Wizards of the Coast have confirmed that a 5th Edition of the popular Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game is in development. No release date has been set, but the game will have a lengthy development period in which fan feedback will be welcomed.
The 4th Edition of the game was released in 2008, itself only five years after the previous version of the game (3.5E, a revision of the 3rd Edition originally released in 2000), so this is a fast turn-around for a game that spent almost a dozen years between the first two editions, and almost the same between the second and third. Normally fans would be up in arms over this, accusing Wizards of the Coast and their parent company, Hasbro, of trying to fleece them. However, a grim resignation seems to have met the news. 4th Edition, to put it mildly, was not a universally-acclaimed success.
Previous editions of the game had built upon what had come before: 2nd Edition was a streamlined version of 1st Edition, with new rules brought in to clarify spotty parts of the rules (most infamously, THAC0, a system designed to make it easier to work out what you need to roll to hit a monster with a weapon). 3rd Edition appeared a more radical shake-up, but in fact many of its features and rules were originally roadtested in the 'Player's Option' rulebooks released towards the end of 2E's lifespan (and others were extremely popular and common house rules). 4th Edition was a much more revolutionary game, in which perceived imbalances between classes were controversially bulldozed out of the way by making the classes comparable in power, just doing things slightly differently. It was loved by those who had been complaining about the game being 'unbalanced' on forums for years and loathed by those who felt it threw the baby out with the bathwater.
Initially, 4th Edition seemed to do well, shifting impressive numbers of copies of its core rulebooks and hitting a second print run before publication. However, controversy greeted its approach to expansions. Rather than release optional rulebooks (aside from a few of the 'usual suspects' which appear every time a new edition is released), Wizards of the Coast opted to release a single campaign setting every year and annual updates to the core rulebooks. Other rules would be added via the D&D Insider, a subscription-based website featuring exclusive content. Whilst sales of the core rulebooks were good, sales of the expansions and subscriptions to the Insider seemed to fall below expectations. In addition, the goodwill of a large number of fans who liked the 4th Edition rules was squandered when the Forgotten Realms campaign setting was destroyed and turned into a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, moving the timeline on 100 years and throwing out most of the established canon (including killing virtually every single character of note apart from Drizzt, Elminster and Erevis Cale).
All of this could perhaps have been borne if 4E didn't have a unique problem not faced by any previous edition: a credible rival product. In 2000 Wizards of the Coast released the Open Gaming Licence, allowing other companies to release products compatible with the 3rd Edition rules, even entirely new games using the same rulebooks. Though 4E used a different (and vastly more commercially restrictive) version of the licence, nothing legally prevented another company from simply publishing its own game using the 3rd Edition rules. Paizo Publishing did exactly that, releasing the Pathfinder roleplaying game in 2009 after a public and open development process lasting well over a year (meaning people were playing Pathfinder months before 4E's launch). Unlike 4E's revolutionary approach, Pathfinder opted for more modest improvements to resolve 3E's outstanding issues and was a huge success.
Neither company has released sales figures, but by all indications Pathfinder's performance for Paizo (a small company) has been spectacular, whilst D&D 4E's performance for Hasbro (a massive, international corporation) has been disappointing following the initial success of the first three core rulebooks. The signs that things were not going well at Wizards of the Coast came when a number of key game designers were made redundant several months after 4E's launch. Wizards' original plan to release a campaign setting every year also seemed to come off the rails. After the controversial Forgotten Realms setting in 2008 and the much more warmly-received Eberron and Dark Sun settings in 2009 and 2010, plans for a 2011 setting were dropped (despite rumours and hints that an updated Dragonlance setting was in the planning stages). The D&D Essentials sub-game was released in 2010, designed to appeal to new players, but seemed to make little impact.
Rumours of a 5th Edition being in-development started early in 2011 and gathered pace throughout the year, given credence by the suspension or cancellation of previously-announced products and rumours of other projects behind the scenes being dropped. The biggest clue came late in the year when Monte Cook, a respected game designer who'd played a key development role on 3rd Edition, was re-hired by Wizards of the Coast and was strongly rumoured to be working on a new edition of the game.
The question now is what direction will 5th Edition take? Whilst it would be pleasingly simplistic to conclude that 4E was a gross failure and a dead end, and simply roll back to 3.5E and develop things from there, this would probably be a mistake. 4E has sold well enough and has enough fans that doing something to alienate them - the current, active D&D fanbase - would be an error. In addition to that, those who prefer the 3.5E approach still have Pathfinder, and would not be guaranteed to return to a 5th Edition of D&D that took that approach anyway (Wizards of the Coast having squandered a lot of goodwill throughout the years). The only viable approach would appear to be trying something new that is not so directly tied to previous editions of the game, to create something that will appeal to both 3E and 4E fans. This seems insurmountable - the two games are based on radically different design philosophies with regards to balance - but the only solution to the problem.
It'll be interesting to see how this process unfolds. I suspect we won't see the new game released until late 2013 at the earliest.