Zelda Facets (1): Introduction

Visual History LinkConsidering the franchise goes back more than thirty years, The Legend of Zelda is not a huge commercial powerhouse for Nintendo, as the Mario and Pokémon franchises undoubtedly have been. Despite not kicking off until 2007, more than twenty years later, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise has racked up more total sales than Zelda has in its thirty year history, some 93 million to Zelda’s 85 million. The Zelda games, however, have been hugely influential throughout their long and chequered history, inspiring Legacy of Kain, Soul Reaver, Beyond: Good and Evil, Shadow of the Colossus, Okami, Darksiders, Binding of Isaac, Hyper Light Drifter and more besides. But the real influence of these games is not felt by those that borrowed its template wholesale, but in the way professional game designers constantly check the new Zelda releases for how it will shift the landscape of videogames – make no mistake, even now, games in production are having their directions altered as a result of Breath of the Wild’s critical and commercial success.

This serial looks at key facets in the Zelda series, how they are used in Breath of the Wild, and the relationship this newest game has to the player practices and fictional worlds of its predecessors. My purpose is to try and reveal both the essential aspects of what makes Zelda what it is – and why that is so influential – and to apply the game design lineages method of historical analysis to Zelda in order to show how the conservation of player practices, the influence of material constraints, and the subversion of expectations through creator vision have all affected the path of this venerable franchise. Before looking at specific elements of the Zelda experience, however, it is necessary to put these games into a production perspective, by examining the circumstances outside the game that shaped the path of the series’ development.

The franchise roots are in two highly successful NES games, The Legend of Zelda in 1986 and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link in 1987. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto wanted the second title to feel distinct from the first, presumably in part because the technical limitations of the NES meant following the same style at that time would have resulted in a very derivative game. As a result, The Adventure of Link feels like the black sheep of the series and has had little influence on the play of future games in the franchise (it borrowed much from platform games and the newly-popular JRPG lineage, kicked off primarily by Dragon Quest), although it still contributed significantly to the still-developing lore that shapes the narrative space of each Zelda game. Conversely, the original Legend of Zelda not only provides the template for its 16-bit successor, A Link to the Past, released in 1991, but also for Breath of the Wild. Featuring what has come to be known as an open world, The Legend of Zelda was actually a little late to this party, since most of the key early open world games were released in 1984 and 1985. It also seems as if the ‘openness’ of the title might have been partly a consequence of the material constraints of the NES rather than express intention: Miyamoto-sans later Zelda games, A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, are much more locked down in their structure – a structure that had huge influence in the 3D combat and exploration games that followed.

The Legend of Zelda’s 6.5 million unit sales (which were meteoric for 1986) were not surpassed until 1998’s The Ocarina of Time, which brought the core player practices of A Link to the Past kicking and screaming into polygonal 3D, selling 7.6 million units, and (along with Super Mario 64 and GoldenEye 007) making the Nintendo 64 into a hit console. Ocarina of Time also set world records for high review scores, although personally I do not like the game very much, apart from two elements – the titular ocarina, which was perfectly designed for the controller and taught the player some actual musical skills, and the horse Epona, about which I will have more to say later in this serial. This was the first Zelda game that future franchise mastermind Eiji Aonuma worked upon, and its direct sequel, Majora’s Mask in 2000, was the first time he was handed the reigns. Far too arcane for the mainstream, Majora’s Mask’s labyrinthine temporal structure and impressionistic ending mark it out as a creative masterpiece, and it is not surprising that Miyamoto-san felt comfortable passing the franchise onto Aonuma-san, while remaining a stalking presence in the production of every Zelda game since.

It is 2003’s Wind Waker – Aonuma-san’s first major Zelda title (since Majora’s Mask was a spin-off from Ocarina of Time, reusing the same resources) – that begins to pave the way for Breath of the Wild by ‘failing’ commercially at ‘just’ 4.4 million units sold. This is actually twice what the best selling game I’ve worked on sold, and was still a good sales figure in 2003 – but on the budgets Nintendo affords a Zelda title, this was probably not much better than breaking even. The poor performance of the GameCube console was a factor here (as with the Resident Evil remake) but another problem was the choice of cel-shaded art. As Tom Hoggins touches upon in his Zelda retrospective, the choice flowed naturally out of the interior decisions guiding development but sat badly with many gamers, despite offering beautiful aesthetics throughout:

Many Zelda fans were aghast but those who fell for it fell hard, whisked away on the waves of colour. For Aonuma, the decision to switch wasn’t difficult. “Many developers were looking at ways to incorporate cel-shading into various games at the time, Nintendo too,” he says, simply. “One of the experiments was whether we could include these visuals into the world of The Legend of Zelda. When we finally decided that Wind Waker would feature child Link as the main character, we decided cel-shading was appropriate for the game and the more cheerful child-Link.”

