Category: Game History

A Whole Bunch of Evenings with a Whole Bunch of People

Just as I’d hoped, the University of Texas is making all of Warren Spector’s talks available. Fortunately, you won’t have to buy a DVD – instead, you can just download them all from here (Quicktime format, large files). I would like to suggest you do so quickly, before they change their minds (or run out of bandwidth).

Edit: Well, that was fast. They’ve taken the page down. Turns out they made them available before all the legal stuff was handled. There’s an alternate download site here…but I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be available or an oversight.

Edit: Now the alternate site is gone too. I guess we’ll just have to wait and hope the files become available again in some form.

Viridian’s Video Blog – Syndicate Wars

And here’s a new video blog!

I always liked the look and feel of this game. Syndicate Wars was the first Syndicate game I played, so I didn’t suffer from “It’s not as good as the original!” syndrome.

Of course when I saw it, my first thought was, “Bullfrog needs to make an RPG with this engine!”

Iffen you can’t stand the YouTube, here’s a downloadable version.

An Evening with Richard Garriott

I finally managed to get to another of Warren Spector‘s design seminars last night. This one was with Richard Garriott.

Okay, I’m going to be up front here. Richard is one of my Favorite People. He’s the reason I moved to Austin – when I decided to leave home to get a game development job, I felt that my two options were to move to Austin to work for Origin Systems or to move to San Mateo, California to work for Electronic Arts (please note that this was back in 1990, before they became the Borg). So I’m not going to be particularly objective about his talk.

My one real annoyance was that while Warren started with Richard’s chronology of games, Ultima IV was the last game in the chronology they got around to talking about (other than Tabula Rasa, of course). This was disappointing because I wanted to hear more about the development of Ultima VI and VII myself. But at one point Richard answered a question about dealing with his staff by mentioning that he is very easily swayed by the last person who has talked to him. This neatly explains why he and Warren kept getting off-track.

As a result, the session was a mish-mash of Q&A and Warren and Richard discussing whatever came to mind – Richard gave no formal presentation. That doesn’t mean that the session was boring or pointless – quite the opposite. What it does mean is that the summary that follows is basically going to be as random and haphazard as the session itself.

Richard and Warren did start off with the chronology, with Richard talking about his upbringing. His father was a NASA scientist who later became an astronaut and was constantly bringing experiments and equipment from NASA home that Richard got to play with; he mentioned that one time he got to use a image intensifier tube years before it found a commercial application in night vision goggles.

His mother, on the other hand, was an artist. She was the inspiration behind the silver serpent necklace he now wears.

And in high school he was exposed to the three things that combined to lay out his future path – computers, Dungeons & Dragons, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. He became obsessed with the idea of programming a computer to play a role-playing game.

The first computer he used was a PDP-11 terminal. The terminal was never used, and Richard really wanted to try it out. In the first of many benign cons, he actually managed to convince his teachers and principal to let him have complete access to the terminal every day as a school class. The class had no teacher, no tests and no other students – it was just Richard playing around with the computer unsupervised. All he had to do was show progress on a program at the end of each semester to get an easy A. Not only that, but he managed to con them into considering this his foreign language credit – that’s right, the foreign language Richard learned in high school was BASIC. This was what made it possible for him to write his first RPG.

Writing that RPG wasn’t easy. The PDP-11 wasn’t actually at his school; he had to use a terminal and punch paper tape in order to program it, and it took forty seconds for the PDP-11 to respond to input while the program was running. That gives a new meaning to “turn-based”…

The first program he wrote (which he simply called “D&D 1”) was effectively a Roguelike (and dammit, I meant to ask him if he’d played any other Roguelikes before he wrote it, but I forgot). It was so complicated that his father actually bet him that he’d never finish – if Richard did manage to finish the program, his father would split the cost of an Apple II with him.

Of course, Richard did manage to get D&D 1 finished, but it took a while for him to get the Apple – by the time he did he was up to D&D 28! He converted D&D 28 (which he called “D&D 28B”) to the Apple and continued to improve it. This led to him later publishing that same game as Akalabeth, which started his professional game development career.

