9 min read

DnD Digital: The end for Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, and Foundry?

DnD Digital: The end for Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, and Foundry?

WotC recently announced One D&D and part of this included their plans for a new 3D Virtual Table Top (VTT), built using the Unreal Engine, the same technology used to make the likes of Fortnite. The new VTT and digital toolkit will be called D&D Digital, and the trailer (below if you’ve not seen it, at 4m:00s) certainly did its job in wetting the whistle, and as you would expect there is a ton of chat about this on the forums.

So let’s all cancel our existing VTT subscriptions and start learning how to build stuff on the Unreal Engine, right? Er, maybe not quite yet.

In this article, we look at what exactly D&D Digital is and put down some thoughts (including a nasty bit of maths) looking at the likelihood of success and the potential price point for this new platform. Read on to be appalled by the level of wild assumptions and shonky calculations…

Why is WotC trying to build a VTT?

WotC is historically a publishing business, and first and foremost a paper publishing company at that. They have been late to digital and are playing catchup, including their recent acquisition of D&D Beyond.

Their new strategy is looking to build a one-stop shop for all your D&D needs so that they can get a monopoly on your wallet. They are also clearly making a play to become a subscription business (and why not, they can be 5x the value of non-subscription businesses).

They’ve watched the rise and rise of Roll20 (now at > 10m users) and their belly has been rumbling… One can only assume that there was an investigation into acquiring a VTT but clearly WotC decided to "go big or go home". Cue D&D Digital.

One of the tokens from the D&D Digital showreel, a dwarf with a pipe and an axe
One of the tokens from the D&D Digital showreel

How will DnD Digital be different from other VTTs?

D&D Digital will be quite different from any other VTT in two key ways:

  1. Their tabletop will be 3D (and also support top-down)
  2. They will own the rules and content

Point 2 means they will be well positioned to make their new platform much easier to play on than the competition, always on the latest rules and fully integrated with D&D Beyond and any other tools they bring out.  It also means they could even limit (or at least stop investing in) support for other VTTs in a bid to corner the market. They currently publish most modules on Roll20 for example, and they could decide to bring this to an end.

So am I worried about all the content I've bought on Roll20 going down the pan?

Well... not for a while yet. Building a 3D VTT on the Unreal Engine is an ENORMOUS undertaking and WotC does not have the best track record on tech (...albeit their new leadership has some creds). D&D Beyond is now in the family, but their tech is pretty limited to nice character sheets and dice. Don’t get me wrong, they are fantastic, but not a 3D gaming platform!

What does building a 3D VTT platform look like then?

Let us just ponder one small aspect of this: creating an entire D&D bestiary as 3D models. Each one will need art, 3D modelling, textures, etc. There are thousands of creatures in D&D and so that alone is an immense undertaking. What about player characters and all the variations? Will WotC build something akin to Hero Forge (check it out if you have not seen it - it is dope).

It certainly looks like WotC is already working on this and that it will be integrated into D&D Beyond:

A screenshot of D&D Beyond showing a new "Display in VTT" button under each monster
WotC has already added a "display in VTT" button to the D&D Beyond monstrous compendium

Will the 3D environment have animation? The demo reel did, and why the Unreal Engine if not? The possibilities are exciting: Flickering shadows, spell effects, gory critical hits? So there is animation to program too. Now add a sprinkle of (3D) dynamic lighting. Nearly there now...

Will there be sounds? An animated platform with no sound seems quite flat - but for now, let's assume they partner with Syrinscape or similar, so some integration / API build costs. Then last but definitely not least, let us layer on the final ingredient: making the entire platform configurable from the get-go, so that their fanbase will still get to build homebrew modules and maps etc.

Gone will be the days when you can just drop a 2D map that you've spun up on Inkarnate and a few tokens, presumably now you'll have tools to 3D model it? WotC will be building this “maker” platform to allow users to create their own modules, creatures etc. Eek, this is starting to sound like a heavy-weight project!

It's a project alright... Let's talk about cost and time

OK, so WotC is building a 3D-animation-enabled VTT platform that is fully configurable, that has enough legacy material to bring in new customers, plus the entire rules system codified but in a way that will support future updates and so not all hardcoded... plus launch and marketing costs... So how much is that investment for them?

Is that 10's of $m? Maybe for a very early Beta, but for a product people will buy, perhaps more like 100's of $m... Whatever, it's a VERY big number. In fact, it may even push them into planned loss-making for a period.

💡
D&D Digital is a big undertaking and massive investment for WotC (our guesstimate is $100m+) and will likely take at least 18-24 months to build the first release

And timelines - this obviously depends on how many devs and testers, etc, but there is a saturation point on a project like this where you can keep chucking people at it but they start to slow it down rather than speed it up. Let's just say this will be a rather long old project, and there will be points where senior management asks, "so remind me, why did we not just buy one of these?".

