cited 1893 Act. This is not the greatest pedigree to flaunt, but I guess they try to live up to their reputation - from when Congress actually name a bill against them.... It now promotes itself as a global provider of Enterprise Security Risk Management (ESRM).
Hasbro Public Relations Disasters. After suffering a massive black eye from the shenanigans related to the One D&D fiasco, there was the tepid response to the content creators conference that did little to actually mollify the online community. This latest issue just adds to the growing concern that the 800-pound gorilla in the TTRPG industry is really starting to lose relevance. It’s difficult to specifically tag WotC with the conduct of the Pinkerton agents, but in this case Dan Cannon was accused by WotC of having “stolen property,” which was clearly not the case, and something WotC has yet to clarify. It certainly makes the case against Pinkerton’s ability to provide effective Response Services, in this case mitigation of supply chain risks. It furthermore speaks against Hasbro for hiring a company with this reputation and business practices. Because, at the end of the day, guess who has the authority to knock on your door and threaten jail time and fines? Not private contractors, and certainly not Hasbro. A few of the other issues Hasbro currently faces:
Layoffs due to quarterly losses
Quality control (painting, packaging) and pricing issues for toys
Called out by Bank of America for overproduction of MtG cards
The “progressive” approach to their product lines (e.g. D&D, GI-Joe, Mr. Potato Head)
The Hadozee Incident for D&D Spelljammer
Press releases by Hasbro officers doing little to endear them to the gaming communities
Links between WotC officers and Pinkerton (who saw that one coming? I know I didn't)
No statement by Hasbro confirming/denying the contracting of Pinkerton
Class action lawsuit in Georgia now elevated from state to federal court
EDIT - 02 May: Jeff Easley signature removed from D&D Movie Poster
Palladium Books Responses. Palladium Books has had its fair share of response issues with their stakeholders and customers.
Early Internet. Back in the 1990s, online business content was still in its relative nascency – for those not in the know, Google “dial-up internet” or America Online. People had personal websites, myself included - I recall programming HTML code for my Geocities website. Very much the wild west in terms of what was attempted and then curtailed, the gaming industry struggled to adapt to a market shifting from a strictly print-only realm.
Message Boards. Palladium had a message board, chat room and email mailing list back in the day, which was a vibrant community of enthusiasts that interacted with PB staff. The advent of internet trolls was a thing even back then; Maryann had no problems dealing with them.
Conversion Policies. One of the biggest gripes with Palladium was their crack-down on home-brewed conversions for other Intellectual Property (IP) – specifically Star Wars, Star Trek, comic books, movies, you name it. PB has been fairly zealous in pursuing “cease and desist” orders against individuals posting these conversions.
Production Timelines. It's a fair statement to make that Palladium has had issues with keeping their own deadlines for distribution. Things are looking up, with the addition of Sean and commitment to the release schedule, but this is still a work in progress.
Robotech RPG Tactics. Discussed when covering the Titan Robotics Kickstarter.
New Era. With the addition on Sean Roberson as an invested partner in PB, we’ve seen a few changes come around. Sean is very engaging with the community, and we’ve seen a shift to release of new content.
Savage Worlds. As a licensee of the Rifts RPG, I would be remiss in not mentioning them, particularly given Sean Roberson's background with them. That said, I am only anecdotally familiar with them, and from a customer perspective am completely unable to make any assessment. I've heard nice things! That's is the limit of my visibility.
Third-Party Providers (TPPs). None of this article looks to contradict theft or illicit activities that undermine legitimate business practices. But the legal framework has very much provided a stable basis for online commerce and regulations regarding protection of IP and the sharing of ideas without threatening the owners of the copyrights.
Contemporary Internet Sites. With the advent of the current platforms and the ubiquitous access to social media and websites (e.g. YouTube, Facebook, Twitch, DriveThru RPG, heck even this Wix blog), companies continue to provide services in physical print form, yet still support online and electronic products and services. Protection of IP is still a hallmark business practice, but given the maturity of the legal framework on what is allowed and how, posting home brew rules and conversions on a personal website is much less a concern today than it was twenty years ago. Don't get me wrong, there is still a governance piece I have to respect.
