Thursday, January 26, 2012

RPG's and RMS - Part the First

I have been playing RPG's on and off since I was about 10.  So 26 years. Uhg.  I've also been working for a company that makes RMS (record management software) for about 6 years now.  I've also been an observer, and occasional participant in the Edition Wars during that time.

Coincidentally, our company has released a major conversion/new edition of our software not too long after 4e came out, and I noticed that the reactions of clients to our upgrade were eerily similar to many of the edition wars complaints that I read online.  This caused me to do additional thinking about the parallels between what I do at work and what WotC does with DnD.

Since many people have opinions about this which I feel are not informed by reality, I thought it might be interesting to discuss my experiences in "new editions" using the software that I work with as an example.

Part 1 - Reasons for a new edition.

Something I hear a lot from some of my clients is "why create a new version - the old version worked just fine?"

It's a valid concern, too.  These clients have been doing the same things the same way for many years - they are happy how things work and they see no reason for things to change.  Ever.

But this person is the guy who drives the same road to work everyday and gets upset if the road gets changed around.  They are looking at a much bigger thing - a city road network, a piece of software, or an RPG line, only from the perspective of how they use/interact with it.  And as developers, or urban planners (last road analogy, I promise), or game companies, we cannot do that.  We have to look at the big picture - all of our current users and potential future users, and make decisions that we feel will benefit the largest number of them.  AND we have to consider the financial ramifications of the decisions as well - we have families to feed.

So here are some of the WHY's that we considered with our new software edition.  Similar ones, I'm willing to bet, to what WotC considers when thinking about a new version.

WHY ONE:  You want to implement new features that your existing infrastructure cannot support.

In our software, this was turning the program from a simple database into a client/server application - this would add a lot of flexibility for clients to use the software in different ways and locations, and also have a lot  of other beneficial effects.

In 4e, one example of this was trying to ease the burden on the DM in terms of prep-time and making the numbers of the game more consistent, logical and easy to design for.  Whatever merits 3e had as a system, that was not one of them.

Major changes like this are often a big part of the reason for a new version.  Sometimes they come with a new designer/programmer, but often they are the result of spending years supporting and designing new features for an existing product.  You see where the limitations and rough bits are very clearly, and want to get rid of them.

WHY TWO:  Cruft Cleanup.

I'm not a programmer, but Cruft is a programming term often used to describe useless code that accumulates over time within software.  This issue is fairly common if you are actively updating or changing your software, and especially if you have short intervals between updates or limited testing time.  Things usually still work, but the stuff builds up and often slows down the program or makes it harder to make new changes without breaking something else.

In DnD, cruft is usually called "splatbooks" or "supplements".  By adding new features, rules and options, you increase the critical mass of the game to the point where it's difficult and slow to find many of the rules - slowing down the game and making it more difficult to run.   The rationale for releasing the splatbooks to begin with is something I'll get into later.

New versions are a great way to clear away a lot of this mass.  Of course, there are always some clients who are using each part of it, so you often have to get right back on the treadmill and re-create them for the new version.  But hopefully you also made changes in WHY ONE that make this easier.

WHY THREE:  Interface Design

User interfaces are things that evolve over time.  Unless you are working with a very solid design document and have a clear vision of how you want your interface to work, you can end up with a kludgey mess as you add new features.  Also, interfaces that looked really good 10 years ago can end up looking awfully dated.

For our software, changing the UI also meant giving clients a lot of new tools that they could use to more easily find information, generate reports and keep their information organized.

For an RPG, the UI is things like artwork, book layout, index and general organization.  And this stuff can get dated-looking just like software UI.  Not as fast, luckily, but it can happen.  So for both software and RPG's, the new edition can be an opportunity to reorganize, facelift with new art and graphics, to clean up those areas that are inconsistent or have been bothering you.

Ultimately, these first three why's feed into WHY FOUR:  Sales.

In order to be in business, you need to have a product that you can sell.  For actual money.  This isn't as bad an issue for our company as it is for WotC, because we make a lot of income on service/support contracts.  Which is basically what they are trying with DnD Insider.  But our service contracts cost thousands of dollars annually - sales are basically profit for us.

