So the day has come... D&D Beyond open beta has begun, so I decided to take a look.
First off, I'm looking at this strictly as (1) a software developer and architect, and as (2) someone who would actually use this thing. Without any mention of possible pricing, I can't say yet whether it's worth it or not, so I'll treat it for now as if it was free.
Some general comments...
- The website is hosted on CloudFlare, which is a pretty decent hosting service that is designed to handle excessive load and usage. Let me put it in simple terms: the D&D Beyond site can likely handle more users, more bandwidth and more activity than WotC's own website.
- The server runs the website using "nginx", which is a web service similar to Apache. Although I can't confirm it, my going theory is that the server side is written in Python (which would have been my personal choice), although PHP and other languages is surely possible. Whatever it may be, it's safe to say that they're officially a Linux shop... a big departure from WotC's history of being obsessively Microsoft-centric.
- Looking at the client-side code that I can see (and I admit there isn't a lot of it since only the Compendium is available), it looks well put together and fairly clean. In layman terms, it seems to suggest that the developer that wrote it knows what they're doing and isn't a total idiot. But, like I said, there isn't much there... we should have a better impression of their abilities once the next beta phases go live.
- The app works really well, better than I expected actually. This goes along with my opinion that a company like Curse has done this sort of thing before and isn't making stuff up as they go along.
- The app is visually appealing. Although it only contains SRD content right now, everything looks good. It even has pictures for all the monsters (well, most of them anyway... didn't go through all of them). The bugs I have seen are trivial and don't prevent you from using it (if you remember Dungeonscape/Morningstar, the bugs there made it unusable).
- The app works out of the box on desktop and mobile, which was as could be expected with the Cobalt framework.
All in all, I'm fairly impressed. It's better than I expected, and it shows that there's a serious company with experience doing this sort of thing behind it.
The Unexpected Reveal
The D&D Beyond beta did reveal something interesting... and I'm guessing it wasn't intentional.
So what is tabletophero.com? We don't know, but doing a WHOIS on the domains reveals something even more interesting: tabletophero.com existed OVER SIX MONTHS BEFORE dndbeyond.com did.
So... that being said... I have a new theory.
At first I thought that WotC likely asked Curse to create the app, but I don't think that any more. I think that Curse was already creating an app of this nature, called tabletophero.com at the time, and only after was it pitched to WotC. WotC saw the working app and went with it, rebranding it to be dndbeyond.com.
This approach differs wildly from what Trapdoor tried to do with WotC; when they pitched to WotC, Trapdoor didn't have an actual working app to show... at least not on three platforms (Android, iOS and desktop). They had what they thought it would look like, but I'm guessing that Curse was much farther along in their development, and the fact they can show a working app on every target platform was likely a big plus. This would also explain how Curse can take D&D Beyond from announcement to open beta in like a week; they've been working on it for a long time now.
This is all wild speculation, but if you think about it... it sure does look probable. We will likely never know the truth, though.
The Elephant In the Room
All the above is based on me looking at the app as a developer and as a user... but there's going to be one big problem with it and everyone knows it's coming: pricing.
As has been mentioned many a time, WotC has a tendency to price these sort of things at an absurd amount, making them impractical to afford or making people unwilling to pay for. Many are hesitant to pay for books they already own, but many indicators seem so show that will likely be the case here (see Fantasy Grounds).
We can only hope that WotC will snap out of their archaic mindset and get with modern times, but that's a big thing to ask.
More to Come
All in all, the app does show promise... But there isn't much to the Compendium, to be honest. What will make or break the application, at least from an application perspective, are the next two phases: Phase Two being character creation, and Phase Three being homebrew support and campaign management. Personally, I'm particularly curious about Phase Three.