Games * Design * Art * Culture

Monday, June 28, 2004

Dah History

Origins, the "national adventure game convention" (meaning the Midwestern-regional hobby games convention), was founded in 1975 by the Boys from Baltimore, the management of The Avalon Hill Game Company. The name, suggested by Don Greenwood, reflected the fact that the hobby games industry had been founded in 1958 by Charles Roberts, founder of Avalon Hill, with the publication of Tactics. Thus, by attending the Baltimore-based convention, gamers were returning to their "Origins." In 1977, the third "Origins" was hosted by SPI, at Wagner College in Staten Island.

These days, it's permanently located in Columbus, Ohio, and run by the Game Manufacturers' Association, an institution created in the 80s when hobby game publishers got sick of being marginalized at the Hobby Industry of America tradeshow. The GAMA show is now the main (non-consumer, trade-oriented) show for the hobby game industry.

Origins was predated, by some years, by GenCon, originally named for Lake Geneva, where it was located, and originally a fan-run convention. In the early days, Origins was larger than GenCon, which was still a small regional; once D&D boomed, however, TSR took over GenCon, made it their house convention, and turned it into the largest such thing in the game industry.

From its inception through about 1987, I'd attended every Origins. I had professional reason to do so, of course; during those years I was, in succession, an SPI staffer, a freelance game designer, director of R&D for West End Games, and a freelance designer again. But in the late 80s, I took my leave of the hobby game industry. I was trying to write, I had kids to take care of, I needed to make a living (and hobby industry rates of pay make that extraordinarily difficult), and I felt quite burned by my experience at West End.

I decided to go this year, for two reasons. First, they asked me. Second, Paranoia XP is coming out for GenCon, and I figured it couldn't hurt to make an effort to do a little promotion.

The reason they asked me, apparently, is that this is the 30th Origins, and they'd invited everyone who had, in the past, been inducted into the "Adventure Gaming Hall of Fame."

Gettin Dere

I got up at 3:00 in the morning on Thursday, to catch a 6:00 flight out of Newark. Shortly after my arrival, I was to have my "guest of honor" presentation in an enormous ballroom capable of seating at least 100 people, quite likely 200. In the program book, this event was unmentioned, save for a quarter-inch high squiff in the "special events" section, as prominently listed as, say, a "Kobolds Ate My Baby" demo. Nor was there any sign outside the ballroom, indicating the proceedings within. I had an audience of one. Another supposed 'guest of honor' told me that he, and others he had spoken to, had audiences of zero. Well planned, say I.

That same day, I was to run Toon, at 7 PM. Nothing quite like a frenetic, fast-paced and funny RPG with a half-asleep GM. I managed to nap for a couple of hours before running it. It went okay.

This session, and the Paranoia session I ran on Friday, were part of "Play with a Creator," a series of games GMed by World Famous Game Designers, including Reiner Knizia, Jonathan Tweet, Sandy Petersen, Robin Laws, Dave Arneson, Greg Stafford, Peter Adkison, and me. I'm sure there were others, but those are the ones I happened to notice as I stalked past the area where these were held. Six per table; not all were fully subscribed. 13,000 attendees.

Sometimes I do despair.

On Friday, I ran Paranoia, using the XP rules and the adventure included in the forthcoming edition (partly to see how well it worked). Tolerably well, I'd say; the spam system was well received, the players certainly enjoyed it--but they also managed to completely obliterate the evidence they were supposed to pick up, and (reasonably under the circumstances) decided they had completed their mission when I still had a third of an adventure to run. Since their conclusion was reasonable, and they were (by design) completely mistaken about what they were supposed to be doing anyway, I took them in for debriefing, interrogation, and the inevitable salutary executions. The players seemed happy enough, albeit I did feel they'd been cheated out of another hour of play.

Duh Huxterz

I spent some time stalking about the dealer's room, largely to get a better sense of who the major players are at present, at least under the assumption that booth size is a proxy for industry prominence. WOTC, of course. Decipher and Upper Deck, but I hardly consider them real game publishers; essentially, they're publishers of collectible cards who also happen to publish some mediocre and extraordinarily unimaginative CCGs, battening onto licensed properties to which they have access. Nintendo, Konami, and Bandai all had presences here, pushing CCGs based on their properties--sometimes also published by the same company, but sometimes licensed to others (Pokemon to WOTC). Interestingly, none were really pushing electronic product--but all do well with CCGs in Japan, and any promotion they do at Origins comes out of the petty cash drawer, as far as these operations are concerned.

The first real gamer game company we come to (at least, if you can say that WOTC, short of Adkison and deep in the bosom of Hasbro is no longer True Blue) is Jordy Weissman's Wiz Kids, publishers of Heroclicks. I've had a kind of a negative attitude about Weissman for years, partly because when I was at West End, we had a bit of a pissing match with FASA, his then-company, over the Star Trek rights. (Essentially: Paramount licensed FASA the "roleplaying boardgame" rights, and they published a highly successful Trek RPG of Weissman's design; Paramount turned around and sold us the "adventure gaming boardgame" rights, which was a problem, because we both published Trek boardgames, and both claimed the exclusive rights to do so. In retrospect, it was Paramount's fuck-up, not FASA's.) But hey, any man who can come up with both BattleTech and Heroclicks deserves a bit of slack; that level of creativity is pretty rare. The same day, we speak on a panel on "hard sf in gaming," which is pretty amusing given that I'm best known for Paranoia, about as non-hard as you can get, and, well BattleTech is pretty goofy on the science as well. I find that I like the fellow. Nice to put a nail in ancient prejudice.

