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Wednesday, 23rd March, 2011, 06:27 PM #1
Defender (Lvl 8)
Review of the New Online Version of Monster Builder by WotC
If you are a D&D Insider subscriber like I am, then yesterday you received an email from Wizards of the Coast announcing the release of the new online version of Adventure Tools: Monster Builder. If you have never used the previous version of Adventure Tools: Monster Builder, it was a down-loadable program which operated from your home PC or laptop, and allowed you to access existing monsters, or to modify them with new or altered powers, and copy them in a variety of formats (Text, RTF, or IMG) into your document writer, such as WORD, ADOBE, or Publisher.
For 4E Dungeon Masters, the AT: Monster Builder was a wonderful resource to use when creating your D&D encounters, making the task of organizing your adventures quicker and easier than in previous editions. So how does this new online version of Adventure Tools: Monster Builder stack up to its original version?
Adventure Tools: Monster Builder
- Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
- Year: 2011
- Media: Online (using Silverlight)
- Retail Cost: FREE (with DDI subscription)
When I received my email notification, I was really excited to see how the new online version of Monster Builder would run. After a rocky bug-laden launch, I have grown to like the new Character Builder, which also uses Silverlight, and was looking forward to seeing how the new Adventure Tools would operate online. And considering that the new version of Monster Builder was described as “completely redesigned” and would “debut with 3,700 monsters - including Dark Sun Creature Catalog and Monster Vault entries”, it sounded as though the new version would have some distinct advantages over the older version.
Sadly, this turned out to be far from the reality!
What’s New with Monster Builder?
Well, besides the addition of loads of monsters from the Dark Sun Creature Catalogue and the Monster Vault – which is undeniably some exciting new content over the previous version – there were also a couple of other features worth mentioning about the new online version of AT: Monster Builder.
First, there are illustrations of creatures for some of the monsters taken from the illustrations found in the Monster Manuals, Monster Vault, and other sources. Clicking on a monster name and seeing an illustration pop up of that critter is a pretty nifty addition to the application – I just wish that they had supplied art for all the monsters instead of just a few. For those monsters lacking an illustration entered into the database, the image of the zany gnome from the D&D cartoons (“I’m a monster! Rawrrr!”) shows up instead.
It is also possible for Dungeon Masters to import their monster creations from the previous version of Monster Builder into this new version, and to save your creations – but honestly, the program could not find all my saved monsters anywhere… and I have made up nearly a couple hundred or more customized beasties for my two D&D campaigns!
Beyond that, there are no new features this online version of AT: Monster Builder, other than its layout and appearance… and of course, what it seems to be lacking compared to the old version!
What’s Wrong with Monster Builder?
I’m disappointed to have to report that there are a lot of features missing from the new online version of Monster Builder that so many Dungeon Masters (myself included) had come to use and enjoy in the previous version. There is already a fairly long list of known issues, and sadly, there are even more being added all the time:
Adventure Tools known issues list
- Users at this time are not able to add, edit, or remove powers, traits, stat blocks, saving throws, action points, skills, languages, alignment, equipment, or perception.
- Compendium Links are not in.
- Some custom monsters upon import may be missing (in part or in entirety) non standardized customized powers.
- Double clicking monsters does not enter editing mode.
- There is no warning dialog when importing the exact same monster.
- Text boxes do not accept overtyping of highlighted text.
- The text box for Name in the filter section is cut off on the lower portion.
- Level field accepts alpha characters.
- There is no warning dialog should the user make changes to a monster, and then click return.
- Decreasing the browser size can hide buttons.
Obviously, the very first item on the list – which is itself quite a list of missing features – is a major problem with a program self-proclaimed as a Monster Builder! At this point, monsters are almost completely unmodifiable, with only the name of the monster, the names of its powers, and its level being alterable in the new version! And one cannot build a new monster, but only “re-skin” existing monsters, by altering a few names on its stat block. How a monster’s traits and powers work is completely fixed and cannot be edited in the current version, which makes the application fairly useless as a monster “builder”.
Thankfully, the formats of the creatures in AT: Monster Builder do comply with the new Monster Manual 3 stat block conventions. However, there are still some monsters which have still not been updated been updated in the database to reflect the changes to damage expressions as introduced in Monster Manual 3. For instance, the dracolich is still listed with all powers and damage expressions that it originally had in the Monster Manual. But other MM1 monsters, such as the Balor and the Dire Wolf have been updated to do considerably more damage, as recommeneded in MM3. I thought at first that this disparity represented monsters which had been updated for release with Monster Vault, which had updated versions of many iconic monsters. But there was a dracolich in MV, called the dracolich doomlord, which was a whirlwind of devastation compared to his MM1 predecessor - but sadly, this new undead dragon from Monster Vault never made it into the database – although its underpowered Monster Manual cousins did!
