If you are eating at a chinese restaurant, don’t order the curry.
Why? Just because someone is a specialist in one type of food it doesn’t mean they can cook any other type of food with equal success. Chinese cooks have spent years learning all about the culture and style of their national dishes allowing them to produce mouthwatering specialties. What Chinese cooks have not done is spend years learning about the culture and style of Indian dishes. Without that knowledge and experience, they cannot hope to pull off the same level of success.
What has this got to do with Software or D&D?
D&D Insider has been launched, several months later and missing lots of features. In fact it is missing most of what makes it worthwhile, such as the Character Builder and the flashy, attention grabbing Game Table. For $7.95 a month all you get is the new online Dragon and Dungeon magazines and the D&D Compendium. Yet they announced it in August 2007 and they presumably had been working on it alongside the 4e ruleset before then. In over a year, a multi-million pound corporation launching a new edition of a flagship product should be able to do more than a few web pages.
Hasbro is making a curry blindfolded
You can imagine the meeting. Hasbro senior execs sitting down with the management of the newly purchased WotC.
Hasbro: Peons, we need to make $$$ from D&D quickly otherwise our Christmas bonuses will be too small.
WotC: Oh Great Masters. We could release a new version of D&D with loads of great online material so that people have pay every month just like they do with World of Warcraft .
Hasbro: World of Warcraft makes tons of money therefore we can make lots of money. Peons I want it launched in time for my next Christmas bonus.
WotC: Oh Wonderful Masters! It will cost lots of money to develop.
Hasbro: Don’t bother me with details scum! I’m off to order 100,000 toys from a Chinese company called Lead-Paints’R’Us.
And so a multi-national toy manufacturer authorised a book publisher to create a groundbreaking online product. With no experience and next to no budget (compared to WoW’s development) there was only going to one result.
What Went Wrong
You can target three things with software development: a deadline; a set of features; and a budget. The trouble is you cannot target all three things at once. If you want to hit a specific deadline with a specific set of features, you will have to spend, spend, spend. If you want it on a fixed budget, either the deadline will be missed or features will have to be cut.
There is nothing radical about this triangle of costs, deadlines and features. Any experienced software developer will be able to tell you the same thing. The trouble is management does not know this. Even in software companies many managers have failed to learn this vital lesson. So when WotC managers, used to producing books, decided to develop D&D Insider they expect all points on the triangle to be hit. Hasbro executives have even less of a clue about software so there is no one to stop the inevitable crash & burn.
How Bad Is It?
According to WotC themselves the Game Table is only good enough for one group, once a week to test it and even then it crashes multiple times. For the Game Table to be useable it has to work all the time. A single crash during a session is a crash too much. It is like a new player joining the group and spilling their Coke over the map. The first week this happens you all joke about it. The second week it happens he gets the affectionate nickname ‘Clumsy Bastard’ and third time, they are never invited again. Hasbo might as well completely forget about the Game Table for 12 months or more because it is nowhere near finished.
The fact that the Character Builder is not complete shows how badly this project has been managed. Character generators are not hard, they have been a staple of fan development for 20 years. All you need is do is give a programmer a couple of months and a case of Mountain-Dew.
What WotC have launched, the D&D Compendium and Dragon / Dungeon magazines are OK but they are not exactly exciting, cutting edge tools. They are basic and workman like and maybe they are worth $7.95 but no one is jumping up and down in excitement claiming they are a bargain.
In fact, you can’t even pay for them because there is no way to subscribe yet. Clearly WotC know nothing of the software development business. The first rule of the software business is that you make the customer pay for the software and then make them pay for it to be fixed. Wotc and Hasbro have failed in even this simple task.
Stick to What You Are Good At
If I was Hasbro, I would abandon the D&D Insider and let people have access to the Compendium and Dragon for free, forever. Focus on getting players using D&D 4e and selling supplements because that is what you are good at. Then, once everyone has forgotten about D&D Insider, license a 3rd Party software company to create a product that includes the Game Table and all the other wizz-bang features. Let them take all the risks and be happy with your royalty payments.