Then we come to Alderac Entertainment Group, publisher of Legend of Five Rings, one of the very few CCGs that isn't, in essence, a thinly veiled Magic rip-off. Although they do some D20 RPg product, they're almost exclusively a CCG publisher, and at least they're game geeks, not card publishing drones battening onto a secondary market.

And there's White Wolf, still doing elegant-looking product, and still unable to find something other than World of Darkness to flog. The creative spark has left the building, I'm afraid.

After that, we're onto the second tier, where the creative spark is likeliest to be found. Green Ronin, some tasty looking RPG supplements and an interesting boardgame concept. Fantasy Flight, striking off in a lot of different directions, very stylishly; their Game of Thrones boardgame, based on the George R.R. Martin series I can't stand (though I adore some of Martin's other work, and think highly of him as an essentially decent human being, not to mention a lad made good from dear old Hudson County) wins an Origins Award later that evening. I think about buying it, but at $50 a pop... well, I can pass.

Looney Labs has a larger booth than I would have expected, and Cheapass Games a smaller one, but I suspect this says more about corporate ego than industry prominence. Looney has a new version of Chrononauts, based on American history--but while I'd be happy with a version of Chrononauts with different events, my main complaint with the original one was its US-centric nature. Please, given me vast Aztec interstellar empires, Hellenistic Greeks with the steam engine before Christ, and a global Qin dominion fated never to develop modern technology. Cheapass has nothing new that tempts me, but I do buy full-color, glossy-card editions of Give Me the Brain and Lord of the Fries.

Stevie is Stevie, though he's not at the show. A coupla Munchkin titles are Origins Award nominated; never understood the enthusiasm for them. Although they're vaguely humorous, only vaguely so. To be sure, they're solid, in terms of game design, but Steve is a professional--and the design is not as original as I'd hope from him. SJ Games does seem to be republishing virtually the complete ouevre of Tom Wham, for which they are to be commended, of course. And when do we get a new edition of The Great Khan Game?

Zev Shlasinger's Z-Man Games, which I'd thought a highly marginal operation, looks a lot more professional and on the ball than I'd thought, and they garner 4 Origins Award nominations... I definitely have to take Zev more seriously. (But Zev--put your corporate logo more prominently and centrally in the booth! I walked past it three times before I went to look at the program book to figure out where it was! Promoting the games is fine, but promoting the company brand is important, too.)

I also run into the 9th Level Games guys, who give me freebies of Kobolds Ate My Baby and the Ninjaburger RPG. I really like Kobolds Ate My Baby; I can certainly imagine running this to general amusement. Whatever happened to the market for cheapo, quick and funny games, anyway?

For me, Origins (and GenCon) have always been mainly about the show floor, largely because I spent many, many hours on said floor, flogging merchandise and ducking behind a screen for quick business meetings. But I'm here to do only a little business, and it's a little sad, really--I generally hold up the hobby games industry as an example of a veritable fervent of creativity by comparison to digital games, and actually it is--far easier to experiment on a budget of $25k than $5m--but Sturgeon's Law still holds. There is indeed much of a sameness here; most hobby games are like heavy metal. Loud, dark, aggressively self-important, somber palette. The {Castle/Imperium/Realm/Alchemy/Magic/Handbook} of the {Elves/Dragons/Orcs/Space Marines/Vampires} of {Doom/Death/Destruction/Desolation/the Fifteenth Reich/Pits of the Somethingnorother}... Blah blah blah..... bleech.

Someone's Idea of Ceremony

But it's time to move away from the show floor and onto the Origins Awards, which are as little attended as they were, lo these 17 years ago. That is to say, there a hundred something attendees, rather than a few dozen, but then, the convention has 13,000 attendees instead of a couple thousand. My guess is that the only people in attendance are company employees... and we geezers, crammed off on the sides as 'hall of fame' members.

There are 26, count-em, 26 categories. The Origins (then the Charles Roberts) awards launched with five. And we were proud.

I fought this fight long ago, and I'm not going to fight it any longer; the more categories you have, the more you devalue the award. Prune it to 10. Preferably, say, 5.

They've instituted a "game of the year" award, and no wonder; with 26 categories, none of them means a damn.

They've also decided, this year, to induct 4 people and 2 games into the Hall of Fame, when previous practice was to induct one item (person or thing) each year. None of those announced is objectionable--rather, all quite deserving--but I surely hope this is a one-time expedient, and not a continuing practice, or the Hall of Fame will be equally meaningless in short order.

Mike Stackpole is MC, and he moves things swiftly along. It's not a bad ceremony--

Except for the fact that at no time is the name of a game designer, miniatures sculptor, graphic artist, illustrator--or, god help me, author--ever mentioned. Everything is ascribed to the publisher.

