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The Rise of POMG, Part 2: Multima

This sign, executed in throwback 1980s Ultima iconography, hung on the wall outside the elevator on the fifth floor of Origin Systems’s office building, pointing the way to the Multima team. If you neglected to follow the sign’s advice and turned left instead of right here, you would plunge five stories to your doom.

To carry our story forward into the next phase of persistent online multiplayer gaming, we first need to go backward again — all the way back to the days when tabletop Dungeons & Dragons was new on the scene and people were first beginning to imagine how computers might make it more accessible. Some dreamed of eliminating the pesky need for other humans to play with entirely; others wondered whether it might be possible to use networked computers in place of the tabletop, so that you could get together and play with your friends without all of the logistical complications of meeting up in person. Still others dreamed bigger, dreamed of things that would never be possible even with a tabletop big enough to make King Arthur blush. What if you could use computers to make a living virtual world with thousands of human inhabitants? In a column in a 1983 issue of Starlog magazine, Lenny Kaye mused about just such a thing.

When played among groups of people, [tabletop] RPGs foster a sense of cooperation toward a common goal, something videogames have hardly approached.

But with the computer’s aid, the idea of the game network can expand outward, interfacing with all sorts of societal drifts. The technology for both video[games] and RPGs is still in its infancy — one with graphics and memory far from ideal, the other still attached to its boards and figurines — and yet, it’s not hard to imagine a nationwide game, in which all citizens play their part. Perhaps it becomes an arena in which to exercise and exorcise ourselves, releasing our animal instincts through the power of the mind, understanding the uses and misuses of our humanity.

While they waited for the technology which could make that dream a reality to appear, people did what they could with what they had. The ones who came closest to the ideal of a “nationwide game” were those running MUDs, those “multi-user dungeons” that allowed up to 100 players to interact with one another by typing commands into a textual parser, with teletype-style streaming text as their eyes and ears into the world they all shared.

Island of Kesmai did soon come along on the big online service CompuServe, with an interface that looked more like Rogue than the original game of Adventure. But again, only 100 people could play together simultaneously there, about the same number as on the biggest MUDs. And in this case, each of them had to pay by the minute for the privilege. For all that it was amazing that it could exist at all in its time and place, Island of Kesmai was more like a wealthy gated village than a teeming virtual world.

Still, it must be acknowledged that the sellers of traditional boxed computer games were even farther away from that aspiration, being content to offer up single-player CRPGs where combat — that being the aspect of tabletop RPGs that was easiest to implement on a computer — tended to overwhelm everything else. The one obvious exception to this norm was Origin Systems of Austin, Texas. Especially after 1985’s landmark Ultima IV, Origin’s Ultima series became not only the commercial standard bearer for CRPGs but the best argument for the genre’s potential to be about something more than statistics and combat tactics. These games were rather about world-building and about the Virtues of the (player’s) Avatar, daring to introduce an ethical philosophy that was applicable to the real world — and then, in later installments, to muddy the waters by mercilessly probing the practical limitations and blind spots inherent in any such rigid ethical code.

Richard Garriott — “Lord British” to his legion of fans, the creator of Ultima and co-founder of Origin — had first conceived of the games as a re-creation of the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons sessions that had made him a minor celebrity in his Houston neighborhood well before he got his hands on his first Apple II. The setting of computerized Ultima was the world of Britannia, the same one he had invented for his high-school friends. The idea of adventuring together with others through the medium of the computer thus made a lot of sense to him. Throughout the 1980s and beyond, he repeatedly brought up the hypothetical game that he called Multima, a multiplayer version of Ultima. In 1987, an Origin programmer was actually assigned to work on it for a while. Garriott, from a contemporary interview:

James Van Artsdalen, who does our IBM and Macintosh translations, is working on a program that lets several people participate in the game. Two people can do this with different computers directly connected via modems, or even more can play via a system with multiple modems. We don’t know if we’ll be able to support packet networks like CompuServe because they may be too slow for this application. We’ll do it if we can.

What you’ll buy in the store will be a package containing all the core graphics routines and the game-development stuff (all the commands and so on), which you could even plug into your computer and play as a standalone. But with a modem you could tie a friend into the game, or up to somewhere between eight and sixteen other players, all within the same game.

