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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

Playing with Money (1): The Adventurer Shop

Dragon Quest ShopIf you’re anything like me, you've spent a rather disturbing amount of your life in videogame shops, making purchasing decisions or selling the piles of weapons looted from the corpses of your imaginary enemies. This three-part serial traces game design lineages for videogame money and shops, focussing on the key titles that established shopping as a central feature in contemporary videogame play.

The two key lineages in the early days of videogames are the arcade games and the descendants of TSR’s hugely influential Dungeons & Dragons. The player practices of the arcade, however, being based around fast-paced play that ended suddenly to encourage further coin drops, rarely involved shopping – although Atari’s 1986 top-down racer Super Sprint is a notable exception. Tracing the lineages of money and shops in games always suffers from the general problem that the imaginative practices of money are something we are all embedded within every day, and thus game shops could appear anywhere, in any kind of game, with no clear influence of a preceding game. Nonetheless, even with game money and shops, the conservation of player practices remains the norm, even if our everyday money is not considered a game (which could certainly be argued: we are required, after all, to imagine the value of objects that have no value apart from what we collectively imagine).

A game design lineage is a historical tracing of an element within games that shows both the conservation of player practices (which give us the patterns that become labelled as genres) and the hallmarks of creator vision, which subverts those player practices to create variations on the established patterns, often conditioned by the material constraints applying to games at the time of their creation. These lineages can spread beyond games: plenty of book and film influences create imaginative patterns that are then sustained in the fictional worlds of games – from the utter dependence of Halo: Combat Evolved upon James Cameron’s Aliens to the massive debt Dungeons & Dragons owes to Tolkien, Moorcock, and the other twentieth century fantasy writers.

However, the Adventurer Shop seems to be purely the invention of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson for Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. The preceding rules, Chainmail, designed by Jeff Perrin and given a fantasy supplement by Gygax, were purely a wargame – and this martial theme carried over into D&D’s preoccupation with ethnically cleansing goblins, kobolds and such from underground lairs for money and experience. What the monsters did with the coins they were hoarding is never made entirely clear, and no D&D module has a weapon shop purely for the enemies (which, logically, would be an excellent place for belligerent players to attack, since it would hold both money and weaponry). Adventurer shops, however, are present from the beginning, most notably in the scenario that shipped with boxed versions of the game from 1979, Dungeon Module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, which already shows the division of the game world into a village with shops (the keep), a wilderness (the overworld in CRPGs), and a dungeon (the Caves of the Unknown).

In addition to the Adventurer Shop, D&D also creates a vast range of coins to give out as loot. While the Gold Piece (or GP) is presented as the standard currency, treasure tables for the original tabletop role-playing game specified rewards in Copper Pieces, Silver Pieces, Electrum Pieces, and at the top of the scale Platinum Pieces. This final currency eventually got a starring role as currency in 1999’s pioneering (and rough around the edges) MMORPG EverQuest, although historically platinum currency was generally worth less than silver (when the Spanish invaded South America and found it in use there, it was largely considered a nuisance as it got in the way of their obsessive search for gold). Mostly, these different currencies merely tied players up in conversions into Gold Pieces, although in campaigns where encumbrance was enforced (mostly in the later Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules) it also led to incidents of ‘treasure dumping’, as players discarded that pile of Silver Pieces they had pilfered to make room for better coins they found later. Regardless of what was found out in the dungeons, shopping prices remained set in Gold Pieces, which remains the primary currency in Dungeons & Dragons even now. 

While it is Tolkien’s Moria that gives D&D its dungeon template, the act of shopping never directly appears in the stories of his legendarium, and neither does it appear in Moorcock’s Eternal Champion stories, although Fritz Leiber does have a shop of magical treasures in the 1963 Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser short story, Bazaar of the Bizarre. Even this case, however, doesn’t parallel the Adventurer Shop concept, since it is more a source of adventure than a means of supplying the expedition. Horses and supplies do feature in stories by Moorcock and Tolkien, especially in The Hobbit where the company of dwarves never manage to hold onto their food and ponies for more than a few pages, but buying weaponry, wooden poles, and near-endless yards of rope is not a part of any fantasy story prior to D&D’s publication, and no shopkeeper gets even one line of dialogue outside of Leiber. Even in D&D, the shop was mostly elided into backstory – part of kitting out ‘heroes’ (I use this term reluctantly in this case) with weapons and armour before setting off on the next cash-earning pogrom.

