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.
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 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.
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.
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]