So Wizards have confirmed that D&D Next / 5th Edition will be released in the Summer of 2014 which is usually code for "around the time of GenCon".
Why is this important though?
If you look at the D&D "family" of games you can see that these still account for the largest slice of the RPG hobby.
Pathfinder has in most regions replaced D&D as the market leader and with other relations like 13th Age and Dungeon Crawl Classics and the plethora of retro-clones out there you have to ask is there a demand for D&D itself?
I believe that there are 2 aspects to D&D with one more important than the other depending on your point of view.
D&D is for a lot of people looking in on the RPG hobby the only game that exists. You say "Roleplaying Games" to people who don't know what it is they will either look blankly or think of something like World Of Warcraft or another MMO. If you say Dungeons & Dragons then you're more likely to get a reaction that at least suggests they know what you mean, if likely a more stigmatised version of the game.
The brand for D&D is largely historical and really down to the way that the hobby has been (mis)represented over the past 20+ years. Without a D&D product available to buy it can be difficult to overcome that situation of a consumer wanting to buy D&D. Sure you could suggest alternatives but none of those have any kind of brand which usually results in a level of distrust if the consumer is asking for D&D itself. I've witnessed this and it's not just limited to D&D but that's another story...
So I believe that having D&D as a brand is important to the hobby as it provides a recognisable name that the mainstream public can identify with and should be able to associate new people with the hobby.
This is more about the perception of the hobby from within. Some people will focus on a specific game as their game. For me fantasy roleplaying has always been about playing D&D and D&D has always been about fantasy roleplaying. Sure there are lots of other fantasy based RPGs out there but none of them appealed other than in my early gaming years when I dabbled with games like MERP, Rolemaster and Runequest but ultimately D&D was where it was at.
There are others like me who will only play the "true" version of D&D simply because it's D&D. Sure that's perhaps narrow-minded or even ignorant to what else is out there but it's not as if D&D is the only RPG I (or indeed those others) play. I suppose in some respects it's an emotional attachment to the heritage of the game, plus as I've said elsewhere I embrace change in the hobby including new editions of a game.
Yeah but Dave, why is D&D Next important?
It may not have the largest market share of product sales right now and it might not even have the largest player base but it's D&D. It's also being produced by Wizards Of The Coast who could quite easily have decided to not bother as Magic The Gathering continues to grow exponentially so why should they bother about a brand that isn't anywhere near as commercially viable? It's D&D, that's why.
If it fails commercially then I do worry for the future of the brand and in turn potentially for the RPG marketplace but I think if nothing else it will help to provide some much needed interest in the RPG market as a whole. If the finished game is anything like the playtest rules then I think it's going to be very popular, not sure if it'll be popular "enough" though (whatever that is).
So 2014 sees the release of 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (well really 6th as 1st Edition was AD&D and we had "Basic" D&D before that but let's not split hairs) and it's also the 40th anniversary of the game being released. That landmark milestone is a fantastic opportunity for Wizards to promote D&D in new ways and reinvigorate a title that in many respects lost it's way over the past 10 years.