The unique art style of Wind Waker has its own side-lineage in Zelda’s portable incarnations, Phantom Hourglass (2007) and Spirit Tracks (2009), which act  as sequels. But the die was cast for the core of the franchise: the audience wanted a more realistic looking Link, and that is what they would get with 2006’s Twilight Princess, originally developed for the GameCube but then painfully reconfigured for the Wii. In the Hoggins retrospective, Aonuma-san only half-jokingly remarks that after the platform change his job was reduced to cheerleader: “From that time on, rather than actually making the game my job was to approach each staff member to convince them we could do it.” Twilight Princess was a success, setting a new high watermark for the franchise’s sales at 8.6 million units (1.6 million of which were on the ailing GameCube). This pattern was repeated two titles later with Breath of the Wild, which also launched on a troubled older platform (the struggling Wii U) as well as launching the new Switch, and by January 2018 the new game had sold an impressive 7.8 million (1.1 million of which had been on the Wii U).

Just as Twilight Princess’ heading had been altered by the sales of Wind Waker being blown off course, the radical vision for Breath of the Wild was a response to the disappointing 3.7 million units that Skyward Sword had sold in 2011. Unlike the GameCube, the Wii had a massive install base to draw against – but the majority of use that the Wii was getting that that time wasn’t with the kind of core gamers that typically buy a Zelda… The focus on newly-improved motion controls probably did not help the 25th anniversary game’s performance, since this had been something players had merely tolerated in Twilight Princess and wasn’t enough to lure them away from the PS3 and Xbox 360s that were enjoying the benefits of well-developed online services by 2011. In a GameInformer interview, Aonuma-san tells a story of how one fan’s reaction to Skyward Sword resonated with him:

There was something that fans said before starting development that changed what I thought. There was a fan that said he really, really loved Zelda. But, while playing Skyward Sword, he missed experiencing this huge world where he could just ride Epona around. During Ocarina Of Time, he really loved doing that. Somewhere within myself, I felt the same way. So for Breath Of The Wild, it’s something that I definitely thought about.

The point also came up in an interview with Aonuma-san by Mike Diver that discussed the role of fan-feedback in influencing the creative vision of the franchise:

Actually, we did have in mind, from the start of development, that we wanted to create a large, wide, expansive world. And part of the reason for that comes from the feedback we got after Skyward Sword. The way that game world was set up was that you had kind of separate areas, separate strongholds, that you'd sort of land in and explore. But they were all self-contained, and they weren't really connected together.

We listened to a lot of opinions, from people who played Skyward Sword. And a lot of people said to us how they found the game… Not exactly unsatisfying, but they wish they could have explored the areas between the strongholds. So taking that on board, from the very start of Breath of the Wild, we wanted to, and set out to, create a world that wasn't only vast, but where everything was connected. So you really could freely explore the world, without these barriers or gaps imposed.

Skyward Sword was an outstanding example of the polygonal 3D Zelda form that Ocarina of Time had popularised, with improvements over Twilight Princess in almost every significant aspect, and substantial experiments in modifying the formula – including a much more explicitly constructed narrative. Link still did not say anything the player could hear, although for the first time we saw him talking to other characters (i.e. we saw Link’s lips move), and those other characters formed a much more coherent base for storytelling (helped by the single village, Skyloft, that served as hub). Review scores for Skyward Sword were incredibly positive, but the sales did not emerge on the back of it. It is possible that nothing could have lured gamers back to setting up their Wii at this point in time, and certainly not a game that relied upon newly improved motion controls. Speaking personally, however, playing with the butterfly net in Skyward Sword was a far more compelling experience of immersive presence than VR, which relies merely upon visual illusion and is not able to overcome the limitations in controls this entails. But whatever Skyward Sword’s merits, it hadn't been enough. It was time for Zelda to take a giant leap out of its comfort zone.

