D&D’s virtual tabletop is off to a slow start, but designers say that’s very much the point

1 year ago 100

Last summer, Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast revealed something truly ambitious — a virtual tabletop (VTT) custom-built for playing D&D online. This will be no simple top-down experience with flat maps and tokens. Instead, Wizards is building its VTT in Unreal Engine 5, the latest and greatest multiplatform suite designed for video game, TV, and motion picture development. I went to Seattle for a hands-on demonstration of a very early pre-alpha version of that software, and while the project is still in its earliest stages, what I found was promising.

Even in its current form, the D&D VTT works surprisingly well for a session played in person. Sitting behind a large gaming laptop, I was still able to engage easily with the other players and the Dungeon Master at the table. Using a mouse, I could reach into the scene and move my miniature around freely — just like I can in a physical game. With all its rich textures, sophisticated lighting, and simulated physics, the VTT absolutely shines compared to even the best, most high-end tabletop terrain available on the market today. The interface that surrounds it is light and relatively fast. It looks attractive, and it has just the right amount of automation for both Dungeon Masters and players.

In motion, the digital aspect of it all almost melts away. Even though I was using a computer, it still felt like traditional D&D. But it’s still very much a hinky work in progress, with just a single map and a collection of digital renders of licensed miniatures by WizKids. In fact, not all of them are even colored in yet.

There’s clearly still plenty of work to be done, including the online component. That’s why developers are being careful not to get too far ahead of themselves.

“We should not be going public with this at all when the basic features that we have is roll some dice, have initiative, and have some pieces [move] around,” said D&D Digital vice president Chris Cao. “Because it doesn’t say, Here’s the grand picture. And we actually are purposely trading that off — and this isn’t through nobility, this is actually through what’s best — is that we don’t know the ideal way people want to use this.”

To hear Cao and his development partner, principal game designer Kale Stutzman, tell it, the entire design process so far has been a kind of exploration. During a 45-minute presentation, the pair sounded more like professors than software programmers. The problem they’ve set out to solve: How will they translate a 50-year-old physical experience into a format that clicks for digital natives, without losing the ephemeral core of the brand?

“There’s tens of millions of people who play [video game] RPGs and who know about D&D,” said Cao. “The actual number of people who are playing D&D at any given time is nowhere near as large as those playing RPG video games. [We believe that’s because] there’s just a missing piece of a translation there. How do we give them a digital thing that lets them go, Oh. OK. It’s got my familiar video game things?”

VTTs like Fantasy Grounds have been around for a long time, but only in the last decade have they formally partnered with Wizards of the Coast for officially licensed content. That partnership was an incredible boon for players at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, as long-running groups searched for a digital lifeboat to keep their home campaigns running while also social distancing. At the same time, people completely unfamiliar with the hobby came flocking to D&D, no doubt spurred on by programs like Critical Role and Stranger Things — and the tedium of being cooped up at home. As a result, industry leader Roll20 said it doubled its user base, growing to 10 million registered users by the beginning of 2022.

But Cao and Stutzman are surprisingly sober about the fact that they’re not just going to be competing against these other, popular VTTs.

“If I’m building a map tool, what is my competition? Google Images,” Stutzman said. “If I can type ‘tavern’ into Google Images and get a better map than my map tool can make in the same amount of time, then my map tool has failed.”

And so the team at Wizards isn’t working on creation tools first. That hard work will come later. Instead, development has been laser-focused on refining the experience of playing together at the table. Without that, a lightning-fast building tool won’t make any difference. That means the team has been making small tweaks to a working prototype, and undergoing lots and lots and lots of playtesting.

“The way to think about it is, you need to prioritize the things that you’re going to do together versus the things you’re going to do by yourself,” Cao said. “Because the things you do together are the throughline. And that doesn’t mean that building [3D maps] isn’t important. There’s a lot of good stuff out there and a lot of good programs that are focused on building. That’s great. But the reason you play D&D together, and you spend time together, is because you’re creating moments together.”

So how will the VTT eventually be monetized? Turns out that’s still on the drawing board as well.

“We know for sure that we want there to be a free part to this, because people have to be able to try it out,” Cao said. “That free [part] can’t be a free-to-play game [though]. It can’t be like, Hey, go play some number of hours and earn some points, because that’s not how D&D works.”

Cao admits that things are still a bit squishy right now as he, Stutzman, and the rest of their team at Wizards sort the details out.

“I know those sound like soft answers,” Cao continued, “but if we can watch how people can play, then I can align the business with what they’re valuing instead of creating a value structure that you have to play in. Because if we do that, on D&D — that actually is toxic to what D&D is. Because D&D is about that shared play and that permission to pretend. That doesn’t mean it’s free. That doesn’t mean we don’t monetize it. But if we don’t see how people use it, and then align with that — if we try to predict it, or engineer it — we’re going against our own brand. We’re going against the thing that people create and make their own businesses off of, and their own dreams off of. I think there have been mistakes in the recent past where we’re like, ‘We’re not gonna do that.’ And we’re very sensitive to that.”

Expect more about the VTT to emerge soon as Wizards plans to share a pre-alpha version of the platform with the public.

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