I just love this video, as some of you may know since I've linked to it before. This is probably one of the better examples of a blatant attempt to influence the customer, to convince the audience that older editions of D&D are not just out of date, but silly. Not a hard thing to do either when that audience is already conditioned to believe new edition = better design. If I where teaching a class on rhetoric I'd use this video as an example.
What I want to talk about in this post, though, isn't whether zee game is zee zame. We all know it isn't, so I'll leave that dead horse covered with a throw blanket for the time being (just don't mind the flies and smell, because I'll probably expose it again sometime later!). Instead I want to talk about new editions of games in general. There still seems to be people who get flustered when anyone claims a new edition of D&D comes out in order to make more money from the brand. It's the obvious truth, but what I'm curious about is whether D&D as a brand is very different in this regard compared to other classic brands that have been around for a long time. Let's take a look at a few.
Basic Roleplaying: Chaosium has been publishing this since the very early 80s. This system has been used for a number of genres and licensed properties. The interesting thing about this system is that even though new editions came out, such as for Call of Cthulhu or Elric/Stormbringer, the core rules were largely identical. The main differences could be found in the way some of the subsystems worked, such as demon summoning in the various versions of Elric/Stormbringer. The long and the short of it is you can pick up any adventure from any period of time and run it with BRP, no matter what version, will little tweaking.
So, Basic Roleplaying is not a good example of milking the brand. It has remained nearly unchanged for almost 30 years.
Palladium System: I think readers know what I'll say about this one before reading past this sentence. The sheer stubbornness of Palladium in refusing to revise their games is legendary. Sure, they have tweaked things over the years, but largely the system has remained zee zame through the various versions for the genres they publish. That's not to say they don't publish certain slightly updated or revised books to make more money, it's just that one could basically use older versions in about as seamless a fashion as is possible for the Palladium System.
So, this isn't a good example of the edition turnover business plan either. Think of all the new rehashed supplements they could sell if they did do this!
Tunnels & Trolls: This is another good example of a system staying mostly how it was created. There are different editions of this game, mostly with a few tweaks or add-ons but no big revisions.
Again, not a good example of re-releasing a brand as a new game.
GURPS: This is a rare case where I think the fans wanted a new edition before the game company wanted to release one! This system, at the core, remained unchanged since it came out in the mid 80s. It had considerable material tacked onto it for many years, until it was sort of a mess to straighten out, until a new edition came out just a few years ago. The new edition does have some compatibility hiccups with 3rd edition revised, but largely zee game is zee zame.
I think these are good examples because they are properties that have remained with the same publisher for all these years. Some of the other brands out there have gone between a number of publishers, and are not a good comparison because often a brand may be sold or licensed, and a new system tacked on. They belong to a different discussion.
So if we take a look around at other games, what should we conclude? Well, even if you look at some of the modern games you'll see that many of them don't go through radical edition revisions. Some do. I think White Wolf has done this, though I haven't kept up on what their system looks like now. I know they had a habit that really pissed me off at the beginning, where they would release a paperback 1st edition then turn around and release a revised one in harback after just a few months. It got so consistent that I stopped buying the first book and waited for the second. That practice was probably even worse than revising after a few years, because it made customers buy two core books in a very short time. Regardless, the different editions they released were very much the same game, just with tweaks here and there.
I think if we look at the various RPGs out there we can draw the conclusion that the way D&D is handled is unlike the way most other RPGs are handled, at least since WotC has taken stewardship of the brand. One of the inherent differences we're dealing with here is the attitude towards the customers. I think that a very real concern with GURPS and Palladium, for instance, is that any major changes to the core rules would alienate many customers. This is a very different approach than the way D&D is treated, because for some reason people don't view D&D the same way as they view other RPGs. With D&D people seem to see the shift to 3e and then to 4e as a process of inevitable evolution toward a "perfect" or "better evolved" D&D. I think the fact that this mentality is so deeply rooted in the fans who joyfully go from edition to edition when told to do so is a testament to effective marketing and rhetoric. As a strategy, WotC relies on this as a core group of people who will follow them through editions, and is not worried about the portion they will alienate because they hope to pick up fresh people, often younger people, by appealing to the current cultural tastes of that group.
All that is fine and good, and although it sounds like it I'm really not complaining about the way a corporation tries to make as much as possible from a brand. What I really am whining about is the consequence of this conditioning and how it has affected the gaming world. The problem that has emerged is that people view RPGs as things that should constantly be "updated" in the same way you would update your computer hardware. People are looking for "innovations" in game design, and view those of us who stick with older games as evolutionarily stagnant. Now, I'm not saying that some rules aren't clunky or poorly designed, but I do reject the notion of innovation for the sake of innovation. I reject the idea that we must keep tinkering with a game so that it stays "up to date," whatever that means.
It is telling that if hard pressed no one can really explain what being "up to date" really is when it comes to p-n-p RPGs, and part of the reason is that it is an empty concept that is thrown around because it sounds like it has substance. Additionally, (and this is probably controversial) much of this idea of "innovation" is an illusion, because most of what is possible with pencils and paper has been done, and most things now that come out is just a variation or brought in from other mediums like video games. The real innovation happened when the concept of RPGs emerged. Some of the supposed innovations coming from the Forge, for instance, are only different takes on what the proportion of story to rules should be, and how much either gamer party should be able to influence those. There really isn't anything truly "innovative" anymore. How much can you really upgrade a piece of paper?