D&D Insider thoughts...

Author: Andrew /

You know, I just had an interesting discussion today about some frustrations over D&D Insider. For those of you who don't know, D&D Insider is the subscription based plan that Wizards of the Coast offers for *around* 10 bucks a month. Not as much as an MMO but not dirt cheap / free either. Now, this said, it contains a lot of things, and those things are:

Dragon Magazine: Dragon Magazine used to be an actual published, buy-it-at-your-local-news-stand magazine, printed on that thing that's so becoming obsolete nowadays... What's it called? ... Oh yeah, paper. Anyways, Dragon contains so neat stuff. Mainly it contains stuff usable by players and DM's that tend to be, more or less, functional things. It has interesting game articles, it has stuff having to do with character creation, in-game locations (like cities and whatnot), etc. One of the other really cool things is that they publish content from upcoming books that tend to run about 35$ apiece, such as most recently, the Psion class available in the Players Handbook 3, which should be coming out in March of 2010, give or take a few months.

Dungeon Magazine: Dungeon used to be the sister mag to Dragon and used to also be on news stands most everywhere. This tends to be a magazine tailored to Dungeon Masters, more or less. It contains articles from the developers as well as actual designed adventures and encounters. Stuff you could throw into a game that way. Also a cool mag.

Digital Tools: This is super new (in relation to D&D) and it promised to be quite spectacular. The digital tools were meant to be downloadable tools which could be used to enhance your D&D experience. There were a whole list of awesome things coming down the pike. Among the original things slated was the D&D Character Builder, The D&D Compendium (an online searchable directory, not a downloadable bit of software), The Character Visualizer, Dungeon Builder and the D&D Game Table. Also, now, there is D&D Adventure Tools which includes the Monster Creator and only the Monster Creator, at the moment, but the opening "menu" has four buttons of five that are blanked out, looking to be spots for new applications to follow in the suite.

Now, all that said, there are some cool things and, truth be told, there are some things that are rather un-cool.

Amongst the cool things are the Character Builder. That's probably one of my favorite tools to use. It makes character building a snap and, so long as I'm doing online gaming and whatnot, I don't have to waste ink and paper. It also handily includes any races or classes released as bonus material in Dragon Magazine, as well as anything that's playable as a character out of the Monster Manual. It takes you through in nice easy steps, takes care of the majority of the math and sets up a great looking character sheet for you, to the point where you can even throw in a little .png file picture to use as a supposed character portrait so you can get an idea of what your character looks like. If you're Photoshop (or other picture editing program) savvy and artistically inclined, you can create your own pictures, save them as .png files and toss those in the file containing the pics and use your own. I really dig that.

Also within the realm of "cool stuff" is early viewing of content. I love getting my hands on a new class or a new race that gives me capabilities I didn't have before, that give me options I didn't have before and flavor i didn't have before. Granted, you COULD bend flavor around the other classes (you could have a fighter who's a theif, for example, but a rogue would just be a bit easier / more conducive to your goal, usually).

Now, unfortunately, there are some negatives. One big negative that I've heard talked about (and am still a tad on the fence about myself) is the subscription fee. Now, as Dungeon and Dragon used to be published magazines, I can understand the monthly fee for monthly content. That's understandable. That said, they've eliminated the need for paper, printing, publishing, etc. At least in big ways they've trimmed it down and saved money. I'm not saying that this negates costs altogether but I think it probably made it a lot cheaper. It makes me wonder about the price.

Also, an interesting little insight came my way and turned me on to the fact that some players really have a problem paying for updates to a program they buy, because once you download the character builder, you own it and can use it indeffinately with the content you've gotten while subscribing. This is where I'm on both sides of the issue. On the one hand, they're releasing new content on a monthly basis in the way of a new class, new race, new feats or whatever and once you've updated your character builder, you've got it and that's that. That said, a lot of people i've talked to think that the content offered isn't worth the money. I think it's cool and I like it but at times it does seem a bit sparse.

Attached to that is also the quality of the software. A lot of times there are bugs. Some pretty obvious or bad bugs. Bugs that are mentioned on the forum but, to my knowledge, seem to go unaddressed. Just about any patcher out there for software can do a hotfix for major issues. It seems that the software is still rather glitchy for a lot of people, leading them to believe to the extent that the company released, in actuality, something of beta test quality instead of final quality while still charging a price reminiscent of final version software.

