A favorite past time among the OSR is criticizing TSR's business practices and elucidating how they would have run the company so much better if they'd been in charge. Yeah, that's me guilty as charged. I mean, it is really fun to do. TSR is such an easy target because they did make colossal blunders, did some really dumb things, and had little idea how to manage the successful properties they had. It was only the wild success of D&D that kept them in business as long as it did. But of course that all ended as soon as a smarter, scrappier, better organized competitor stepped into the space. To be fair this is the history of many businesses.
The criticisms usually come in one of two forms. There is backseat driving which if the backseat driver had been in the seat they'd probably make the same, or different mistakes that would have been just as bad. And there is the 20/20 Hindsight criticisms which can look back and say what they should have done with the nearly 50 years of history to inform. Which of course would have been impossible because no one can predict the future with certainty.
I prefer a more reasoned approach. What did they know, or should have known, at the time given the state of things. And what should TSR have done based on that?
Imagine if a really savvy businessperson had been in charge? With the leverage TSR had they'd own the tabletop gaming market to this day, and be unstoppable. I don't know why I enjoy speculating on this, I just do. It is probably not healthy to imagine the "What If I time travelled to 1970. knowing what I know now?" fantasy. But then isn't that what all the retro-clones really are? So here is my short list.
Some mistakes TSR made they should have known better:
- Ceding the miniatures market to Games Workshop.
- Reskinning the AD&D covers without updating the interiors
- Letting GURPS take the universal RPG mantle
- AD&D 2.0 as a safe mushy collection of optional rules
- Not keeping the eye on the ball
- Marketing driven instead of product driven
Games Workshop (Citadel) took over the fantasy miniatures market because TSR didn't see what a gold mine making high quality miniatures was. Have you really looked at a Grenadier Official AD&D miniature next to a Games Workshop miniature? Grenadier looks like a melted wax glob in comparison. Later Reaper miniatures realized they could make fantastic miniatures for AD&D without the AD&D license and took what was left of the market. You may or may not appreciate the GW aesthetic, but their quality was top notch.
AD&D didn't go far enough in revising the original game, but it was undeniably successful. So I'll keep my critique to a minimum. One major issue is they let the books get stale. There should have been more significant updates and revisions to the books but still keep it "1st edition". At the very least when they reskinned the covers with new Jeff Easley covers the interiors should also have been updated. A sort of 1.5 edition. As an example the Monster Manual was painfully out of date and missing necessary information like XP values. One look at the Monster Cards that were published in 1982 shows they had the work essentially done. They had the means to print full color editions by then.
It is baffling they didn't make D&D a universal RPG. Why did they keep making all new (unsuccessful in comparison) RPG's with all new systems instead of making the D&D system in multiple genres? A waste of time, energy, and design efforts. (I love FASERIP, so it pains me to make this point) The idea was certainly there, even in the original 1974 D&D it talks about how you could play anything, but they never developed it further from there. Instead they let GURPS take that mantle.
AD&D 2e turned off a whole generation of players and eventually led to the bankruptcy of TSR (yes, I know there was a lot of other mismanagement going on). I'm not even saying 2e was bad, just misguided. The one thing that is most touted about 2e is all the optional rules. This is in fact its greatest flaw. The responsibility of a designer is to playtest the heck out of their game. Refine and refine until the very best collection of game mechanics is assembled. Then publish that version. Optional rules are a way for designers to shirk their duties and pass that off to the customer. It is waffling, indecisive, and lazy. You might disagree and love optional rules, in that case an accessory book that offers interesting unofficial rules options is fine. But don't pollute the main stream. It is confusing.
This point may sound strange coming from a designer who likes to tinker and create, but this philosophy of delivering a clear finished product does not conflict with fostering tinkering and creativity. RPG's have endless potential because they can be anything. But having a cornerstone to measure from improves everything.
In the 90's TSR lost track of the ball and got distracted by all sorts of things. Magic: the Gathering kind of blew their minds and they didn't know what to do about it. By then it was already too late. The writing was on the wall. TSR thought they just needed better marketing, what they needed was better products.
So let's jump in a time machine. Travel to 1970 knowing what we know now, and see if we can do a better job. Whose with me?