Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, dies at 69

As reported late last night on The Guardian Online, Gary Gygax, co-writer of Dungeons & Dragons, has died.

Say it isn’t so! What a sad day. Gary Gygax has no idea how much he influenced my childhood. I’m proud to say that I still have my original AD&D Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide. From time to time, I crack them open, taking myself back nearly 30 years in time.

Those books truly were a work of art (and, you may recall, dungeon mastering is both an art and a science). I can only imagine how different I would be today if I never found them. Without a doubt, Gygax’s skill as a writer advanced my reading skills by leaps and bounds, and the countless hours I spent in the worlds he created enhanced my imagination.

So much of what is in those books is burned into my mind. I can still tell you, with a high degree of accuracy, the experience point requirements for the first few levels of most classes and the THAC0 advancement progression by level and class. I can also picture in my mind some of the many cartoons scattered throughout the books. (There is no honor among thieves, and We pretend we’re students and businessmen in a technological world — or something to that effect — come to mind.)

I have a funny feeling I’ll be browsing through those books tonight, just for old time’s sake. Good night, Mr. Gygax, and thanks for all the memories. My Illusionist’s Phantasmal Killer tips his hat to you.

[P.S. Thanks to Scott Berkum for being the first one to bring this to my attention, via his blog.]

Baseball players are gamers, too

To those folks that follow professional baseball and multiplayer online games, it should not be a surprise that Boston pitcher Curt Schilling is an avid gamer. Sony even organized an event with him in their EverQuest II game (a game that Mr. Schilling is an avid player of).

In early September, Schilling and others formed Green Monster Games to create “industry changing games”. Good for him — it’s good to see online gaming and wargaming fans are not just avid sci-fi readers and nerdy IT types.

Schilling hasn’t sat back idly, either — he’s even reached out to the MMOG community, and I found that he has posted quite frequently on the web site of the Fires of Heaven guild (a World of Warcraft guild).

Side thought: Those Fires of Heaven guys are hard-core — they raid seven days a week, 6+ hours a day, and expect members to participate in 90% of the raids. I guess I won’t be sending in an application. 🙂

Perhaps Mr. Schilling would be interested in what I’ve done with my online baseball game, CSFBL? Sure, it’s not MMORPG in the MMORPG sense, but it’s got staying power, and has done quite well considering it was built with no budget in my spare time. Let’s not forget to mention the significant work currently underway in rewriting it (an effort that will launch as ComputerSims Baseball), or the vision to branch out into multiple sports using a core league-based sports engine that is already being developed…

What do you say, Curt? We share common interests — baseball, MMORPGs (I’m the guy who developed EQ2Craft, a hugely popular resource for crafters in EQ2) — and a common belief in the power of online games to mold commerce and the community… Of course, you’d have to forgive me in one respect: I’m a life-long Yankees fan. I did, however, root for Boston in the 1986 World Series…

Stopping unnecessary services when gaming

When playing computer games (something I don’t have nearly as much time to do as I’d like), you want to maximize the performance of your computer for the task at hand. To do so, shut down all those unnecessary services to free up memory and some processor cycles.
Dump the following code into a batch file to shut down many services which you don’t need for most games (even network games). The batch file was written for a standard Windows XP Professional build, and includes a section for disabling Norton AntiVirus. Add your own net stop commands to the list to get rid of what you don’t need. Then, run the batch file (I call it stop.bat) to shut down these services. net stop "automatic updates"

net stop "system event notification"
net stop "com+ event system"
net stop "error reporting service"
net stop iisadmin
net stop "kodak camera connection software"
net stop "licctrl service"
net stop "network connections"
net stop "network location awareness (nla)"
net stop "norton antivirus firewall monitor service"
net stop "norton antivirus auto-protect service"
net stop "pml driver hph11"
net stop "print spooler"
net stop "remote access connection manager"
net stop "security center"
net stop server
net stop workstation
net stop "shell hardware detection"
net stop "symantec core lc"
net stop "symantec event manager"
net stop "symantec network drivers service"
net stop "symantec settings manager"
net stop "symantec spbbcsvc"
net stop "system restore service"
net stop "task scheduler"
net stop "windows image acquisition (wia)"
net stop "windows management instrumentation"
net stop "windows user mode driver framework"
net stop "wireless zero configuration"
pause

To start things up again, make a copy of the batch file, and change all net stop commands to net start commands.
What kind of improvements can you get? Well, with all these services started, my memory utilization was 254MB. After stopping them it was 193MB – a savings of 61MB! That’s guaranteed to give at least a small performance boost when shooting rebel scum in Star Wars Galaxies, or fighting on the battlegrounds of World of Warcraft

Microsoft and Marvel to sleep together (and other MMOG thoughts)

Microsoft signed an exclusive deal with Marvel Enterprises (the comic book folks), giving the software giant rights to use Marvel’s intellectual property in MMO (massive multiplayer online) games. Read about it on CNet.

