Saturday, October 31, 2020

Divine Right History (Part 3 of 3)

The beginning of Divine Right takes place over 40 years ago, and its continued popularity is a testament to the game's solid design, deep mythos, and great characters. Glenn shared his design notes and the fascinating history of Divine Right with us, so prepare to enter the turbulent world of Minaria from the very start. (Part 2 here.)


DR2: The 25th-Anniversary Edition

Divine Right lay fallow for a long time, but the collector price grew appreciably—copies going for $200 apiece were not unusual. A couple of possibilities developed for computer versions of DR, but both fell through.

As of May 1994, Divine Right seemed to have a chance of rebirth with a game company called Excalibre in Ontario, Canada. Its president called me, saying that he’d been hearing for years how gamers wanted the return of Divine Right. He therefore inquired whether I was interested in a DR reprint. I was very much interested, in fact, and said that I had a lot more material that I had roughed out over the years and that might be worked into a new edition. Revision and expansion sounded fine to Excalibre, and I was encouraged to let my imagination run free. Thereafter, I worked off and on (mostly on) for four years, coming up with an extensive expansion of both DR and Scarlet Empire.

By late 1997, alas, it became clear that the Excalibre project was not going to go ahead, and I saw no choice except to terminate the contract as of late 1998.

While disappointed at the turn of events, the time-consuming revision of DR that had ensued had not exactly been wasted. The mythos of Minaria had become much richer with the introduction of many more plot elements and characters. The work had been worth doing, and Ken and I at least had a playtest copy that was fit to present to a publisher. In retrospect, it’s hard to see how four years could have been better spent.

How true this was became clear in the first part of 2001, when I received an unexpected call from Shawne Kleckner, president of The Right Stuf International in Des Moines, IA. He wanted to know whether Divine Right was currently available for republication. I told him that it was, pointing out that it had undergone a good deal of revision over the last two decades. The upside of DR’s expansion was that we could offer him the choice of publishing either the classic game or the new updated version. Even though Right Stuf was a video-import house and not a game company, Shawne had been fascinated by Divine Right from his first acquaintance with it and thought that the game would be a good product for Right Stuf, as its long-awaited revival would be a service to the game community.

Shawne called back a week later with a definite offer. He wanted to call the Right Stuf publication the “25th Anniversary Edition,” which at that time would be accurate only if one dated the design from the earliest prototypes. Ken and I signed shortly after. We worked hard at polishing rules to final form and in revising and expanding the Minarian Legends. The game was printed and ready to ship by the end of 2001.

Over the next few months, the congenial Shawne Kleckner and his sister, Kris, impressed us with their enthusiasm for the project.

The Stormriders

Even while Ken and I were still working on DR2, I had believed that Scarlet Empire might never be published. I wanted fans who bought DR2, though, to have the excitement of having the whole of Minaria engaged against a single powerful foreign invader, even if this invader could not be the Scarlet Witch King. It would be necessary for the invader not to have an in-play hinterland of his own. I decided to use a sort of Genghis Khan-type of intruder to stand in for the nefarious Scarlet Witch King.

My first choice for their name had been “the Storm Bringers” or “the Flame Bringers,” but author Michael Moorcock had first dibs on those names. While names, technically, cannot be copyrighted, I had no reason to step on Mr. Moorcock’s toes. The first fallback name for my marauders was “Stormriders,” a term that was used variously in stories and movies and so seemed to be available for fair use. So that is the name I used.

It was not hard to introduce faux Mongols into DR2. Already I had worked out rules for a similar type, the Eastern Horsemen (which remedied the lamentable lack of barbarians on that huge eastern border of Minaria). These lesser barbarians were suggestive of the Huns, Turks, and Magyars that perplexed Eastern and Central Europe in the Middle Ages before the Mongol explosion.

Historically, the Mongols suddenly arrived as strangers into Europe, as steppe nomads tended to do. They seemed bent on savage war and conquest, although there had been no real causus belli and, up to then, no significant interaction between the Continent and Mongolia. To guide the martial actions of the group that I called “the Stormriders,” I adapted the rules already crafted for the Scarlet Empire. They were moderately modified to fit the slightly different circumstances. These borrowed rules are to be seen in particular in the Minarian vassal rules.

The author looks forward to the continuing possibility of some future Scarlet Empire release. If current plans bear out, it is not impossible that the victorious Stormriders will clash at the borders of Girion with a primed and ready Scarlet Witch King, and two evil empires will send their elite minions and dejected vassals into monumental battles in many lands and climates.

DR2B

When DR2 arrived, Ken and I were surprised to find that the product differed greatly from our design. Things had been changed and added without the opportunity for the designers to advise. And the changes had been bold and risky: some old DR1 rules had been restored without being integrated smoothly with the rest of the rules as they stood after revision. This resulted in the problems that were cited by some buyers. I offered an errata to address the worst of the problems, and the Kleckners posted it on their company’s website. The errata collection is considered to be the DR2B edition, a supplement to what we thereafter would refer to as DR2A.