Richard is pretty proud of his latest game, Tabula Rasa. Now, before I get into this, I just want to say that I really like what NCSoft has been doing in general…even though I don’t play any of their games. They are proving that MMOs don’t have to be fantasy-based and they don’t have to require subscriptions and they don’t have to be Everquest clones. Yes, it’s easy to snicker at the failure of Auto Assault, but NCSoft more than any other company is trying to break the mold of MMOs. And Tabula Rasa is the latest iteration of that. It’s an RPG, but it’s one where positioning is important, you can actually get behind cover, and you don’t roll for damage until you actually pull the trigger on your gun – there is no “auto-attack”.

Tabula Rasa also uses a very interesting system to handle instances and big events in the game. I seem to recall a long time ago mentioning that World of Warcraft would probably have been the best RPG I ever played…if anything I did in the game actually mattered. Anything you do gets undone five minutes later so that someone else in the game world can do it again. Tabula Rasa actually fights this by having things appear differently in the game world for different players based on their own actions. So instead of the world continually getting reset, it appears that the world is moving forward…just at different rates for different players.

But the strange thing is that despite the fact that it’s “Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa”, Richard deliberately pulled back from doing a lot of the design work. He described the backstory and game world and made a few key design decisions, as well as creating the Logos language for the game, but after that he mostly oversaw the design and kept it on track rather than doing it himself. He called himself more the “creative director” of the game, saying that Starr Long was the actual director and producer.

He’s actually very proud of Logos, which is a pictographic language (not merely a substitution cypher like the Runic, Gargish and Ophidian languages were). He wanted a language that was just as easy (or rather, just as hard) for an English-speaking person to read as a German-speaking or Korean-speaking person. He based the language heavily off of pictographic languages for handicapped people and considers Logos to be superior to many of them. And he showed us how to read it…it’s actually not hard. For instance, the Logos on this screenshot means, “the fight for control of the universe begins now”. Logos is usually read top-to-bottom rather than left-to-right, though.

It’s pretty obvious to me that Richard has a Reality Distortion Field. When he mentioned convincing his teachers to let him at the PDP-11, Warren interjected that Richard did stuff like that all the time…which jives with Mike McShaffry’s anecdote in Game Coding Complete where he and the other programmers on Ultima IX went into a meeting early in the project with the express intention of convincing Richard that an Ultima VII-style streaming world just wouldn’t be possible in 3D…and came out of the meeting convinced by Richard that an Ultima VII-style streaming world in 3D was obviously the right thing to do.

Then came the question-and-answer session. I asked Richard if he’d ever consider doing a single-player RPG again and he said yes, but that his next project would be another MMO. Much later I asked him if he ever thought we’d see MMOs with the deep world simulation of Ultima VII and he said that hopefully I’d see one when he made one, and that’s probably what his next project would be. So if Richard’s next project turns out to effectively be an improved Ultima Online, I am taking full credit. I put that idea in his head. It was all me, baby.

Let’s see…what else did he talk about…oh, he said that they put up with player-run Ultima Online shards until some of them started charging money, at which point he simply picked up the phone, called the FBI and had them arrested. It’s kind of stupid to do something like that when it’s so easy to find out through your ISP who you are.

Also, to his credit, he took exception when Warren called Ultima Online the first MMO, but pointed out that previous efforts were either very difficult to get into like textMUDs or were linked to proprietary online services like Kesmai and thus had very limited markets. Ultima Online was the first mass-market, internet-based MMO and proved that genre’s viability. Richard had been turned down by EA again and again when he proposed UO to them and was only able to start the project by cornering Larry Probst personally and applying the Reality Distortion Field, which got him $250,000. He was able to create a viable prototype with that $250,000, but in order to get beta testers they needed more money to duplicate and mail CDs, which they didn’t have. So Richard & Co. put up a web page, one of the first Origin and EA ever had, to tell people, “Hey, we’ve got this game and we think it’s going to be great, but if you want to get into the beta test it you’ll have to send us $5 to cover the cost of shipping you a CD.” All their co-workers said they were crazy, but within a week they had 50,000 takers – and this was when the biggest MMO in the world had 15,000 subscribers. That was the point at which Electronic Arts perked up their ears and actually started investing in the project.

He also said that one of the most touching moments he ever had was when he was GMing UO invisibly. He said he was near a player who was fishing (fishing being one of the most popular activities in UO) and was actually wearing shorts and a straw hat to look the part. The fisherman was approached by an adventurer who had obviously just come from a dungeon run and who said something like, “Ho, fisherman! It is obvious that you are poor – you have no armor and weapon! Here, take some of the spoils of my latest adventure!” and started laying money, armor and weapons out on the ground for the fisherman to take (player trading having not been implemented yet).

