Dungeons & Dragons & The Law of the Falling Rate of Profit
The products that would produce a vibrant, healthy game—adventures to coach new DMs and spotlight the best of what your RPG makes possible, plus occasional monster books and campaign settings/variants to keep things fresh—are the ones that won’t sell in sufficient quantity to pay the bills. What’s worse, because those products speak only to DMs, they leave players unsatisified, and unsatisfied players take their money somewhere else.
But the products that meet the company’s sales requirements—spells, races, classes, feats, powers—all place an ever-increasing burden on the game’s rules. They demand more time and resources to develop as their interactions with existing material become more complex. Even with more development resources, eventually mistakes become inevitable. They demand higher and higher levels of system mastery from players, who need to juggle all those options in their heads. The number of fully invested players steadily declines through the natural attrition of school, relocation, and changing social lives, while new players are quickly overwhelmed and discouraged by the blizzard of options they must wade through just to get started.
In short, the types of things that players want are bad for the game. They’d be fine if published in moderation, but moderation is a luxury only small companies can afford. Big companies have big monthly bills. The types of supplements that would be healthy for the game, players won’t buy in sufficient quantity to keep the company or the game alive at the corporate level. To keep the engine running, the company must publish what customers want, and thereby cut its own throat.
Thus we have the life cycle of corporate D&D: a set of clean, elegant rules is published; those rules are expanded with a steadily growing library of supplements; for a while the new additions make things better, but; eventually the complexity of all that supplemental material becomes too much for players and the game’s developers to manage or even understand, so; the publisher wipes the table clean and starts the cycle over at zero with a new edition.