Another unfortunate aspect of the development was that the recommended color scheme for the counters and map had not been followed. The changes were not always aesthetically or practically pleasing. Some of the new hues were printed too dark or too garish, as in the kingdoms of Zorn (dark purple) and Pon (dark red). Another surprise was that Right Stuf’s designers had decided to print all non-kingdom counters in black and white. Also, the counter sheets were not die-cut but only perforated and not very deeply, making it hard to get a good, clean separation.

On the other hand, Shawne had been interested in the history of the design and included a CD that contained PDF files of early game parts, as well as the complete Minarian Legends. Another feature of the CD was printable archive files of all the counters, allowing the purchaser to print quality replacements as needed.

While mistakes had been made in the DR2A edition, the creators were determined not to let the perfect gainsay the good and did all they could to support DR2B. At first, the publisher had hopes that the market would support a release of the companion game, Scarlet Empire. Alas, due to apparent difficulties encountered by The Right Stuf, on which I can’t elaborate because we were not well briefed on this aspect of the project, the company decided that one game was enough. The option on Scarlet Empire was allowed to lapse quietly, and The Right Stuf made no request for its extension.

DR2C and DRX

Many fans were unhappy with the problem-ridden rules of DR2A and even with the DR2B supplement. Stan Rydzewski, a fan with a flair for technical writing, contacted me about doing a new edition of rules, one that would include a few new counters I had belatedly come up with and the graceful integration of the errata into the body of the rules. Also, for a period of months, Stan asked many insightful questions that further improved the game. The documents that came to be known as “Stan’s rules” were posted on the Yahoo DR site in 2002. We consider that to be the DR2C edition.

But DR2C had no index, so another fan of considerable writing ability stepped forward, J. McCrackan. He added an index and made additional suggestions for revision. I received an individual copy, but this was just the groundwork for the full version of the current DRX edition, which has been revised through the processing of thousands of intelligent questions from J and other players. J also fully reorganized the rules and introduced the labeling of optional rules by numbers of hierarchical complexity—a good idea that makes rules consultation easier. What’s more, many additional counters have been added to the game, such as traitors, priests, jesters, and others. Some players are adamant about sticking to DR1, but those who consider the sky the limit for the game will value J’s rules, I have no doubt.

Elements of a Classic Game

As I have said, Divine Right has been called a classic. This is something every designer wants to hear, but what goes into making a classic? At the outset, Kenneth and I were simply looking to achieve a lively, playable, fantasy-military system. By the indefinable chemistry of such things, we had worked out a straightforward military-political-diplomatic engine that was able to support both a subtlety of strategy and lots of rapid action. The system also turned out to have a remarkable flexibility that allowed a large array of special options to be introduced as add-ons. These options, such as the special mercenaries and the magic items, convey much of the colorful and madcap spirit of things Minarian.

Over the years, the designers have had time to reflect upon those elements that have led to DR’s enduring popularity. It seems to this writer that the most successful fantasy games are those that skillfully distill the ideas presented by a imaginative novelist. SPI’s War of the Ring and Chaosium’s Elric! and Stormbringer are two such games. Worlds created specifically for board games, by and large, have been famously disappointing. Avalon Hill’s Dark Emperor and White Dwarf’s Demon Lord, to name but two, offered many characters and much magic, but they failed to engage the imagination. SPI’s Swords and Sorcery, full of bad jokes and patronizing apologies for the fantasy genre, suggested that SPI, mostly a modern-armor company, was out of tune with a growing part of its customer base. This base was being schooled in fantasy role playing and tended to be attracted to the idea of mythic heroism. When such gamers found what they were looking for, they responded well, and we still hear from enthusiastic people who discovered Divine Right at the close of the Seventies.

Why were there not more and better military fantasy board games? It seems that these were not the most market-successful kind. Why not? The publishers tended to blame the genre itself instead of their poor presentation of it. White Bear, Red Moon (retitled Dragon Pass and re-released by Avalon Hill) is a notable exception to the board-game-without-a-novel; in fact, it became the inspiration for a successful role-playing release, RuneQuest. The latter also was picked up by Avalon Hill. That Chaosium president Greg Stafford was a fantasy editor/writer in the semi-pros may not be irrelevant. A memorable fantasy board game has to be built like a good story, utilizing character, atmosphere, and situation.

Divine Right Games is proud to be part of the next chapter in the story of this classic game with the forthcoming Divine Right classic collector's edition.

Friday, October 30, 2020

A Marginal Business

This article originally appeared on The Escapist in December 2005. Fifteen years out, its predictions have held true: Game distribution has gone digital, and stores like Gamestop are reduced to the equivalent of used record stores.

