Wizards of the Coast announced yesterday that they were going to be re-releasing the Dungeons & Dragons Three point Five core books. I’m sure there are a lot of people who are tickled pink by the news, and as a person who sells D&D books for a living, I’m certainly not against having the version of the game people want to play on my shelf. But it seems like a strange marketing choice to me, especially with D&D Fifth Edition currently in the pipes.
When the PDF battle was at its highest pitch, I came out swinging for the minority opinion that it would be deeply silly of Wizards of the Coast to release digital copies of earlier editions of the books. There’s a pretty vocal group of people that are suggesting that it makes good business sense to have all of the various versions of D&D available at once; they’d like to be able to buy First Edition core books and modules and things, and so they assume that there is a sufficient audience to warrant those books’ continued availability. And while that might actually be true, it doesn’t address the fact that Wizards of the Coast is a company that survives primarily by publishing books you don’t own, and that to continue to be successful, they need to be able to sell new and interesting material. You’re quite a bit less likely to buy something new if you can still get the thing that is familiar to you. Pathfinder proved this in a big way, by continuing to support the most recent version of D&D while Wizards of the Coast did its best to kill it so that D&D Fourth Edition could be successful. Pathfinder is a continuous best-seller, not just in my store but in many others, while Fourth Edition languishes under poor reviews and the persistent clarion shriek that it’s “Just like World of Warcraft.”
And it’s not because D&D 3.5 is a better game than D&D Fourth. It isn’t a better game than D&D Fourth, though they are radically different in scope and tone. It’s a different game from D&D 3.5, and different isn’t something people, and gamers especially, deal with very well. This fear of change is exactly the reason that D&D Fifth is going to have the same six attributes that the game has had since the beginning of the hobby. It’s the reason Vampire the Requiem is largely vilified when it is just better at what it sets out to do than any version before it. It’s one of the big reasons RIFTS books continue to sell like crazy. People generally don’t like to do new, different, weird things, and the games we play need to account for that trend if they want to be popular.
It doesn’t take a marketing genius to see that this is a catastrophically silly move on the part of the company. All of the potential issues that come from releasing PDFs of earlier editions exist here (piracy only marginally less so), with far greater impact on future sales. At this point, putting out a 3.5 Player’s Handbook both detracts from your current line and actively supports a game that has been gnawing away at your player base. This cannot possibly be anything more than a desperate grab for popularity in a beauty pageant Wizards of the Coast has already lost. It stinks of fear and distress from a company that has made a number of critical marketing mistakes in the past few years. The small gains to be had from re-releasing a sure-seller are certain to cause problems in 2013, as the marketing machine for D&D Fifth starts rolling out in earnest.
If you absolutely must try and sell older versions of a game, it makes much more sense to at least package those older versions with the edition you’re currently trying to make a market for. Put out a new core set for all four editions of Dungeons & Dragons when Fifth Edition hits stores. When you buy a core set, you get one Fifth Edition book packaged in with it. First Edition comes with the Player’s Handbook. Second Edition comes with the DMG. Third Edition comes with the Monster Manual and Fourth Edition comes with a setting book for whatever the assumed setting of D&D Next is. At least that way, if you sell an old edition of your game to people, they’re getting the thing they want and a pretty decent incentive to give your new game a try. I mean, hey, we’ve already got one of the books, right?