Tuesday, March 4, 2008

E. Gary Gygax and computer gaming

We have all just heard that E. Gary Gygax, the man who launched a thousand basement RPG sessions, has died.

Others will speak of his impact on the tabletop gaming world. But Johan Larson asked an interesting question:

I wonder how computer games would be different if GG hadn't created D&D. Conanesque fantasy [e.g., "kill him and take his stuff"] would surely be a smaller niche, but would there be any larger effects?

My immediate response is "Heck, yes."

(Note: the following is quite off-the-cuff. I haven't studied the history of computer gaming, outside of text adventures. I lived through that era, but I didn't see everything that went on. Nonetheless, this is my theory.)

Computer gaming would have been wildly different if D&D had never existed. As Johan implies, the earliest CRPGs (Ultima, Wizardry, Hack/Rogue) were explicitly inspired by the idea of getting D&D onto a computer. The earliest adventure wasn't derived from D&D, but D&D was a huge part of its evolution from Crowther's toy to the Colossal Cave that swept the computer world:

Kraley joined Crowther in a months-long Dungeons and Dragons campaign (led by Eric Roberts and including future Infocom co-founder Dave Lebling among the core of about eight participants). "[O]ne day, a few of us wandered into [Crowther's] office so he could show off his program. It was very crude in many respects -- Will was always parsimonious of memory -- but surprisingly sophisticated. We all had a blast playing it, offering suggestions, finding bugs, and so forth."

(from Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave, Dennis Jerz)

It's not a matter of a smaller niche. Withouth D&D, there would have been no such niche, not in those earliest years.

So what other influences were there? The arcade shooters (etc) were all there, independent of D&D. Maybe sim-type games would have taken off earlier, led by Hammurabi and Oregon Trail. There were Star-Trek-themed space-exploration games... Hunt the Wumpus? Maybe, maybe not, and Gregory Yob isn't around to ask. But Pong, Pac-Man, all those, they wouldn't be affected.

So there would have been games. But I can imagine years going by in which computer games did not have the notion of you on the screen acting. The player would control a starship, or an empire, or a yellow chompy dot, but not an avatar of himself.

It would have come along eventually, I suppose. And, okay, this is an extreme extrapolation.

Nonethless... I'd bet quite a lot that the computer game industry as we know it would have launched later and slower. Up until the mid-90s, it was adventures and RPGs that were big games; they drove the game industry in the direction of big budgets and big development groups. The arcade games weren't doing that. So, if RPGs had been delayed, the whole industry would have been delayed.

(Once Doom hit, it became the game-industry driver -- in the US, anyway. I suppose Japan remained firmly entrenched with CRPGs, the Final Fantasy crowd.)

And it goes without saying that a bunch of MIT wackos would never have formed a wacko startup called Infocom. So, there's my life unrecognizable. But I wouldn't be the only one.

Comments imported from Gameshelf

vince (Mar 5, 2008 at 1:51 AM):

the new hello kitty mmorpg wouldn't be what it is if D&D were never invented. here's to the man. may his saving throws last forever.

Jason McIntosh (Mar 5, 2008 at 10:44 AM):

I'm enjoying his memorial thread on Making Light. It includes the suggestion that all gamers pool their cash and build him a trap-filled tomb modeled after D&D Module S1: The Tomb of Horrors. (Which, I discovered, is a free download from Wizards of the Coast.)

Ankhst (Mar 5, 2008 at 6:07 PM):

I haven't played D&D in almost 20 years, but an S1 sendoff? Freakin' brilliant! And worth doing! Sadly, not a good time in US economy to seek donations.

Dennis G. Jerz (Mar 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM):

Wumpus did make a few strides towards narration, and invoked multiple senses (the smell of a wumpus, the rustle of bat wings, the draft near a pit)... Eliza would have probably still led to Racter, and maybe some other military simulation gamer who happened to be a fan of Tolkien would have made the connection, but who knows.

Arcade games and 2D platformers would likely have developed more or less as they did. Certainly if D&D and IF had come along a little later, perhaps the graphic adventures (a la Mystery House) would have taken the wind out of text games before the fan base grew to its Infocom-fueled frenzy.

Andrew Plotkin (Mar 6, 2008 at 12:45 AM):

But the earliest graphical adventures -- Mystery House, Wizard and the Princess, King's Quest -- were text-parser IF, illustrated. They would have been just as much delayed.

Or are you saying that better graphics would have been available if the first flush of IF had been a few years later, and thus text IF would be at a disadvantage? I can believe that.

Dennis G. Jerz (Mar 6, 2008 at 5:19 PM):

Yes, your 2nd paragraph catches my meaning.

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