WebRPG: A Great Idea Gone Bad


I've known for a long time that online gaming is not what I, or any other number of dedicated roleplayers, want it to be. EverQuest and its ilk make it paradise for those who want to beat the crap out of a never-ending stream of monsters, but it's not exactly anyone's first choice for good storytelling and memorable characters. But for awhile there was a wonderful little program called WebRPG that I thought had the potential to revolutionize online gaming as we know it. But along the way its creators made a fatal mistake, and things were never quite the same after that.

What happened to WebRPG, you ask? In one sense, nothing; its website (www.webrpg.com) is still online, and you can still go there to read about it and download all the necessary components for the program. But even though WebRPG still exists in name, the spirit that at one point made me consider it the future of online gaming is gone. Here's why.

WebRPG started out as pure genius. It wasn't a preprogrammed dungeon crawl like your typical MU* or MMORPG. Mostly, it was no different than your average chat program, with a few extra bells and whistles like a built-in dice roller. With a little bit of effort, you could set up character sheets, miniatures, and maps for the benefit of GMs and players alike. The creators also made the intelligent choice of including a game tracker, so even if you didn't have a gaming group of your own you could drop in at any time day or night to see what other games were going on, observe them, or even join in. It was quick to download, easy to set up, and best of all, free.

In short, WebRPG was the cyberspace equivalent of your friendly neighborhood game shop. You could meet up with friends for a weekly session, observe or join in other games, or just hang out and see who dropped by for a chat. It wasn't quite the same as sitting down for a good, old-fashioned tabletop session, but it was close enough. There had never been anything quite like it offered on the Internet (at least, nothing so high-profile or accessible), and one by one gamers were sitting up and taking notice.

It's easy to see why a considerable amount of gamers began flocking to WebRPG, either as a supplement or an alternative to tabletopping. It was a great way to meet fellow gamers and form new groups, or to keep long-standing groups together if their members relocated. It wasn't a perfect program by any stretch of the imagination; the fact that it was programmed using Java made it quite a systems hog, and a number of annoying bugs in the software made random disconnections, serious lag, and the entirely too frequent appearance of the dreaded "blue screen of death" a way of life for many of its users. Despite all this, there were many gamers for whom the program became an indispensable tool for good online gaming.

The trouble started just about a month ago, when the creators of WebRPG made a rather surprising announcement. Their program would no longer be free to all who chose to download it. Instead, they had decided to institute a monthly fee in exchange for the privilege of using their program to run games. In my opinion, this decision spells the beginning of the end for WebRPG.

You may be wondering, "Why should that make a difference?" It matters because the great majority of Internet users are, at heart, cheap bastards. We'll download and use anything if it's free, but once we have to cough up our hard-earned cash for it, we're much more likely to delete it than we are to keep it. Look at Napster. It used to be that every other Internet user was enamored with the wonders of free file-sharing. Its users didn't disappear during its well-publicized cout battle, but the moment money became involved most of them found better ways to trade MP3s. When WebRPG became a pay service, I knew of about four different groups using it for their weekly games. When the players in each group got word of WebRPG's conversion, their immediate reaction was not to revise their monthly budget to make room for a new expense. Without exception, they began scrambling to find a different, free place to host their games. I wouldn't be surprised if a substantial amount of WebRPG's other users do the same.

There's also the fact that WebRPG has now gone from being a free, extremely buggy piece of software to being an extremely buggy piece of software that costs $10 a month to use. The technical problems that followed in WebRPG's wake used to be a lot easier for players to justify putting up with; after all, it was free, and you get what you pay for. I should point out that WebRPG's creators have now released a new version of their software which I have not had the opportunity to test. If the new version resolves those issues, this criticism could become a moot point, but I wouldn't count on it.

Finally, WebRPG's creators seem to have overlooked the fact that, for most gamers, online gaming is a supplement to real-life roleplaying and not a replacement for it. As much as I've enjoyed the online games in which I've participated, I wouldn't give up my weekly tabletop session for them even if WebRPG was paying me to do it. Maybe WebRPG will continue to be a good solution for gamers in isolated areas who don't have easy access to any other groups, but as long as I have a "real life" gaming group to attend every week - and as long as I can participate in it (mostly) for free - I just don't need to pay for something that, in my opinion, is only second best.

And don't even get me started on the way WebRPG announced their decision. There was never even a hint that the transition to a pay service might be down the road, just a sudden, unprecedented announcement. How many well-established games do you suppose had to end abruptly because GMs and players wouldn't or couldn't pay the fee? And even for the WebRPG users who decided to pay for it, the upheaval must have been tremendous. WebRPG may have started out trying to encourage real roleplaying on the Internet, but by not bothering to give its users fair warning, it's done much more to hinder it than it ever has to support it.

I realize that WebRPG's creators need to make money to support their business. But it seems to me that they could have come up with a better way to do it. Why not offer a stripped-down version for free, but encourage users to pay for it in order to get extra features? This has worked for programs like ZMud and SimpleMU. However, WebRPG has presented an interesting alternative to their users by allowing them to contribute game material every month instead of paying the fee. Whether users will take advantage of this alternative remains to be seen, but if anything saves the program, I'd bet that this will be it.

I could be wrong about all this, of course. This is all a fairly recent development for WebRPG, so perhaps it's too early to predict how having to pay to play will affect it. WebRPG is popular enough that I'd imagine it will continue to exist in one form or another for quite some time. But will yet another online gaming service with an Everquest-like monthly fee really be able to bring sweeping change to the world of online gaming the way the free WebRPG could have? Only time will tell, but I'm almost certain that its answer will be no.

