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”.