A common complaint with 4th Edition has been the online tools that go with it. Now that we have a Next Edition coming, WotC gets another shot at getting their cyberducks in a row. The best part is, this time out they’re asking all of us what we want from D&D. Guess what? I want better online tools! Furthermore, I have a few suggestions. WARNING: Some programmer jargon ahead. Proceed with digital caution.
From The Ground Up
One of the most annoying things about 4e’s digital offerings is one that need to get addressed in the new edition immediately before all the decisions get made: the choice of development platform. 4e’s online tools were at first a PC-only application, then went to Microsoft Silverlight — which caused a lot of issues, especially for gamers using Mac or Linux. The programs themselves were far more bloated and slow than they needed to be, and they weren’t particularly stable.
The new D&D needs to choose something light and scalable to create their next-gen digital tools, and they need to keep cross-platform compatibility and various device form factors in mind. PCs and Macs need to be able to use this stuff, and both iOS and Android smartphones and tablets are common now.
With so many devices and possible configurations of machines using these tools, One Frontend To Rule Them All is going to be unwieldy and unpleasant to use. Developing for multiple platforms can be time-consuming and expensive.
One way to address this issue is to develop an extremely robust backend system to serve out data (using XML, JSON, or some similar format) to a series of relatively lightweight frontends designed for each platform. Especially with a system that’s probably going to rely on pulling data from the Internet, it makes a lot more sense to do the heavy lifting server-side instead of replicating similar functionality for each individual client program.
With a good backend system, developers are now free to write platform-specific apps using tools appropriate for that platform. It also means that when the game rules change, it’s much likelier that a program needs to get changed only once (on the backend) and the client apps may never know the difference.
In simpler terms, I want a giant WotC supercomputer in the sky that programs can ask for things over the Internets. It does the math, and sends the results back to the program. That means the apps we use on our smartphones and tablets don’t have to do much aside from knowing how to ask for data and how to process what it gets back, and that means they’re easy (and cheap) to develop.
API IDSPISPOPD IDKFA
As a software developer, it is my natural tendency to want to make things that are fun and useful. Especially in this day of Internets-capable mobile devices that I can have with me at the gaming table, I’m perfectly happy allowing the tiny computer in my pocket to handle lots of math and randomly generate a level-appropriate encounter at my whim. I like the idea of searching for a game mechanic in multiple books at once, cutting down on research time and reducing the Rules Lawyer Filibuster to only the length of time it takes to argue something pointless.
D&D is a very complex beast, and there’s an awful lot of data associated with pretty much everything. To make tools that are really useful, we need that data in a form we can find quickly.
That big WotC sky-computer I was talking about before? It already exists (to a certain extent). Problem is, we have trouble talking to it.
With D&D Insider, WotC made a big giant database full of monsters, abilities, and items (which many of you access today). To their credit, they’ve been really good about keeping this database up to date with all their latest materials. They also provided us with an API (application programming interface) so code-monkeys like me could query their database for stuff using our own programs. Unfortunately, the API was never very well documented, and seems to have been abandoned at some point. This means it’s really hard to make apps to use with 4e, and the data you can retrieve is pretty limited. There have been some cool hacks out there, but (especially in a community as creative as ours) it’s really hamstrung what we have been able to do.
I think a powerful, easy to access backend system is pretty essential to the success of any digital products for the next edition of D&D, both for internal and 3rd party tool development. I hope it’s at the forefront of their digital team’s minds this time around.
Everybody has their wishlist for the upcoming edition. I have a few bullet points on mine, but only one that I really want to stand up and fight for:
I want WotC to shore up their digital offerings by encouraging the community to fill in the gaps.
Official polished D&D apps created by WotC would be extremely nice. If I can’t have that, I want WotC to let us ENCOURAGE us to make them.
Ideally, I’d like to see WotC showcasing popular D&D apps — even buying out/sponsoring/giving its blessing to/unofficially adopting really good ones that provide for its customers’ needs. It would spur a lot of development and raise the morale of the community, and in return their game could now do things it couldn’t before. If WotC needs them to a particular specification in order to get the Official D&D Stamp Of Approval, my guess is a lot of developers would comply.
It’d be great if we, as 3rd party developers, could work more closely with WotC on our projects. I don’t know what form this would take. It might mean giving us access to speak with their IT team, or designating someone (either in-house or from the community) to act as a developer liaison. This isn’t one of those projects where you can determine everything everyone will need at the start. Things will change, and being able to relay these changes to someone who can make it happen is a huge boon to our community. Whatever happens, better communication would be a really welcome thing and would smooth out a lot of problems.
Allowing 3rd party development to flourish means that the reasons we don’t have good digital D&D tools no longer include WotC having insufficient staff, time, or budget to make them. Our hobby has a stereotype for a reason. The sheer amount of computer science in our community is staggering. Let’s put it to good use.
End Of Line
I find it amusing that the R&D team keeps talking about the new D&D as a core system that you can attach modules to so you can play they game you want to play and it’ll all work together.
That’s basically what I’m proposing with this whole big backend/little client idea. I’m sure everyone would accept the idea based on nothing but how accurate the analogy is, but I do really think it’s a good idea (and a commonly used practice). It is, though, just one idea and I’m certain there are those who will disagree with me. If you do disagree, or if you have some other ideas, let’s hear them.
At the end of the day, I just want WotC to make sure their digital offerings help them to make D&D Next the game everybody wants to play, rather than being annoying. With so many potential play styles and other factors in play, having something that can do the work for us is going to be necessary.
TL;DR beep beep boop 110011010011