In one of the few reviews of Breath of the Wild willing to take issue with its problems, Jed Pressgrove calls out a “dubious decision to draw inspiration from prototypical open-world games” seeing this as producing “a conflicted combination of marketing logic and staggering artistry.” This was, all in all, the only interesting review of the new game I’ve seen, since most have merely swooned over its ample pleasures. Jed’s review is the reason I’m writing this serial: there is indeed an aesthetic conflict within Breath of the Wild, as he alludes to, but I contend it is not the result of marketing interference (although don't get me wrong: this is a very tangible force at work in the videogame industry, and one that should never be ruled out prematurely). Jed’s only mistake is to see in Breath of the Wild problems brought about by borrowing from the open world genre lineage as codified by Grand Theft Auto III (having built upon firm foundations established by Elite back in 1984, right before the first Zelda).

However, Breath of the Wild moves into open world territory in near complete ignorance of the GTAIII open world template that fed into Oblivion, Skyrim, and all the Assassin’s Creed games. In respect of these particular games, the only evidence that Aonuma-san had played any of them is for Skyrim (e.g. in an interview for Le Monde, and also for Game Spot), and then only to get a feel for how such worlds work in practice. The other chief source of external influence upon the open world leanings appears to have been technical assistance from Monolith, who had already assisted Nintendo’s EAD developer (which makes the Zelda games) on Skyward Sword. (On a minor, pedantic note, the camera feature in the new Zelda can hardly be borrowed from other open world games – as Jed alludes – since it originates in Wind Waker.)

The bottom line is that unlike other franchises, Zelda is not beholden to marketing influence because it is a flagship franchise that exists in a strange limbo of isolation from the rest of the gaming world. Aonuma-san barely plays other games – and has little interest in making anything other than Zelda games – as this internal Nintendo interview makes clear:

As I get closer to the retirement age, people ask me if I’m ever going to make anything other than a Zelda game. And so sometimes I think maybe I should. But Zelda games really have everything in them that I would want to make in a game. The way the main character grows and develops. The puzzles and the minigames. I don’t think there’s much point in me making something other than Zelda, if I did it would only end up being something just like it. It’s a problem. So I think I’ll just keep making Zelda games!

Putting aside the billions of yen and hundreds of developers involved in making a contemporary Zelda game, at the core of this franchise – unlike any other that we know of – is the relationship of master to apprentice that has passed from Shigeru Miyamoto (age 65), to Eiji Aonuma (age 54), and is currently being passed along to Hidemaro Fujibayashi (age 45), who has worked on Zelda since 2001, firstly for Capcom on The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages for the Game Boy Color before joining Nintendo, co-directing Phantom Hourglass, and then directing both Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild. This is not how major commercial videogames are made, but it is how Zelda is made, and provides the reason that the franchise is primarily governed by the conservation of its own player practices, and the creative vision of a succession of apprentices that subverts these in subtle or radical ways in each iteration.

Over the following weeks I’ll be examining individual facets of Breath of the Wild’s game design and narrative design, situating it in the unique – and insular – game design lineage of the Zelda franchise, and showing how the new game’s content emerges from the effects of a single additional constraint: the desire to transcend Skyward Sword’s functionally-isolated wilderness segments. The resulting serial endeavours to show how to understand Link as a character (and how Breath of the Wild’s Link is consistent with that character), why Hyrule is integral to this character, in part because of the way videogames necessarily represent player characters, how the horses are simultaneously one of the new Zelda’s greatest achievements and strangest failings, and why Breath of the Wild can lay better claim to the title ‘The Legend of Zelda’ than any game before it.

Next week: Link


Which Cover for The Virtuous Cyborg?

The publisher has kindly sent me four variants of the new cover for The Virtuous Cyborg and asked me to pick one to run with. I have a favourite… but I do so like to procrastinating a decision by asking for advice that I agonise over before disregarding. Here are the options:

Four Covers.ihobo

So what do you think? You can either vote using the embedded Twitter poll, or leave me a comment.

The choice is mine – but you can influence it!


Playing with Money

Playing with Money was a three part serial looking at currency and shops in videogames, including their relationship to the tabletop role-playing games that were the first to make shopping a key part of their play experience. The serial ran from January 24th to February 7th 2018. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

The three parts are as follows:

  1. The Adventurer Shop
  2. Space Trading
  3. Arms Dealers

Thanks to Dan Cook, Patrick Davis, Adam Hurd, Raph Koster, Jack "LateTide", Minh “Gooseman” Le, Nicholas Lovell, Romley Panable, Felipe Pepe, Paul Wake, Rich Wilson, and José Zagal, for their assistance in the research that led to this serial.

