Google Statistics on the Edition Wars: D&D & Pathfinder

With the 5th edition D&D Next playtest going on, the D&D Edition Wars are about to have yet another competitor in the mix. In the recent past it’s been reported that Pathfinder is outselling D&D in the hobby market, and possibly other channels as well. But in the fight for sales the only competition Pathfinder has is 4e; however, D&D 3.5 remains beloved in the hearts of a huge number of gamers. We thought it would be interesting to try to dig up some statistics on the popularity of all editions of Dungeons and Dragons — and Pathfinder — rather than just the ones that are in print.

Enter Google.

Google is the largest search engine by a huge margin. With a 70% market share in the US and far more in Europe, Google serves over a billion searches a day. As a result taking a look at what people are searching for on Google gives us a nice qualitative glimpse of the interest level in different D&D editions, and Pathfinder. Happily, Google provides some tools to let us see a little bit of the data of what is being searched.

Monthly D&D / Pathfinder Search Statistics

Here we’re looking at the average monthly searches made on Google, in the English language, for search phrases. These statistics are a really good way of comparing the search popularity of different phrases and giving a general feel for how many people are interested in each edition war contender.

D&D editions monthly searches on Google

Here we’re comparing the different editions of D&D. For the data on this chart we’re looking at all the most common variations of how people search for each edition. So for for 4th edition we’re looking at phrases like: D&D 4th, D&D 4, D&D 4e, D&D Fourth, Dungeons and Dragons 4/4th/4e/fourth, DnD 4/4th/4e/fourth, etc. 5th Edition includes D&D Next variations.

This chart makes it pretty obvious that among the D&D editions, 3.5 is the one that currently holds the interest of most gamers. It’s possible, however, that 3.5 gets an unfair boost because it’s no longer in print and thus more people are seeking 3.5 info online, while the 4e fans can just buy the latest books. To be sure, every edition other than 4th gets the same boost, and I think it’s particularly interesting the the new D&D playtest hasn’t attracted more active interest than it has. Unfortunately we can’t use this data to compare the editions to Pathfinder. The big issue here is that there’s a SUV called Pathfinder that confuses the data, as well as the fact that there’s significant searches for “D&D Pathfinder” making some chunk of the Pathfinder searches also register as D&D.

One way to try to compare average monthly search volume between D&D and Pathfinder is to look at some of the most popular more specific searches that would not include any vehicle searches.

D&D vs Pathfinder monthly searches

Here we’re looking at some of the specific top searches for both D&D and Pathfinder. We can see that at best, in searches for D&D PDF vs Pathfinder PDF that Pathfinder has less than half of the monthly search volume as Dungeons and Dragons. Of course this is comparing Pathfinder against all of D&D combined, not just one edition. And as we saw in the previous statistics, the out of print 3.5 is responsible for the majority of D&D-related searches.

In the scope of the Edition Wars what we really want to know is not how Pathfinder stands up to all the D&D editions combined, but rather which of all of the D&D editions, or Pathfinder, is the most popular. To get statistics on this from Google, we need to use a different tool.

D&D Editions vs Pathfinder Trends

Here we’re going to look at the search trends over time, dating back to 2004 (the earliest time Google has data for this tool). The search data here is normalized so it’s not associated with any specific quantity of searches, but instead lets you see the comparative search volumes over time. The great thing about this tool is that we can restrict it just to searches within the roleplaying game category, so our Pathfinder searches are all RPG searches.

D&D editions vs pathfinder search trend

This, I think, is the most interesting piece of data from the Google perspective on the Edition Wars. We can see the popularity of 3.5 searches slowly trend downward up to the release of 4e, and the huge spike of 4e searches at its release. However, 4e searches dropped down after the spike and have held pretty constant since, while 3.5 searches went back up. By 2009 searches for D&D 3.5 were back to 2005 levels.

Pathfinder is the big winner of the edition search trend. As 4e launched Pathfinder searches leaped up, and then held steady for about a year and leaped up again in the summer of ’09 to surpass 4e searches and have climbed ever since. Finally in the second half of 2011 Pathfinder searches passed searches for the beloved D&D 3.5.