We will most likely run a game of this out of our office. Basically, we can almost gamemaster it. There could be a similar setup in each town, and anybody could run one. Our intention is to let anyone capable of having multiple modems on their system have the network software. Anybody can be a node: two people can play if they each own a package, just by calling each other. But to be a base, a multiplayer node, you’ve got to have multiple modems and may need additional software. If the additional software is needed, we’ll let anyone who wants it have it, since we’re just supporting sales of our own products anyway.

Should be a lot of fun, we think. We hope to have it out by next summer [the summer of 1988], and it should cost between $30 and $60. This will be able to tie different kinds of computers together, since the information being sent back and forth doesn’t include any graphics. I could play on my Apple while you’re on your IBM, for instance. The graphics will be full state-of-the-art Ultima graphics, but they’ll already be on your computer.

Alas, this Multima was quietly abandoned soon after the interview, having been judged just too uncertain a project to invest significant resources into when there was guaranteed money to be made from each new single-player Ultima. As we’ll soon see, it was not the last time that argument was made against a Multima.

Circa 1990, Multima was revived for a time, this time as a three-way partnership among Origin, the commercial online service GEnie, and Kesmai, the maker of Island of Kesmai. The last would be given the source code to Ultima VI, the latest iteration of the single-player series, and would adapt it for online play, after which GEnie would deploy it on its central mainframe. As it happened, a similar deal was already taking SSI’s Gold Box engine for licensed Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs through the same process of transformation. It would result in something called Neverwinter Nights[1]Not the same game as the 2002 Bioware CRPG of the same name. going up on America Online in 1991 with an initial capacity of 100 simultaneous players, eventually to be raised by popular demand to 500, making it the most massively multiplayer online game of the early 1990s. But Multima was not so lucky; the deal fell through before it had gotten beyond the planning stages, perchance having proved a simple case of too many cooks in the kitchen.

Richard Garriott had largely ceased to involve himself in the day-to-day work of making new Ultima games by this point, but he continued to set the overall trajectory of the franchise. And as he did so, he never forgot those old hopes for a Multima. Not long after Electronic Arts (EA) purchased Origin Systems in 1992, he thought he saw the stars aligning at long last. For 1993 brought with it NCSA Mosaic, the first broadly popular multimedia Web browser, the harbinger of the home Internet boom. This newly accessible public Internet could replace fragile peer-to-peer modems connections as easily as it could the bespoke private networks of CompuServe and GEnie, making the likes of Multima seem far more practical, both to implement and to offer to customers at an affordable price.

Richard Garriott in 1995.

For better or for worse, though, Origin was now a part of EA, who had the final say on which projects got funded. Garriott tried repeatedly over a period of a year and a half or more to interest EA’s CEO Larry Probst in his Multima schemes, without success. As he tells the story, he and a couple of other true believers from Origin resorted to guerrilla tactics at the third formal pitch meeting.

We literally just refused to give up the floor. They said, “No. Get out.” And we stomped our feet and held our breath. “We are not leaving until you guys get a clue. As a developer, we go over-budget by 25 to 50 percent every year. We’re only asking for $250,000 to build a prototype.” I already had a piece of paper prepared: “You approve of us going $250,000 over-budget to prove that this can work.” And finally, after heated yelling and screaming, they signed the piece of paper and kicked us in the ass as we left the room.

It must be said here that Garriott is generally not one to let an overly fussy allegiance to pedantic truth get in the way of a good story. Thus I suspect that the decision to green-light a Multima prototype may not have been arrived at in quite so dramatic a fashion as the tale above. (Garriott has in fact told a number of versions of the story over the years; in another of them, he’s alone in Larry Probst’s office, hectoring him one-and-one into signing the note granting him $250,000 to investigate the possibility.) Most important for our purposes, however, is that the decision was definitely made by early 1995.

The answer to another question is even more murky: that of just when the change was made from an Ultima that you could play online with a few of your buddies — a feature that would be seen well before the end of the 1990s in a number of otherwise more conceptually conventional CRPGs, such as Diablo and Baldur’s Gate — to a persistent virtual Britannia inhabited by dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of other players. The acronym by which we refer to such worlds today would be coined by Richard Garriott in 1997: the “massively multiplayer online role-playing game,” or MMORPG. (And you thought POMG was a mouthful!) Yet it appears that Multima may not have become an MMORPG in the minds of its creators until after Garriott secured his funding, and that that hugely important conceptual shift may not have originated with Garriott himself. One alternative candidate is the man to whom Garriott turned to become the nuts-and-bolts administrator of the project: Starr Long, a quality-assurance lead who had been one of his few Multima allies inside the company for quite some time. (“The original idea,” Long said in a 1996 interview — i.e., close to the events in question — “was to take an Ultima and just make it so you could have a party of people travel together.”) A third candidate is Rick Delashmit, the first and for a long time the only programmer assigned to the project, who unlike Garriott and Long had deep connections to the MUD scene, gaming’s closest extant equivalent to what Multima would become. In fact, Delashmit had actually co-founded a MUD of his own: LegendMUD, which was still running on a single 80486-based personal computer humming away under a desk in an Austin data center.

