AIR App: Powerz – Play Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Faster

This is a long post, so I’ve provided a short version, and content links to relevant sections if you want to skip around.

Short Version

Powerz Start PageI’ve built an AIR application in my spare time using Flex that helps you play Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition faster. It took 6 months in my spare time and cost around $50k to build, and $40 a month to maintain.

See and download it here.

It was created in response to my new players, who are tech saavy, having a slow time getting a game going. I copied the design metaphor used in MMORPG games, as well as creating an online database via Django of user submitted content to help the process go faster, as well as supporting house rules. In doing market research, I found my product is for a younger generation, and this makes it challenging to market. I used an Iterative/Agile development process to ensure it got completed.

The app had 3 goals: make money, make our games quicker & easier, and prove to myself I could execute. I succeeded in the latter 2, and failed in the making money… so far.



Melee Attack PowerI’ve spent my spare time the last 6 months building an AIR application called “Powerz“. Simply, it is an application that allows you to play Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition a lot quicker. It was built in response to newer players hastily flipping back and forth through rule book pages, all the while lamenting how much easier it is to do this in World of Warcraft.

It also became a test for myself. I wanted to see if I could release a product on my own, perhaps even turn a profit. I’ve been attempting for 5 years to create an online version of D&D, fueled by the wishful emails of those around the world who both managed to get their hands on alpha builds and validated my target market. That, and I had recently become an advisor for a startup, so needed creditability that I had produced results in the product sphere as opposed to the service industry which I’m currently in (Flex & Flash consulting/contracting). I had just recently completed my first official Agile/Scrum project getting a startup client to (*ahem* near) Alpha, and upon reflecting, knew I was now capable of releasing a real product on my own.

Introduction: Why the need for Powerz?

D&D 4th edition was created, in my opinion, to cater to, what I call, the “WoW Generation”. Wizards of the Coast, the company also responsible for Magic the Gathering, owns the D&D game. They recognized that to gain broader appeal of a game traditionally challenging to learn and losing market share to video games, they needed to not only make it easier to learn and play, but also target this gaming demographic. The new rules do just that. They are easier to learn for those not inclined to “read a bunch of rules”, and the new power concept allows a gaming group to quickly ascertain how they can contribute to the group.

Power - Last Ditch EvasionThe problem with the WoW gen’s, though, is that they grew up texting, and not only want, but EXPECT digital tools to be there, as well as cross device. D&D, at least currently, doesn’t totally work like that. They have made great strides in years to provide online digital content, such as Character Builders, rules compendiums, and online magazines with exclusive content. What’s funny to me is that the main goal for most of this content is to be printed to paper and used during gameplay. If you want to use these tools strictly digitally, you can, but that wasn’t why they were made. Ultimately, your still going to be using “real” books during gameplay.

When you have a background in MMORPG’s, or even just gaming on consoles, you look at rule books as primitive, and cumbersome, and ultimately, not as fun. They, like me, know this problem has already been solved digitally.

What kept coming up as a hassle during gameplay with this new generation of gamers was referencing their character’s powers, the main crux of 4th edition rules. I figured if I could solve this problem digitally, I’d be onto something special. I knew I couldn’t solve everything; I’d tried multiple times in the past to digitize the entire D&D experience, and I simply didn’t have enough resources to pull that off. For a digital power bar, however, I didn’t need a lot of resources…

The Power of Power Bars

Powerz Bar PreviewIf you’ve ever played World of Warcraft, Star Wars Galaxies, DDO, or any other Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, they have the concept of a power bar. There are a series of slots on the bottom, like a horizontal list in Flex, and in each you can drop a power into. It’ll be represented as a little image icon that infers what the power does. Upon rolling over them, they provide details of what they do. Upon clicking them, you use them. While veteran players use keyboard shortcuts and macros, this GUI concept is the core to most MMORPG’s today. Players familiar with such games “get it”, just like you and I understand to click & drag on a scroll bar to scroll text.

World of Warcraft Power Bar
World of Warcraft Power Bar

This interface element is important because in MMO’s, those powers, while forming the crux of the 2 most important aspects in those games, chatting & fighting, they also serve another subtle purpose. RPG games in general are technical. They basically take a lot of math, specifically ratio’s & percentages, and personify the results through the use of chance. While neat from a geek perspective, newbie players, especially those not tech saavy, can get overwhelmed by information overload.

Just like how Word hides non-frequently accessed information in menu’s that reveal, so to do MMORPG’s “reveal” information when the user requests it. Additionally, since these interface elements are actually over top of a 3D virtual world, they need to be as non-intrusive as possible.