As always, we’re just looking at one data set here and there are a lot of different ways of pulling statistics out of Google data. However, I think this gives us some interesting information. The overall trend of various editions confirms what’s been reported for sales data of Pathfinder vs D&D 4th edition. But unlike sales data, the info from Google lets us compare the search popularity of out of print editions that are no longer sold through distribution channels.

D&D 3.5 remains incredibly popular, dwarfing the currently in-print 4e despite that fact that no new official material has been printed in four years. While 4th edition certainly has plenty of fans, it has also pretty clearly lost a massive percentage of the D&D player base. Pathfinder has been capitalizing on this for years, offering that massive chunk of D&D 3.5 fans new material for the style of game that they prefer.

Wandering into the realm of informed speculation, I’d say that this data offers some hope for 5th edition, D&D Next. While it’s true that every new edition splinters the player base (there are still die-hard adherents to 1st and 2nd editions) and that Pathfinder has captured the majority of the players that are currently buying D&D books — there’s still those 3.5 fans. The D&D 3.5 search volume remains incredibly high, far higher than 4e and close to the Pathfinder level. If WotC can manage to bring most of those 3.5 adherents back into the fold and convert most of the 4e players over, they have a chance to reclaim top place for D&D sales.

The real question is whether the Pathfinder fans will stick with Pathfinder, or if they’ll move back to D&D if WotC can offer then a game that better fits the playstyle they prefer. Or perhaps the other real question is why WotC doesn’t just reprint 3.5 — if the Google search numbers are any representation, a simple 3.5 reprint/update could double the sales of 4e right there. [Update: apparently I missed that they are, in fact, reprinting 3.5 “premium” versions going on sale in Sept 18th — and based on this data that’s a good call]

24 Responses

    1. Very interesting wouldn’t of know about the earlier editions being re-printed. I guess that old dog WOTCs can learn a new trick or at least from it’s mistakes. Thanks for the info Brandon

  1. Interesting stuff. I’d really be interested to know what the numbers are for RPG searches however I know this would be hard to come by since video game RPG’s would be included. But I really could care less about the edition wars to tell the truth. It in interesting to see where the general interest lays though.

  2. Fascinating stuff!

    I wonder if the 4th Edition numbers are low because people are searching for “D&D” of “Dungeons & Dragons” without adding 4e to find what they need. For example, I often use those search terms to find 4th Edition related material because I don’t think the edition number is necesarry. But I imagine if you need to find something from an older edition, then you’d have to include the search “modifier” to narrow the results and avoid getting all the 4th Edition materials.

    At the very least, it would be interesting to see that data – how often are people searching for D&D without a specific edition attached to the search. My hypotheis is that most simple “D&D” or “Dungeons & Dragons” searches are related to 4th Edition.

    I could certainly be wrong on that though!

    Congrats on a great post. :)

    1. You can see general D&D searches included in the character sheet / pdf / generator searches. It’s possible that people searching for 4e stuff search under generic D&D terms; however, looking at a couple specific terms shows that 3.5 searches are usually greater than generic & 4th edition terms combined. For example, far more people search for 3.5 character sheets than search for generic D&D character sheets and 4e character sheets combined.

      So the search volume for 3.5 appears substantially higher than anything for 4e; however, as I said in the article, it’s entirely possible that more people are searching for it because it’s out of print and if they don’t have a book, they can’t just go out and get one.

  3. I imagine there’s fewer searches for 4E character sheets because there is a pretty decent character builder.

  4. I’m not sure how useful this data really is for drawing conclusions. Most avid gamers don’t spend a lot of time searching for things, particularly edition-related things. Instead, we tend to go to sites we know and follow the links found on those sites. I practically never search for anything like what you mention. If I specify an edition it would likely be because I am trying to find something old (i.e. from an edition previous to the one I am playing) so I can recall what that thing did and then make an updated version of it. As an example, not too long ago I searched for old character sheets because I wanted to take the “goldenrod” sheet and make a version for 13th Age. Not only was this search not indicative of a preference for AD&D, but I wasn’t even using it for D&D!

    1. The information is useful qualitatively, not quantitatively. When we see there are 200,000 searches a month for D&D 3.5, that in no way tell us how many people are *really* searching for 3.5 (other than it’s at least 200k), but we can say that it is more than twice the number of people searching for 4e.