Regardless of who decided to do what, Long and Delashmit soon had cause to wonder whether signing onto Multima had been their worst career move ever. “We were kind of the bastard stepchild,” Long says. “No one got it and no one was really interested, because everyone wanted to build the next [single-player] Ultima or Wing Commander. Those were the sexy projects.” They found themselves relegated to the fifth floor of Origin’s Austin, Texas, headquarters, jammed into one corner of a space that was mostly being leased out to an unaffiliated advertising agency.

Making the best of it, Long and Delashmit hacked together a sort of prototype of a prototype. Stealing a trick and possibly some code from the last attempt at a Multima, they started with the now-archaic Ultima VI engine. “All you could do was run around and pick up a single object off of the ground,” says Long. “And then if another player ran into you, you would drop it. We had a scavenger hunt, where we hid a few objects around the map and then let the whole company loose to find them. Whoever was still holding them after an hour won.”

It was a start, but it still left a million questions unanswered. A game like this one — or rather a virtual world — must have a fundamentally different structure than a single-player Ultima, even for that matter than the tabletop RPG sessions that had inspired Richard Garriott’s most famous creations. Those games had all been predicated on you — or at most on you and a few of your best mates — being the unchallenged heroes of the piece, the sun around which everything else orbited. But you couldn’t fill an entire world with such heroes; somebody had to accept supporting roles. Some might even have to play evil rather than virtuous characters, upending the core message of Ultima since Ultima IV.

Garriott, Long, and Delashmit weren’t the only ones pondering these questions. In a 1993 issue of Sierra On-Line’s newsletter InterAction, that company’s head Ken Williams — a man who bore some surface similarities to Garriott, being another industry old-timer who had given up the details of game development for the big-picture view by this point in his career — asked how massively multi-player adventuring could possibly be made to function. He had good reason to ask: his own company’s Sierra Network was doing pioneering work in multiplayer gaming at the time, albeit as a closed dial-up service rather than on the open Internet.

I think a multiplayer adventure game is the next major step. Imagine a version of Police Quest, looking like it does now, except that your partner in the patrol car and the people in the street around you are real people. I think this would be cool.

For three months, Roberta [Williams, Ken’s wife], Chris [Williams, the couple’s son], and I have been arguing over how this would work. The problem is that most adventure games have some central quest story. Generally speaking, once you’ve solved the quest the game is over. You are there as the central character, and all of the other characters are there primarily to help move you towards completing your quest (or to get in your way).

A multiplayer adventure game would be a completely different animal. If 500 people were playing multiplayer King’s Quest at the same time, would there have to be 500 separate quests? There are also problems having to do with the fact that people aren’t always connected to the network. If my goal is to save you from an evil wizard, what do I do if neither you nor the evil wizard happen to sign on?

Here’s the thoughts we’ve had so far. What if we create a world that just contains nothing but forest as far as you can see? When you enter the game, you can do things like explore, or even build yourself a house. There’ll be stores where you can buy supplies. Soon, cities will form. People may want to build walls around their cities. Cities may want to bargain with each other for food. Or, for protection against common enemies. There needs to be some sense of purpose to the game. What if, after some amount of time in the land, the game “promotes” you to some status where your goals become to create the problems which affect the city, such as plagues, war, rampaging dragons, etc. In other words, some of the players are solving quests while others are creating them. Sooner or later, it becomes your turn to complicate the lives of others.

Either this is a remarkable case of parallel invention or someone was whispering in Ken Williams’s ear about MUDs. For the last paragraph above is an uncannily accurate description of how many of the latter were run, right down to dedicated and accomplished players being elevated to “wizard” status, with powers over the very nature of the virtual world itself. The general MUD design philosophy, which had been thoroughly tested and proven solid over the years, held that the creators of multiplayer worlds didn’t have to worry overmuch about the stories and quests and goals that were needed for compelling single-player games. It was enough simply to put a bunch of people together in an environment that contained the raw building blocks of such things. They’d do the rest for themselves; they’d find their own ways to have fun.

