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Issue #129 - May 2006

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A Book Looking for a Conclusion

By Richard Rogerson

The review title doesn’t quite say it all. It implies that there is something wrong in this tome. However, we have here two people writing about a phenomenon which is still growing and developing, and they would have had to be more stupid than brave to say where it will end up.

Many of you heard (or at least heard of) last year’s BBC Radio 4 show about Dungeons & Dragons (hosted by Kim Newman and featuring, amongst others, Cheryl Morgan and Marc Gascoigne). It came to the rough conclusion that D&D was an interesting thing of its time, but which is, for all intents and purposes, dead now; apart from a few holdouts left in the corner. Amongst the many complaints about the show was that it completely missed the key development of online role-playing. Dungeons and Dreamers doesn’t make that mistake. The book, written by Brad King & John Borland, starts with a description of the meeting between Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson back in 1972. This was when Arneson first presented the idea of a Game Master. The book takes us all the way through to the development of modern online RPGs.

In some ways D&D is an odd starting point for a book subtitled, "The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic"; but the authors decided that the only way they could make some sort of sense of the history of computer games was to focus on an individual — in this case Richard Garriott. D&D was the starting point for Garriott. When he was still at school the new game had the same sort of effect on his life that it had on me and a group of friends at St Andrews University. I suspect the same effect was repeated in many other places. Garriott has spent a long time in the computer games industry (he’s still very active) and the authors are able to take a path through the rise of computer gaming by following his footsteps.

The biggest issue with this is that you are never quite sure what has been left out, and it certainly feels at times that we are getting a skewed picture. This worried/annoyed me initially, but I think the topic is so huge that their choice was sensible. It is certainly not perfect by any means, but it does at least try to tie up the varying threads that have come in and out of the history of gaming. In addition, it gives some sort of structure to a book that is trying to cover a huge field and gives the authors a central thread to head back to from their many diversions.

For Garriott, the idea of melding D&D and computers was both obvious and natural. He was one of the driving forces behind Ultima, one of the first RPG-type games. It evolved through several versions, including Ultima On-Line and many versions of the simple PC game, before finally being overtaken by a new breed. The most cohesive section of the book works its way from the original text based Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) to Garriott’s Ultima and ends with Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot growing, and the Star Wars gaming universe just in the wings. It’s a sign of how fast things change (the book was written in 2003) that Star Wars is already old hat and we have the massive World of Warcraft, along with enough other variations on the theme (like City of Heroes) available to satisfy most tastes. Indeed, D&D On-line is now with us…

The book does not focus too much on the games, but rather on what makes people want to play. For most of us that’s an easy one: it is a social activity. The authors pick up on that theme and explore online gaming as the ideal follow-up to the pretty static version of FRP that I still play. Online you will eventually find your match: people who you like who also want to play at the speed and times that you want to. Of course the human psyche still wants the physical contact, so you get the apparent conundrum that members of virtual communities will often spend large amounts of money getting together for conventions. Just two months ago, we had a sixty-year-old American grandmother visit us for a couple of days as she toured the UK visiting her friends from the Rhyzom universe. Last month, on holiday in France, a French girl we’d never met in person drove an hour from Toulouse to spend a day with us. Community is everything.

Because it is looking at community, the book doesn’t dwell for too long on the PS2 or X-box games. Until recently (past King and Borland’s publication date) neither had much in the way of online presence. Where the book does go is into the world of the First Person Shooter (FPS) from Doom, Quake and Counterstrike on through to where Jonathan Wendell became an international star. You may not have heard of Jonathan Wendell, but as Fatal1ty he became the world’s best player of FPS games and earns well from it. Interestingly Wendell is still around and, at the moment, still number one. Here the FPS community is following in the footsteps of Wizards of The Coast’s Magic: The Gathering tournaments and leagues. (WoTC, of course, now own D&D as part of Hasbro, the money from Magic enabling them to swallow up Gygax’s TSR!)

But I’m falling into the same problem that the book exhibits. In attempting to cover a lot of gaming it starts to flounder around. Mind you, it gives me some measure of admiration for the authors as the simple task of a cohesive review seems to be beyond me.

