E. Gary Gygax and computer gaming
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
Comments: 6 (latest 2 days later)
Tagged: adventure games, gregory yob, history, wumpus, gary gygax
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.