In case you hadn’t heard the news, D&D is dying. The game is digging its grave while on its last legs and circling the drain of over-used mixed metaphors. WotC is preparing to launch a new edition to bolster its sales, possibly as a last-ditch effort to keep Hasbro from cancelling the product line. Meanwhile, Essentials was a badly received bomb that has greatly hurt sales as fans have rejected that product line.
Let’s look at this issue a little deeper.
First, let’s look at the issue of sagging sales. There’s little evidence to back this up as WotC does not release its sales figures. But it’s still possible to guesstimate the line’s health. From its launch, 4e was doing well but could have done better. It wasn’t as successful as 3e, as has been documented by Joseph Goodman here. He postulates that there is a peak every generation, when new players reach and age where they’re interested and a new edition – with accompanying hype – arrives to draw them in. 4e performed well, but it came too closely on the heels of 3e to really hit the once-in-a-decades-and-a-half peak.
Let’s also look at the bestsellers over at Amazon.com. You’ll see a heavy presence of Essentials, despite the fact that line was aimed at brand new and young players who might not have the credit cards needed for an online purchase. Amazon is a secondary seller to gaming stores, yet Essentials still seems to be doing well. Essentials was also designed and marketed as an “evergreen” product, which will remain in print and which game stores are encouraged to keep stocked at all times. They were (hopefully) not banking on a surge of sales to pad that quarter, but instead steady sales over time. The sales are a marathon and not a sprint... in theory.
(It's also worth noting that you still regularly see the 3.5 core books still hovering in Amazon's Top 40, a testament to that edition's grab and continued popularity. That's the bar; will 4e's core books or Essentials still be on the chart three years after its replacement?)
Realistically, all editions sag in sales after launch. The first few books are the guaranteed sales, the Core books and must-have expansions providing much needed expansion. After that the bloat sets in and the books become more and more optional with content people can pass on because they already have enough material for four or five PCs. The trick game companies always stumble over is how to boost sales in the middle of an edition. 2e tried this with reprints and new Core accessories (the black-bound reprints with errata and the Player’s Options series). 3e did this with 3.5. And 4e tried this with Essentials, which was a middle ground between the two (neither being a revision of the rules nor just a reprinting of existing content).
Still, the trade magazine ICv2 reported Paizo tied WotC in sales in Q3 of 2010. And Paizo also has a strong showing on the Amazon above list. But, really, this is still a sign that D&D is doing fine, as even when WotC slips a little, a game that is really D&D rebranded moves up a spot. It helps that during that quarter, WotC’s products were dominated by the aforementioned evergreen releases while Pathfinder dropped its version of the DMG and PHB2, the former being an excellent book usable by people playing any system. Pathfinder is dominated by D&D fans that just did not like 4e and might be lured back by 5e, or might prefer to play Pathfinder but still play 4e on occasion. They’re not mutually exclusive and I imagine the tied sales were partially the result of fans buying books for both games. I have a sizable stack of both company’s products on my shelves. And if WotC puts out a 5e that appeals to 3e loyalists they’ll likely return.
There’s a fair bit of evidence for this being thrown about. The slowdown of releases is one, and the recent 4e feedback thread posted by the most triumphant Steve “WotC_Huscarl” Winter. Editions seem to come out faster and faster, so people are expecting 5e or 4.5 or Essentials 2.
There’s less evidence that can be produced to counter this, as it is fairly speculative. But, it feels far, far too early for a new edition, with 4e being only three years old this June. Even if you count 3.0 and 3.5 as separate editions, they lasted 3 and 5 years respectively, and that was a relatively small update. 4e was a hard sell, with much life still left in 3e, as shown by the continued strength and selling power of the edition (see Pathfinder). There were multiple books that could easily have been produced for that edition (I was regularly pitching Races of Goblins and Heroes of Intrigue on the forums as possibilities). As Chris Perkins once said, 3e was not a awkward or broken game “with arms growing out of its butt” like 2e, so a huge revision was less called for and necessary.