For those with a bit of technical know-how and a desire to continue using a free product of a similar nature, OpenRPG (http://www.openrpg.com) is an alternative.

First Punkbuster now WebRPG! What is it with these companies who think that just because they have an audience willing to beta test their software for free that it's worth money? I wouldn't pay a flat fee for WebRPG, implementing a monthly one is ridiculous! Punkbuster should have concentrated on making their product as professioal and polished on both the server and the client ends as possible before approaching Valve about it.

In both cases all the developers got for seeking a check for their buggy, closed-source software was competition from open source alternatives.

OpenRPG is one of the alternative, free ways that the four groups the author mentioned scrambeled to. I found it to be much more stable, although it still used a lot of system resources.

WebRPG was a great idea, but only a decent program. I often found it more of a hassle than it was worth, and now, it's not even worth bothering.

My weekly Ethshar game moved to OpenRPG. We made the move for several reasons:
1. OpenRPG is free (obviously). We can recruit new players easier if they do not have to pay.
2. OpenRPG is open source. For the programmers among us, we can improve and tweak the game since it is open source. If we want a new feature or change, we don't have to wait for a company to provide this feature; we will have the option of creating it ourselves. It is written in Python which is a very accessible language so a lot of people can understand the program and contribute new features.
3. OpenRPG makes us self-sufficient. We won't get into the WebRPG situation again. We can download and run our own server. Nobody can try to make us pay. So, we can stick with OpenRPG to the end of time, if we like.
4. Other WebRPG groups moved to OpenRPG. This will increase OpenRPG's development and reliability. Thardferr, a long running D&D group, moved there.
We've been using OpenRPG for about 5 months now. We have no plans to change. So far, we've been pretty happy. Sure, a few people have problems but time has sorted out most of these. New releases have come out steadily.
I'd recommend OpenRPG to anybody at this point.

I'll admit my biases up front, since I'm one of the oldest users of WebRPG and certainly the oldest of its forum admins still remaining. I never used the WebRPG program much, mainly because I've got dial-up at home -- and because I've got some good local groups.

WebRPG was purchased by UGO a while back and turned over to RPGHost for administration. At the time, WebRPG remained on an advertising income model that supplied enough cash to UGO that they were able to pay RPGHost for their (really, his; RPGHost consists basically of one guy named James) services. When the bottom fell out of the Internet advertising market, UGO's finances tanked and they stopped meeting their contract commitments to their member sites. After not having been paid for months, James renegotiated his contract to allow him to keep and receive any non-advertising income generated by the site.

The problem, of course, was that WebRPG generated no income OTHER than advertising (and the occasional product referral, at that point, to RPGShop). The obvious choice was to take WebRPG's single largest cost center -- the WebRPG Online program -- and make it a source of revenue, thus supplementing the drying trickle of payments from UGO with actual income from the program.

Although WebRPG Online lost a remarkable number of users at this point, enough stayed that James now considers it profitable to consider administering the site.


I should point out, by the way, that I have contacted UGO about the possibility of purchasing the WebRPG site and program; James did not originally develop either, and it's my opinion that the site has stagnated a bit over the last few months. My loyalties, as you can imagine, are somewhat conflicted, but I DO believe that the move to a pay-for-play model was the only one that could possibly have made sense at this point -- especially since James isn't doing this out of some labor of love but rather as contract labor. James has a tendency to be ascerbic and hasty in his decisions, and many of the forum admins were left to try to explain the practically overnight move to a pay-for-play service; his decision to then allow group discounts and free participation to submitters of new material answered a lot of the most obvious complaints, as did the 30-day conversion trial we talked him into offering.

Nonetheless, as was pointed out, most Internet users are ungrateful, cheap bastards -- has anyone here registered their copies of WinAmp or WinZip? -- and left in droves. WebRPG Online has about 1/4 of its old user base, but they're PAYING users -- and since James wasn't getting any money at all under the older model, that's a better deal for him at the moment.

Tom's absolutely right. It sounds like there were two options: either users paid for the service, or the service got shut down. Dedicated internet servers are expensive, and it's rediculous and, IMO, immature to think that WebRPG should pay out of their own pockets in time and money so that some 'cheap bastard' could play for free. A fee service was the right idea. If you dont like it, dont use it. No loss to the webmasters, since you werent paying them anyways. If you do like it, at least now it's still around and likely to be around for a while.

Hey Tom, WinAmp is free. And UltimateZip is a free (and in some ways superior to WinZip) Zip utility.

So to answer that question, no, no one I know has paid for either of those pieces of software.

And in fact, most people I know are moving toward ALL of their software being free. It's so much nicer to use a bit of code that's community supported.

As for something 'still being around' because it was made a pay to play service.. Hey, if you can make that work, great.

But don't blame consumers when the price for the product goes up and demand for it goes down. That's a really old pattern. That's not being 'ungrateful' or 'cheap' that's being smart. Why the hell would I pay for WebRPG when OpenRPG is not only free, it has a dedicated dev team with the purest of motivations?

Paul: Winamp has a free light version, but it is not totaly free. (No, I am not talking free as in open source in this case, I am talking free as in freeware).

Winzip is Nagware.
Both are great programs in their own right. Yes, there are superior programs that are flat out free.

Honestly, that got me to thinking. I use 7zip now for most things. It has it's quirks, but there is not much it doesn't support. :P And best of all, it IS freeware. However, I think that I may go ahead and register my copies of Winzip and Winamp. I mean, how long did I use those things. O.o;; This may sound odd, but those of us who used winzip for who knows how long just skipping the registration screen, we kinda owe it to them.

Well I myself find it to be totaly unfair for a company to offer something free for years then all of a sudden expect people to pay now had they asked for some donations that would have been a little more polite.