My rant on WotC’s new Character Builder

CB Yesterday WotC has announced a new, web-based Character Builder for DDI subscribes. While a web-based solution may have some advantages and the screenshots look quite cool, I have some issues with that move by WotC. I haven’t had the chance to talk with our resident 4E fan about this, who has probably a better understanding of what the fans want, so take my musings with a grain of salt.

The new CB will make use of Microsoft’s Silverlight. Silverlight is basically Microsoft’s answer to Flash. While it obviously has some advantages when you’re a developer, it’s still a bad idea. IMHO it’s a transitional technology, it doesn’t run on Linux, and even Microsoft will probably focus on HTML5 in the future. Heck, even Flash would have been a better idea.

Cloud-based applications are pretty popular today, and I can clearly see why. It’s handy being able to access your data from every PC connected to the web. But that also raises privacy concerns. WotC already stated they will use data mining to find out what their customer create in the CB. What if WotC owns everything you created using their tools? Then D&D fans around the world provide their corporate masters with free characters all day! Yay!

IMO the new CB is just another ploy to bind people to DDI. You can’t use the CB when you’re offline and you can’t use it when you don’t have an active subscription. IMO the old CB, while not multi-platform, was more customer-friendly. Subscribers now can’t share the CB with their group without giving out their passwords. Another thing is missing features. The new CB will released with some features missing. While this is normally not a big deal and they already promised to add those features at a later date, WotC’s track report when it comes to fulfilling promises when DDI is concerned is less than stellar. Some of the DDI tools promised before even the game has been released are still missing.

Of course, WotC is free to pull the plug on the old CB, make unwise choices when it comes to the software used and announce features that never appear, but it’s just dumb from a PR standpoint. When it comes to the digital initiative a lot of current and former fans are pretty skeptical. Even bloggers who praise WotC’s products whenever they have the chance to, pointed out the flaws in this new plan. A happy customer is a good customer, but it seems Hasbro sees its customers more like crack addicts who will keep buying as long as the drug is provided regularly.

But seriously, I doubt that the people who are making the decisions really care. For Hasbro it all comes down to money. If the new DDI forces people to keep their subscriptions to be able to access their characters, they make more money. The old CB (and the fact that it’s almost essential to properly create characters) was the entrance drug. When you want to keep using it, you have to keep paying especially with the next 100-paged errata around the corner.

So why do I care? I don’t play D&D 4E and I don’t intend to do so in the future. But I still care, because in a way I am still emotionally invested in D&D and WotC. I loved D&D 3.5 and I bought a lot of WotC products a couple of years back. But now the company and a large part of the hobby are moving in a direction I am not comfortable with. Perhaps I am an old grognard after all.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

15 thoughts on “My rant on WotC’s new Character Builder”

  1. People might have to make characters… by hand! Using… their books, some paper and a PENCIL even! How will D&D 4e players ever get by?!

    Seriously, this whole thing is ridiculous. Yes, WotC/Hasbro are just jerking people around again, but all this over something nobody actually needs to play the game? I'm starting to think 4e players are disgustingly overentitled whiners.

  2. I have to admit that when it came to creating high-level characters in D&D 3.5 or d20 Modern, I relied on some software, too. Things could get very tedious very fast without computer aid. And I think it might be the same with D&D 4E.

    Creating a 1st level character shouldn't be the problem though.

  3. Although I don't care about D&D either, on a technical note, Silverlight is a plugin just like Flash is. However, HTML5 is not a plugin, which means most of the world (that is still using IE, sadly) can't view an HTML5 application because it isn't compliant. Even after IE9 is released, the number of people running non-HTML5 browsers will be vast. DDI could have used Flash, which is more broadly accepted, so that is a bit weird.

    Silverlight isn't transitional, though. It might seem that way to a broader web but to the thin-client-rich-experience industry, Silverlight is preferred to Flash because is built on the same technology that is used to write back-end systems – which is very appealing. You can use the same tools, developers and skill sets to solve the thin-client-rich-experience problem, rather than writing it all in JS+HTML. On cost alone, Silverlight is a smart choice. I'm bound to be proven wrong in the future the same way all the VRML advocates were but at the moment, Silverlight takeup is vast.

  4. Ranting about WotC on this blog? I thought we had agreed that would be my department! That’s what I get for disappearing for a couple of days, work be dammed I need to be here…

    Just joking, all kidding aside…

    I try to remain dispassionate about this since D&D 4th edition is not a game I play. Still I thought having to download the Character Builder was a hassle. I’ve become a fan of cloud-applications and I used to think, back when I played D&D 4th edition, that it would be nice if I could use this from various computers when I logged in online.

    At the same time I think Michael brings up some very valid concerns, you can no longer share the builder, and you do need to hand out your password, not a biggie I guess in some groups, but others would not do this.

    I guess Wizards is free to do as they wish with their business model, I’m not their client and it does not impact me…

    @Andrew, as a recent buyer of Hero Lab for Pathfinder I can tell you I have grown fond of electronic tools for games so I can see the attraction. The ease of character creation the DDI offers I guess is a selling point for some players and DM. We’ll see how they take this.