And another important - yet missing - feature in this new online Adventure Tools is the ability to export or copy a stat block to a document. The ability to create a RTF, text, or IMG of a monster’s stat block for pasting into one’s adventure document is not available – although it is possible to print out a monster’s stat block by itself, which uses up a whole page per block. You can only print one block at a time, and there is no way to select multiple monsters to print out for an adventure.
Added to all the other missing features and data, the lack of any way to print out monsters makes this new online version of Monster Builder is a nearly worthless application for D&D 4E Dungeon Masters to use in preparing their game.
What are Gamers saying about the new Monster Builder?
As one might imagine, the hue-and-cry that went up around the web’s D&D forums quickly reached a fever pitch in response to the inadequacies of this re-vamped version of Adventure Tools: Monster Builder. On the Wizards Community forum site there were numerous threads started in response to problems found in the new AT: MB with titles like “Online monster builder problems”, “Copy as Rich Text gone?”, and “New ‘monster builder’ just a poor interface for the Compendium?” – but the largest and most responded to thread remains the “Online monster ‘builder’: what the hell is this?” thread.
With so few features to praise about this new Monster Builder, it was not surprising to find D&D gamers lashing out in their shock and disappointment over the release:
Comments from Wizards Community Forums:
- Jagraham: “A Monster Builder that does not build monster is an Existing Monster Printer, which works our of the compendium already. Consider announcing a delay when something simply isn't ready and folks will understand.”
- XunValDorl_of_HouseKilsek: “Why is everyone so surprised with the level of quality that WoTc has brought to the table? So far most everything they have done is crap and I don't know why you would expect it to stop any time soon.”
- TonyPa : “This version is Bad with a side dish of Badness covered in Bad sauce with some Bad for dessert. I can't even use it to put a non-"customized" monster in my homebrew adventure Word doc without a screen capture. Badness.”
And the responses on social networking sites, like Twitter, were no less vehement in their frustration over the DDI Subscriber content following the new Adventure Tools release. In reply to a tweet from Mike Mearls regarding the upcoming GenCon:
mikemearls tweeted: “Planning #dnd panels for #gencon. Any thoughts on what you'd like to see?”And even Trevor Kidd’s attempt at damage control, trying to put a different spin on the release of Adventure Tools: Monster Builder, did little to stem the tide of complaints, concerns, and outrage flooding the web:
MerricB tweeted: “@MikeMearls Like to see at GenCon: Apologies and resignations from the DDi team.”Hey all. The fix is up now and you should be able to save monsters that you've leveled and import and save custom monsters from the classic Monster Builder. It looks like some of you bumped into some issues while we were pushing the fix, but hopefully all those are over.Regretfully, the expectations were set high by the release email for a much more polished and complete application than what actually was offered to DDI subscribers. The email makes no mention of this version of AT:MB being a beta, or about the fact that most of the features from the previous version were not included in the online version yet, or even that it was being released to assist in the testing of the D&D Virtual Tabletop, so it is hardly a shock that D&D 4E gamers would respond so negatively.
Now on to the topic of "why did you release something that wasn't feature complete?" questions/complaints. Main reasons, short and sweet - we wanted to give all the DDI members a chance to check out what we're working on, and we wanted to make sure that all DDI members had the chance to use the MB to import monsters into their VT games during the next step of the VT beta.
You still have access to the classic MB (you can download it right now). We won't be doing any more updates to it, but it's still there and still usable. Yes it has issues, but I'm hopefully most people understand that we won't be working on the old tools while adding features to the new tool. With the web-based MB, we have something that gives very basic functionality and is usable with the VT that we wanted to get into everybody hands, not just the small group of testers that we had before.
The VT point is a bit more tangible - Having the web-based MB out, even in this limited form, makes imputing monsters into the VT 1000% (statistic completely made up) better for DMs. So getting this out to DDI subscribers who will very soon be testing out the VT seemed a pretty important thing.
I am definitely sorry that I haven't given you more news on what to expect with this AT release these last few weeks. I'm also sorry if I led you to believe that the AT would be more robust than what the closed beta testers had access to. We did add a couple features, but the biggest changes are on their way. I will be back in the coming days with more information on the features we'll be implementing, focusing on whatever the next big thing is.