In short, they provide the user with the ability to learn what their character can do, when she/he can do it, all using a mnemonic device of visual icons that relate to the action in a non-intrusive interface.

Why AIR?

Adobe AIRI’ve bashed her in the past and got shot down by desktop developers who came out of the wood work.  To this day I still don’t get clients asking me to build AIR apps.  Regardless, it was a pretty clear choice as to why I needed AIR: offline capability to run Flex apps.

You can play D&D ANYWHERE. I’ve played at friends houses, at a camp site deep in the woods, on a plane, a bus, etc. All of these places don’t always have internet. Nowadays with wireless and cell phones that have decent coverage, you can tether on your device to ensure you have an internet connection just about everywhere. “Just about” isn’t good enough; if you can’t use it, or it’s a spotty connection, you view the “cloud” as holding your data hostage vs. some benevolent caretaker.

So, I didn’t want an internet connection to be a requirement, and thus, targeted AIR vs. a web browser. If you know me, using the Flex SDK was a no-brainer. If you don’t, here’s the run down:

  1. Needs to work on as many platforms as possible. AIR works on most PC, Mac, and enough Linux distros. I use a Mac mostly, my gaming group uses Linux and Windows. The Character Builder for DDi works on a PC with .NET. Using CrossOver or Parallels isn’t cheap. Buying an OS + emulation software when you already have a working computer is lamesauce.
  2. Writing my own component framework is time consuming. It took me 6 months to build Shuriken for Flash Lite 2, I’m still working on CorePlay for pure AS3… so if I ended up doing that, I’d spend all my time on developing code to develop code vs. finishing my product. Flex has all the components & styling features I need, Flex 4 more so.
  3. I make my living developing in Flex Builder. This is what I’m most comfortable, and thus productive in.

Why Django?

Django ProjectOnce I personally started using Powerz in my game sessions, taking her for a test run with my gaming group, a new problem arose: setup time. While battles finally went a lot faster, and focused more on strategy and chaos vs. wtf can I do, actually STARTING to play took awhile. Players had to manually input the powers from the Players Handbook into Powerz. Without OCR, this is a lot of meticulous hand typing.  This included those who played with made up house rules.

Community LoginI thought, why couldn’t we do something like the CDDB days of old? CDDB was an online database where people would submit CD track lists. That way, when you turned a CD into MP3’s, it automatically filled out the song names and album name for you.  By the time it got popular, most CD’s were in the database so you didn’t need to submit them yourself. This was the first Web 2.0 (aka the read-write web) phenomenon that I remember. Basically you are leveraging the community, much like Wikipedia leverages the knowledge from every contributor in the world. This is a double-edged sword, as sometimes CDDB would have incorrect data without an easy way to change it. Wikipedia has had its fair share of drama about article authenticity, and who defines the truth when multiple authors disagree about the same topic.

Regardless, both are using the forces of good, and showcase how leveraging community input can greatly benefit the masses. Two heads are better than one, and thousands are just f’ing awesome.

I set out to build an online database of powers so when one person submitted it, everyone else could use it.  The most common ones, say all 1st level ones for all classes, would be ready to go. That way, even new players could quickly get up to speed. Powerz is supposed to speed up gameplay, and this would be the final lynchpin.

Community MainI hate, and suck, and server-side anything. I’d argue the majority of arguments, philosophical debates, and technical podcasts about software are regarding server-side development (iPhone apps aside). When people talk about Inversion of Control, server clustering, or Aspect Orientated Programming, my eyes glaze over, I face palm, and am like, “Wow… that’ll solve like 10% of my problems. That 10% is on the server… WHERE MY CODE ISN’T RUNNING!” To be fair, the majority of all cool software is running on the server. Most Flex apps I’ve written are merely pretty faces for pimp server-side action. The problem with server-side stuff is that you can’t see it. I’m a visual person, I went to art school, and if I can’t see it, to me it’s boring. I like seeing visual results from my coding efforts, and no, logging statements don’t count.

So… I knew I was in trouble with my idea. Every time in the past I had such an idea, I merely turned to PHP, since finding good server devs looking to work for free is really hard. PHP is available on just about every web host, for free, and there are a lot of resources out on the internet for it. It’s also very similar in syntax to ActionScript, so learning it was easy. The problem is, I’m not “in” the PHP community.  Creating a user account system may seem like a reasonable programming task to me, but an ignorant waste of time to a veteran PHP programmer who has used Zend or Drupal on many projects. Most of my endeavors into larger PHP systems have failed because the workload was just to large for me to tackle both the front and back-end. I knew this time I HAD to find whatever framework others were using for a user account system. I’ve failed to find like-minded server-side developers in the past for such ideas. I actually had a friend offer his services for this very project, but I was concerned I might actually make money, and I make a rule of not mixing friends and business.

