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That new 4e Character Builder: Understanding the move to Silverlight

Recently, Wizards of the Coast announced it would discontinue support for the offline 4e Character Builder to make way for an online version powered by Silverlight, Microsoft’s competitor to Adobe’s Flash.

A centralised location for the application. A single, online database that can be updated quickly and the changes reflected instantly to all users. A cloud-based storage system so all your characters are available no matter where you are. Support for multiple platforms. These are the things the new CB promised.

Sadly for Wizards, not only was the reception to this news overwhelmingly negative, the launch itself did not go smoothly. Not at all.

According to feedback from users on Wizards’ forums, the online builder is slow, crashes constantly, delivers character sheets 100s of megabytes in size and has less homebrew support than the old CB. Commentary suggests that users of the new CB don’t feel like customers, but beta testers.

Perhaps the most controversial change is that you must have an active D&D Insider subscription to use the online CB. So unless you pay every month, you can’t use the Builder. Essentially, it’s a big F-U to transient subscribers.

It would be fair to ask then, given the relative maturity of the old Character Builder, why Wizards felt the need to move it all online? Why go through the agony of yet another product launch, complete with teething issues, bugs, missing features and the wrath of customers?

To cash up.

Sure, the new approach has benefits for players, but the strongest arguments for the online CB favour the business. No piracy and assured funds via subscriptions.

So, what if I like the old Character Builder?
You’re in luck, actually. For the time being, anyway. First, some background.

Silverlight runs on .NET. The Character Builder also uses .NET. In addition, both use Windows Presentation Foundation (or WPF) for their user interfaces. WPF is an alternative and pseudo-replacement for Windows Forms, the default UI library for .NET Windows applications.

What this means is that a majority, if not all, of the backend code – the stuff that does the heavy lifting and is the most time-consuming to implement – could be ported to a Silverlight app. Heck, as both platforms can utilise WPF, some of the frontend could be ported too.

Say what you will about Silverlight, .NET and C#, these tools can be used to build responsive apps. Microsoft’s XNA Framework, which is used for games development on PC and Xbox 360, has C# as its favoured language. A game is probably one of the most demanding applications you can write, requiring constant optimisation and an eye of time-sensitivity.

I’m not saying .NET is perfect, but it’s not junk either. As the saying goes: Don’t blame the tools.

I should also mention Microsoft is not abandoning Silverlight – it’s hogwash. (Bad) Journalists love to quote out of context, and that’s what happened at PDC. Here’s a blog post from Microsoft addressing the confusion:

The purpose of Silverlight has never been to replace HTML, but rather to do the things that HTML (and other technologies) can’t, and to do so in a way that’s easy for developers to use. Silverlight enables great client app and media experiences. It’s now installed on two-thirds of the world’s computers, and more than 600,000 developers currently build software using it. Make no mistake; we’ll continue to invest in Silverlight and enable developers to build great apps and experiences with it in the future.

The post admits the company’s strategy has “shifted”, but all this means is that it’s recognised that HTML5 is gaining momentum, and a lot of major players are supporting it. Go against this would be silly.

So… why Silverlight
Along with being the path of least resistance, going online-only with the CB and using Silverlight as a frontend addressed two significant issues in Wizards’ online and software strategy. The first was the lack of multiplatform support; Silverlight runs just as well on Windows and Mac.

The second, and likely what sealed the deal for Hasbro, Wizards’ parent company, was eliminating piracy. As long as the CB could exist offline and fully-functional, there was little either company could do to prevent users from copying the hell out of it.

And, eventually, adding our own content.

Sticking with the offline Character Builder
The CB’s assemblies are obsfucated with a commercial app called {smartassembly}. While this makes it incredibly difficult to discern the inner workings of the application, it didn’t stop one enthusiastic user from prying apart its innards. The result? CBLoader, an application that not only extracts the raw ruleset as XML, but can inject a custom ruleset into the program when it starts.

The silly thing is that CBLoader uses the CB’s own exposed routines to accomplish this – specifically those from a satellite library called ApplicationUpdate.Client.dll. Such is the insecurity of .NET. At least offline.

Now that Wizards has stopped updating (and I’m guessing supporting) the offline CB, CBLoader should work from now until forever. Already people have started putting together unofficial updates. Last time I checked, Dark Sun, Essentials and a couple of the latest Dragon mags are available. How long this community effort continues is dependent on a number of things; the offline CB has extensive modularity in its rules database, but major new features, such as Essentials and Dark Sun themes, will be difficult to replicate faithfully as the executable remains off-limits. Fortunately, a degree of support for these was included in the last official update (October, 2010).

There’s nothing stopping someone from coding a new offline frontend, however, if this situation eventuates.

Tracking down CBLoader and the unofficial updates is trivial. If you’ve been disenfranchised by Wizards’ new software strategy, you don’t have to stop using the offline CB just yet.

~ by Logan on December 7, 2010.

3 Responses to “That new 4e Character Builder: Understanding the move to Silverlight”

  1. This whole strategy, such as it is, seems like classic Wizards of the Coast — completely arse backward.

    While I agree that moving it online isn’t a *bad* idea, any benefits that Silverlight could provide to something as straightforward as the Character Builder are overstated.

    And even if that were the case, Wizards’ strategy should be putting the CB in everyone’s faces. They should be everywhere customers are, or soon will be. And that isn’t just ‘Windows and Mac with Silverlight installed’.

  2. @David Kidd: I agree that Silverlight (and even .NET) wasn’t the best platform to use for something like the Character Builder, especially in terms of supporting multiple platforms and providing a responsive UI. What it did do is tick all the boxes from a business perspective – prevent piracy; demand a full-time D&D Insider subscription; increase the user base by providing Mac support and all the while delivering the path of least resistance.

    It’s blown up in their face, definitely, and it’d be interesting to see subscription numbers before and after the switch.

    I think providing the CB as an online facility from the outset would have been the better move, built on a platform designed for high-performance, visually-rich applications. Flash seems like a good compromise… actually surprised it wasn’t used in the first place.

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