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Don't Be a Vidiot

What Computer Game Designers Can Learn From Non-Electronic Games

by Greg Costikyan

This is a speech I gave at the 1998 Game Developers Conference.

When you look at our industry, it's easy to get worried about the enormous number of dull, derivative titles, and the paucity of innovation in a field that was once known for originality and creativity. The best-seller lists are filled with licensed drivel--Barbie titles, games based on old mass-market boardgames. Developers produce shooters and real-time strategy games in enormous numbers, often finding it hard to articulate how their games differ from other games in the same genre because, fundamentally, they don't, much. Other sub-genres stagger on--graphic adventures, computer roleplaying games, flight sims--but innovation seems increasingly driven by technology rather than creativity in game design--as if a 3D graphic adventure is somehow qualitatively different from a 2D game.

For someone familiar with both software and games, this is a puzzling development. Software is an enormously plastic medium. You can do almost anything with software. If you can define it, you can develop it. And games are an enormously plastic medium, too; there is a staggering variety of games, an entire universe of weird and wonderful gaming styles.

There are those who claim that the consolidation of computer gaming into a handful of recognized sub-genres is merely indication of maturation of the industry, that we have now established the types of games people want to play, and that in future our task is to ring the changes, play with the tropes, explore the variations permissable within those established genres. I have a hard time believing that this is true. This field has only existed for twenty years. And the capabilities of the machines we work with grows by leaps and bounds, year in and year out. If an artistic form as old as the novel continues to see works of amazing creativity every year, then surely it is too soon so say that we have explored the basic configurations of the computer game.

The question is one worth thinking about, not only because we, as artists, wish to accomplish innovative and creative work; but also because the history of our industry shows that the games that succeed best, that spur enormous movement down the retail pipe, are often those that are truly novel. That was true of BALANCE OF POWER and SIM CITY and M.U.L.E. and TETRIS and DOOM and MYST and COMMAND & CONQUER; and it was true of DEER HUNTER, which for all its flaws as a game qua game was still something we hadn't seen before, not a mere variant on the same-old same-old.

But if this is true, if the plasticity of software and the plasticity of the game mean truly novel products are possible, and if the market often rewards innovation, what is it that conspires to channel our efforts into reworking the same basic themes again and again? What is it about our industry that makes it so dull?

One factor is unquestionably the conservatism of publishers. If you're a producer for GT Interactive or EA or Eidos, say, and you green-light another COMMAND & CONQUER clone, and it doesn't sell, well, nobody can really say you failed. A lot of COMMAND & CONQUER clones get published. Some of them sell really well. Yours just didn't hit the nerve. You're not likely to get fired. If you green-light something truly offbeat and it fails, you must be a fool. What could you have been thinking? Your job is on the line. It's the old Hollywood cover-your-ass syndrome, and it's endemic in our field. Going with the flow, making the safe bet is easier.

Well, I'm not in a position to fund game development, so I can't do anything about the publishers' failure of imagination. But it occurs to me that computer game designers are at least partly at fault, too. Maybe it's true that the publishers are reluctant to fund novel notions; but I suspect that they aren't pitched many really creative concepts either.

Why not? Partly because of self-censorship by developers, who are unlikely to invest in a prototype if they know it won't get funded, and off-beat titles don't, often. But I suspect it's partly because most game developers just aren't aware of that entire universe of weird and wacky gaming styles I spoke about. Their own imaginations are constrained.

Tom Disch, a brilliant science fiction writer who has since gone on to a brilliant mainstream career, has a term for science fiction writers who have little understanding of any literature other than SF. He calls them "science fictionoids," and says that their lack of knowledge limits them to a handful of literary techniques, blinds them to the importance of character, and constrains their imagination. He insists that a writer who wishes to master his craft must read widely, in work from all eras, in and out of genre.

I think an analogous situation exists among computer game developers. If your sole experience of games derives from the arcade, the console, and the home PC--particularly if your sole experience derives from games published within the last five years--your imagination will be constrained. You will see only what exists in the here and now, and you will naturally be inclined to ring the changes on the apparently possible, rather than exploring more interesting alternatives. Your palette of techniques, your grasp of the possible, will be limited. You will be, if you will pardon the term, a "vidiot," a person whose sole understanding of games derives from video games.

If, on the other hand, you explore that weird and mutable thing we call "the game" in all its manifestations, you will see that the universe is large, that the range of technique is enormous, that this truly is a medium of great plasticity. You will have a bigger grab-bag of ideas to draw on, a wider range of ideas to steal, a broader set of shoulders on which to stand.

That is my purpose in being here today: to explore the panoply of gaming styles that exist outside the three electronic game industries, outside arcade and console and PC. To demonstrate, in short, the importance of not being a vidiot, of studying non-electronic games.

Non-electronic games have been around far longer than electronic ones; and far more gaming styles have been explored in non-electronic media, if for no other reason than the fact that you can develop a non-electronic game on a budget of a few bucks for paper and cardboard and ink. The risk entailed in non-electronic game development is far more limited, and this has bred far greater creativity.

Children learn through play; so we may assume that games, which are merely formalized play, have existed since the evolution of language made it possible for people to negotiate and agree upon rules. Ball games seem universal; and dice of various forms extend back four thousand years. Indeed, the dodecahedral dice that roleplaying games have recently made popular are quite ancient; there's a very nice set, Roman in antiquity, in the British Museum.

The earliest stories, from Gilgamesh to Beowulf, were of an oral tradition; it was not until the Greeks that consciously-crafted works, attributable to individual authors, arose; not until then that plays and stories were thought of as art, their creators as artists.