Community Powers Search ResultsHowever, I had just got off a Django project. Having spent 5 years or so evangelizing AMFPHP, yet never actually successfully getting native object passing working, I decided I’d see how easy it was in Python. Additionally, my experiences using Django’s user administration interface along with PyAMF Flex integration was a very pleasant experience. Since I’d already taking a look at Ruby on Rails awhile ago, I figured I’d give Python a chance.

Best decision ever.

I don’t know Terminal, my SQL knowledge equates to SELECT * FROM *, and I’ve never coded Python before. Django is the shit. It’s so easy, I learned my way around Terminal enough to not only “run a local server” (I know, right?), sync my database, and even play with Python code, just like Director’s message window. I even learned how to remote ssh into my production server, install PyAMF remotely, and deploy my code. Django is merely a framework atop of Python, but you have to know all that insane crud just to do it. Oh yeah, and I ended up buying TextMate (in part to Kristofer’s recommendation) to use for coding Python.

Community Characters Search ResultsSpeaking of Python, it’s a LOT like ActionScript 1. Really strange going back to loose typing. Unfortunately, the only real benefit I found was more succinct code. The Aspect Orienated/Functional stuff that uses the Decorator pattern with metadata tags for designating what methods require the user to be logged in only works for more recent builds of Python. Still… I got it and think its hawt. Additionally, the fact that you can import just a method of a class and use it is neat. There’s been a request on an unnamed list requesting ActionScript 3 get this ability so when you import 1 method of a library, you don’t end up importing the whole library, and thus incur the file size penalty. Since SWF is for web, this makes a lot of sense in investing in such a feature. Python’s for loops? Holy fish, advanced, and really cool stuff, way easier than doing similiar things in ActionScript 3 (faster? doubt it). I still don’t get their slicing syntax, but I’m sure if I did it every day I would.

So why Django? Within 3 days I had learned Python, Django, and PyAMF integration to have a working user authentication system working in my Flex app. Blah blah blah… open source has no value… blah blah blah.

…I suck at debugging it, though, a friend told me to look into Python logging, but I just ran out of time… print print print OT OT OT. That, and my admin only works on my local box, not the remote server… *ahem*.

Self-Inflicted Iterations

All my personal projects suffered from the most common symptom that affects a lot of us software developers: starting new projects is ALWAYS more fun than finishing them. You accrue a long list of awesome ideas that never make it to fruition. Of those, a few you blog about. Knowing this industry, a bunch are probably worthy of actually finishing and marketing because they’ll make bling… but… we’re a busy bunch. That, or you see no point because you have no clue how to monetize them.

I’ve had this happen 3 times with my major D&D online project in 5 years, 3 times with some games, and once with every other project that wasn’t specifically created FOR a blog entry since my career started. I almost swore a blood oath before starting Powerz. I didn’t really have too, though, because of circumstances.

First, I had just got off the best gig I’ve had in my entire career. It was working for a startup as a service consultant through Enablus. So, I make bling, but see $0 bling when they insanely succeed. Quite the soul reflection project. Second, I read a book called “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” upon a recommendation form a friend, and was then pissed for 3 weeks straight. Third, I now knew how to do Agile development which was better than my made up iterative process of the past. Fourth, D&D 4th edition really is slow if you don’t know your powers by heart; it’s even worse for DM’s who have 50 billion other things to keep track of. I needed this tool!

I made a simple rule. If I was going to work on Powers, I needed to release SOMETHING a week from when I started. If I grabbed a beer and started coding on a Friday night, there better be a new build, with associated forum post, WORKING up online the following Friday. If I had something come up, like say real, paying work, or my kid(s) got sick, or whatever…. then 2 weeks. If that didn’t work because, say I only had 4 hours in a 2 week period, then I’d lock myself into finishing just one feature before I was allowed to work on anything else.

Failure was not an option. To fail is to fail myself, and everything I stood for, and for those who listened to my blog entries full of “advice”. If I did fail, it meant Agile didn’t work, and all 10 of those blog entries I wrote espousing it were utter bullshit, and I needed to die in a fire. Seriously. After being so frustrated for so long about “figuring out” software development for the past 9 years, this was the line in the sand. Pick your platform, pick your tool, pick your framework, and either put up, or shut up.  Get something done vs. proselytizing about “how to program” with nothing to show for it.

In short, finish something I started.

6 months later, I’ve released version 1.0. That feels f’ing good. Really good. That, and D&D is easier to play now for me, and a lot of others.

