Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Online Monster Builder, integrated DDI tools.

The D&D Insider service has seen better times. During the last months, subscribers have suffered a slow, but noticeable decline in magazine content (particularly when it comes to new options for players), a Monster Builder plagued by annoying bugs, an awkward transition of Character Builder to an online model (which many people perceive as a downgrade), and many delayed updates. The good news, such as the announcement of the beta for the Virtual Table(or rather, the confirmation that the VT would actually exist!) and the promise of a tighter development process for magazine content, were hardly enough compensation, and we couldn’t help but feeling that the service just wasn’t as satisfying as a year ago. The latest announcement from Wizards of the Coast may be the first step towards correcting this trend.

The long promised online Monster Builder is ready to enter beta this week, which should be great news for those who had been struggling with its buggy offline incarnation. As with the Character Builder, the move to an online model means that the tool is no longer usable if you let your DDI subscription expire, but the fact that the offline MB hasn’t been working all that well for a long time means that this time the change has a clear advantage for current customers. It could be argued that the most annoying bugs, which weren’t present when the tool originally launched, should have been more than fixed by now, but at least this is a solution.

Anyway, the bit that has got me excited is a different one. In the following days, the Virtual Table beta is going to incorporate new functionality, as they will enable the connectivity with Character Builder and Monster Builder. I think this is a great improvement, and the first tangible benefit we get from having online tools. The VT beta has been going for a couple of months, now, and I even received an invitation a while ago. I tried it out, and found that it was a solid piece of software, with a nice user interface and most of the features I needed (keeping in mind that I have no real interest in playing online sessions, but was intrigued by its potential as an aid for my tabletop games) except for one crucial point: creating characters and monsters was a pain. Integration with the remaining DDI tools was the logic solution, but not only was it missing from the beta: it wasn’t even mentioned for future plans. So it is a relief to know that they had actually though of this and that it is, in fact, almost done now.

So it seems like we aren’t too far off from a fully functional Virtual Table and Monster Builder. If we add to that the dozens of Character Builder bugs that have been addressed in the latest update, we are approaching a point where the DDI tools can have most of the functionality that was offered a year ago, and add some really cool stuff on top of that. Now they just need to put some actual content in Dragon magazine...

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