At which point the fisherman player said, “Stop! You misunderstand! I am a fisherman. I catch my fish, take it into town and sell it, and then spend the money with my friends at the pub. I like this life and desire no other. Be off with you, warmonger!” Richard considered it one of the great accomplishments of his life that he had created a game that people could get so far into.

And I think that’s all I can remember…for now, at least. Like I said, it was a great evening.

See, this is what happens when you crunch.

Squaresoft goes and fulfills one of your fondest wishes and you don’t even know about it until three weeks after it ships.

I’m a huge fan of the Front Mission series. The first one I played was Front Mission 3 (because that was the first one that was released in North America) and I am apparently one of about five people who bought Front Mission 4. But the game I really wanted to play was the original Front Mission, which was created for the Super Nintendo and was never released in the United States.

So I’m at Best Buy buying a new headset and guess what I see? Front Mission has now been released…for the Nintendo DS. Is that perfect or what? At last we have an official translation, and from the movies I’ve seen it looks like the game takes great advantage of the DS’s dual screens. These games are so information dense that it’s a natural to give you an additional data readout on the top screen while the bottom screen always displays the in-game view.

Hopefully I’ll be able to make that my Christmas present to myself. Now if they would just release Front Mission 2. And re-release Front Mission 3 (my copy recently bit the dust). And finally release Front Mission 5…

An Evening with Mike Morhaime

Last night I went to the second session of Warren Spector’s series of lectures on game design. The speaker was Mike Morhaime, co-founder and current president of Blizzard Entertainment.

Mike’s kind of a nervous type. Frankly I just wanted to go up there and shake him and say, “Mike! Come on, man! You’re a millionaire! You run the premiere PC game development studio in the world! You were on South Park! What could you possibly have left to be nervous about?” But I get the feeling that it’s just his temperament. Unfortunately it does impact his public speaking ability…as does the fact that he’s got to be very, very careful about how he answers questions.

Since Mike started as a programmer and is now a business guy, his talk wasn’t about game design per se, but more about running a successful game studio. And his main thrust was, “Don’t ever betray your principles. Ever. For any reason. If it’s not great, don’t ship it.” He talked about “brand withdrawals”, which is when a company effectively betrays its user base in some way to make some quick cash. Needless to say, he was against doing so for any reason ever.

He also talked a lot about “opportunity cost” and the projects Blizzard canceled over the years. In every case, the game in question could have been brought up to Blizzard’s standards and shipped, but the amount of work to do so could have been applied more effectively to another game Blizzard was already working on. Shipping Warcraft Adventures would have been a double disaster not only because nobody was buying adventure games at the time, but also because all the work put into finishing it would have been much better applied to Starcraft.

He talked about the South Park/Warcraft episode. South Park episodes are developed very quickly and in a fairly haphazard fashion, which is diametrically opposed to how Blizzard does things. So they basically had to dispatch a team to help Matt and Trey get the in-game footage they wanted and then just trust that the episode would come out okay. Which it did 🙂

He talked about the movie. They want the movie bad, and they think it can be done right. They are teamed with Legendary Pictures, the same people who did Lord of the Rings, Batman Begins, Superman Returns and 300. Now, I’m going to interject something here. Carmack famously once said that story in a game is like story in a porn movie – you expect it to be there, but it’s not very important. Most game developers have relied upon the interactivity of their medium to gloss over deficiencies in their storytelling, and that’s why most video game movies suck. The movies suck because the stories suck. Warcraft’s story doesn’t suck. It’s big, it’s complete and it’s incredibly detailed. Frankly, they could make a trilogy of movies out of it. If the Warcraft movie sucks, it won’t be because of the story.

He also talked about Blizzard’s popularity in Korea, and it became clear to me that they didn’t just luck out there. Gaming is huge in Korea. How huge? Well, there are about 20,000 “game rooms” in Korea. To put that in perspective, there are about 30,000 McDonald’s in the whole world. When people first started creating game rooms, they didn’t have the best hardware. They needed a game that was easy to start up, easy to get into, had network play, was very fun, and ran on older hardware. Starcraft fit that bill perfectly. If Blizzard had cut any corners on that game – if they had betrayed their principles in any way – it wouldn’t have been chosen as the standard “game room” game and Blizzard would have missed out on that huge market. Oddly enough, the original Starcraft was never localized into Korean; the Koreans just play the English version.