Quick Note on Scrum

Remember, if you ever hear about this Agile or Scrum stuff, and are like, “Wtf?”, don’t stress. All you need to know about using Scrum correctly is release working software with a new feature every week (or every 2 weeks). That’s it, that’s all you need to do to be JXL Scrum compliant. If you don’t do that, you should really take a look at what you are really trying to accomplish.

If you’re a manager who’s trying to implement it, and your developers keep going off on paths they weren’t assigned, play to their ego’s. For example, if someone says, “I could write a login form in less than a day!”. If it then takes them 8 days for the form to actually work, call them on it. I guarantee you they’ll spout off about “OOP/Framework setup”, or some other lack-of-DRY-adherence excuse. That’s ok; the point here is to show them that what they thought they could do, they didn’t actually execute on. They’ll either re-assess what it really takes to develop even simple things, or you’ll come to a mutual understanding of what “working” really means.

I had to do that. In 2001, I created a stock charting application in Flash 5, AS1 pre-#initclip days, knowing very little OOP, zero best practices, and no frameworks, in 1 month. Today, that same application would take me 4 to 6 months, and cost 177% more per hour. Granted, the devil is in the details (quality of user experience, less bugs, more features, I actually know what I’m doing now + have experience, etc), but that, to me, says something about my ability to execute. Those in software know faster doesn’t mean better… but when you start splitting hairs about even simple features, you find some surprising things about yourself. I call this, programmer self-awareness through Scrum.


For those who are interested, here is how my schedule worked out. When I mention a week, I’m speaking about a week of development time. So, if I started coding on Friday night, but only put in 4 hours for an entire week… I certainly had very little to offer in a true build. So, my first rule was, if I could do a week, do a week, and release. If I couldn’t because I had real work to do, then I’d instead get 1 feature DONE and release. This was still hard, because even if I could only devote like 2 hours a week to my personal project, it HAD to be on that one feature, and I had to force myself to finish it so I could get a build up, and move onto another. It was far from perfect, but it’s as Scrum as I could get with my free time… and it guaranteed I’d release multiple builds with enough room for user feedback.

  • First 3 weeks, spent designing & doing initial prototyping (aka design phase in Waterfall). I had no gig lined up, so worked 3 weeks straight on my own stuff. I worked for about 7 days straight in Photoshop CS3.
  • Work 1 hour one night, 4 hours another, 8 maybe on a weekend, or perhaps none for 4 days in a row. Bottom line, I still followed my weekly/bi-weekly/single feature release schedule.
  • One build took 6 weeks (Alpha 9 to Beta 1) because I had to learn Django and do real work at the same time. Some weeks during that time, I only worked 1 to 2 hours per week, others, I’d work 3 days straight.
  • Some weeks were coding. Some weeks were pure Photoshop. Three weeks was learning/implementing Django. Four weeks was setting up the website, porting all code & assets to work on it, and installing all forum and blog software. All was mixed amongst each other. Since I was doing everything myself.
  • I did Analytics once in the beginning, and then changed it 2 weeks later when I couldn’t understand my own metrics.
  • Start Date: Around April 5th, 2009.
  • End Date: Hopefully September 26th, 2009.
  • Total Time: 6 months

It’s hard for me to predict how long Powerz would of taken had I been able to spend 100% of my time on it. A lot of things came up, positively & negatively, during development that adversely affected the timeline. Users asked for features, work flows I originally tried didn’t pan out, Photoshop designs took a few tries, and learning Django staggered overall development on the Community portion. All I know is, Flex Builder 3 and Flex SDK 3.3 is foogin’ solid for what I needed.

Technical Details

The web site is pretty standard stuff. Forum is PHPBB, and blog is vanilla install of WordPress. Hopefully post 1.0 launch, I can modify the blog to match the rest of the site look and feel (excluding forum) via the Dreamer, an easier way to design WordPress sites via Dreamweaver. Her majesty used it for her site and it’s pretty cool.  I also need to redo my dated screen cast, and tons of other things.

While I did the original web site designs in Photoshop, the site itself was done by her majesty and I in Fireworks.  Fireworks’ text handling is superior to Photoshop’s, and now that CS4 shares the same font engine, you can get good looking interfaces.  If Photoshop were to improve their text handling capabilities, I’d probably still use Fireworks for it’s easier object editing + grouping + moving functionality.  For the web with lots of content, it was just quicker for me and her majesty.

For the video, shot using a Sony DCR-SR200, and edited in Premiere CS3 & After Effects CS3.  ScreenFlow was used for demoing the software.