The used game business works like this: A gamer shows up at Gamestop with a few games he’s tired of and wants to trade in. Gamestop offers him a lowball price – well lower than what he’d get if he sold his games on eBay, just high enough to keep him in the store – and since he’s already there and wants the cash, he accepts it. More than likely, since he’s a gamer in a game store with cash in hand, he spends the cash on something else, maybe something secondhand that he can pick up for $20. Meanwhile, Gamestop marks up and sells the used games it just bought for three times what it paid for them.

 

Gamestop executives describe this as a “margin growth” business – because they make a much higher profit margin on the sale of every used game than they do on the comparable sale of a new game. And in the highly competitive retail trade, margins matter. How much?

 

“Used games are keeping the entire ship afloat,” a vice-president of marketing for Electronics Boutique tells me. “EB and Gamestop make basically no money from new product.”   

 

No money from new product? But everybody knows the retailers are the real profiteers of the interactive entertainment industry, brutally extracting marketing development funds and ruthlessly returning product in the name of the all-mighty dollar.

 

Right?

 

The Savagery of Sellthrough

Throughout most of the entertainment and media industry, when publishers want to make sure first-run entertainment sells in droves to the public, they charge what’s called “sellthrough prices” – and for virtually every form of media, including books, movies, and music, that price is between $15 and $25. You can get the brand-new Feast for Crows hardcover for $16.80, the Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith DVD for $17.98, and Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor for $18.98.

 

But you have to pay $49.99 for Perfect Dark Zero, or any other new release video game. In comparison to its closest substitutes from other industries, video gaming isn’t priced to sell through.

 

And yet selling through is the one thing a video game must do. Video games suffer from the shortest shelf life of any media. You can walk into a record store and buy CDs from the 60s, 70s, 80s, and today. You can visit Barnes & Noble and pick up books written in the middle ages. You can buy movies made in the black and white era. But you would be hard pressed to find a Gamestop selling more than a handful of games older than a couple years, and the vast majority of shelf space will be for titles releases in the last six months.

 

 

Facing this short shelf life, game publishers have strategically adopted a tiered pricing model. The start the games off at the highest price point they can – right now that’s $49.99 – and they extract as much money as possible from the avid, got-to-have-it-now consumer. They then drop the price to hit the next tier of consumers and keep moving units.

 

The tiered pricing model works well for the publishers, and if they can convince enough consumers to buy at the $49.99, it works really well. Think Halo 2. It’s great for big box retailers like Wal-Mart, too. Wal-Mart only takes a title that is a proven seller, and any title that doesn’t sell gets dropped instantly. Wal-Mart doesn’t care if it has the biggest inventory of games, or covers every genre of game. It just sells the big hits.

 

For specialty retailers like Gamestop, the tiered pricing model sucks. Gamestop can’t compete on price with the likes of Wal-Mart so to differentiate itself Gamestop has to take risks on unproven new product, and keep a wider inventory of older product. But unlike music and book sellers like B&N, Gamestop has no evergreen products that it can reliably keep on the shelves. So its inventory management is a constant struggle, with price points continuously adjusted, and product constantly moved around the store depending on its age. Gamestop ultimately suffers because its shelf space is devoted to games that are, by definition, less popular and lower priced than what Wal-Mart stocks.

 

So, imagine you’re running Gamestop. Imagine you owe $36 wholesale for $50 games, leaving around $14 profit. And imagine you owe $12 wholesale for $20 games, leaving around $6 profit per sale. Obviously you’d like to sell more $50 games than $20 games, and so you’re going to organize your storefront to push the hot new product as much as possible. But to differentiate your business, you have to keep that broad catalogue of older, cheaper games around – otherwise you’re not offering anything different than Wal-Mart or Best Buy.

 

Now imagine that with used games, you only pay $3 for your $20 games. Suddenly you make more money from a $20 game then you do from that $50 copy of Perfect Dark Zero. This is the solution to all your problems. You can offer a wider inventory, stock older games, and even still profit! Set the prices right and you can even manage to do trade-in and resale of brand new games for really big profits.

 

Got that? Good. Now you understand why Gamestop is transforming itself, right before your eyes, from a specialty boutique into a secondhand store.

 

Biting the Hand

It’s a transformation fraught with peril. In adopting used games as the solution to the inexorable logic of the new game retail business, Gamestop is alienating its customers, infuriating its suppliers, and arming its competitors. 

Let’s start with customer. As a specialty retailer, Gamestop has long catered to the enthusiast. The enthusiasts’ desires are simple. He wants to be able to buy new games for a reasonable price. If the games are good, he wants to keep them. If the games are worth playing but not worth keeping, he wants to be able to trade them in. And if the games are bad, he wants to be able to return them and get new ones. 