WotC will undoubtedly be trying to release a minimum viable product (MVP) quickly, or by 2024 at least in time for One D&D. However, this is a behemoth of a vision, and MVPs for this kind of project have a nasty tendency of either being bloody huge (and hard to deliver), or so limited they end up being a tad underwhelming.

Subscription costs - how much will they charge us?

Regardless of whether they go big bang or beta and iterate, suffice to say they will have promised some princely returns to investors, so the next challenge will be how to price this. Fully anticipate the pricing to be bundled with D&D Beyond subscription, but Jesus wept they will have some recouping to do.

Time for a little hacky maths, riddled with highly questionable assumptions. I've moved the maths to the bottom given it is rather ugly, but the conclusion is:

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Using a highly questionable and dubiously oversimplified modelling technique*, we have estimated that the annual price tag for the new platform could be >$200 per year per user. Take that with a large cup full of salt, but suffice to say, it will not be cheap.

* = take a deep breath and then head over to the appendix for details

Hang on, your maths is rubbish, you haven't scaled users over years and your assumptions are trash

OK so the maths will be wrong, the assumptions are a mess and oversimplified and the answer is therefore incorrect.  Yes!

However, what I take from this back of a cigarette packet calculation is that D&D Digital will likely have to demand a premium price tag, in fact I'd wager it becomes the most expensive VTT out there, since they are D&D after all.

Also, it will only stand up if uptake is solid. So, a very hefty push will be needed to get people onboard. If they falter on uptake, WotC is likely to be losing money for a while to come. So, if they get that far (I really hope they do!), WotC will likely become slightly obsessed with winning new customers.

They could lock out access to the rules and content for the other VTTs to try to force people over, but we all know where that will leave them and Pathfinder will happily mop up a disgruntled fan base. After what happened between these two players with D&D 4E, it seems unlikely WotC will have the stomach for that again. So realistically, they are likely to have to do it with loss-leader pricing up front (to be recouped downstream) whilst making sure it really is worth the premium price tag.

Regardless of pricing, the proof is in the playing and this will ultimately come down to whether WotC pulls off an iPhone or a Windows Mobile as to whether their new toy becomes the jewel in the WotC crown...

Can there be a happy ending to the story?

With Chris Cocks recently moving up from D&D head honcho, to take on the CEO at Hasbro, Cynthia Williams has been shipped in to lead this charge. Williams served as General Manager and VP for Microsoft's Gaming Ecosystem Commercial Team. Does this mean she is qualified to drive this major move into Gaming tech for WotC? The jury's out, but they've clearly hired her with the job in mind and she certainly seems to be a pretty big hitter. I really do hope Williams and her team can make a success of what sounds like an amazing project.

So time will tell, but in the near term at least, it seems unlikely that WotC will be rolling a critical hit and killing off the other D&D VTTs in the next year or two, and so for the moment I certainly won't be jumping ship just yet!

Appendix - The Hacky Maths

NOTE: This dubious maths is blatantly oversimplified, and my numbers and assumptions below are just flippant guesstimates so please take this with a cupful of salt :)

ASSUMPTIONS:

  • Let's say they've sunk $100m investment
  • Assume 12m active D&D players in 2022 (in 2017 WotC claimed 9.5m - see here at 27m:30s https://www.twitch.tv/videos/139409870. I've generously taken their claim and then rounded up to 12m for 2022
  • Assume 75% of players play online (see the legend Mike Shea’s data here https://slyflourish.com/interviewing_new_players.html)
  • Assume the average group size is 3 people and a DM-only subscription approach as per other VTT
  • Assume 1/3 of online players are paying for a "premium" product like Roll20 plus and so would likely splash the cash for the new WotC package.
  • Assume WotC has to break even over 3 years
  • One final assumption: the subscription for the new service will also need to bankroll the staff and operating costs for this new platform/biz unit, including eg "keeping the lights on" (servers, etc). Let's say that's $50/year.

OK now we have our parameters, let's run this through two scenarios:

  1. A best case where WotC steals a mighty one in five premium VTT subscribers from the total pool, 20% market share in year one.
  2. A worst case (or perhaps realistic depending on your outlook!) where they take 10%  market share in year one.

Model 1:

  • Total target users: 1m (based on 12m * 0.75 * .33 * 0.33)
  • Market share: 20%, 200k users
  • Recoup cost per customer: $100m / 200k users = $500 profit required per user to break even. Plus the $50 per year/user to "keep the lights on".

So, based on my flakey assumptions above...

Model 1 subscription: $216 / year

(as context, that is more than double the top-tier Roll20 subscription)

Model 2:

Halving the users just doubles the price to:

Model 2 subscription of $433 / year

Eeek.

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