Flex 3 vs 4

Yes, I very much wanted to use Flex 4. Unlike Flex 2 Alpha, however, she’s unstable and changes all the time. You could build some pretty Enterprise stuff on Flex 2, Beta 1. I would never do such a thing with Flex 4 just because she’s in such flux, and the IDE (+ Catalyst builds) is somewhat flaky. Obviously 6 months later things are more stable… but they still changed a lot (fx prefix, Halo interop, etc.).

I used Flex Builder 3 & Flex SDK 3.2… then 3.3… then 3.4. I use AIR 1.5.2. AIR still has a bug where you can’t seem to use compc (aka Library Projects) because of some weird Vector bug in playerglobals.swc or something. So I just gave up on using a library project.


I have 1 Flex project, and a ton of libraries. Ones of note are:

  • Cliff Hall’s PureMVC
  • Ely’s SuperImage (that I patched)
  • Claus Wahlers’ and Max Herkender’s FZip for reading & writing my custom file formats
  • Christian Cantrell’s NativeAlert ported to Flex
  • Google Analytics
  • Google AdSense
  • as3corelib for JSON, used in reading & writing custom file format
  • Adobe AIR Update framework (which refuses to GTFO of RAM) with custom badges written in Flash (zomg!)
  • my DebugMax window which is a lame attempt to copy that older Flash debug window (the Portuguese one)
  • …and Grden’s localToLocal function
  • Server is running Django on Python, using PyAMF to send AMF objects back and forth. I’m only using one class; getting nested ValueObjects to work with inherited and one to many relationships in Django’s Models was nigh impossible to debug.  For now, I just pass simple Objects which are uber-easy to parse.

Blah blah blah… open source provides no value… blah blah blah.

Monkey Patches

  1. Commented out a bunch of InterManagerRequest code in AIR’s NativeDragManagerImpl class. Doing drag operations would cause the app to lock up for 7 to 11 seconds. Not sure if this was fixed in 3.4, but I don’t load multiple Flex apps with different SDK versions, so don’t need this code.
  2. Added bitmap smoothing in SWFLoader, which Flex SDK 3.4 (or 3.3 I forget which, added officially)
  3. Added a numLines getter to Label for more accurate text height measurement… which I then later didn’t use.  Proper invalidation fixed my measurement bug; text can be finicky, but if you wait a frame……

Development Challenges

There were 3 development challenges I faced.

CharacterThe first was developing in AIR. If you are using Flex in AIR, it’s nearly the same thing. The hard parts were learning how Windows work, and their quirks (such as when does Window REALLY get its reference to nativeWindow?). How do you design for this as a designer, and what is an appropriate design metaphor? Multiple windows, or 1 window with many states? Also, event bubbling doesn’t work with windows, since each has it’s own stage, so there was a learning curve of when to manually re-dispatch, and when to just hand off to PureMVC Mediators.

The second was learning to work with reading and writing files. The FileReference class is EASY, but there are actually 3 classes (really you just work with 2) for AIR. They too have intricacies to learn, and how you can abstract them, and what the costs are in doing so. What was fun to figure out was how to associate a file with a document window in the PureMVC framework. I really had a tough time trying to tightly couple something when you’re technically not supposed to tightly couple anything in programming.

The third was creating a file format. I believe most traditional developers would of used some sort of serialization via ByteArray and the IExternalizable interface for your objects. To me, that stuff takes a lot of work, and isn’t easy for me to debug, nor verify if it worked. Maybe to those who think in 0’s and 1’s, but not me. It took some tinkering; I copied how SWC works.  SWC is a ZIP file with some XML and binary assets all inside. My file formats are basically the same thing; a ZIP file with a JSON text file holding the serialized object, images for any icons, and a text file determining what type the file format is (since you can’t rely on file extension). This allowed me to open up the file to see it’s contents and confirm my code worked as well as perusing the JSON to see if my objects serialized correctly.

What was great about being the only developer was that I was also the designer and back-end developer.  I knew how to design assets for Flex and could predict what I’d need designed. As the back-end developer, I could create data that the client would need, thus making my job easier in both places.

Feature Casualties

I had 2 features that caused major scope creep, and thus extended how long it took. They weren’t a waste of time, but as with every project, I learned something.

