Not everybody loves Dungeons&Dragons Insider, but it’s hard to deny that its Character Builder has been a roaring success. I know I have become an addict to quick, automated character generation, and I shudder at the thought of playing with hand-made sheets for anything other than level 1 games. With this in mind, the latest official announcement about the future of DDI tools will have far-reaching consequences for many fans: the days of Character Builder as a desktop application are over because, starting November 16th, it will receive a major facelift and become completely web-based.
The hard truth.
Regardless of other advantages of going online, I can think of a single real reason for this change: money. The business model of DDI had so far been extremely friendly (some could say exploitable) for consumers, as it was a theoretically subscription-based product that nevertheless left most of its components working even after you stopped playing. As an ex-subscriber, you kept access to all old Dungeon and Dragon magazines (provided you had saved the pdfs), and had a fully functional character editor. Only the Rules Compendium went away, but that is far from the most appealing element. Sure, you wouldn’t be getting the latest updates... but you’d always be able to get a 1-month subscription every 3 to 6 months (or even once a year, if you didn’t mind waiting) and keep mostly up to date for a fraction of the regular cost.
I am not arguing whether this was right or wrong - clearly, it was very convenient for players, but not so much for Wizards of the Coast. And it’s gone now.
What’s it like?
You can find the official announcement here, along with a bunch of screenshots and links to the FAQ. In essence, the Character Builder as we know it (and Monster Builder at a later date) will disappear, and in its place there will be a web application with pretty much the same functionality (minus the ability to work without an internet connection and a DDI subscription). The GUI has received an overhaul for the occasion, and it looks pretty good, so I’m hopeful that the user experience will improve. All character data will now be stored on the server, which will be a boon for those who, like me, have to keep track of characters generated in different places.
The technology it will be based on is Microsoft Silverlight, so you’ll be able to access it from Macs as well as Windows PCs. No details have been given about mobile phone compatibility, which might be possible on certain devices - but not on iPhones. There is no Linux support, either, though I’d be surprised if some kind of workaround didn’t exist for that.
With what I have explained so far, there is plenty of material to keep flamewars all over the Internet busy for a good while. But there is one more detail that is likely to infuriate the skeptics, and it’s related with the content updates. The new Builder will go live on November 16th, and it will include material from all books released until October, including Heroes of the Fallen Lands and the much awaited Dark Sun Campaign Setting. Where is the deal, then? Simultaneously, support for the current, offline Character Builder will cease, so the desktop application will never get Essentials or Dark Sun. The only way to build characters from those books, other than by hand, will be by being a subscriber when the new service comes out. So forgetting about DDI and sticking to the old builder won’t be completely possible - I know of many people who won’t miss the Essential books, but Dark Sun has been extremely popular, and its absence will definitely be painful.
It will be interesting to see how the issue develops in the following months. DDI has now become an all-or-nothing proposition, as there is little point in doing short-term subscriptions anymore - either you intend to be a subscriber for as long as you play 4E, or DDI will hold little value for you. Clearly, there will be a lot of very angry people who will consider this as an act of war and won’t ever touch DDI again, but also a number of occasional subscribers who will choose to go full-time in order to enjoy the full package. I am not sure these numbers will favor Wizards of the Coast, but we also have to take into account whatever new players are brought to the game by the Essentials line. To them, there won’t be an aggravating precedent of an offline Builder, so perhaps they will be more receptive to the new tools.
As for myself, I have to say I renewed my subscription (for a full year) when it ran out last week, so I can’t say the change will affect my economy in the short term. I generally like the idea, as I think the new interface should be an improvement, and I see value in storing all my characters online. But we’ll see.
One last advice, though. Even if you are downright furious for this turn of events, and consider that Wizards of the Coast has somehow betrayed you, I think you should think hard about it, and see if you have the latest version of the good old, offline Character Builder. Because if you don’t, it will only be available for download until the 16th, and even if it lacks the very latest books, it’s still a damn good tool, and well worth a month’s subscription rate and bit of wounded pride.
An intriguing side-effect
As an aside, there is a very intriguing consequence of the shift to online tools, in that developers have commented on the potential use of data mining to identify problematic game elements. So, if too many or too few players choose a certain option, R&D will take notice and take it into account when releasing new content, presumably improving balance overall, and likely using it for marketing purposes. This shouldn't raise privacy concerns, though - according to them, they only get access to the raw data, but not the identity of the users generating it.