A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer

23Mar/11Off

Utility: New Monster Builder

I'm probably going to be a little critical of Wizards of the Coast here... I'm sure they have their reasons for releasing what they did, but I'm seeing it as an impartial observer, a paying customer and a software developer.

Most of this post was conceived when it first went Beta, but I didn't have a place to post it back then.

Yesterday Wizards of the Coast released the new Silverlight powered Adventure Tools, which includes the new version of the Monster Builder. I'm going to analyze it from two viewpoints: as a user and as a programmer.

AS A USER

To be honest, the old version of the Monster Builder is one of the most frustrating applications I've ever had to use. I understand the need to make the application "pretty" and pleasing to the eye, but that should not be at the expense of usability. It had numerous bugs, it was slow, and some things just didn't quite work right; with some patience, you could learn to accept it.

But it had one thing going for it: it was useful, and it served a necessary purpose for almost any DM out there. It might take you half a day, but you are able to create brand new monsters, edit existing ones, print stat blocks, etc...

The new Monster Builder has none of that... Yet...

Several months ago this new MB went in to beta for an elite few. At the time I thought it was simply a "proof of concept", to show people what it would look like and what it would be capable of, in addition to being what a beta is intended to be: test the integration between the application and the back end framework that supports it. At the time the app did little, but I kind of accepted that because I assumed they would add features over time during the beta cycle and allow their testers to try things out.

Now, several months later, they released the Monster Builder to the public... and it's apparently the same as when I first saw it.

Here's what the new Monster Builder can and cannot do:

  • The only power detail you can edit for each monster is the NAME of each power. Can't change the flavor text, range and area of effect, the attack information, the type of action, etc...
  • Beyond that, you can only edit the creature's name and level. Can't change defenses, hit points, abilities, skills, equipment, etc...
  • You can level an existing creature up or down from level 1 to level 55. Unless WotC is considering doing what MMORPGs often do and somehow increasing the level cap (because of how 4e is designed, I can't even begin to consider what this would involve), I can't imagine the need to level anything past level 30. Heck, Orcus is *only* level 33... I can upgrade up a kobold to level 55 that would pound him in to the ground like a railroad spike.
  • No means of exporting the creature. You can't even print to a PDF friendly format (the Character Builder has this same flaw... Considering the criticism there, you would think they would have considered it).

And that's it. Several months of development... to release the same product in "beta" form? A product that is literally missing 90% of the functionality that exists in the product it is replacing?

And while we're on the topic of the "beta" label...

AS A PROGRAMMER

I don't quite know when the term "beta" lost its meaning, but Wizards of the Coast isn't the first company to forget what the term truly means.

The official definition, as posted on Wikipedia, is:

Beta is the software development phase following alpha (beta is the second letter of the ancient Greek alphabet, used as the number 2. It is not nowadays usual to speak of a later gamma test). It generally begins when the software is feature complete. The focus of beta testing is reducing impacts to users, often incorporating usability testing. The process of delivering a beta version to the users is called beta release and this is typically the first time that the software is available outside of the organization that developed it.

(Emphasis mine.)

A lot of companies, however, follow the concept of a "perpetual beta"... GMail, for example, was in "beta" for close to three years, but at least GMail was reasonably "feature complete" before it ever saw the light of day; it had enough features that people could use.

The Adventure Tools are labeled "beta" even though they are not: they are nowhere near being "feature complete", and one could argue that they aren't even testing potential new features currently in active development. The Character Builder, however, *is* "beta" even though I don't believe it is labeled as such. It's even kind of amusing when you realize that the version number on the Monster Builder (1.3.23.0 at the time of this post)  is remarkably similar to the Character Builder (1.3.207.0 at the time of this post), despite the CB being actually usable and has a boatload more features.

Addendum: In retrospect, The third part of the version number is most probably an integer, which means that the CB is in fact higher. But it is the third part of the version number, which designates the actual build number rather than the release number. In other words, the CB has simply been compiled more often.

Their reason for releasing it in its current state? WotC_Trevor speaks...

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.

This would be acceptable if the product was described like that from the start. I may be crazy, but I somehow expected a Monster Builder to allow me to build monsters.

Also, you can't tell me to look at this application I and realize what they are "working on". The application hasn't changed at all in three months of Beta.

TECHNICAL ANALYSIS

As both a programmer and an engineer, I'm curious. I'm the type that as a child would dismantle toys just to see what made them tick. So, to get a better idea of the technical aspects, I decided to analyze this new Monster Builder a little further.

In case you are not aware, Silverlight applications with the ".xap" extension are actually ZIP files; you can simply rename the extension to ".zip" and extract all the content, which includes the binaries and the reference data. Once you do that, it's quite enlightening.

Let me go through the technical discoveries:

Prettiness Versus Usability

I am one of the worst UI designers I know... I'm not "artsy", and much rather prefer to focus on core functionality than how an application looks. I like to think that my applications run remarkably well, even though they might look like they were visually designed by a caveman.

The new MB suffers from the same problem the old one did: the effort put in to making it look aesthetically pleasing causes the performance to suffer. Personally I would rather have an application that reacts immediately and looks like something IBM would make ("let's make it big, black and weighing several tons!"), rather than have a gorgeous application that I have to wait for every time I move my mouse.

The problem is that people like things that are "pretty". Of all the complains floating around on the 'net, I'm probably the only person that is bothered that it looks good. I don't care how it looks in the end... I want it to work!

Embedded Content

Included in the archive is a file called "Monster.data", which is a serialized data set of a considerable amount of monster information. This level of data - header information, if you will - is arguably necessary for the filters to work, but this is something that could have been more easily offloaded to the server. Basically, be a "dumb client" and do what the Compendium currently does: every time you look for something, ask the server to find it.

