Overheard on Amtrak: A Gaming Story

February 4, 2014– If you’re a boardgamer who looks askance at the first-person-shooter variety of videogames, here’s some grist for your mill. Of course lots of folks love videogames, and the first-person-shooter variety is a strong category in that field, so if that’s your passion please excuse this. My take is that of a longtime boardgame designer who was there when computer games first got started, solicited our help, then left us in the dust.

Anyway the story is this: a few years ago I was on my way to take care of chores in New York. I prefer Amtrak for these periodic business trips. The train is more comfortable, you can walk around, and it leaves you in the heart of The City, ready to go wherever you need to. So I’m on a Northeast Regional bound for a city I love, where I lived a long time. I read a book as the train barreled along. Sitting there I became conscious of the conversation from the twin-seat ahead of me. Two men were engaged in avid debate. I heard the words “axe” and “sword.” That got my attention pretty well.

Some nefarious plot? I worried briefly but it quickly became clear the two men were game designers, and their purpose was to figure out what weapons to put into the first-person-shooter they were crafting. The conversation was quite interesting. Heft of the axe and sword, length and edge-type of the latter, single- or double-bit for the axe, type of metal, weight–all were things they considered. What struck me in particular was their focus on the visual impact of the various weapons configurations. They were clearly concentrating on a game design issue.

The purloined conversation got me to thinking. Plenty of gamers have asked me over the years why I did not move into computer games. Actually a few of my designs–Third Reich and Kanev are two–have appeared in computerized versions, though the games (and even the computer platforms which ran them) no longer exist. But I never made the crossover myself. At first I thought I would, but that I needed to wait–the early platforms were very restricted in terms of core memory. For a long time the memory requirements for representing a mapboard effectively consumed the machine’s capacity leaving little for the game itself. As a designer my preference has always been to innovate systems that mimic large-scale processes in the real world, requiring pretty sophisticated code. But I anticipated that CPU memory capacities would someday reach the level required for both board and design, plus, of course, pieces. In any case, focusing my design efforts on image (as my Amtrak friends were doing) rather than content, as in the modeling of processes, was not something I wanted to do.

That evolution of computers happened–but so did something else. The early electronic games were very much like the boardgames. But as computers improved, the action game, granddaddy of the first-person-shooter, eclipsed the old-style game. The charm of putting the person into the game–as character (in role-playing), as ball player, as shooter, as action figure–was irresistible. The personal element made computer games the behemoth they are today. Even large-scale games today, as in the massive online game, are permutations of single person action. My two friends on Amtrak were onto something.

But I did–and still do–prefer to model processes, not individual action, whether cumulative or not. I’ve been pleased that old-style electronic games have survived, even as a niche in the computerized milieu, and also that computers have come around far enough to develop game-assist programs (like VASSAL) that improve the practicality of boardgames. And developing trends may be moving in the direction of  a more central role for boardgame-like computer games. Sales of first-person-shooter designs peaked in 2011 and have diminished since. Though these games still account for nearly a fourth of all electronic game sales, their dollar volume has decreased by more than a third. This suggests there is space developing for electronic wargames of the traditional kind, now in an environment when the platforms are fully capable of handling a sophisticated boardgame. Some of my old designer colleagues–Eric Lee Smith is an example–have chosen to go straight to electronics with new game companies. And games are being formatted to work on I-pads and I-phones. We may be witnessing the dawn of a new age. Let a hundred flowers bloom!

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One Response to Overheard on Amtrak: A Gaming Story

  1. Greetings John,
    Thanks for the mention in dispatches! Yes, it is a changing world for games, fast, global, and there are NO experts. My new company is surfing the tides of change but it is tough. I am really pleased though that we are not the only game company making serious wargames any more. I agree, let 100 flowers bloom!
    I remain a life-long fan of your work.
    Cheers,
    Eric

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