I'm sure this is extremely just. Gone With the Wind , product of MGM, right? (Selznick who?) Viking Publising, Grapes of Wrath, what a great novel. (Steinbeck? Who dat?) Dungeons & Dragons by--Hasbro, yes, that's the ticket.

Nothing has changed. Nothing has changed. I stay away for nearly twenty years, and nothing changes. Fucking Christ almighty, give me strength. Even when they come to the crap-licensed game "novel" (and I suppose no one else will give this dire less-than-genre anything like an award, so Origins ought to), they announce the name of the publisher--but not the person who actually did the work. Haven't we ascribed novels to writers for three hundred years and more? Where's Al Qaeda when you need them? The Columbus Convention Center, let me tell you, it needs a coupla hundred pounds of gelignite just about now, praise Allah.

This is getting me increasingly pissed off, but thankfully, we now have a break. Some fanboy with shag carpet glued to his feet is going to give us the Frodo rap.

I am not kidding.

Now, years ago, I remember Lou Zocchi getting up at some similar event and playing the saw. And I remember sitting, in slack-jawed amazement, as everyone just kind of sat there and was polite about the whole thing--and thinking, only in fucking Wisconsin. I mean, yeah, Lou is a good old boy, as decent a human being as they come, and a man with an underappreciated influence on the early development of the field--but I'm at a fucking awards ceremony, listening to a goober from Mississippi play the fucking SAW?

Fanboy is prouncing around, wearing shorts and a green cape, carpet on his feet, rapping to some mediocre hip hop about Sauron. I am longing, longing I say, for Lou and his saw.

I am sitting in four rows of seats with some of the finest game designers of the 20th century--Jimmy D., Dave Isby, John Hill, Greg Stafford, Dave Arneson, Reiner Knizia, Jordy Weissman, Liz Danforth, and I don't remember who-all... While those poor benighted bastards still glued to the hard-scrabble, desperately impoverished, but vital hobby games industry wait with baited breath to see which of them have achieved some tiny sop of peer recognition this year (not that they will be mentioned by name)--and we're listening to "the Great Luke Ski" tell us he's a geek.

That's real evident, pally. Shut the fuck up and sit down. I thought this was a professional event.

Oh my god, do the Nebulas make this look like amateur hour. And let me tell you, the Nebulas are shitkicking rubes giving each other daisies, by anyone else's standards.

So after all this, telling myself it's damned unseemly to play the angry young man now that I'm well into middle age, I go up and, trying to be nice but still express my profound and existential despair, I talk to Mike Stackpole, who I am sure is to blame for none of this, but whom I know, and probably won't decide I'm the ultimate bastard of the nether hells for bringing stuff up.

Mike says they -do- normally announce designers, sculptors, and the rest, but there was some kind of timing problem, and he (who normally calls around to find out all this info) was informed at the last instant. When the press release goes out, it will say who the people are.

This makes me breathe a little easier. As for Luke Ski... oh hell, most of the audience was laughing, and Adkison, from behind me, was squeezing my shoulder and chortling a little as I writhed in agony on my chair and the one next to it during this little performance. Maybe I'm just too sensitive a soul. Yeah, yeah, that's it. You have to be a sensitive soul to be a great artist. Or something.

After this, they have some folks say a few words about Don Turnbull (Hall of Famer, recently deceased), who used to run TSR/UK (and I remember as an old-school postal Diplomacy player). And then they yank the Hall of Famers up on stage--I guess this is our big moment... And to a degree it is, given that the audience consists largely of current professionals who might have a prayer of knowing who these guys are, and might actually aspire to be among them. Meanwhile, 13,000 gamers are playing out on the floor. I think perhaps there's a fundamental disconnect here.

More awards, down to the end... Indy Clicks as Game of the Year. Okeydoke. Heroclicks, a great concept when it was launched, but... Really? Game of the Year? Now?

If this is Saturday, It Must Be the Pride Parade

Saturday, I awake with two realizations: I have finished the scotch, and also all the books I brought to read with me. There do not seem to be any book dealers on the show floor, unless you care to read licensed game drivel. A look at the yellow pages convinces me that the only possible way to get to any Borders or B&N is by car to the 'burbs, and I -am- a city boy, and certainly have not rented a vehicle. However, High Street runs by the hotel, and several bookstores can be found in the 1200s, and again in the 1800s on High Street. I begin to walk.

This takes me through a neighborhood evidently called the "Short North," which looks almost like an actual city. That is to say, the buildings are adjoining, and most of the blockfront consists of shops and restaurants. There also seem to be a remarkable number of men holding hands, which strikes me as odd for a swing state, but comfortingly homey. "The Open Book" proves to be a bust, however, since it's basically a gift shop, with a few shelves of mainly gay-interest volumes. The stores in the 1200s are also worthless--one an African-American specialty bookstore, the other specializing in volumes of, ah, erotic interest. I continue marching up to the 1800s, which leads me into Ohio State University territory--fine, I understand why there are bookstores here. I manage to find a couple of interest, and start sliding back.

(Incidentally, Ohio seems to be one of those states where you can buy booze only from state liquor stores. No problem; I can live on beer.)

