It’s a Mystery

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.

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8 Responses to It’s a Mystery

  1. evangoer says:

    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.

    True, but wouldn’t a more fair comparison be between a movie/game and a new jet airplane design? :)

    The failure of the D&D online tools to ship on time is expected. I also expect that when they do ship, they will not be very good. Software development is hard, and WotC is not a software company.

    That said, I don’t think the main selling point of D&D 4e is the online tools. I think 4e’s big benefits are rules streamlining, reining in the excesses of the previous edition (this is a cyclical process), and perhaps the most important factor, making life easier for the DM. The new monster stat blocks alone are worth the price of admission.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I see some streamlining, yeah. Though actually I found the character generation quite a lot of work (that’s one reason I went looking for the tools, hoping at least that the Character Generator would be available). But honestly, I also see a lot of work designed to make 4e easier to run in an online tabletop. (Which I have no problem with.)

    A movie or a game is a finished product–the design stage is a script or a draft or a design process.

    WoTC doesn’t really impress me much as a company, I have to say. I don’t expect most software to ship on time, and I expect bugs when it does, but there are a lot of companies that have learned to be a bit more forthright about this when it happens.

  3. Tim, have you read Frederick Brooks’ The Mythical Man-Month? It’s a classic account of why software projects go awry. Brooks explains, why, among other things, adding programmers to the team may make things worse, rather than better: the number of team members increases, making coordination more difficult, and the newbies have to be brought up to speed before they can be at all useful. Etc.

  4. FWIW, I’ve sometimes thought that the Disney studios of the Snow White era and after was the first high-tech industrial plant. For one thing, at least some of the technology they used (e.g. the multi-plane camera) was very sophisticated. More importantly, the product was a complicated one requiring precise coordination among a large number of highly skilled craftsman. Many of them did jobs that require autonomy, discretion, and flair if they are to be done well, yet they’ve got to do those jobs in a way that’s mutually consistent with everyone else’s autonomy and flair. It took seven years to make that Snow White and, at the time, it was the most expensive film ever made.

  5. Neel Krishnaswami says:

    I think the online stuff is a minor sideline — a bonus, maybe, but not a core feature. I took the spatial focus to mean that Hasbro is intending to use the game partly as a vehicle to sell miniatures — minis are individually cheap (meaning they can be sold as impulse buys), and players in a continuing game can always use more, as new monsters and creatures get introduced (meaning it’s a continuing revenue stream, rather than a one-time deal).

  6. Carl says:

    TB, just wanted to signal in case it hasn’t come up in your rounds that Kerim and Rex over at Savage Minds have just posted detailed and contrasting reviews of Tom Boellstorff’s _Coming of Age in Second Life_. There’s a lot of commentary, including by Boellstorff.

  7. zardok says:

    They sure were proud of it in the early going when 4th edition was announced. Put together all kinds of video showing how cool the online tools would be. I unearthed a bit of recognition in one of the 4E threads in their discussion forums, from one of the WotC guys, that yeah, it might have been a good thing to let people know that no, despite lots of indications to the contrary in the last 10 months, the tools would not be ready and really, that was never the plan. That’s more circumstantial evidence to support your theory – if they start saying “Uh, actually, we never said what we said, here’s what we really said”, it’s a good indicator that something has gone horribly wrong.

    WotC has a history of not being able to get the digital tools done – I’m pretty sure that there were a couple of abortive attempts at doing something with 3rd edition, though with software on CD rather than online.

    All that being said, I hope that they can pull off some kind of miracle with this iteration.

  8. nate_combs says:

    @ 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,

    If you can get over Shatner fronting this quote for Fortune 500 software, its a reasonable data point:

    “I was particularly taken by Mr. Shatner’s comparison of software development and movie making. He noted that 75% of all software projects at Fortune 500 companies fail, 33% are cancelled, and 66% go over budget by more than 200%. How does he know this (as one heckler from the audience asked him)? Well, we gave him those details :-).

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