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Pathfinder Never Outsold 4E D&D (ICYMI)

This has been public knowledge since 2021, but gamers and journalists keep getting this wrong. Let’s go over the myth and the truth.

4E Always Outsold Pathfinder. Always.

It is a popular myth to say that Pathfinder outsold 4E. This myth originated from ICv2, a news/industry company that provides surveys of some hobby stores as data. In Q3 of 2010, it reported that Pathfinder and 4E were tied in sales for the first time. D&D goes back to #1, according to ICv2, until Q2 2011 when it is reported that “we estimate that Paizo’s Pathfinder won the quarter, behind more and stronger releases than Dungeons & Dragons.”

Sounds convincing? But is it?

ICv2 is criticized for the limited way in which it gathers data from a select group of gaming stores and distributors and shares the reports as industry data, for which it charges access. When ICv2 posted the information, it was not contested until 2021, when ex-Paizo and ex-WotC employees set the record straight.

The first to write about it was Chris Sims, who worked at both companies.

Chris Sims writes that 4E outsold Pathfinder by a large factor

Chris Sims was at both companies during different parts of the 4E era. He continues his thread to explain why ICv2 has problems and how 4E is sold at far more locations than the ones ICv2 measures.

Chris Sims writes that the larger marketplace was one that favored 4E.

Chris mentions the internal problems 4E faced, which I will discuss further below. If you aren’t familiar with the initiatives he mentions, they were huge investments that failed. For example, Gleemax was envisioned as an industry-changing social hub and never became more than forums, despite millions invested in the endeavor.

However, his main point is that 4E was not competing with Pathfinder. It was competing with, and harmed by, its own internal goals. During my time meeting many WotC 4E era employees, they always said they did not compete with Paizo. They couldn’t afford to. See, if the business goal were to win over Pathfinder players, that’s an insufficient number of customers for 4E’s (or any D&D edition’s) goals. Instead, WotC always looks outside the hobby. I discuss this topic here: Why No RPG Company Truly Competes with Wizards of the Coast.

Chris continues his thread:

Chris shares that 4E's divisive nature helped create the illusion that it sold poorly.

I’ll speak to the internal issues below. But, some readers may be wondering if Chris Sims can be trusted. He is one employee. Maybe he’s actually a WotC sympathizer who is making things up? He isn’t, but that’s where it is helpful to see another respected employee of both companies fully agree with Chris, in no uncertain terms. Owen K.C. Stephens has worked at WotC and Paizo full-time, and he continues to work on Starfinder and Pathfinder actively. Here is what Owen writes:

Owen Stephns says 4E outsold Pathfinder

That’s a very definitive statement. He says anyone who has worked at the companies knows the truth. Owen continues, hitting on the complex industry issues.

Owen writes that ICv2 ignores many other sources of sales, which only staff at the companies can see.

No one outside the companies (including ICv2) have the full picture. But people who worked there knew.

Owens writes that he and Chris saw the actual numbers at both companies.

Owen and Chris aren’t people with axes to grind. They are people who want the truth to be understood. We then saw two 4E Wizards of the Coast employees, producer Greg Bilsland and marketing manager Trevor Kidd, corroborate the story.

Greg Bilsland corroborating what Chris Wrote
Trevor Kidd corroborating what Chris Wrote

4E Was a Financial Success

Chris mentioned in his tweets that 4E had strong sales, but also mentions internal goals. This can be hard to grasp – the game was very successful and yet not good enough for WotC. As Chris notes, other endeavors, like Gleemax, were actual financial failures.

4E was released in June of 2008, with stronger presales and opening sales than 3E, according to both anecdotal gaming store data and Wizards of the Coast (EN World has several articles on this).

Sales held strong throughout the edition’s lifetime. Any other RPG, including Pathfinder, would have loved to have 4E’s sales. Even the last set of Roll20 play numbers in Q4 2021 placed 4E’s 2021 play numbers higher than many well respected and well-crafted games, including Cypher System and Numenera, 13th Age, Cyberpunk 2020, Traveller, Delta Green, L5R, and so on. Don’t get me wrong. I am a huge fan of playing lots of RPGs. And Roll20 will favor some games over others. But still, the point is that 4E is a game loved by enough players to see strong play even years after 5E’s release!