I'd forgotten it was Gay Pride; and, perhaps unsurprisingly, given what I've learned of the Short North, High Street is the main route of the Pride Parade in Columbus. I'm slightly charmed, but a bit peeved, as I want to get back to my hotel in the most expeditious fashion, and the sidewalks are jammed. I'm surprised by this, actually; many people come out for the Pride Parade in New York (including the kids and me, when there), but the last time I was abroad on Gay Pride, I was in Pittsburgh, and surprised at how light the attendance was--virtually nobody watching but queers and dykes. Sad, really. That was a few years ago; I wonder whether the relatively higher attendance here says something about Ohio relative to western Pennsylvania, or something about changing attitudes over the last decade. Still it gives me some hope Ohio won't go for the fundie neocon boobs in power today.

Of course, the Gay Pride Parade is not exactly the right place to gauge the relative strength of the Right.

Promotion and Old Friends

A few blocks from the convention center, Alex Fennel of Mongoose ringed me on my mobile (as the Brits say), and I agreed to meet him at the Mongoose booth.

We spoke for a bit about promoting Paranoia XP, and the ineffable contrariness of illustrators, after which I wandered down to the "War Room," sponsored by the Columbus Area Boardgamers, where I ran into Gary Christiansen, with whom I used to game in the 70s and 80s. His youngest, whom I remember as an infant, is now apparently 16, 6'2", and an avid gamer, and good for him. Of course, Betsy is 15, close to 6 feet, and also a game (and anime) geek... The last time I saw Gary was the day I and Louise helped him and his wife pack up to move to the Midwest. I spent the day booking boxes down from his attic and into the truck; Gary spent the day taking games out of their boxes, putting the components in manila envelopes, and throwing away the boxes, to reduce their bulk. I didn't grouse, and actually, thought the whole thing rather funny.

In fact, more generally, Origins was a bit of old home week. I chatted with John Hill, whom I hadn't seen in 10 years; John Prados, more like 20; Greg Stafford, whom I'd seen more recently but who was surprised to learn I'd been divorced for 10 years (and in and out of a significant relationship since); Dave Isby, 20+ years; Frank Chadwick, at least 10 years; Tom Wham, ditto. I also spent some time chatting with Jonathan Tweet (who, it turns out, I'd met years before, although I'd forgotten it), and Knizia, who I had not previously met. Also Ken Hite, with whom I'd corresponded but not met face-to-face. Robin Laws was around, but I never got to chat with him.

Not With a Bang but a Whimper

After that, it was the Origins banquet. Typically, they had offered 100 tickets to gamers, free meals to guests, with the expectation that gamers would be eager to meet these game gods. No such luck; it was more like a 2-1 ratio, guests to geeks. (Not that we guests aren't geeks, and proud of it, I may say.) I was en table with Ken Hite and Andrew Looney--and also with JFD who, typically, talked so rapidly and continuously it was hard to tell when food actually left his plate and found its place in his stomach. Jim is generally entertaining but, having had sufficient exposure to the spiel Dunniganesque, I wouldn't have minded a few more words with Hite and Looney. C'est la guerre.

Apres le mediocre banquet meal, I wandered off to the Hyatt bar in search of pale ale, where I encountered the new owner of West End Games, which, I was happy to learn, no longer has any equity connection to D.S. Palter or Les Humanoids. They apparently have a generic space and a generic fantasy D6 system game out. I'd seen their booth (which I had avoided lest I encounter the odious Palter), and suggested that, in future, they might display a sign saying "D6 System" prominently, as neither "Adventure" nor "Space" was a well-known product name nor likely to elicit interest and enthusiasm. Not that I am high on generic systems generally (even when derived from my work), but D6 has =some= kind of following. More or less simultaneously, I encountered one of the folks behind Social Games, which is republishing the Cyberpunk CCG (with improvements). Seemed like a nice enough chap.

And so to bed, or rather, to several hours of tossing and turning as I contemplated a game concept that might actually do rather well in the soul-crushing cesspit of dreams they call the "adventure gaming industry." Perhaps I might even attend the next Origins to promote it. Assuming I ever do anything with it. I am rather overdue on a tutorial on the MIDP 2.0 Game API.

Sunday, I wandered around a bit, bought prezzies for the kinder (a wolf tee-shirt for Betsy, a "Power Goth Girls" tee for the Vick), and made an early retreat for the airport.

On the Detroit-to-Newark leg, I was seated across the aisle from Dunnigan. He perused some serious periodical, while I chortled along to John Fowles Mantissa. Can't imagine what he thought.

An easy connection to the 62 bus to Newark Penn Station, thence on the PATH (nee Hudson & Manhattan Tube, for the geezers among you), and home to well deserved sleep.


1. If you run a convention centered on gameplay, yet have a variety of panel discussions, presentations, award ceremonies, etc., you really have to break those things out of the general program, and make an effort to promote them. Your typical attendee will be focussed on the games, and while he or she might be interested in other events, won't think about them unless you thrust them before his or her eyes.

2. I question the utility (and cost-effectiveness) of paying for hotel accomodations and (in some cases, not mine) air fare for guests, if you do not use and promote their participation more effectively.

