Thoughts on the new DDI Character Builder

Since everyone else is pontificating about the new web-only character builder, I thought I’d jump in and give my totally unqualified opinion. I don’t even have a DDI subscription, mainly because I’m on a Mac. But, I do know a little about running a tabletop gaming web application, so I’ll weigh in from that perspective.

Silverlight: A non-issue

The best I’ve seen on this was a comment by greywulf:

they could code it in FORTRAN for all I care, provided it works

I am not a huge fan of browser plugin technology like Flash or Silverlight. Obsidian Portal is almost all raw HTML and Javascript, and the teeny bit of Flash we have gives us continual headaches. However, if I felt that Flash or Silverlight or anything else would enhance the user experience, I would definitely consider it. If the DDI team can provide a good user experience with Silverlight, then flogging them because of the choice of tool just isn’t fair.

Content in the Cloud

The main issue I see with this is that you now need to maintain a subscription to keep access to your characters. This is a really bad move, and I hope it’s only temporary. In an ideal world, there should be a way to maintain access to your existing characters without paying for a subscription. However, as a programmer, I know that there may be technical issues that make this infeasible. Still, I think there’s a moral imperative here that WotC do their best allow people to access their characters, regardless of their status as paying subscribers, even if it’s just downloading a PDF.

Faster Updates

One of the nicest features of web applications is the ability to push updates at a much faster pace. We push updates to Obsidian Portal all the time. We’ve gone from bug report to bug fix in a matter of minutes before. With the move to online-only hosting, the CB can benefit from this as well.

This also means that the feature set announced and deployed on day 1 will probably be outdated by day 2. Even if it doesn’t debut with the features you want, keep an eye out and maybe you’ll get lucky soon enough.

Note: To anyone who complains “They should not launch without X” (like exports), I get a little angry at that, since deploying before perfect is something we do a lot. Assume it will take N days to finish a feature. Would you rather have the entire launch delayed by N days, or have it launch now with the new feature added N days from now? The answer seems obvious to me. What am I missing?

Internet needed

<hypocrisy>
I really sympathize with all the people who feel angry at losing offline access. Many people are of the opinion that soon everyone will have ubiquitous internet. I think we’ll have spotty access for years to come, and even when the moment of ubiquity comes, it won’t always be convenient. For example, people with internet via their mobile phone still might not be able to utilize the CB, unless they’re tethering to a laptop. Or, you’ll be in an airport that wants to charge you $20 an hour. Believe me, lack of convenient Internet access will continue to plague us for many years to come, and woe to the web application that doesn’t take this into account.
</hypocrisy>

It’s tough for me to fault the DDI team here, as Obsidian Portal is online-only as well. But, we’ve always been that way, unlike the CB. A lot of people got used to using it a certain way, and now that’s being taken away. If it had always been web based, there would be no uproar.

There’s always the chance that the DDI team will use some of Silverlight’s offline features to remedy this issue, allowing the users to cache a local copy of their character for offline use. Honestly, I have my doubts on this one. If they truly want to enforce the “must have a DDI subscription” rule, then that means forcing the user to log in for access.

You don’t need it anyway

I’m still surprised at the people who conflate the DDI tools with 4E. I even saw one commenter complain that it’s impossible to create a 4E PC without the CB. This came as a great surprise to me (and surely many other Mac users), as I’ve been playing a cleric for a while now and I’ve managed him completely by hand. I’m not chest-thumping my awesomeness here, just saying that I have been quite satisfied with paper and pencil. Surely it helps that I only have the PHB, but I find that perfectly sufficient for my needs.

Overall: a plus

With any non-trivial change, some will be hurt and some will be helped. That’s a lesson I know very well. In all, I’d say the move to web only for the CB is a positive one, but I’ll have to reserve judgement to see how well it is deployed and maintained. At the very least, I’m much more likely to purchase a DDI subscription now, knowing it will work on my Mac.

