Monday, September 22, 2008

Infocom sales figures

Simon Carless at GameSetWatch tips us off to a crazy piece of geek trivia: an internal sales report of Infocom text adventures.


Click for links to complete image scans. The watershed between the two documents is Activision's 1986 acquisition of Infocom.

These scans were posted by Jason Scott as part of the research he's done for his upcoming Get Lamp documentary.

I don't have a lot to add to the observations in the GSW column. Zork 1 was the biggest hit, and stayed strong throughout the company's existence. Hitchhiker's Guide was their second biggest game; then Zork 2, Deadline, and Zork 3. (But the Zork sequels never did half as well as the original -- a pattern echoed, for example, by the Myst series a decade later.)

I am surprised by the relative weakness of Sorcerer and Spellbreaker -- the latter was hit by nasty stock returns in 1986. (Was there some marketing or distribution screwup there? A lot of the numbers in the '86 column look too small, even assuming the report was written partway through the year.) Contrariwise, Cutthroats was a bigger hit than I ever realized. Probably my biases towards fantasy and against "mundane" fiction are showing. Of Infocom's later games, Wishbringer, Leather Goddesses, and Beyond Zork were the strongest -- but Zork 1 and HHGG just kept on selling.

And then there's Cornerstone, whose story I need not tell.

Are these the numbers I should be trying to beat when I launch my commercial IF career into triumph? Heck, I don't know. Probably not. Even comparing the sales numbers from 1981, 1985, and 1989 is somewhat apples to pomelos, given the enormous expansion of the computer game market over that era. Today's market makes 1989 look like a grape -- and then it's split and split again (consoles, casual gaming, MMO gaming...) and merged with a dozen other industries (movies, cell phones, advertising...) If I imagine a successful IF career today, I see something that runs between casual gamers and reading/blogging devotees. (Yes, folks, people read on the Internet.) Hasn't happened yet, no. I'll let you know.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rec Zarf some PS3 smack

I noticed a few months ago -- I guess when the E3 PR wave was cresting -- that a new Silent Hill game was coming. Also a Prince of Persia game, and a Tomb Raider game, and now a God of War game, and this "Mirror's Edge" thing looks pretty slick, and it was about then that I realized that I was going to wind up buying myself a PS3 this Consumptimass.

I had tried to avoid it. I have a PS1 and a PS2, but when Sony started piling on the screw-you features (I am not your blu-ray sales rep) I said "You know what? I'll pay a third as much, and ride out this generation of consoles on the Wii. The decent games will be cross-platform anyhow."

As it as turned out, Tomb Raider was cross-platform. Everything else quietly receded into the distance. I played a lot of PC adventure games.

So, okay, I'm getting a PS3. But I haven't been paying attention to the market. Two years' worth of games came out, and I don't know which of them are worth looking at. Time for me to trawl the minds of the Gameshelf Collective. What released PS3 games should I grab?

Assume that I like action-adventure games -- the titles I mention above are a guide. I also liked the Soul Reaver series, Fatal Frame, Sly Cooper, Ratchet+Clank, Okami, and (inevitably) Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Beyond Good and Evil was decent but I wasn't bowled over like everybody else. I'm okay with the more fight-y action games like Onimusha and Devil May Cry, except that I'm not quite good enough to be their target audience (DMC3 was way the hell beyond me). Squad combat and shooters are not my style.

That's a one-dimensional picture, so feel free to mention the quirky and weird as well. (I liked Rez and Katamari too.)

What should I look for in the used-game bin?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


So Spore is out. Everyone I know is either playing it or talking about it. This includes people who do not play videogames. So to that degree, Will Wright has pwned the planet.

As a gamer, the biggest discussion I see about Spore is that DRM argument. (Don't buy Spore (yet) says my friend peterb, and then goes on to talk about the completely terrible game experience that so many people are having. Boingboing inevitably picks up the topics, etc.) The notable statistic is the Amazon product page, which shows -- as I write this -- 1911 one-star reviews hating on the DRM, versus just 166 with higher ratings (two stars or more). For a game released four days ago.

Now, I'm pretty sure this Amazon review thing is a stunt. No videogame gets that many reviews that fast. Katamari Damacy, a hit for the past four years, has just 244 reviews; The Sims 2 (the previous Will Wright megablast, also four years old) has 889.

More importantly, Amazon reviews are notoriously a big pile of hooey. They're one step above Youtube comments, and you can find 1900 Youtube commenters willing to fart in five-part harmony just by turning over a rock and filming it.

However, it's a valid stunt. Fred Benenson, an early commenter on this mess, calls it "dis-organized collective action". Nobody thinks 90% of Spore players are dissatisfied customers -- but the dissatisfaction with crappy usage restrictions has made a big visible splash this week. That will resonate with the vast silent majority of game players, who grumble about stupid policies but eat the shit sandwich because it doesn't usually affect most of them.