Similarly, our earliest games are the product of a folk tradition: CHESS and GO and O-WAR-EE.

The first game attributable to an individual designer of which I'm aware was THE KING'S GAME, designed by Helwig, Master of Pages for the Duke of Brunswick in 1780. THE KING'S GAME was a Chess variant; but its board contained 1666 squares, containing different types of terrain, and the units represented infantry, cavalry, and artillery.

In 1824, Lieutenant von Reisswitz of the Prussian army devised a game using realistic military maps at a scale of 1:8000; he demonstrated it for the Chief of Staff of the Prussian army, who exclaimed, "It's not a game at all; it's a training for war!" And he ordered a copy for each regiment of the army. The game and variants of it continued to be played in the Prussian and German armed forces for decades thereafter.

The first true kriegspiel-- a military training featuring a gamemaster or referee to adjudicate disputes--was designed in 1876 by Colonel von Verdy du Vernois of the German army. Players were permitted to do whatever they wished, as long as the gamemaster ruled it feasible. In a sense, these less rigid Kriegspieler were forerunners of the modern roleplaying game.

Kriegspieler were widely used in training across Europe by the end of the 19th century; and their derivatives, complex combat simulations, both manual and computer-moderated, are widely used in the armed forces of all developed nations today.

The late 19th century also saw the first commercially-published board and card games--initially for use with folk games like CHESS, CHECKERS, and WHIST. But game manufacturers began to promote less-known folk titles like PACHEESI, too, and produced the first copyrighted original designs. George Parker founded Parker Brothers in 1883, and published his first design, BANKING, in that year. Milton Bradley founded his eponymous company in 1860 as a publisher of lithographs, and began publishing puzzles and boardgames in 1880.

In other words, guys, history didn't begin with PONG.

In the early part of the century, commercial games became more widespread. Parker Brother's first real hits were ROOK and PIT, both published in 1903.

Charles Darrow's MONOPOLY--a game essentially pirated from Lizzie Magie's THE LANDLORD'S GAME--became an enormous success after its publication in 1936, making Darrow the first freelance game designer to become a millionaire, and incidentally saving Parker from probable bankruptcy. It's worth remembering that games are cheap entertainment; you can play them again and again once you've bought the set. And during the Depression, money was scarce for most people.

After World War II, with the growth of the American economy, boardgaming grew as well, with most of the classic commercial boardgames published in the 50s and 60--CANDYLAND in 49, THE GAME OF LIFE in 60 (although earlier games under the same title had been published as far back as the 19th century). Many of these titles were imports--RISK was originally from Miro in France, CLUE from WADDINGTONS in Britain.

A number of freelance designers, including the revered Sid Sackson, found it possible to make a living as a game designer, albeit you'd be foolish to quit your dayjob. While Parker and Milton Bradley dominated the field, there were any number of smaller publishers, and the market was relatively open to new ventures--the retail channel was far less consolidated, and TV advertising not yet considered a must for a credible product launch.

From 1962 to 1976, 3M published some of the finest boardgames ever published in the English language, including Sid Sackson's ACQUIRE and BAZAAR and Alex Randolph's TWIST; eventually, though 3M wondered what the hell it was doing in the games business, and sold its line to Avalon-Hill, which of course was taken over by Hasbro this year.

Hasbro acquired Milton Bradley in 1984, and Tonka, which by then owned Parker Brothers, in 1991. It also owns Selchow & Richter, US publishers of SCRABBLE and TRIVIAL PURSUIT, and basically now controls the entire mass market gaming industry--there are still a few smaller players, but only one, Winning Moves, that's publishing much of interest any more.

The mass market industry, such as it is, consists largely of old brand-name product that sells because everyone knows the titles; crap licensed from film and television; and kids games that are essentially brain-dead.

The most interesting titles tend to be those that are aimed at adults. Even for such games, dirt-simple rules that can be explained in five minutes or less are a virtual requirement; you just won't get the buyer from Toys R Us interested in anything else. But that has its virtues; when the rules-set has to be that tight, you tend to get refined, tight, classy little games. And that, incidentally, it exactly what you want for an online-only, ad-supported game; you want something people can grok in a few sentences of explanation and plunge right into. People who want to develop this style of game have to realize that HEARTS and SPADES only gets you so far; everyone offers that, it's a commodity. To attract users, you're going to need proprietary games that others can't offer. If I were doing this, I'd sure look into licensing 25 WORDS OR LESS or CHRONOLOGY.

There's still a great deal of creativity in modern mass-market boardgaming, but it's not coming out of the U.S. Hasbro is fat and happy and basically doesn't give a fuck about innovation. The most exciting modern product is being designed and published in Germany, which has a far more competitive market and a far bigger market on a per-capita basis--that is, Germans buy a lot more boardgames each, although there are fewer of them. And the aesthetic is far better developed there; in the U.S., there's only Games magazine, but in Germany, there are a great many publications that cover boardgames--newspapers and magazines often run boardgame reviews. And a great many publishers, and designers whose names command respect and generate sales--designers like Klaus Teuber (SETTLERS OF CATAN), Rudolf Knizia (MODERN ART, EUPHRATE & TIGRIS) and Alan Moon (ELFENLAND). Moon is an interesting illustration, actually, since he's an American, but has to go to Germany to get published. Another indication of the superior aesthetic of the German market is that Sid Sackson is basically out of print in the US, except for ACQUIRE from Avalon Hill, while many of his titles are available in Deutschland.

