This is one of the reasons I consider WotC to be the industry leader, not just barely, but by miles. They're the ones innovating. What WotC gambles on today as a new rules system, or new way of integrating their online presence, will tomorrow be seen as the industry standard, something gamers will expect of their game of choice.
Right. As a web developer, I saw right away the power behind the uniformity of the original 4e design scheme -- everyone gets powers, everyone gets them at the same time... it's the sort of programming challenge that a programmer won't mind taking on.
The new essentials builds (and, really, going back to Phb3, when the psionic classes started to break the standard pattern of development) create a nightmare situation, by comparison -- each class's advancement system will have to be coded separately, which means a lot more work for the coders -- and more delays for the digital side of the offering. I'm sure that the WOTC developers have ulcers with "essentials" classes peeking out of them.
Still, I wouldn't have it any other way -- I think game design decisions should come first, even though it's nice when they're made with an eye towards the digital tool development. And I love the way the essentials classes help new players play their characters "right" -- they really capture the flavor of the class for new folks, and that's what they're meant to do. So, in the programmer's shoes, I'd make faces and bitch, but that's the job. I could be writing code for tax accounting software instead......
With those factors in mind, it makes it a lot easier to understand the changes in the programming department's stuff over the past 9 months or so. They had some pretty steep challenges:
1. Develop Web-based tools to replace the downloadable ones (this is a business necessity for WOTC)
2. Develop tools to handle the new, varied and inconsistent class structures in essentials products
3. Develop new tools, including the VTT offering.
4. Keep up development on the old, downloadable tools.
Given the challenges they face, and understanding that they're working with limited resources, it's not hard to see why they would decide to make the jump to the new character builder early -- before it was quite ready for release. Not releasing it would have meant either more months of not having the essentials in the character builder, or spending programming resources developing the essentials classes in the soon-to-be-deprecated downloadable builder -- a vast waste of programming time.
So, they stalled a little to get it as ready as they could be, then released it. I'm sure they lost a lot of sleep over the decision, and they're taking it on the chin from all us angry grognards, but in the end it was the only responsible decision they could make -- the best of several bad options.
They love the game as much as we do, and they want it to succeed. They're in a really tough spot right now -- and they're just starting to turn it around and come back up. They've got a lot of stuff to figure out about the future, both the game development future and the digital development.
Oh... and one more thought as we keep making comparisons between Paizo and WOTC: They're developing products that target different audiences. That has a profound effect on the products they're producing.
Paizo doesn't need to grow the market in the same way WOTC does. They're doing okay focusing on experienced, mature gamers. You can see this in the truly magnificent adventure paths and products they produce for Pathfinder and 3.5. I never want to play 3.5 again -- and the only thing that keeps me casting a glance back over my shoulder is those Paizo adventures.
And, as a DM and player, I often wish that WOTC would produce the same sort of smart, grown-up adventure paths for 4e. But it's important to understand that the decision not to produce those products is not a lack of ability - read the posts about the various campaigns the D&D developers are running -- they've got the skills, no question about it. It's not that they don't have the skills. It's because the audience they need to reach to meet their organizational needs is different.
Because of their position in the marketplace, WOTC must recruit and serve new players. And that recruitment serves everyone else in the industry (those recruits, like the rest of us, will develop into fans that check out other game systems, too). The rest of the industry can do pretty well picking away at the edges of the big D&D herd for players and DMs interested in finding something a little different. But WOTC has to create their new audience out of thin air, and that's a whole lot harder.
So, anyway, cut them some slack. 4e is still my favorite game. I still have towering respect for the guys that produce it. They've got a tough job to do, one that isn't just about coming up with cool ways to kill orcs and take pies.