Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Character Builder goes online!

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.

The catch.

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.

What now?

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.


  1. Character Builder never came out for Mac, right? I guess this is why.

  2. Kinda figured this one would be coming. :)

    On the upside, it's platform-neutral now.

    On the very serious downside, it stabs a dagger right through the heart of my ability to prep during my downtime at work.

    I hate to say it, but being a PC-user, I see this as all downside without an upside.

  3. I am wondering why it is not only HTML+javascript.
    It would not have been so difficult.

  4. The Mac compatibility issue for the previous version had more to do with the app being based on .NET (which doesn't seem to work on Macs). As for the choice for the current platform, it looks like this experience of the dev team with .NET was a factor. Also, one of the programmers was commenting on the official forums, arguing about the quality of development tools for complex web apps in Silverlight vs other options.

  5. Data mining?! That's a violation of my character's privacy!

  6. I'd like to know how are they going to handle multiuser accounts. Now you could only download 5 updates per month so it is somehow controlled but via web? I imagine only one ip will be able to connect at a time… let's see what happens.

  7. Re: multiuser accounts... I found the following on the official thread (http://community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/75882/26182237/November_16th_Release_for_Web-based_Character_Builder_-_Discussion)

    > 19. Will it be possible to use the tools with more than one IP at a time? Such as a VTT on the PC and the compendium on the laptop?

    >In general, I don't see why not. There may be issues working with the Character Builder on the same character at the same time from multiple locations, so please don't do that.

  8. Yay! No more Windows emulation, slow and painful updates and update limits, e-mailing characters just to have them everywhere... I only see the pirates getting hurt. And if Wizards makes more money in the process... well, I don't really care.

    PD: Oh, not being able to work offline does indeed suck :S

  9. No ability to export a character - so no using offline tools that used the old character builder format. No way for a DM to verify a character by just plugging it into CB...

    Oh, and you give Wizards an irrevocable right to do whatever they want with any information you post to your character.

    Sounds like a wonderful tool.

  10. No ability to export a character - so no using offline tools that used the old character builder format. No way for a DM to verify a character by just plugging it into CB...

    Oh, and you give Wizards an irrevocable right to do whatever they want with any information you post to your character.

    Sounds like a wonderful tool.

  11. Character export and sharing won't be available at launch, but they are, allegedly, to be added in upcoming updates (with export getting a very high priority, after seeing player feedback). Now, whether the software update schedule will bring new features in months, or in years, is something that can't be told, yet.

    The tool developers seem fairly confident, not only in their ability to implement upgrades in a reasonable timeframe, but also in the release of additional tools (including, but apparently not limited to, the online monster builder).

    Now, everybody is free not to trust Wizards at this (and they have given users a number of reasons not to), but I choose to give them the benefit of doubt (again), in the hope that they will deliver something new. If nothing else, the move to online should make it easier to integrate whatever new stuff they are brewing.

    As for the data mining, I'm curious... what negative consequences can be expected from them doing so? I guess some players will be zealous of their character's information, perhaps out of principle... but I never worried too much about that kind of stuff.

  12. I'm pretty sick of the argument that people who sign up twice a year are ripping off WotC. If I was not compelled by the magazine content or the other tools I would feel ripped off to be paying $70/year to use the Character Builder. It's a great tool but seriously, $70 every year to play D&D on top of the hundreds I already spend on books and minis? The part that pisses me off the most is they are trying to squeeze money out of the one successful part of DDI, the character builder, rather than trying to build tools that will encourage more people to buy DDI. I'll take a look at the new tool but I'll be calling WotC for a refund on Nov 17th.

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  14. I suppose I look at this with the same mindset I approach buying comic books each week - if I continue to support the company with my money, it is an investment to continue enjoying something I love. Every week I throw down money on the counter of my local comic shop, something I've done since I was seven, I help pay the costs of developing those comics, keep the local store alive and keep my local economy functioning. Can I download those issues instead of having them in my hands for $3-4 each? Absolutely. But then the avenue of cash to those creators would dry up, the series I like would crash and I wouldn't have anything good to read.

    The same applies here. Does Wizard make a metric ton of money from these online purchases? Of course, but what do they do with it? Likely if the support of an online service shows an increase in income for the company, more attention will be paid towards it. If it fails to bring in a lot of loot, then they'll axe it entirely.

    For me, it's an investment. It it flawless, no, but I liked how the original, downloadable builder expanded the longer it existed, and I will stick around, with my month-to-month 'donation' to the Wizard cause, to ensure that the online version does the same.

    Now, I am fully aware people see this as a blanketly naive way of viewing how the gaming economy works, but likely those are the same people torrenting pdfs of each release, complaining when Wizards doesn't get something right, so they have to go download Pathfinder instead.

  15. I hope they'll make a trial available because forming new groups with 4e noobs is a pain right now. It's hard enough to convince people to play a new system or start roleplaying altogether. Right now, this forces potential players to buy a rulebook/subscription right off the bat or requires intensive counseling by the DM in the character generation process where you could just let them play with the builder beta before.

    Oh and Stephen? Class act. Closing your little anecdote with a "if you don't agree with me you are just dirty pirates anyway" ad hominem. Go the extra mile next time and call them all out as closet pedophiles, why even showing restraint, ey?