The aesthetic of the German boardgame is particularly interesting; these titles tend to be somewhat more complex than the US mass-market norm, but not a lot so. I don't have any problems playing them with my 9 year-old, for instance. Most are multiplayer. They tend to be tightly constrained in time, taking no more than two hours to play. They're turn-based, but taking your turn takes only a few minutes, so they zip along, and often there are actions others can take to affect you during your turn, so they're not sitting around waiting. Typically, you have a range of resources to manipulate--cards in your hands, or tokens, or something of the kind; and it isn't always obvious, in any particular circumstance, exactly what you should do with them. You're faced with a small set of decisions on a turn, but those decisions are difficult ones to make.

Contrast that with CANDYLAND, say, where there are no decisions to make. Or most other US boardgames, where the decisions are meaningless or trivial.

Again, this is a great basic model for online games. Relatively short playtimes, turn-based to minimize latency issues, short turn times, thoughtful decisions.

A number of these games, including MODERN ART and SETTLERS OF CATAN, have been republished in the states by Mayfair Games--which was bought last year by ICE--but you can probably find copies. Rio Grande Games also republishes some German games here. Others need to be ordered from overseas; English translations of many foreign boardgame rules can be found at www.gamecabinet.com.

To say that boardgaming is dead in the States is, luckily, untrue. On the mass-market level, it is dead, or at least brain-dead, but boardgaming has found a modest home in hobby gaming. Unit sales tend to be pretty dismal, especially with the collapse in the distribution channel over the last year, but this doesn't necessarily stop people who love what they're doing from publishing this way. Particularly interesting is Cheapass Games, who produce titles like KILL DR. LUCKY, essentially a reversal of CLUE, and BEFORE I KILL YOU MR. BOND, in which you capture spies and then taunt them, doubling the point value of the spy each time you taunt. The kicker is that if someone has the same taunt card in his hand, he can play it to let the spy escape and blow up your lair.

Cheapass isn't the only company with games of this style; take a look at Chaosium's CREDO, in which you play various bits of doctrine and try to get them established as official church doctrine, possibly ending up with a Catholic church where the Albigensian heresy is revealed truth. Or Greg Porter's BLACK DEATH, where you as a disease compete to rack up the largest body count against the other plagues. Or GUILLOTINE, from Wizards of the Coast, in which the players are rival executioners competing to kill the most prestigious "clients." Like German boardgames, these have simple rules-sets, although more complex than those of mass-market games; they tend not to be as strategically sophisticated or refined, but have a humorous edge that makes for fun play.

In addition to this style of boardgame are what you might call the Diplomatic game. The granddaddy of diplomatic games is, of course, Allan Calhammer's DIPLOMACY, first published in 1958. In DIPLOMACY, you take the part of one of seven European great powers. Moves are written, and then revealed and resolved simultaneously, so you never know what the other players are doing as you write your moves. The key to the game is the support order, which allows your units to support moves by other players. It is a fairly elegant game strategically, but the real innovation is that it depends utterly on negotiation and diplomacy. The powers are roughly equal in strength; the only way to overrun an opponent is to find allies. But because you can't be sure what the other players are doing, you can never entirely trust your allies. Backstabs are endemic. Games often end in tears. It is a vicious, wonderful, involving game.

As a class, Diplomatic games require negotiation among the players. This is by contrast to most so-called multiplayer games; in MONOPOLY, for instance, there's very little you can do to help or hinder your opponents, so diplomacy is not a factor. Avalon Hill was the premier publisher of diplomatic games, including my own PAX BRITANNICA and the American edition of KINGMAKER, but other publishers produce some as well.

These games, too, are important for online developers to study; they promote communication and debate among the players, and communication is what online is all about.

The hobby channel is far more receptive to new product, and product from garage operations, than any other game industry, and you therefore see all sorts of weird stuff published here, some of it quite interesting.

But enough of boardgaming; onto the next major category.

Although toy soldiers had been around for millenia, the first commercially-published set of rules for gaming with military miniatures was designed by H.G. Wells, the great novelist and humanitarian. LITTLE WARS, published in 1911, and FLOOR GAMES, in 1913, were very simple, indeed minimalist rules sets with differential movement rates for infantry, cavalry, and artillery, a very simple algorithm for the resolution of melee, and artillery fire through the use of spring-loaded cannon. Basically, you aimed your spring-loaders, fired matchsticks, and what they hit was killed.

Miniatures gaming is still a thriving, if small, hobby. There are two pretty distinct groups of miniatures gamers. Military gamers, mostly men in their 40s and older, tend to have regular gaming groups with on-going campaigns, and a war metagame with the battles they fight affecting the course of the war. The rules they used are published in small quantities by hobbyists, and their figures cast by a small group of specialist manufacturers.

Fantasy and science fiction minature gamers are younger, mostly in their teens. The most popular games in this category--WARHAMMER and WARHAMMER 40K-- are produced by Games Workshop, the largest hobby game publisher in Britain, and the second largest worldwide, after Wizards of the Coast/TSR. It's a narrow but deep industry; if you're a serious miniatures gamer, you want a couple of hundred figures, which will cost you several hundred dollars, plus the cost of paint and the rules themselves. And the time involved is enormous as well; in addition to the time spent playing, you must paint your figures. Even if you get very good at that, we're talking a minimum of 15 minutes per figure, and when you start off, you'd better plan on 45 minutes. It's a hobby for fanatics.

The appeal of miniatures gaming should be obvious, if you've ever seen a well laid-out table. Gaily-painted figures march in serried ranks across the field. Visually, it's striking, and miniatures fans love showing off their hard work. The game appeal is similar to that of the board wargame; tactical planning, plenty of time to think about your moves. There's a bit of collectors' appeal, too; you can't use the dwarven assault wagon if you don't have the figure for it, for instance. The figures you possess dictate the nature of your army.

