Wednesday, November 17, 2010

In Which The Warlock Becomes a Doomsayer...

When Wizards of the Coast first announced their Digital Initiative, I was skeptical at best. It was hard to believe that a company so focused on print role-playing materials could put forwards a quality online application that effectively summarized their work.

However, upon closer review, I was pleasantly surprised. The downloadable Character Builder and the later Monster Builder quickly became invaluable tools for me, as I both ran and played D&D. Character generation time dropped from the hours it had become in 3.5e, down to mere minutes. I’ve often been quoted as stating that I could make a 30th level character, fully-equipped, playable, and reasonably optimized, within a 20 minute timeframe. The Monster Builder, similarly, allowed me to print out sheets with chosen creatures—both custom-made and pregenerated—reducing the amount of time that I spent preparing for games.

RIP--The Downloadable Character Builder (11-16-2010)
The down side to this functionality was the reliance on updates. As August and September rolled on with no update—and no word of an update—DDI customers grew frustrated. The revised version of Dark Sun came out in hardback…but had no support via DDI. Whole articles and books were being left out of DDI, with no word from Wizards of the Coast on why or when.

Then, the announcement: Wizards of the Coast would no longer be supporting the downloadable Character Builder software, choosing instead to implement an online-only toolset. The online-toolset debuted yesterday to much outcry amongst the gaming community.

With that in mind, I’d like to get on record now this thought: If the D&D brand is set to fail within the next decade, it will be because of Wizards of the Coast’s utter refusal to commit to either a set online plan and, through that, their customers.
Having examined the new Character Builder, it has several fundamental flaws that not only defeat its design intent, but also harm the gaming community as a whole.

The Character Builder is online only. This is the biggest problem, yet one that WotC refuses to address. The company line is currently one that states that the online-functionality of the CB software makes it accessible from anywhere that has an Internet connection. There are two flaws with this logic: not only does this make the CB harder to access, but it also makes it less available overall.

o Online-only MEANS online-only: For some people this may not seem to be a problem, but when thought through thoroughly, cracks emerge. If I go to play at any of my 3 local game stores, there’s no wi-fi available. My characters, saved on my computer, would be inaccessible, whereas with the Downloadable CB, they were at my fingertips. Similarly, if the WotC website goes down or crashes, my characters are inaccessible. This limits access, rather than making it more available.

o Silverlight is left in the dark. The new CB runs on the Silverlight framework, put out by Microsoft. That’s all well and good, but most mobile devices—including the iPad, most palmtop computers, and any smart-phone that doesn’t use Windows 7—can’t run Silverlight. Considering that these were the target users of the new CB, this design precept is utterly a failure.

Your characters are no longer yours. This, as a writer and blogger, angers me beyond belief. Not only does the new CB have an absurdly-low limit of 20 characters, WotC has now made it expressly clear that the characters—despite the fact that you, as a player, assembled them—are not yours. With no ability to export a character to your hard drive (and no ability to even view it, once you have done so!), you will have absolutely no access to your own creations, should you choose to cancel your subscription. As someone who runs D&D at conventions and uses pregenerated characters, this limit is crippling—with 6 seats at a table, a mere 3 games fills out the limit, and that doesn’t even count any ‘home’ characters that I might have!

WotC has framed this as the ability to store these characters “in the Cloud”, implying that storing them on a hard drive or flash drive is somehow an inconvenience. Such is not the case. Again, it’s much easier to port over a character via a USB drive than have to log into a website, which may or may not be available/functioning.


Maybe this can tell me why new the CB crashed 4 times in 15 minutes...
The Character Builder is buggy beyond belief. Admittedly, it just debuted yesterday, but when WotC already has a fully-functional product that performs the same function, the idea of having basic, fundamental sections of the new version unworkable. The current “Known Issues” list on the WotC Character Builder site reads like a laundry list, with basic class features—such as the use of a weapon as a implement, which is core to classes like Assassin, Swordmage and Warlock—left to be totally unworkable. When a product already exists that fills this niche—one already produced by WotC—switching horse midstreams is foolhardy at best.