4e is an even harder sell. So many people are devoted to this edition, so a new edition would have to be very similar with small fixes – which might not seem like enough changes to warrant buying the same books again – or a much larger revision which might alienate fans. The last thing WotC wants to do is further fracture the fanbase into 3e, 4e, and 5e fans.
Additionally, by WotC’s own admission, few people are playing the Epic tier, which implies few campaigns have made it to level 20+. If only a minority of players have actually managed to finish a campaign, why is it a good time for an edition change? That would just push people to have to end their campaigns prematurely, endure an awkward update to a new edition that will undoubtedly not support all the options in play, or (arguably more likely) ignore the edition change and continue to play their campaign until its completion.
It would make more sense to delay a major edition revision until 4e games last long enough for people to become seriously disenfranchised and seek a change, and until gamers have had enough time to wrap-up at least one campaign and play multiple characters, otherwise most of the options available in the edition would go to waste. And, realistically, we’re still five years away from the next “peak” when a new generation will come of age and find D&D. A new edition next year will only mean they’ll have to release yet another edition then. And, more than likely, a new edition released so soon before the theoretical peak will diminish the peak, cutting away at the age range of new potential players.
One of the arguments for the impending release of 5e is the slowdown of book releases, similar to how there were fewer books released prior to 4e.
However, this is bunk. Pure, weapon’s grade bull bunk. Up to and well after the announcement of 4e at GenCon 2007 WotC continued its book-a-month release rate. We saw books like Elder Evils, Exemplars of Evil, adventures, retrospective books, campaign setting books, and finally the two 4e design books. It wasn’t until very close to 4e’s release that products slowed down, and then only for a couple months.
WotC is not about to tank its sales for a year with no products just because they might have a successful new edition launch.
There’s no conspiracy behind the gaps in the release schedule. WotC plans and produces books a year in advance. This time last year they had a staffing upheaval and shuffled positions, with new staff members now in charge of planning and releasing books. It’s only natural that, after they became comfortable with their position, they would re-evaluate books on the schedule. Sadly, they waited too long to cancel the 6 or so products and they were announced at GenCon. So there was no time to make replacement products. If there were more quality products initially planned there wouldn’t be the dead months.
Sales likely also contributed to the cancelled products. The book-a-month release schedule is oppressive and unforgiving. It quickly leads to a glut of content and spreads out purchases. With so many releases being little more than padding in the schedule, sales were likely uneven and profits swingy. Fewer must-have books released every few months would likely lead to stronger and more reliable sales.
We’ll likely see many more books on the schedule come GenCon, when they can release all the new ideas the new creative manager and designers have thought of.
It’s worth thinking about the digital tools that were such a vital part of selling 4e. It took months for the first to be released, a year for the second, and now we’re waiting for the re-release of the first two tools to reach the same state as it used to have.
We’ll be lucky if this time next year we’re where we were this time last year. Two years of lateral progress. Excluding the online tabletop that I’ve yet to be invited to try (not that I’d be able even though I play in an online game, as no one else in the group would have access).
If they announce 5e this year then all progress made on the online tools is wasted. They’ll have to redo all the calculations and formulas. Just when we almost have finished and workable online tools we’ll be back to waiting for the new tools to be released.
Preliminary work on 4e started in 2005, a mere two years after 3.5e was released, for a full development cycle of three years. If 5e were really about to be released next year they would have had to have started planning 5e a year after 4e was released. A shorter development cycle would mean the new edition would have had very little playtesting or few changes.
IF the call for feedback is tied to the release of 5e, more than likely it would be a part of a preliminary evaluation and design. The first steps of a process lasting years. I expect they just started thinking about 5e now and we shouldn’t expect a release before 2013 or 2014 (I’ve been predicting 2014 for a while, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the game). That’s much closer to the potential peak and has the lovely benefit of being able to segue media coverage of the anniversary to the new edition.