For us, there are two important things to note about miniatures gaming. The first is the business model: It's not about selling you the game, it's about selling you the figures. As a result, the manufacturers can pull far more bucks out of your wallet than they could on a single game product. You get into this, you're always going to want a cool new figure.

The second the activity external to the game. Miniatures gamers spend more time painting their figures than they do actually playing. They find that task enjoyable and interesting, in the same fashion as kit modellers. It is a form of modelling, in a way, particularly for those who get into "kit-bashing".

That's a point worth thinking about, again particularly for online games; is there a way to give players an offline activity that supports the game and is enjoyable in its own right but doesn't require them to consume bandwidth and server time?

The wargaming industry began with TACTICS, published privately by Charles Roberts in 1953. In 1958, he founded the Avalon-Hill Game Company, and began publishing both wargames and mass-market games for adults. Avalon Hill published just one or two titles a year, but quickly attracted a substantial cult audience for their games. They launched a magazine, The General; classified oppponents-wanted ads in the back pages helped to create a community of wargamers, as the letter columns of the science fiction pulps did in days of yore. Titles like STALINGRAD and PANZERBLITZ established enough of a reputation that they're still available 35 years later--or maybe they aren't, given A-H's takeover by Hasbro.

In 1968, James F. Dunnigan and Redmond Simonsen took over a gaming fanzine called Strategy & Tactics from its founder, Chris Wagner, with the intention of making it the center of a game publishing enterprise. They began to publish a complete original wargame in each issue, a great deal for wargamers who got 6 games a year, plus the zine, for the price of a couple of boxed titles from Avalon Hill. It was an instant success, and SPI started publishing games outside the magazine too, using the zine as a promotional vehicle. By the late 70s, SPI was publishing dozens of titles annually, there were national game conventions and clubs across the country, and specialty game shops were springing up to serve the demand--and to sell roleplaying games, which were starting to become popular. In other words, this was an industry, albeit a small one, probably no more than $10 million at retail at the time.

SPI and Avalon Hill were always the largest of the wargame companies, but there were numerous other small publishers, too, including some reasonably professional ones like GDW. In the heydey of gaming, roughly from 1972 through 1980, there were hundreds of titles published. The typical wargame was far more complex, in terms of rules for the player to master, than any gaming category before or since. A typical rulebook was 16 unrelieved pages of 9 point type, and some games had as many as 96.

Rules complexity was not necessarily matched by strategic complexity; the only real choice for the German player in a strategic World War II game, after all, is "Britain first" or "Russia first". The attraction of the wargame lies in mastering a complex system; and in the difficult, complicated tactical decisions to be made--exactly how to position your counters to deliver an attack of maximal effectiveness.

Wargaming is a treasure trove of systems design. Wargamers placed a premium on innovation and novelty in pursuit of clean military simulation. The variations on lines of supply, initiative, and combat resolution are many. If you take any three wargames at random, you'll find more fundamental differences in approach and design, even though these are all hex-based military simulations, than you will among three real-time strategy games selected at random. Of course, this was an industry convinced that innovation in design rather than in technology was what the audience wanted.

It is true, however, that these systems ar all in support of military conflict simulation, with a fairly limited repertoire of physical components. But still, designers of real-time strategy games, in particular, need to study board wargames to learn that you can emphasize many, many different aspects of conflict in different games--it need not all be about building up crap and blowing up more crap. You can emphasize lines of supply, fog of war, combined arms, maneuver, formation, the quality of commanders, the importance of artillery and air power, morale, home-front production, even the willingness of the civilian population to sustain a war. You just need different systems to emphasize different things.

To toss off an example, Jim Dunnigan's WORLD WAR I is in some ways a very boring game; counters rarely move, an advance of a hex is a major victory. Like the war. But the tension comes from the casualties; you have a little counter that represents how many young men you get this year in the draft, and you never have to retreat as long as you have more men to throw into the maw of the enemy's machineguns. Those counters slide down and down and down as millions go over the top to get cut apart on the barbed wire. The simple motion of a square of cardboard gets across the utter senselessness and barbarity of the war.

Let's see something that fine from you lot.

Wargaming as an industry survives, something of a shadow of its former self, sustained by a few hobbyist publishers and, up until now, Avalon Hill. It's one of those hobbies that has ceased to attract teenagers, however, and consists mainly of 40 and 50something males, still grinding out the kilometers as the Nazis advance on Stalingrad as they did when they were young. But you can find good games out there, in Avalon Hill's inventory, in Decision Games product, and by scouring the postings on rec.games.board.marketplace.

Science fiction and fantasy boardgaming was an outgrowth of wargaming, and sold primarily through the same hobby distribution channels as wargames. The first successful such project was Howard Thompson's STELLAR CONQUEST, still in print from Avalon Hill; Thompson followed it up with a series of small, cheap games with limited components, many of them designed by Steve Jackson. These were successful as well. SPI, then a major wargame publisher, also published quite a few sf&f boardgames, and launched a magazine, Ares, that included an sf&f game in each issue. Like wargaming, sf&f boardgaming attracted a core audience

SF&F boardgaming's heydey, however, was very brief; like wargaming, its popularity nose-dived when SPI, one of the largest publishers of such, was taken over by TSR, and TSR refused to honor the subscriptions of subscribers to SPI's magazine, an event that turned thousands of committed gamers off the field entirely.

Most of the early product is now out of print, although Steve Jackson keeps OGRE and CAR WARS around. However, games like BATTLETECH from FASA and ROBO RASCALS from Wizards still attract players; at this point, sf&f gaming is a minor appendage to the hobby games industry, but still sees the occasional new release.

