Category Archives: theory

Old Video Games

The Discovery Channel has started up a documentary series called Rise of the Video Game. I’ve read up on the history of video games before, but what makes this series so fascinating (so far) is that it puts a lot of emphasis on the place video games held in human culture. It’s interesting that they brought up Godzilla, because like video games he’s changed with the times. In the original 1954 Gojira, the monster was a symbol of the horrors of the nuclear bomb–and as far as I know no other kaiju movie has ever had a protagonist see a little girl about to die from the monster’s radiation–but in the 60s and 70s he became a friendlier defender of Japan, and in the 90s and onward he became more morally ambiguous.

Video games started with guys finding new ways to use expensive military and educational equipment for fun after hours. Tennis For Two was a relatively simple repurposing of an oscilloscope (and even today those things are expensive). Games like Spacewar! not only moved video games forward, but reflected America’s fascination with outer space and the fears of where the Cold War might lead. Space Invaders, on the other hand, could be said to have some grounding in Japan’s fears and memories of outside attack.

The Magnavox Odyssey was especially important because as the first home console, it let people do something they never could before. In an era when the TV could only tune into a handful of channels, which (it being the time of the Vietnam War) always seemed to be brining ever more bad news, the Odyssey let people have some control over what was on their TV sets beyond changing channels or turning it off. As the show put it, in the early Cold War the words “push the button” could only mean the button that would bring about the end of the world. We take it for granted now in virtually every aspect of our lives–I press buttons on my computer, video games, to buy train tickets, my cell phone, iPod, etc.–but at the time it was revolutionary, and no wonder people found it so fascinating.

Going from early CRT war simulations to the prototype of the Odyssey is about 20 years of firsts in video games, but the beginning of the video game industry was with Nolan Bushnell starting up Atari. Pong was the first arcade game to catch on. The game didn’t actually have a CPU; it was basically hard-wired, and when the time came to develop a home system (the 2600) they had to start over from scratch.

Especially in light of the recent stuff about Jade Raymond, some of the comments by Bushnell and Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani are particularly striking. According to Bushnell, when Pong was catching on as an arcade game, because women on the whole have better fine motor control than men, there were a fair number of women going around sharking people at Pong. Iwatani on the other hand was specifically trying to make a game that would appeal to women as well as the customary young male demographic when he came up with Pac-Man. Granted, he was going off of a stereotype (“Girls always want dessert after a meal”), but his intentions at least were to be inclusive. What went wrong?

Anyway, most of the rest of the first episode is about the industry crash of 1983, owing to ludicrous market oversaturation, owing partly to Warner’s mismanagement on the assumption that video games would continue to rain money down on whoever put them out. Although it’s not covered in the first episode, if you know the history, this is what set the stage for Nintendo to step in and dominate the industry.

Almost as an afterthought, the episode concludes with a few minutes on Tetris and Alexey Pajitnov. I loved Tetris from the first moment I saw it, and I’ve always liked everything I’ve heard about its creator. When talking about how the Soviet regime basically held the rights to Tetris until its fall, he basically said that the important thing to him was having been able to make something so many people enjoyed. I didn’t know until I looked at the Wikipedia page just now that he designed Hexic. I’m going to have to try it out now.

Anyway, the fun part of this post is where I try to turn these ramblings into something to do with RPGs. It’s pretty easy to draw parallels between the early histories of Atari and D&D, of course. Both were created by some impassioned guys doing their own thing, rather than following any kind of corporate plan. Both achieved meteoric success (albeit on different scales). And both were standing on the shoulders of giants. For Atari there were precedents in the form of Tennis For Two, Spacewar!, the Odyssey, etc., and for D&D there were all the different wargames that represent transitional forms from little counters representing the armies of Napoleon to character sheets representing wizards and swordsmen. For both video games and RPGs we’re well past the point where you can just step in and do whatever and hope to turn a profit.