The first was the whole “document editing process” that people are used to. You open a file, edit it, save it if it’s dirty, and close the “document”. If you “Save As…”, you create a new file, yet use same window. I didn’t use this model at first. Instead, I just opened files, kept a reference to the file handle for each AIR window, and removed it when the window closed. However, this is not how every other desktop application works. Additionally, for those on network drives, you couldn’t really work with the files easily when moving things since it always had an opened file handle. So, it was a pretty big re-write/re-factoring effort to put this functionality & work flow in. I know how to do it now, but I’m just glad no one asked for undo yet. *whew*

The second was pimping out Christian’s NativeAlert window. I spent 3 days in AfterEffects when I was between gigs creating a transition in and transition out for the window.  Instead of just popping in, it’d “materialize” in, all magical like. To me, and one of my users, it looked awesome. It got old after 2 uses because you had to wait for it and there are a few alerts when saving files. If I speed it up any, it loses fidelity… so I just removed it. It required a lot of custom code to make the alert do it’s modality magic in time with the transition. I didn’t get to use any of it.

Marketing & Research

This was the most interesting for me. While I’m not a good salesman, I feel that I get online marketing and branding. I also feel like I understand my target audience, since I’m part of that audience. I actually did market research (aka learning my target audience and their needs) both at the start and during development.

I looked online and read about what WotC was offering, and then I looked at all the 3rd party offerings. I took a few for a spin. I read user reviews on forums and blogs, especially the passionate ones. I wanted to gain a better understanding of what they liked about the software, and how they expected software to work. There wasn’t really a pattern. The bitching about lack of Linux/Mac support was low, and a lot of the 3rd parties utilized Java. For those that didn’t, there we already well documented ways of installing a Windows emulator.

One thing that reading the forums did for me was really educate me on the current flux of the industry. Technology really has changed, and continues to change, table top gaming. WotC is in an interesting time of the market, and frankly I’ve think they’ve done a good job on positioning their D&D brand & rules for 4th edition to perform well with these changes. Where they haven’t done entirely well is executing both their community aspects online, as well as delivering their associated digital tools.

The short version of WotC’s transition to the digital age is, as magazine sales declined, WotC first sold their magazines to Piazo, and later brought them back and incorporated them into their new online subscription service; they no longer print magazines. You get the monthly magazines digitally, exclusive content, as well as access to their desktop and web tools. There are good and bad things about this. Some of their software isn’t released years later, but the ones that are are definitely nice.

Target Audience

I wrote something similar to this over a the Powerz blog.  Bottom line, there is a lot of confusion, at least for me, on who really is the target demographic. The high level view is that the older players prefer tangible rule books, whereas the younger ones are more apt to digital content. That’s where the black and white views end. Some from both groups are fine with digital content, but intend to transfer that content to paper in use in their games. Others would prefer to wholly digital, yet still play in person with their friends; like a LAN party.

I intended to confirm this suspicion beyond just talking online…

Trip to Dragon*Con

…so I took a trip to Dragon*Con 2009 this year. I go every so often to stock up on new dice as well as to see the 501st. My goal this year was to promote Powerz, and meet potential customers. I knew it would be challenging for a few reasons. First off, finding D&D players is actually hard. It’s a huge Sci-fi & fantasy conference; it’s not solely for D&D’ers. Additionally, most D&D’ers who do go play with their friends at predefined tables in a reserved hotel ballroom. These are usually niche groups, and while friendly, you can’t just barge in on them in a middle of game. If someone did that to me during mine, I’d be really ticked off. Additionally, the conference itself is confusing because it’s spaced around 4 semi-adjoining hotels (Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton, etc.), and signage isn’t large/verbose enough for you to get a clear picture of where you are, nor what events are happening where. I knew it’d be hard. Her majesty helped set my expectations to a reasonable level.

My first attempt was while waiting in dice line (like a food large buffet, except there are different colored dice you can choose from). One particular customer was taking awhile to get his transaction finished, and was in a TF2 spy costume (I think), so I figured he was a good target.

“Hey chief, you play D&D?”


“Cool, you play 4th edition?”

“Naw, 3.5.”


I then asked the attendant who was waiting on customers, but he didn’t play, just pointed to one of his co-workers; but they were UBER busy. Even Solid Snake briefly came out of his box to browse their wares. I didn’t want to annoy every customer, so moved to another vendor booth, full of D&D books.

A girl was just sitting down in a chair, and lamenting about how good it was to sit down. Prime target.

“Hey, you play D&D?”


“4th edition?”

Irritatedly, “Only because my group made me…”

“Rad, do you mind if you ask you a few questions about some software I’m building?”

Cautious, and body language suggesting she was about run at the slightest sign I was a vampire, “Ooookkkayy….”

I sat down next to her on the floor to make her feel more comfortable with my laptop, and briefly walked her through why I created Powerz, and what it does.

She immediately got excited, “Oh we already use that through our DM. He uses WotC’s subscription service… DD something…”

“DDO or DDi?”


“Which one?”

She shrugged but excitedly explained, “I don’t know, but it’s great. You can input all of your character data, and it prints out all your powers. Our whole group does it.”