Also a gripe with me personally is the promise of great things and then having them just go away. The above mentioned Game Table was going to be a utility that would allow gamers to connect all over the world. Gamer groups could connect with eachother thousands of miles apart and it could breathe new life into the game, even moreso than 4th ed did! It was a fantastic idea with high production value. It had a 3D dice tray with some physics to it where you could throw digital dice and, more or less, they'd react as real dice. There was a 3D window where a DM could import dungeons made with the companion Dungeon Builder and where players could import character figures custom created in the Character Visualizer and be able to play across the 3D map. This also had tools such as vision distortion for the players (also called "fog-of-war") which would hide things the players "can't see" yet and neat lighting effects. There's nothing out there on the market like this and I think that not making it was a huge loss and also took away from something that a lot of people payed good money for, thinking they were going to get it.

What's more, some of the software seems low quality. Now, I know what goes into making a game, I know that teams are tough and that schedules and deadlines need to be made and all the woes of production; I went to school specifically for game production. That said, it seems like the software quality is sub-par and if it isn't, the bug-fixing needs to happen more than a patch once a month. Included in that is the fact that even though a person is subscribing, they only get up to 5 updates a month. That's it. If they have errors and have to attempt updating again and lose their updates, that's it. Instead, I very much think that if you're paying to have some kind of software, as long as you're paying, you should have access to all the updates you need to keep things in top shape and best working order. Limited patches doesn't make sense and I feel it should be done away with.

Another gripe I have is perhaps with Hasbro or other company higher-ups with Wizards or someone who I'm not totally aware of. All I know is that, due to this economy (which is not entirely anyone's fault), Wizards of the Coast had to make lay-offs. This coming soon after they just released a great product and then they had to cut people. You know what people they cut? A big fat chunk of the Digital team. After that, you know what happened? The game table, the visualizer, the dungeon building utility, all shelved and the website was restructured to not indicate the existence of those things in any way. This frustrates me because, due to a decision made by some suits up top, a team got cut that could have HUGELY impacted the role-playing-game scene at large in a gigantic way. Those tools could have paved the way for entire new types of games, let alone new types of game-play. The tools also could have been fantastic marketing tools, as friends could get other friends who live very far away, into the game when otherwise, they might not get into it. That's free money that's just being turned down and it doesn't make sense to me.

*Sigh* I really do like Wizards and I love D&D. Like I've said a million times over, it's my favorite game ever. Sure, there are some things it lacks in a few places but overall, it's a blast and has brought more inspiration to me in the past years than anything else has in my life. But Wizards, you've got a great thing possible with D&D Insider and you're not using it to its potential; you're just not. Now, whether its the fault of not having enough dough, or whether it's having a vision that the players just may not know about or whether it's just a whim, I think that being in there and helping with the decision making, I'd change a few things and I'm pretty sure it would make a good deal of money. You are a business, after all, and I understand. I just think that changing gears and bringing back some of the awesome things that were promised at the beginning could really bolster your company in a lot of ways.

Guys, as always, thanks for reading and this, by no means, is me hating on Wizards, it's me trying to give some constructive criticism that, thanks to a buddy of mine, I was enlightened to today. I think it needs to be said and I think the players need to speak up more and try to let the company know what we really want. And maybe the majority really did want what they're doing right now but being a silent minority without even getting some answer, even if it's to the negative, isn't helpful. We can't gripe in the shadows but not get a word out asking for what we really want.

For me, it's more classes that feel different from the others, as well the old suite of D&D Insider software tools. If they got those back, I'd be a really happy camper.

Thanks again for reading and I'm thinkin' a lot of comments are comin' on this one. lol



silent stone said...

I agree, constructive criticism is essential to the continued existence of D&D as a hobby...of course, now the question becomes, how do we criticize the acknowledged problems with WotC in general and DDI in particular in a constructive way, a way that will result in an improvement?

If we want our voices to help shape what D&D will be in the future, we've got to go beyond simply saying "what you did sucks" (or words to that effect). That isn't constructive.

We need to be able to say, "This is what you did wrong, this is why it was wrong, and this is how you could do it better." That last part is the key. If someone isn't bringing any new ideas to the table, they're not being constructive—they're just whining. Whining may serve a purpose, but it won't fix the problem.

The Game Table and the Visualizer were casualties of the economic downturn. I really don't think that WotC had much of a choice in shelving those ideas—without much money coming in, they couldn't justify gambling their budget on such an ambitious (and risky) project.

What we can do is keep clamoring for these projects to be restarted (without being jerks about it, because they could rightly be expected to simply ignore abusive litanies of perceived offenses), and let them see that there is still a market for these sorts of initiatives.

The rise of Internet piracy has also put a huge dent in WotC's online plans. The limited number of updates for the CB is a result of this (the limit is to keep one person from subscribing and letting everyone in the world use his account and get their updates for free). The termination of pdf sales is another effect of piracy (pdfs are notoriously easy to share).

