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.
[Some minor edits were made to this article on May 31, 2012.]