When early commercial computer role-playing games come onto the market in 1979-1980, the Adventurer Shop was part of the design because it was also part of D&D’s design, and the creators of these games were inspired by the practices of the tabletop game when putting their software together. Both 1979’s Akalabeth and its 1981 successor Ultima have a shop for buying food and weapons, with Ultima splitting up the full list of items for sale such that each shop has half of the total items on offer. 1980’s Wizardry goes as far to give its shop a name – Boltoc’s Trading Post – and adds to buying and selling the capacity to identify magical items and remove curses. In all these cases the player practices of D&D are conserved, with only minor tweaks. The ambiguous qualities of magical items, for instance, was a part of D&D’s original play, and paying someone to identify items (since they could be cursed...) is a simple twist on this, which also has a role in Rogue, from the same year of release as Wizardry.

In all these games, including D&D, the shop is rapidly superseded in practical terms by the magical treasure looted from the poor unfortunate denizens of the depths. Getting better weapons through accumulating money is not part of the Western RPG lineage at all. It is when early CRPGs like Ultima and Wizardry spread their player practices to Japan (which had almost no experience of D&D) that we get the idea of later shops holding better weapons. Both Dragon Quest in 1986 and Final Fantasy in 1987 – the latter inheriting Wizardry’s D&D-style multi-character parties, the former copying Ultima’s lone adventurer – have a series of shops, each offering better armaments and armour than the last. This concept, along with the episodic, chapter-based storytelling that facilitate it, became foundational to the Japanese RPG lineage, because their creators were riffing off fantasy adventure stories for inspiration and not D&D’s imaginative practices of player agency, where letting the players seem to be in charge of what is happening was an important part of the appeal. (The cultural biases of Western individualism versus Eastern collectivism must surely be another factor here, however difficult it might be to adequately expose such influences in any tangible manner).

Thus videogames took a player practice that formed just a small, peripheral role in tabletop RPGs and transformed it into a central, structural conceit for the Japanese CRPG lineage. Equivalently, the Western CRPG created a variation of D&D’s practices where the player becomes, as former International Hobo stalwart Ernest Adams quipped, an “itinerant second-hand arms dealer” – since in the absence of encumbrance rules (largely not inherited from tabletops into CRPGs) looting and selling weaponry became more of an in-game business model than simply stealing the supply of coins monsters had been squirrelling away for their never-to-be-attained retirement. Partly this is a consequence of inheriting the treasure table design from Dungeons & Dragons, but accelerating the rate of play such that fighting is happening every minute rather than (say) every half hour of play – this produced so much treasure that players from the 70’s might have to consider almost all the Western CRPG games that followed a ‘Monty Haul’

It is worth remarking that the Adventurer Shop can only be an invention of the tabletop RPG, because the adventurer itself has its origins there, despite the evident and acknowledged influence of the aforementioned authors. Having developed from tabletop wargames, combat was baked into the player practices of role-playing games from the outset, but the move towards narrative meant playing until victory ceased to be the basis of game structure and became supplanted with the gradual accumulation of power, the first step of which was going to a shop to acquire weaponry. It is worth noting that in a historical Medieval, Bronze or Iron Age context, weapons were not sold as over-the-counter goods, but either made as required by a village blacksmith or produced in large numbers for a nobleman’s armory. It is back projecting our contemporary shopping practices into a simulacrum of such historical worlds that makes sense of the idea of killing monsters to take their money and buy weapons to kill yet more monsters. It is patent nonsense. Yet, at the same time, it is tremendously entertaining.