In our next article, we’ll see what resulted from Ken Williams’s ideas about massively-multiplayer adventure. For now, though, let us return to our friends at Origin Systems and find out how they attempted to resolve the quandary of what people should actually be doing in their virtual world.



In the immediate aftermath of that first online scavenger hunt, nobody there knew precisely what they ought to do next. It was at this point that Rick Delashmit offered up the best idea anyone had yet had. Multima would share many commonalities with textual MUDs, he said. So why not hire some more folks who knew those virtual worlds really, really well to help the Origin folks make theirs? He had two friends in mind in particular: a young couple named Raph and Kristen Koster, who had taken over the running of LegendMUD after he had stepped down.

The Kosters were graduate students in Alabama, meaning that much of the negotiation had to be conducted by telephone and computer. Raph was finishing up his program in poetry at the University of Alabama, while Kristen studied economics — a perfect pair of perspectives from which to tackle the art and science of building a new virtual world, as it happened. Raph Koster:

We started to get interview questions remotely as they worked to figure out whether we were qualified. All of the questions came from what was very much a single-player slant. We were sent examples of code and asked if we could write code like that and find the bugs that had been intentionally inserted into the code. It was something like a misplaced closing brace.

Finally, we were asked for a sample quest. I sent them the entire code and text of my quest for the Beowulf zone in LegendMUD, but then also said, “But we wouldn’t do quests this way at all now.” Kristen and I had been working on a simulation system based on artificial life and economic theory. We basically sent in a description of our design work on that. It was a system that was supposed to simulate the behavior of creatures and NPCs [non-player characters] using a simplistic version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, with abstract properties behind everything.

The Kosters were hired already in the spring of 1995, but couldn’t start on a full-time basis until September 1. Over the course of several drives between Tuscaloosa and Austin and back in the interim, they hashed out their vision for Multima.

They wanted to lean heavily into simulation, trusting that, if they did it right, quests and all the rest would arise organically from the state of the world rather than needing to be hard-coded. Objects in the world would be bundles of abstract qualities which interacted with one another in pre-defined ways; take an object with the quality of “wood” and touch it to one with the quality of “fire,” and exactly what you expected to happen would occur. This reliance on qualities would make it quick and easy for people — designers or just ordinary players — to create new objects on the fly and have them act believably.

But the system could go much further. The non-player creatures which populated the world would have different sorts of qualities attached, derived, as Raph Koster notes above, from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Each creature would have its own types of Food and Shelter that it sought to attain and retain, alongside a more elevated set of Desires to pursue and Aversions to avoid once it had served for its most basic needs.

An early preview of the game, written by Paul Schuytema for Computer Gaming World magazine, describes how the system would ideally work in action, how it would obviate the need for a human designer to generate thousands of set-piece quests to keep players busy.

Designing a dynamic world is a tricky business. How do you create enough quests to interest 2000 people? Origin’s solution: don’t. Create a world with enough logical conditions that it will generate its own quests. For example, consider a cave in the virtual world. Any self-respecting cave needs a monster, so you assign the cave a “need for monster” request of the game-world engine. Poof! A monster, let’s say a dragon, is then spontaneously created in the cave. Dragons are big eaters, so the dragon sends out a “need for meat” request. Meat, in the form of deer, roams the forest outside the cave, so the dragon’s life consists of leaving the cave to consume deer. If something happens that lowers the deer population (bad weather, over-hunting, or a game administrator strategically killing off deer), the dragon will have to widen its search for meat, which might lead it to the sheep pastures outside town.

At this point, NPCs can be useful to tell real players about a ravenous dragon roaming the countryside. NPCs can also sweeten the pot by offering rewards to anyone who can slay it. But what are they going to say?

“All of the [NPCs’] conversations come from a dynamic conversation pool which is linked to the world state,” explains Long. This means that if you, as a player, were to walk into this town, any one of the villagers will say something like, “Hey, we need your help. This dragon is eating all our sheep.” Thus, the “Kill the Dragon” quest is underway — succeed, and the villagers will handsomely reward you.