Although it’s pretty niche compared to the legions of GTA and Madden players out there, there’s a strong retro gaming community among video gamers. Some play emulators, some still have the old systems in working order, some buy those tiny “flashback” systems, and a tiny handful have actually made new games for consoles like the Atari 2600. I think a lot of the appeal of older video games is in their elegant simplicity. This I think is what RPGs can learn from retro games, and the design aesthetic of some of the best indie games is based on a simple but engaging gameplay mechanic–Dogs in the Vineyard is probably the best possible example. Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Tetris, etc. all do something that is ultimately extremely simple, but they do it extremely well. One of the guys from Bungie once said that the way to make a good video game is to create 30 seconds of consistently engaging gameplay, and make it work over and over. That’s all of those games right there. Dodge the ghosts, eat the power pill, and come back to eat three at once before going on to clear out that corner of the maze. Hold on just a little longer until the 1×4 piece comes and gets you a tetris, etc. That’s probably why the video game I’ve been playing most over the past few days is Super Mario World… ^_^;

Aside from the “some guys doing fun stuff in a basement” thing (not to be taken literally), what OD&D and many indie games have in common is simplicity. The earlier basic versions of D&D were stapled in the middle rather than perfect-bound, and the Rules Cyclopedia, which many seem to regard as the definitive version of basic D&D, weighs in at a mere 210 pages. Whether or not you agree with the “kill things and take their stuff” meme, there’s a lot to be said for knowing what you want to do and making a game that serves it. Aside from creating a protagonist (as opposed to a paddle or a spaceship) that could be anthropomorphicized (channeling some Scott McCloud here), Pac-Man changed its essential verb from something like “shoot” to, of all things, “eat.” While other kinds of tabletop games are perhaps better suited to one-verb designs than RPGs, I think there’s (still) a lot to be explored here.

None of this is to say that I think that drawing on these things will “save” tabletop RPGs, or become “the future of tabletop RPGs.” I think it’s more important to think about what makes for good games. If the world of video games has room for both Metal Gear Solid and Cake Mania, the world of tabletop games can surely handle both Exalted and Primetime Adventures. The thing about RPGs is that if you try to strip them down as far as they’ll go you wind up with either free-form role-playing or several different possible cornerstones.

(I just realized this goes back to a post of mine from last year about how video games divide genres up by how they play rather than what the story is about).

Library Books

While looking at books in games in general at the library, I stumbled across two on RPGs: “Shared Fantasy” by Gary Alan Fine (1983), and “The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art” by Daniel Mackay (2001). Fine is a sociologist who has also done studies of other small groups/subcultures, while Mackay looks at RPGs from a performing arts criticism kind of perspective. I found both of them very thought-provoking, albeit in completely different ways.

For the purposes of writing Shared Fantasy, Gary Alan Fine observed and participated in the Golden Brigade gaming club, going from novice to expert himself, and taking many interviews with the gamers there. The book was published in 1983, and the picture it paints of the hobby is very different from now, but also includes some things that remain universal.

  1. There was still a heck of a lot of crossover between FRP and wargames back then, and for a while there were wargamers who resented this new-fangled D&D thing’s entrance into their hobby.
  2. The four games of note were D&D, Chivalry & Sorcery, Empire of the Petal Throne, and Traveller. In the case of EPT, Fine interviewed and even played with Dr. Barker himself, and the ways in which the players related to a world as complicated as Tekumel were interesting.
  3. The entire section on “Women in Gaming” is just plain scary. The older players in particular used RPGs as a form of stress relief, and had no problem with running around raping female NPCs, so they felt a bit “restrained” when there was a woman in the room, much less at the table. On the other hand, the idea that RPGs back then were mostly male-oriented power fantasies goes some way to explain the other reasons the hobby was about 95% male.
  4. “Dice animism” is apparently at least as old as RPGs.
  5. For a long time it was the norm for gamers to spend an inordinate amount of time arguing over the rules of the game, to the point where it was a metagame and some groups spent as much time arguing as actually playing.
  6. At the time, Fine found very, very few instances of players actually speaking in character.
  7. Gaming groups, and especially GMs create a distinct underlying logic (“folk beliefs”) for their worlds. Many GMs create a world where life is relatively fair — where risk and reward are in roughly equal balance — and where good and evil are clear-cut.
  8. RPGs as a subsociety still had a sense of hierarchy, based on age and prestige within the games. Some players were ostracized — albeit due to their bizarre behavior — and when the club saw an influx of younger players (thanks to a newspaper article), the older ones avoided having noobs in their games.
  9. In an RPG people switch between acting as an actual person, the player of a game, and a character within the game, intuitively and seamlessly. People do this in other contexts — and to a certain extent role-taking is a basic part of human society — but for example an actor can’t afford to do it to the degree that gamers do. Not only that, but gamers tend to dizzyingly switch around who they’re talking to. If someone at the table addresses Rob they might be talking to him, or addressing his character Thor, or vice versa.
  10. In any game of any kind, the rules have a certain amount of plasticity depending on the social context. This is extremely apparent in RPGs, but it also shows up in more rigid games like chess (can you take back a move you’ve made?)

