Online Character Generator Review

Well! Its been a while. The holidays was crazy busy for all of the Lords of Tyr. While we pride ourselves on being gamers. We also pride ourselves on having a healthy attitude about putting real life first. Friends and family are important. While we didn't game very much in November and December, and we certainly didn't podcast much, we did manage to get together for some outings. Mostly we had some great time with our families.

The Holidays are over and now its time to get back to playing!

Tonight we will get back to our main 4E campaign. That meant that I needed to get my awesome "Charge first and think probably never" barbarian Arbrath up to date in the new online character generator. Importing went smooth. I am especially happy that I can finally manage my characters on my Mac.

The online Character Builder application is written using Microsoft’s Silverlight. While it does allow Macintosh users to now use it, it is hardly a “browser based” application. It is a little frustrating to see Wizards, make progress, and at the same time shoot themselves in the foot. In fact, they released their Silverlight based Character Builder almost exactly at the same time that Microsoft changed their direction on crossplatform web development with Silverlight.

Silverlight will continue to be a cross-platform solution, working on a variety of operating system/browser platforms, going forward, he said. “But HTML is the only true cross platform solution for everything, including (Apple’s) iOS platform,” Muglia said.”

I think using Silverlight (just like .Net was in the Character Builder’s previous version) is short sited and limiting. Yes, they have added one more platform, but Wizards is completely missing the boat on mobile computing (Smart phones and tablets anyone?). I still see no good reason why the Character Builder couldn’t have just been built as an HTML application using some javascript. If entire WYSISYG word processors and spreadsheets can be built as browser apps that can run on any operating system, including my smart phone, then so can Wizards. Why using a limited, proprietary,  also ran version of Flash (which I’m not a big fan of either)? Whoever is listening to Microsoft at Wizards needs to just stop. Microsoft has been clueless about the web since its inception. They still are. Just stop it OK?

The Interface seems simpler than the old character creator, but it also feels more sluggish. I’ll trade a little sluggishness for an online version that also works on my Mac though. For whatever reason I can’t use the mouse or trackpad to scroll through my character sheet on my Mac. This is quite annoying. I print the sheets out to a PDF and use that instead of using the character builder directly because of this.

Text fields for some items are only 255 characters. This is way too short for "Session and Campaign notes". So what now? Do I have to have the character generator and Google Docs open at the same time? Since when was an xml file or a database field limited to only 255 characters? This makes absolutely no sense to me from a technological perspective. Instead of making it truly useful and something that as a player I could "live" in during the game, it is purely a stats and power page with no “character” in it. The lack of long form text fields means that I'm essentially just printing the character out to a PDF and supplementing the PDF with Google Docs document.

By the way, viewing PDF’s with Google Docs is awesome! I recommend that everyone try it. Just upload your PDF to Google Docs and you can view any PDF in your browser. You can also use it to view other online PDFs, PowerPoint, and TIFF files by using this bookmarklet in your browser. I use CyberDuck  to directly manage files and folders in GDocs. It is so easy to drag and drop PDF’s and other files with it. It is available for Mac and Windows.

Why all this Google Docs talk? Because with Google Docs and my Sprint HTC Evo Android phone I can game only with my phone! I’ll post up another article shortly with more details on how you can accomplish this. It is pretty awesome. Now we just need a RPTools client on my EVO!

There is no way to export and share characters at this point. Wizards has stated that they will eventually support this feature. D&D is a social passtime. People are sharing character builds all the time. In fact, without the ability to export and import characters, there are games I would not have been able to participate in. I have 1 year old twins and an almost four year old son. I don’t have the luxury of spare time to be slogging through a 25 lvl character build. But i do have time to find a pre-made build on a forum that I can tweak for 15 minutes to make the build special to me. This is a very important feature.

There are quite a few known bugs listed here. You should check them to make sure your character build is not effected adversely. If you find a bug, stop just bitching about it and report it here. In spite of my criticisms, what Wizards has done is light years ahead of their previous efforts in the 3x days. If you love this pass-time as much as I do, it behooves you to help make it better!  The problems with the online tools really come down to vision and scope issues. Doing applications like these is extremely hard. But it is par for the course. To compete for the attention of the next generation, technology must be embraced. I see that happening at Wizards. What I think is missing is Wizards pushing the technology forward. They are the big dog in this space and I’ve constantly seen them beat out with free community based products. Its time for Wizards to get ahead of the curve by making better strategic technological decisions. Can you imagine how much better our “almost cross platform” browser based character generator would be if someone at Wizards would have had the vision to start down this path to start with? They would be two or three years farther ahead!