September 25, 2008

Randy Buehler: Please Read This

Over at the Wizards of the Coast Dungeons & Dragons Insider News page, Randy Buehler turns the table on the community in his article by asking us a few questions. What's not clear to me is who he is addressing; but let's just assume he means everyone. What is also not clear to me is what the point of the News was... to ask for community advice about the layout of the DDI website and to plug the Facebook app? Aren't they launching DDI in less than one month?

Here are my comments to some points he made, and my replies to his questions:

"This playtest [of the barbarian] is a perfect example of the kind of "Insider" access that you'll get as a subscriber. "
So, we get to pay for beta-testing something. That's a novel idea... Maybe you should just role it out to RPGA to test it - that's what has been done in the past. Oh wait.. you likely have corporate amnesia about that.

"I'm not super interested in arguing about whether we're actually doing what we said we're going to do."
Oh? Well, that's OK. How about a polite, honest, and open discourse on the topic? Would that be alright? I'll have my people call your people. KK?

"Are the updates too hard to find?"


"Is our schedule too difficult to follow?"

"Is it good to see the Table of Contents ahead of time because it promotes interest and discussion, or is the tease a net negative?"
Come on! Are you kidding?

"Is our website navigation so confusing that you didn't even know there was a Table of Contents or thrice-weekly content updates?"
Its fine, I've seen worse.

"These are issues that we're actively debating right now as we plan for the medium and long-term future of our website."
Wait... so... aren't you launching DDI in 1 month? And you currently you do not have a medium or long term plan for DDI? What the heck? That's... an interesting business model...

"In closing I want to give an update on our 5-week old Facebook application, D&D: Tiny Adventures."
I see.. so is this the real point of the "update'?

I don't see what the heck the point of this news update was for.  Is the layout of the D&D website such a major issue that he needs to turn to his community for feedback? Why not ask us for feedback on the DDI product itself - and how we are perceiving it out here in on the Netz... 


  1. Sorry, but Randy's been hitting the bong or something if he expects me to pay to beta test something. I'm going to pay for the right to try something out for YOU? Ain't happening.

    I'm not a fan of the DDI either. I liked picking up the odd issue of Dragon or Dungeon when there was something that interested me. I never had a full subscription to either, and I'm not going to pay for a subscription to DDI. However, now they won't get my money for the odd issue anymore.

    Their choice I guess.

  2. For the record, Pyramid Magazine has been doing the same thing for ages with GURPS stuff.

    Also, please note this: "This playtest is a perfect example of the kind of "Insider" access that you'll get as a subscriber. Our current free trial is designed to do everything we can to get that word out to potential subscribers, and thus we're including this playtest as one of the last free articles. It will be one of the first articles that we publish in October."

    So Barbarian will still be free.

  3. Playtesting a class is an added benefit in addition to what you're paying for with D&D Insider, this is also a great case of an advtantage that the online/pdf model has over in-print magazines.

    It's definitely a good move on their part though if the Barbarian does end up being out before the pricing goes into effect, otherwise the delay just looks shameless.

  4. @tomcat : i too enjoyed the print magazine, but one advantage of PDF documents is that they are searchable. This might be technogeekery, but with OSX Spotlight or Google Desktop its a major winwin. Imagine a folder full of every issue of Dragon and Dungeon (and all the hardback books) all in PDF format. You open up Spotlight (or Google Desktop for Windoz users) and type something like "Kobold". BOOM! every instance of the word KOBOLD ends up in your search list without even opening any of the documents (ok, that might be a ton of results... but you could then home in on the issue you want). Or "Aboleth" and then look for the first occurance of that word in the D&D library (late-70's dragon mag, don't remember which on off the top of my head). That all being said... I'm still not likely to pay PRINT prices for an online only magazine...

    @Davethegame : Yeah good thing it will be free; that will be nice. But... its a playtest version, right? so... they could basically change whatever they want before it is official in the PHB2, right? Much the same as the Artificer for Ebberron.

    @Bartoneous : I thought the benefit of being a member of RPGA was things like pre-print playtesting. Seems to me that a magazine should not be printing things (digital or in print) that are not done yet. Makes me think something like "I have this great story about a hobbit with a ring - I'll publish my notes on this so you can buy them and look them over before I publish the book". Seems a bit like milking the cashcow to me. I would rather see the 20 pages or so of Dragon be devoted to a NEW class or another "Ecology of X" article and see the Barbarian released as a web-preview enhancement thingamajingy; if you know what I mean.

    thanks for stopping by everyone!

  5. @jonathon: PDF's are OK to an extent, but I just hate trying to read articles like that on a computer screen. It's a preference thing.