  5. After reading this, I've lost another bit of respect for WOTC. Now, I will go ahead and say I've never really been a big fan of 4th edition, but I was a fan of 3.5, so it is sad to see a company I loved so much and that helped me be the gamer I am today go down this terrible route.

  6. We all know by now I am still new to Role Playing Games in general. I have only ever played D&D 4E. My characters in my group are currently at level 16. With that said and having two years of D&D experience under my belt I would like to say the following.

    D&D is touted as being a pen and paper game. I can't speak for older editions, but trying to build a level 16 character from scratch without the aid of software is next to impossible. This fact that I have come to realize is a very depressing one. I am thankful for the "essentials" character books because making characters is much easier now. Still i think it's the principle of it all. One should be able to open up any players hand book and be able to create a character without having to rip their hair out. I truly hope that the other RPGs i have invested in, but have not had the chance to play yet will prove to be a lot easier in this respect.

    Now some words on the software.

    The old character builder was shit to be quite frank. It required .NET and the interface was laughable. I have never been able to get the old character builder to install flawlessly. It's always been a headache. I don't mean to disrespect WotC when I say this. They have teams of people working hard on creating a great game. It is clear just from looking at the software that the software development team and the team creating the books and the graphics are not talking to each other.

    Personally, I believe the reason the WotC/Hasbro went to a web based character builder (Silverlight, Really?) is because the old character builder was piratable. Just like the PDF books. Once people started to pirate them WotC quite distributing them. So to with their software now. It's a damn shame.


    @Andrew Modro – Have you ever tried to make a level 16 character by hand? I can't do it in under half an hour. I promise that when I do create my level 16 character by hand their are mistakes because of the complexity of building a character. That just sucks and takes the fun away from me.

    @Rob Lang, You know I want you to be right. I just don't think that it's a smart choice. silverlight is not going to last. It might however last as long as the 4e product life cycle. But what is WotC going to do when they move on to 5e and people are still wanting to play 4e and silverlight is no longer support? It's going to happen. You bring up very valid and just points but i can't help but think the only reason i can accept for going silverlight is because WotC and Microsoft are practically neighbors.

  7. I wonder if the fact that we need software to parse the options presented in RPGs says they're too complex?

    I love being able to use my pc to prep for gaming sessions. I run combats with tracking software. If I'm at all typical of RPG players, then publishers should be looking at software suites or an integrated tool to make my "job" easier.

    Would I pay a monthly fee for such an integrated suite? Sure. Would I expect my players to pay the same fee? Probably not. So, it would be a good strategy to create a less-expensive, player-only option.

  8. Well, I guess I'm the only one happy to see this change. As a Mac user, having all the DDI software as web apps is a huge win. I can finally justify a DDI subscription.

    As for Linux, WotC may not be supporting that OS, but I wouldn't be surprised if Firefox with Moonlight will run the tools:

  9. "and even Microsoft will probably focus on HTML5 in the future"

    Oddly enough, just today Microsoft announced that they'll be concentrating on HTML5 over flash. So you're right.

    As to any form of automated CB, I give a resounding "meh." Making characters is part of the fun. I don't need no shiny doohickey with lights and buttons for that.

    @Youseph: I have in fact made a lvl 16 character by hand. It took me about 2 hours, but that's because I wanted to be sure I had all my bases covered in terms of screwing over my party members (this was for a one-shot). If I were optimizing something less flexible, like to-hit or elemental damage, it would've gone even faster.

  10. @Chip Warden – As a mac user myself, I still feel cheated. D&D is a pen and paper game. I should not have any trouble building a character by hand. But I do. So does everyone else I know who plays the game. It would be one thing for WotC to build CB just to speed up the process. Right now it feels necessary. That's just not right.

    I'm just saying.

    @swordgleam – two hours? Really? Does that seam right to you? Like i said. I am not to experienced with RPGs so maybe this is normal across all RPG games. But two hours to build the character you want just seems wrong to me.

    I'm just saying.

  11. The new CB is about a lot more than providing access to Mac users – it's about chaining people in perpetuity (or at least as long as you want to use the CB) to DDI's monthly fee. I've been a DDI subscriber since the beginning (we play a lot of RPGs, 4E being one) with the idea that I could always stop and still have access to the material I had paid for up to that point. That is no longer an option and instead the monthly fee just gives me access for that month and only when I have internet access and WotC's site is operating properly – based on all the problems I've experieced getting downloads to work properly (including just downloading the Dragon pdfs) that's not a guaranteed thing BTW.

    The issues involving the EULA (based on the current one, WotC does own everything you input), which when asked the developers could only waffle about, the statements about data mining (it might be anonymous but take a look at how many times WotC has lied regarding DDI and what has happened REPEATEDLY at Facebook and I'm not inclined to trust WotC

  12. @Youseph: I've been playing 4e for around 2 years without CB. Not mandatory at all. However, now that I can use it, I'm happy.

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