Although published in 2001, the references in Mackay’s book only go through 1998 or so, and where Fine studied observed gamers in the Twin Cities area, Mackay is mainly doing research and drawing on his own experiences, particularly with regard to his own long-running Forgotten Realms campaign. He also uses a massive amount of performing arts criticism type stuff, to the point where I found some passages incomprehensible.

  1. The rise in D&D’s popularity in the late 70s and early 80s can in part be attributed to fantasy being a big genre in movies at the time, where there had been virtually none before. It also played into the cultural landscape of the time.
  2. D&D in particular created what he calls “imaginary-entertainment environments,” overall worlds/settings that went across several different media, and changed over time. Dragonlance, which had a reciprocal relationship between the game and accompanying literature, is a prime example.
  3. He discusses Everway in detail, noting that it creates and stores character information in a more narrative form.
  4. RPGs are unusual in that the “end product” is a narrative that exists mainly in the minds of the participants, and can’t be found directly in either the rulebooks or transcripts of game sessions. For games in general, narrative is “ergodic,” an emergent property. In a sense the player takes the events of a game — any game — and arranges them into stories, much like how we do in real life.
  5. Gamers have a common geeky culture. Sometimes this can interfere with the game (Simpsons and Monty Python quotes), but it also forms a common starting point, and gamers take bits and pieces of it and recontextualize them in order to better communicate with each other.

I think I’ll have to do a similar write-up about Lawrence Shick’s Heroic Worlds (1991) and Rick Swan’s The Complete Guide to Role-Playing Games (1990), both of which try to explain the hobby and then present a catalog of published games. Both are about 15 years old, though Shick’s is particularly exhaustive.

Anime and Roleplaying, Part 2

Continuing from my last post, some more on how to represent anime in RPG form. The Culture Clash section was inspired in part by an exchange with Nagisawa Takumi on I doubt we’ll ever agree as to what “anime” means (for reasons you’ll see below), but I came out of it with a much better understanding of what I mean by anime, and how it relates to roleplaying games. The second section was inspired in part by reading Daniel Mackay’s book The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art, as was the earlier one on allusion.
Continue reading Anime and Roleplaying, Part 2

Things I Learned From Video Games

Of late, I can’t really call myself an “avid” video gamer. I have so much in the way of work and hobbies that other stuff takes up a lot of time, and it’s become rarer for any given game to really do it for me. The most recent game that I got obsessed with was Final Fantasy IV Advance, a GBA port of a game I played more than 10 years ago on SNES, so go figure. But still, I do play video games when I can (my Nintendo DS is helping save my sanity on my long train commute for graduate school), and pay attention to the industry. Although they’re in many ways a very different medium, I do think that RPGs could learn a lot from video games — and vice versa.

Story Genres and Functional Genres
Lost Garden is a really fascinating blog about video game development, and its most influential entry is about Nintendo’s innovation strategy with the Wii, its potential to engender whole new genres of games, and the life cycle of video game genres. One or more breakout games hits it big (Castle Wolfenstein and Doom), and there’s a growing demand for similar games which creates an explosion of popularity, and “genre kings” (Half-Life, Quake) emerge to dominate and define the genre, and over time the parameters of the genre get narrower and narrower, until they primarily serve a hardcore audience that looks down on games that deviate from their notion of what the genre should be (Halo), and eventually it becomes the realm of hobbyists (like what happened to turn-based strategy games).

Video games, by and large, are divided into genres not by the subject matter, but by how they play. Halo: Combat Evolved and Starcraft are both science fiction, but to video gamers the fact that they’re an FPS and RTS (respectively) is far more important. It could be argued that RPGs also have genres in the video game sense, with different ways of framing the overall experience. Of course, trying to create categories or define genres along this axis would inevitably lead to all kinds of annoying arguments over semantics, and it’s something that’s further complicated by drift — how an RPG’s rules can be interpreted or repurposed in play. When you play Halo, it’s going to be an FPS no matter what you do, but regardless of what is optimum Dungeons & Dragons can range anywhere from a tactical game to a court intrigue game. On the other hand, even in video games the divisions between genres are porous; you could easily make a continuum between third-person action and CRPG. These days action games routinely have some kind of RPG elements too them — stats that can be booster over time and such, and there are “action RPG” games like Jade Empire and Zelda too.