If you put it all together correctly, you would end up with a living world, to an extent that even the most ambitious textual MUDs had barely approached to that point. Everything that was needed to make it a game as well as a virtual space would come about of its own accord once you let real humans start to run around in it and interfere with the lives of the algorithmically guided dragons and guards and shopkeepers. It would be all the more fun for being true to itself, a complex dynamic system responding to itself as well as to thousands of human inputs that were all happening at once, a far cry from the typical single-player Ultima where nothing much happened unless you made it happen. Incidentally but not insignificantly, it would also be a sociologist’s dream, a fascinating study in mass human psychology, perhaps even a laboratory for insights into the evolution of real-world human civilizations.

When they arrived for their first day on the job, the Kosters were rather shocked to find that their new colleagues had already begun to implement the concepts which the couple had informally shared with them during the interview process and afterward. It was disconcerting on the one hand — “It freaked us out because we had assumed there was already a game design,” says Raph — but bracing on the other. This pair of unproven industry neophytes, with little on their résumés in games beyond hobbyist experimentation in the obscure culture of MUDs, was in a position to decide exactly what Multima would become. It would take a year or more for Raph Koster to be given the official title of “Creative Lead”; when he arrived, that title belonged to one Andrew Morris, a veteran of Ultima VII and VIII who had recently been transferred to the project, where he would struggle, like so many others at Origin, to wrap his head around the paradigm shift from single-player to multiplayer gaming. But for all intents and purposes, Raph and Kristen Koster filled that role from the start. Each was paid $25,000 per year for building this brave new world. They wouldn’t have traded it for a job that paid ten times the salary. At their urging, Origin hired several other MUDders to work with them on what was now to be called Ultima On-Line; the game would soon loose the hyphen to arrive at its final name.

I can’t emphasize enough what a leap into uncharted territory this was for Origin, as indeed it would have been for any other games studio of the time. To put matters in perspective, consider that Origin began working on Ultima Online before it even had a static website up on the Internet. The company had always been in the business of making packaged goods, games on disc that were sold once for a one-time price. Barring a patch or two in the worst cases, these games’ developers could wash their hands of them and move on once they were finished. But Ultima Online was to be something entirely different, a “game” — if that word even still applied — that was run as a service. How should people pay for the privilege of playing it? (Origin had no experience with billing its customers monthly.) And how much should they pay? (While everyone on the team could agree that Ultima Online needed to be appreciably cheaper than the games on CompuServe and its ilk, no one could say for sure where the sweet spot lay.) In short, the practical logistics of Ultima Online would have been a major challenge even if the core team of less than a dozen mostly green youngsters — median age about 22 — hadn’t also been trying to create a new world out of whole cloth, with only partially applicable precedents.

The early Multima team, or the “MUDders of Invention,” as they sometimes liked to call themselves. Clockwise from top left: Rick Delashmit, Edmond Mainfelder, Clay Hoffman, Starr Long, Micael Priest, Andrew Morris, Scott Phillips, Kristen Koster, and Raph Koster.

When the advertising agency that had been the team’s neighbor moved out, Origin decided to gut the now almost empty fifth floor where the latter was still ensconced. “They literally knocked out all the walls and the windows,” says Raph Koster. “So, the elevator surfaced to bare concrete. If you turned right, you went to see our team in a converted hallway, the only part left standing. If you turned left, you fell five floors to your death.” It was freezing cold up there in the winter, and the dust was thick in the air all year round, such that they learned to wrap their computers in plastic when they left for the day. “This team was given the least possible support you can imagine,” says Richard Garriott.

Undaunted, the little group did what the best game developers have always done when cast onto uncharted waters: they made something to start with, then tested it, then iterated, then tested some more, ad nauseum. Garriott came by “once a month or so,” in the recollection of Raph Koster, to observe and comment on their progress. Otherwise, their ostensible colleagues at Origin seemed hardly to know that they existed. “We were punk kids doing stuff in the attic,” says Raph, “and our parents had no idea what we were up to.”

In January of 1996, they put a message up on the Origin Systems website (yes, one had been built by this point): “Ultima Online (working title, subject to change) is now taking applications from people interested in play-testing a pre-alpha version, starting on March 1, 1996.” Almost 1500 people asked to take part in a test which only had space for a few dozen.

The test began a month behind schedule, but it proved that the core technology could work when it was finally run from April 1 until April 8. “This will be damn awesome when it comes!” enthused one breathless participant over chat. Richard Garriott thrilled the group by appearing in the world as his alter ego one evening. “We ran into LB! The REAL THING!” crowed a starstruck tester. “So what? I went adventuring with him to kill monsters!” scoffed another.