SF&F boardgames have fairly complex rules, although generally simpler than those of historical wargames. They tend to be less narrowly typecast, too; the nature of SF&F allows you to justify just about anything you want to do in a game by inventing some theory for why things work this way. As a result, hexagonal grids are rarer, there are more multiplayer games and economic games, and so on.

Roleplaying games began in 1973, with the first publication OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. D&D was published by Tactical Studies Rules, a small miniatures rules publisher run by Gary Gygax, whose day gig was as a shoe salesman. It was an outgrowth of the CHAINMAIL miniatures rules for fighting fantasy battles. The originator of the concept was David Arneson, whose name was later removed from the credits by Gygax after TSR became big and arrogant. Of course, Gygax's name was also later removed after he was purged from TSR; the current edition of the game is credited to Zeb Cook.

The original "brown box" rules set for DUNGEONS & DRAGONS was one of the most poorly-written set of rules I've ever seen, rife with confusing rules susceptible to multiple interpretations. It was, in other words, an extremely poor implementation of a startlingly original and vital concept and, despite its poor design, quickly became a massive cult hit.

The key novel notion behind D&D, and the roleplaying games industry it spawned, was to have each player control a single character in an imaginary world--to play, in other words, not with a set of components or, as in a wargame, as the commander of an imaginary army, but as a single living person. One person would act as gamemaster or referee, both enforcing the rules impartially among the players and also playing all non-player characters encountered by the players, describing the world, and providing the story.

For many traditional gamers, this was far too loosey goosey. Not only were the rules ill-defined, their enforcement was subject to the whim of a potentially arbitrary gamemaster; there were no victory conditions or clear ways to "win"; the game world was open-ended and potentially boundless; and worse yet, you had to cooperate rather than compete with your fellow players to get anything done.

But for many, this was an invigorating and exciting way to play. For one thing, it meant being able to experience much more directly the kind of fantastic adventures about which many of us read. It was a form of participatory fiction.

And the very open-ended nature of the game was exhiliarating, too. Anything could happen; a whole world lay out there. The poor quality of the rules was perversely an open invitation to creativity as well. You pretty much had to design your own rules set using these as a base, since they were incomprehensible as written. Not only did you have to create and imagine a world, and a character within it, but build the systems that made it live.

At first, the natural instinct of players was to play the game as the rules implied; as a hack-and-slash combat game of dungeon exploration. But the nature of roleplaying lent itself to more sophisticated gaming styles with real stories in which character interaction became important, and many gamers quickly began to play that way. For adolescents, particularly, this was an appealing gaming style, because by playing a role in a fantasy world, you could experiment with all sorts of personalities and actions you'd be hesitant or unwilling to explore in real life... For me, at least, and I suspect for many others, roleplaying was vitally important in our adolescent socialization, helping us to explore behaviors and interact with others in a non-threatening way that ultimately allowed us to be better, more fully-rounded people in the real world as well.

D&D became a massive hit; roleplaying games soon outsold wargames, with which they shared the hobby distribution channel. Other companies began to publish roleplaying games as well... Chaosium published Steve Perrin's RUNEQUEST, still one of the cleanest and most interesting fantasy RPGs, set in Greg Stafford's well-conceived world of Glorantha. GDW, a wargame publisher, had considerable success with TRAVELLER, a science fiction RPG. Soon, there were roleplaying games for virtually every fictional genre, and publishers began to cast about for other paradigms. An obvious one was licensing; the second wave of roleplaying games began, with Lord of the Rings and Star Trek and Star Wars and Marvel Superheroes.

In 1984, West End Games published Gelber, Costikyan, and Goldberg's PARANOIA, which pointed the way to another way to do roleplaying games: to create a universe with its own rules and culture, and set a game within that. Variations on that theme, like SHADOWRUN, a strange fantasy/cyberpunk hybrid, quickly appeared. And Steve Jackson experimented with another approach to roleplaying with G.U.R.P.S., an ugly acronym for "generic universal roleplaying system," a base set of rules with supplements extending the rules set for all kinds of different genres, worlds, and roleplaying environments--another quickly-imitated approach.

Mark Rhein*Hagen's VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE innovated in a different way: like PARANOIA and others before it, it created a universe of its own, but this time with a difference. It was designed specifically to appeal to the Ann Rice/Goth sensibility, and its emphasis was on atmosphere and mood, its rules set minimal. It found a new audience not merely among existing RPGers, but among people who had never roleplayed before. For the first time, roleplaying was not the preserve of nerds and geeks, but something tres hip, something Goth girls with long black nails and sable hair would and could play. Today, you can walk down St. Marks Place in New York and, amid the Sonic Youth and Squirrel Nut Zippers and Chumbawumba t-shirts, find ones for VAMPIRE and WEREWOLF. Roleplaying is officially cool.

In recent years, the feeling that the basic configurations of the roleplaying game have been explored has not, as it has in computer gaming, led to conservatism and reluctance to innovate. Rather, it has bred a desire to do original and different work. The result has been fine products like OVER THE EDGE, a surrealistic RPG set in a espionage-cum-conspiracy modern world, and DEATH LANDS, a horror/western RPG, and HOL, which stands for Human Occupied Landfill, a bizarre science fiction RPG set in the literal trashbin of the universe.

Despite breakdowns in the hobby games distribution channel that parallel the catastrophe that befell comics two years ago, roleplaying remains one of the most creative, vital, and interesting gaming styles. The greatest threat at present to that creativity is that the consolidation of the industry's two largest companies---TSR and Wizards of the Coast---and the change in distribution patterns will ultimately create barriers to entry for new firms and ideas. We can only hope that does not come to pass.