I can honestly say that I have every hope that Wizards of the Coast will do right by its customers and eventually make this new online version of Adventure Tools: Monster Builder as complete and user-friendly as its offline predecessor. However, that said, I must express my complete disappointment at how the application was released to the D&D 4E Community, and regret seeing the consternation of my fellow gamers over this latest gaff by WotC and the DDI content team. This little public relations disaster could have been easily averted simply by informing DDI Subscribers of the truth from the start – that this new online version was a beta and was being used to assist in the VT beta – rather than sending out a public release announcement which raised gamer expectations, then dashed them in the same afternoon, by presenting an application which is far from complete.
It is embarrassing and sad to see this sort of thing happen to a company that writes and produces one’s favorite hobby, and I sincerely hope that this trend does not continue. Gamers who have become fans this new version of D&D continue to pay into their D&D Insider Subscriptions hoping for new and exciting content, and to see their favorite pastime continue to grow and evolve in new and exciting ways. Disappointing moments like this new Adventure Tools: Monster Builder does no one any good – it only frustrates the fan base, perpetuates the edition wars, and weakens consumer confidence in the publisher.
So until next review – I wish you Happy Gaming!
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Wednesday, 23rd March, 2011, 10:22 PM #2
Thaumaturgist (Lvl 9)
This was a very good review of the situation. The online MB release was on one hand a communication failure. From beta testers to community members, the impression was that this next release would be a functionally useful release. If the drive really was to enable the VTT, then that should have been the message from start to finish (including to beta testers).
But, on the other hand, this is a failure to manage software development projects because it is likely that the goal changed at various points in time. This has been a common theme. Seldom do we sense a clear vision as to what is being developed. The steps are not a progression around functionality but a back-and-forth dance around what to provide, drastic reactions to perceptions of what the user base wants, and fears of the impact of piracy on profits.
It is possible that the VTT's surprisingly positive reaction caused a change to focus on the VTT over the MB. I am not sure that this is in their interests. While the VTT is sound, it is not clear to me that a robust VTT is as good for business as a robust MB. A robust MB enables a ton of gaming (at a real table, at conventions, at stores, online on a myriad of platforms, etc.). There are already many competing online platforms. Several offer more functionality, thought they are complex and integration of content is difficult. VTT integration is a logical goal because it offers a good value, but it isn't clear that VTT functionality is a better place for limited resources than other tools (such as the MB or an Encounter Builder or a Mapping Tool).
Similarly, the lack of online MB functionality may be a reaction to fears around piracy and IP loss. The classic MB is a fantastic tool... or was until they introduced a few bugs after the MM3 update. The bugs cause recharge rates and triggers to often disappear, along with a few other pains. Other than that, the classic MB offers amazingly useful functionality to scale, edit, and create monsters. The output allows the monsters to be shared on forums, inserted in proper format in organized play adventures, and used by DMs in their home games. It is possible that this degree of power was seen as a threat. In my opinion, it sells the game. A tool of such power is a reason to play 4E over other systems. I play a lot of RPGs, and this tool made adventure preparation and authoring a snap compared to other complex systems.
In the end, it appears that WotC continues to suffer from an inability to nail down a vision for where they want to be with online tools. Their message appears to change, even internally. They seem to have an inability to manage software development projects. They have bursts of great ideas, even of great tools, but then things change, are discarded, are downgraded, are delayed. All of this has had a seriously negative effect on their customers.
I am personally a great fan of many RPGs, but D&D has a special place in my heart. I absolutely want to see WotC succeed. I have seen a lot of positive steps in the last few months. I feel that things are actually turning around, even if the online MB was a step back.
Wednesday, 23rd March, 2011, 10:42 PM #3
Waghalter (Lvl 7)
WotC DDI is kind of out of healing potions and have used their second wind.
Wednesday, 23rd March, 2011, 11:50 PM #4
Cutpurse (Lvl 5)
In other words WOTC considered this "improvement" to be a vital module for the pending VTT so provided its development team with the necessary resources to ensure it met/exceeded those requirements.
Therefore, we (as end-users), should expect VTT to be a complete and udder flop of similar magnitude and thus plan on continuing to use alternative sources for our online gaming needs because its evident WOTC is incapable (unwilling?) to provide a viable solution; even as they continue to stress this is the direction the brandname will continue traveling ... towards obscurity?
Thursday, 24th March, 2011, 12:10 AM #5
Release. An. API.
