Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Organized Play Event Reporting

I had a brainstorm last week to write about the addressable audience for this industry, and I'm still working on that article and want to do it some justice.  So that will wait.

This week, Patrick and I were working on organized play scheduling for the next few months, and reflecting on last week's Imperial Assault Regional Championship that we held.  The IA event was, to date, the largest Imperial Assault tournament in history, at 16 players, beating the attendance of 15 at Fantasy Flight's own game store in Minnesota.  That record won't stand past Gen Con, but it's neat to be able to claim it for a while.

Since Imperial Assault is not a Wizards of the Coast game, we wouldn't use the familiar standby, Wizards Even Reporter (WER).  I'll address WER in a moment.  Imperial Assault is by FFG, so to administer the IA event, we used TOME, the new Fantasy Flight Tournament Management app.  It's entirely web-based and thus can be run on any device, whether PC, Mac, iPad, or what have you.  It is still in the beta stage, but had built-in configurations reflecting FFG's specific game rules and formats.  However, once the event was over, we had to report the results to FFG the old-fashioned way.  Well, the mostly-old-fashioned way.  They have a web form.  It's a step above e-mail, I suppose.  And that's a step above postal mail.  And more reliable than telepathy.

To see what is possible when a webapp works right for tournament management, so far the superstar example we've found is the WizKids Event System, or WES.  WES is everything TOME is, except is completed and has both built-in reporting and built-in web-published results lookup and history accessible to the public.  Players can pre-register for the tournament online, show up and pay admission, and already be on the player list in WES.  The sheer amount of good planning and coding that appears to have gone into WES has me wondering why all the companies aren't just copying this.  If one can truly say WES is lacking in anything right now, it would potentially be two things: The system lacks posting features like the WER plug-in RTools where round pairings and round time can be clearly and easily displayed for an entire room full of players; and the only games currently supported are HeroClix, Dice Masters, and Attack Wing, which are each good game systems but have far smaller audiences (for now) than most of what WOTC and FFG are running.

So, I've got mostly future-loaded praise for TOME and outright admiration for WES.  What about WER?  Wizards Event Reporter is just not good at all.  It is all the more surprising because having such a subfunctional tool is uncharacteristic of a company like Wizards of the Coast, which is doing so much right.  Especially in infrastructure, where WOTC's flow of product through distribution channels has reached a reliability level that's somewhere in the vicinity of miraculous.

WER is not a web app, but a client app that runs only in Windows.  This means every store selling Magic: the Gathering has to have at least one PC on the premises, which DSG would not have had (yet) if not for this function.  (We will end up needing PCs after all, because we are migrating our point-of-sale from Light Speed Retail to Diamond RMS ComicSuite later this year due to scaling needs.  I'll have plenty to say about that when it's closer to time.)  So WER cannot be run on an iPad or other mobile device, preventing what should be a trivial and elegant manner of administering sanctioned booster drafts at high volume, in a way that a judge could perform right on the tournament floor.

Even where WER should be good, though, it's bad.  It runs hideously slowly regardless of how souped up the source PC is or how fat the internet pipe is.  It crashes repeatedly, and has frequent outages, in particular when version updates occur.  Its printing system is a blasphemy against all life and should be exiled from this plane like someone cast Swords to Plowshares on it.  It requires a third-party plug-in, RTools, to be useful for events larger than a couple dozen players, and even then you still have to slaughter a forest of trees to create match result slips.  It has been leveraged into a tool for collecting materials orders and a crowdsourced worldwide database client.  It was a germ of a utility that was added to, grafted upon, expanded, bolted onto, and otherwise overbuilt into the staggering monstrosity it has become today.

I can't imagine WOTC is unaware of this, and I can't imagine they don't have some sort of talented coding group hard at work on the inside already on a new solution that will leverage today's technology in which everyone has connectivity in their pocket and everything that counts is platform-agnostic.  But until that day comes, at least we have something that lets us stumble to the finish line and sanction, administer, and report events in a single workflow.

We can still run events for any game using generic website apps like freeswisspairings.net and such like.  Anyone who has done a modicum of organized play scorekeeping can readily create a swiss draw or a bracket, even for tricky arrangements like double elimination.  And even if the tournament judge draws a blank on what to do next, there's always Google.  But I think it's fair at this point any time organized play comes on the radar for some new game or system for store owners to start asking, "How are we going to administer that?" and "Do you have infrastructure already in place that is going to make this feasible?"  In the absence of such facilitation, I am likely to pass and let someone else serve as the game company's on-site organized play beta tester.

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