God, 4th edition D&D; hasn’t even been announced yet and I’m already sick of it. These days it seems like a day can hardly go by without another freakout thread on whether or not WotC is going to publish D&D; 4E. Well, here’s a newsflash for everyone: of course they are. That’s the RPG business model in the print arena. You sell one edition and all the expansions you can for it until sales of new supplements drop to an unsustainable level. Then you do a new edition and reset the clock all over again. So it’s not a question of if WotC is going to release 4E, but when it’s going to happen.
The timing, I think, will tell us a lot about how D&D; sales have been the last couple of years. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t expect to see 4E until 2008. I think the 3.5 launch was bungled enough that they wouldn’t want to do 4E sooner than that unless they had to. So, if we see an announcement this August about a 2007 release date for the new edition I think that will speak volumes as the current health of the game.
The more pertinent issue for everyone else is whether the 4E rules will be put into the System Reference document and whether the d20 STL will continue. This is something I have no insight into. I could really see it going either way. With Charles Ryan laid off, the last person in a position of authority who was really behind the OGL is gone from there. On the other hand, stepping away from the OGL would cause them to take a PR hit and they may not want that affecting the 4E launch. Of course, gamers have a long history of making a big stink out of things and then going to buy this week’s object d’outrage anyway, a fact the sales guys over there are surely aware of.
From WotC’s point of view, I could see why they would not want to go through another d20 boom and bust with 4E. The thing is that the print market is hardly cluttered right now. There are maybe half a dozen companies that still regularly put out d20 material and even those releases are getting fewer and farther between. A middle path WotC might take is to just doing a licensing deal with the remaining good companies. That’d give some quality 3rd party support without cutting out the legs of the entire d20 industry. It would hit the PDF market pretty hard though.
The cold hard truth of the matter may be that what WotC does with the 4E and the OGL doesn’t even matter anymore. D20 sales have been declining steadily since the release of 3.5. Companies have come up with their own variants that are not reliant on the D&D; core books anymore and many of these are selling a lot better than d20 stuff these days. What happens with 4E will not affect the health of Mutants & Masterminds or True20, for example. Those are stand-alone games with their own player bases. Ditto for games like Spycraft and Arcana Unearthed.
Realistically though the soonest anything will be announced is GenCon Indy in August. Until then folks should relax and play some games. There are certainly plenty enough to go around.