Sales for WotC are much more critical.  They have to sell books, and they have to keep selling them, because they have to pay staff and keep the lights on and buy supplies to publish more books and soforth.  All the reasons for creating a new version or edition ultimately flow back into one overriding concern - we want to make something that more people will want to buy.

For our company, we also need to do a lot of working making sure it's something that people want to continue to use, and that's important to WotC too - DDi is a solid idea, but it's a tougher sell for a primarily DIY hobby like RPGs.

So that's WHY.  Next I'll get onto the fun stuff - Part 2: How your clients react to new versions.


  1. That's a well reasoned, rational argument for why WOTC might be doing what they're doing. I'd point out that the fault in your analogy is that the computer industry itself changes massively from month to month, year to year, and a company that does not do what you suggest will be flooded out of business by other companies. Moreover, software is an all or nothing proposition; I can't really obtain something like a video game, go into it and strip out the parts of the game I don't like ... especially if I'm not computer literate. I have to take the package the creator sells me, and I have to suck up any feature I don't like.

    For example (an old example, but it increases the likelihood of others recognizing it) I used to hate that the old Zoo Tycoon game topped out at 1,000 guests. I had no way whatsoever to fix that. But I was pleased when I heard Zoo 2 was coming out. Surely, being produced later, it would fix the guest limitation, which was presumably there because the earlier software couldn't manage more than 1,000 moving little people.

    But the new game DIDN'T solve that problem. It decided what people wanted was VISUALS. But the visuals were hard to work with, sucked, and the game itself was made completely unworkable.

    As a consumer, there was nothing I could do about this, except throw the game away.

    D&D does not adhere to any of this. D&D is not a solid entity which I can't strip apart and make use of however I like. And WOTC is not one of a thousand companies competing for survival.

    Compare their business model to something comparable - like, say, marketing the Grand Canyon. Only got one owner. Never changes. Still pulls the tourists in.

    Now what is WOTC doing to make the experience better for me?

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  3. Well, my experience 5-6 years in is that although some parts of the computer industry do change, they don't change all that fast. Or maybe, the technology industry may change, but the users don't often adjust nearly so fast, especially institutional/government users - which includes Fire Departments.

    Also, Moore's law means that tech advances, but in practical terms that just means that software you can run now will only run better in the future.

    Also, the software we make isn't really much like a video game - it's modular, so clients pick only the parts they want, and it's highly customizable, designed to be modified to meet the requirements of clients. So for this software, you actually can remove the bits you don't like, modify a lot of the existing stuff, and tweak a lot of it. So the two systems are actually much closer than they would be with a video game.

    And WoTC are one of a thousand companies, now. They compete with boardgames, CCGs, video games, movies and the internet for a slice of our entertainment time and money. TSR in the early 80's had little competition, but that ain't true now. Besides, there are maybe 6 companies in North America that make really good software for our niche industry, so just in terms of apples to apples competition, we're actually looking at similar numbers as WotC there too.

    Ultimately - WoTC isn't doing ANYTHING to make the experience better for you. As a DIY'er who is heavily invested in an old edition... there is just no compelling reason to court you. They seem to be trying to do that with 5E, but my next post here is likely going to be about why I think that's a stupid idea.

    Sometimes I call a fire department, and ask them "what are you doing for record-keeping?" They say "I use an old Access database that I designed a while ago - it does what I need it to and I can add to it if I need new features."

    And I say "great, good work, I'm glad that is working out for you" and I don't call them again for 3 years. Or 5 if the guy sounds young. I have nothing to offer this person - they are not a prospective client. To WotC, I think you are that guy.

    But sometimes, they say "Man, I'm dying here - the paperwork is more than I have time for and I suck at statistical reporting so I can't get more money and I lose track of stuff all the time and I need to get more efficient." That guy is a prospective client. And he is who I was when I bought 4e from WotC. It streamlined things, got me playing actively again. Did the job I needed it to.

    They want to build an edition where more people say "I like what this does" than say "you've got nothing interesting to offer me"