The collectors card industry began with the publication of Richard Garfield's MAGIC: THE GATHERING in 1993 by Wizards of the Coast, then an obsure Seattle-based roleplaying games publisher. Garfield had submitted a boardgame to Wizards that they had rejected--but asked him to design something else for them, maybe a simple little card game that leant itself to convention play. Garfield came up with MAGIC; neither he nor Wizards had any idea that it would become the phenomenon it is today.

MAGIC is of the class of what we call an "exceptions" game; another good example is the boardgame COSMIC ENCOUNTER. An exceptions game has a very simple, limited rules set; but some game components have additional rules printed on them that alter, modify, or break the basic rules. As a result, they can be quite complicated when viewed in toto, but are quite simple to learn in the first instance.

In MAGIC, virtually every card has some special power or ability. The genius of the design, however, is in the open-ended nature of the game. When you buy a MAGIC desk, you get 80 cards, which is, in fact, enough to build a playable deck. However, the basic MAGIC game has more than 300 cards, some of them quite rare; to build a powerful deck, you must go out and buy additional booster packs and basic decks, then select the cards you wish to play in your deck. Expansions since the original publication have created a universe with literally thousands of different cards.

You play against other people who have each assembled their own deck. As a result, you never know quite what you're going to be up against; out of the thousands of available cards, your opponent has selected perhaps 60 to play against you. Part of the fascination of the game lies in this wide variability, the fact that you never know what you'll be up against.

Perhaps more important is the "meta-game" of MAGIC. The literal game is, of course, you against another player with a deck, and what happens over the table. The meta-game is what occurs beforehand: the purchase of cards, the construction of a deck of cards that support and interact with each other in interesting ways, the trading of cards with other players, and the interaction among a group of gamers that leads players to build decks precisely to take down the decks of other players in the group, and so on.

Never mind the game itself: MAGIC was also a brilliant marketing concept, for at least two reasons. First, hobby games, particularly roleplaying games, are frequently sold in the same outlets that carry comics and other pop-culture "collectibles"--including non-game collectors cards, sports cards, illustration cards, and the like. Consequently, this was a kind of product that outlets which already carried game products knew how to sell and market; it was a wide-open channel.

Second, the nature of the game--the desire to build a hot new deck and blow away your friends--means that avid MAGIC players are always buying new cards, in the hopes of getting something really cool. Thus, it shares with the WARHAMMER model the ability to pull hundreds, in some cases thousands, of dollars out of each individual gamer's pocket. No one forces these guys to spend this much, but there's always the temptation to buy just a few more booster packs. And while the first taste may not be free, it's awfully cheap--maybe $12 bucks for a basic deck and a couple of boosters.

Like DUNGEONS & DRAGONS before it, MAGIC became an instant runaway hit, more than tripling the size of the hobby games industry. Wizards of the Coast quickly balooned past TSR--for more than a decade the single largest publisher of hobby games--in terms of gross sales. And last year, TSR, which has been poorly managed for decades, finally sold out to Wizards, which has been making intelligent moves to revive the company.

Scads of other companies jumped on the CCG bandwagon, hoping to profit by the craze. The next few years saw dozens of new CCG launches, most of which have fallen by the wayside. Interesting, these games were launched not only by hobby game publishers, but also by companies like Decipher and Fleer/SkyBox which are mainly publishers of non-game collectible cards.

Sales of MAGIC have fallen from their peak; it is no longer the mass-market phenomenon that it once was. But it's still a large enough market to keep Wizards very happily in business, and it has established itself as a perennial. Barring incredibly stupid management by Wizards, Magic, like D&D, is likely to be around for decades to come. MAGIC is now available in virtually every major language across the globe, and has recently been adopted by the government of the People's Republic of China as an authorized non-Olympic sport (I'm not making this up). Wizards sponsors tournaments across the world, with international winners flown into the States for the world championship each year. Wizards/TSR may not have the market capitalization of an Electronic Arts--it's privately held, among other things--but this is not small potatoes, folks. This is a real industry.

It has proven very difficult to launch additional successful CCGs, however, particularly if all you're doing is a me-too game. The most successful CCGs other than MAGIC have mainly derived from licensed product, including Decipher's STAR TREK COLLECTIBLE CARD GAME, and Fleer/SkyBox's OVERPOWER, a comics card game with licenses from both DC and Marvel.

However, at a lower level of sales, some companies have achieved modest cult success, sufficient to sustain continued release of additional product. Among the best, in my opinion, are LEGEND OF FIVE RINGS, a fantasy CCG with a strong Japanese/Chinese tone; and ILLUMINATI: NEW WORLD ORDER, Steve Jackson's goofy conspiratorial CCG.

Live Action Roleplaying, by contrast, is not an industry and probably never will be. It's run by hobbyists for hobbyists, with no thought of commercial gain in mind.

LARPs, as they're called, differ from table-top RPGs in a number of ways. First, players don't sit about a table, they wander around and engage each other in conversation. Second, in most LARPs, some or all actions are taken by engaging in some literal, physical action in the game-space--for instance, in some games, combat is performed with rattan weapons, and a "hit" is a "hit." In others, combat is abstracted to eliminate the possibility of injury, but "picking someone's pocket" might be accomplished by placing a small colored sticker somewhere on their person without them noticing what you've done.

Third, most LARPs involve dozens, sometimes hundreds of players, and multiple gamemasters.

Fourth, the basic rules set of LARPs is generally far simpler than that for table-top RPGs; you want rules that players can pick up very quickly and get playing.

There are essentially three main LARP sub-genres: the "adventure" or "line" LARP; the "interactive" or "freeform" LARP; and the commercial LARP, which is really a subcategory of the freeform.

