With all of these options, it seems that the biggest hole in WotC's catalogue would be a product for those players who grew up with the game. "Working on a game that's almost 40 years old now, we've seen the complex end. And what happened with each edition of D&D is it got more complex and we need to go back to the original D&D." Mearls isn't necessarily arguing for WotC to reprint the older editions and compete directly with the many retro-clones released by the Old School Renaissance - although there are rumblings - but he wants the company to go back to what drew people to the game in the first place.
"A lot is going to depend on whether D&D can rebound from its current state. The game has had a troubled few years and it'll help everyone if WotC can turn things around."
"Let's just play D&D," he said. "Just cut all the bullshit that can get in the way, and say 'Look, we have all these different ways you can express yourself in the game,' and let's just give people what they want. Don't trick people into things they want or just come up with something new for the sake of it. [Let's] get back in touch with what makes role-playing games great, what makes D&D great."
Only a little over three years since the last revision, it's probably too early to speak of a 5th Edition of D&D because such talk would only further enrage customers who just bought a whole set of books. Instead, Mearls is less dedicated to reuniting the fractured audience rather than catering to each new niche in turn. But with products like Paizo's Pathfinder, the many games of the Old School Renaissance, and Chris Pramas' RPG lines from Green Ronin already serving their communities well, it will take more than lip service from Wizard of the Coast employees to heal the loss of hit points that 4th edition caused.
"A lot is going to depend on whether D&D can rebound from its current state. The game has had a troubled few years and it'll help everyone if WotC can turn things around," said Pramas.
A healthy RPG industry depends on how the most recognizable brand fares, but Pramas remains optimistic that Green Ronin will still be publishing rulebooks. "I expect there will be least one and maybe more than one industry-changing innovation," he said. "We will be here one way or the other, making great games and promoting all that is awesome about pen and paper RPGs."
Paizo will continue to innovate as well, while still holding onto the principles that made Pathfinder successful. "The future is going to bring more integration of technology to tabletop games, to the point at which 'pen and paper tabletop games' won't, in many cases, use pens, paper, or tabletops," said Erik Mona, publisher at Paizo. "I hope Paizo is still at the vanguard of the tabletop hobby in 5 and 10 years, pushing forward with new ideas and new expressions of the game, but always focusing on story first."
Not all gamers are so optimistic. "I think the tabletop RPG market is enduring a kind of death. I think it is transforming into something that isn't a viable commercial business for more than a handful of people," said Ryan Dancey, former VP of RPGs at Wizards and marketing guru at White Wolf/CCP. Dancey was instrumental in developing the OGL before the 3rd edition era of D&D, but he foresees the RPG industry becoming a dead hobby like model trains. "Kids stopped playing with trains, and the businesses that remained dedicated to hobbyists who got more disposable income as they grew up, until the price of the hobby was out of reach of anyone except those older hobbyists. Eventually, it became a high-end hobby with very expensive products, sold to an ever-decreasing number of hobbyists. As those folks die, the hobby shrinks. That is what is happening to the tabletop RPG business."
No matter what edition or game you play, tabletop role-playing games are really just vehicles for getting together with your friends, rolling some dice, and having fun. The saddest part about the current state of the tabletop industry is that game designers, publishers and even regular gamers are now hyper-aware of how well each game sells and how these games are marketed or written instead of - as Mearls pointed out - just playing the games. The vitriol seen during the launch of 4th edition now just leaves a bad taste in gamers' mouths. Healthy competition is a good thing for any industry, and with digital distribution and cheaper print costs, it's easier than ever for startup gaming publishers with great ideas to compete with established brands like Pathfinder and even Dungeons & Dragons. While the separate communities and aging of the audience as Dancey says could be perceived as unhealthy for the hobby, the many different tabletop options gamers now have might actually be a good thing. D&D, and by extension the whole role-playing industry, has been through a rough patch in the last few years, but there is a glint of great things ahead. Like the characters in any fantasy adventure story, passing through the dark times will only make us stronger. Despite the anger and resentment fostered by the release 4th edition, optimism on the future of RPGs has begun to bubble to the surface. We are on the verge of a golden age of tabletop gaming we haven't seen since fantasy roleplaying roared out of the minds of Gygax and Arneson and took over imaginations of gamers everywhere.