3. I hope Stackpole wasn't just jiving me to get me off his case, but I greatly fear it's the same old crap in this field. I genuinely suspect I was the only person pissed off that creators' names weren't mentioned in the awards ceremony. This makes me sad. And, you know, it's not like =my= name was omitted--I'm not eligible for anything at this point. This is a matter of principle, not personal interest.

4. 13,000 people, that's pretty cool. Too bad the average age is over 30. Maybe you should add a LAN room? We're all gamers, you know.

5. Good for Mythic for being there and promoting the crap out of DAoC.

6. Ow, what a dull convention. Wish you had some controversial panels to spice it up. Or maybe a WOTC-vs-White Wolf joust with nerf weapons...

7. If I do this again, I'm taking a suite, and running an invite-only party with some serious single malts. That should be fun.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004
Table Games of Georgian and Victorian Days
The earliest American boardgames I've seen references to date from shortly before the Civil War, so the other day, when encountering games from John Wallis, I was interested to note than one dated from 1796, implying that a commercial boardgame market existed in Britain rather earlier. As a result, I tracked down and purchased a copy of Table Games of Georgian and Victorian Days, F.R.B. Whitehouse, Prior Press, Royston, Hertfordshire, 1971--a reissue of the original 1951 edition (with b&w illos, rather than the original color, apparently).

It's essentially a catalog of several hundred games issued between 1750 and 1860. The earliest dated game here is A Journey Through Europe, designed by John Jeffreys and published by Carrington Bowles in 1759. However, the rules to the game refer to "the rules of Goose", and Whitehouse believes therefore that Goose must have been in print prior to this time. (He refers to an undated edition, published by H. Overton).

My impression, however, is that Goose is an older game, of French origin, and most probably what I'd term a folk rather than designed game. Thus A Journey Through Europe is the oldest British commercial designed game, at least per Whitehouse.

Of course, the degree to which you can really call it (and almost all of the games here) a "designed" game is debatable; almost all of the earliest games are track games, players advancing through the throw of dice or a "totum" (apparently a multi-sided, elongated device, offered to avoid introducing a dice box into a proper English household, with all the attendant sin and depravity to which that might lead). And we have the usual special rules for spaces--landing on one allows you to roll again, another sends you back to a different numbered space, and so on. Thus, these games differ mainly through theme, illustration, and precise placement of special spaces.

To be sure, the imitation of novel game style in many subsequent products is a common theme in the history of games, and remains so today.

It shoould be noted that although conscious attempts to innovate seem to have been rare, they did still exist; e.g., Combat with the Giant, Champante & Whitrow, 1796 has quite an original (and moderately complicated) system, involving cards, dice, and gambling tokens--and while I'm unlikely to play it, I can at least imagine having fun doing so (which I can't, really, with a straightforward track game).

I'm wondering whether there are similar books dealing with early continental European games, and if so, how I can track them down.


Incidentally... I'm off to Origins tomorrow morning, at a truly ungodly hour, and won't be blogging for at least a few days.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004
Seven Rules for Succeeding in (the MMG) Business
(Wearing my Themis Group hat here....)

Never, Ever Ship Before You're Ready

Forget about retail revenues. Let's say the launch price is $40, and you have a sucky, typical developer deal, and earn 15% of wholesale. Let's say the wholesale is $30. You earn $4.50 per copy sold.

Let's say you charge a $13 subscription, and the typical subscriber stays for 10 months. That's $130.

On the one hand, $4.50. On the other, $130. Which is more important? Duh, right?

You have to sell 30 extra copies to repay the cost of losing one subscriber. Maximizing your retail sales at the expense of the player experience is insanity. Why then do people do this?

You will always be under pressure to ship too early. $10m and 3 years into a project, your money people are going to be breathing down your neck. You may have committed to an expensive marketing campaign that's hitting just when you realize you have to delay the launch for six months. Write the money off.

Compare the experience of WW II Online and Dark Age of Camelot. Both sold in excess of 100,000 units in the first month after launch. WWII was unplayable--crashing servers, a huge patch out the gate. DAoC was basically smooth. Which one is a success?

Never, ever ship before you're ready.

Understand the Revenue Variables

This is the iron formula that determines your total subscription revenues:

(units sold) * (subscriber conversion) * (length of average subscription)

In other words, you want to sell as many units as feasible; after their initial free period, you want 100% of the people who try the game to become paying subscribers (or as high a percentage as you can get, anyway); and you want the average subscription to last as long as possible.

These ineluctable facts inform the rest of these rules.

Ensure that the Newbie Game Rocks

How many MMGs have you tried for one play session, then never gone back to because it was dull?

Ensure that the controls and basics of the world background are easy to pick up. A tutorial level or something of the kind is okay--but greeters are better.

More than that; ensure that the player is rewarded within the first couple of hours of play--and not just with a level rise. That's jejune. Give him something exciting.

And in this competitive market: Ensure that, in that first play session, the player is exposed to something unique, different, and cool about your game that he's never seen in another game. Don't save your cool and different features for the middle game; make sure there's meat for newbies.