Unfortunately, today’s retail marketplace offers no way to return bad games and limited value on trade-ins. Barnes & Noble will give you store credit for opened music and DVDs if you have a receipt, but Gamestop will just offer to buy an opened game from you for a few bucks – even though they’re going to turn around and sell it for $30… 

When used game sales were a minor aspect of the Gamestop business, it was easy for regular customers to overlook the trade-in to sale price ratios; no big deal. But as every consumer purchase is presented as a potential money-saving used game purchase, those consumers have a constant reminder of exactly how much a used game is going for – and, by comparison, how little the consumer gets on trade-in.  

Hardcore gamers are nothing if not web-savvy, and eBay is out there as a viable alternative to trading in.  Exposés on the economics of trade-ins have already begun to erect the virtual equivalent of “Keep Out” signs on Gamestop. As consumers become more informed, Gamestop will either have to increase its trade-in values, or watch its inventory supplies of desirable used games plummet. 

An even more pressing problem comes from Gamestop’s suppliers, the video game publishers. The relationship between game publisher and game retailer ranges from Détente to Cold War, with continuous low intensity conflict over “price protection,” “marketing development funds,” and “return rate.” Used game sales threaten to make the Cold War heat up – because publishers see no revenues at all from the sale of used games. 

Is it really worth fighting over? It’s interesting to note that both Activision and Electronic Arts are reporting that fourth-quarter revenues will fall well below expectations due to unexpectedly low sales. Meanwhile, Gamestop has announcedstrong margin contributions supporting forecasted earnings” because “used video game sales growth continues to solidly meet our goals.” 

And so the war drums have started beating. In an interview with Computer and Video Games, Mark Rein of Epic Games was blunt: 

“If you walk into EB in the US, they try and sell you a second hand version of a game before a new one. I think that's bad. It would be fine if they share that revenue with us. They can also be marketing partners with us as well. We can have an official refurbished games policy. That's the problem. Those resold games use server resources, tech support. The majority of guys calling up saying "I don't have my serial number", I'm sure a lot of those are resold. It costs us money. Those customers think they paid for it, and they're entitled to support. The reality is we didn't get paid. They didn't pay us.”

Of course, Gamestop doesn’t have to.

“It is 100% legal to re-sell video games. The publishers have no leg to stand on,” explains Jason Schultz, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Because of the First Sale doctrine, publishers have no legal right to get paid for used games, anymore than book publishers get paid from secondhand bookstores, or music companies from used record sales. This won’t stop them from finding another way to strike back at Gamestop, however.

Even as the publishers make war-plans, Best Buy and Blockbuster have joined the fray. Most Blockbuster stores now not only rent video games, they buy and sell used games, too, usually offering significantly better trade-in values and charging less. Blockbuster is largely ignored in discussion of game retail, but it needs to find a new business as TV on demand catches on, and looks willing to fight hard for games revenues.

Best Buy is still testing a pilot program for used games, but industry insiders seem to expect it to go forward. As a big box retailer, Best Buy isn’t suffering from the tiered pricing model the way Gamestop is, and it can accept lower margins on used games. And if Best Buy succeeds with used games, Target, Wal-Mart, and the rest might follow. 

What does it all mean?

 

The New Model

Gamestop’s margins in the used game business are almost certain to erode, as consumers seek alternatives, whether peer-to-peer like eBay, or from competitors such as Blockbuster and Best Buy.

At the same time, the uneasy alliance of retailer and publisher that has long dominated the interactive entertainment industry will crumble. This, in turn, will open the way for publishers to aggressively embrace digital distribution. Up until now, the publisher’s fear of channel conflict with retail has obstructed their adoption digital distribution. By “striking the first blow,” retailers open themselves up to a digital distribution counterstrike.

These two forces – used game sales and digital distribution – will have strange and conflicting impacts on consumers. A flourishing used game market will drive prices lower. The higher the price of new games, the more likely the consumer is to buy it used for less.  But the more the used game market flourishes, the more publishers will race to adapt digital distribution. With digital distribution, publishers can prevent re-sale and used game trade, both legally and technologically.

“You are already seeing with XBOx Live and Valve and these ties online, they are trying to use the online hook as a way to enforce their business model. You’re going to see more of a trend towards that,” says the EFF’s Schultz. ““It’s part of an overall battle that’s going on in all the content industries.”

Here’s what’s likely to emerge as the new business model: Publishers will release new titles exclusively in digital format at a premium price.  Big box retailers will carry the most popular titles in physical form at a sellthrough price point. There’ll be little margin left in used game sales, but it’ll survive with pricing similar to your local Blockbuster’s secondhand DVDs.

And as for Gamestop? If you want to know what’s in store, head over to your local college and find the students’ favorite used record store. There’s not a 100% profit margin in sight.