Next week: Space Trading

Game Design Lineages

catacomb-3dLast year, I published my first paper with José Zagal, entitled Game Design Lineages: Minecraft’s Inventory. This is the finest academic games work I’ve been involved in, or (as I remarked to José) “the game studies paper I want to be buried with”. But what is a game design lineage and what does it have to do with game design? This piece explains my interest in the lineages of games and how it has informed, in some small but significant way, my professional work as a game designer and writer who will hit fifty published games this year.

Since at least 2011, I have been interested in improving historical research into game design – motivated by my own desire to continuously improve my game design skills, and also to contribute to the academic discussion that has grown up around games. Game studies, the field that engages with games as something worthy of research, has suffered from a number of problems in this regard including a widespread ignorance of the importance of history for understanding games as a creative form, and long standing prejudices that favour videogames over other forms of game. Indeed, until recently ‘game studies’ was a term that has primarily meant videogame studies. As a field, it tends to suffer from a widely held (but rarely spoken) conviction that it ought to be engaged in scientific research, and therefore history is a second class citizen in the academic games world. Yet no media studies field is a science, the methods of the sciences generally produce lacklustre results when applied to games, and historically-grounded discourse about games is arguably the pinnacle of scholarship in game studies right now – whether its focus is aesthetics, tracing relationships between games, or examining hardware constraints.

The earliest piece of mine to voice these views was The Constraint Histories of Digital Games, back in October 2011. It makes the following still-relevant observation about a key issue in historical research for games:

Attempts to provide a taxonomy of game genres founder on the lack of consistent criteria, and usually have to be arbitrarily assigned. Connecting ‘shooters’ into a lineage suggests scrolling shooters were direct influences on first person shooters, for instance. But there's no evidence suggesting Zaxxon has any connection with the design of DOOM, or that Space Invaders inspired Zaxxon. As a historical tool, genre categories can provide some useful connections – DOOM certainly did influence GoldenEye 007, for example – but genre cannot be used as a unifying framework for game history because the genre lineages are narrowly valid and do not constitute a complete description of game history.

In the six years since I wrote this, I can now strengthen this claim: Zaxxon belongs within the various arcade lineages of the late twentieth century that have tremendous influence upon games but that are radically distinct from the lineages that descend from tabletop role-playing games, which proliferated in the wake of 1974’s Dungeons & Dragons. Surprisingly, DOOM is a descendant of this latter lineage and not any of the arcade lineages, since it comes about from modifying the early dungeon crawler form typified by 1987’s seminal Dungeon Master, a form that inspired John Carmack to make Catacomb 3D (pictured above) and from this, mostly by raising the pace of play and switching fantasy weapons for guns, creating the FPS form as we now understand it.

In August 2016, I produced my most complete piece of historical work on games to date, a historical investigation of game inventories – the first part of which touches upon the roots of the FPS in the early dungeon crawlers that converted the dungeon adventures D&D had invented into digital forms. Last year, I worked with my good and excellent academic friend José Zagal to adapt this material into a paper, which we presented at DiGRA UK, just a short distance up the road from me at MediaCity in Salford. The paper contracts some of the historical detail in my original blog serial, but with José’s assistance the general method I was pursuing became more robust and clearly stated. The resulting paper, Game Design Lineages: Minecraft’s Inventory, is not yet included in DiGRA’s digital library but I have made it available in ResearchGate in the meantime (it is also headed to DiGRA’s Transactions journal at some point in the near future). This term ‘game design lineages’ is José’s suggested description for my general method. Here’s an explanation of the term from the paper:

In the context of game studies and game design we feel that little work has been done to explore how best to provide rich and deep insight such that game design knowledge can be understood, communicated, and possibly used, without losing the essential relationships required to make sense of the games in question. We offer the notion of the game design lineage as a means to partially address this challenge by contextualizing game systems within the player practices that provided both the environment that guided their implementation, and the background of understanding against which the game was encountered by its original players.

A game design lineage is rich description of the networks of connections between common designed elements… that is situated within an understanding of the context that conditioned the original design decisions that led to them, understood in terms of player practices. This perspective is important not only in terms of more accurately investigating the historical connectivity of games and their designs, but also because insights from the past remain useful in the future, and can explain problems that are currently misunderstood or taken for granted.