WotC’s Track Record: Promise Much, Produce Little. We’re told, through the occasional forum post or the CB FAQ, that the ability to export characters will be incoming. We’re told that core components of the game, such as the ability to house rule items, to include inherent bonuses, and to modify the character sheet on a fundamental level…all that “has not yet been implemented,” but it’s on the horizon. We’re told that all of this is coming.

But, I ask this: what about the rest of the functionality that was promised us? What about the rest of the Monster Builder updates, which have gone untouched? What about the much ballyhooed Virtual Tabletop, which would allow you to play with your friends across the country, with full chat utilities and stylized virtual minis? What about open communication, within the gaming community? Anyone remember GleeMax, WotC’s utter travesty of a social networking site?

So, how long did GleeMax last?  6 months?  A year?  Did anyone care?

All of this adds up to bad news in my eyes. It’s been mentioned—unofficially, of course—that WotC made this move to keep more nefarious gamers from cracking and subsequently bit-torrenting hacked version of the downloadable CB. If this is the case, though, it’s a paranoid attempt to deal with a minority of the gaming community, which only harms the majority’s ability to enjoy a product as a paying customer.

WotC has dropped a fully-functional, smooth program in favor of trying to rebuild their image. This, on a fundamental level, is a misstep. While I doubt that this would bring the D&D brand on the whole to a collapse, it does make for poor tidings for the world’s most popular RPG.

I, for one, will not be witness to this pratfall. Upon the completion of my already-paid year of DDI subscription, I’ll be cancelling.


  1. Thunderforge12:21 AM

    If I had a nickel for every time I've heard someone say that D&d (or the role-playing game industry at large) was going to pot...

    No offense man, but there will always be good things and bad things that happen. D&D already fell apart once with TSR and I find it hard to believe that it's going to completely fall apart again with Wizards of the Coast (or if it does, some other company will pick up the slack again). Life goes on, the game evolves. And although Wizards has indeed made some dubious decisions over the years, I think they wound up strengthening the industry as a whole because other companies take up the slack.

    Consider Wizards abandoning the OGL a few years back. Many said that it was a poor decision and it killed virtually all third party D&D support and many d20 games. However, that allowed other systems to grab some marketshare, which therefore introduced more people to the hobby. For instance, Savage Worlds (my good ol' system) had been around for years, but had only started gaining popularity at about the time that Wizards cut the plug on third party vendors.

    At the end of the day, doomsaying just feeds the trolls. Shrug your shoulders and move on. Besides, you still can make completely functional (and quite playable) characters with just the Players Handbook 1 (no errata needed). And there's programs like HeroLab for automated character building if you still need that.

  2. Anonymous2:09 AM

    Thunderforge, if it makes you feel any better, one of these days someone will be right. :P I'm still unhappy that Wizards dropped the OGL, and I'm not convinced it helped them or the industry as much as keeping it would have.

    At the very least, this type of message gives WotC feedback. I feel your pain, PlatinumWarlock. I'm still a subscriber, but I haven't been able to build a character all evening. :(

  3. Good points, all around, guys. I appreciate the feedback.

    I would like to clarify--I'm not necessarily saying that WotC or D&D will fail. Certainly, I don't want it to--D&D's been my drug of choice for years now, and I'd like to to be for years to come.

    However, if the worst were to happen, the continual failures in the Digital Initiative seem to be the biggest contributor at this stage. I'm still massively dissatisfied with the online-only CB, and I don't see that changing anytime soon.

    I will, however, continue playing D&D. I like the books, and will use them. I like the downloadable CB, and am still using it even as I'm writing this.

    Believe it or not, I am somewhat happy that the OGL was cancelled. The vast majority of OGL properties were really garbage, and for each Spycraft or Ravenloft that were printed, you got 5 or 10 books that were imbalanced, poorly edited, and uncreative. While it limits the number of gamers writing, the overall quality of products across the industry has gone up since the OGL was revoked.

    Right now, I'm just wishing that WotC would have simply kept on the same horse--using the offline builder--or at least put forward tools on a regular basis that fulfilled their original design intent (and their promises).

    Cheers, guys! Thanks again!