This may sound like a good deal to Microsoft, or to fans of Marvel comics and MMOs, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Here’s why.

  • From the CNet article: “The deal is Marvel’s first MMO pact. The first title is expected in 2008.” We all know that really means 2009. That’s a long time away (although not a long time considering the development efforts required to produce an MMO), and a long time to wait when there’s already a superhero game on the market, City of Heroes, which is among the better MMO’s out there. (In fact, Marvel tried suing NCSoft, makers of City of Heroes, for copyright infringement. The suit flopped.)
  • Sony Online Entertainment (SOE), owners of the EverQuest franchise and Star Wars Galaxies), recently acquired The Matrix Online and signed a deal with DC Comics to make an online game. Sony’s the big player in the market who is running into stiff competition from Blizzard (World of Warcraft) and NCSoft (City of Heroes, Lineage, GuildWars) and is trying desperately to expand its market share. Too bad they still don’t realize that to succeed in the MMOG universe, you need good games with good quality controls. Sony’s failing miserably in the quality department, and their games are suffering as a result. Sony’s expecting its DC-branded game for a “fourth-quarter release in 2007.” We all know what that means: 2008 – a long time away.
  • Consider the similarities in a game based on the Star Wars or Star Trek (where Star Trek Online is under development) universes with a game based on DC or Marvel comics. In Star Wars, you spend time killing creatures and aliens depicted in the movies, but rarely get the chance to interact with the main characters in the movies, and pretty much never get the chance to battle and kill them (i.e. you can’t attack and kill Boba Fett or Han Solo). The same would probably exist in a comic book game – you wouldn’t be able to be Superman, nor would you be able to kill Lex Luthor. So the appeal is in the market name and, to a lesser degree, the ability to have some content, but ultimately it comes down to the main issue: Can the designers design a good game, or not? Microsoft and Sony saw their greatest success in the MMO world until they got real competition; now their market share is falling because the quality of their games isn’t good enough — despite the marquee titles.
  • Finally, Microsoft doesn’t have a lot of experience in the MMOG area. They were involved with Asheron’s Call early on but eventually bailed out, returning the game to its developer, Turbine. They are developing a new game, Vanguard, right now – a game also being primarily developed by a third party, Sigil Games Online. It appears the main attraction of Microsoft as a MMOG shop is in their marketing and distribution clout. Unfortunately, those two areas are helpful, but don’t guarantee success in this area. Sony has marketing and distribution on-par with Microsoft, yet EverQuest II can’t compete with Blizzard’s World of Warcraft because the game simply isn’t as good. Don’t expect that to change significantly in the future. Marketing and distribution will help initial sales, but it won’t give a game legs, as the EQ2 vs. WOW battle has shown.

We truly are in an age of competition in online games. How everything plays out remains to be seen. To keep up with the different games and their popularity, check out MMOGChart.

IGDA’s Online Games Quarterly focuses on casual gaming

The Online Games Special Interest Group (SIG) of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) recently published their second Online Games Quarterly, which focuses on casual gaming and who the casual gamer is. Among the articles include:

A worthy read for anyone with a vested interest in casual gaming (as I have).

Another look back: Text adventures and Infocom

If the graphics in the old arcade games were bad (as I talked about in a past blog post), the graphics in text adventure games were, well, horrible. Actually you can’t judge them because there were no graphics.

Text adventures for me, and for many others, started with this:

You are in an open field west of a big white house with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.

That was how Infocom’s Zork I started. This game started what was to be a good run for a company that wrote good games without graphics – imagine that! We had to think, type our commands in plain english (no l33tsp33k). Ah, the days when command of our language meant something to gaming.

Infocom is long and gone (Activision bought the rights to their games a while back). You can still buy the Infocom games in shrink-wrap packaging through Amazon, but there’s other ways to enjoy them.

The gaming genre for text adventures is interactive fiction (IF). Most are built using something called a Z-machine interpreter. Z-code is a programming language which is perfectly suited for interactive fiction, and just about all Infocom games were written with it. There are many different versions of Z-code, and many different versions of interpreters, for just about every OS and platform.