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  1. My sentiments have been largely mirrored here. I understand the desire for help in building characters, but the availability of such tools has made some DMs rather soft, in my opinion. I think this is likely to be a condition of growing severity as the years move on. I find this scenario to be akin to the negative aspects of calculators on basic math skills, or spell check on basic spelling and grammar. If the Internet isn’t available, any DM worth his or her salt should be capable of adjusting to the loss rather seamlessly, and I think these emerging tools, while clever and intuitive, may cause more harm than good in this regard.

  2. My sentiments have been largely mirrored here. I understand the desire for help in building characters, but the availability of such tools has made some DMs rather soft, in my opinion. I think this is likely to be a condition of growing severity as the years move on. I find this scenario to be akin to the negative aspects of calculators on basic math skills, or spell check on basic spelling and grammar. If the Internet isn’t available, any DM worth his or her salt should be capable of adjusting to the loss rather seamlessly, and I think these emerging tools, while clever and intuitive, may cause more harm than good in this regard.

  3. Finally a voice of reason! Many of points you made, I made in 140 characters or less over the course of several tweets. Due to my status as a freelancer for WotC, they largely get shrugged off (freelancers are not employees! :p) I feel this is the correct direction for WotC and it opens up so many more opportunities and benefits. Anyways, we’ll see how it all pans out.

  4. Finally a voice of reason! Many of points you made, I made in 140 characters or less over the course of several tweets. Due to my status as a freelancer for WotC, they largely get shrugged off (freelancers are not employees! :p) I feel this is the correct direction for WotC and it opens up so many more opportunities and benefits. Anyways, we’ll see how it all pans out.

  5. I agree with every point you’ve made, with one caveat. Using the Silverlight plug-in means that I will not be able to access the character builder from my iPhone, something I immediately hoped to do once I heard the tool was going web-based. Perhaps WotC will come out with an iPhone-native sister-app for character viewing / maintenance.

  6. I agree with every point you’ve made, with one caveat. Using the Silverlight plug-in means that I will not be able to access the character builder from my iPhone, something I immediately hoped to do once I heard the tool was going web-based. Perhaps WotC will come out with an iPhone-native sister-app for character viewing / maintenance.

  7. I think the biggest jaw dropping ‘wtf are you serious’ moment for me during the D&D twit/blogpocalypse was the mention of 5e, along the sky falling and richard simmons becoming president. The amount of rabble things like this stir up in people is beyond my comprehension I suppose.

    Okay I understand not everyone has constant net access, perhaps limited access and I understand their concerns wholly, but this is 2010 and I’m sure those folks are in the minority.

    Also Greywulf put it best with his FORTRAN comment, because really who gives a sh!t if it works the way it’s supposed to. If silverlight dies then it dies, it doesn’t mean the knowledge is going to be wiped from the developers heads leaving us with nothing, and by the time a new technology needs to be considered maybe a new edition of D&D will be rolling out anyways. Yep I just said that, I’ll follow it up with this

    When “5e” comes out I’ll likely buy into it.

    My only pitfall: Not being able to save my characters locally for my own use in 3rd party applications was the only thing that really bugs me, WoTC’s whole monopolistic attitude on software is a bit silly IMO. I understand that these apps use their intellectual property, but in a realm of gaming where everything is constantly being customized, personalized, and house ruled D&D becomes more of an “idea” than a hard set piece of code. I just wish they’d flex a little bit more with these folks before sending Cease & Desist orders.

    Anyway now that I’m entirely off topic as usual….
    Well put Micah! Keep on keepin’ on.

  8. I think the biggest jaw dropping ‘wtf are you serious’ moment for me during the D&D twit/blogpocalypse was the mention of 5e, along the sky falling and richard simmons becoming president. The amount of rabble things like this stir up in people is beyond my comprehension I suppose.

    Okay I understand not everyone has constant net access, perhaps limited access and I understand their concerns wholly, but this is 2010 and I’m sure those folks are in the minority.