Ensure that a Big, Important Milestone is On the Horizon Round About the End of Month One

Or week two, or whenever it is that your period of free play expires.

At the end of the free-play period, a player has to make a buy decision. Once he's bought, the reverse is true; he has to make a conscious decision to drop his subscription to stop paying you. At the end of the free play period, you want to player to feel as if he can't bear to stop playing--because there's something really cool just around the corner if he keeps going.

You can't time this carrot exactly; in that first month, some players will play obsessively, and others less so, so some will be nearer than others. But all should be able to see it glowing on the horizon.

Every game seems to have several inflection points, moments as which whole new areas open up, or a big leap in power occurs, or something of the kind. In most games, these aren't really planned; they happen when they happen. Plan for one at the end of month one, more or less. And make it clear to the players what happens when they reach this goal considerably before they do, so they know that it's worth working for.

Think of it this way. When a player bought your game (or downloaded the client, if free), you made your first sales contact. When they came back after the first play session, you opened negotiations in earnest. The end of month one is when you push for a close.

Make them eager to deal.

Support the Elder Game

Remember that this is a service, not a product. Customers need to be entertained continuously, forever and ever, until the heatdeath of the universe or they cancel their subscription, whichever happens first. And you want the heatdeath of the universe to happen first.

Players are voracious consumers of content. You may think, before you launch, that you have enough content for at least six months of the average player's play. You are wrong; you're lucky if you have three months. You will always, =always,= be developing new stuff--and hoping that whatever you have keeps the little bastards happy until you can get the next batch up.

By the time somebody maxes out (assuming your system allows this), they will have seen and done everything. How do you keep them happy?

One way is with IGM special events--but these are, by and large, not scalable. One GM may give fifty players a great time for four hours, but the whole point of an MMG is to take the tabletop RPG experience, dumb it down and automate it, and thereby allow hundreds of thousands to play without having one staff person for every six of them.

Think about how to do replicable special events; about allowing guilds to conflict, so your elder players build their own dynamic conflicts; about systems that allow them to affect the world in a real way (but be very careful not to allow them to unbalance it); recruit them to advise you; make them feel that they -are- the world's governors; give them power and responsibility...

Think of it this way: You have newbies, whom you must convert into, well, converts. You have the vast middle ground of middling characters, beavering away on the content you provide. And you have the elders, who have "beaten" your game. If this were Zelda or something, they'd put it away now. But you can get them to keep paying you, if you make it worth their while to =be= "the players who have beaten the game." After all, this is a social setting. That's prestigious as hell--but they have to be given something to do, and a way to let the peons know how much they've accomplished.

You need an elder game.

Don't Stint on Community Support

Look back at the iron formula. All three of these factors are directly impacted by the quality of your community support. Community support is the single controllable thing you can do that will have the greatest longterm impact on your bottom line.

Units Sold: Pre-launch, buzz-building depends on what people coming out of your beta say, and what people are saying on your developer or fan boards. Yes, a lot of other factors are going to affect your unit sales--publisher support, money for MDF, quality of ad campaign, etc.--but word of mouth is always the most important factor. And you can ensure positive word of mouth by ensuring that your players get the support they need; that your communication with your player base is well managed and non-confrontational; and by giving the sense that you listen to the players.

Subscriber Conversion: You can lose $130 (say) in five minutes, if a newbie can't find help when he needs it. Or in a few days, if the first time a player really needs to petition for help, he never gets a response. Or if griefplay is rife because no one is policing the world. Yes, you can improve your subscriber conversion by improving your newbie game--but the single easiest way to improve it is ensure you've got decent community support.

Player Retention: Be mindful of Gordon Walton's dictum: "They come for the game, they stay for the community." Community support is even more vital for elder players, who are at most risk of churning out. They want special events and IGMs, they want the developers to listen to their guild's concerns, they want to feel part of the process. It's risky to devote too many resources to them, at the expense of newbies--a player who's been in the game for two years is probably going to contribute less to your bottom line in future than a newbie, because he'll probably churn out sooner--but every month is a few more dollars, and that's worth some of your time.

Community management is a huge part of any MMG's ongoing costs--sometimes the single biggest cost sink--and the largest contributor to headcount and overhead. But whatever you invest here is worth every penny, if you do the job well.

You Can't Compete with EverQuest. Don't Try

EverQuest today is not the EverQuest of 1999. The EverQuest of 1999 was a multiple year, multimillion dollar MMG development project. The EverQuest of today is a 9+ year, tens of millions of dollars MMG project. When it launched, Norrath, EverQuest's world, was the size of Rhode Island; I don't know how big it is now, but I suspect more like New England.

To match the depth, size, and refinement of EverQuest, you'd need nine years of development.

If you are developing a fantasy-themed massively multiplayer game today with essentially the same play dynamics as EverQuest--go find another job. Now. Your game will fail. Guaranteed.

Don't try. Find something different you can focus on. DAoC, even though fantasy-themed, succeeded largely because of Realm vs. Realm. City of Heroes is succeeding because there's no other comics-inspired MMG (and it's reasonably well done) even though it is far slighter and smaller, in terms of content, than games like EverQuest (or Anarchy Online, or....).