4E enjoyed strong book sales, though they declined over time as all prior editions have declined. And the edition had the DDI (D&D Insider) subscriptions, which at one point were calculated as having more than 65k subscribers, so more than $4M a year in revenue.

So, why do people think of 4E as a financial failure?

For sure, part of it is that many people dislike D&D solely for being the biggest brand. And while 4E brought in a lot of new players (see the incredibly successful 4E D&D Encounters store program) it also alienated a lot of players from prior editions. Being a divisive edition meant a lot of invested players wanted it to fail and gladly believed any news saying the edition was doing poorly. Contrast this with 5E, where we see that more than 50% of the player base began with 5E (meaning enormous new growth) but it still pleases most fans coming from prior editions.

It also mattered that Paizo was for years happy to let the myth seem true. This put WotC in a tough position. If WotC were to contest the myth, they would come off as bitter and probably not be believed unless they disclosed sales data. It was a lose-lose proposition, so they stayed quiet until enough employees no longer worked there and could set the record straight.

The most important reason 4E seemed like a financial failure is that the edition did not meet the goals of Wizards of the Coast. D&D is not a normal RPG. It is enormously larger than anyone else as both a brand and in sales revenue. When 4E was launched, the internal dream was for the revenue to be far beyond any prior edition, accelerated by a virtual table top that would enable massive numbers of subscriptions. Back in the 3E era, World of Warcraft was the game business to watch. D&D wanted to have 300 to 350 THOUSAND DDI subscribers and MMO-style revenues. Where 65k subscribers and $4M in yearly revenue (plus book sales!) would be world-changing for any other RPG, for Hasbro it was short of their internal estimates and promises to the executives. There were reasons WotC wanted to hit those high goals, as it would have helped D&D become a core brand and gain more freedom and importance within the company.

4E also seems like failure because sales are now very hard to estimate. A game might have strong international sales or subscription sales. Sales on Amazon can be misleading, since the site doesn’t share actual data and colors its rankings. Owen speaks to the complexity in answering this question:

One of my favorite posts illustrating how much game stores can vary is this one by Shannon Appelcline where he lists the top-selling products at a few stores. One store’s top game is Pathfinder’s core book, another is 4E’s Player’s Handbook 3, another is Dresden Files. The number two seller at Endgame was Gamma World Booster Packs… and no one would think that was an amazing hit overall, though it was at that store.

This leads, even today with other RPGs, to incorrect analyses by both journalists and fans as to how strong a particular sourcebook or RPG may be. Amazon can seem to indicate a particular game is strong, but that doesn’t mean we can compare it to a different book… even one released in the same year.

Looking to the Future

I hope this post is helpful in breaking the myth and helping with the understanding of how hard it is to compare game line sales without staff sharing actual information. Our hobby improves when more fans and creators understand how the industry actually operates.

I also hope that understanding that 4E was a huge financial success but still not enough for WotC and Hasbro serves as a cautionary tale.

A disconnect between internal goals and external reality has happened often for D&D. TSR spent years desiring to be bigger than board game companies, but failed year after year. There is good evidence that this desire blinded it and led it down risky and unprofitable paths resulting in bankruptcy. (See Jon Peterson’s excellent book, Game Wizards.)

If you have paid attention to 2021 to 2023 Hasbro stock calls, you have heard the company wanting to monetize D&D and see tremendous growth from the brand. The company has made huge investment in acquiring D&D Beyond and developing a VTT. It’s interesting to note that WotC’s most successful edition was 5E, launched when the company didn’t have such lofty goals. I wrote in 2021 about why no other RPG can compete with WotC. I also wrote about who might compete with them, and how WotC could be its own undoing. That said, I think Wizards and the game of D&D is strong enough to weather internal challenges and the OGL aftermath. I suspect the 2024 version of 5E will again sell very well, even if it does not rise to the company’s lofty goals.

7 comments on “Pathfinder Never Outsold 4E D&D (ICYMI)

  1. Ian
    July 8, 2023

    Good one, Teos! I’ve been waiting since the OGL scandal for someone to mention this — especially to those who joined D&D, starting with 5e. When they announced the VTT (once again, waaay before it was finished), I felt how incredibly similar the situations were. Only this time, D&D IS selling more than the original Hasbro goal for D&D, which, I believe was to be a 50 million dollar brand. I think it just goes to show you what happens were your favorite thing is snatched up by some huge corporation. 4E was a fine edition. Sure, the battles took several hours and there was little in the way for material that explored the other 2 pillars of the RPG experience.

