Category Archives: Industry

Unexpected gaming finds: a journey into the dark heart of Cyborg Commando

There are few things more fun than browsing through a big used game collection at a hobby store—you never know what you’re going to find.

There’s a comic store near my house that has a selection of used games. I usually don’t pay it too much attention when I visit the store, since I’ve combed through the used section in the past and already snatched up the stuff that interests me. But for the last year or two, I’ve been tempted by, of all things… (drum roll, please) this:

Cyborg Commando boxed set

That is, of course, a copy of Cyborg Commando, a Gary Gygax creation and one of the worst games ever published, if internet scuttlebutt is to be believed. Every few months I would stop by this store, see that slightly battered game box on the shelf (for just a few measly bucks!), and after a fierce internal debate, I’d successfully make my saving throw vs. Buy More Games I’ll Probably Never Play.

But recently, in a moment of weakness, I decided that I just had to have this artifact of gaming history. It’s by Gary Gygax, for crying out loud! How bad can it possibly be? (Pretty bad, actually; but that’s a story for another day.)

So I picked it up, trundled home with my prize, and retreated into the basement, after a brief exchange with my wife:

Me: I stopped by the comic store and picked up this game!
Wife: Cool—what is it?
Me (excitedly): It’s called Cyborg Commando. It’s widely considered one of the worst roleplaying games ever published!

Safely downstairs, I prised open the box. The old-papery smell of a dusty TSR-era boxed set filled the air:

Inside the Cyborg Commando boxed set.

Two rulebooks, some sort of short adventure-looking booklet, and some dice. A little on the meager side, but this is gaming history I’m experiencing, so that’s OK. But wait! What’s this on the inside cover?

Signed Cyborg Commando rulebook

Unless I’m mistaken, those are the signatures of Gary Gygax and Frank Mentzer themselves! (Too bad the owner of this boxed set didn’t get Kim Mohan’s signature as well, for completeness’ sake; alas.) The writing in the top left (in what looks like Gygax’s handwriting) says “At Gencon XX, 1987.” Gencon 1987 was the same year Cyborg Commando was released, so the publisher may have been selling signed copies at their booth at the convention.

What a cool surprise! It actually is a piece of gaming history. It’s not as cool as having an actual vintage D&D book signed by Gygax, but it somehow feels even nerdier, which is good. I also suspect there’s no shortage of signed Gygax books out there, given his decades-long involvement in the hobby—but this is the only Gygax signature in my collection, so it’s pretty special. I may never play this game, but it sits proudly atop my gaming bookshelf.

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GaryCon 2008: Mr. Gygax, we salute you

gygaxMany, many people have in the last few days written eloquent tributes to Gary Gygax, so I won’t try and compete with them—I’ll just say that if Gary Gygax had not created a little game called Dungeons & Dragons, my life would be radically different than it is.

How many hours did I spent in my youth poring over game rulebooks, plotting out adventures in my mind, rolling up dozens and dozens of characters just for the sheer imaginative thrill of it? My first roleplaying experience was Tomb of the Lizard King—not one of Gary’s modules, but it wasn’t long before I was soaking up every piece of Gygax writing I could find. My cousins and I had so much fun with Tomb of the Lizard King that we proceeded to hole up for three straight days doing nothing but playing D&D (much to the consternation of our parents, who didn’t know what the heck to make of our excited babbling about clerics and hit points and gelatinous cubes). None of us had even the slightest idea what we were doing (my cousins made me GM even though I had never before laid eyes on a rulebook), but we knew we had stumbled upon something incredible. I have vivid memories of hours spent intensely reading through my cousin’s copy of the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide. After that it was Top Secret, Middle Earth Role Playing, Mechwarrior and many others… games written by others but which owed their existence to Gygax’s pioneering. Thank you, Gary Gygax, for sharing your creation with the rest of us, and for giving this awkward teenager an outlet for his imagination.

garyconTonight we participated in what some are calling “GaryCon”—a game of dungeon-crawling, kobold-killing, treasure-looting D&D in memory of Gary. I ran the players through a mostly improvised dungeon populated by skeletons, giant rats, and an owlbear, and remembering Gary’s DMG advice not to coddle players, I even managed to kill one of them with said owlbear. It was not the best game I’ve ever run, nor was it the worst: it was just a good game, and that seemed perfectly appropriate.

At the end of the game we each rolled a d20 in honor of Gary. I rolled a 19.

Rest in peace, Mr. Gygax.

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History of the game

Over the last few months, Shannon Appelcline has been writing a column I’ve found really fascinating–A Brief History of Game, a history of some of the great companies of roleplaying history. Some of the great game companies of yesteryear are still around, while others are long dead and buried, but they all contributed something to the hobby.

