I got my first taste of D&D Insider (DDI) at GenCon UK ’07, during the Wizards panel run by Charles Ryan and (ZOMGITSBRUCECORDELL) Bruce Cordell, including the film of that fellow who has now come to be known as ‘The Guy With What’s That Accent Again?’. I must admit, I found that skit mildly amusing at the time (if a bit embarrassing in hindsight), and the presentation on the whole was pretty good. The DDI looked exciting, I liked the ideas being thrown around, and the WotC guys seemed genuinely pleased to be talking about it.
Since then, Wizards’ online strategy has ridden a rocky road. Gleemax, the ambitious gaming portal that was to unify Wizards’ entire product line under one online banner, keeled over pretty much before it drew its first breath, with only the forums and a pretty ropey calendar app seeing the light of day. Unlike many, I was disappointed by this, because I thought the old brain-in-a-jar angle, as well as the idea of the portal itself, showed ambitious thinking that was appropriate from the big bear of the RPG business.
Too ambitious, it seems, and they pulled the plug. No huge loss to anyone. There are already a million online ways to organise your gaming online (I use at least two of them, a Wiki and Google Calendar), and even though a quality online space run by Wizards could have been an interesting trend-setter, it’s not as if there’s a huge gaping hole in my life now it’s dead.
Meanwhile, the DDI itself has seen one drama after another. First came the rather abrupt announcement that the Dungeon and Dragon licenses were not going to be renewed with Paizo and that PDF versions of the magazines were going to be published by Wizards themselves. This caused exactly the kind of uproar you would expect, especially since Paizo, whose previous work showed an obvious love and respect for the history of the game, had netted themselves a loyal and vocal fan-base over the years. Reputedly the split was amicable and Wizards actually extended the license by a few issues to give Paizo the chance to finish the current adventure path, but that didn’t stop a very loud corner of the D&D fraternity from getting very upset indeed. One ENWorld poster’s sig at the time read, “Never Forgive. Never Forget.” Um, okay.
(As a side note, Paizo are now developing an OGL-based 3.5 derivative called Pathfinder with which they hope, I’m sure, to raid the wallets of those who don’t like 4E or don’t like Wizards or some toxic combination of both. It should be a good system, but the days of me playing 3.5 or anything like it by choice are long gone.)
The good news is that despite not being able to read then on the loo as easily as before, the magazines have been very good indeed. This isn't surprising since they're drawing on exactly the same pool of freelancers that Paizo did, and although it's still not quite as good as the Paizo years, and there seem to be a few lessons about adventure paths that need learning, they’re getting there.
What’s really missing is a wholesale embracing of the PDF format; it needs to be less of a convenient medium for distributing the content and more of a feature in itself. Bookmarks, chapters, cross-referencing… we get none of that. I'd like to see some real innovation here. It’s aggravating. Sort it out, guys.
Then there’s the DDI applications themselves: the Character Builder and Visualiser, the Game Table, and the Compendium. After the release of 4E, when much of this stuff was already supposed to have been done and yet all we had seen were a couple of limp alpha-quality demonstrations at various conventions, it was obvious things weren’t going to plan and changes had to be made. That meant the Visualiser and Game Table being quietly shuffled off the menu while all pale and clammy software engineering hands (I have two myself) were re-tasked to the Compendium and Character Builder. Both of these are now out in the wild, and both of them are excellent in ways which I shall adduce for your entertainment below. (I warn you, if you’re looking for anything other than a glowing report on these two products, avert your eyes for a few paragraphs.)
The Character Builder in particular is a trophy piece for the D&D line. The UI is cool to look at and fun to use. Knocking up a PC takes literally five minutes. You can house-rule in new equipment and bust the rules open if your DM wants to grant you, for example, extra feats. Within days of any source book being released, all of the options are available right there in the program, fully detailed straight from the Compendium database and automatically installed. When you're finished, a truly excellent, fully customisable character sheet, with all of your powers laid out on individual cards and more importantly, all of the attack and damage modifiers automatically calculated for you, is the result. It's truly a grand piece of work and as a software engineer myself, I can see the love which has been lavished on this thing. It's also surprisingly bug-light.
If you’re only ever a player and not a DM, this means that everything Wizards will ever produce for 4E is served up to you without you having to buy a single book. Traditionalists may weep tears of liquid nostalgia over that, but in terms of sheer value for money, it’s amazing. You’ll have to keep a careful eye on the subscription rate – and unlike say the PDF Dungeon and Dragon magazines, you will lose access to it all if you stop paying -- but at the moment it’s cheap as hell.
For DM’s, the Compendium, and to a lesser extent the free bonus tools that are online such as the Encounter and Monster Builders, make the DDI just no-brainer awesome value. When it comes to the crunch, the Compendium has everything. Every power, skill, monster, NPC, magic item and option from every book, magazine, adventure, supplement, and article they ever release is added to the database within days of being published. It’s completely browsable, which is useful for getting inspiration for new ideas or for checking out how the pro’s might have designed something similar to what you have in mind, and (now at least) has excellent search and filtering features getting you where you want to be with minimum fuss.
What the Compendium lacks is a fundamental rules guide, i.e. it can never be a true replacement for your PHB, but there are rumblings that a glossary will soon be added which should go some way towards rectifying that. After a recent redesign, it even looks cool too. I really can’t say enough good things about it, so I should probably stop now.
As for the other two, I can well imagine the Visualiser being completely aborted. It was a fun idea, but the sheer amount of work required to model every piece equipment they ever create, versus the real value of what you get out at the end, must surely put the program at the bottom of the priority list. As a companion to the mega-ambitious Game Table, whereby you could import an exact rendition of your PC into the virtual dungeon, it might have had some traction, but with the Game Table also looking dubious at the moment, it almost certainly has to go.
The DDI, then. A success or not? In my book, yes. They over-extended and over-promised at the start, and it was a long and painful birth, but they now have two quality digital magazines, an electronic character building tool which is easily the best on the market, and an online database which I doubt any DM would ever want to do without once they have a taste for it. Assuming that the Visualiser and Game Table are now dead (I’ll be stunned if they ever talk about them again except to announce that they’ve been cancelled), I’m excited to see what the guys who cooked up these tools can come up with next.
Next: Wizards, the company.