Perhaps I qualify my musings with post-Gen Con because the actual product is not yet out and while there are promises of what features will be included and what won't be included, only time will tell if these promises meet expectations, and I expect there'll be some take-backs and modifications as we get closer to the release date.
For the most part, I see the new edition as a positive change. I'm not adverse to changing editions as long as there's a significant improvement. I don't think you can build the perfect game but I do think you can always improve on what's been done before.
I think the online interface is great. I think most people assume that D&D will now require online access but that's not really the case. As revolutionary as integrating D&D with online gaming (in general, rather than MMORPGs) is, it's happened before, everything from play-by-emails to to play-by-posts to a simple chat program. What it does right however is that it makes it easier to do so, providing all the tools in one place and even a virtual battle mat. Don't think of it as the game requiring computers but rather if you have a computer, you can play the game. Board games have had this model for quite some time, with some games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride or hell, Monopoly, having online incarnations. By no means does it spell the doom of the tabletop board game and even when playing online, it essentially remains the same game as if you'd play it on the tabletop. More importantly, I think the best part of all of this is that it brings in new blood (more so than retaining the old one which is a part many traditional RPG gamers are more concerned about) as well as giving an opportunity for old ones to reunite with old gaming groups (no more settling for play-by-emails!). I think Ryan Dancey said it best in his recent essays of redefining the genre:
(As always, I note that there will be a community of people who will play their favorite game exactly as they played it when they learned it, regardless of what happens to the rest of the world. As time progresses, those people tend to disconnect from the larger player network, becoming isolated islands. The ability of such groups to survive revolves around their ability to recruit new members as attrition causes older members to leave; so do, some do not. Those people and those groups won’t be much affected by anything that I’ve described in this series of posts, or anything that happens elsewhere in the hobby either. Please don’t take offense if you’re one of these people or play in one of these groups -- I think there’s nothing wrong with doing what you’re doing so long as you enjoy it.)Personally, I think the Digital Initiative is great on the business side of things. It adds an financial element that wasn't pre-dominant in the old RPG model of business: consistent cashflow. Many games follow the formula of deriving income from products sold. MMORPGs have the advantage of aside from selling the actual product, they also receive income from subscriptions which in turn fuel future development and maintaining the servers. We also see that business paradigm in many modern commodities such as food (you're not going to buy food just once in your life after all), toiletries, and even printer inks. For quite some time, RPGs lacked that product vehicle which miniatures and Dungeon Tiles addressed (well, that and dice).
Of course many gamers tout that the biggest advantage of tabletop RPGs is that all you need to play the game are the books and your imagination. In many ways, that's still true. But the Digital Initiative, I think, gives you additional value in the event that you do want to spend more money on the game. And I think anything past 3rd Edition behaves quite differently from the previous editions simply because there was continuous support of the game beyond the conventions (which has its own money-generating mechanisms in play) or the magazines (which costs money too) such as the Wizards of the Coast website and forums (which honestly doesn't cost you anything and isn't asking you for contributions). So in many ways, I do think 4th Edition is a business solution as much as it is a gamer solution.
That's not to say everything in 4th Ed is perfect on the side of gamers. I think the character generator is a great idea, especially the ability to create your own personal avatars. However, I don't think it'll be as popular as say, the avatars generated from The Simpsons Movie website, mainly because they're quite generic and lack that distinctive art of someone like say, Kyle Hunter (now I'm not saying Wizards of the Coast should hire Kyle Hunter--as much as I love the guy's art, I don't think every gamer much less every person will want D&D to be synonymous with his artwork and there's just that lack of cultural acceptance that pervades something as huge as The Simpsons). I like the fact that you can input a specific code into the site so that when you buy the book, you have access to an online version of the book and more importantly, add the book's data into your set of online options. Unfortunately, it also means that if you're going to use the online tools of the Digital Initiative, you need to own the book. The "one guy in the gaming group owns the book" mentality is gone, at least if you're using the online tools. But then again, there's similarly no real remedy for that mainly because I think to maximize the Digital Initiative, that means playing with various gaming groups online and obviously, not everyone will have access to the books one gaming group has. So the best solution really is that if you want to use this option, you have to own the book (of course it similarly brings up problems that if the player owns the book but the GM doesn't but can easily be remedied by the GM not allowing that particular gaming option). There's also the price point of the DND Insider--$9.99 is actually great value for what it's providing but obviously, not everyone will be utilizing its services. Sure, players might love the online Dragon magazine but will they similarly be interested in Dungeon (or should they be reading it in the first place)? Are the other features such as online play be enough to part with $9.99 a month?
What I like about 4th Ed however is that it is definitely learning from its mistakes and building a better machine. The Player's Handbook for example looks interesting, not just because it's a new edition but it actually has the magic items in it. I mean I've seen many players purchase The Dungeon Master's Guide in addition to The Player's Handbook simply because all the loot they want to equip their characters with is in the former book. At least as far as 4th Ed is concerned, if you're the player, it looks like the only investment you'll really need is The Player's Handbook.
I also like how they're rebuilding spellcasting in general. The need to "rest and recharge" I think is a holdover from the previous editions and while more traditional gamers will eschew the new system that might be implemented, I think the newer system is superior in terms of sustaining the spirit of adventure and exploration. The same goes for giving non-spellcasters a different power source, giving Fighters more than just the option to attack. And that's just the tip of the iceberg: there's ditching the XP magic-item creation system, racial levels that coincide with regular levels, lack of dead levels, etc.
One definite concern I do have is how far along the development is the game. I mean if it's going to be released in May 2008, everything should be hammered down by the end of the year (you have to take into account the printing schedule). If everything isn't completed yet, I'd want a Blizzard more than any other game company. I mean I think a weakness of 3.0 Player's Handbook was that it was released before it was fully playtested or incorporated the two other books (Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster's Manual). Perhaps given a few more months, all three books might have been tighter (and some might theorize we wouldn't even have 3.5 but I think 3.5 would have arisen anyway, either as 4th Edition or its current mid-transition release). So hopefully when the 4th Ed books do get released, I hope it's cleaner than what was done in the previous edition.
At the very least, 4th Ed is an interesting phenomenon to me not only as a gamer, but as a bibliophile. The merging of print and online technology for example has yet to be fully realized and Wizards of the Coast is definitely taking one of the pioneering steps.