If you want to know more about the history of Infocom, it’s games, and it’s people, go to the Infocom home page. Well, maybe not the Infocom home page, but the closest thing you’ll find to it. It includes links to download Zork I, II, and III (the only three Infocom games that Activision does not hold the rights for, and they are freely distributed now); a history of all the games, images of box covers, and so much more. I got lost in here for about an hour in an enthralling walk down memory lane.

Once you tire of the Zork trilogy (you did download it and play them all, right?), you have to buy the games… well, not really. I’m not condoning this, but…

http://infocom.elsewhere.org/ is actually a service where you can play 29 different IF games (and most of the most popular Infocom games) online via a Telnet connection. Simply telnet to infocom.elsewhere.org, sign in with username zork (no password), and play the game you want to play. What better way to waste time at work – and your boss will think you’re coding some obscure programming language when he sees the archaic text-only interface on your screen!

For those that want to play the games when offline, you need to do two things. The first is to find, download, and install a Z-machine interperter. Then you need to download the Z-code files, which you open from the interpreter. Then you play.

There’s one place to find out how to find all items you need: http://www.latz.org/infocom/. This site is nothing short of fantastic. In addition to links to Z-code interpreters, it includes links to download Z-code files for the most popular Infocom games. And it includes the full content of the Invisiclues books for many games. (Invisiclues books were old cheat guides written in the form of FAQs. They came with a highlighter pen that would “reveal” the hidden clues. So high-tech! How I yearn for them. Damn parents made me throw out everything good.) And it includes a walkthrough for most games (if you just want to enjoy reading the game like a book).

Beyond that, if you want even more, go to The Interactive Fiction Archive, which includes hundreds of articles, FAQs, and – most importantly – downloadable IF games.

So plug in your CGA graphics card, unplug your joystick, and nuzzle up to your PC in a way you probably haven’t done for a decade…

California’s proposed video game legislation (again!)

As reported on Gamasutra, Feb 17 2005:

Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), California’s Speaker pro tem, has introduced a bill into the California legislature that would prohibit children under 17 from purchasing videogames that depict serious injury to human beings….

“When you push a computer button, you are pulling the trigger,” Yee said, explaining the need for such strict labels on the games industry as opposed to movies or TV. “Children are developing the skills to stalk, maim and shoot people.” …

Doesn’t the network news often depict stories and content about stalking, maiming, and shooting? An interesting sociological study would be to understand the impact of “news” stories depicting violent crime, and “games” depicting violent crime. We all understand that exposure to something can make it more bearable, even acceptable (such as the tendency of domestic violence to span generations). However, exposure to something can also make you more aware of the negative aspects of it (such as the tendency to avoid drug addiction after watching the same destroy a friend or family member).

Food for thought… Millions of people play “violent” computer games every day, and the overwhelming majority of them clearly suffer no adverse affects. Perhaps this proposed legislation is best left on the drawing board and off the books.

What defines success for a Web-based game?

[This article is largely copied from a post I made on the International Game Developers Association Web site. The original post can be found on the IGDA’s Online Games forum.]


Is a successful Web-based game something that pays for itself (bandwidth, infrastructure, etc.)? Is it something that provides adequate financial reward compared to the development effort? Is it something that generates enough popularity to generate marketing awareness for some other entity?

The answer really depends on the intent of the developer. A hobbyist may want a game to cover his expenses. An independent may want the game to generate some amount of revenue to justify his continued effort in it, ignoring the initial development effort (which was most likely done in spare time without any initial working capital). A traditional company will certainly measure success by the total return on investment, considering development and operating costs, but may consider a Web game a "success" if it exists more as a marketing toy to bring awareness to other products or services offered by the company.

I haven’t done serious research, but my experience is that most Web-based games are developed by hobbyists or independents, making the need for a "true return on investment" an afterthought when defining the game’s success.

But what of the intangible costs? What of the experience and knowledge obtained while developing and operating a game? Does this not have value?
A personal example:

I’ve probably spent somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 hours working on my game, CSFBL, since late 1999. It’s impossible to nail down an exact number, because I do it in my spare time. There have been weeks where 40 hours dedicated to it is an understatement, and weeks where 5 hours is stretching it. How do you quantify those hours? At a measly $25 an hour, that’s between $50k and $100k. It takes a lot for a Web-based game to generate that kind of revenue, and I’d bet most of those games that reached a "production" stage don’t accumulate that in their lifetime.