Divine Right History (Part 2 of 3)

The beginning of Divine Right takes place over 40 years ago, and its continued popularity is a testament to the game's solid design, deep mythos, and great characters. Glenn shared his design notes and the fascinating history of Divine Right with us, so prepare to enter the turbulent world of Minaria from the very start. (Part 1 here.)

DR1: The Classic Editions

We sent the finished prototype to TSR, Inc. of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Within a reasonably short time, TSR’s new products chief informed us that his staff liked Your Excellency, and he was authorized to make us an offer of publication. Once the development staff began to work on Your Excellency in earnest, Kenneth and I received word that the title would be changed to Divine Right. We were fond of “Your Excellency” but soon grew fonder still of “Divine Right.” Further, we had originally called all the monarchs “kings” and now were asked to come up with a wider variety of titles (aided by a kindly developer who had enclosed a long list of suggestions). We also were asked to provide some background material for the world, such as short descriptions of the kingdoms and the scenic hexes. As the seasoned fictioneer on the team, it fell to me to define Minaria.

Although the game world was created without a real background story, the outline of Minarian society came easily enough. As a fan of the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky and of the parallel concept of Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria, I divided Minarian history into periods before and after the “great Cataclysm.” Before the Cataclysm, the Minarian continent had enjoyed a kind of Pax Romanum, ruled by a proud, overbearing, but basically benign species of high elf, which I called the Lloroi. The Cataclysm that followed took much of Minaria back to the Stone Age, but enough culture survived to allow a fairly rapid restoration of civilization. By about 500 A.C. (After the Cataclysm), Minaria had achieved about the same level of culture as Europe possessed in 500 A.D. (Though Europe fell to a nadir at that time, Minaria had fallen much lower but managed to climb back a bit.)

Developing the demihuman races, which fantasy fans know so well from Tolkien, called for a special measure of care. Rather than treat the Goblins and Trolls as evil creatures befitting their origins in the mythology of the Underworld, I addressed them as alien races—different from men, of course, and rivals, but not ideologically evil. The Elves and Dwarves came in for a little satire to set them apart from the stereotypes already abroad in the gaming culture. Hillbillies and gold miners inspired my concept of Minarian Dwarves, and a combination of Imperial China and the Third Reich were models for the Elves.

The background material seemed to fit the bill as far as TSR was concerned, and it was published with the game in 1979 as an appendix to the rulebook. I had every reason to believe that this was all that I would ever be allowed to tell about Minaria.

Minarian Legends

To my delight, shortly after the release of the game, I received a request from the editor of The Dragon magazine in which he proposed a series of essays to supplement Divine Right. His idea was to publish a full-length article for each kingdom and each character of Minaria. I estimated that it was a job that would run the length of a fair-sized novel. As a struggling fictioneer with too little demand for my work, I accepted the task gladly. Over the course of about two years, I wrote approximately ten pages per month. These became a regular feature called “Minarian Legends” in The Dragon.

The editor at The Dragon soon left his job, but his successor was equally supportive of Minarian Legends. The series continued to its logical conclusion, comprising twenty installments. My detailed history of the Minarian continent consisted of some 60,000 words, from the Cataclysm to about the year 1350 A.C.

Lately, these old pages became the basis of a full-length novel, The Ship of Huisinga, the first book of a projected trilogy that I sometimes call The Matter of Mivior, which will be published by Castalia House in 2021.

In any case, writing the first novel and planning others has enriched this writer’s awareness of things Minarian. These include the development of the cult of Huisinga under the heroine Sankari—the most unlikely of missionaries—as well as the origin of the Tail People, the strange legacy of the heroine Trouble, and many another detail that has done much to flesh out Minaria as a real-life place.

Scarlet Empire

From its release in 1979, Divine Right proved to be as popular with the public as its designers could have hoped. If memory serves, the first run was about 20,000 copies. About a year after the first release, TSR put out a revised edition of 10,000 copies more. Not too long after the release of the game, Ken and I had sent in some errata and suggestions for changes. Some of these were included in the second edition. In a particular issue of The Dragon (Vol. IV, No. 8, #34 Dec. 1979), TSR executive Mike Carr presented the creators’ errata in a column parallel to one giving TSR’s new official revisions to the rules. This article allowed players to update their first-edition copies without having to buy a new copy.

Encouraged by a strong fan response, Kenneth and I worked up a sequel called The Revolt of the Scarlet Empire. It consisted of a map that fit contiguously to the Minaria we already knew, one that displayed the kingdoms and empires of a southern subcontinent, which I called Girion. To make it strikingly different from Divine Right, we developed the Scarlet Witch King, an entity previously mentioned in the original rules and again in the subsequent Minarian Legends.