      It’s true that it’s possible old editions get more searches because their old and hard to find current info for; however, most of the time in Google the most popular thing has the most searches. Furthermore if being out of date and hard to find meant it got more searches, we’d expect to see more 2nd ed and AD&D searches — since that stuff is far harder to find and more out of date than 3.5.

      So while it’s impossible to know for certain, I remain pretty confident in what this data is telling us, especially since it doesn’t exist entirely in a vacuum but also matches up with sales data on 4e vs Pathfinder.

  5. Interesting is that with 3.5, Pathfinder and 4e combined there are more than double the searches for 3.5 as in 2005… so, even if the splitting of fan bases was not a good idea for WotC, the hobby seems to profit from it.
    Oh. Or there are generally more Internet searches now than then.

  6. If I am looking for data on a previous edition either to convert it or to play it, I simply enter the name of what i am searching for ie Tomb of Horrors D&D or Orcus D&D or Pelor D&D. I rarely add which edition I am playing because I have bought those books and can just flip to the relevant data. I am usually looking for more info on the subject at hand, ie other editions takes on it. With the high availability of info, book titles, mag articles etc. I very rarely need to add an edition number to find what I am looking for. Without cross referencing searches containing these types of strings I don’t think your data shows anything definitive in the edition folks are playing. At best it shows the source material they are converting from, but not too. Nobody can dispute that Pathfinder has put together some of the best modules in there Adventure series. I convert them all the time for the three RPGs I play regularly. Hackmaster, 4E and Ad&d included.

  7. Actually because of the 4th edition Character Builder, the D&D Compendium & D&D Adventure Tools all are available from WotC currently, the 4E numbers are going to be low for searches on Google, because you can get all the relevant data from there. Additionally, the current character sheets have all the data for each of the powers on the sheet so looking up the power rules versus spell rules which were kept separate in previous editions is also going to skew the numbers. Beyond that, 3.x rules had errata that other editions did not, so again the numbers are going to be skewed towards the 3.x searches. To look at the numbers further, most of the editions prior to 3.x the internet was not the community it is during those times so relevant data would not be kept there. It would be in the books themselves. One more thing, because D&D Next is a playtest, most of the current data would be available from WotC so you would again go to the their web-site instead of to the www. I know for my self, personally I have searched the web for previous edition rules, but if I wanted data for 4E or D&DNext I went WotC web-site directly, and used the search tool there or went to the D&D Compendium. Both give me WotC approved rules, which is what the community is, in general, trying to work from. Additionally I belong to a large #RPGamer community on Twitter, which means you get direct links to articles/blogs and don’t need to do searches, as a result whatever is current is going to get less searches. Technically both 4E & Next are currently spoken of there so those are not going to need searches when links are shared. Honestly I do not think there is a tool today that can really give us a clear picture of what the general populace is looking for in any meaningful way. One more thing, occasionally I have searched for old edition games to redo for current games rules which could mean even the older editions are being reviewed for current game rules games.

    Just sharing about how I have searched for D&D data…

  8. Well said, DaddyDM. Both because the default is 4E, and because 4E is so well defined by obvious sites (WotC site, specialized 4E blogs), we don’t search with the edition when we look at 4E. And that’s a good point that it is less necessary to search for 1E and 2E… if I’m searching for something I’m using a very specific edition-less search term, such as Temple of Elemental Evil. The only time I search with a specific edition is probably for 3E or Pathfinder, because I play those systems so rarely. Back when I played a ton of 3E I never used the 3E term because it was again the default and I knew the sites where I could get the information I needed.

  9. What I find particularly interesting about the search trend data is how the introduction of 4E caused an apparent renewed interest in 3.5.

    I wonder how much of this renewed interest in 3.5 is due to the Open game License (OGL) versus the 4E Game System License (GSL).

    I wonder where searches for generic “d20” would fit into this trend…?

    1. If you include d20, it starts higher than 3.5 on the left in ’04, drops below 3.5 with the release of 4e, and continues to drop steadily thereafter.

