I spend much of each day metaphorically swimming in Earth's ancient seas, observing the ebb and flow of life and reading the 'pages' of deep time to reconstruct the ancient world, and there is a frequently recurring pattern of morphological adaptation that is as fascinating as it is enigmatic: heteromorphic novelty. By this I mean the tendency for taxonomic groups, usually at the level of class or order, which have maintained a conservative morphology throughout their history, to produce wildly aberrant forms as they approach extinction.
It is often the case that as you proceed up through a stratigraphic succession, all the species of a given taxonomic group exhibit little change until you start to get close to the group's extinction horizon. As you get closer to the omega layer you start to see species appearing with bizarre morphological forms that defy the imagination. If you can forgive my irresistible urge to anthropomorphize, it is almost as though the group is making a desperate attempt to avoid it's fate.
There are many excellent examples of late stage heteromorphy, and it can be seen in many taxonomic groups, most famously, ammonites, trilobites, brachiopods, and bivalves. For example, throughout the Jurassic and most of the Cretaceous, ammonite shells were a conservative, simple coil:
|Jurassic ammonite, Perisphinctes|
|Late Cretaceous ammonite, Nipponites|
Similarly, the trilobite order Phacopida exhibited a fairly conservative morphology throughout the Ordovician and Silurian periods:
|Ordovician phacopid, Dalmanites|
|Devonian phacopid, Walliserops|
For months now, we've been hearing rumours that 4E has been losing market share to Pathfinder; rumours that have now been confirmed, such as recently reported by Cyclopeatron. Simultaneously we are seeing some rather sudden drastic changes at Wizards of the Coast, such as the discontinuation of their plastic miniature line, and the cancellation of several upcoming 4E books, as well as the release of their line of collectible power cards for 4E. Greyhawk Grognard has recently made some insightful predictions about where WotC is going with all this, and I can't help but see these sudden changes in direction as the type of desperate innovation to stave off exctinction that I regularly see in the rock record. Indeed, this recent activity reminds me of nothing so much as what TSR was doing in the mid '90's, and we all know how well that turned out.
I think that the desperate pre-extinction gambits that we saw from TSR, and that I believe we are seeing from WotC, is a result of hobby companies being run, not by the hobbyists that founded the companies, but the executives and corporations that came to own them. When you know nothing about the hobby, and care even less, it is difficult to understand how to proceed when people aren't gobbling up your product the way you expected. Just as Lorraine Williams presumed to make management decisions when she didn't know the first thing about what gamers wanted, it's difficult for WotC to salvage their 4E line when Hasbro executives are screaming for profits - especially when they keep laying off the creative minds behind the line and destroying any continuity of vision (as myopic as that vision may have been).
So here's my prediction: we'll continue to see increasingly bizarre 4e product releases for the next few years until WotC's version of D&D ceases to exist as an RPG. Oh, I think WotC will keep chugging along, and that D&D will continue to exist as a brand name, but that brand will consist of products that have nothing to do with roleplaying games, and will inevitably dwindle to insignificance. The rest of us will slow down to ogle the car wreck on the highway, then carry on to the beach, playing and publishing the games we love thanks to the OGL, while we surf the ebb and flow of speciation and extinction in the gaming hobby.