A more ambitious alpha test began about a month later, with participants logging in from as far away as Brazil and Taiwan. The developers waited with bated breath to see what they would do in this latest, far more feature-complete version of the virtual world. What they actually did do was an eye-opener, an early warning about some of the problems that would continue to dog the game and eventually, in the estimation of Raph Koster, cost it half its user base. Koster:

On the very first day of the alpha, players appeared in the tavern in Britain [the capital city of Ultima’s world of Britannia]. They waited for other newbies to walk out the doors, then they stood at the windows and shot arrows at them until they died. The newbies couldn’t shoot back because the archers were hidden behind the wall inside the building. This is, of course, exactly what archery slits were invented for, but it made for a truly lousy first impression of the game.

That was the first time that players took something inherent in the simulation and turned it against their fellow players. Not long after, someone spelled out “fuck” on the main bridge into Britain using fish. Not long after that, players figured out that explosive potions detonated other potions. It was illegal to kill someone in town; it would get you instantly killed by the guards. But if you ran a chain of potions a long distance, like a fuse, you could avoid that.

Chalk it up as another lesson, one to which the team perhaps should have paid more attention. The hope was always that the community would learn to police itself much like those of the real world, that the risks and the stigma of being a troublemaker would come to outweigh the gains and the jollies for all but the most hardened members of the criminal element. Richard Garriott seems to have been in an unusually candid mood when he expressed the hope in a contemporary interview:

One of the unfortunate side effects of computer gaming is that we have a whole generation of kids who have no social graces whatsoever. And this is exemplified in my mind by how much I hate going online for discussions I am invited to do once a month or so. And I truly abhor going to do that for a variety of reasons, one because it’s such a slow experience, but also because everyone has a level of anonymity behind their online persona, [and] they lose their normal and proper etiquette. So you have people screaming over each other to get their questions in, people screaming expletives, people popping in a chat room and making some dumb comment and then popping out again — the kind of behavior that you would never get away with in the real world. So one of the things that I’m really keen to introduce with Ultima Online is making people responsible for their actions, and this will happen as people are recognized by their online persona within the game. They won’t be so anonymous anymore.

This hope would be imperfectly realized at best. “I used to think that you could reform bad apples and argue with hard cases,” says an older and presumably wiser Raph Koster. “I’m more cynical these days.”

So, the alpha testers ran around breaking stuff and making stuff, while the gods of the new fantasy world watched closely from their perch on a gutted floor of an anonymous-looking office building in flesh-and-blood late-twentieth-century Texas to see what it was they had wrought. A bug in the game caused killed characters to respawn naked. (No, not even these simulation-committed developers were cruel enough to make death permanent…) Some players decided they liked it that way, leading to much of Britannia looking like a nudist colony. The guards in the cities had to be instructed to crack down on these victimless criminals as well as thieves and murderers.

But the most important finding was that most of the players loved it. All of it. “We had people who literally did not log off for a week,” says Starr Long. “Groups of players formed tribes, and at the end of the test there was a huge battle between the two largest tribes. None of that we set up. We gave them the world to play in, and human nature took over.” From one of the first substantial previews of the work-in-progress, published in Next Generation magazine:

In a very real sense, the world is what you make of it. One of the more interesting results of Ultima’s alpha testing is that when you have several hundred people in one place at one time, they tend to form their own micro-societies. There are already some two dozen player-created “guilds.” For example, when Richard Garriott signed on as his alter-ego Lord British, two groups sprang up: the Dragon Liberation Front, which pledged itself to destroying him, and the aptly named Protectors of Virtue & Lord British. Threats were made, battles were joined, and a fine time was had by all.

Just as gratifyingly, reports of the alpha test, in the form of previews like the above in many of the glossy gaming magazines, were received very positively by ordinary gamers who hadn’t known that a massively multiplayer Ultima was in the offing prior to this point. Some went so far as to form and run guilds through email, so that they would be ready to go when the day came that they could actually log in. There was still much work to be done before Ultima Online would be ready to welcome the unwashed masses inside, but the MUDders who were making it believed that all of the arrows were pointing in the right direction.

Until, that is, September 27, 1996, when it suddenly seemed that its thunder might have been well and truly stolen. On that date, The 3DO Company published something called Meridian 59, which purported to already be what Ultima Online intended to be: a massively-multiplayer persistent virtual fantasy world. Its box copy trumpeted that hundreds of people would be able to adventure together at the same time, killing monsters and occasionally each other, whilst also chatting and socializing. It sounded great — or terrible, if you happened to be working on Ultima Online.