If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment!


Playing with Money (3): Arms Dealers

Previously, the origins of videogame money with the Adventurer Shop, and the space trading game Elite. Now, a look at the infiltration of gun games by shopping.

CSS Buy MenuIn the early 2000’s, the celebrated Resident Evil franchise (known as Biohazard in Japan) was facing cancellation. Despite the excellent quality of the remake of the first game in the series for the GameCube in 2002, and prequel Resident Evil Zero that came out in the same year, sales were disappointing and Capcom needed reassurance that the series could still make money for them. As a result, project director Shinji Mikami was placed under pressure by his superiors, which resulted in a change of direction for the franchise:

With Resident Evil 1, 2, 3, and all the rest of the series before Resident Evil 4, I was always saying to the staff, ‘Scaring the player is the number one thing.’ But for the first time, in Resident Evil 4, I told the team that fun gameplay is the most important thing. That’s what I said. Then the second thing [would be ] nothing. And then the third thing is to be scary. That’s what I said to the team. That all came out of the commercial failure of the Resident Evil remake. And then of course Resident Evil 4 sold really well. I have kind of a lingering trauma there, because the Resident Evil remake didn’t sell – much more than people would think.

However, a note of caution is required here. The remake sold 1.3 million units on the GameCube, while Resident Evil 4 sold 1.6 million units on that platform (based on figures quoted by Destructoid). 300,000 units is not the difference between success and failure on the budgets such games are developed upon. The reason Resident Evil 4 ultimately went on to enjoy commercial success was that it was ported to other platforms; the remake could not be, because it was part of an exclusive deal between Capcom and Nintendo. The breakdown of this agreement allowed Resident Evil 4 to be distributed more widely – if this had happened to the remake, the situation might have been very different.

Nonetheless, the way events unfolded took the Resident Evil franchise away from its roots, and with a mandate for ‘fun’ it is hardly a surprise that this meant bringing in more CRPG elements. RPGs have always been the favourite genre in Japan, as every CESA report confirms, and Mikami-san, in an interview by Xav De Matos in 2011, singled out one title in particular as influencing the direction of the Resident Evil franchise:

“For BioHazard 4 (RE4) it came from playing Onimusha 3,” he said, remembering that he enjoyed the game but thought it could be better if a few elements were different. “If only the camera was behind the player, it would have been so much better,” he thought at the time. “That stemmed the idea for creating the camera system – the [third-person shooter] style – in BioHazard 4.” “Probably if Onimusha 3 had been better, I wouldn't have thought of BioHazard 4,” he laughed.

Onimusha 3 had a character advancement system based around collecting different coloured souls after certain characters defeated enemies, with red souls being used to enhance equipment at a Magic Mirror. Evidently, this supernatural justification for what amounts to a modified form of shopping would not work in a sci-fi horror setting like Resident Evil, where the nonsense is justified using technobabble rather than (wholly equivalent) magical explanations. The solution was the addition of the Weapons Merchant (just ‘the Merchant’ when the game was translated from Japanese). The player collects treasure scattered around the world and sells it to the Merchant with the money earned then being used to power up their guns – a practice clearly descended from Onimusha, the practices of which were entirely conditioned by character advancement in Japanese RPGs.

This is one of several notable examples of shopping making its way into gun games, which had long resisted the player practices of currency and shops. This is ironic, since the first person shooter was itself an offshoot of the CRPG lineage. Catacomb 3-D, John Carmack’s project immediately prior to Wolfenstein 3D, was a straightforward dungeon crawler of the form popularised by Dungeon Master in 1987 (as discussed in the previous Game Inventories serial). Those dungeon crawlers, however, had differentiated themselves from other CRPGs by being interested solely in the dungeon, and discarding the village and overworld (wilderness in the tabletop precursors) that had structured the play of non-dungeon crawlers (see the first part of this serial, discussing the Adventurer Shop, for more on this point).