The paper focuses on three specific contexts by which lineages can be traced. Firstly, player practices, which as I have been uncovering through patient investigation (and more than a touch of philosophical influence) are the bedrock of the game design process and the origin of the interrelations between games that give us the genre terms that are themselves too vague to build historical accounts from (as discussed above). Player practices, and not rules as such, are fundamental to games, as I argue in Are Videogames Made of Rules?, since rules are better understood as a means of capturing such practices in words and specifying them more precisely. Material constraints include the kind of hardware issues that Ian Bogost and Nick Monfort engaged with in with Racing the Beam, as well as significant commercial considerations that I discuss often as a consultant but which the academic community around games has largely ignored. Finally, creator vision marks the ways that game designers and development teams subvert player practices and adapt to material constraints in new and innovative ways while still remaining embedded within the conservation of player practices. 

I had previously been discussing lineages in terms of Foucault’s work, especially The Archaeology of Knowledge, since his method and mine substantially overlap. I wrote about this in the ‘tin anniversary’ dual serials for my blogs, Foucault’s Archaeology and Player Practices. Disappointingly, Foucault scholars have blocked my attempts to turn this into a paper, requiring me to talk about power (the late Foucault’s obsession), and forcing me to withdraw from using Foucault as a reference at all. To be clear, Foucault’s methods in The Archaeology of Knowledge and mine overlap… I thought it prudent to draw attention to that, the academic community had other ideas, and I don’t have the patience or desire to persist with such a trivial aspect of my work. Easier all around to leave Foucault to the Foucauldians.

Dan Golding has had more success drawing on this angle without being required to talk about power, perhaps by getting at Foucault’s ideas indirectly via film historian Thomas Elsaesser. Dan presented his paper Lineages: Historicising the Videogame at the joint DiGRA-FDG conference in Dundee back in 2016, the same conference that I presented No-one Plays Alone, which has also not made it into the DiGRA library yet but had appeared in their Transactions (linked here). This is the paper that begins to develop the player practices concept, within which game design lineages has been conceived. I view Dan’s work as allied to mine (although he may not), and my means of combining the two methods goes via Walton’s prop theory, which I deployed in Imaginary Games (to very little influence in game studies). At the very least, Dan and I share a perception of the importance of history in understanding games and play, and agree that films and literature are part of the network of relations that have made videogames what they are.

The game design lineages method is the most viable historical research tool I’ve yet encountered for examining games and videogames, although it is only a part of the wider research project into player practices that I have been pursuing for much of the last decade. It began with Imaginary Games, applying Walton’s concept of props that prescribe certain imaginings to games, and then asking about the key props for videogames – such as inventories, maps, and save games, all of which condition the play of videogames in highly significant ways. This also brought out how videogames were dominated by two particular props – guns and goals – leading me to suggest (back in 2011) that authentic artistic innovation in these media would have to subvert the player practices surrounding these props, as Dear Esther, Proteus, and everything by Tale of Tales does to great effect.

As a commercial game designer, I have not had the luxury to explore such artistically-motivated concerns, but my player practices work has had another key influence upon me: it has united the otherwise disparate domains of marketing and game design. When I first pursued the research into play styles that became my book with Richard Boon, 21st Century Game Design, it was because of the recognition that marketing was valued more than game design – and with good cause (despite the abysmal state of understanding in games marketing departments...) since marketing expenditure is a much better predictor of eventual sales than anything else. That was why the original pamphlet for this research, which I gave out to (amongst other people) Eiji Aonuma, was subtitled How to Make Game Design as Important as Marketing. The point here is straightforward, but easily ignored: the conditions into which every game appears are set by the games that are already being played, and when this isn’t taken into account, there is a tendency to produce games that – whatever their merits – acquire no audience because they are either too hard to learn or do not offer an imaginative fantasy players will pay for. The conservation of player practices is the dominant flow of the commercial games market, and it is the major forks in this river that become labelled with genre terms.

