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Marlett’s Musings: The DDI Debacle

By way of introduction, I’m one of Neuroglyph’s regular players, and I’ve been playing D&D, in various forms, since the early 1980s. I love the game, and have watched it evolve through the years, and when 4th edition was released, I immediately bought the 4E PHB and became enamored with the system.

And today, I’d like to talk about DDI.

I won’t go into the debacle of DDI at 4E’s launch.  Unfortunately, Wizards of the Coast chose the wrong company to produce the tools, and we all lost out (much like the eTools issues at the launch of 3rd edition).

WotC has had problems with DDI ever since they brought it in-house. Many products were shelved, and bugs abound, and the wheels have recently come entirely off the rails since the introduction of Essentials and Dark Sun.  I understand that the DDI team is still fairly small, and that they are also responsible for the WotC web site and other things around the company, but they have never produced the updates to the Character Builder and Adventure Tools in any timely fashion.

Dark Sun was on sale to the 4E Community at GenCon 2010, and our own Editor-in-Chief was able to fondle a copy of the Essentials “Red Box” while he was there covering the convention.  But neither of these products will be available in the Character Builder until later this month on November 16th.  And while nothing about database work is trivial, it’s not like the DDI team has to wait until there is a physical product on the shelves and “enter the data”.  Afterall, being in-house, they have access to the designers who can give them the text electronically and add it in!  After your program is stable, powers, feats, and items are essentially (no pun intended) should be just grunt-work data entry.  Admittedly, the auras and themes of D&D Essentials and Dark Sun are totally different animals, and might require a little more tinkering… but three months worth?!

And this takes us to my next point.  As you probably know, WotC announced that they are radically changing DDI.  It’s going to move to web-based tools, and they are abandoning the Windows-only .Net based Character builder to one based on Microsoft’s Silverlight technology – which incidentally, has long been a sore point to some in the D&D community who don’t have or want to use a Windows machine.  On the upside, this will finally allow Mac users to use the Character Builder natively!

But there is a problem, in that Silverlight isn’t available on the vast majority of mobile operating systems – neither Apple’s iOS (iPod, iPhone, and iPad) will run it, nor will any Android based systems.  I applaud WotC for making the tools a bit more platform agnostic, but will be an enormous infotech gaffe.

Many of us have been using computers to not only prepare for our games, but at the gaming table as well.  Our group has always had laptops in our various campaigns for the past 3 or 4 years now, but times have changed, and mobile devices are now the way to go.  Mobile devices have become enormously powerful now, with a greater battery life.  And they are much more table-friendly, and are not nearly as intrusive as a laptop.

I personally bring an iPad to our game, and I have used the DDI Compendium (which I still think should be a wiki, but that’s a whole ‘nother rant) quite often during play, not to mention other tools like the iPlay4e website to run my character.  There are some fantastic Android-based tablets coming out in the next few months, and nearly every major software and hardware company is starting to shift focus towards more lightweight, mobile platforms.  Using Silverlight, and failing to move DDI toward more mobile device compatibility makes it seem as though the product is aimed at the 4E Community as it was in 2007, and not 2010!

Disturbingly, WotC will not update the old Character Builder with Dark Sun or D&D Essentials content.  Although that product still works, it will no longer be receiving updates, and that’s not good for people who recently purchased products and hope to have a tool that they could use throughout their campaigns.  There are still many places without an internet connection where people will want to work on characters and play D&D 4E.  For example, how many FLGS’s offer free wifi?  So how many Players and DMs will be unable to use DDI applications during D&D Encounters sessions?

Clearly, from a business standpoint, the new DDI scheme makes total sense for WotC, by now requiring a subscription to use their tools – and it seems likely that everyone at the table may require their own.  Previously, there was a trend where many people who would subscribe for a couple months out of the year to download all the content that was available, and basically giving them the same content that people who paid for an annual subscription, but at a discounted rate!

But what I don’t like is the way the project feels as though it has been rushed out the door.  There are quite a few questions that haven’t been answered by the DDI Team as to how everything will work, and there are features which won’t be working at launch.  I’ve been told that the DDI studio lead was given 6 months to get the new products up and running, and that’s why they chose Silverlight, being an easy migration path from .Net.  However, given the fact that Microsoft themselves are phasing out Silverlight in favor of HTML5, it is looking potentially like wasted effort.

My grandfather always told me that if I have to do a job twice, then I’m twice the fool.

So to the Powers-That-Be at WotC:  Hey, Wizards, you are not a software company!  Please stop trying to act like one!  Find a decent programming house and have them develop your tools.  There are several folks in the gaming community that have produced some wonderful programs, and I’m sure they’d be more than willing to work with you on this. And while the DDI Tools probably should have been web-based from the beginning, I certainly don’t agree with the vacuum in which the DDI Team has been forced to operate, and the methods they are taking to make the switch.

Personally, I want to see the DDI Tools available anywhere, on any platform.  I love the interactivity of the i4e app, and the iPlay4e website, and being able to keep track of the various 4e conditions on players and monsters would be extremely helpful to our game.  I would love to be able to use tools like these, but which have been “blessed” by the official rules and product seals.

And the web is rapidly changing, with social media and social networking taking the forefront.  Imagine if the DDI tools would integrate with your Twitter or Facebook account, and allow campaign logging along the lines of the Obsidian Portal website?  Isn’t the whole point of D&D Essentials to help bring back old, lapsed players, while recruiting new ones?  It’s hard to believe that new gamers will just walk into an FLGS, or swing through the RPG section of a large bookstore, pick up the Essentials “Red Box”, and start playing.  But that might just happen if you socially network D&D 4E, and get the word out by allowing new prospective players to see what their friends and other gamers are doing!

