Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Brief Chart Illustrating the Collapse of PC RPGs in the Mid-1990's

Game Series

Previous Release

Mid-1990's Release

Later Release

Might & Magic

IV: Clouds of Xeen


V: Darkside of Xeen


VI: The Mandate of Heaven



VII: The Black Gate/ Serpent Isle


VIII: Pagan


IX: Ascension



VI: Bane of the Cosmic Forge


VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant




The Elder Scrolls



II: Daggerfall


III: Morrowind




Betrayal at Krondor


Return to Krondor


Lands of Lore


Throne of Chaos


II: Guardians of Destiny


Quest for Glory

III: Wages of War


IV: Shadows of Darkness


V: Dragon Fire


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Published again

I have a new article in The Escapist, called Out of the D&D Closet, about my relationship to the game and my first attempt at playing it.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

On Writing

A few months ago, I put up a post here about the history of video games I'm writing. This project is continuing, but I'm having some conceptual and practical issues with it.

I've realized that a full history of games, in the way that I want to write it, is just too big for a book. If I have 20,000 words on Japanese role-playing games in the 1990's, and the average nonfiction book in bookstores is 80,000 words, I've got way too much detail. It needs to be narrowed down in some way. Obviously I can (and will) edit the chapter, but that's as likely to add as it is to subtract.

In a practical sense, there are also just too many games I haven't played, and playing them now is a major time-sink. It also, for the newer games, requires much more money than I have at the moment. So with those two things in mind, I've decided to simply focus on the 1990's (or more accurately, 1990-2001). I believe that it's the most important transitional era in gaming (especially from 1994-1997 or so) and by some happy coincidence, it's also the one I have the most pre-existing knowledge of.

There are still big problems, though. I have over 30,000 words in two and a half chapters (two on JRPGs, half on PC RPGs). Granted, these are the kind of games I'm most interested and knowledgeable regarding, and also some of the most timeless and continually interesting games. But I've been working on this for maybe six months, and expect the book to need about 20 chapters. Two and a half is too little for me to be at now, and 30,000 words is too many.

I feel like I'm going to have to do something to continue narrowing it down conceptually, but I'm not sure what. The most obvious choice would be to divide it between console and PC games, but I'm opposed to that for a few reasons. First of all, I've divided my work so far roughly evenly between them, so it would force me to have to ignore a few months for a while. Second, I don't think the two platform styles are so different. I don't have specific theses for the book, I prefer to see what emerges, but comparing the similarities and differences between console and PC games is one of the main recurring concepts I've written about. That's seriously diluted if I divide them.

If I do manage to complete it and start shopping it around, I'd ideally like it to be a volume in a larger history of at least three volumes, which includes the 1980's and before, and the 2000's +. This adds the extra issue of shopping around the second volume in a series without the first or third. But to be honest, I'd probably be pretty happy about getting the point where I'm shopping a completed book around.

I do think I have at least half of the title: Spoony Bards, Vespene Gas, and the Chaingun Cha-Cha: video games in the 1990s change everything something something.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Lord of the (Lich) Kings, or, There Not Back Again

I can't go back to World of Warcraft.

I want to sometimes. The new expansion pack certainly appeals to me. I miss the world, the exploration, the camaraderie when times were good. I miss the setting and the storyline and the music. And part of all of that are the reasons I can't go back. Wrath of the Lich King wasn't something that I, as a WOW player and a fan of the storyline of Warcraft III, could miss. And I missed it all - lack of money and decent internet connection being the primary culprits.

For those who don't know. The second expansion pack was the culmination of the storyline started in Warcraft III and its expansion. That game was in large part about the corruption of the human paladin Prince Arthas, and his rise as the Lich King, the embodiment of evil on the world of Azeroth. Although there is some backlash now against Blizzard's overly epic, humorless storylines, I remain a fan of them.

In most story-based video games, the designers seem unwilling to have their villains actually commit atrocities or raise the stakes for the players. Not so with Warcraft III, which not only had villains who did things like kill their father then use his ashes to summon an archdemon, but actually had you, the player, control them on their destructive path. Arthas' rise as the Lich King in the final cinematic of the game represents both the player's great success in finishing the game, and a horrific experience for the game world and its inhabitants, which you also sympathize with after having completed several campaigns in Azeroth. It's a neat little storytelling trick.

World of Warcraft, of course, makes you a character within that world, trying generally to set right the horrors of its predecessor's storyline. The villains of the original WOW release and its first expansion, The Burning Crusade, were occasionally new to the universe, but they were generally progressively more dangerous villains from Warcraft III, leading inexorably to the Lich King in his expansion pack. I played some of the original game, and was a pretty hardcore raider for a few months during The Burning Crusade. I'd say I was invested in the storyline, but that's not entirely true - WOW doesn't have much of a storyline. It might be more accurate to say that I was invested in its representation of Warcraft III's storyline. I liked the feeling that it gave of being one of the small soldiers of the strategy game, but building up to become someone special, capable of heroic feats. And that part of the game was a major part of what I was invested in.

That's not all of it, of course, either on my end or on Blizzard's end. Of course they should continue making expansion packs if people are interested. They have a good game, and they're raking in cash. More power to them! And of course the storyline should continue after Lich King, and of course it's not a bad thing to have the nominal Foozle killed in an early expansion pack (did you know that Everquest has had seventeen expansions?) while your game is still relatively fresh. I will also grant that it's personal. My guild, formed towards the start of The Burning Crusade, collapsed not once but twice. Many of my best friends in the game during that time are no longer playing.

It's just that for me, the biggest appeal of going back to World of Warcraft would be seeing Northrend and fighting Arthas. And I've missed the bulk of that. Everyone will have already done this - and I haven't. The things I might want to do will be played out. Passé. Unpopular both in the colloquial sense and in the sense that the things which require a group to accomplish will no longer have people motivated to do them. It would be like a Star Wars game without the ability to take on Darth Vader, or Lord of the Rings where both Saruman and Sauron had been killed and you were suddenly supposed to believe Smaug was a bigger threat.

This is an odd feeling. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that in today's media world, it's almost unprecedented. There is always a fascination with the new - seeing a movie on opening night, or seeing a band as they're starting to make it big, or playing a game system at launch, yes. But by and large, there's also a trend towards making media consistently accessible. Old books, movies, and albums have almost always been available, and games are becoming more and more consistently available due to remakes, emulation, and downloads like the Wii's Virtual Console. Virtually everything can be experienced later on, and sometimes in a better format, than it was when it was initially released.

Except for massively multiplayer role-playing games. For these, you really do have to be there. Many of them have collapsed, and no longer even have servers to play upon. Virtually all of them have expansion packs or major patches which render some or much of their content obsolete or unplayable. As someone interested in media, this concept intrigues me. As a historian who' is interested in video games, it disturbs me. And as someone who is, by nature, curious and wants to know everything about everything, it horrifies me.

So I can't go back to World of Warcraft. It's probably for the best, anyway. I'm hearing good things about The Old Republic anyway. Maybe I'll be ready for a new MMRPG when it comes out.