And if this turns out to be organized collective action, hey, it's community organization. That's how stuff gets done.

I have nothing to add about the Spore experience, because I didn't buy Spore.

I bought the Spore Creature Creator -- the play-with-dolls part of the game, which was released a few months ago by itself -- because it seemed like a quirky idea and I wanted to support that. As it turned out, none of my computers can run the Creature Creator. (The Mac desktop isn't Intel, the Windows box has horrible sound-card pops, and the laptop is still on OSX 10.4.) One day I will upgrade the laptop, or the Windows sound drivers, and the thing will probably work then.

Then I looked at Spore, looked at all the hoo-ha, and bought Spore Origins -- aka iPhone Spore. Ten bucks in the iPhone App Store. No activation codes. No three-machine limit. No being arbitrarily yelled at for being a thief. You download it, tap the icon, and you're playing a bacterium.

Obviously the iPhone is not a DRM-free device. It is restricted up the wazoo. But Sporigins isn't any more restricted than any other iPhone app. I'm using it under the terms that I've already bought into. So, there's no resistance there.

Similarly, I'm looking forward to playing Bioshock this fall. Bioshock was released using the same oft-maligned SecuROM copy-protection that Spore uses. I will bypass this -- legally -- by buying Bioshock for Playstation. DRM? Sure, but it's not infecting my computer with anything, and it's not making the PS3 any more broken than it is out of the box. So the hell with it.

(This is not a blind "I don't care about DRM on iPhone/PS3" position. I will be able to play that copy of Bioshock for as long as I can find PS3s on eBay. That is an important criterion and I wouldn't buy a console without it. The iPhone is a less certain proposition, but the active jailbreaking community gives me some assurance that if and when Apple lets the iPhone drop by the wayside, I will be able to monkey my apps into it if I really want to. Or, more likely, into some kind of emulator.)

Electronic Arts wants you to believe that your computer is broken out of the box. If they're right, you don't care about SecuROM, you don't care that your software doesn't work reliably, and you don't care that your game purchase is a rental. This is a political position which they will win or lose, depending on how many people they convince -- and how many people are convinced they are wrong. That's why a wave of Amazon reviews, stunt or not, is at the heart of the matter.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Another forum game

I've written a couple of short articles about role-playing games on web forums. (Including one game I ran myself for a few weeks.)

The context of those posts was Myst fandom. But my original inspiration was a Harry Potter fanfic RPG called Nocturne Alley.

I don't know how the thing got started; it only hit my attention at its end, in mid-2004. That was the culmination of a two-year arc of Livejournal posts. A group of people took the roles of characters from the HP books -- one each, and their real identities were not public. And the characters started keeping public journals. And commenting in each others' journals. And stuff happened.

The game started in Hogwarts Year Five, I believe. (The fifth book was not yet out at that point, so they were working in as-yet-unmapped territory.) Naturally, being fanfic, it diverged rapidly from Rowling's plan. (Sirius and Remus wound up married. That sort of thing. Fanfic.)

It was a long-running, collaborative performance which contained a wealth of detail and characterization. More detail, in fact, than anyone can possibly assimilate. There's no way you can read Nocturne Alley. I've linked to the LJ community page, and there's an indirect index too, but you'd spend weeks re-reading everything. This is an art form which, in an odd way and despite being online, exists only in real time.

(A single link I found interesting: questions answered by an organizer, afterwards.)

So why am I mentioning this now? Because Alternity has just started. This is a new Harry Potter game, and it starts from the beginning -- September 1, Harry's first day at school. Only not as in The Philosopher's Stone. In this scenario, Voldemort, er, won. As Lord Protector Marvolo, he controls England... and he's just sent his eleven-year-old adopted son Harry Marvolo to Hogwarts.

The conceits of the game:
  • It's in real time. Today is September 4th, 1991, game time. The first-years are in their fourth day at school. Christmas is Christmas, summer break is summer break, and -- at least in plan -- Alternity will run for seven real years.
  • Journal posts are journal posts. The game consists of what people say in their (public) journals. There are no transcripts of what is "really" happening, unless a character chooses to write about it.
  • Journals are public. (Voldemort's Ministry of Magic wants to encourage discussion that they can eavesdrop on.)
  • One exception: the good-guy conspiracy has managed to set up a private conference. (Posts marked "Order Only" are presumed visible only to Order of the Phoenix members.) It is implied that the bad guys can do something similar. Naturally, first-year students are not trusted with such secrets, no matter how well-raised they are.

Some announcements and public discussion appears on the community page, but most of the action will be on the friends page. Follow if you dare.

(Well, that's easy to say. I don't know how much I'll be following myself. My daily net-reading habits are not set up to just add a stream of livejournal. I try to avoid passive reading; if I don't take action to go look, I don't see it. And seven years is a long time. But I'm interested in how these things run.)