    Also Greywulf put it best with his FORTRAN comment, because really who gives a sh!t if it works the way it’s supposed to. If silverlight dies then it dies, it doesn’t mean the knowledge is going to be wiped from the developers heads leaving us with nothing, and by the time a new technology needs to be considered maybe a new edition of D&D will be rolling out anyways. Yep I just said that, I’ll follow it up with this

    When “5e” comes out I’ll likely buy into it.

    My only pitfall: Not being able to save my characters locally for my own use in 3rd party applications was the only thing that really bugs me, WoTC’s whole monopolistic attitude on software is a bit silly IMO. I understand that these apps use their intellectual property, but in a realm of gaming where everything is constantly being customized, personalized, and house ruled D&D becomes more of an “idea” than a hard set piece of code. I just wish they’d flex a little bit more with these folks before sending Cease & Desist orders.

    Anyway now that I’m entirely off topic as usual….
    Well put Micah! Keep on keepin’ on.

  9. I think one plan for iPhone support would be to open up an API and allow 3rd party developers to make an iPhone app for it. At the very least, a read-only display would be nice. Then again, it’s always easy to say “make an API!” and completely ignore the inherent complexity of the underlying functionality.

  10. I think one plan for iPhone support would be to open up an API and allow 3rd party developers to make an iPhone app for it. At the very least, a read-only display would be nice. Then again, it’s always easy to say “make an API!” and completely ignore the inherent complexity of the underlying functionality.

  11. 1st, we’ll written… ditto to a lot of what you and your commenters hv said. 2nd bummer to the 3rd party apps as I’ve been using them on my droid phone. 3rd what does this do to online tools like iplay4e and its off line tools? Oh the havoc…. but 4th, innovation demands change. And I for one like new mechanics and flavors. When I get to play it is never the same by choice. Could be the difference in. Using minis or tokens. Full ddi character sheets, Penciled, character cards or some sort of pdf i’ve made to mirror game day character sheets. Point is I like change to force me to look at it all over again. Now top that with the exclusivity ddi just created with online only. Will this make. Changes and up dates easier to implement and comprehend? Hope so. And then the money side. Some will take a stand and unsubscribe more will subscribe that have waited for the chance. (Cough) mac users (cough) and now license and register fees can be applied to 3rd parties of wotc chooses to cash in with those. So it’s win win win for me. With the pending iplay4e cascade effect of course.

  12. 1st, we’ll written… ditto to a lot of what you and your commenters hv said. 2nd bummer to the 3rd party apps as I’ve been using them on my droid phone. 3rd what does this do to online tools like iplay4e and its off line tools? Oh the havoc…. but 4th, innovation demands change. And I for one like new mechanics and flavors. When I get to play it is never the same by choice. Could be the difference in. Using minis or tokens. Full ddi character sheets, Penciled, character cards or some sort of pdf i’ve made to mirror game day character sheets. Point is I like change to force me to look at it all over again. Now top that with the exclusivity ddi just created with online only. Will this make. Changes and up dates easier to implement and comprehend? Hope so. And then the money side. Some will take a stand and unsubscribe more will subscribe that have waited for the chance. (Cough) mac users (cough) and now license and register fees can be applied to 3rd parties of wotc chooses to cash in with those. So it’s win win win for me. With the pending iplay4e cascade effect of course.

  13. First, I want to say upfront that I’m incredibly happy about the move to an online character builder. I’m a Mac user as well both at work and at home so having something I can access from everywhere is awesome.

    While I know it’s possible to build characters without the tool, I think it breaks down a bit when people have to create something higher than first level. Also I’ve found my players to be a bit lazy. We had a player who refused to get character builder and also refused to write up his powers in a format he could easily reference during game play. It ground the game to a halt as he looked stuff up in the books. On one hand, it’s easy to say we’re spoiled and should just dump lazy players, but we also have a hard time finding responsible, mature players for my group. These aren’t WotC’s problems, but anything they can do to help us would be great. I think a reader for existing characters without requiring a subscription would be great. In the genealogy sphere, Ancestry.com does this by providing the tree app for free and access to the research costs extra.