    Of course, if you could "pay by the article" on DDI, I would probably consider it, or a one month payment for those articles you want that month without a subscription. Either of those would make me happy.

    As for the Barbarian beta, I apparently misread that part. My bad.

  6. You are missing one important part of the beta test. There will be a couple of phases. The first phase will be to current (at the time of the beta) subscribers to DDi, and that will be for a shot period of time. Then, once that time period has expired, the beta will be open to everyone, subscriber or not.

  7. Howdy. I guess there's always something in me that always makes me want to play devil's advocate... Most of what Randy's questions are about is user experience, UI design, and navigation. You then somehow conflate how these issues are involved in a planning process with having (or not having) a business plan - two very different types of planning. Reread those two paragraphs in Randy's article. You are way off.

    As a professional web monkey myself, I'm happy that Wizards is asking the community via forums for design input. There are a bunch of ways to get user input on design (surveys, panels, user observations, split tests, web traffic analysis, etc.) and explicitly asking for community input is part of that toolkit. That's what you do as part of a beta-test period. Nothing weird or rant worthy here IMO.

    Second, RPGA beta-testing only involved a small subset of the gaming community. I've been playing D&D for 20 years and have never played in an RPGA event, but I like having insight into the design process and would be cool to beta-test classes. In fact, we briefly had an artificer (RIP) in my group. It was fine.

    I'm not a WotC apologist - in fact, the DDI offerings just don't have enough value to me for the planned price point, so I'm not planning on subscribing. But it seems you really have an axe to grind and it unfairly colored how you read into Randy's post.

  8. I'm with this .o. guy... I have 0 problems with them releasing playtest material as an early preview, even if eventually material like this you'll have to pay for. The RPGA doesn't seem like the best engine for playtesting for any number of reasons. I think this is a good way to address concerns about playtesting and good for us to have a way to give direct feedback.

  9. @tomcat : Yes! Pay by the article would be a excellent idea. Take what you want, when you want - if at $2/article, it would give people the option while making it obvious that a subscription was the cheaper road.

    @mudbunny : The fact that the 'beta' of the character creator is available (At first) to paying subscribers is bad mojo.

    @O : (OK, I'll take your troll bait.) I humbly disagree - I don't believe I'm 'conflat'[ing] anything. The fact that he brought up their internal 'debate'[s] about the UI and the release scheduling at this stage in their development cycle at all makes me think they don't have their shit together. WotC doesn't really have the best track record when it comes to software development, so - in my extremely humble opinion - they should take care to build confidence in their customer base; not admit they need out input 1 month before something goes to a pay-to-use model. Strikes me as being very amateur. While I agree with out about the software/web development comments (ways to get input, etc) these are things are generally done months prior to and very early in the development cycle of any serious project. Not to mention that DDI is a very simple (from an IT perspective) product; by following common UI design principles, they should not need feedback this late in the game.

    As to my 'coloring' of Randy's post: He's the vice president of the company. He should be presenting a message of confidence, stability, and planning. An "all-is-well" message with maybe a teaser or two.

    Oh, and btw - my post was not a rant. I did that yesterday. In anycase.. thanks for stopping by! I always welcome a good debate.

  10. Why is offering a short beta to subscribers first bad mojo?? These are people who will, at teh time of the release of teh beta, been paying for DDi. Why shouldn't they get rewarded with sooner access to the beta-test? If non-subscribers never got the chance to beta-test, I would be agreeing with you, but non-subscribers will haev access to the beta.

    I don't see ut as being any different from the head-start access that most MMOs use these days for people who have pre-ordered.

  11. @mudbunny : Maybe the problem I'm having is that 'beta-testing' usually equates to FREE in my mind. In light of your comparison to MMO's, I suppose the assumptions of what is and is not good model for how run a beta test is changing (shakes fist at Blizzard and the Warhammer kids!). So... when they say they have a beta-test, but its only for paying subscribers, it makes me kinda go "huh? isn't the point of a beta test to get as many people as possible to try something so that you can work out all the bugs?" Seems like beta-testing is more of a marketing ploy than anything else nowadays. Meh, no harm done I guess.

  12. Troll bait? Ouch! Devil's advocate is not the same thing. Sometimes just exploring the opposite opinion is insightful. Trolling is just being malicious, which is not my intent.

    Having been on many a web development team, soliciting feedback on layout and navigation at the end of a beta period is _not_ unusual or problematic. Remember, they already designed and released the DDI website a while back during the open beta. Now that the beta is approaching a close, they're collecting data and input on that design to make changes. Dunno if you received one of the online surveys a couple weeks ago. That's good practice, not amateurism.