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Sources: the books Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online by Wes Locher, Postmortems: Selected Essays, Volume One by Raph Koster, Online Game Pioneers at Work by Morgan Ramsay, Through the Moongate, Part II by Andrea Contato, Explore/Create by Richard Garriott, and MMOs from the Inside Out by Richard Bartle; Questbusters of July 1987; Sierra’s customer newsletter InterAction of Summer 1993; Computer Gaming World of October 1995 and October 1996; Starlog of December 1983; PC Powerplay of November 1996; Next Generation of June 1996, September 1996, and March 1997; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of November 3 1995, January 12 1996, and April 5 1996.

Web sources include a 2018 Game Developers Conference talk by some of the Ultima Online principals, an Ultima Online timeline at UOGuide, and some details about LegendMUD, the winner of MUD Connector‘s coveted “MUD of the Month” prize for October 1995.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Not the same game as the 2002 Bioware CRPG of the same name.
 
 

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The Rise of POMG, Part 1: It Takes a Village…

No one on their deathbed ever said, “I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer!”

— Dani Bunten Berry

If you ever want to feel old, just talk to the younger generation.

A few years ago now, I met the kids of a good friend of mine for the very first time: four boys between the ages of four and twelve, all more or less crazy about videogames. As someone who spends a lot of his time and earns a lot of his income writing about games, I arrived at their house with high expectations attached.

Alas, I’m afraid I proved a bit of a disappointment to them. The distance between the musty old games that I knew and the shiny modern ones that they played was just too far to bridge; shared frames of reference were tough to come up with. This was more or less what I had anticipated, given how painfully limited I already knew my knowledge of modern gaming to be. But one thing did genuinely surprise me: it was tough for these youngsters to wrap their heads around the very notion of a game that you played to completion by yourself and then put on the shelf, much as you might a book. The games they knew, from Roblox to Fortnite, were all social affairs that you played online with friends or strangers, that ended only when you got sick of them or your peer group moved on to something else. Games that you played alone, without at the very least leader boards and achievements on-hand to measure yourself against others, were utterly alien to them. It was quite a reality check for me.

So, I immediately started to wonder how we had gotten to this point — a point not necessarily better or worse than the sort of gaming that I knew growing up and am still most comfortable with, just very different. This series of articles should serve as the beginning of an answer to that complicated question. Their primary focus is not so much how computer games went multiplayer, nor even how they first went online; those things are in some ways the easy, obvious parts of the equation. It’s rather how games did those things persistently — i.e., permanently, so that each session became part of a larger meta-game, if you will, embedded in a virtual community. Or perhaps the virtual community is embedded in the game. It all depends on how you look at it, and which precise game you happen to be talking about. Whichever way, it has left folks like me, whose natural tendency is still to read games like books with distinct beginnings, middles, and ends, anachronistic iconoclasts in the eyes of the youthful mainstream.

Which, I hasten to add, is perfectly okay; I’ve always found the ditch more fun than the middle of the road anyway. Still, sometimes it’s good to know how the other 90 percent lives, especially if you claim to be a gaming historian…



“Persistent online multiplayer gaming” (POMG, shall we say?) is a mouthful to be sure, but it will have to do for lack of a better descriptor of the phenomenon that has created such a divide between myself and my friend’s children.  It’s actually older than you might expect, having first come to be in the 1970s on PLATO, a non-profit computer network run out of the University of Illinois but encompassing several other American educational institutions as well. Much has been written about this pioneering network, which uncannily presaged in so many of its particulars what the Internet would become for the world writ large two decades later. (I recommend Brian Dear’s The Friendly Orange Glow for a book-length treatment.) It should suffice for our purposes today to say that PLATO became host to, among other online communities of interest, an extraordinarily vibrant gaming culture. Thanks to the fact that PLATO games lived on a multi-user network rather than standalone single-user personal computers, they could do stuff that most gamers who were not lucky enough to be affiliated with a PLATO-connected university would have to wait many more years to experience.

