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This also means that the feature set announced and deployed on day 1 will probably be outdated by day 2.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

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.

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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