Since WotC doesn't seem to be able to tackle providing the software that DDI subscribers are looking for, why aren't they releasing an API? They could sell developer memberships, licensing fees for software, and get a cut of microtransactions on TOP of subscriber fees for access through 3rd party software. Seriously, this is a business, yet they keep working the same worthless software strategies.
Pathfinder, TAKE US AWAY!
Thursday, 24th March, 2011, 12:16 AM #6
Thaumaturgist (Lvl 9)
The VTT has actually been well received by the beta testers. The reaction to the VTT, as compared to online CB, was night-and-day!
Now, the VTT has limits. It won't do everything MapTool or other programs do. But it is visually very attractive, it has some good features, and it most importantly does what it set out to do: you can play online D&D games with it. Adding in the ability to pull in your PC from the online CB and monsters from the online MB means both players and DMs can get going very quickly. The mustering process was not exceptional, but again functional.
I can see the VTT over time being a very good tool. I argue that it doesn't have to be better than other tools because the seamless integration will make it really strong. Also, by not getting too complex it can keep itself easy for new players.
There are deficiencies with the VTT, but it is a solid tool. My main point above is that I am not sure the VTT should be a bigger priority over the MB. It makes sense if WotC has a good plan for how content is sold over the VTT. Providing adventure packs may be their plan, and then it might be worth the emphasis. On a purely customer-driven side, I suspect the MB is more useful for the average customer than the VTT.
Thursday, 24th March, 2011, 01:32 PM #7
Defender (Lvl 8)
One of my players works for GEEK Squad, and he pointed to the popularity of the iPhone vs. the Android. People gravitate towards the iPhone over the Android because of the sheer volume of apps available for the iPhone - somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-3x the number available for iPhone than are available for Android. There are also a larger pool of developers making iPhone apps over that of Andriod developers.
WotC would do well to learn a lesson here - their proprietary attitude toward their software development may not be in the best interest of the future of D&D 4E or in the interest of WotC's profits for the long haul. More programs and apps out could mean greater market penetration, and greater interest in playing their version of D&D - something their current exclusive policy on software development does not seem to be accomplishing.
Thursday, 24th March, 2011, 05:19 PM #8
A very nice review. Sadly, nothing is out of the ordinary in the House of Wizards. Is the same bullsh*it pie we've been fed for several years now.
Thursday, 24th March, 2011, 07:31 PM #9
Here is the daydream I had on the whole API thing.
1. DDI announces an API then gives away the VTT as an example of software that can be built using their new APIs. The VTT, without a DDI subscription, acts as a very simple VT, like Fantasy Grounds, but without any instantly importable DDI content. With a DDI subscription all the magic starts to happen.
2. They introduce SmiteWorks and [whoever makes MasterPlan], and [some iPad developer] to show some extensions they built into their current software using the API that they were able to enable quickly and easily thanks to the DDI software group! Login screens all look the same from app to app, characters can be imported into apps with a click, custom monsters are available from app to app, and all campaign management and customizations can be transferred in XML between apps, all through the same dialogue boxes provided by the API. HURRAY!
3. They offer a DDI Developer account that gives full access to the SDK and documentation for like $100/year (Apple's model).
4. DDI announces an official "app store" where DDI "approved" apps can be sold with a cut to Wizards allowing microtransactions to buy pre-rolled characters, tokens for the VTT, maps, adventures, and other INEXPENSIVE content as well as third party apps.
5. Current DDI Subscribers see enhanced value in DDI "approved" API applications, and by using their credentials in any number of DDI "approved" API applications, they gain access to all the DDI content in applications of their choice.
6. D&D is given back to the community that keeps it alive so those that love it the most can care for it how it should be.
7. I explode with delight.
8. The announce that Character Builder, Monster Builder, Map Builder, Encounter Builder, World Builder, and Adventure Builder are all separate apps available on the DDI App store, for Mac and PC, for a very low cost and NOT requiring a DDI account to purchase. To access the content, a DDI subscription is HIGHLY recommended given all the benefits of the API.
9. We all congratulate Wizards on some very smart choices and everybody gets to make DnD play the way THEY want it to be played electronically, not as designated by a software group that has a poor track record for development.
Thursday, 24th March, 2011, 09:14 PM #10
Defender (Lvl 8)
With the continued movement of their tools to on-line only, and WotC's inability to actually make their on-line presence work, I have to say that issues like this are why having jumped the WotC ship, I've never looked back.