Resident Evil 4 was to prove influential, most obviously in the case of Dead Space which adopts almost all of the player practices of the Japanese horror game – including the shopping, which becomes a Store where players exchange credits for upgrades. BioShock is another example, although in this case, the game was already enmeshed within the CRPG lineages, and the critical success of Resident Evil 4 merely reassured the developer that their combination of horror, action, and RPG could work. Although I can find no explicit mention of it influencing Tripwire’s Killing Floor, it seems a virtual certainty that the creator of the original 2007 mod that lead to this game, Alex Quick, had played Resident Evil games, and the wave-based zombie slayer feels very much like an interweaving of the practices of Resident Evil 4 with Team Fortress – with shopping occurring after each wave at a Trader that the player must locate in a manner reminiscent of the Merchant in RE4.

There is one other example of shops being added to gun games that pre-dates Resident Evil 4 and runs down rather different lines: Counter-Strike. Starting life as a Half-life mod and developed by Minh “Gooseman” Le and Jess Cliffe, the highly successful multiplayer game was presented as a battle between terrorists and counter-terrorists, although this scenario only goes about as deep as children playing cowboys and Indians, which is to say, it provides the excuse for fighting with guns rather than offering play focussed upon the events and contents of a fictional world, as with CRPGs. More significant than its imaginary world was the way Counter-Strike pushed multiplayer gun games closer towards the player practices of sports, with tightly focussed play over a series of rounds involving (from the counter-terrorist perspective) either hostage rescue or bomb disposal that lead to winning an overall match. The sport-like aesthetic in no way suggests that this would in fact be a game that features shopping, albeit a stripped-down, abstract form of shopping that essentially consists in trading money earned in previous rounds for firearms and equipment while standing in a designated square known simply as a ‘Buy Zone’ (the menu for which is pictured above).

Design decisions for the project were mostly made by Le, with Cliffe working on maps and, perhaps more importantly, coordinating the community of players – an increasingly vital role in game development. Le had played a lot of CRPGs when he was younger, but had found them too great a drain on his time as he got older, so there was a definite possibility that the shop concept was influenced by Adventurer Shops. However, as with all cases of shopping in videogames, there was also the possibility that it was simply everyday currency practices that provided the point of reference. These cases are difficult to judge, and prudence suggests erring on the side of the more general explanation in the absence of any specific evidence.

I asked Minh Le over Twitter about the origins of the shop, since none of the existing interviews had touched upon it and it stands out (from both a historical and a game design perspective) as one of the most unique inventions of the franchise. His answer reveals that the Counter-Strike buy zone was a result of a need to provide some internal balancing to the game:

Originally I planned on letting players pick any gun but came up with the idea of putting a price tag on the weapons cuz I needed a way to differentiate them without having to arbitrarily fudge their performance (ie rate of fire, damage, etc). Like how certain games do. Some games balance the weapons by making smgs more effective in close quarters and making assault rifles have high recoil but you can only do so much to try and make all the guns equally attractive to use, so I just put a price tag on the guns in hopes of making some guns used more. Like if I didn't have the buy system, the ak47 would get used All the freaking time. TBH it should be more expensive to mitigate it's all around effectiveness but by the time the game had gotten so popular, it was too late to make drastic changes to the game without incurring the wrath of the player base. I also liked how a money economy added a mental game to the shoot aspects of Cs. Teams had to consider wise spending in order to maximize their chances of winning the match.

This doesn’t settle the question of possible CRPG influence (nor, to be fair, was it likely to) but this discussion brings out another aspect of the conservation of player practices: the resistance of player communities to change when a game or lineage of games is effectively meeting their play needs. This point is also apparent in Joe Donnelly’s account of the making of Counter-Strike:

By Version 1.3, says Le, opinions as to what worked and what didn’t were so staunch, so resolute, that even a whisper of revision heralded waves of protest from the ever-intransigent camp. It got to the point where even the thought of change had become almost trivial. By Version 1.6, the latest and final overhaul of significant degree, the team realised it was time to step back. “It wasn’t until Counter-Strike 1.6 when everybody - myself, Valve, everyone involved in CS – sort of noticed that the community were beginning to become resistant,” says Le. “It became much more difficult to change the core gameplay. I think at that point we realised it’d become the perfect game and we shouldn’t mess with it too much. It was then we realised this was basically Counter-Strike from now on.”