    To be honest, I’m more concerned about the monster builder. My players love powers with a lot of conditions and keeping track of them all is hard for me without a third-party app like 4e combat tracker. I’ve also tried the monster card method and it always becomes a mess behind my screen. While I may want to play D&D enough to keep at it even without the support of an app, I’m not sure everyone will. So the ability to be able to export monsters would be really nice or something that can work offline to run combat.

    I know it’s easy to say people should just deal, but if we say that to too many people, we might not have enough people to run or play games. A balance needs to be found somewhere. I’m confident they’ll find it.

  14. First, I want to say upfront that I’m incredibly happy about the move to an online character builder. I’m a Mac user as well both at work and at home so having something I can access from everywhere is awesome.

    While I know it’s possible to build characters without the tool, I think it breaks down a bit when people have to create something higher than first level. Also I’ve found my players to be a bit lazy. We had a player who refused to get character builder and also refused to write up his powers in a format he could easily reference during game play. It ground the game to a halt as he looked stuff up in the books. On one hand, it’s easy to say we’re spoiled and should just dump lazy players, but we also have a hard time finding responsible, mature players for my group. These aren’t WotC’s problems, but anything they can do to help us would be great. I think a reader for existing characters without requiring a subscription would be great. In the genealogy sphere, Ancestry.com does this by providing the tree app for free and access to the research costs extra.

    To be honest, I’m more concerned about the monster builder. My players love powers with a lot of conditions and keeping track of them all is hard for me without a third-party app like 4e combat tracker. I’ve also tried the monster card method and it always becomes a mess behind my screen. While I may want to play D&D enough to keep at it even without the support of an app, I’m not sure everyone will. So the ability to be able to export monsters would be really nice or something that can work offline to run combat.

    I know it’s easy to say people should just deal, but if we say that to too many people, we might not have enough people to run or play games. A balance needs to be found somewhere. I’m confident they’ll find it.

  15. I agree that this is largely a positive move. The main drawback is the initial lack of export support. On the wotc forums the dev manager said the first update/feature addition that will happen is am export to .dnd4e file format. I think the bad news with that announcement is this export is not going to be compatible with the current CB app. Not sure if the 3rd party apps will need to update to access these format changes.
    Wotc pushed the schedule of the file export to the top of the list after the outcry started. So they are listening some.

  16. I agree that this is largely a positive move. The main drawback is the initial lack of export support. On the wotc forums the dev manager said the first update/feature addition that will happen is am export to .dnd4e file format. I think the bad news with that announcement is this export is not going to be compatible with the current CB app. Not sure if the 3rd party apps will need to update to access these format changes.
    Wotc pushed the schedule of the file export to the top of the list after the outcry started. So they are listening some.

  17. If this will bring us updates and fixes faster, I am all for it! There really is no silver bullet, all-purpose answer for providing a tool like this that will make everyone happy, but the fact that WotC is investing sufficient time and resources to redesign the Compendium page and Character Builder says to me that they see the value of the digital tool suite and want to bring them to a wider audience.

    While there will no doubt be some hiccups during the transition and we will miss some features that are not immediately available, I have high hopes that this will be a better, more flexible solution in the end.

  18. If this will bring us updates and fixes faster, I am all for it! There really is no silver bullet, all-purpose answer for providing a tool like this that will make everyone happy, but the fact that WotC is investing sufficient time and resources to redesign the Compendium page and Character Builder says to me that they see the value of the digital tool suite and want to bring them to a wider audience.

    While there will no doubt be some hiccups during the transition and we will miss some features that are not immediately available, I have high hopes that this will be a better, more flexible solution in the end.

  19. I also second everything SarahDarkmagic said. Running one character with a manual character sheet is no problem at all, but I regularly run one-off games with a variable player base, so I always need a selection of pre-generated characters on hand. Creating and maintaining those before the Character Builder came along was tedious. Not difficult, just very, very tedious, especially once they started publishing errata on a regular schedule.