When I started to give talks about the history of games, I began to see how interconnected their lineages were, and how genre emerges as a symptom of the conservation of player practices, which provides the bedrock for the craft of game design. We game designers do not build games from game-mechanical Lego bricks but from player practices we have learned by playing other games, often expressed in terms of rules or systems because we nerds are trained to think in such terms. Yet when you think about design in terms of player practices, game design lineages become not just a tool for historical investigations but yet another method for creating games, one that is informed by the knowledge that no-one plays alone. It is both these projects – historical research and creative game design – that I continue to vigorously pursue.

For further reading, please check out the papers Game Design Lineages: Minecraft’s Inventory and its predecessor No-one Plays Alone.

Prezi: No-one Plays Alone

For those of you who have brought a suitable device to DiGRA-FDG (and for those not able to make the conference), here's my Prezi for No-one Plays Alone

The timeline in particularly has a lot to offer an errant explorer... go take a look!

Looking for research partners!

I'm always looking for people with similar research interests for possible collaboration on papers, contributions to edited volumes, or possible formation of new sub-disciplines. Please get in touch using the Contact link if your research interests are in any of the following areas:

  • Player Practices: my main Game Studies research subject right now, and I'm interested in allying with anyone who broadly agrees with the following statements, regardless of how they choose to describe their research:
    "no player can play or design a game in complete isolation from the practices of others"
    "an artefactual reading of a game is always an incomplete reading"

    "the history of games is the history of the way players engaged with them" or equivalently "emulation is at-best reincarnation"
  • Philosophy of Imagination: also interested in anyone applying Walton's make-believe theory (or another theory of representation) to any and all aspects of human life. This was the background to my 'imaginative investigations' i.e. the trilogy Imaginary Games, The Mythology of Evolution, and Chaos Ethics. If your work crosses over anywhere near mine here, I'm interested in talking to you.
  • Multiverse/Pluriverse/Ecology of Practices: related to the above, I'd love to hook up with researchers who are pursuing Stengers' ecology of practices, William James' pluriverse/multiverse, or anything similar to my adaptation of Moorcock's multiverse to ethics and politics. If you are working on ways to understand our diversity of being as a manifold of practices or an inclusive set of mythos, please get in touch.

Many thanks to everyone who came to my talk!

The Aesthetic Motives of Play

My piece The Aesthetic Motives of Play will appear later this year in Springer’s Emotion in Games: Theory and Praxis, edited by Dr Kostas Karpouzis and an old colleague of mine, Professor Georgios Yannakakis. Here’s my abstract:

Why do people enjoy playing games? The answer, in its most general form, is that there are aesthetic pleasures offered by games and other play experiences that meet powerful and profound human and animal needs. As such, we can identify specific aesthetic motives of play, and one of the clearest ways of characterizing these motives is in terms of the emotional experiences associated with them.

This was a super-easy chapter for me to write as I’m only summarising work I’ve already done, but it is an excellent précis of where I’m up to and I hope will complement the other chapters in this collection.

Yee Rides Again

Great to see Nick Yee getting back into player modelling over at Quantic Foundry. However, it seems he hasn’t looked into the similar work International Hobo was doing with BrainHex five years ago. In a recent post, Gaming Motivations Align with Personality Traits, he states:

Action-Social isn’t hinted at in any Existing Model: When we first saw the Action-Social cluster emerge, we were a little stumped. This grouping is unintuitive and hasn’t been proposed by any existing model or taxonomy.

That’s not true! In fact, if you look at the subclass distribution for BrainHex you’ll see that the third most popular is Conqueror-Socialiser (6.1% of sample), which is what maps most closely onto Yee’s Action-Social.

To be fair, I haven’t written much about BrainHex recently because my primary take away from that research effort was that this isn’t how we should be proceeding in this area if we want to get to anything like a science of player modelling. To see why, check out my 2011 DiGRA paper with Lennart Nacke and Rebecca Lowenhaupt, Player Typology in Theory and Practice.