    It's one thing to say that WotC has a bad track record with software dev (very true) but it's another to say that a web design review 1 month before launch is bad (absolutely, patently, false). I mean, he's asking if people found the table of contents and updates easy to use or not. That makes you think "they don't have their shit together"?

    And I entirely disagree on your interpretation of Randy's job. There are two ways to communicate with your customers: patronizing, comforting, "all-is-well", fluff is one of them. BS is another word for it.

    The other way to communicate with your customers is via transparent, frank, and mutually beneficial dialogue. The risk is that frank communication takes the community along the ride of ups and downs, which tends to frustrate some people.

    Your previous rant I can get behind, as we agree in a lot of ways. But in this case I really feel your predisposition to not trust WotC is harshly distorting Randy's article. Really, asking for website feedback at this stage is not a cause for alarm. Granted, WotC could still screw it up by overreacting the feedback and breaking the site or imposing some new god-awful design... But that's another issue.

  13. First note... there's a serious difference between trolling and debate... but moving past that.

    Personally... I don't really care what they do with DDI. I've not cared since before the last one failed. I stopped buying dragon years and years ago...

    A lot of this is perspective. I see a guy being straight forward and asking for input. They may in fact have no idea what is going on, or they may have the solids down and just be looking for what sort of touches to put on the finish... I dunno.

    And for me "beta-test" means "early". And besides, you aren't paying to beta test, you are paying to get DDI, which will also give you sneak previews (i.e. the beta test stuff) of up coming products.


  14. @.o. : Troll bait. My apologies! I just wanted to make sure you'd come back to the discussion. Welcome back! I very much appreciate your candor and opinion. I can see your point about GUI being the last thing on the revision table - i guess I just inherently have not trusted WotC since 3.5 and all the re-re-released splatbooks, etc. But, that's another issue. My own mistake for buying all that fluff no doubt...

    I should withdraw this post maybe - seems a lot of people got somewhat PO'd by this one. But I wont - i wrote it and here in the comments is where I'll either defend it or be won over. I'm half-way in the middle between the two at the moment. I by no means meant to slander or disrespect Randy Buehler in anyway; obviously the guy has a lot of people to answer to, not to mention the customer base as well, and that all has to be tricky to pull off.

    @anonyos : Welcome! Trolling vs. Debate - you are correct, they are very different animals. See my apology above. But i still think asking for people to pay for a service (DDI) that is unfinished is bullshyt.

    Frankly, if they had marketed it as Dragon and Dungeon for price X, and then Feature X, Y, Z will cost A, B, C more money per month - that would have been much better.

    in anycase, a lot of my issues are being echoed by the customer base in the D&D forums

    thanks again for the all feedback peoples. Please stay tuned while I get my head checked for faulty wiring...

  15. 70 comments already on the thread I link to above at the D&D forum.. sheesh!

  16. SHEESH #2 - two replies to my own reply.. HAHA!

    Anyway.. here's what Randy Beuhler has to say:

    "Sometimes I really hate the Internet as a communication tool ... my intended tone with the "I'm not interested in debating this point" line was conciliatory. The initial draft ended with "because" and then the next sentence was supposed to be the point: I'm attempting to admit that we're doing something wrong. I'm not convinced I understand yet what precisely it is that we should be doing, but I'm acknowledging that folks are frustrated and I'm genuinely interested in reaching out to understand where precisely the frustration is coming from.

    The truth is that we think we have in fact delivered the release schedule that we set out to deliver ... we never promised a specific time of day for the updates nor did we ever promise feature articles every MWF. However, debating the semantics of what we said and how it was perceived isn't actually productive. I was trying to avoid being defensive and instead cut straight to the actually interesting part of the dialog: what *should* we be doing? The fact that folks are disappointed and/or frustrated (another point that i was attempting to concede but may not have communicated as effectively as I intended) means we're wrong. Ok, now how do we get better?

    Anyway, clearly my intended tone did not come across and I apologize to anyone I offended. What this thread does highlight is something I already thought was true but was trying to stay neutral on so as not to bias the thread: our biggest issue is the lack of a regular release schedule. Got it.


    man that guy is under alot of pressure...

  17. Woohoo! Glad you don't think I'm just some random drive-by trolling jerk. I'd leave the post, I think you're a bit harsh, but the root of your frustration is legit.

    This is going to be an interesting thread to follow. One of the perils of asking your customer community for their thoughts is you just might get it... and then some. I hope Randy is wearing his Flamedrinker Armor.


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