I then proceeded to ask her questions about how her group plays, and take notes. Another gent from her gaming group joined in on the conversation, and motioned to a 3rd member who was also browsing books nearby. After I had asked my questions, I thanked them for their time… and went looking for a bar. I suddenly felt insecure, ‘How could DDi do all that? There is no way, I’ve seen the screen shots, read the reviews….’

While waiting for the bar tender who was overworked, and was already getting heckled by some disgruntled women next to me, I reflected on those I had talked to. I knew a lot of the older generation was very pro-3.5, me included. I really like, still, the 3.5 rules and felt they were akin to Macromedia’s Flash 8; the pinnacle of the company. I started getting really depressed, and quickly started going over all of my past research in my head.

…then I remembered something the girl had said. “Print them out.” Print? To paper? wtf? A smile came to my face, I gave up waiting on the bartender, and quickly headed to where I remembered the D&D gaming tables being the previous year. I stopped by the bellman’s desk to obtain some change so I could buy a few people beers in exchange for me pestering them with questions.

Paper. That was really what I kept seeing. The generation gap in that one prefers tangible assets to play with and the younger ones do not. Again, it’s not that black and white sometimes, but it’s still true. While waiting 1 hour and 40 minutes in line, I met a father who had brought his 11 year old daughter to “meet” the creators of the online game she played. It was some alternative to Club Penguin, which was apparently ruined under new management. She was really excited, and wanted to be a programmer when she grew up. The father, clearly out of his element, saw me in my business professional getup, clearly over dressed for such a casual, and often costumed event, and seemed happy to have some one to talk to. He found it strange that his daughter would spend his money on these online games for things that didn’t exist. Instead of a new barbie doll, she’d get a some new, exclusive outfit for her online character. We discussed her online habits, and those of her friends. I explained what I did, and he was intrigued.

His daughter is my target audience. The girls and boy in front of her, definitely early teens, one dressed up as Naruto, and others as Sango from InuYasha… those are my target audience. They grew up texting, the internet always existed. Those who were my age, dressed up as star trek characters… those probably aren’t my target audience. These kids revel in online content, but still have social interactions with each other in person.

People like me, and the kids who are used to digital tools don’t mind keeping things digital. Others see digital tools as a means to a paper end.

Upon leaving, I was convinced my target audience was mostly online and not at Dragon*Con… or at Dragon*Con WITH their PARENTS. It was a great learning experience, even talking to the few people I did was helpful.


The project as a whole, while successful, failed to meet one of its primary goals: make money. It does have some successes, which I document below. I had two main goals: releasing a product to prove I could execute, and to make money, enough to cover costs. Currently, there is not enough community features to justify a subscription pricing model. Additionally, I highly doubt I’ll get enough users to cover the costs via the ad supported model I use currently.

If you add up all the costs:

  • Around 6 to 10 weeks of man hours (design, development, marketing + expenses)
  • hosting costs ($20 hosting + $20 Django container @ Mediatemple)

The total comes to around $50,000. Each month I go $40 more into the hole as the ads currently aren’t providing enough revenue to cover costs, and I haven’t figured out how to monetize the anonymous usage data.

I have a new idea that will actually generate revenue, and Powerz could actually be a companion application, so that’s a positive.

I’m not sure about this statement, but… here goes: I’m glad I know I’m capable of executing vs. knowing how to make money and not execute. This, as opposed to someone who knows how to make money, but can’t execute. The sad fact is, most rich people I read about know how to make money, and get other more qualified individuals to execute for them.  Doh!

As a developer, however, I view this as yet another thing to learn, so that’s a good thing! If I start learning how to monetize things better, I can focus my development efforts on what matter monetarily, and eventually find easier ways to leverage help vs. doing everything myself. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.


My favorite part, the wins.

  1. I now have a tool to make my D&D gaming easier, and more fun.
  2. Others now have access to the same tool, with the ability to help guide it’s direction.
  3. I’ve proved to myself for the 2nd time that Iterative development works.
  4. I’ve proved to myself that I can execute on my ideas.
  5. I learned Django & Python, and also learned not to hate the server-side.
  6. I’ve learned, again, how much work it really takes beyond just coding to release a product.
  7. I learned a little bit about engaging potential customers.
  8. I learned a little bit about market research.
  9. I learned how NOT to migrate data.
  10. I now have something new to learn: How to make money with software.


While I’m disappointed I failed to monetize my work, it’s still early in the game, so maybe I’ll think of something. Overall, I’m really happy to have finally finished one of personal projects into an actual product. That, and I learned a ton. Soon, onto idea #2!