We wanted to avoid the criticism that the new game was just a second Divine Right on a new map. We offered more—much more. The basic game of Scarlet Empire plays much like a good, clean game of DR, but because fans had liked DR’s naval action, we incorporated more sea and more sea power into the new map and counter mix. Optional rules present several scenarios in which the Scarlet Witch King, the bane of the ancient Lloroi Empire, had returned to subjugate the free kingdoms of Girion under a “scarlet empire.” Many new special mercenaries came aboard, and so did many more magic items. We created the optional rules for curses, and the Scarlet Witch King was provided with enough heavy-duty sorcery to make the Eaters of Wisdom look like paupers, magic-wise.

Scarlet Empire offers a Revolt scenario wherein the subjugated kingdoms rise against an imperial tyranny; a Conquest scenario, simulating the Scarlet Witch King’s original blitzkrieg that had swept the subcontinent; and even a Crusader scenario that links the two games, featuring the armies of the north coming south to help free the Scarlet Witch King’s oppressed vassals. The Scarlet Witch King repaid the compliment with an Invasion scenario, in which a secure Scarlet Empire boldly invades Minaria from the south edge of the DR map. There is also the option of a two-map supergame.

TSR’s new-products department expressed interest in the proposed sequel, and the prototype was sent to them in the summer of 1980. Alas, despite our best hopes and expectations, even while SE was undergoing playtest, the decision came down from TSR to take the original Divine Right off the company’s back list. That event precluded any further consideration of SE. Well, whoever said that TSR never made any mistakes?

Part 3 coming tomorrow... And speaking of classic editions, below is the penciled image of the cover for the Classic Collector's Limited Edition boardgame.



Thursday, October 29, 2020

Going "Old School"

As I mentioned in my first post, I've resigned from my senior management post at Gelatinous Cube Games (GC Games), a major western mobile game developer/publisher.  As we all know, the game industry is oddly small and incestuous, so I make sure to always leave with gratitude, expecting that I will work with many ex-GC folks again.

While I've been furiously hiring for our fledgling game studio, Dead Reckoning Games, I thought I'd share some observations about hiring during the flu hysteria of 2019/2020.  

Most major game developers have already thrown in the towel to the Covidians and will move to a hybrid work-from-home model...forever.  Now, if you're working at a company like GC Games, where speed or innovation is not a priority, this isn't a major issue.  But at Dead Reckoning, we have a six month timeline to ship our flagship game.  Hitting weekly milestones will depend on frequent whiskey-fueled whiteboard sessions and timely over-the-shoulder art feedback.  

In light of that, my partner and I have held fast to our three-part winnowing process for prospective hires:
1)   You will be asked to come into the studio, IN PERSON, to meet the team.  If you have a problem with that, there's always GC Games.
2)   When you come in, you will find six or more sweaty guys packed into our under-sized conference room.  They will shake your hand and look you in the eye like it's 2018.
3)   At the end of the interview, you will be offered to share a round of Fireball.

A few of our prospects have been hesitant at first, but eventually dropped any pretense of concern for "safety" after we break down their programmed defenses.  It almost feels like we're an anti-cult, freeing these poor saps from repressive ideas foisted on them from their employer, media, and likely their wives.

When I tell others in the industry how we're going about things, I hear "that's old school".  I'm starting to think being old school will become a competitive advantage for us in the post-Covid world.  Permanent work-from-home will make large developers even slower, more sterile, less creative enterprises.  Which should make Dead Reckoning a beacon to those who want to make games the right way.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Interview with Chris Taylor

I interviewed game designer Chris Taylor, an industry friend since the early 1990s, in April 2007 for DEVELOP Magazine.

Chris Taylor is the founder of Gas Powered Games and the designer of hits such as the Total Annihilation and Dungeon Siege series.  His latest game is Supreme Commander, the new RTS which is topping the sales charts as game industry pros congregate at GDC.  

A lot of people were under the impression that the possibilities of the RTS were pretty much played out by now. Obviously, you didn't agree and the sales figures tend to back you up.

I knew that there were so many more things we could do with the genre. In Supreme Commander, the key design element was the Strategic Zoom, as the ability to zoom in and out combined with the bigger maps allowed for more actual strategy. Supreme Commander is unique because it's actually the only strategic game in the genre. It’s not focused on the tactical side like most. The difference is important--strategy is what happens before the battle, tactics is what happens during them. Strategy is Eisenhower planning for the 10 months before D-Day. Then the troops hit the beach and everything is decided in a matter of minutes. That's what it's like in most RTS games, where you're thrust right into the tactics.

You have been one of the most consistently successful designers of the post-id era. And yet whenever you are interviewed, you seem to be disappointed about your inability to fully execute on your designs.

