I don't have any deep insights into the upcoming new edition of Dungeons & Dragons or why Wizards of the Coast is going ahead with it. Truth be told, I don't care all that much about D&D any more, insofar as "D&D" means whatever game is currently available on store shelves and carries that name. I was a very enthusiastic player and referee of D&D III for about six years before I had enough and got off that particular merry-go-round. I flirted briefly with Castles & Crusades before diving into OD&D, which eventually led me to the crazy world of the old school renaissance and the retro-clones. By and large, I'm happy here and have been since 2007, before WotC announced the previous new edition of D&D.
But I think a lot of the gamers who decided to take a walk on the old school side of things did so out of frustration with D&D IV. They were disappointed in and angry with WotC, a company that, for many gamers, "saved" D&D back in 2000. They felt betrayed and, in feeling that, they looked for someplace, anyplace with which to align themselves. The bulk of them went to Paizo, I expect, and with good reason. Paizo not only makes great products; those products used a rules set very similar to D&D III. Indeed, Pathfinder's whole raison d'être is backward compatibility with the previous iteration of D&D, preserved for all time thanks to the SRD and OGL.
A few of those disaffected gamers, though, sought out the old school renaissance and picked up games like OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry and Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Suddenly, "old school" was a buzzword to be found on many a gaming forum and blog. While there's no question that the ranks of our little community remained small, they did swell in size. Moreover, old school gaming punched way above its weight class when it came to influence over the hobby, with lots of designers, including those at WotC, suddenly touting their old school credentials and expressing admiration for the designs of yore. In 2008, it was "this ain't your father's D&D," but, by 2011, it was suddenly cool to be old school. In short, "old school" had become a fad (much like gaming itself).
Which brings us to 2012 and WotC's announcement of a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Unlike the 4e roll-out, which was condescending and tone deaf, this time around WotC is saying all the right things. They're talking about "uniting" fans of every edition and going back to the "core" elements of D&D. I'm glad to hear that, if only because it means they've learned from their mistakes. What's more interesting, though, is the reaction in our little corner of the Net. From what I have seen, a lot of old school gamers have expressed enthusiasm and even hope that WotC will "get it right" this time. I have to admit I've been taken aback by this love-in -- not because I want a repeat of the acrimony that greeted D&D IV, but because I'm surprised that, after all this time, old school fans give a damn about "D&D." But they do.
That's the truth of it. For a lot of gamers, OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry will never be D&D. They'll play it, sure; they'll even have fun doing so. In their heart of hearts, however, saying "I'm playing Swords & Wizardry" will never make them as happy as saying "I'm playing Dungeons & Dragons." I understand this mentality very well, because it's one I've shared at various times (mostly about Traveller). There's something about "D&D" that cannot be replaced. The ardor for that game, which was, let's face it, likely the first most of us ever played, is intense and not easily forgotten. There's thus an emotional attachment to D&D that there isn't for any of the retro-clones, no matter how much more true any of them are to the intent and spirit of the original games.
So, there are some interesting times ahead. If WotC does their job right -- doesn't alienate anyone by their marketing, produces a game that truly draws on the best of the past, etc. -- I suspect we'll see the old school community contract once more. As I said, I suspect a goodly portion of the gamers who've latched on to this particular bandwagon did so out of frustration and anger, but they weren't really ready to give up their true love for a simulacrum, no matter how good a simulacrum it is. Now that WotC is saying the right things and even obliquely admitting to their errors, all will be forgiven. That's not to say that there aren't potential speed bumps on the road ahead, but my gut tells me that a great many disaffected D&D players, many old schoolers chief among them, are ready to love again.
Me, I'm just a bitter old prune.