In Which I Explain Why D&D 4E Is Like New Coke

“New Coke.” It’s a classic blunder so resonant that I can reference it in a blog 27 years later and still know that most people will “get it.”

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, the Wikipedia page is surprisingly robust. Also — and I was a bit surprised by this — Coca-Cola has their own page on New Coke, where they try to put the best spin on it that they possibly can. For those of you who believe firmly in TL;DR, here’s a brief version of events.

[Don’t worry, this is relevant to D&D; just bear with me.]

A Brief History of New Coke

In 1985, after an encouraging testing period, Coca-Cola Corporation changed the flavor of its signature drink. This “New” Coke was sweeter than the old formula, and even sweeter than rival Pepsi Cola (to whom Coke had been losing market-share in recent years). Their stated goals included wanting to draw in new consumers, particularly the younger crowd (who tended to prefer the sweeter Pepsi); and to re-energize interest in the Coca-Cola brand.

However, Coca-Cola failed to take something into account: brand loyalty. For people who loved Coke, changing the formula was offensive. A taboo. Verboten. It didn’t matter to them what the new Coke formula tasted like; it could have tasted like liquid Heaven and they wouldn’t have cared. Coca-Cola was messing with something they loved, and was making significant changes that they saw no need for. Coke was Coke; it didn’t need a new formulation!

The result was a three month brand nightmare for Coke. People complained; people boycotted the drink; people stockpiled “Old” Coke; people started citizens’ groups to coordinate efforts. And of course, the news shows gleefully reported on Coke’s woes. This was despite the fact that some people actually liked the drink.

After a three month try, Coca-Cola relented. They announced the return of “old” Coke, now rebranded as Coca-Cola Classic. The customers returned, sales increased, and Coke enshrined itself as the leading cola drink. Today, the Coke brand is considered one of the most valuable in the world.

4E Is It!

When I look at the New Coke story, I see Dungeons & Dragons 4E as plain as day.  Consider the analogies: Like New Coke, 4E was given to consumers who weren’t demanding it; like New Coke, 4E represented a big change in something people didn’t want to see changed; like New Coke, 4E was seen by the customer base as an insult — not to their taste buds, but to their collective identity.

Also like New Coke, many people tried 4E knowing they were going to hate it regardless of what it tasted like. Others refused to even try it, insisting that there was nothing that needed changing with Old Coke. People rejected it; people found ways to keep drinking “Old Coke” (3.5E); people moved on to other games that better suited their tastes (Pathfinder). No matter what the new formulation actually tasted like, no matter how well the new game played, it was viewed by many as a betrayal of the brand. Why do you think the most common complaint about 4E is “It’s not D&D!”

And let’s get something clear here: this analogy is in no way saying 4E was a *bad game*. Quality is irrelevant here, just as it was with New Coke (remember, New Coke tested well before release). 4E was a mistake of branding, of marketing, and of customer relations.

Take my own view for example. Even though I personally don’t like 4E, I freely admit that some of the reason I dislike it is that it wears the D&D label. At its heart, its not a terrible game, and I don’t have any doubt that 4E would have received a much warmer reception from the RPG community if it hadn’t been branded as D&D. 

I think that, in the future, designers of later editions of D&D — and heck, designers of later editions of any RPG — will invoke 4E much in the same way marketing people today still invoke New Coke. Not because it tastes bad (taste is subjective), but because it represents how not to introduce a new edition: with sweeping changes, with no respect for what has come before, with a disregard for the fans.

And likewise, I think that WotC intends for 5E the same thing Coca-Cola did with the return of Coke Classic: a mea culpa to the fans, and the bringing back of something they love.

I, for one, am looking forward to my first can of D&D Classic.



  1. Andy

    | Reply

    You’re making the tacit assumption that 4E has no significant player share (perhaps because it’s not to your taste?). It’s not a problem necessarily, as it’s human nature to assume your opinions must be the majority, but it’s something you should be called on I feel.

    • Brian

      | Reply

      @Andy: I’m making no such assumptions. In fact, the New Coke analogy supports this. New Coke actually sold briskly at first; and there were those who favored the new flavor and even continued to buy it as Coke II once Classic came back. This isn’t about taste; this is about a branding and marketing blunder that offended a core audience and led to backlash beyond the ability for the company to predict.

      That said, yes, I am drawing the conclusion based on what evidence I can glean, that 4E does not have a *significant* player base. If the game were making a lot of money, WotC wouldn’t be killing it so quickly. In my FLGS, for example, Pathfinder handily outsells 4E, and there are three times as many PF groups as there are 4E groups. While that’s anecdotal, it’s an impression that MANY have shared around the country.