Heck, the book even gets to the postal gaming hobby. Richard Bartle and his postal Diplomacy ‘zine, Sauce of the Nile, get a mention, bringing in yet another influence, another form of community that loved to run conventions (and for all I know, still does).

The book is interesting and makes the point that, while community is what keeps a game running, it has to be a decent game in the first place. The Sims online is a classic failure. The Sims is a great solo PC game and one of the biggest selling ever. My son, Tom, played it for a long time. So The Sims online must be a success, right? Well, no. In The Sims, you have god-like control over your many Sims and get the fun of managing their lives and relationships for them. But online you are just one of many and you control, well, yourself. The idea was that the community aspect would generate interest, but about what? Actually I’d rather go into Everquest and be a hero with my mates, killing the bad guys, than go down to the gym as a virtual ordinary person. The Sims online was boring. It failed. (That is a simplification as there were a number of mechanics related issues as well. But at base it was just no fun, so people stopped playing and went to find their communities elsewhere.) The next generation of Sims-type games is likely to be the sex games: Naughty America and the like. I’m not sure whether they will make it or not — after an initial surge (sorry) I think that will settle down to a niche group.

The book ends with Garriott working on his next idea: a new game where the language is king and you can mix the immersion of a single player game with the community of the big online games. Since then, it has already happened, at least in part, with the rise of instanced games. Most of the newer MMORPGs (Massive Multi-player Online RPGs) take this approach. In these games you have a central hub where you can meet and greet people, form your adventuring party, then head off into the wilderness. But when you enter a mission or a dungeon you enter it in your own instance of the game. Each adventuring group plays on its own. In effect, we are back to the small group of players doing a dungeon or wilderness adventure around the kitchen table.

Of course, an instanced game has its own problems. In the older MMORPGs like Everquest you could actually get trips organized with several tens of players. Some of the biggest and best Everquest trips I have seen were where my partner, Philly, and her friends would get together groups of about 60-70 players to take out a dragon. It would take at least 4 hours plus to get ready, then the attack would be over (one way or another) in about a minute. You can’t do that in an instance as it would need several groups and the whole point of the instance is that it is only your group in there. (D&D Online has this philosophy)

Perhaps the next big idea is owning the game. Supposedly the best example of this is Neverax’s The Ring. Neverax are the developers of Saga of Rhyzom, the game which Philly event manages (amongst other things). The Ring takes us a step on from a trend that stretches back to some of the early FPS games. In these the game design tools were made available and people started developing their own scenarios (Doom being a good example). A similar approach was followed by NeverWinter Nights. The NWN toolset let you build everything you needed for a game — world tile, scenery, encounters… I have played a few of these games on "auto", where the GM just makes his game available and you play it as you would a book-delivered scenario. More interesting, and innovative, was a game developed by Tim Barnard called Nepi campaign. It used the NWN engine but was played with Tim in the game as an active GM, which meant that the encounters, rather than being simply scripted, had the subtlety that a "live" GM could interject.

Basic tools have been a feature in several other online games, including Star Wars where you can build your own houses. But The Ring is supposed to be a next stage with players having almost total control of the environment allowing, new levels of ownership and creation.

Well, I suppose I ought to say sub-creation really, if you will allow me a nod at Tolkien. You can see where it might all end up. All we need is a bit more control over the game mechanisms and we are back where we were thirty years ago when people wrote their own games systems rather than use commercial ones.

As you can see this has morphed from a review into a discussion about online gaming, and has missed several areas that King & Borland look at. Mind you, my discussion has ignored the rise of the online market through first X-Box and X-Box 360 and the soon-to-arrive other Next Generation consoles. I think Nintendo will be the best, but will (as ever) lose out to the marketing machines of Sony and Microsoft. But I’m off again — if you like games then King & Borland’s book is well worth a read; out of print, but not too expensive on Amazon.

Dungeons and Dreamers - Brad King and John Borland - McGraw-Hill - hardcover

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