If you play D&D 4th edition, check it out and let me know what you think. If you don’t, but know people who do, let ’em know; I’d be most appreciative!

13 Replies to “AIR App: Powerz – Play Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Faster”

  1. This is a great post! Thanks for sharing. Reading about someone else’s experience is always interesting.

    And maybe if someone someday shows me how to play d&d I’ll use your great air app q:

  2. You should think otherwise. If for you spending freetime to devellop something and after expecting to be paid back 150$/hour for this initial developement time you dont have the right way to qualify success. Otherwise it seems a nice app

  3. I think Hugo is trying to say that freetime is worth less than what you might earn as a consultant. I don’t agree with that, but I agree that the equivalent of your consulting rate might not be the right goal, at least starting out.

    As you may know, I spent six months earlier this year creating some Flash games. In another month and a half, I’ll be doing it again. My ultimate goal is to be able to pay the bills. However, I don’t expect the same amount that I’ve been earning as a freelancer this summer. Why? Because I’m not as experienced creating and marketing games as I am coding kickass Flex RIAs.

    For now, I’m content not even breaking even because I can see progress in both quality and revenue and I predict that the upward trend will continue. To break even month to month, I need to make significantly less than I earn hourly as a Flex consultant, which is a nicer goal to strive for. I’d like to make bank from games, sure, but until I’ve been doing it for a couple years, I don’t think my results will necessarily have the same value.

    Good for you for trying this and executing. It’s a good feeling, I know. Keep it up, Jesse.

  4. This is indeed a great post, Jesse.

    I tend to agree with Hugo’s comment about the fact that you shouldn’t see it as a 50k lost since you didn’t stop your main job to concentrate on Powerz only. Free time is, as it can be read, “Free time”. ;)

    Imagine 6 to 10 weeks only for this great project, this is kind of amazing.

    Keep it up on the blog, your last months of posts are amazingly interesting!

  5. Thanks for a very interesting write up.

    You’re absolutely right to use your market rate to calculate the total cost of the project. For me, it’s so tempting to say, “This thing made a $1000 and was fun to make; it’s time to start making these for a living,” then realize it would take a 200 hour work week to make it work financially.

  6. Very interesting post! Thanks man, and congrats for finishing your cool project, I know how hard it is sometimes to have the will, discipline, motivation, and commitment to start and finish something, and even more when you are not getting paid for =) But the most important thing is not to do it for the sake of money, but for the sake of joy.


    PS. LOL on that comment about reading Rich Dad/Poor Dad, I felt kinda the same, however is an eye opener in the sense of knowing where we really are in order to know it’s time to get out and be free.

  7. Thanks for sharing Jesse, question on successful execution vs monetization:

    Do you think working on something that is clearly of great interest to you (D&D) helped with the successful execution aspect but was possibly to the detriment of monetization (limited target audience)?

    I.e. if you identified a different money-maker but in a subject matter that held little or less interest to you might the outcome be reversed?

  8. Yes, exactly. The problem I’ve had lately (despite burn out and needing a break) is trying to find a target audience that is large, yet has a need I’m interested in.

    Case in point:

    My site, launch day = 500+ visitors

    Her majesty’s site, launch day = 5000+ visitors

    Could I have finished a knitting pattern app? Perhaps. Could I have finished a B2B insurance training application? Probably not.

    So, the search continues. It’s easier for entrepreneurs that have their primary goals to make money, and whatever the hell else as #2, and #3, etc. For me, money is secondary, thus, my priority is building for building’s sake. That’s not how my make money based on what I’ve read. The problem is, I can’t deny who I am; I love to build things. The strength of my craft is directly related to my passion for it… I just need to find something that I’m passionate about and HAPPENS TO BE profitable, that’s how I’ll succeed monetarily I think.

  9. Yeah I can relate to that, have been tempted by many a potential money-maker but will never commit because a project outside of “real work” quickly becomes a real drag if the subject matter is dishwater. Even just semi-interesting will zap enthusiasm. There should be an idea pool where people who are interested in my dead-cert next generation door handle management system app idea can take it and I’ll have access to their winning [fun thing] organiser app plan.

    Sure way to fail tho is to stop trying :)

  10. Thanks for the post!
    Btw, I have to admit, I hesitated to migrate to d&d4 for a while too.

    Have you tried posting your add to some forums with Online Parties, those people might be interested in “keeping things digiatl”?

  11. Jesse,

    I just came across this and a great article. Hope all is well with the family! Here is something to ponder… Since you love to build applications (great ones if I do say so), then you need to find someone that loves to build the business side and partner with them ;o)

    FYI, we should do lunch sometime when you down by me!


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