Roll 20: Bringing the Tabletop to Desktop
Digital tools for the growing popularity of Table Top Role Playing Games
In the past 10 years, the once-niche Table Top Role Playing Game (TTRPG) Dungeons and Dragons (DnD), flagship product of the game company Wizards of the Coast, has moved into the mainstream. Even pre-pandemic, an edition change which shifted gameplay away from math-based formulas and towards more vivid storytelling, coupled with the game’s feature in hit Netflix show Stranger Things had the game in 2019 growing by 300% , as measured by sales of starter kits to the game. This isn’t a passing fad either, as that year the hit DnD podcast Critical Role Kickstarted their own TV series, raising 11 million dollars, before being purchased by Amazon Studios, who is releasing a second season this year. The pandemic only heightened these trends, as groups were forced inside, and with plenty of time and imagination picked up the hobby.
While games COULD be run over zoom easily, it wasn’t a perfect arrangement by default. Sometimes the Dungeon Master (or DM, the player in charge of creating and regulating the story, think of a mix between a referee and a director) had to share information with only certain players, sometimes a map was needed to show where the characters were, or sometimes the players just wanted to have a side chat, as would happen at a normal game table. All of these things could technically be done using workarounds: screen sharing, breakout rooms, etc, but they all lacked the organic nature that happens when the games are run in person.
Enter Roll 20, a digital platform, founded well before the pandemic, that’s use exploded as games shifted from tabletop to desktop. One part social media, one part encyclopedia, one part gaming space, the platform has everything a DM and players need to seamlessly run their campaigns.
Fig 1: An example of content on the Role 20 platform
The platform adds value for the DMs by making their already onerous job significantly simpler. All the reference books they need are now at their fingertips, so say goodbye to flipping through monster manuals and campaign guides. Damage math is automatically calculated, and reflected on the player’s character sheets, removing one of the more tedious parts of the game. These tools, and more, are all part of the platform, and zealous participants can even make and share their own within the community. Chances are good if you can think of a niche tool that would make your experience smoother, it’s already been made by someone, and is integrated into the Roll 20 ecosystem seamlessly. Additional content (campaigns, monsters, characters, etc) can also be purchased through the platform from Wizards of the Coast, themselves, creating a loop where DM’s buy content on Roll 20 as that’s where the games are, then play on Roll 20 as that’s where their library of content is. If you don’t have a group of friends to play with, Roll 20 also facilitates random matchmaking, with all the filters needed to find the right group. This hugely adds value to players, who are usually particular about what they want in a game. As with most matchmaking in games, this is very much a winner take all market, as new players want to be on the platform where others are, so that they can feel included in the community.
Roll 20 does have some challenges that threaten its long-term sustainability. Currently, the breakdown of games played on the site look like this:
Fig 2: Breakdown of games on Roll 20 
While conventional business wisdom would say a “customer” concentration profile like this is concerning, there are questions whether that is true in this case. When people think of playing DnD online, they think of Roll 20, and the above is part of the reason why. For now, Wizards of the Coast is more than happy to partner with Roll 20, licensing their books and content on the platform, aware of how much extra business it brings them. It would be interesting, however, to delve deeper into this relationship, and see who’s really winning. With the details private, it’s impossible to know, but its conceivable that Wizards of the Coast is charging aggressive rates to Roll 20 for their products. One thing Roll 20 has done to combat this, is develop and release their own TTRPG, Burn Bryte. Developed from the ground up to be fully integrated with the Roll 20 suite, it’s success to date has been rather lacking.
Student comments on Roll 20: Bringing the Tabletop to Desktop
Having friends in my network that follow Critical Role and using Roll 20 for DnD during the pandemic, this was a helpful post to understand features of the platform that make it particularly popular. It seems that much of the value is derived from an established fanbase of DnD and I am wondering if a strategy of licensing nostalgic TTRPG games to tap into the lucrative storytelling aspect versus math aspect of beloved brands has been an option they have explored? Appreciating that, as stated, many of the granular details are kept secretive, I wonder what their number of actual users are compared to the market (percentages can sometimes be misleading). Performing a cursory look, competition seems to be fragmented and, at times, also dependent on a cash cow game. I wonder if amalgamating companies to gain a stronger foothold within a market has been too expensive an option? Could Roll 20 be open to being acquired by a larger company such as Hasbro or a Chinese competitor to improve their catalogue and user rates? Could this help hedge against risks accompanied when a company largely depends on one product?
A niche market but one I enjoyed reading about. Thanks, Sutton.
Great observations Heili. To your point on consolidation, I think the small size of the overall addressable market is the main constraint, as even though Roll20 has some monetization, it’s not a terrific amount. Additionally, I would wonder how willing WoTC would be to partner with hasboro, as they are more direct competitors? Your point on overall users is great, and I wonder how anyone would begin to get that data. Starter kits really only tell the story of how many DMs there are, and since WoTC made the players handbook free online (a move made to lower barriers and attract users, in a way it’s own platform), they lose out on more robust data on how many people are playing
Thank you so much for sharing, Sutton! This is so informative and fun to read! I think for a platform like Roll20, what concerned me as a user is how safe it is, will my data get leaked since the platform is constructed with various segments. And as you mentioned that the biggest challenge they face is the dominant position of D&D, how they can improve the users’ experience from potential cheating or disconnection, or are they willing to expand more to other games? It would be interesting to know if they have R&D in developing their own games.