 I aspire to give each gamer the greatest game ever, the best thing that they can possibly take home from the store in a box. I really want them to take it home and have a crazy, over-the-top experience. That's not realistic, though, there's just too many constraints built into the industry to ever give that pure unedited, flawless vision. And yet, I will never stop aspiring to deliver it.

How do you go about shooting for that experience despite the constraints?

I think the key is to surround yourself with the best and most-talented people you can get your hands on. I've learned that I've got to go out and pull in the best people and sell them on my vision. Without that, you're done. You cannot do it on your own.

How do you know where to draw the line between your design vision and the reality of production?

Today, with all the processes we have in place, it's become pretty clear. In the old days, the reason we had so many time and cost overruns is that we didn't know how to go about managing the process. Now, when someone suggests a change, we know what the calendar and dollar implications for hitting the milestones will be. I think it's good, though, it's healthy. 

What is your biggest regret from Dungeon Siege II? How about from Supreme Commander?

The intro, the tutorial area should have been smaller and tighter, if not taken out entirely. We should have thrust the player right into the action. Instead, we chased the whole tutorial thing and it was wrong. It was bad. I don't have many regrets about Commander, although I wish we'd had more time to fine-tune things and reduce the system requirements. That's not a problem over time, obviously, but right now I really wish we could have hit a lower spec coming out of the gate.

You've spoken previously about wanting to add more modding capacity to Supreme Commander. Was that an important part of your design concept? 

I wanted it from day one. I love the mod community, and the mod manager is baked right into the game. We'll continue to support their efforts, and we're going to keep providing the hooks they need to make those mods.

Do you have any intention of getting involved in the MMO space in the future?

I have some ideas, but if I'm going to get into that space, it's got to be a radical, inspired change. I don't want to do just another one. I'm kind of done with copying existing genres and adding a twist to it. That being said, you can copy ideas, and with one small change in the genetic code you can change the outcome entirely. 

How do you feel about the transition from the very small production team you had when working on Hardball II compared to the size of the teams you are currently overseeing? 

You can build these really huge, comprehensive games now. The challenge is holding the vision throughout the team, evangelizing and reinforcing the vision. But if you take your eye off the ball, you will create enormous production problems for everyone. You have to stay on top of them. People are complex, and they need leadership and vision.

You've said that the era of the giant single-player RPG is over. Obviously, MMOs play a role in that, but is there anything more to it?

It's not just MMOs, it's the idea of communications and community. I think that the feeling of community and the pleasure of playing together with people, even with just one other person, is so compelling that going back to the big solo RPG is hard to envision. There will be exceptions, of course, someone will probably come up with a new and really compelling gameplay mechanic. But then, someone else will add a multiplayer twist to it and trump it again.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Divine Right History (Part 1 of 3)

The beginning of Divine Right takes place over 40 years ago, and its continued popularity is a testament to the game's solid design, deep mythos, and great characters. Glenn shared his design notes and the fascinating history of Divine Right with us, so prepare to enter the turbulent world of Minaria from the very start. 

 

By Glenn Rahman

Divine Right was originally published in 1979, revised in 1980, and went out of print in 1982. The game had been very popular, but its designers, my brother Kenneth and myself, expected that DR would simply pass out of sight and out of mind like so many other games before it. To our surprise and gratification, it kept appearing at conventions as a tournament game long after it had become unavailable. Every now and then, we were contacted by persons asking if it was ever going to be reissued. More recently, the word “classic” began being applied to Divine Right, and the designers dared to hope that we had perhaps managed to create something enduring. In 2002, The Right Stuf International, Inc. published a 25th-anniversary edition of Divine Right, putting the game back in print for the first time in twenty years.

Your Excellency

In the early Seventies, Kenneth and I were already avid game-experimenters, mostly with the Parker Brother’s Risk system, when we encountered a copy of Avalon Hill’s Tactics II. Unfortunately, while there were things to learn from that game, it rated very low in the excitement category. But the appearance of Tactics II was our alert that some interesting things were happening in the gaming scene. In the fall of 1974, this writer encountered a large Avalon Hill selection in a Minneapolis department store and bought Third Reich on the spot. The next year, I subscribed to SPI’s Strategy and Tactics. Those were salad days, when even games as wretchedly conceived as Oil War and Revolt in the East got thorough and repeated playing.

Soon the designers were gaming regularly with friends. By 1977, we realized that we had learned enough to leave Risk behind and start designing in the state of the art. The first serious effort carried all the way to conclusion was a fantasy game that we called Your Excellency. Divine Right players would promptly recognize Your Excellency as the prototype of DR. Some of the names, the CRT-less combat system, the diplomacy system, and the kingdom cards were all present.