A lot of MMGs have been cancelled recently. Most of them should have been. Because they were too much like EverQuest.

No tabletop fantasy RPG has ever achieved one hundredth the sales of Dungeons & Dragons. There's a big first-mover advantage. Someday, a North American MMG will dwarf EverQuest in size--but it won't be a fantasy-themed, hack-n-slash graphical MUD. EQ owns that market.

Seek to own something else.

Monday, June 21, 2004
Bartle on Ebaying
Themis has an excellent piece on The Pitfalls of Virtual Property by Rich Bartle (co-creator of the original MUD). The basic topic is whether MMG operators have the right to ban sale of in-game property for real money, whether it's a good idea for them to do so, etc. He basically comes down on the side of the operators and EULA enforcement, but does so in a reasoned fashion (whereas corporate spokespersons on the subject generally sound like the Ancien Regime attempting to justify corrupt practice in the face of protestations in defense of the rights of man).

And to close off the spam issue, Richard Wong of, one of the sites targetted in the attack, writes:

    "Hi Greg,

    The messages you were receiving are virus infected messages rather than
    spam messages. They originated from a Telus ADSL connection with the IP
    address of '[deleted]'. We have blocked that IP address from sending
    us mail such that we will no longer bounce the undeliverable messages back
    to you."

Hmm... So if you have Telus DSL and have me in your address book, maybe you should do a virus scan.

Sunday, June 20, 2004
New Email
Hmph. Well, it seemed like the easiest fix was to turn off the address entirely. I can now be found a

Friday, June 18, 2004
Drowning in Spam
I have, over the last 24 hours, received more than 10,000 emails. Maybe 20 are ones I want to receive. Maybe 200 are what I would consider "normal spam."

The rest are all bounces from mail servers across the globe.

I've done a complete system scan with updated virus software, and checked all running processes to ensure that nothing odd is up with home machine; no problem. I changed the password on my hosting service--although when I asked them to simply turn off the SMTP server (since I use the one at my home ISP), they were noticeably unhelpful. But I'm reasonably confident no one is hijacking that SMTP, since data traffic at does not look out of the norm.

So I'm forced to presume that some schmuck spammer is using my email as a Reply-to. I can't imagine why. I don't, as far as I know, have a lot of enemies.

I suspect I'm going to have to disable my, btw; it's been in mailto: URLs on my site since the mid-90s, and I'm sure I'm on every spamlist in creation. Filters have made this bearable until now. But a 1000-to-one ratio between bullshit and wanted mail is...absurd.

I'm wondering whether I'm simply a harbinger of the future, and the problem of the commons is going to simply render email an unviable technology--or whether the idiots who are doing this will decide to plague someone else tomorrow, and it will pass.

But in the meantime, I am less than pleased.

Oh, uh... the Cornell exhibit was brilliant. Brilliant, I say! Electronic Arts is a superbly managed company we can trust to lead us into a glorious future, and its management consists of amazingly intelligent, profound and stalwart leaders. Licensed games are good for everyone in the value chain, and anyone who thinks differently is sadly mistaken. Developers should get down on their hands and knees and thank publishers for the generosity of the contracts they are offered. I'm simply staggered by the originality and diversity of the field every time I step into a software store. George W. Bush--my god, what a great president. Yes, yes. I affirm it all with avidity. Please stop spamming me.

Pastimes and Paradigms
Good lord, it's been a month since I posted. Bad, bad, blogger. In my defense, it's been a busy time... Spent several days in Finland, and have been working to finish a final edit of the Paranoia XP rules, which is now done.

Pastimes and Paradigms is the name of a virtual exhibit of 19th and 20th century games at the Cornell site, and worth exploring, since so little material is available on the subject. Among the games featured are some titles from McLoughlin Brothers, a now-forgotten US publisher that, in its day, was as well known as Parker or Milton Bradley, as well as a title by John Wallis, an early UK publisher of boardgames (and distantly related to James Wallis, who used to run Hogshead Games, publisher of my game Violence).

Unfortunately (from my perspective), the exhibit takes the same approach as a similar exhibit, a few years ago, mounted by the New-York Historical Society: games, we are told, are important because they lend insight into cultural issues of the day. Thus, the exhibit explores political games, games designed to reinforce cultural identity, and so on. The fact that both Cornell and the Historical Society took this approach is interesting, because it is, in essence, a defensive rhetorical strategy. The subtext is: Yes, games are trivial and foolish, but we justify our interest in them by claiming some larger cultural meaning for them.

I, of course, do not believe that games are trivial and foolish; rather, I believe that they are as worthy of close study as any other artistic form. And what i want to get from an historical exhibit of older games is a better understanding of the evolution of that form.

We tend to think that games began, in essence, in the 80s, with the arcade revolution. And it is certainly true that, thinking of games as a business, there has in the last couple of decades, been an enormous explosion in terms of the dollar volume of business that games sustain. When I was a boy, "games" meant a substantial mass boardgame market, and a smaller hobby appendage consisting mainly of miniatures rules and board wargames. Today, those markets still exist, but are dwarfed in size by digital product.

