“I shouldn’t be posting this, but…”

Is there anything more frustrating for a community manager than discovering that a member of the dev team posted something stupid? Yes. It’s when that stupid dev post starts out, “I shouldn’t do this, but…”

Wizards of the Coast has decided to rewrite their popular Character Builder program for making pen-and-paper D&D characters. The new version will be web-based and will only store characters online — that is, on their servers — requiring a monthly $10 subscription. (The existing program theoretically requires a subscription already, but many users pirate the app, or else they sign up for a month, get the app, then unsubscribe. The change is obviously an attempt to fix this.)

The presentation of the new version has been abysmal, however. The only solid new feature is that the new version has Macintosh support (since it’s written in Silverlight). That may help them get more customers in the future, but their existing customers obviously aren’t using Macs now, so they don’t care much.

But worse: it soon became clear that the new version has significantly reduced functionality. It doesn’t have a way to export characters for sharing, which is a crucial feature for many players. Even worse? It’s capped at 20 characters per account, when the old version had infinite local characters. Many users (myself included) make dozens of copies of their characters, trying out all sorts of different ideas. 20 character saves is a very small number!

Developer Post With Math Quiz

A change this drastic requires some planning in the presentation, and WoTC has presented it very poorly, letting players perceive this as a downgrade in functionality. Doh! But even worse is when a developer stopped by to fan the anger with unsupportable gibberish:

I shouldn’t do this, but I want to help you guys out there to understand.

I could write a script in about 10 minutes that automates the new Character Builder and then creates a new level 20 character. I could run this on a number of machines (10? 20?) and let it go overnight creating, say, one character every 10 seconds.

Math quiz: after how many hours will I fill 1TB of space? 10TB? 40TB?

Twenty characters seems incredibly low, and I would tend to agree, but we can monitor average usage and ramp it up as needed. We just have to protect ourselves (and the service you depend on) from DDOS and other types of attacks.

Well, first off, we can’t answer his math quiz because we have no idea how big the character files are in the new version. In the existing version, though, a level 20 character might take 256 kb, or a quarter of a megabyte. This is obscenely bloated, by the way, given that it’s just a bunch of indexes into an ability database. One would hope they’d have taken this chance to make the save files smaller. But let’s assume that the new version is just as bloated as ever.

So if he runs 20 machines making a character every 10 seconds, he’ll need 8640 * 20 * .25 = 43,200 mb per day. How long will it take to fill up 1TB? About 22 days. How long for 40 TB? About 2.5 years. Yawn… you call that a lot? Has this guy even researched how cheap storage is for large companies? Doesn’t seem like it.

This whole angle is just a terrible one to use, because he’s encouraged me to look at the financial realities of what I’m buying. Now I see that WoTC is charging me $10 a month for just 5 mb of storage. Compare this to other services such as Dropbox, which offers 50 GIGABYTES for the same price — that’s ten thousand times more! Or look at Gmail, which offers 7,516 MB with every free account, and it’s easy to have as many free accounts as you want.

So no, as a customer I can’t fathom why WIZARDS OF THE FUCKING COAST can’t afford to give more than 5 mb of storage to each person who pays them $10 for the privilege. This forum post just hammered home how inept and/or greedy WoTC is. Nice messaging!

“I Really Shouldn’t Be Posting This… [Because I Can’t Explain All The Inside Details]”

Of course, the D&D Insider service isn’t about storage space at all — it’s about making your D&D game more fun. So letting people compare your product to other products that do entirely different things is a terrible idea.

Why did he post this? Because, to him, the design makes total sense: it meets design goals to the best of the engineers’ ability. Yes, they are under the umbrella of Wizards of the Coast, but I’m sure the D&D Insider service itself has a very limited budget that needs to last a long time. Given the realities of their situation, I assume the limitation is wisely conservative.

This engineer feels compelled to defend his decisions, because to him the decisions are quite logical. WRONG. STUPID. STOP POSTING.

Players will see this as a problem WoTC created for itself by wanting to store all characters online. Players didn’t even ask for this functionality. So the explanation boils down to “We had to do this because our really greedy redesign required it!” That’s… uh, that’s not good spin, guys.