"Adventure" LARPs usually take place out of doors; it's easier to borrow a stretch of forest than to build a dungeon in a basement. Typically, they involve a sequential set of challenges the players must overcome--some combat-oriented, others involve physical challenges (e.g., locks to pick), mental challenges (puzzles to solve) or pure roleplaying (chatting up a non-player character and getting information from him). Encounters with enemies, monsters, and other NPCs are with actual people provided by the gamemasters, adventure LARPs are often staged by groups who play together frequently, so you might agree to be a monster this week and play as one of the adventurers next.

Essentially, you and a group of other players go down the line, having each encounter and ultimately solving the plot and winning--or losing, of course. Combat is often performed with padded weapons, spells by using thrown-powder bombs or the like. Multiple parties of adventures can be at various stages down the line, much like groups of golfers at different holes on a course.

A number of organizations with hundreds of participations stage LARPs, including the New England Roleplaying Organization (NERO), and the International Fantasy Gaming Society. This LARP style, incidentally, seems to be even more popular in Europe than it is here; when I was in Finland last year for RopeCon, their national games convention, I was startled to find that there were actually more LARPers than traditional RPG players in attendance. I was even more startled to find that some of these guys actually fight with steel, something unthinkable in the States with our more draconian liability laws. But that's another story.

It doesn't seem possible to ascribe the "line" LARP to any particular creator; the idea seems to have spontaneously arisen at more or less the same time--around 1980--in the U.S., Britain, and Australia.

The "freeform" LARP, by contrast, is ascribable to an individual designer--Walt Freitag, co-founder of the Society for Interactive Literature, and creator of REKON I, the first freeform LARP, which was staged at Boskone, a regional science fiction convention, in 1983. Freitag, incidentally, is now working as a computer game designer.

In a freeform, each of dozens or hundreds of players is handed a character that is designed and written in advance by the game designer. (Because of the amount of work involved, games are usually designed by teams rather than individuals.) Thus, you don't play a generic character, but someone who has a specific role to play in a pre-established plot. Plots often involve a crisis or turning point in the game work, like a war on the verge of breaking out, or first contact between alien species.

Each character has his or her own goals and objectives in the game; designers establish these to get players talking and give them things to do. Objects are distributed throughout the game world, frequently in the form of index cards that say "Sword of Spiegal" or whatnot on them, with rules for their use. Players are provided with brief rules books explaining how the game works. And then they're set free to chat with, connive with, steal from, backstab, and play with each other. Generally, there's always a headquarters where players can find gamemasters when they want a ruling on something; frequently, other gamemasters wander about to keep an eye on the action. Often, the gamemasters will announce some special event to keep the action moving.

A free-form like this usually lasts a weekend, and is usually staged at a hotel, often in connection with a science fiction or gaming convention. But other free-forms can last a few hours and be held at a home or bar or church basement.

A freeform LARP is as close to actual immersion in an interactive story that you'll get anywhere in the world. And computer game designers with an interest in true interactive story-telling would be insane not to learn about this form.

There have been few attempts at commercial LARPs as yet. Among the most interesting attempt was White Wolf's VAMPIRE LARP, an attempt to capitalize on the fact that many VAMPIRE players run it as something close to a LARP anyway, with people dressed up and hanging out and conversing someplace, rather than crowded around a table. Of course, if you're a Goth, you've got an appropriate costume already.

It's hard to see how you can really make a commercially viable genre out of this game-style, anyway: the amount of preparation involved is enormous, and the experience is not repeatable.

However, it may not be wholly impossible. Consider first the mystery party game, a genre that had a burst of popularity in the mid-80s and has since fallen off the radar screen. A mystery party game is, in essence, a kit that allows you to stage a mystery LARP at a small party for your friends. It typically includes character sheets for the players, name badges, and a few other items. The host may be required to hide some objects about the house, but more often, solving the mystery involves talking to the other players, finding out what they know, and piecing the solution together.

If this could be a commercially viable genre for even a brief moment, it is not inconceivable that something similar could be done with other LARP styles as well.

The last category I want to discuss isn't a category at all, or rather, no one but me considers it such. That's the branching story game.

The interesting thing about branching story games is that they can be implemented in so many different media. In computer gaming, they're called adventure games.

In publishing, they're called "choose your own ending" books, or "whichway" books, or game books. These had their peak of popularity in the mid-90s, but they're still around. The basic idea is that you begin by reading a page or two, and at the end of that, are presented with a decision. Your decision determines which page you turn to next. And so on, working your way down the decision tree to an ultimate resolution.

If poorly done--as it usually is--this is jejune in the extreme. In the States, Bantam had the most success with its "Choose Your Own Ending TM" line for young adults, some of which are still in print, and most of which were dismal. But the best-selling whichway books internationally were the FIGHTING FANTASY GAMEBOOK series, written by the British Steve Jackson (not to be confused with the American Steve Jackson) and Ian Livingston.

The Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks posed more than a simple turn this way/turn that way choice. They contained a rudimentary game system, and required players to slay monsters, pick locks, solve puzzles, and so on, with the choice of page dependent on luck or failure. They were, in other words, essentially solitaire roleplaying adventures, and reasonably fun as such. I mean, this isn't great art, but you get a couple of bucks worth of entertainment out of these things, which is all they cost.

The Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks are, worldwide, the best-selling gamebooks of all time; they were best-sellers in every country where they were released, with the sole exception of the United States, where Penguin really botched the marketing. Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston became rich off them. Incidentally, Jackson is currently working for a London-based developer, and Livingston is Chairman of Eidos.

