Malcolm Gladwell vs. Ryan Dancey on the fate of TSR

Mike Mearls, whose retrospective “Legends and Lore” columns always seem to be sidling towards a “We’re relaunching OD&D!” announcement, posted a link to an interesting Malcolm Gladwell TED Talk about the history of spaghetti sauce. Apparently, once upon a time, companies sought the One True Spaghetti Sauce Recipe, until a forward thinker discovered that people were different! And companies have achieved great success by splitting their product lines into different sauces catering to different tastes.

It seems obvious when put that baldly, but it also seems to contradict another seemingly obvious story that’s central to the modern D&D mythos.

There’s an analogy that’s commonly quoted to explain the death of TSR. I’ve seen it attributed to Ryan Dancey and Bill Slavicsek:

“Picture it this way,” Slavicsek says, “it’s raining money outside and you want to catch as much of it as you can. You can either make a really big bucket or waste your time and attention by creating a lot really small buckets — either way, you’re never going to make more rain.” In plain English, TSR, by putting out a lot of product lines instead of supporting the main Dungeons & Dragons line, fragmented the marketplace.

So the path to massive corporate success leads either through diversification or through consolidation. Which is it?

Here’s something that Ryan Dancey said about the death of TSR:

No customer profiling information. No feedback. No surveys. No “voice of the customer”. TSR, it seems, knew nothing about the people who kept it alive. The management of the company made decisions based on instinct and gut feelings; not data. They didn’t know how to listen – as an institution, listening to customers was considered something that other companies had to do – TSR lead, everyone else followed.

On the other hand, Malcolm Gladwell says: “Assumption number one in the food industry used to be that the way to find out what people want to eat – what will make them happy – is to ask them. […] People don’t know what they want. A critically important step in understanding our own desires is to realize that we cannot always explain what we want deep down.”

I think the takeaway from Gladwell’s quote is not that companies should ignore surveys (and message boards and blog posts); it’s that they shouldn’t be used as road maps. I think TSR was right to make a lot of decisions on instinct and gut feelings. No one would have filled out a survey and asked for D&D before it was invented.

Perhaps the purpose of the customer survey is not to tell a company what to do: it’s to tell a company what NOT to do. While no survey can tell a company to “make D&D”, a survey could plausibly say “stop making Dragon Dice”.

10 Responses to “Malcolm Gladwell vs. Ryan Dancey on the fate of TSR”

  1. Ryan Dancey says:

    The problem with this analogy is that often people do know what they want.

    if you go into a pizza joint and order pepperoni, and are told you can’t have it, you may discover a love for a new topping. Or you may leave and never come back.

    People usually do know what they want. The idea that customers are just ignorant blobs of potential wandering around waiting to randomly blunder into a good fit for their needs is nonsense. Sometimes, very rarely, a product or service will appear that surprises and delights people unexpectedly. That’s called a market disruption. Most of the time, competition is about doing a better job of meeting your customer’s existing expectations.

    TSR didn’t make good decisions. It bankrupted itself, causing harm to a lot of other people affected by its mistakes.


  2. paul paul says:

    Hi Ryan!

    I didn’t know the term “market disruption”. Perhaps the question is, how much resources should a company spend on meeting expectations, and how much on trying for a new market disruption?

    It makes sense for a small company to do a lot of exploration. I think of early White Wolf as a company that took risks and tried to find new markets (and Vampire did, indeed, get new people into RPGs). Compare that to early Judges Guild, which did pretty well meeting existing demands for D&D-like products, but never had White Wolf success.

    A company with a loyal customer base has more to lose, and probably should spend more effort meeting their customers’ expectations. Thus late White Wolf, and the fairly conservative Mage, Werewolf, Hunter, Mummy, and Demon games.

    And yeah, I’m not saying that late TSR made good decisions. It sounds like that company was a mess. As you’ve said, part of their problem was that they didn’t find out what their customers liked, and part was that they were forbidden to playtest, so they couldn’t know what THEY THEMSELVES liked. Trailblazing and following your instincts is all very well, but if you have bad instincts, you’re kind of screwed.

  3. The issue with the ‘imagine it’s raining money’ comparison is the matter of scale. Food companies have the resources to make a diversified set of brands and market to different groups. RPG publishers don’t normally have the advantage of that sort of scale.