Of particular interest to me was the two-part history of Iron Crown Enterprises (part 1, part 2)–that company was responsible for much of my gaming enjoyment when I first got into this hobby, and I’ve long tried to piece together from scattered internet rumors the details of their rise, fall, and subsequent rise again. Interesting stuff–and I’m glad somebody’s writing it all down for posterity.

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Thanksgiving, King's Quest, and more rambling about my obsession with revisiting classic game franchises

It’s the week after Thanksgiving, which means a couple of things. Firstly, it means it’s time to re-adjust to actually working every day after a long and relaxed holiday weekend that involved… well, not a lot of work of any sort. And it means that we’re forced to come up with increasingly creative ways to incorporate large quantities of leftover turkey and cranberry sauce into meals. All this to say: welcome back, those of you who celebrated Thanksgiving last week; and I hope you had as enjoyable and reflective a holiday as I did.

My wife and I aren’t really “born shoppers” at heart; neither of us minds running out for groceries or occasionally swinging by the mall to pick up a few items, but we derive no special enjoyment from the act of shopping. And so we were a bit surprised to find ourselves suiting up last week Friday–the day after Thanksgiving, an infamous celebration of capitalism and the free market–to brave the holiday crowds and do some Christmas shopping. Off to the mall we went, bracing ourselves for the post-holiday shopping mayhem.

The mall was indeed crowded. And as usual, I reasoned with my wife that While we’re in the mall, I really ought to stop by EB Games, you know, just to see what all the kids are playing these days. Fair enough, she said, eager to be free to wander the Bath and Body Shop (or something like that) without a dour-looking husband trailing her silently through the aisles holding a scarf over his face so as not to be knocked unconscious by the choking, overwhelming potpourri fumes.

So I went to EB Games, and that, in case you’re wondering, is what this rambling post is really about. While at EB Games I picked up a Sims 2 expansion for my wife (she’s an addict), and while walking to the register my gaze fell upon something interesting: a King’s Quest anthology.

Could it be true? Indeed it was–the whole KQ series, updated to run on modern Windows versions and bundled for $20. Next to the KQ anthology were Space Quest and Police Quest collections as well.

This is exciting stuff. The King’s Quest games were second only to the Zork series as far as my childhood game influences went. The early KQ games, like a lot of Sierra titles from that era, were really well-written and clever. I played King’s Quest 2 almost incessantly on my parents’ old-school Macintosh in junior high. I remember wandering all over the game world, mapping my progress with good old-fashioned pen and paper, saving the mermaid, outwitting the witch, and escaping the vampire. And I’d spent countless hours discussing the more difficult puzzles and challenges with my friend Raymond, whose love for the Sierra adventure titles exceeded even my own.

I can’t believe it’s taken so long to get here, but it’s just a terribly good idea to bundle up the old Sierra adventure game series and sell them. Some have aged better than others, but the basic puzzle-based gameplay works well even today, and as I’ve said before, I think it’s really important and inspiring to look back at the great moments of gaming history and remind ourselves that good gameplay can make you overlook even the crudest graphics.

There are so many excellent games that deserve to be revived in this fashion–dug out of the archives, tweaked so that they’ll run on modern operating systems, and bundled up with their sequels. It’s a real shame that the Ultima series, Infocom titles, LucasArts classics, and countless excellent Interplay games are so difficult to find; even those that were released in anthology form back in the 1990s often require massive hacking to run well on modern computers. You’d think that the companies that own these franchises could earn themselves a bit of extra cash by hiring somebody to update their classic DOS titles and make them available for online purchase through their websites. Maybe the re-issue of the KQ and other Sierra series is a step in that direction, although I’m afraid they won’t stick around on store shelves for more than a few months before disappearing into whatever abyss awaits Games That Are More Than Six Months Old.

I should note that one company which is doing this very thing–taking old titles, updating them, and re-releasing them–is Matrix Games, which is renovating an impressive number of aging computer wargames in this fashion. They’re helped by the fact that unlike other genres, good wargames tend to age relatively well since graphics have never been their main selling point. But here’s hoping that other companies with the rights to classic game titles consider investing a bit of money into renovating the classics.

And back to the topic of King’s Quest, I would be remiss if I did not mention the fan remakes of several KQ and other Sierra titles over at AGD Interactive. That sort of project can at least tide us over until game companies get serious about making their classic titles available again.

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You'll never beat me: games with show-stopping bugs

There are games that seem impossible to beat, and games that really are impossible to beat. That’s the story with the recent Bubble Bobble Revolution, which

includes a game-halting bug. Apparently the big boss battle in Level 30 isn’t much of a battle at all because the boss never appears, meaning that the game just sits there on an empty level waiting for a boss who will never come. The remaining seventy or so levels are unreachable.

