So, here's the sitch, along with some commentary by me. 1e reprints have been out for... what, a couple of months now? 3.5 reprints will be out within about a month. 5e, or DnD Next, or whatever they're calling it, is about two years away is what official scuttlebutt is saying. 4e continues to be out, but with 5e prominantly announced, will probably have reduced sales on its titles as folks hunker down in anticipation of switching over. This means that, other than 2e which was already quite close to 1e in terms of core books at least anyway, every edition of AD&D or its successors ever published will be in print at the same time! In addition to this, most of the other stuff that's not in print will still be available via PDF again. Why in the world would WotC do this?
Here's where I meander into pure speculation and make crap up. But allow me to iterate some assumptions, and you can tell me how wrong I am afterwards...
- First, WotC has an imperative to generate revenue to pay for development of DnD Next. I think the reprints do a nice job of creating a probably reasonably high margin revenue stream in the meantime while 4e sales will (presumably) be lower than they would be because of the impending new edition. It's a nice move for the fans, it's a nice move towards "healing" the fractured player base somewhat, generates some customer goodwill, and hey, brings in some money at the same time. Win/win for customers and WotC both.
- Second, lots of people theorize based on some sketchy and circumstantial data that Pathfinder might actually be outselling D&D these days. If it isn't, it's at least got to be making a noticeable bite out of their market share.
- Third, on Amazon, the used market for out of print 3.5 edition books has prices still as high or higher than new for many, if not most books. Even in mediocre condition, in some cases. This suggests, although it certainly doesn't prove, that there's still a robust demand for 3.5 edition books. Which in turn suggests that many groups are quietly still going about their business playing 3.5. Maybe even in really pretty big numbers. Maybe, and this is where I get really speculative, in numbers rivaling that of groups playing Pathfinder or 4e.
- This in turn means that the D&D market is more or less fractured into four significant chunks, the OSR guys, the 3.5 guys, the Pathfinder guys, and the 4e guys. I hesitate to say that they're roughly equivalent in size, but I bet they're at least on the same order of magnitude. By reprinting the 1e core books and the 3.5 core books, WotC are making a direct warning shot against two of the three non-4e market segments that they are interested in getting their attention again. I don't know how they directly address the Pathfinder guys, but then again, Pathfinder was supposed to be an iterative improvement on 3.5. A 3.75, if you will.
- Speaking of which, what's the relationship between lingering 3.5 groups and Pathfinder groups and whatnot anyway? Here, I hesitate to even speculate on the market at large, but I can at least offer my perspective. Keep in mind that I rather reluctantly migrated from 3e to 3.5 in the first place. In fact, because of the SRD being freely available, I never even bought the 3.5 core books (although I did buy the Monster Manual--that one I at least thought would be more convenient to have in book format rather than as a webpage.) I don't think that 3.5 as a core ruleset necessarily improved on 3e. For everything it fixed, there was something else that it broke and half a dozen other things that changed just for the sake of change, being neither better nor worse, but sadly being different, meaning that it became difficult to remember exactly how it was supposed to work properly (although to be fair, I remember this being an issue back in the day when people migrated freely and openly from the B/X or RC line into AD&D and back.) With Pathfinder, the situation was very much the same, although because of the way in which it was done, Paizo managed to generate a fair bit of customer goodwill rather than cynicism with the move. But from a purely systemic standpoint, it's not at clear to me (or to a number of other players I've spoken to) that Pathfinder is actually an improvement in 3.5. Sure, some things are better--archetypes are great, for instance, and the skill list consolidation was a good thing. CMB/CMD was a nice clean-up of a perennially ugly part of the mechanics. But they did absolutely nothing to address what seem to be the two most common complaints about 3.5--that it breaks down at higher level, and that it's too complex and fiddly. In fact, in the latter case, it gets qualitatively worse. Their solution the first problem seems to have been elegant yet also pretty dubious; in their flagship product, the Adventure Paths, they simply started having them end earlier instead of going all the way up to 20th level. And plenty of other things are just different for the sake of being different again. Long and short of it, it's not really clear that it's universally accepted that Pathfinder is an improvement on 3.5. I'm certainly not sure that I think so, and I don't think that I'm alone.
- All of this means that there is circumstantial evidence of WotC acting somewhat strategically, without being arrogant or tone-deaf either one, in terms of trying to woo some of the big blocks of "lapsed" players; by which I mean players who don't buy anything from them because they don't play the current edition of the rules. No matter what else you might think of WotC or DnD Next either one, that's still a pretty good thing, right?