Instead, this file - let's call it the "monster index" - is loaded in to memory as one large data stream, so you have some general information for every one of the 3,700+ monsters floating around in memory even if you may not need it. Even if you load up the MB to make a quick change to a single monster, it has to load up that entire list.

This is what makes the Javascript-driven Compendium so nice to use: it's dumb. When it first loads, it knows very little about the information it is designed to retrieve (it only knows the categories of data), and every time the user asks for data it has to query the server through a .NET Service call and returns an XML response containing the results. Using this method of design the client never has to change, and any data updates could be done transparently at the server level at any time.

In the end, it ends up being a toss up between bandwidth and hardware. There was a time when bandwidth was scarce, so developers would try to bring as much information to the client as possible. Nowadays it's the opposite in some cases... I personally would prefer to use a lot of bandwidth if it meant not overwhelming the memory on my local PC or causing Silverlight and Internet Explorer to implode.

Web Application Ethic

Because the monster index is part of the Silverlight application itself, every time a monster is added or changed the entire Silverlight application needs to be recompiled, repackaged and redistributed. That means that your browser will never cache the monster data separate from the application. Even if they add one monster, you have to take the hit of downloading the entire Silverlight archive (3Mb compressed) and the system has to expand it out in to a temporary folder for execution (expands to 12+Mb), even if they didn't make any changes to the code base.

Again, the data should either come from a web service in the same manner as the Compendium or loaded as a separate archive from the server. Part of the reason they chose to move to Silverlight is that it was easier to make updates. What's easier: repackaging and distributing a new Silverlight application to everyone or changing a data record at the database server level?

Security Measures

One thing that bothered me about the original Monster Builder was the way the data was stored in the client.

First of all, the data was highly encrypted using government-level DES encryption, which is absurdly slow when it comes to handling a large amount of data. Secondly, the data was stored in a non-native XML format, which might be good for readability but is slower to process than if it were in native binary. Both of these issues are what made the offline MB so painfully slow when it initialized or did anything data related.

In the new version both of these issues are no more: the monster index is unencrypted and stored in a serialized binary format, while the data that isn't in the index is returned by the server in a very simple XML format (which would automatically be converted to a native binary format through .NET Service call management and the serialization engine).

Future Catalogs

The main screen of the Adventure Tools shows all the available catalogs. Currently there's only one - "Monsters" - but looking through the design it is clear they intend to have many more offerings. There are class libraries in the Silverlight code base for things like traps and encounters. I would not be surprised if there are future plans for a Trap Builder, Encounter Builder, Skill Challenge Builder, etc...

As good as this might sound, my fear is that this will ultimately replace the Compendium. Sometimes I just want to look something up and don't need the overhead of this Silverlight application loading up and offering me editing functionality I have no intention of using. The Compendium is up and active instantly; sometimes, that's all I need.

CONCLUSION

The product is obviously incomplete, and WotC themselves has said that countless times, but the product should have been released when it reached a point where it can not only be useful but be on par with the deprecated product it is replacing. Now that they no longer support the old Monster Builder (it can be downloaded but they're not updating it), users are left out in the cold with nothing they can use.

AN ALTERNATIVE

When I started to use the original Monster Builder for myself, I hated it. So much so that I began to look for an alternative, and ran across the Monster Maker by Asmor. It was the perfect little app, and did everything I wanted the original Monster Builder to do with less flair and "prettiness". It worked beautifully!

I had some crashing issues with it, so I sent an email to Asmor himself asking about it. He essentially said "I'm not supporting this any more... You want it?" Shortly thereafter, I had in my hands the complete .NET source code to Asmor's Monster Maker.

At this time I had a crazy idea: I sent an email to everyone I can think of at Wizards of the Coast telling them that their current MB is lousy and that I would be willing to create a Monster Builder for them for free. I even offered to make a web version (using Javascript, AJAX and other technologies significantly simpler and more portable than Silverlight or Flash). My only concern was access to the existing creature catalog, which I was capable of generating on my own but wanted their permission to do so before they tried to sue me.

I sent this email before anyone outside of Seattle knew where they were going with these Silverlight applications. Needless to say, they never answered me.

I have since tinkered a bit with Asmor's Monster Maker, and I think I could make a viable application that would compare in functionality with the MB but maybe not be as pretty (maybe if someone out there would help me with the "artsy" stuff that might not be the case). The only thing that has prevented me from going full bore on this little project is because the application would have to be devoid of any actual monster data: because of WotC's SRD guidelines, I can't contain any monster information from the core rulebooks in it. I can't include the 3,700+ monsters. How useful would it be for everyone to have to recreate the monsters from scratch?

But I remain optimistic... I'm hoping that WotC will do what is should be expected of them and make the Monster Builder what it is meant to be. Give the people what they need, what they are paying for, what they want from a company to which they are paying membership fees.

In the meantime, I'll be here if you need anything.

Comments (2) Trackbacks (1)
  1. Thank you for the look at the “behind the scenes,” if you will! I’ve been dying to know just what it is they’re doing to make these things egregiously slow and nigh-unusable. Interesting.

    Did you hear the Tabletop application WotC is working on had such terrible technical difficulties at PaxEast that they had to pull it from their programming? It had been scheduled for a showcase and everything…

    I’m embarrassed *for* them.

    • I have had access to the Virtual Table beta as well, but haven’t been able to mess with it extensively because I haven’t had the opportunity to use it in a group. Not to mention that no ability to upload my own maps is somewhat of a showstopper for me.

      Maybe that should be the topic of a future post… 🙂