Of course, as Mike talked about the history of Blizzard, it became clear that at no point has Blizzard ever had to put up with publisher pressure. After Warcraft II shipped they were basically untouchable even though they are publicly owned (by Vivendi, at this point). And since Blizzard is the only gaming company Mike has ever worked at, he didn’t really have anything useful to say when asked how to prevent publishers from forcing you to betray your core values.

That aside, it was still a very interesting evening. Next week’s guest will be some guy named Richard Garriott. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of him before…

An Evening with Marc LeBlanc

Warren Spector is hosting a series of master classes in game design at the University of Texas here in Austin.

Despite very short notice and a near lack of funds, I managed to squeak in. The first session was Monday night and it was with Mark LeBlanc, who is most famous for his work on the classic Blue Sky/Looking Glass games (Ultima Underworld 1 and 2, System Shock and Thief 1 and 2) and his more recent game, Oasis.

The session took place in a studio in the CMB building on the UT campus and was professionally recorded. Doubtless all the sessions will be available in some fashion after the series is over, but, having never had the opportunity to go to the GDC or any other game conference, I am very grateful for the chance to see them live.

When I got there I was surprised – for one thing, the studio wasn’t full to bursting, and for another, most of the people there were fresh-faced college students rather than the slew of industry grognards I was expecting. I found myself wondering if these kids even knew who Marc was…

The format was one I hadn’t seen before. Warren interviewed Marc for about an hour on Marc’s work history, then after a brief break Marc presented a lecture on his core design philosophies. Then Warren interviewed him again, this time asking Marc about specific games he had worked on or contributed to. The whole thing lasted about three hours and I was fascinated the whole time.

Now, I have to give Warren his props. I’d seen videos of him presenting at the GDC and he was very good there, but he also turns out to be an excellent interviewer.

But listening to Marc was a mind-expanding experience. This guy knows his stuff. You can get the gist of it by going to his blog and reading about the Eight Kinds of Fun and Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics, but the real meat of his talk was how he actually applied those precepts to the design of Oasis. You can get the slides for that talk at his site as well, but it was much better live (and the ability to interact was key).

And now I’m just going to throw out random things that I remember from the talk in no particular order.

Blue Sky/Looking Glass actually started as a group of MIT students, one of whom had an uncle who was working at Origin and wanted to start his own company (Paul Neurath).

One of the really odd parallels between Blue Sky and Id Software is that at both studios all the developers started off living and working together in the same house – the Blue Sky house eventually had ten employees living in it. This both facilitated the work and kept initial production costs way down.

Warren said that when he first came to the Blue Sky house (to produce Ultima Underworld) the guys there wouldn’t talk to him until he got his laptop on the network and named it. Apparently, having a machine that you could name yourself was a big status symbol at MIT, and the idea that you weren’t “somebody” until your computer had a name carried over to Blue Sky. Warren said he named his computer “Elmer PHD” and that he uses that as his online tag now.

Warren said that Marc has the ability to play your game for a short time and tell you exactly what’s wrong with it and give you a whole bunch of ideas for improvement. How I wish I could have him play Planitia…

Marc finally left Blue Sky during the development of Terra Nova after he got into an argument with Dan Schmidt, the director, over a feature Marc didn’t want to implement.

Marc said that he liked the fact that his involvement with System Shock 2 was purely technical and didn’t have anything to do with the design because he could then actually play and enjoy the game!

Marc is very big on programmer/designers. He said that if you want to work at Mind Control Software, you can expect to get grilled on game design even if you’re interviewing for an art position. Warren chimed in and said that they do the same thing at Junction Point. Marc also mentioned that at Valve, there are no game designers – they have “gameplay programmers” instead. This neatly coincides with my two favorite game postmortems.

After it was all over I went over, shook his hand and thanked him for the Looking Glass stuff. He said, “Hey, I was just on the team.” I said, “Well, you’re the member of the team who is here, so I’m thanking you.” He didn’t seem to mind that.

Frankly I think the whole thing was good enough to put on TV, and I’m hoping that’s where it will end up. Looking forward to next Monday’s session, which will be with Mike Morhaime, one of the founders of Blizzard.