This represents a microcosm of the situation at large regarding player communities. When a game provides a compelling, engaging experience for a particular community of players, those player practices become conserved precisely because they are effective at meeting that community’s play needs. In this case, quite distinct from game design lineages where specific features (e.g. inventories, control schemes, power-ups) become conserved but can appear in radically different kinds of game, it is the complete set of player practices that are being conserved – what might poetically be called the essence of a particular game. The essence of Counter-Strike was in place by 1.6 in part because it had, right from the outset, a community of players who could act to conserve the practices of its play. There have been few significant changes since beyond graphical tweaks and further attempts at balancing: Counter-Strike: Source added largely unnecessary achievements, while Global Offensive added a competitive mode where the teams ‘change ends’ (switching between terrorist and counter-terrorist), and controversial micro-transaction monetisation. The game design process was essentially concluded when 1.6 launched in beta in 1999; what came afterwards was only refinement to those player practices that Le, Cliffe, and their original player community had established at the outset.

Throughout this serial, the process of using game design lineages to track the player practices of shops and money between games has been complicated by the fact that we are all embedded in the practices of currency and shopping (the ‘game’ of money, if you will). This means that it was always possible to add a shop into any game at the designer’s whim. Yet, despite this ever-present possibility, this is not entirely what has happened. Whenever creator vision has added a shop – whether it was the weapon shops added to the imaginative practices of fantasy adventure stories, space trading being used to maximise player agency, horror games borrowing from CRPGs, or gun games seeking innovative balancing solutions – it has set into motion a community of players whose practices have been conserved. Where those players include game designers (or future game designers), these practices have gone on to inspire other games that have partly conserved those practices, and partly subverted them for creative purposes. This is the path the history of videogames have taken, a path that carries on from tabletop games before them, as well as from literature and films, with whom they share imaginative practices. We all play with money, we imagine its value, acquire it and spend it – both inside and outside of videogames.

With thanks to Dan Cook, Patrick Davis, Adam Hurd, Raph Koster, Jack "LateTide", Minh “Gooseman” Le, Nicholas Lovell, Romley Panable, Felipe Pepe, Paul Wake, Rich Wilson, and José Zagal, for their assistance in the research that led to this serial.


Playing with Money (2): Space Trading

Last week, we looked directly at the invention and influence of the Adventurer Shop. Now, we turn to another key play experience of early videogames: space trading.

Space OperaThe imaginative practices of Dungeons & Dragons, which allowed a group of players to create dramatic stories around a tabletop using dice to resolve combat and certain tasks, immediately spawned successors – both in fantasy settings like Chaosium’s 1978 classic RuneQuest, and in all kinds of other fictional worlds. There were many early attempts at a science fiction tabletop RPG but none of them stuck until 1977’s Traveller, created by Marc Miller and published by his company Game Designer’s Workshop. Whereas Michael Scott’s Space Patrol (also published in 1977) took a great deal of influence from Star TrekTraveller’s influence was far more obscure, but as Michael Andre-Driussi patiently deciphered, a great deal of the concept for the setting (including the name) was inspired by E.C. Tubbs sprawling Dumarest of Terra books. This series was structured around the idea of the protagonist, Earl Dumarest, arriving on a new planet and having to earn enough money to buy passage to the next world, and it provided a name for the people who live like this: travelers (using the US spelling, modified to the UK spelling for the game). This core idea alone was more than enough to adapt the D&D adventurer into space.

Traveller itself was to immediately spawn successors, most notably Fantasy Games Unlimited’s Space Opera (pictured above), which shares with its predecessor a sprawling character generation system that was a game in itself (I too was influenced by this in my first science fiction RPG design, Outlands, which had its definitive edition in 1995, and the cover to Wikipedia Knows Nothing is also a tribute to the minimalist cover of Marc Miller’s game). Space Opera had its fans and its critics: co-authored by Edward E. Simbalist, who had also worked on the complex fantasy RPG Chivalry & Sorcery, no-one could call Space Opera easy to play, but what it offered was an immense wealth of different game systems for simulating a vast variety of science fiction elements. These did not fit together particularly well – perhaps in part because unlike Traveller this was not a rulebook recording the player practices of a gaming group since the designers had worked remotely via correspondence. It was thus up to players to synthesise Space Opera into coherent practices – but then, this was how tabletop RPGs tended to work anyway, since written rules are never a perfect translation of what is played, and it was always up to the players to ‘fill in the gaps’.