Looking forward to seeing what else Nick turns up in his current round of research.

The Original Game Studies Scholar?

Procedural Map It occurred to me this morning that my undergraduate thesis on landscape creation through fractal noise synthesis and language generation through morpho-phoneme systems was in 1994. I would have done a game-focussed Masters degree if any member of the faculty had understood why I was working in that field, but as it was I had to teach a robot to read instead. But this publication date – 1994 – puts me into the ‘first wave’ of game studies scholars. In fact, for a brief moment I thought it made me the original game studies scholar. But let’s not get carried away.

“First wave” makes much more sense to describe game studies scholars than feminists, don't you think? It gets you all worked up about wanting to beat the final wave! But when exactly would you judge the first wave of game studies?

Taking my 1994 publication as a benchmark, let’s take on the usual contenders.

Bartle? Didn’t get a paper out until 1999. Sorry, King of MUDs, you’ll just have to settle for being the iconic co-founder of one of the most influential game formats of all time instead.

Aarseth? 1997. Too slow Espen!

Juul? 1999. GG, Jesper.

But then, just as I’m flush with these easy victories, along comes James Wallis with a grenade in his quiver. Because from 1994-5 he published the incredible journal Interactive Fantasy, which as well as being an awesome publication is famous for hosting Greg Costikyan’s incredible essay “I Have No Words and I Must Design”. And he also points out that Chris Crawford was publishing the Journal of Computer Game Design from 1987-1996. Respect, Chris. I yield the hill to thee.

Of course, it all comes down to what we mean by ‘game studies’. What Juul and Aarseth can lay claim to was carving off a niche for the study of games that wasn’t the ridiculously narrow field of game theory (really: mathematics of competition). I didn’t do that. I went into industry and made commercial videogames instead. To these two, and others in this ‘first wave’ of game studies scholars, all who study games owe a debt.

Those who came before this – like Thomas Malone and Chris Crawford (and Richard Bartle too, since I conveniently overlooked his 1985 book...) – are the zeroth wave, the people studying games before there even was a game studies field. And before them, of course, the legendary sociologist Roger Callois and heroic historian Johan Huizinga. I would add to this Ernst Gombrich: if Imaginary Games achieves anything, I hope it is to show how Gombrich completes this holy trinity of the progenitors of game studies.

So, no crown for me, no victory, no honour. Except the honour of being part of this grand tradition of thinkers who claimed that games and play are worthy of study. And in this, I salute each and all who came before, or who follow after.

The opening image isn’t one of my maps from my thesis project (I can’t find any GIFs from this era of my life) but from a graph structure constraint noise synthesis project by Amit Patel that is orders of magnitude superior to my basic height map technique (even taking into account that he doesn’t have my language-module for naming settlements in a procedural language). You can learn about Amit’s fascinating project on his Red Blog Games blog.

The Player Experience Conference

GamersPleased to announce that I’m part of the team behind a new conference provisionally entitled The Player Experience: The Emotions and Worlds of Digital Games, due to launch in the Summer of 2016. An inter-disciplinary event, we are intending to sit at the intersection between Game Studies and Cyberpsychology, but will accept submissions from philosophy, narratology, neurobiology, or any other field with connections to the subject. We also welcome delegates from the games industry who’d like to give a presentation, or who’d just like to attend.

The theme for the first conference in the series is Avatars: Presence and Immersion, looking at the representation of identity in and around the fictional worlds of games, and how these lead to presence (high fidelity of experience) and immersion (deep engagement) within those imagined worlds.

The conference will be hosted at the University of Bolton in Greater Manchester UK, and we expect the Call for Participation to begin in February 2015 and close around 30 May 2015. The conference organisers are myself, Dr. Angela Tinwell, and Dr. Julie Prescott. At the moment, we are asking for Expressions of Interest consisting of an email stating that you would like to take part and your academic field and institution, or your company.

Please email px [at] ihobo [dot] com - or click this Email Robot – to let us know this event interests you. Hope to hear from you soon!

ihobo will return in January 2015.