So, here’s my utterly non-authoritative, thrown-together attempt to divide RPGs into “functional” genres, whcih in turn wound up being sort of a continuum between D&D and story games. (It should go without saying that none are “better” than the others, any more than RTS games are “better” than CRPGs).

  • D&D’s class/level/kill things and take their stuff setup. It’s rarely imitated anymore.
  • GURPS, Hero System, and other crunchy, point-based universal systems.
  • “Non-interference” systems that provide a basic, generic framework and little else; BESM, Cinematic Unisystem.
  • Games focused on a specific setting or premise; World of Darkness, Cat
  • Highly thematic/story games; The Mountain Witch, DRYH, DitV, MLWM
  • Systems that primarily serve to distribute narrative control; PTA, octaNe
  • Games that are narrowly focused on a specific roleplaying type activity; The Shal-al-Hiri Roach, Breaking the Ice

In this respect, the fact that the functional genres of tabletop RPGs are so few and relatively rigid isn’t too surprising, but the fact that one game dominates the market so thoroughly is something unique to the English-speaking RPG hobby. On the other hand, it could be argued that within the microcosm of the indie scene, there are in fact genres and genre kings, of which Dogs in the Vineyard and Prime Time Adventures would seem to be prime examples. It’s also a small enough hobby that games that don’t have much staying power for whatever reason tend to fall by the wayside completely, if they ever existed, so it’s hard to come up with more crunchy/universal/point-based systems besides GURPS and Hero.

In some ways, I think the indie RPG scene represents some of where some in the video game industry feel they need to go, whether it’s Greg Costikyan who wants to tear apart the current order, or Alex Seropian‘s efforts to found a company that’s small and streamlined with lots of outsourcing, or just Will Wright using radically different programming techniques. It would be a mistake to discard the mainstream or to assume that the new hotness (procedural generation) is going to totally change everything rather than becoming part of the overall palette.

When it comes to video games the need for changes comes from the many trends that run counter to open creativity, and the production costs that are spiralling out of control. The demand for spectacular big-budget games like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy won’t go away, but there have been plenty of break-away hits (Guitar Hero) and cult classics (Katamari Damacy) that make it clear that the big-budget approach isn’t the only way to go. For the Xbox 360, Wii, and PS3 there will be support for small, downloadable games. There’s still something of a walled garden thing going on, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. Although it’s a lot harder than with tabletop games, it is still possible for a small number of people to make games in their spare time, and its exciting to think that there’s a place for a simple, fun, innovative $5 video game to be sold on a major console.

The major importance of the Wii is that it introduces wholly new ways to play games, by doing away with what has become the standard type of controller (a thing with 12 buttons and 3 directional controls) in favor of something more intuitive (handing someone a white remote control and telling them to just swing it like a tennis racket). Some look at this kind of accessibility as both a boon to gamers who are growing up and have less time, and a way to court non-gamers. In terms of RPGs, D&D is kind of the PS2, considering at a minimum you’d want to have three 300-page hardback books and six kinds of dice, and it involves its own special breed of Tolkienesque fantasy. In this respect, the casual side of video games represents where some from the indie RPG scene want the hobby to go: something that could be mainstream and accessible to everyone. There are zillions of housewives who play casual video games on Yahoo, and not a few who get together with their friends to play Bunco, so what if they started doing the same for, say, Primetime Adventures? The conundrum, of course, is how the hell to make that happen.

One of the things about video games, that’s very difficult but potentially valuable for RPGs to do is to make it possible to get right into the action with minimal preparation. There are very, very few video games where reading the manual is even necessary, and many games teach you how to play themselves through the early stages. The Ghostbusters RPG (still waiting for it to arrive in the mail) supposedly does something like this by teaching the rules through a series of three short adventures, and for that matter Cybergeneration also had a default introductory adventure. There’s also Deep 7’s 1PG games, which give you a complete beer-and-pretzels game in 13 pages, 6 of which are 1-page scenarios. I think it’s a really cool idea that I’d like to explore more, though from personal experience I know that introductory adventures can run into the problem of having a portion of the group that’s played through them before.