      • Ken

        | Reply

        4e was actually the best selling of any version of D&D, and its shelf-life will equal that of 3.5. Just sayin’…

        I agree that Pathfinder is currently whooping WotC’s ass, but I don’t think that’s the impetus for a new version. It has nothing to do with “epic fail” or deluded 3.x grognards that think they are the 99%. WotC’s right on their normal diabolic schedule for bilking their fans of another grand worth of books.

        • Writer@Large

          | Reply

          @Ken: Do you have any numbers to back that statement up? Because I’ve searched for sales numbers and come up rather empty. Everything is hearsay and inference, and the general consensus of those is that 4E definitely has NOT been the bestselling edition. As for shelf-life: if you’re going to split the 3.0 / 3.5 hair, then I’d have to counter with the 4.0 / Essentials hair … with that split, 4.0’s shelf-life was, IIRC, just under 2 years.

          • Andy

            I think that might be a little twisting of the facts to suit your argument there – 3.0 and 3.5 were different editions, 4E and Essentials were not. And you must know that, so I can only assume you’re just trying to troll now.

          • Writer@Large

            3.5 was an adjustment based on errata and player feedback, the same way Essentials was. Things published prior to the 3.5 updates were almost perfectly compatible with things published after, with adjustment for said errata, the same as Essentials was. 3.5 featured some updates of player classes (Druid, Barbarian) just as Essentials did (Fighter, Rogue). Calling me a troll doesn’t help your argument.

            And you’re also dodging the question. You made the statement that 4E was the bestselling edition. Can you prove this? If not, your statement falls flat.

          • Andy

            I didn’t make that statement, I’m merely calling you out on something you must know to be false. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’re not well conversant with 4E. Essentials didn’t change any of the game rules; 3.5 did (for example: weapon sizing). Essentials didn’t revise classes or feats; 3.5 did. Essentials merely added new (simpler) options to the existing game; 3.5 required a huge conversion document.

          • Writer@Large

            I played D&D straight through the 3.0 launch and the 3.5 revisions, and so I can say with confidence that your characterization is flat-out wrong. The 3.X system went through errata and adjustment, just like any system did; but to try to call 3.0 and 3.5 two separate editions is an intentional misrepresentation.

            EDIT: And I apologize. Ken made the sales claim. I didn’t realize you’d picked up on that thread of comments, and weren’t the originator.

  2. TheGreatZomboni

    | Reply

    I wouldn’t say that people weren’t asking for what we got in 4e. People now who still play older editions ask for more balance between martial and caster classes (look at the pathfinder boards), people since 2nd edition were looking for ways to remove the 15 minute work day (unearthed arcana on various magic point systems).

    So, people *were* asking for it (or at least parts of it), WotC did get the requirements from the players… they just didn’t follow up with the players to make sure the execution was good for everyone.

    Though, have to say a 6 year run isn’t that bad (assuming 2013 is 5e), considering that 3rd was only given about 8 years, I mean – what makes a 6 year run “new coke” but an 8 year run not?

    • Brian

      | Reply

      @Zomboni: I would say that people were looking for refinements to the system. What they got was something totally new. Again, it’s not how 4E “tasted” so much as the fact that it “tasted” different at all. “I don’t care how good it tastes; it doesn’t taste like D&D!”

      Also, I can’t help but play math wonk on the timeframe of 4E: Released in June 2008, knifed in the back January 2012 = 3 1/2 years. Assuming a summer 2013 release for 5E, that’s 5 years total, with the last 18 months being the edition equivalent of a chicken running around once its head has been cut off while WotC takes its time with the very public (and therefore slower) 5E development cycle.

  3. Andy

    | Reply

    I think if you’re trying to extend your analogy, you need to be very sure about your numbers. Offering anecdotal evidence is rarely good enough: in my area there are half a dozen 4E groups, and no Pathfinder groups. Does my anecdote cancel out your anecdote?

    “If the game were making a lot of money, WotC wouldn’t be killing it so quickly”

    I guess, by your rationale, 3E and 3.5 must have performed equally poorly. Unless that extra 24 months makes all the difference… ?

    • Brian

      | Reply

      Sigh … why must I keep correcting everyone’s math?

      3E/3.5: GenCon 2000 [Release] – GenCon 2007 [Announcement of 4E]: 7 years

      4E/Essentials: June 2008 [Release] – January 2012 [Announcement of 5E]: 3 1/2 years.