Your Sinclair – The Rock & Roll Years

One of the best things about the internet is that you’ll occasionally stumble across a site that feels like it was tailor-made to make you happy.

In the past I have bemoaned the fact that the Sinclair Spectrum, Britain’s first popular home computer, never made it big here in the States. This is only natural, really, since it wasn’t released here until after the Apple II and Commodore 64 had already asserted their dominance, and by that time the Spectrum seemed like “too little too late” even though it was cheaper than either of those models.

So finding a website that allows me to vicariously live through the heyday of the Spectrum was wonderful. This website is devoted to the now sadly defunct Your Sinclair magazine, which was to the Sinclair was The Rainbow was to the Color Computer and Run was to the C-64. It was chock-full of reviews, editorials, and hardware and software projects, and eventually started shipping with a cassette full of demos with every issue.

And as if that weren’t enough, the site’s maintainer is also in the process of creating retrospective videos for every year of Your Sinclair‘s existence, and many of these are already online.

Go Speccy!

Viridian’s Video Blog – Populous

Oh, and I did a video blog this weekend. I was a busy beaver.

This video blog was inspired by Gamespot’s Game in Sixty Seconds feature, where people try to explain why a game is cool in sixty seconds or less.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that there’s no way I can just talk about a game for sixty seconds.

Limiting myself to ten minutes was hard (stupid YouTube).

But here’s the first in what I hope are a long line of videos that specifically take an older game, explain why it was awesome, show you how it was played, and then talk about how it influenced the development of later games.



Google Video:

Direct Download Link

Childlike Wonder

I told you I had a surprise coming for you guys in the mail.

Sandworm, Pages 1 and 2.

Sandworm, Page 3.

I actually managed to dig up a copy of the original article that inspired my series of One-Page Games. This article is from The Rainbow Magazine, August 1986 issue. It is over twenty years old.

There are two old magazines that I absolutely adore and will pick up copies anytime I can find them. They are The Rainbow and The Space Gamer. And the reason I like both of them is because of the attitude they conveyed.

The readers and editors of The Rainbow were all in a state of fascination – “Look at this! This is a computer we can own! How cool is that! I wonder what I can make it do…”

The readers and editors of The Space Gamer were the same way, amazed at the stories they could tell and the fun they could have with roleplaying.

In both magazines you get a sense of childlike wonder as people explored these previously unexplored continents – one in the mind and the other in silicon.

I miss that attitude. I haven’t seen it in a long, long time. It has been replaced by cynicism and curmudgeonism. And that makes me sad.

When Steve Jackson Games started their magazine Pyramid I was hoping to see a little of that attitude come back, but I was disappointed. The feel of Pyramid was slick and professional; the attitude was almost that of people telling an inside joke – yes, we love games, but we don’t…love-love games, because that would be really dorky. Especially since we’re all over thirty now.

That’s not to say that Pyramid wasn’t an excellent magazine – it is. I was a subscriber for over three years and enjoyed reading it very much. I’m just saying that the attitude is different.

And on the video gaming side…do you remember the first game that you absolutely obsessed over? The one you simply could not stop playing? The one you could barely drag yourself away from to go to school or work, and would instantly resume playing once you got home?

I’ve had several games like that. One of them was Civilization. Another was Doom. Tie Fighter was another. And so was Fallout.

When is the last time a game made you feel like that?

This is why I adored Oblivion so much – it was the first time in years that I felt I could just fall into a game and live there for a while, forgetting everything else (well, after the chilluns were in bed, of course). But before Oblivion I’d have to go back years, practically to the Golden Age, to find a game like that.

Is the games? Or is it me?

Have I lost my own childlike wonder? I’d like to think I haven’t…

Well, I love-love games. Truly. With all my heart. Yes, that makes me a geek. And a dork. And a knucklehead mcspazatron.

This is me. I am Gabe in this comic. Except that, you know, I’ve never actually put a game down my pants.

I still think it’s incredibly awesome that video games exist and I get to play them, and I hope I never lose that feeling. I also need to get better at game development so I can make more of my own games, in an effort to help other people feel the same way.

Sniff…I love you all, guys! I love you all!

Holy Crap!

Well, that’s my whole day wasted. Now if only Steve Jackson would do the same for The Space Gamer/Fantasy Gamer…