Still, there is a direct line of development between the two, and one that most students of digital game history have completely ignored. If you read the literature, you will learn about the impact of earlier arcade amusements on gaming--and indeed, there is a direct connection, both in terms of game style and business practices, between arcade amusements, through pinball, to the arcade. But while you can certainly understand, say, Asteroids as a digital evolution of the arcade, I would maintain that you really cannot see a lot of connection between, say, Ultima Online, Battlefield 1942, or Civilization and the arcade.

Where you can see a connection is with earlier, non-digital game styles. Ultima Online is a digital evolution of Dungeons & Dragons. Battlefield 1942 is a digital evolution of Tactics (by way of Doom). Civilization is a digital evolution of military strategy games.

There's no question that the first generation of computer game designers were aware of, and highly influenced, by hobby games--and that hobby games continue to play a role in shaping the understanding of modern game designers.

More than this, the digital revolution is merely an extention of a change in games that began sometime in the late 18th century. That change was the birth of what I will call the "designed game."

Games have existed throughout human history, well back into the neolithic, and in every human culture. But up until recent centuries, games were what I call "folk games," by analogy to the folk tale or the oral legend. Chess, in other words, can be seen as an analog to Beowulf; the product of a long folk tradition, and not ascribable to any individual author. Modern games can, then, be considered analogous to the novel (or film or any other modern artistic form); consciously created works that are indeed ascribable to particular people. (Yes, to a team, in most cases, not to lone creator, but that is also true of, say, film.)

Fiction, of course, and writing in general, has been ascribable to individual creators for millenia; the designed game is far more recent. The earliest such game of which I know (and I'd be greatful for pointers to anything earlier) is The King's Game, ascribed to someone we know only as "Helwig, Master of Pages" to the Duke of Brunswick, designed in 1780. It is considered a precursor to the kriegspieler--military training games of the 19th century.

From the kriegspiel, we have a direct line not only to modern military training simulations, but also to military miniature wargaming (first popularized by H.G. Wells in Floor Wars and Little Wars), the board wargame--and games such as Battlefield 1942. Indeed, there's also a connection to the whole plethora of fantasy games: Dungeons & Dragons was an outgrowth of Chainmail, a set of rules for fantasy miniatures gaming.

In parallel, we have the evolution of the mass-audience boardgame, which seems largely to be an outgrowth of an industry originally devoted to the publication of sets of folk games for a burgeoning middle-class audience with the leisure time to devote to non-essential pursuits like playing games. Publishers no doubt calculated that, when producing folk games, they competed largely on price and quality, since these games were public domain, and there were numerous competitors producing equivalent games; original games, contrariwise, could be subject to copyright protection, and could therefore support higher margins.

If you look at 19th century games, they're almost all variants on a few simple concepts--the ubiquitous track game, the fishing game, the world travel game. And yet they are demonstrably different from what preceded them: visuals and theme differentiate them, in a way that doesn't happen with the abstract style of folk games (playing cards perhaps excepted). And toward the end of the 19th century, and the early 20th century, we start to see experimentation with more original approaches (e.g., Rook, Parker's first big hit) as well as far more complicated systems (e.g., Monopoly, a game so complicated that it could probably not be published in the mass boardgame market today, except that it has already achieved iconographic status).

The boardgame tradition, too, leads to modern work. The 3M line and Avalon Hill created a body of adult-oriented, deep strategy games, many quite abstract in nature (such as the trailblazing work of Sid Sackson and Alex Randolph) with others (such as the board wargaming) presaging the deep, simulationist, algorithmic approach of most modern digital games. It may perhaps be hard to see the line of connection between, say, The Game of Life, through Monopoly, through Twixt to current digital games--but I would maintain that it does indeed exist, and that puzzle games, in particular, are profoundly influenced by boardgame roots.

(This is, I am aware, a somewhat US-centric view of things; but in the UK, at least, a similar evolution has occurred, and I believe much is true of Europe as well. As for Japan--it is enlightening to learn that Nintendo began as a publisher of playing cards...)

From this, I think, we can learn two things. First, scholars of games, and game history in general, cannot presume that modern gaming sprang, like Athena, full-blown from the brow of Nolan Bushnell; its antecedents can be found both in older gaming markets, as well as the arcade, and study of those older game forms can cast light on the nature of modern products.

And second--it is wholly unnecessary for archivists and students of 19th century games, and earlier, to defensively cloak their interest by maintaining that they cast some cultural light on the era. Whether or not true, they are of interest in their own right, since they are the direct precursors of what has become one of the main ways in which modern people spend their free time, and what is perhaps the most vital and expressive artistic medium of the 21st century.

And more than this: Earlier games should not be presented merely as reflections of the culture of the time, but as the inceptions of the modern game; and a good exhibit of such should seek to understand how "the designed game" originated, how it evolved over time, and how and why, long before the arrival of the digital era, games began to spin off into numerous, diverse, and highly original styles of play, that were in turn adopted and mutated in the new digital environment.

Now that would be an exhibit worth seeing.

Addendum: And here's a link to another John Wallis game, 1796 publication date, at the George Glazer gallery in NYC. I'm salivating a bit, but $1250 is too rich for my taste, alas.

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