This isn't just going to be a story about 4th edition or WOTC, so if anyone is turned off by negative discussion of 4th edition, I'm not turning this into a WOTC bad, everyone else good kind of thing. In fact, in light of recent gaming events in my own gaming life, its more of a commentary on the industry as a whole, especially once businesses get to a "certain level."
My biggest issue with 4th edition ever, always, was the drastic story element changes. I was a devoted Forgotten Realms fan, and if the history of the Realms had stayed the same, had a minor tweak, or even reset back to the Old Grey Boxed set, I'd probably have been playing 4th edition for the last few years.
Thus when my friend Gopher Dave started running a 4th edition game at his store, I got involved. I knew that Dave wasn't using any established setting, so the story side of things wouldn't cause me any mental distress. I had a really good time in that game, and I would have probably stayed with the campaign until the bitter end if it had not been for scheduling issues, but Dave got a bit burned out by the cavalcade of new splat books.
I'll be honest, I was a little burned by that as well. I had an eladrin paladin, a "Defender" in 4E parlance, and when we had a dwarf fighter using Martial Power join the campaign, I felt positively outclassed. I also felt a big red flag go up when the thought wormed its way into my brain that "I'm sure when Divine Power comes out, I'll be able to keep up." That's wrong. Within a few months of a new game releasing, I shouldn't be in some kind of splat book arms race to have an effective character.
Once that occurred to me, I realized that I pretty much was just going to roleplay my crazy Eladrin paladin (who was convinced that Corellon was his father and never doubted the honor of any other Eladrin ever) and if I sucked in combat compared to the dwarf, so be it. Statistical effectiveness wasn't going to ruin my fun!
At any rate, I eventually had to give up the game because I had too many schedule changes that involved me not being able to show up for the game, and it's not fair to the GM to not be able to count on me showing up. So I dropped, and in a few months, Dave mentioned that he was ending the campaign, because he was just tired of the new splatbooks and the like altering the "baseline" of the game.
(Dave, if you read this, feel free to correct me on any of this, since I don't want to ascribe words to you that are not accurate)
I kept up my subscription to the Insider, because I did have some fun building characters and modifying monsters, and I was trying to see if I could hybrid a format for Star Wars Saga NPCs. I could see a lot that I didn't like, but I was, like any good GM, looking at how I could have restricted here or there to make the rules work the way I wanted them to work.
Flash forward to the announcement of Essentials. My first thought was that this was 4.5. My second thought was I wasn't that concerned by it, because I knew there would be a 4.5 version of the game that threw some experimental mechanics for the next edition of the game into the wild to see how they fly.
The problem was twofold.
Problem One: The online tools that I actually had grown to like were radically changed to a new format around this same time. I liked the old character builder and the monster tools, and if I wanted any of the new content to play with, I'd have to convert to the new, less flexible tools.
Problem Two: While the above kept me from really looking hard at Essentials (since I couldn't preview the material by looking at the character builder or the monster tools), it seemed like within only a few short months from introduction, WOTC was backing way off of the Essentials line completely. Lots of products canceled and juggled around the schedule. Lots of corporate double speak about Essentials being a separate line but also being the same line and informing design while not being a new paradigm.
It seemed like WOTC didn't really have much enthusiasm for anything except their new board game launches, and the D&D brand was doing its bare minimum to remain alive.
Why do I mention all of this? Transparency is great. It's really needed in many cases to maintain customer trust. However, being just a little bit too transparent and you don't seem as professional as you could. But if you aren't transparent enough, people have no idea what you company is planning on doing, because nothing you say gives any clue to anything.
So I guess the fine line to walk when you are one of the big boys is to give out information that is valuable and true, do it fairly often, but make sure when you first think of a reply, that you run it through a filter of professionalism and "do I need to say it this way" before you present your comment to the public.
For our purposes today, let's just say that WOTC presented Essentials as an exciting new direction, then within a few months presented it as a short, contained line of products, and finally presented the whole D&D lines as something you buy in between board game releases. Its a confusing, mixed message that makes it look like you really don't have a plan for your product line.