    If this new tool eventually morphs into something where I can provide a link to my stable of viewable/printable pre-gens and tell new players to find one they like and bring a copy to the game, I would be one very happy DM and DDI customer.

    My 3rd edition game also suffered from the effects of a player that had to look everything up on her turn, and this has become a non-issue with 4e and the Character Builder. If the player doesn’t grok a new power, I can have them hand me their sheet and explain it without ever breaking out a book unless we need to look up the mechanics behind a keyword we’re not familiar with.

    I am hoping that the Monster Builder will go to a similar online format, and perhaps eventually allow us to publish and share our creations with one another. This would probably make it easier for them to add a trap builder, encounter builder, and such to the mix because they won’t have to worry about testing data interchange and mixed functionality on a bunch of different platforms and environments. Whatever makes it easier for them to fix, update, and add new functionality is a win for us in my book.

  20. I also second everything SarahDarkmagic said. Running one character with a manual character sheet is no problem at all, but I regularly run one-off games with a variable player base, so I always need a selection of pre-generated characters on hand. Creating and maintaining those before the Character Builder came along was tedious. Not difficult, just very, very tedious, especially once they started publishing errata on a regular schedule.

    If this new tool eventually morphs into something where I can provide a link to my stable of viewable/printable pre-gens and tell new players to find one they like and bring a copy to the game, I would be one very happy DM and DDI customer.

    My 3rd edition game also suffered from the effects of a player that had to look everything up on her turn, and this has become a non-issue with 4e and the Character Builder. If the player doesn’t grok a new power, I can have them hand me their sheet and explain it without ever breaking out a book unless we need to look up the mechanics behind a keyword we’re not familiar with.

    I am hoping that the Monster Builder will go to a similar online format, and perhaps eventually allow us to publish and share our creations with one another. This would probably make it easier for them to add a trap builder, encounter builder, and such to the mix because they won’t have to worry about testing data interchange and mixed functionality on a bunch of different platforms and environments. Whatever makes it easier for them to fix, update, and add new functionality is a win for us in my book.

  21. Development and presentation platform is relevant insofar as it opens or closes the possibility of wider platform support. Using Silverlight means a missed opportunity to appeal the increasing numbers of tablet and smartphone users. I can understand why they used it though; their digital tools team already has .NET development tools and experience, and that likely counted for a lot more than the more difficult to prove proposition that supporting mobile devices would drive up subscription rates.

    For me, the main concerns are around ownership of data, and third party tools that make use of .dnd4e files.

    The first comes from the simple fact that once you store data on someone else’s systems, you no longer have control of it. There may be Terms and Conditions that leave you disadvantaged when it comes to your rights to dictate how your data is accessed and processed. This may not seem very important when it comes to character information for a game, but it is *your* data, and you should have concerns about your control over it.

    Secondly, I was concerned that the lack of a structured data export function would mark the start of a digital “land grab” by WotC. I was mollified somewhat when PaoloM posted that it will be added in an early update; however, that the feature wasn’t considered important enough to be included at launch suggests to me that there is a significant disconnect between the priorities of the digital tools group and the priorities of a significant portion of the user base. My more paranoid side whispers that it was a deliberate omission with the hope that noone would complain about it, but that’s likely me assigning a more negative set of motivations to Hasbro than they probably deserve.

    It’s a shame that the update won’t support exporting compatible characters to the offline character builder though, that is one way they could have retained some goodwill. However, they want to deprecate it as soon as possible, and making sure that newly generated characters cannot be used with it is one way to enforce that.