These two sci-fi games, Traveller and Space Opera, were to go on to inspire one of the most influential videogames of all time: 1984’s Elite, created by Cambridge University students David Braben and Ian Bell. A space trading game, its play consisted primarily of buying goods at one space station, and flying them to another station while enduring pirate attacks en route. It offered the player tremendous freedom of choice within its world, supporting everything from asteroid mining to bounty hunting with little more than a tight and flexible design – a design that descends directly from the early science fiction tabletop RPGs. This connection is frequently overlooked, most likely because of the tendency to ignore the relationship between early videogames and the tabletop games that lead to them – Francis Spufford offers a detailed account of the Elite design process in his book Backroom Boys, yet never mentions tabletop role-playing games at all and, writing for the Telegraph, Adam Lusher dubs Elite “the game that changed the world” but once again fails to understand how this came about as the conservation of player practices from tabletop role-playing games. Consider these remarks in Lusher’s article:

Elite was different. It was…, as that mesmerised eight-year-old discovered, “the first game that did not feel or behave like a game. It was much bigger. You were immersed in this world and it literally became reality for the time you were playing it. It was fun, but carried all the other characteristics of reality, like intensity and drama, too”.

Players also had more autonomy – including moral autonomy – than ever before. They could either plod along trading in legitimate goods, or try drug and slave running for high-risk, high returns. They helped decide what the story should be – and they didn’t have to start again from scratch each time they “died”; they could save their position, slowly progressing through a narrative partly of their own making.

The last point made here – the role of save games – is unique to videogames, and in no way relates to the tabletop RPGs, which all operated on the principle that eventually became dubbed ‘permadeath’, but which was at the time simply called ‘dying’ (a terminology that points to the extent to which save games disrupted this aspect of the player practices of the tabletops). But the sense of autonomy and moral autonomy, and the carving out of a narrative that the players themselves crafted, these are the definitive player practices of tabletop role-playing games. As technically innovative as Elite was, it existed against a backdrop of games that already achieved what it is remembered for – Braben and Bell’s accomplishment was in finding ways to make the immense agency of tabletop RPGs function in the immensely limited resources of 1980s computers.

Players of Traveller immediately suspected a connection between the two games – for a start, the default character in Elite is called Commander Jameson, while the default character in Traveller is named Jamison. But the connection continued to be brushed under the carpet, in part because David Braben downplayed it. For instance, in a reader-contributed interview run by Alec Meer, he was asked directly about a connection with Traveller:

RPS: @glowingslab asks “How much was Elite influenced by the Traveller RPG?”

David Braben: Not at all. It was influenced by RPGs, because there were quite a few around and I had played a few, but not influenced at all by Traveller. I think Ian played Traveller a little bit, but I’d played Fantasy Trip which is essentially men in tights fantasy, there was Space Opera, there were lots around. They from people like Steve Jackson, who went on to do GURPS, although that wasn’t released at that time, and all sorts of others.

Konrad Lischka managed to complete this story by asking Bell about it:

I used to play Traveller. David played Space Opera. So the Elite Trade Goods at least are more Space Opera than Traveller. Maybe the Planet Govt types too. Jameson is definitely a nod to Traveller though, I changed the i to e to make it a little less blatant, and also reference the whisky.

The significance of the tabletop RPG connection here should not be understated or ignored (as Spufford and Lusher do) because the way in which Elite goes on to have its influence is precisely in the imaginative practices that it had inherited from the tabletops, namely the provision of autonomy. As Braben notes in an interview with Logan Booker, Gary Penn (producer of the Elite sequel Frontier) was to go on to work at DMA Design on Grand Theft Auto, which he called “Elite in a city”. This influence was also confirmed by DMA developers Matthew Smith (in an interview with Dean Takahashi) and Sam Houser (talking to Ben Mckelvey). The open world game, of which Elite and its contemporaries The Lords of Midnight, Mercenary: Escape from Targ, and Paradroid are the prototypes, can trace its lineage back to tabletop role-playing games, which are the most truly ‘open’ games imaginable, precisely because of Elite – although the lack of tabletop influence in these other games is a sign that this inheritance was circumstantial rather than inevitable. That said, it cannot be ignored that Elite’s influence outstrips that of its contemporaries.

What GTA and its sequels achieved through scale of content, Elite had to achieve through very limited resources. Indeed, material constraints are an important part of the story of this game – and the reason why money is key to understanding Elite’s design. With tight hardware limitations, it is impossible to give players anything like the choices they face with a live Games Master to moderate decisions. Elite circumvented this through adapting two of the key elements that had made tabletop role-playing games function as flexible narrative systems: maps and shops. In Elite’s case the two were fused together, since the innovative Fibonacci-inspired procedural generation Bell had developed with Braben supplied qualities to each star system – qualities that drew against the material drafted for Space Opera – that in turn set the prices for commodities in each space station. This provided the basic engine for space trading (the initial source of money for all Elite players).