    • Steve

      | Reply

      Lets cut out the anecdotal evidence and show some real numbers:

      And they started working on 5E around, what, Q2 2011? It’s too convenient for me to believe it’s a coincidence.

      I think the New Coke analogy is spot on, with one exception: Coke realized their new product was killing their status as the #1 cola manufacturer a lot quicker than it took WotC to realize that 3E was still king of the hill even after they abandoned it.

  4. Andy

    | Reply

    “why must I keep correcting everyone’s math?”

    I assume it’s because you’re ignoring large periods of time in order to give additional credence to your own position.

    • Brian

      | Reply

      By all means, then show me your math. If you’re talking the time between announcement and release, it’s got to be judged differently — with 5E they’re deliberately taking a public approach to playtesting, which will extend the development period significantly. And, we don’t know when that period will end. It’s the period between release and announcement that’s telling.

  5. Andy

    | Reply

    The one thing I have noticed about the announcement of 4E vs the announcement of 5E is that when 4E was announced you didn’t have 2E players shouting “See! I told you your game was rubbish!” It’s just not a classy position to take.

    • Rystefn

      | Reply

      Did so. I was one of them. Still am. Let’s face it, if you combine 3e/3.5 into one edition, then you really should call AD&D (1e/2e) one edition. That’s some serious staying power. Everything after so far has been chasing fads and trying to capture the whims of videogamers. That crap didn’t pan out, and now they’re going to back to what worked best longest: being D&D, not being whatever they think they kids these days are into with a D&D logo on it.

  6. Andy

    | Reply

    I am not sure why you insist the two editions should be judged differently due to public playtesting, perhaps you could clarify your point?

    • Brian

      | Reply

      I mean, we don’t have a solid accounting for how long this playtest is going to take; and as it’s a public playtest, it’s going to extend the development time considerably. The only reasonable measure between editions is from release to “lame duck” status. 4E is going to suffer the same fate in the next several months that 3E did, and 2E before that: lowered interest and lower sales due to the looming new version.

      And I’d still like to see your math.

  7. Andy

    | Reply

    “The only reasonable measure between editions is from release to “lame duck” status”

    Why? This is the bit of your reasoning I am unclear on. I know you’re being a little antagonistic, but I genuinely want to understand your position.

    You are assuming 5E will be released in summer 2013; I am assuming summer 2014. From release to release, this makes 8 years for 3X and 6 for 4E. I do not dispute that both our figures are estimates.

    • Brian

      | Reply

      “Why? This is the bit of your reasoning I am unclear on.”

      I’ll try to put it a different way: Once an edition has been marked for execution, that edition is effectively dead. I saw it happen with 2E, and I saw it happen with 3E. The releases from the publisher got less and less; the quality of those releases sometimes suffered, too; and sometimes projects were even cancelled if delays pushed them too close to the new edition.

      Furthermore, the player base begins to view the game — and their purchasing choices — differently. Once a new edition is announced, the old edition is viewed as less viable. I’ve seen people put off buying into the game until a new edition hit, even put off *learning* a game until the new edition hit. The time between announcement of a new edition and release kills enthusiasm for, sales for, and ultimately production for, the current edition.

      The only valid judge of an edition’s “success” in terms of longevity is the time from release to “lame duck” status. Because everything after that is like Congress in December.

      And it’s not just D&D. Three years ago, WARMACHINE announced a second edition, and also a public playtest. The minute that started, enthusiasm for the first edition tanked. And once full playtest rules came out, many groups switched fulltime to the playtest ruleset. Even in its rough, unfinished condition, they wanted to play the NEW edition, not the OLD edition. There’s something about that investment in the process that really attracts some players. The only players in the WM forums who still seemed to be playing WM 1E fulltime during that period were the competitive players. I know that all three of the stores I used to play at back then made the switch early; no one cared about 1E once a version of 2E — even a playtestbeta — was there for them to play.

  8. TheGreatZomboni

    | Reply

    One thing you’re not taking into account is pathfinder.

    That’s like if Coke let everyone else have the recipe for regular coke, and when they tried a new version Pepsi started selling soda using the Coke formula. People would have an option to go out and get the same coke they wanted.

    So is 4e really what hurt 4e or was it that WotC made it so people could continue to make 3e? Is that fact going to hurt 5e?

    Also, 2014 is the 40th anniversary of D&D, so it makes far more sense for that to be the date that they release 5e.

    There are other factors to consider why 4e wasn’t doing so hot – the economic downturn can’t help, not when you have a competitor that offers their products in an innovative way (i.e. pdfs) for about $10.

    I like 4e but I buy pathfinder material just because it’s so darn cheap on comparison.

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