  10. I’ll have to agree with Alphastream et al. There’s very little call for me to search for 4e related stuff, I have a link right on my browser link bar that takes me to DDI (daily D&D page nowadays), a font of information so thorough and complete that searching google for anything 4e related is utterly redundant. OTOH if I want to find something related to a previous edition, well, I can go to the WotC site and try to dig through and find the 3.x stuff they have there (there’s plenty of it) but those pages are thoroughly buried and often not even linked directly on their site. I’m going to go to google search for that every time.

    I also think that the relationship of searches to sales or who plays what is tenuous at best. IME the online activity is vastly dominated by a very small subset of the most active fans. There are vast numbers of people out there playing RPGs who are very rarely going to bother to go online to find game related stuff at all. Of course we can ask all sorts of questions about who are the main purchasers of stuff, who is most influential in what the more casual players play, etc. By the time you start considering all of that it seems like the relationship between search and the RPG market is pretty tenuous.

    I think search popularity is a great way to gauge the trends in popular culture, current events, public opinion perhaps, etc. I remain thoroughly unconvinced it says a huge amount of any real value about the popularity of different ‘models’ of basically the same product at a “what will I buy” level. I’m sure there’s SOME correlation there, but I’m not at all convinced you can judge the differences between current and recent editions of D&D where several different editions are each clearly well represented.

  11. Interesting post. I did a quick look at my search history (for 4e related things). Scores of searches but not once did I use “4e” in them. Most of the time my typical google search is as such: “Proning with bow”

    Adding “4e” is unnecessary.

  12. So. What I see is possible evidence that the compendium and character generator are doing their job for the community, and pathfinder & 3e users have to dig around Google to find materials they need.

    Google search terms are not a proxy for product popularity.

    1. Google searches are not *necessarily* a proxy for popularity; however, for many — even most — products Google search volume is a very good qualitative proxy if you use it well. The difficulty with D&D, as stated in the article, is the combination of in-print and out of print editions, which can have different search behavior associated with them.

      The nice thing about Google statistics is that the volume is so high that even if you’re comparing terms that the majority of searchers don’t use, you often still have statistically significant samples.

      Unfortunately we don’t know if people searching for 4th, 3.5, and Pathfinder search substantially differently from each other (we can speculate, but we only have anecdotal evidence). However, the fact that this data mirrors the sales data reported by ICV2 and Paizo makes me think it’s worth looking at.

  13. I would also say with the SRD’s online you get a skewed number. If I want to find a particular 3.5 rule I dont go look in the books i just do a google search and most of the time I find the SRD. Im not searching because I think it’s popular, im searching because of the wealth of online SRD material.

  14. What i see is 4th Edition lovers trying rationalize it, deny it and/or write revisionist history about it…the simple truth is 4th edition just wasn’t what a significant portion of people who played D&D considered D&D. The success of Paizo and the upcoming 5th Edition attests to that. The fact that we even have this so-called “Edition War” is proof that a WOTC have lost a big chunk of their fanbase and/or customers.

  15. Great article! I think I’ve enjoyed the comments just as much as the data. I’m kind of a data junkie. So I kind of found it interesting even if there are some gaps that we can’t explore through the search trends.

    And yes it’s interesting how folks are trying defend or dispute the data based their edition of choice. I’ve recently started playing Pathfinder. I’ve played all of the editions. I personally enjoy PathFinder more than 4e, but I must acknowledge without fourth there would be no PathFinder. So PathFinder fans really should thank WOTC’s for helping make PathFinder a reality.

  16. The only reason 3.5 is higher is because it is the longest lived version. More people use it due to it’s life span. More people use it because they started with it, or their friends who started with it recommend it. It is also the rule set that most computer games of D&D use. It’s just a matter of traffic and exposure.

    1. Actually, 3.5 had a short lifespan (4 years), compared to 2e (1987-2000). 2e also had more PC titles than 3.x. It has more traffic due to the fact it was an easier system and the millennial gamers started with it, and millennials are more likely to use the internet for gaming resources than those who started in 1e, 2e, or even OD&D.

      I actually feel pity on those who started in 4e. 4e lacked the storytelling and feel of older editions.

  17. As someone who is finally going to start publishing third-party material, I would love to see an updated version of this, including 5e. While 5e intrigues me, the lack of official product, along with what appears to be a stricter third-party licensing deal leaves me torn between 3.5 and Pathfinder. However, I would hate to short myself on avoiding 5e altogether.

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