I begin by pointing out my belief that the strategy that TSR and WotC have followed since 1989 and the inception of Second Edition has been misguided and ultimately self-defeating. They have seen each successive edition not only as an "improvement" on the rules system, but also stopped printing and producing new material for earlier editions. This was done, quite naturally, in an effort to force their customers to spend their limited gaming budgets on the newest products, thereby justifying the not-inconsequential development costs (I have no reason to doubt WotC's claims that they spent more than a million dollars in the development of 4th Edition).
In addition, they seem to shoot themselves in the foot with the way they approach campaign settings. It's no secret that they haven't known what to do with Greyhawk since Gary Gygax was forced out of the company. They did very well with Forgotten Realms until recently, when the forced conversion of the setting to meet the new design limitations of 4th Edition seems to have alienated a large portion of FR's fan base. Many fans complain that settings lose some of their uniqueness when they are "upgraded" from one edition to the next.
And therein lies the key to my idea.
I would not have a single, "current" version of D&D. I would have a myriad of games, all under the D&D banner, each with differing mechanics and cosmological choices, each tied to a specific "core setting". The term "Dungeons and Dragons" would no longer refer to a single specific game system, but rather to a generic "game type". "D&D" has always been a de facto synonym for "role-playing-games" for most people. As a publisher, embrace it, baby!
- D&D: Greyhawk Edition, with mechanics largely taken from AD&D 1E.
- D&D: Forgotten Realms Edition, with mechanics largely taken from AD&D 2E.
- D&D: Eberron Edition, with mechanics taken from D&D 3.5.
- D&D: Planescape Edition, with heavily modified 3.5 mechanics, befitting the off-the-wall nature of the setting.
- D&D: Blackmoore Edition, based on mechanics largely taken from OD&D.
- D&D: Known World Edition, based on mechanics largely taken from the BECMI rules.
What does this approach do that the current approach does not? For starters, it acknowledges that some people prefer different versions of the rules, and treats them with the dignity that they deserve. All editions (and a myriad-- nay, an explosion) of new rules would remain in print. With the advent of pdf and on-demand publishing, this would be trivial to accomplish.
From a sales point of view, there is little downside. The audience that purchases "the latest rules" simply because they're "the latest rules" would still do so; they'll just move from one setting to another when they do. The ones who prefer to stick with the rules and setting as it is would still purchase new product developed for those rules and that setting. Development costs might be somewhat higher (since writers would be needed who were conversant with a larger number of systems), but as long as older settings were still supported, they would remain revenue streams for much longer. Imagine if WotC were still printing 1E DMG's and PH's, rather than surrendering that market to products like OSRIC and places like eBay.
Now, this doesn't mean that Greyhawk fans, for example, would be incapable of running a Greyhawk campaign using, for instance, the rules officially written for Forgotten Realms. In fact, that would be a plus for WotC; they would make sales both on Greyhawk products and Realms products. The former for the setting material, the latter for any rules expansions. Hell, fans already have kit-bashed things like Savage Worlds Greyhawk and GURPS Forgotten Realms. From the standpoint of the publisher, I would think it would be a good thing to get in on some of that action.
And imagine the secondary line of conversion products that could be marketed. Maybe even with a meta-setting (Planescape? Spelljammer? Something completely new?) where the very laws of reality (i.e., game rules) change depending on where a character finds him or herself.
The benefits to gamers are obvious; they get to decide what to support. The benefits to the publisher is obvious; they radically extend the revenue-stream lifespan of anything they develop. The mind reels with the possibilities.