    To expand, one bucket is a more cost effective method, as it require fewer resources than an equal volume of small buckets. As most RPG publishers are stretched thin by a single game line, one bucket is simply a smarter business move.

  4. Laura says:

    In Malcolm Gladwell’s article on the topic–I think it’s in What the Dog Saw, and it’s also online here: – the question is, why have different varieties of ketchup failed in a world where many different kinds of spaghetti sauce succeeded?

    Today there are thirty-six varieties of Ragú spaghetti sauce, under six rubrics—Old World Style, Chunky Garden Style, Robusto, Light, Cheese Creations, and Rich & Meaty—which means that there is very nearly an optimal spaghetti sauce for every man, woman, and child in America. Measured against the monotony that confronted Howard Moskowitz twenty years ago, this is progress. Happiness, in one sense, is a function of how closely our world conforms to the infinite variety of human preference. But that makes it easy to forget that sometimes happiness can be found in having what we’ve always had and everyone else is having.

    There can be diminishing returns on an abundance of choices. I believe there is also a Gladwell article where he talks about an experiment where people were albe to choose samples from different kinds of jam. If there were only three to choose from, they enjoyed their jam, but if there were fifty, they rated the sample they chose as tasting worse!

    Barry Schwartz goes into this in detail in “The Paradox of Choice.” You would think a lot of options would be better, but at a certain point (probably after the “magic number seven plus or minus two”) a human being can’t process all of the options efficiently. We start second-guessing ourselves and become dissatisfied with our choices.

  5. paul paul says:

    I’m curious to how this relates to D&D today. Did 4e fragment the D&D community into smaller buckets, or provide another option that better fit some players? How about Pathfinder and OSR? Gamma World?

    My guess is that, since Pathfinder and OSR are supported by different companies (or hobbyists), they don’t really split WOTC’s resources (except that WOTC loses out on some good third-party support by Paizo). Gamma World, on the other hand, eats up WOTC development resources, and I doubt it’s a huge moneymaker.

    It seems like between all these options, we have Old World Style, Chunky Garden Style, etc. – with the difference that devotees of different pasta sauces don’t seem to have contempt for each other.

  6. Well,

    And as another point that belongs here… part of the issue is that diversity already existed in the RPG market by the time TSR fell apart. The spaghetti sauce issue was more about the fact that, at the time, there was only one guiding idea in the market — this was really the first time that market diversified.

    Choices already existed. TSR made really bad decisions — but Gladwell isn’t wrong… entirely. In many cases — self-reporting is flawed. That’s why surveys are of limited usefulness. Surveys need careful design to have real market value.

    Sometimes people do know what they want — Mr. Dancy’s example of the pizza place isn’t entirely disingenuous… if I went to a pizza place and all they offered was ham and pineapple, I’d wonder about the pizza place… and it is somewhat the same with RPGs. The problem is that if I go buy a slice of pizza somewhere else, I might still want a sub from the first place… but when I buy into an rpg its a much bigger commitment. (I know, that’s a wacky analogy, but you see where it’s going.)

    It’s kind of funny though to see that TED talk show up here… I use it for teaching with my first year writing students…

  7. GameDaddy says:


    Judges Guild was successful… In it’s time much more successful that WW and that was the problem. Bob Bledsaw was an honest guy that did his business on a handshake, and he had the rug pulled out from under him by TSR. If he had started out publishing his own RPG instead of creating derivative products for D&D, the RPG gaming world would be completely different today.

  8. Stacy says:

    Learning what your customers want is not the only benefit to soliciting their opinions. Demonstrating that your company is willing to listen and engage with its supporters builds consumer loyalty and goodwill… even if you rarely follow their suggestions.

    Learning what your customers DON’T want is probably more important anyway. As they say, it’s much cheaper to retain a current customer than to acquire a new one.

  9. Anarkeith says:

    Laura’s comment about too many choices leading to dissatisfaction has me wondering if that’s the wall that 3e and 4e D&D hit. Did all the feats, powers and classes prove too much for gamers and drive them back to simpler games?

  10. paul paul says:

    I do think that late 3e/4e would probably be better with more limited character-building choices – not necessarily fewer choices, but more constrained ones. Choosing a feat in the character builder takes a lot of reading.

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