DDI needs to be out in front, leading the charge of D&D into new social trends and new markets, and not tacked onto 4E as an afterthought.  Given its low priority, insufficient resources, and an out-dated vision, DDI Tools has little chance of being worth its own subscription fee, and that’s just bad news for D&D 4E gamers everywhere.

Editor’s Note: I want to thank Chris taking the time from his busy work schedule – not to mention braving “wife-aggro” and diaper-duty -  to write this editorial.  He brings up some good points and concerns about DDI which I hope will be addressed by WotC in the coming days and weeks.

So what is your take on the whole DDI changes?  Is Wizards of the Coast moving DDI in the right direction?  As always, your comments and feedback are most welcome!

About The Author

When not managing the IT Department for a mid-western university, Marlett likes to apply himself to healing his comrades in the thick of battle, preferably while drinking large amounts of dwarven ale and telling naughty elf-jokes. Incarnations of this stumpy, thick-bearded dwarf health-care worker have appeared in at least three different D&D campaigns, and at least four different MMOs, ready to triage his compatriots as they get mauled by horrible monsters!


4 Responses to “Marlett’s Musings: The DDI Debacle

  1. UHF says:

    I’m in the category of person who’s had features he likes removed. I’ve been subscribed for 1.5 years now, and I own almost all the 4e I can get my hands on. I love the stuff.

    I oddly find that I will be disappearing from the WOTC forums because I won’t be using this. In WOTC terms, I am lapsing.

    First, I don’t rent software. I own software. Period. If WOTC went its separate ways, I’d at least own my Character Builder. Now, this is not the case.

    Ownership. Is WOTC evil? No. Not now anyways. But Mike… you no longer own anything created with WOTC tools. Should you even be using WOTCs forums?

    Privacy. It would seem odd that a denizen of the internet would be concerned about privacy, but I am. I’m an introvert and actually quite private. Having someone skim through my stuff and cataloging it for their own use offends me. It feels like unwanted physical contact. I don’t use social media for these reasons. I don’t use Windows Live since it reports all web sites you go to directly to Microsoft. (No, I don’t think they are evil, but I don’t like it.) I may tweet soon… but its taken me while to get to that point.

    Essentials is now a very expensive on ramp for Dungeons and Dragons. I have 3 budding groups of kids who are all going to have to pass on Essentials. I know they won’t pay for or buy an online subscription. These kids are all the same age as I was when I started playing. Kids, repeat after me, “Mom, can I borrow your credit card.” I think you can see that their gaming needs will need to be filled else where. (I will be telling them not to buy Essentials… One group already has an original Red Box, and I have a spare.)

    I will honestly laugh if DDI subscription rates somehow double or quadruple ever this. I will even put my money where my mouth is, and renew my subscription if subscription rates are at 96,000 in 6 months. (Right now its at 41500ish, and at its present rate of adding subscriptions it should be at 47000ish in 6 months.) I also seriously doubt if more books are sold.

    Speaking of Evil.. How long will you have access to your online characters? If WOTC could switch to 5e right now, and cancel your service, would they? If 4e’s introduction was any example to look at, they surely would pull the plug. (Well, there would be rumors, and you’d get 2 weeks notice…)

  2. Fabio Milito Pagliara says:


    sorry I don’t get it

    1) I am going in my 3rd year of ddi subscription and I love it

    2) the char builder was good but the online one looks better

    3) to give out D&D rigths has proven to be disastrous

    4) dark sun and essentials? they are more complex that just adding the psionics and they were working on the new version

    5) you can’t use it on you smartphone/ipad we will see soon workaraund


  3. Chip Warden says:

    Personally, I like the change to web-based apps. As for Silverlight, I think this was a choice of expediency. There are lots of tools to migrate .Net apps to Silverlight, and indeed, Silverlight can be run on local machines (without Internet access). While I wish WotC would use server-side technologies coupled with some groovy JavaScript to allow for non-plugin-dependent web apps, I understand why they’ve gone with Silverlight.

  4. anarkeith says:

    Bottom line, I think WotC is trying to respond to a market that found ways to use their materials without paying for them, or at the very least, paying a lot less than WotC felt they were worth. Yes, WotC have handled the communications side of their “contract” with customers very poorly. And they are also guilty (IMO) of producing less-than-stellar solutions to address the needs of their customer base.

    I hope they recognize where they’ve missed the boat. Essentials is, I think, a bit of that. 4e classes felt too modular (read: similar). So, Essentials tweaks the class mechanics a bit to differentiate them. How WotC have marketed Essentials is a very different story, and I think part of their PR problem. Same with the Character Builder. The CB is a handy tool for building characters. Unfortunately, as implemented, it allowed a lot of people to access the full range of materials published by WotC without either buying books or maintaining a regular subscription to the service. They’ve addressed that shortfall by revising the CB. But what they told us (and what they didn’t tell us) was something very different.

    Perhaps they would have been better off just calling Essentials “4.5″ (as they did with 3.5, which I hated at the time, but appreciated once I explored the improvements they’d made), and saying that the changes in the CB were made to address the loopholes in their revenue models being exploited by users. Prices on products increase, and the market will either pay, or go elsewhere. That’s how the system works.
    .-= anarkeith´s last blog ..DMingtips for newbslike me =-.

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