TPP Effect. These entities provide the IP holder with another vector to engage with the customer base. Most gaming companies rely heavily on third-party content providers to spread the word, provide reviews and opinions for their product, because often times they are gamers as consumers, speaking directly to other games as consumers. WotC, Games Workshop, and many others leverage this community to promote products. In many cases this involves sending free copies of merchandise to use and/or review prior to the release date in order to create additional marketing buzz (<whisper>: Hey,PB.... hint). The downside is that the IP owner doesn’t get to tailor the message. If the community develops a negative opinion, there is little the in-house marketing team is going to be able to do to overcome this. That said, most have neutral to very favourable opinions, and positive messages demonstrate exponentially increased impact to any internally executed marketing campaign. Most actually formalize TPPs into a more holistic operation.
Scholarly Adventures. After a hiatus from role-playing in general, I decided to come back and spread the word about this game and setting that I adore. I benefit in a very small way as one of the published authors for Rifts (World Book 22: Free Quebec), but have also had the privilege of talking with Sean Roberson a few times and over Messenger on a variety of topics. I like to think I’ve demonstrated some level of trust, respecting the confidentiality of any information he shared that was not my position to discuss. For my contribution as a TPP, this is a key tenet I have no intent to breach. So I continue to review the books, speak to GM-related issues, and discuss gaming topics that could impact Palladium Books.
Corporate-Customers Interactions. As counter-intuitive as it may be, there is zero obligation for the company to engage with its fan base. As a baseline, a company must: deliver its best performance to provide a quality product in a timely manner. In this case, Palladium Books delivers books and ancillary products based on their IP - most notably Rifts.
I would remind WotC of some key principles with respect to Consumer Duty:
Act in good faith towards retail customers
Avoid foreseeable harm to retail customers
Enable and support retail customers
Looking at Hasbro stock prices and financial statements, as well as the way they interact with their shareholders, you'd think things were rosy! Bear in mind stakeholders includes shareholders, employees, customers, and other parties affected by business decisions. I guess in the wake of the money lost on the D&D movies, they think themselves too big to fail - like this isn't something that hasn't happened before. Yet, fans seems to be content to invest in the products they are being force fed to re-purchase each edition......
It certainly behooves companies to have some public-facing mechanism, but for smaller firms this is very much a personality-based solution space; marketing campaigns are not just faceless interactions through print or online media. I would welcome the chance to have a chat with Kevin and Sean, but I harbour no illusion that they owe me anything. I think I can count on two hands the number of interviews Kevin has provided, most of which were in the past several years, which is fine. I have discovered that since Sean has joined the team, there is more enthusiasm for engagement with TPPs as a way of reaching their customer base, which I wholeheartedly support.
Addendum: In what can only be used as a case to prove we live in the Upside-Down world, Hasbro has been honoured with a 2023 Ethisphere Ethical Business Award. This, after the OGL fiasco. Honestly, you simply can't make this stuff up.
Now, to call a spade a spade, this award is based on self-nomination, with a fee to enter, another to use the award's logo. So, pay Ethisphere money, so they can give you an award on how ethical you are ..... okay. Nothing unethical here, right?
Putting on my ‘MBA hat’ for a second, Hasbro is dealing with what can only be considered a lack of professionalism in their two most profitable business units. On the heels of the One D&D fiasco and other perceived missteps, just when you thought things couldn’t *possibly* get worse, Hasbro has ties to the Pinkertons, and this incident is in the news cycle. Their relationship with stakeholders and consumers is a case study in failure, and the shareholders are taking notice.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not calling for a boycott of WotC or slamming D&D because it's not Rifts, and Palladium is not the paragon of perfection. They are, however, a much (much) smaller company. There have had their own share of missteps and personality conflicts. With the addition of Sean Roberson, there certainly appears to be a reinvigorated interest to engage with customers, certainly so with third-party content provider engagement. There remains a number of points to improve, most notably their Facebook page, which once regularly posted links to this blog and promoted other TPP channels, which seems to have died off. Palladium Books: Hint, this is an easy win.
From my perspective, the differentiation between the Hasbro dynamic and that of Palladium Books is night and day. While WotC, part of a public corporation (Hasbro), pursues an aggressive shift in the way they wish to interact with their D&D customers, I see the privately owned PB returning to their roots and supporting the pen-and-paper/TTRPG, as well as providing a more personable approach to their customers. I'd suggest they have some efforts yet to accomplish, but they certainly are leagues ahead of the kind of messaging WotC is sending.
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