Ouch–this doesn’t sound too good for the publisher’s Quality Assurance department. If this were a computer game, a downloadable patch could fix the game, but since this is a handheld console game, fixing it will probably involve recalling the game from store shelves and shipping out corrected copies to stores and customers.

It is not uncommon for games to ship with serious bugs–in fact, it’s a common computer gamer gripe that the availability of online patching has made it easier for developers to release buggy titles and patch them later. But it’s fairly uncommon for a game to ship with a bug so severe that the game is unfinishable.

The only such game that I’ve personally encountered was Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries, a very fun game that also happened to be riddled with bugs. The bugs might have been tolerable, except that one of them made it impossible to progress beyond a certain point in the game. After completing a particularly difficult mission partway through the game, you are told to wait for your dropship to pick you up and end the mission. The dropship showed up, all right–but it never landed. I spent a good hour chasing it around the map; I tried shooting it down; I tried reloading old saved games; I tried replaying the mission from scratch, but the dropship never landed and the mission never ended. So I stopped playing the game. (I later learned that a patch was made available, but this was in the mid-90s before internet connectivity was ubiquitous; by the time I came across the patch, the game had long been gathering dust.)

The only other game I’ve played that comes close to the “unfinishable” level was Ultima 9–a famously buggy game that, like MW2:M above, was quite enjoyable… during the small windows of time between crashes and lock-ups when you were actually able to play. I had to completely reinstall the game and start from scratch twice. The third time I made it halfway through the game only to have it corrupt all of my saved games was the last… while there was no one single bug that rendered the game unwinnable, the odds of making it through the entire game without running into a game-killing glitch were so low that it probably counts as “unwinnable” in my book. (The game’s bugs were so severe that the publisher actually shipped out fresh copies of the game to registered customers; but I didn’t have the willpower to start over from scratch again in the hopes that it wouldn’t just die again after sucking up fifteen more hours of my life.)

Extremely difficult games I can handle. Even games so difficult that they might as well be impossible for me to complete. I can shrug off a few bugs here and there. But completely unwinnable games? That just makes me wonder if anybody over at the game company actually played the thing before slapping a $49.99 price sticker on it and bundling it off to Gamestop.

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Innovation is dead! Long live innovation!

Gamasutra has an interview with game-design legend Chris Crawford. Lots of interesting ideas in there, but the gist of it can be boiled down to a theme I’ve heard more than once over the last few years: innovation in games is dead, and the industry is living on borrowed time.

I don’t know much about the economics of the game industry, so I can’t comment on the latter point. But I have done a lot of reading and thinking about the first point–that there is no more innovation in game design. Is the age of game innovation–an era of quirky, bizarre and sometimes brilliant gameplay ideas that weren’t pigeonholed into narrowly defined genres–long past us? Has the experimentation of the 1980s been quashed by endless sequels? Have we been reduced to simply re-playing fancier-looking but completely derivative iterations of the same two or three games?

Looking at the game shelf of your local Best Buy, it’s awfully hard to deny this. Lots and lots of sequels; lots and lots of unimaginative games that simply splash a fresh coat of paint over gameplay that’s ten or fifteen years old.

But I’d like to disagree a bit with the doomsayers–partly out of a stubborn desire to play the devil’s advocate, and partly because the gamer in me (who has played many excellent games in the last decade) rebels a bit against the implication that what I’ve been playing lately is utterly lacking in creativity.

One problem I have with these “innovation is dead” arguments is that they tend to be unclear on what innovation actually is. Words like “storytelling” and “narrative” get tossed around, but these terms are maddeningly vague. Nor is it clear that this sort of innovation will make for games that are more fun. I’d like to suggest that innovation does exist today, but rather than taking the form of avant-garde gameplay styles, it consists of taking tried-and-true styles of basic gameplay (of which there are only a finite number, after all) and stretching them in new directions. Consider the following, none of which boast truly unique gameplay styles but which have earned a place in many a gamer’s heart:

  • Starcraft, which introduced wonderfully memorable characters and storylines into the otherwise somewhat dry-and-mechanical strategy game genre
  • Morrowind, which with its open-ended world design lifted many of the gameplay restrictions traditionally placed on players in roleplaying games and left players to pursue their own path through the game
  • Planescape: Torment, which took the framework of a traditional computer RPG and used it to tell a story with real literary and emotional power
  • Quake, Half-life, and Neverwinter Nights, which through their extreme (and intentional) customizability, spawned a thriving culture of community-built game content
  • The Sims, the game that still defies efforts to fit it into an existing genre
  • Guild Wars, which built an interesting fusion of single-player gameplay in a massive-multiplayer game environment

All of these games came out in the “dark ages”–the last decade, in which innovation has supposedly been dead. Yet each left a profound mark on the gaming landscape because they took existing gameplay frameworks and spun them in new directions. That might not be the textbook definition of “innovation,” but if it produces games like these, I’ll take it.

