Wizards of the Coast Finds More Online Troubles

From Gleemax’s unfinished launch to its sudden closure (with bumbling apologetic explanation) to the new layoffs, Wizards has fallen flat, again, online.  A company that releases excellent (if expensive) stuff can’t find a way to make its online presence matter.  Now, Magic and D&D are good enough that any web and software products can be popular even if they’re poorly made.  Gleemax had no such help, and was a miserable failure.  The online versions of Magic and D&D are the clearest examples of Wizards’ digital efforts.

Magic: The Gathering

From its slow-loading gateway page to its seas of marketing pages, the Magic website seems pretty useless.  The serious Magic fan, though, knows that hidden under several pages of fluff is Daily MTG, a wonderful and unequalled site featuring insights from developers, tournament coverage, and game advice.  How do they know this?  It used to be the front page.  The Magic site used to be a testimonial to the excitement everyone felt about it, from the developers to the tournament players.  When the site changed, it was mentioned the site was changed to help market the game.  From content for current players to ads for potential players.  D’oh.

Magic Online, a Windows program, lets users play matches with people around the world.  In a product category where the games themselves have complicated and deep rulesets, a mediocre interface is just something to be tolerated and stepped over, no problem.  The program might be ugly, clunky, and basic, but it automates all the rules and things just work.  MTGO is functional enough to teach new players the basics and get them interested in the game… if they have friends to help.

For players that have followed the development of MTGO, though, it’s hard not to feel disappointed and exasperated by it. Almost no better than its original launch version from 2002, each new version has a few new features but also breaks other features, which take months or years to make their way back in.  IGN’s review of Magic Online 3 is a good overview.  Wizards maintained a development blog for a few months after the release of 3 and then kinda gave up.  The development of Magic Online has been failure after failure.

Magic is a brilliant game that is as healthy now as it was 15 years ago.  The cards have beautiful artwork that has pushed fantasy art further than any other game.  Why can’t the technology that complements it be any good?

Dungeons & Dragons

Each new edition, every 10 years, is a way to wipe the slate clean and make a fresh game out of D&D.  Way back in 3rd Edition, the books advertised Master Tools, a suite of game-enhancing programs for D&D, starting with a Character Creator.  The whole thing was supposed to come out in 2001.  Well, it’s 2009, and we’re hearing about D&D Insider, which is a subscription-based service that promises a suite of game-enhancing programs to come out soon.  Oh, and they just released a beta Character Creator.

Like Gleemax, or Magic Online’s version updates, we’ve got yet another product launched with only 25% of its promised features ready.  Yet D&D Insider is plastered all over Wizard’s and D&D’s site.  This time around, the big business plan upgrade is to ask for money before the product’s even out. “Hey guys! Start paying $5/month now so you’ll have a license to complain in 6 months when we haven’t delivered anything we promised!”  

The new “Fourth Edition” of D&D revises the rules to limit the complexity of the game and improve the flow of adventuring.  The rules are still kinda heavy (an objective look at the character sheet makes that clear) but they’re definitely smoother, resulting in an enjoyable way to bash orcs and take their stuff.  It takes some time to ramp new players up, and patience is required.  Maybe that’s OK, though the new Character Creator is definitely not for novice players.

The D&D website reads more like a publisher’s catalog than an agent for gaming.  The upcoming releases list leads to pages that look like they’re for bookstore stock managers than players.  The content here is organized by an Editorial Calendar that is an array of snippets from upcoming, advanced-level products.  Even for players that have bought all the core books and are playing the game, this stuff isn’t useful.

The Missing Element

People.

Let’s see where people have gone missing.  Ideally, a website for a game will:

  • introduce new players and help them learn how to play
  • make them want to buy it
  • provide content and updates to keep them buying

One could approach this in a literal, linear way:

  • Provide a link on the page that explains the rules of the game
  • Show pictures of all the cool products with descriptions
  • Release articles with product teasers and coverage of events

Wait, isn’t this exactly what the Magic and D&D websites are?  I’ve typed a recipe for mediocrity!  The missing element is human contact.  These games are social games and are only any fun with other people.  People put the time in to learning D&D or Magic because their friends play and they want to join them.

Wizards created a Facebook app called Dungeons and Dragons: Tiny Adventures.  By gaming standards, it’s pretty lame: You equip your guy and click a button to send him on an adventure.  You have a few limited options during the adventure, but mostly you wait for him to come back, which takes about an hour.  What makes it a fun little distraction is integration with Facebook friends.  A bunch of my real life friends (who live across the country now) also play the game and we can help each other and compare our progress and talk about your characters.

For the people I’ve introduced it to, Tiny Adventures is ten times better at introducing and exciting players about D&D than the website would ever be.  It’s easy, social, and cute.  Tiny Adventures can serve as a reminder of how people actually get interested in D&D or Magic: knowing someone else who plays enjoys the game and learning from him or her.

If a person reads a D&D or Magic website and is interested, they’re stuck.  You can’t play by yourself.  The hardest part about trying 4th edition is finding a game to play in.  Why doesn’t Wizards facilitate this?  Long ago, Wizards realized that organizing Magic tournaments was difficult but ultimately very profitable for the business.  Without “Organized Play”, Magic wouldn’t have so many memorable decks and players.  D&D needs a similar connector.  There are various small “find D&D campaigns in your area” sites, can’t Wizards buy one up?

Wizards also needs to put the proper number of people behind any venture they intend to pursue.  Every software project Wizards has released has been far later than promised, full of problems, and poorly supported.  They get slack from their dedicated fans, but poor quality and bad reputation can erode the playerbase over time.

Hobby gaming is an old business that sells to young customers.  Wizard’s site was pretty good in 2001 when a company that, at least, put its whole product line on its website was considered to be good.  Today, those sorts of websites are just noise.  Get us to the content, connect us with everyone else, give us Web 2.0! 

Will D&D Insider be yet another vaporware product?  Will Magic Online ever catch up to its potential?