The "branching story game" doesn't end here. There are roleplaying equivalents: solitaire roleplaying adventures for use with game systems published separately. There are boardgame equivalents, games that come with a book of paragraphs to which the players must refer at times.

And there are even movie equivalents, like the much-ballyhooed I'M YOUR MAN which ran in theaters a couple of years ago. That movie, promoted as the interactive future of film, allowed the audience to vote at key decision points in the movie as to where they wanted it to go. This was widely reviewed as hip, hot, innovative and exciting--never mind the fact that exactly the same experiment was made in an interactive film at the Polish Pavilion in the New York World's Fair--in 1939.

It's been done in theater, too; witness THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, based on an unfinished story by Charles Dickens. The play breaks off where the story does; the audience votes on whom they wish the murderer to be, and the cast improvises the outcome.

The theater-gaming cross-over needs further exploration. Theater and story-telling games--computer adventures and paper RPGs--all share some degree of scripting, plots, and characters. Traditional theater is inherently non-interactive, scripted to the last line.

But not all theater is that way. Newcomers to tabletop roleplaying often have difficulty getting their heads around this open, unscripted, imaginative form; actors never do. "Oh," they'll say, "it's improv." A lot of actors in my local gaming group.

Plays like TONY & TINA'S WEDDING are intermediate between LARPs and traditional theater. In TONY & TINA'S, the professional cast play the bride, groom, and family; the audience, which does not sit in seats but wanders about the banquet hall, take the role of guests, and when they enter, are asked whether they're on the bride's party or the groom's. They are free to speak with the cast members--and their experience of the play varies depending on where they choose to be and whom they choose to converse with over the course of the evening.

Or there's my own BESTIAL ACTS, an audience-improvisation drama/roleplaying game based on the dramatic theories of Bertolt Brecht that has never been performed and probably never will be--too loony for either audience.

The point here is that the dividing line between theater and roleplaying can be blurred--and thinking about how to blur it further, and how, for instance, to import theatrical techniques into a graphical MUD, may be a fruitful avenue of exploration.

From snow-draped forests filled with lunatics carrying paint guns, to convention centers filled with people wearing costumes and playing 'in character,' to schoolyards where kids pore over looseleaf binders containing MAGIC cards, to pudgy 40-something guys in glasses hunched over a sandtable where lead Napoleonic armies clash, to blaring arcades and smart-assed 20somethings with near-obscene online nicks, the sheer variety of game styles is staggering.

So how come you're working on another goddamn shooter?

If the universe of gaming is filled with so many diverse styles, why is computer gaming stuck in such a rut?

Let's see some imagination, guys.

Names to Know

Mass Market Boardgaming

George Parker, founder of Parker Brothers and designers of most of its early games (including ROOK and PIT).

Milton Bradley, founder of Milton Bradley and designer of most of its early games.

Charles Darrow, ostensible designer of MONOPOLY.

Lizzie Magie, "single-tax" advocate and designer of THE LANDLORD'S GAME, the precursor to MONOPOLY.

Sid Sackson, the finest game designer of mid-century; designer of ACQUIRE and BAZAAR.

German Adult Boardgaming

Reiner Knizia, perhaps the greatest master of this form, designer of MODERN ART and EUPHRATE & TIGRIS.

Klaus Teuber, designer of SETTLERS OF CATAN, the single most popular boardgame of this decade--more than 3 million copies sold in Germany alone.

Alan Moon, designer of ELFENLAND.

Miniatures Gaming

H.G. Wells, socialist, novelist, father of science fiction--and designer of LITTLE WARS and FLOOR GAMES.

Fletcher Pratt, eminent fantastist of mid-century--and creator of the FLETCHER PRATT NAVAL RULES, the first successful rules for naval battles with military miniatures.


Charles Roberts, founder of The Avalon Hill Game Company and designer of most of its early products.

Don Greenwood, multi-decade veteran of Avalon Hill, largely responsible for shaping its wargame line for most of that time.

James F. Dunnigan, founder of Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) and designer of more than 100 wargame titles, among them some of the finest work to see publication in this field, including PANZERBLITZ, one of the best-selling wargames of all time.

Redmond A. Simonsen, co-founder of SPI, its art director throughout its history; he was the first to put designers' names on the cover of games, and set the standard for graphic design in the field. He also coined the term "game designer" (previously, 'game author' or 'game inventor' were commonly used).

Frank Chadwick, founder of Game Designers' Workshop and one of the finest wargame designers.

John Hill, designer of SQUAD LEADER, the single best-selling wargame in history.

Science Fiction & Fantasy Boardgaming

Steve Jackson, founder of Steve Jackson Games and designer of OGRE, CAR WARS, and G.U.R.P.S.

Jordy Weissman, founder of FASA and designer of BATTLETECH.

Roleplaying Games

Dave Arneson, the originator of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS.

E. Gary Gygax, co-credited with the original DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, and designer of ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS.

Greg Stafford, founder of Chaosium, designer of WHITE BEAR & RED MOON, and creator of Glorantha, the world in which RUNEQUEST is set.

Mark Rhein*Hagen, designer of VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE.

Jonathan Tweet, designer of OVER THE EDGE and EVERWAY.

Sandy Petersen, designer of CALL OF CTHULHU and GHOSTBUSTERS (the RPG)--and not incidentally, designer of DOOM and QUAKE.

(Steve Jackson belongs here, too, but he's already listed above.)

Collectors Card Games

Richard Garfield, designer of MAGIC: THE GATHERING.

Live Action Roleplaying Games

Walt Freitag, co-founder of the Society for Interactive Literature, and designer of REKON, the first "interactive" LARP.

Diplomatic Games

Allan Calhammer, designer of DIPLOMACY.

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