Playing with Money (2): Space Trading
Wednesday, 31 January 2018
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.
The 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 Trek, Traveller’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
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