I had been a frequent short-story writer for the semi-pros and understood the strength that good characterization gives to a story. One night, while Ken and I were play-testing Your Excellency on the kitchen table, it suddenly occurred to me to ask, Why couldn’t a board game have characterization, too? The idea for monarch-personality cards fell easily into place, and it worked even better than expected. From that moment on, we knew we had a good thing going.

But the differences between the prototype and the eventually-published game by TSR, Inc. were huge. The original map was rather austere in the manner of an SPI release. Ken and I had included Elven and Trollish kingdoms, but we had provided no magic. None. Further, we had only six special mercenaries: Juulute, Schardenzar, the Black Knight, Urmoff, Ogsbogg, and Hamahara. The barbarian element was represented by nothing more than a small kingdom.

The prototype was dispatched to Metagaming of Austin, Texas. During its long evaluation period, Kenneth and I continued to sample the new bounty of the gaming world. Kenneth experimented with a different map, but we never actually got around to using it in any play tests. In the interim, we discovered the Chaosium game of White Bear, Red Moon. This game was something new in our experience: a game of heroic fantasy. A few routine spaceship-battle games existed already— Excalibre had a pioneering effort to create a fantasy game, one they called Atlantis. Meanwhile, SPI had the execrable Sorcerer, and there was a fantasy-tactical game called Dungeon from TSR. For some reason, we had not bothered to examine the rest of the field, such as Fact & Fantasy’s Helm’s Deep or TSR’s Battle of the Five Armies. So within our frame of reference, we addressed the innovations of WBRM with great interest.

There was much in White Bear, Red Moon that we liked, though there was much that we couldn’t relate to. For instance, WBRM seemed to have no clear line demarcating the world of the gods and the world of men. As a reader of mythology, I could understand this—sort of. The world order in Stafford’s Glorantha resembled that of The Kalevala or numerous primitive mythologies, including that of the American Indians, where characters grade from hero to sorcerer to god with hardly any warning where one ended and the other began. Kenneth, on the other hand, was a J.R.R. Tolkien enthusiast, and my own fantasy tastes leaned toward Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. In all these authors’ writings, there was a difference between gods and men; fantastic things were possible, but an understandable barrier remained between the different states of reality.

Further, as far as the conventions of WBRM went, it was hard for us to identify with heroes who could, like the Irish champion Cuchulain or the Indian hero Arjuna, take on whole armies single-handedly. From our point of view, a Julius Caesar might make the deciding difference in a battle with the Gauls, but could J.C. have faced the host of Vercingetorix all by his lonesome? Never! A man is a man and an army is an army. Nonetheless, WBRM had something we needed to learn: the manner in which magic might be fitted into the world of military affairs.

The Metagaming copy of Your Excellency finally came back rejected in 1978. Like most creative people, we decided that the editors involved just didn’t appreciate quality and innovation. Nonetheless, months had already passed, and we had some new ideas that we wanted to introduce to the game. Kenneth set energetically to work redesigning the map, and before long, he presented me with an entirely new map done in a jolly-looking antique style, one that would be recognizable as the rough draft of the published classic. It had a colorful and richly satiric quality that would inspire much of the subsequent design as well as much of the writing for the yet-to-be created Minarian mythos.

Kenneth had most of the place names written in by the time I first saw the map, and it was only left for me to help with the details and the polishing. The Crater of the Punishing Star was one of my additions, as was the Altars of Greystaff. I also contributed the names of Zorn, Pon, Minaria, and the Invisible School of Thaumaturgy. Zorn came from out of a phone book, and Pon was the name of a mountain kingdom created in a story cycle of mine, only two episodes of which ever saw the light of day in amateur publication. Minaria was the name of a kingdom I had used in an earlier bit of fictional juvenilia. I think that I was unconsciously echoing “Mnar,” an arcane land mentioned by Lovecraft, or maybe even Minnesota, my home state.

Kenneth and I already had a sound movement-combat-diplomacy system in the original Your Excellency. What the new version required from us was magic, chrome, and detail. The gadgets of the Eaters of Wisdom were worked out quickly, and we took inspiration from the corpse-loving wizards of Clark Ashton Smith’s short stories to create the Black Hand.

Working out the new edition of Your Excellency was amazingly easy. The new game world seemed to leap spontaneously to life. Juulute, the Black Knight, Schardenzar, Urmoff, Hamahara, and Ogsbogg were preserved, but their abilities and powers were expanded and fleshed out. The Bilge Rat and several special-mercenary combat units were added also. Just before we finalized the rules, we came up with the Wandering People based, of course, on Hollywood’s take on Gypsies.

Part 2 coming soon...


Monday, October 26, 2020

Divine Right classic edition cover

 Unfortunately, it's not possible to utilize the original painting that appears on the original Divine Right 1979 edition because TSR never returned it to the Rahmans. So, we have to recreate it. Below is the variant of the draft that Glenn Rahman has selected for the classic collector's limited edition.