The “innovation is dead” crowd laments the decrease in the variety of gameplay styles available. But I think this is just the natural result of years spent refining gameplay styles that were once new and original: over time, the truly fun gameplay remains, and the not-fun gameplay is dropped. It is unlikely that we’ll see more than a handful of entirely new gameplay styles in the next few years; what falls to game designers now is to stretch the existing library of ideas into unexplored territory. There is art and, yes, innovation in borrowing proven game elements and refining them into something even more fun.

My last game purchase was Galactic Civilizations II, an explore-and-conquer space empire game that consists almost entirely of elements borrowed from games that came before it. I just hit level 37 in World of Warcraft, a game that’s mostly built on all the good ideas from other massively-multiplayer games. And you know what? Both games are really, really fun. I’ll be there to cheer on the new and bizarre when it appears (Spore, I have high hopes for you). And I’ll roll my eyes along with everybody else at the release of the 80th game in the Madden series. But in the meantime, I”ve got some fun, if not strictly innovative, games that need playing.

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Miscellaneous but noteworthy reads

A couple quick links worth checking out:

  • D20 guru Monte Cook shares his thoughts on the past, present, and future of the Open Game License. In particular, he thinks aloud about what a fourth edition of D&D might mean for the OGL. (And don’t miss part 2 of his essay.)
  • Chris Pramas (of Green Ronin) relates the long and harrowing story of bringing the True20 game system to market. (That’s the first of several posts in the series.) It’s always interesting to get a glimpse at the inner workings of a game company–seeing how difficult it can be to bring a book from the idea phase to publication makes me appreciate the finished work even more.
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The internet makes game shopping boring

Mike Mearls has an interesting post about the effect of the internet on the way he views his local game store:

Before the Internet, a trip to a game store was fun. I liked shifting through racks of Ral Partha and Reaper miniatures looking for cool figures. In high school, I was lucky to have a well-stocked hobby store that dabbled in a few obscure miniatures lines, so there was always something new to find. The same applied to a lesser extent to RPGs and boardgames.

With the dawn of the Internet, that enjoyable part of shopping is gone. There’s little there to discover, because I know what’s out there. My information is a little too good.

This is something I’ve certainly noticed as well. When I was but a wee lad, a trip to the game store was an exciting, momentous occasion; I had no idea what strange and wonderful game books and other goodies were waiting for me on the shelves. I had little concept of the game “industry” and no understanding of the way that game lines were developed; I could never predict what game products were coming next. I might go to the store one month to find a book about psionics in D&D, or I might find a Battletech sourcebook unveiling crazy new mech designs. Whatever it was, it was always unexpected and exciting.

(Sure, I had a few outdated game line catalogs that sometimes came packaged in with boxed sets, but the odds of any particular book from those catalogs making it to my local game store were pretty slim, and I didn’t do the mail-order thing much.)

But with the internet, we now know all sorts of details about upcoming game books well in advance of publication–sometimes years before they actually hit store shelves. Publication schedules are planned out months or years in advance; book previews are made available to entice gamers into pre-ordering products online. If you pay attention to the major game publisher sites, chances are you know nearly as much about the next batch of upcoming games as the developers do.

It’s really, really hard to be surprised by a game these days.

That’s certainly not a bad thing–I like knowing what’s coming down the pipe, personally–but it has robbed the excursion to the game store of any sort of suspense or anticipation. If the game you want isn’t on the store shelf, you can just order it online and have it show up in your mailbox two days later. And so one major reason for bothering to frequent a local game store–to find out what’s new, to pick up rumors about what’s coming next–is gone.

In the post above, Mearls notes that this has caused him to approach his local game store less as a source of news and discovery and more as a social hub. (Speaking for myself, since my own local game store isn’t really a place I’d want to spend serious time hanging out at, I mostly patronize it to support local business.) The old thrill of discovery is gone, so he’s found different ways to make his trips to the game store worthwhile.

An interesting situation, to be sure. I’m a fan of this internet thing, myself, but there are certainly times when I wish for the relative “ignorance” I enjoyed during the pre-internet era!

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Surveying the hobby

Ohio State University, GAMA, and The Wargamer are asking gamers to take part in a hefty survey about your gaming preferences and habits. It took me about twenty minutes to go through the whole thing–a bit lengthy, but you wouldn’t want to miss a chance to rant and rave about this little hobby of ours, would you? Check it out, if you’re so inclined.

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