Thursday, October 30, 2014

Wizards of the Coast fumbles the digital ball. Again.

Wizards of the Coast cancelled the Dungeonscape (Codename: Morningstar) project with the same lack of fanfare with which they announced it.

The announcement came in their news section in an extraordinarily brief press release:

One last look before we say goodbye.
"Wizards of the Coast has ended its relationship with Trapdoor Technologies and their DungeonScape application. If you participated in the beta and have questions regarding the application itself, please contact Trapdoor directly.

It’s never easy to end a relationship with one of our business partners, but we remain committed to creating great tabletop and digital gaming experiences for Dungeons & Dragons players and DMs around the world."

I'm not going to say "I called it," but I was very curious and skeptical about the distance Wizards stood apart from their partner during the initial announcement and during the follow-up beta period. Their non-announcement made me question their commitment to this digital initiative (the original 2 sentence news release has already been purged from the news archives). Perhaps they were just being over-cautious about appearing to promote vaporware after what happened with the virtual table top and the other long-delayed D&D Insider tools.

Disclaimer: The following is opinion and speculation on my part (with 15+ years of  combined software development and project management experience).

It's quite likely that this relationship fell apart over contractual issues, but it's very likely that the lack of commitment on the part of Wizards of the Coast helped put the nails into the virtual coffin on this one.

Whenever one is working closely with a vendor in software development, it is highly critical that there be a project lead on the part of the stakeholder (in this case, Wizards of the Coast) that works extraordinarily closely with the partner to make sure the "vision" part of the project is executed. And When I say "closely", I'm talking about daily status meetings (weekly at the bare minimum), bug/feature discussions, setting expectations and taking the appropriate corrective actions when the project drifts... One needs a software development manager that understands what it means to work with an outsourced vendor/partner.

Interestingly, Trapdoor Technologies noted in its press release related to the cancellation that Dungeonscape was "100% internally funded, conceptualized, and built by our talented team at Trapdoor" which also strikes me as a good way to ensure the project would fail.

Why? Wizards of the Coast had no skin in the game. Without any investment on their part (other than lost time), this application is not owned in any part by Wizards and they would have had no leverage to get the developer to follow their vision for it.

In addition, without any monetary investment on the part of Wizards, the decision to cancel when things get a little tough becomes too easy. Software projects of this scope are complex and often very challenging beasts. You have to have to conviction to push through the more difficult hurdles. Without that conviction, it's very easy for a project like this to fail. Without the monetary investment, management is not likely to hold that conviction, even if the development crew does.

Wizards of the Coast had no commitment to this project. Even with contractual difficulties, the lack of commitment on the part of Wizards is likely a major reason why the two companies were not able to reach agreement.

What makes this even more tragic is that Wizards of the Coast is right in the heart of technology in the northwest U.S. There are probably dozens of excellent development managers that could have shepherded a project like this one to completion... but WotC appears unable or unwilling to hire the right people to get their digital initiatives right.

As for Trapdoor Technologies, I hope they are able to take their existing code and make something akin to a Hero Lab or similar campaign management product... But without the built-in "D&D Insider" type of audience, it will be a real challenge to pay for the last several months worth of development, even if they manage to get to market relatively soon. I wish them the best.

As for Wizards of the Coast... Now what? No digital tools. No other digital projects in the works that have been announced. No Dragon magazine. No Dungeon magazine. No reason to subscribe to D&D Insider.

Why the $@#% are you not able to execute successfully on anything related to software for D&D? It's really not rocket science!

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