I’ll confess: CSFBL hasn’t brought in anywhere near that kind of money – and when you consider the expenses of the server and bandwidth, it has probably operated at a loss throughout its entire history [i]before you consider any compensation for my time[/i]. But, the knowledge I have gained from this has catapulted my ability to do other work (though not the work I’d like to do, which is Web games!). Has the indirect benefit of my game been enough to call it a success? Only I can judge that. Some days, I feel it has.

It would be interesting to hear other people’s experiences in this area.

You can go back: Atari Flashback™ Classic Game Console

To prove that thirty-year-old technology still has a place today, Atari is releasing the Atari Flashback Classic Game Console – essentially a new console video game that has two controllers and twenty classic Atari games built right in. This is not intended to compete with the likes of the PlayStation 2. Rather, it is intended to give people who yearn for the retro games of the Atari 2600 and Atati 7800 something to satisfy their yearning.

Note that the games included are the video game console versions and not the arcade versions – meaning 16-color graphics and pretty stale gameplay will be the norm. Then again, if you throw on your bell-bottoms and find some old recordings of Wolfman Jack to put on the stereo, you just might be sent back in time some 20 to 30 years, and you just might enjoy yourself.

Atari to Reissue Scores of Old Games / “Well, they were great 20 years ago…”

As reported by the Associated Press, Atari has ?plans to reissue scores of its classic titles from yesteryear on a single disc that can be played on the game consoles Xbox and PlayStation 2.?

All this fun stuff reminds me of an old blog entry I wrote a while back…


Well, they were great 20 years ago…

Pong, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong…

If you were born between 1965 and 1975, you were fortunate enough to experience the Golden Age of Video Games. Those of us of this generation were post-Baby Boom and pre-Generation X; we were the first computerized, video game generation. We were the first electronic generation. We were Generation V-G. It was wonderful.

Asteroids, Super Mario Brothers, Pac Man…

What brought me to this? A simple article on the Web edition of Electronic Gaming Monthly, aptly entitled Child’s Play. This article is a synopsis of what happens when a bunch of 10 to 13 year-olds (who probably can’t program their way out of the box without 3D acceleration and 256MB of RAM) try out those video game classics we grew up with: Pong, Donkey Kong, Mattel’s Handheld Football, Tetris, Super Mario Brothers (the NES version), Space Invaders, and E.T. (for the Atari 2600).

Track and Field, Centipede, Lunar Lander…

If you thought the attention span of the modern child is short, put them in front of a 16-color highly pixelated 2D Super Mario. Reading through the article makes me think of three things:

  1. Kids like video games where things blow up.
  2. Kids are not nostalgic.
  3. Pre-teens know what a hooker is.

Rather than cry about the plight of the next generation (don’t worry, I plan on taking very good care of myself so as not to be a burdern on you), I took a look around the Web to find those places that hold true to the nostalgia of days gone by.

  • PONG-Story: A site dedicated to Ralph H. Baer, the inventor of the first video game, PONG. After going through this site, I realize that PONG was not the first video game – but it was my first video game.
  • RetroGames: It’s more about game emulation than about the games themselves. It include links to the best tool for playing the games of yesterday on your PC, MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator), the greatest and most comprehensive arcade game emulator, and some very popular message forums (with a horrible interface).
  • Classic Videogame Ads: It’s not about the games, but about the game marketing. After seeing the BurgerTime ad, I wonder how I ever forgot it. Oh, and whereas today kids argue about who has more expensive P. Diddy sportswear, in my day we argued Intellivision vs. Atari.
  • Intellivision Lives: Yes, it does live, and I’m amazed that it kept such a following. Actually, I’m not amazed. I was so excited when the handheld Intellivision game that plugs right into your TV came out that I bought it promptly opened it as soon as I got home. Let me say, it sucked. It had 25 games but none of them were quite the same. Even the sounds were wrong. I simply can’t play Night Stalker without the distinct heartbeat sound (even the robots never changed, unlike the real game), or Skiing without the distinct swoosh of the skis or the crack when you hit a tree. Yes, all this stuff was rudely missing. Fortunately, you can play the Intellivision classics on your PC – some offered as free downloads, and the larger collections from Intellivision Lives (includes all Mattel Electronics games), Intellivision Rocks (includes all Activision and Imagic games), and Intellivision’s Greatest Hits (retail collections).
  • The Killer List of Videogames: It is the killer list – as of this writing, 4,174 different arcade games. An incredible collection of information, screenshots, and 3-D models of the machines that ate every quarter that fell in your pocket.

I’ll try to throw more your way in the future, but until then…

Time Pilot, Defender, Pole Position, Missile Command, Robotron 2084…