Making Your Product Worse? No You’re Not. Think Harder.

Is there a way to sell this change to users? Of course! This one is actually quite easy because there’s a lot of ways this change could be beneficial. Only the daftest of companies would allow customers to think that their product is literally getting worse like WoTC is doing. (Seriously, guys, what the hell are you thinking? Do you need a consultant to help you position your web services? Call me, I know some people.)

When you need to make a major change to your product, your first job is to figure out why it’s beneficial to your users. And then you give them those benefits! Just off the top of my head, they could have said:

  • Never lose your character file again!
  • Access your character sheets from Windows Mobile 7 Phones [because the new client is written in Silverlight]
  • WoTC could easily provide a new “Armory”-style feature that lets players show off their characters.
  • How about an errata notifier? Since all your characters are stored online, WoTC could detect whenever an errata change to the rules affects your character, and send you an email.

That’s my five-second brainstorm. I’m sure there’s a million more ways this could be beneficial with very little coding effort. So create a list of all the cool new features you’re bringing to the table. Give customers a reason to be pleased with the change and excited about the future.

And that engineer’s post? He shouldn’t be allowed to post on such a sensitive topic at all, but if he did, the entirety of his post should have been a rephrasing of his last paragraph. This is all he needed to say:

20 characters is just our initial limit; we’ll monitor the situation and we can ramp that up as needed.

Done. Problem solved for the majority of your users. And you didn’t make your company look greedy or inept in the meantime.

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8 Responses to “I shouldn’t be posting this, but…”

  1. cirdanx says:

    Hear hear! I agree with you.

    This was really a horrible post and will continue to throw customers into a hissy fit ;)

    I love D&D, but never would i pay 10$ a month (maybe a year…) to store my characters online only and not even being able to share them…

    My 2nd problem with the whole post ist the comment about DDOS and “other” attacks. Where is this server standing? In his bedroom? That´s like saying “sorry we had to do this because we can´t really protect our servers” that makes them really sound inept, maybe just to me because i work in that part of the IT sector.

  2. Matt Stevens says:

    GMs can also go through 20 characters easily by rolling up NPCs. Of course they could create an NPC Builder, make it a Web-only product, and warn us they would be porting Character Builder over to the Web in the future. It would have made me very happy. Instead, they’re not offering anything new, just repackaging old tools and forcing the fanbase to fork over more for the same stuff.

  3. Grimmtooth says:

    Actually, that last line seems to be one of the more damaging ones.

    If I were invested, I’d see this as an implied promise that WotC WILL (not MAY) expand the character limit if it really becomes a problem. I don’t know about his company, but at my company, such promises – implicit or explicit – are way above a grunt engineer’s paygrade.

    If they decide to open up the limit, fine. If they don’t, there will probably be backlash focused on that very sentence.

  4. DavidL says:

    I wasn’t aware of this, but it’s not the first time for a new product version to remove functionality.

    When Magic: The Gathering Online went from version 2.x to version 3.0, League functionality (the most cost-effective method of play – fixed expenditure for a guaranteed minimal amount of playtime with no maximum limit) was removed. MtGO 3.0 launched in April of 2008. As of this writing, League functionality is expected to return to MtGO sometime in 2011.

  5. johnarr says:

    Wizards should really have read this before releasing the latest podcast.

  6. Solmead says:

    In addition the Announcement post lists a pile of features that most players would look at and say who cares? Who cares that it’s written in silverlight, who cares that it doesn’t require a download, etc etc.

    Shouldn’t they be listing what a player gets with the new version that a player would actually care about? Are the rules in it going to be always up to date? Will I be able to print out a standard character sheet with it? Which rules from which books will it support? Will it support other companies products, or allow other companies to add their character stuff into it? And so on.

  7. Xenovore says:

    And this why you just stay far, far away from any WotC products. Forget ’em.

  8. Kastaka says:

    Dammit, I really loved the old Character Builder and I was hoping they wouldn’t fuck up the transition to the web-based version, but it looks like I was mistaken :(. It’s still actually entirely usable for my purchases, but I hate giving people my data when they won’t let me retrieve it and use it offline :(.