Kind of on a nostalgic impulse, I decided to pick up the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which came out on June 6th. I haven’t played so-called tabletop games, including D&D, for a long time, but this release caught my eye in part for its promised integration with an ambitious suite of online tools and the debate that plan had inspired among the game’s devotees.
Some of the design changes from previous editions of D&D were familiar to me through their implementation in digital games like Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate, so at least some of the distance between the old-style version of the game that I knew and the 4E ruleset wasn’t totally bewildering to me. One thing that was clear to me right away was that the 4E ruleset had been written with online functionality in mind. It’s much more precisely spatial and tactically focused. A lot of the world-building aspects of the previous rules have been set aside, at least for now.
So late Sunday afternoon, I thought, “Well, let’s go take a look at these digital tools that they’ve been selling as a part of this product”. The ads for D&D Insider, as it is called, are even in the back of the rulebooks. I knew that the producer of D&D, Wizards of the Coast, had planned to make these tools a subscription-based service with a price comparable to games like World of Warcraft and Everquest 2. This seemed ambitious to me, considering the scale, polish and service levels that those games provide. The tools had better be really revolutionary, I thought, or I doubt many people will pay that much.
It turns out that it’s hard to say whether they’re revolutionary or not, or whether the cost is justified or not. Because the tools don’t exist.
Not that you could tell that by looking at the company’s website (at least as of the morning of June 10th: I suspect this will change fairly soon), which seems to be describing a finished, available product. All of the marketing for the 4th Edition has been touting the digital toolkit for months. I wandered in confusion around the website for a while, wondering where the secret rabbit hole was that would take me to where the D&D Insider tools actually lived. Eventually I went looking for a FAQ on the official forums, and there I found out the truth, or at least a piece of it. It’s been “delayed”. If you read between the lines, I think the delay will be long. Maybe forever, I suspect. There was clearly a big disconnect between the project team and the marketing team. Also between the people who wrote the new rules for the game itself and the project team for the digital tools. And gosh, everyone was so busy that they sort of just, well, you know, forgot to tell anyone that the main selling point of the new edition was, you know, months and months from being available.
I’m torn between being cynical and fascinated when I come across this kind of commercial carwreck. Fascination wins out, even when I’m irritated by the consequences of failure (as I am in this case). I think this kind of thing happens more in cultural industries, and there are complicated reasons why that’s so. (At least some of which are laid out in an interesting book that Bill Benzon recommended to me, Arthur DeVany’s Hollywood Economics.
The cynical part of me has heard a lot of this before. There’s a standard narrative with software and digital projects that delays are inevitable, that management of technological projects is hard, that it’s better to get something good when it’s ready than something bad when it’s not. No one disagrees with the latter, but if you’ve been around the block a few times on these things, you know that this is rarely the choice with software or digital projects. “Good when it’s ready, bad right now” is usually code word for “We got nothing at all right now, and whatever we’re going to have later is going to be a kludgy disaster that only barely does what the client specified. We’d really like to just start over, but we figure you’d pull the contract and cancel the whole thing if we did that.” To some extent, when I hear “delays are inevitable” on a long-anticipated software project, I hear, “We’re underresourced, got the contract because we low-balled the estimate, and took advantage of the buyer because they had no idea just how ambitious the product was that they had in mind” or I hear, “Somebody screwed up really, really badly early in the development process and we’ve had to rip out everything they did and do it all over again”.
The thing that’s fascinating, however, is about how modern institutions work, whether they’re companies, universities, or bureaucracies, about the agency of institutional humanity. In a lot of cases, institutional actors don’t understand any more than outsiders do why a complex project or product develops the way that it does. In fact, they may understand less. When they offer up descriptions of their own innocence, when they seem confused or surprised at the reaction of outsiders to their misfires, I think institutional actors often are being entirely genuine and honest. This is especially true for cultural products, because they are made surrounded by a kind of hermeneutical fog, because no one really knows how or why they succeed or fail in any kind of final way. You can’t assemble a movie or a comic book or a game the same way you assemble an air conditioner or a jet airplane. Even a single author of a single literary work can be surprised by the gap between intention and product, process and result.