To deliver the high illusion of agency, the game needed to provide ways for players to choose alternative paths – and the only practical option was a shop. Players could buy mining lasers and fuel scoops and become an asteroid miner, or choose powerful weapons and turn to piracy or go hunt down pirates for a bounty. In practice, these four choices are the only ways to play Elite – as space trader, miner, pirate, or bounty hunter, although the trading also allowed agency since some goods (like slaves) were illegal in certain systems. But the game never presents any of these options as an explicit choice: they are merely offered a shop, form which different choices of equipment are purchased. The fact that the choices are concealed in this way did much to cultivate the impression of ‘go anywhere, do anything’ that became the hallmark of the open world genre. The shop design in Elite – quite unlike the shops of tabletop RPGs – became the engine of player autonomy. This was entirely the product of creator vision overcoming material constraints.

Elite was by no means the first game to feature trade – they had been well established since at least 1944’s SHOC, a share trading game run with two decks of cards, one of which represents shares, the other being used to randomly adjust share prices. (My family owned a copy of this game when I was growing up, which was much more enjoyable than its simplistic design suggests.) Even in videogames, there was 1982’s Taipan! as a precursor – but Braben and Bell hadn’t played this, or indeed many other early videogames. They were not influenced by videogame practices at all, and that made it far easier to innovate in their own game, creating a fictional world with a blend of combat and trading that would go on to inspire Federation of Free Traders, Wing Commander: Privateer (also influenced by Steve Jackson’s Car Wars), X: Beyond the Frontier, Freelancer, , EVE Online, and Sunless Sea.

This last example may raise another possibility: were other naval trading games influenced by Elite? Here, once again, we run up against the problem that the ‘game’ of money (and the practices of trade) are something we are all embedded within, and so despite the tendency for influences to be passed down in the conservation of player practices, there is always the possibility of it spontaneously recurring. This appears to be the case with 1987’s Sid Meier’s Pirates!, which might have been Elite in the Caribbean were it not for the inconvenient fact that Meier was completely unaware of Braben and Bell’s masterwork, as an interview in Rolling Stone makes abundantly clear:

Today, we kind of package things into these genres that have well-defined boundaries, and you can build your game inside this box. But we didn't have genres. Pirates! was probably the second open-world game after Seven Cities of Gold. It was like, “Let’s toss in some role-playing and some action and some storytelling and adventuring.” So it was really about the fun of breaking new ground, or exploring a new territory, creating a design territory. It was a time when we were really experimenting and trying new things.

Seven Cities of Gold was released in 1984, the same year as Elite and The Lords of Midnight (which arguably make a stronger claim to being the first open world games), and one year before Mercenary and Paradroid. All four of these latter games were British-made, which may suggest Meier’s game knowledge was limited to the US, but more likely reflects that he was playing games on a PC and missed out on all the home computer games that had such great influence in the early days of videogames. He did, however, have knowledge of British boardgames, as one of his key influences outside of videogames appears to have been the tabletop strategy games of Francis Tresham, particularly Civilisation, which invented a player practice Meier was to have the most influence in spreading: the technology tree.

One strange aspect of the story of these early open world games is that they each had their own ways of elevating the player’s agency. Elite, Seven Cities of Gold, and Pirates! mixed trading and combat. Mike Singleton’s The Lords of Midnight used recruiting military commanders and parallel adventure and strategy elements (inspired, like Dungeons & Dragons, by Tolkien). Paul Woakes’ Mercenary and Andrew Braybrook’s Paradroid had stealing ships or taking over robots (foreshadowing a core aspect of GTA’s play). Only the first three of these games seem to have been influenced by the tabletop games (although the lack of interviews with Paul Woakes makes Mercenary’s influence hard to judge), and only the first three games provide a key role for the shop. Whether this is circumstantial or an artefact of the key role money played in tabletop games, we can only speculate. What is clear, however, is that in the way the history of games actually unfolded, it was those games that conserved the imaginative practices of tabletop role-playing games that went on to have greater influence.

Next week, the final part: Arms Dealers