  2. Corbain
    July 8, 2023

    Great article. Very interesting. First I have heard this. I followed Paizo with Pathfinder after WotC opted not to renew their Dragon and Dungeon Magazines contracts with Paizo. It was always obvious to me, the vast majority of products available were for D&D. When 4e came out, the only reason I bought the core set was because Paizo was offering 10% off your entire order if you ordered it, so I emptied my wishlist loaded my cart with more and made sure it was worth my effort.

    I did look through the DMG. The first and most apparent thing was the major emphasis on miniatures. It was obvious Hasbro was looking to capitalize on the hobby’s love of miniatures. I did buy a few figures, a couple of which were the Colossal Red Dragon (one is behind me on the shelf, the other in the attic), but that was it. I never opened the core books again, nor bought a single other 4e product. As much as people – to put it politely – complained about 4e, there was still a mass movement following D&D. The miniatures weren’t necessary and the ones we collected over decades were still useful, even the lead ones.

    My impression (and I’m probably way off) is that Hasbro decided to let WotC be a bit more self-guided with the development of 5e. WotC does, after all, know its customers better than corporate. They addressed a lot of the complaints and dumped the emphasis on miniatures. 4e didn’t bomb, but I suspect it “didn’t hit the numbers” as often as they would have liked and it would be more profitable to create a new, better version once enough time had passed rather than continue to beat a horse that wasn’t dead but not performing as well as hoped.

    I suspect the OGL debacle has done more damage than 4e. Paizo literally ran out of some of its books as masses of people migrated. Paizo also started to develop its own license. Other big hitters, like Kobold Press, have as well. Their highly successful Tales of the Valiant Kickstarter is a testament to both Kobold’s strength and following. Troll Lord Games dumped 5e, as have some other independent creators. OSR is doing well with a lot of independent creators. Of course, that’s not competition, it’s supplementation.

    D&D isn’t going away (as you’ve noted in your other article), but as WotC moves toward D&D Beyond, I suspect 5e will last a lot longer than WotC expects since the OGL is pretty permanent now. D&D Beyond will do quite well, WotC aren’t (always) fools, they still have an amazing creative team, and numerous campaign worlds to appeal to a wider audience. WotC is a juggernaut that’s capable of maintaining a global market, unlike anyone else. I know that I just won’t spend a lot of time using Beyond. It gets tiring to have to rebuy everything for each new iteration and maintain subscriptions.

  3. David S.
    July 10, 2023

    When you start talking about Roll20, you start losing a lot of your credibility. You jump from “nobody has the big picture, and game stores certainly don’t” to “look at this one platform and compare to a bunch of games that aren’t Pathfinder or D&D.” Looking at the actual numbers provided, it’s practically a lie; D&D 4E is the 31st most frequently ran system, at 0.17%, with D&D 3.5 at 0.80% and AD&D at 0.20%. Cyberpunk Red, i.e. the latest edition of Cyberpunk 2020, is at 0.25%, and if it were combined with the older editions, would have twice the tables of D&D 4E. Pathfinder 1 is at 3.33%.

    Are there people who love D&D 4E? Sure. Did it sell better than Pathfinder? Don’t know. But based from the Roll20 numbers, four times as many people stuck with D&D 3.5 for 12 years, even with Pathfinder available, than stuck with D&D 4E for seven. That says to me that D&D 4E sold on its name, and didn’t build the core of solid players that other versions of D&D did. Its failure was not merely by corporate standards

    • Alphastream
      July 11, 2023

      The point of the Roll20 example is that we as gamers often have an impression that may not be correct. We may hear a particular game be talked about, and it may to us feel like it is a prominent game. But D&D is huge. Even an edition like 4E that is divisive still sees very strong play. Most gamers would likely think that in 2021 no one was playing 4E and tons of people were playing Numenera. Despite being so divisive an edition, and at a time when 5E’s popularity is sky-high, D&D 4E pulls great play numbers despite not being sold or marketed, and despite not being the least compatible with 5E or previous D&D editions.

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