    In my mind, most of the source of the backlash against the new character builder is because the digital tools group were silent about what they were working on, especially during the last few months when character builder updates were shoddy and sporadic. I don’t blame PaoloM and his team for that; I expect Hasbro’s legal team decided, based on the form of the digital tools group at 4E’s launch, that it was too risky to have them engage with the community during the pre-launch development of the new web tools, perhaps in fear that it may have an unexpected impact on Hasbro’s stock price. Ironically, not engaging with players has lost them a lot of good will (the tone of the threadnought on the WotC boards demonstrates that) which may well translate to net lost subscriptions. Whether the income figures will climb back over time depends on many factors, not least of which is whether a sufficient proportion of those who used to only subscribe one month in four for updates, or even outright pirate the old software, will switch to a full-time subscription.

  22. Development and presentation platform is relevant insofar as it opens or closes the possibility of wider platform support. Using Silverlight means a missed opportunity to appeal the increasing numbers of tablet and smartphone users. I can understand why they used it though; their digital tools team already has .NET development tools and experience, and that likely counted for a lot more than the more difficult to prove proposition that supporting mobile devices would drive up subscription rates.

    For me, the main concerns are around ownership of data, and third party tools that make use of .dnd4e files.

    The first comes from the simple fact that once you store data on someone else’s systems, you no longer have control of it. There may be Terms and Conditions that leave you disadvantaged when it comes to your rights to dictate how your data is accessed and processed. This may not seem very important when it comes to character information for a game, but it is *your* data, and you should have concerns about your control over it.

    Secondly, I was concerned that the lack of a structured data export function would mark the start of a digital “land grab” by WotC. I was mollified somewhat when PaoloM posted that it will be added in an early update; however, that the feature wasn’t considered important enough to be included at launch suggests to me that there is a significant disconnect between the priorities of the digital tools group and the priorities of a significant portion of the user base. My more paranoid side whispers that it was a deliberate omission with the hope that noone would complain about it, but that’s likely me assigning a more negative set of motivations to Hasbro than they probably deserve.

    It’s a shame that the update won’t support exporting compatible characters to the offline character builder though, that is one way they could have retained some goodwill. However, they want to deprecate it as soon as possible, and making sure that newly generated characters cannot be used with it is one way to enforce that.

    In my mind, most of the source of the backlash against the new character builder is because the digital tools group were silent about what they were working on, especially during the last few months when character builder updates were shoddy and sporadic. I don’t blame PaoloM and his team for that; I expect Hasbro’s legal team decided, based on the form of the digital tools group at 4E’s launch, that it was too risky to have them engage with the community during the pre-launch development of the new web tools, perhaps in fear that it may have an unexpected impact on Hasbro’s stock price. Ironically, not engaging with players has lost them a lot of good will (the tone of the threadnought on the WotC boards demonstrates that) which may well translate to net lost subscriptions. Whether the income figures will climb back over time depends on many factors, not least of which is whether a sufficient proportion of those who used to only subscribe one month in four for updates, or even outright pirate the old software, will switch to a full-time subscription.

  23. The only problem I have with this post is that one of those benefits is false. Wizards has explicitly stated DDI subscribers will NOT receive content any faster, and they have made it clear that not all monthly updates will include actual content updates, either.

    The main complaints people are having about the new Character Builder are that Wizards has spent two years promising electronic improvements over and over and then under-delivering on those promises. Add to that their deception and misleading information about this move, and the fact that the removal of features people are currently using, and breaking features in the existing tools (their most recent update to each tool, performed with knowledge of this Character Builder coming soon but not yet announced, completely broke the Monster Builder, and removed the ability to purchase magic items in the Character Builder), and you have quite a bit of justified anger.

  24. The only problem I have with this post is that one of those benefits is false. Wizards has explicitly stated DDI subscribers will NOT receive content any faster, and they have made it clear that not all monthly updates will include actual content updates, either.

    The main complaints people are having about the new Character Builder are that Wizards has spent two years promising electronic improvements over and over and then under-delivering on those promises. Add to that their deception and misleading information about this move, and the fact that the removal of features people are currently using, and breaking features in the existing tools (their most recent update to each tool, performed with knowledge of this Character Builder coming soon but not yet announced, completely broke the Monster Builder, and removed the ability to purchase magic items in the Character Builder), and you have quite a bit of justified anger.