How about we find a way that they can increase the number of updates without opening the doors to rampant abuse? Is there a means by which subscribers can obtain an extra update or two in event of catastrophic computer failure, perhaps by contacting Customer Support?

Personally, I don't think the CB is a subpar program (I haven't had the problems with bugs that others seem to have had). But for the sake of this discussion, let's say it actually is a subpar piece of software. Just saying "it sucks" doesn't help much. How about we pinpoint a specific problem? How about we suggest specific features that could be added? Is the interface clunky? If so, how could it be improved?

Really, WotC's online and computer-based initiatives for 4E are not perfect (I would score them as merely "good"), but if all we do is just whine about how much they suck, nothing will change. We (and by "we" I mean WotC's customer base as a whole) need to step up and actually try contributing to the process. When they announce something new, give them feedback on it. Participate in online discussions, especially on the official forums. Send emails to WotC detailing specific problems and how we would like to see them fixed.

And then: don't just dog them for the negatives. Cheer them on for the positives. Positive feedback ("This is a great idea") is every bit as important as negative feedback ("This was a mistake"), if not more so. When all the vocal minority does is complain, it is easier to justify marginalizing them as a vocal minority.

Really, being a passive consumer who refuses to plays any role in the shaping of the hobby is for chumps.

Andrew said...

I appreciate that, Silent and totally agree. I hope I didn't come off that way (as whining and not being constructive) because I was trying to be. That said, I think your perspectives are dead on and I think that WotC has reasons for their moves and that some of it is justified / understandable. I, also, have had not problems with the CB but I've heard from a buddy of mine in particular who's had a helluva time with it and on top of that, found lots of people on the forums who have too. I would agree that the software is good. Not amazing, but good. I think there are multiple ways to step things up such as maybe bi-monthly updates instead of every month. Perhaps codes could be e mailed to insiders for special content within the month.

Other stuff I'd like to see, that I've just been hearing a lot about too, is some class diversity. One huge thing I hear from people is that all the classes play so much alike and, to a certain extent, I have to agree. I love the ease of accessibility of the game but some advanced rules or something might be cool.

Also, I'd like an ability builder, where you can design and implement feats into the game, just like the monster builder. They could use the feats as feat types, they could have custom abilities, etc. I think this ability for custom character content could make for very interesting characters. Maybe they could even have a class builder. That'd be really complex but there could be power sources to choose from, whether they use implements or not, etc and there could be internal balance sensing (like with the CB) so that you could tell that your homebrew class would gel with the core ones. There could also be an option to be able to import your custom class into the CB and it could be under a heading of "Homebrew Classes". I think that would answer the complaints of "Classes aren't original!" by saying "Here, make whatever kinda class you want! Here are some templates if you want."

I think that'd be awesome and I know they could do it.

I hope some developers at WotC get a good look at this and take some great stuff away. This is some meaty business.

silent stone said...

Oh, don't get me wrong Andrew, my comment about whining wasn't directed at you.

Lincoln said...

As far as comments go, 100% agreed. as far as the post goes... well, also 100% agreed. As a consumer who bought DDI, i was looking forward to all the programs/software that would become available to me, and really, i feel like all i'm really paying for is the Character builder and the Compendium... which i rarely use, as i don't/haven't DM'd in my life yet, and it may or may not be happening soon.
As far as my thoughts on How they could fix, or improve upon their products... yes, constructive criticism helps... but the fact still stands that, most likely, they have thought of these things already, after all, they PAY people to think of these things. So if this is read, keep up the appreciated work WotC, but please please please please PLEASE, bring back (my bonny to me! to me!) the other programs!

Andrew said...

Well, it's not so much that they took them away to take them away just to do something else. It comes down to the fact that they didn't have the money. It's going to take some doing for them to get those other products back in production. They need more people, they need good and capable people and they need cash. Us subscribing is going to help with that, as well as picking up new books when they come out. I think about it this way. When I buy a product from them, I'm not really paying for the book, I see it as donating 35 bucks to the company so they can keep producing stuff, can put my money towards program production and the hiring of more people and then I just consider the book a "freebie" for donating.

Adam said...

Hell, if they need some help with development, they can call me up, I'll work for the kicks and XP :D

Adam said...

By the way, I decided to wait on the insider since the 3rd ed character generator never got past the demo. Glad I waited, but I hope that it will be more worth paying for later. Hopefully this time we will have less unnessesary expansion books and more techno help. I'd pay for some easy to use DM tools.

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