The first recognizable single-player CRPGs were born on PLATO in the mid-1970s, inspired by the revolutionary new tabletop game known as Dungeons & Dragons. They were followed by the first multiplayer ones in amazingly short order. Already in 1975’s Moria,[1]The PLATO Moria was a completely different game from the 1983 single-player roguelike that bore the same name. players met up with their peers online to chat, brag, and sell or trade loot to one another. When they were ready to venture forth to kill monsters, they could do so in groups of up to ten, pooling their resources and sharing the rewards. A slightly later PLATO game called Oubliette implemented the same basic concept in an even more sophisticated way. The degree of persistence of these games was limited by a lack of storage capacity — the only data that was saved between sessions were the statistics and inventory of each player’s character, with the rest of the environment being generated randomly each time out — but they were miles ahead of anything available for the early personal computers that were beginning to appear at the same time. Indeed, Wizardry, the game that cemented the CRPG’s status as a staple genre on personal computers in 1981, was in many ways simply a scaled-down version of Oubliette, with the multiplayer party replaced by a party of characters that were all controlled by the same player.

Chester Bolingbroke, better known online as The CRPG Addict, plays Moria. Note the “Group Members” field at bottom right. Chester is alone here, but he could be adventuring with up to nine others.

A more comprehensive sort of persistence arrived with the first Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), developed by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle, two students at the University of Essex in Britain, and first deployed there in a nascent form in late 1978 or 1979. A MUD borrowed the text-only interface and presentation of Will Crowther and Don Woods’s seminal game of Adventure, but the world it presented was a shared, fully persistent one between its periodic resets to a virgin state, chockablock with other real humans to interact with and perhaps fight. “The Land,” as Bartle dubbed his game’s environs, expanded to more than 600 rooms by the early 1980s, even as its ideas and a good portion of its code were used to set up other, similar environments at many more universities.

In the meanwhile, the first commercial online services were starting up in the United States. By 1984, you could, for the price of a substantial hourly fee, dial into the big mainframes of services like CompuServe using your home computer. Once logged in there, you could socialize, shop, bank, make travel reservations, read newspapers, and do much else that most people wouldn’t begin to do online until more than a decade later — including gaming. For example, CompuServe offered MegaWars, a persistent grand-strategy game of galactic conquest whose campaigns took groups of up to 100 players four to six weeks to complete. (Woe betide the ones who couldn’t log in for some reason of an evening in the midst of that marathon!) You could also find various MUDs, as well as Island of Kesmai, a multiplayer CRPG boasting most of the same features as PLATO’s Oubliette in a genuinely persistent world rather than a perpetually regenerated one. CompuServe’s competitor GEnie had Air Warrior, a multiplayer flight simulator with bitmapped 3D graphics and sound effects to rival any of the contemporaneous single-player simulators on personal computers. For the price of $11 per hour, you could participate in grand Air Warrior campaigns that lasted three weeks each and involved hundreds of other subscribers, organizing and flying bombing raids and defending against the enemy’s attacks on their own lines. In 1991, America Online put up Neverwinter Nights,[2]Not the same game as the 2002 Bioware CRPG of the same name. which did for the “Gold Box” line of licensed Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs what MUD had done for Adventure and Air Warrior had done for flight simulators, transporting the single-player game into a persistent multiplayer space.

All of this stuff was more or less incredible in the context of the times. At the same time, though, we mustn’t forget that it was strictly the purview of a privileged elite, made up of those with login credentials for institutional-computing networks or money in their pockets to pay fairly exorbitant hourly fees to feed their gaming habits. So, I’d like to back up now and tell a different story of POMG — one with more of a populist thrust, focusing on what was actually attainable by the majority of people out there, the ones who neither had access to a university’s mainframe nor could afford to spend hundreds of dollars per month on a hobby. Rest assured that the two narratives will meet before all is said and done.



POMG came to everyday digital gaming in the reverse order of the words that make up the acronym: first games were multiplayer, then they went online, and then these online games became persistent. Let’s try to unpack how that happened.

From the very start, many digital games were multiplayer, optionally if not unavoidably so. Spacewar!, the program generally considered the first fully developed graphical videogame, was exclusively multiplayer from its inception in the early 1960s. Ditto Pong, the game that launched Atari a decade later, and with it a slow-building popular craze for electronic games, first in public arcades and later in living rooms. Multiplayer here was not so much down to design intention as technological affordances. Pong was an elaborate analog state machine rather than a full-blown digital computer, relying on decentralized resistors and potentiometers and the like to do its “thinking.” It was more than hard enough just to get a couple of paddles and a ball moving around on the screen of a gadget like this; a computerized opponent was a bridge too far.

Very quickly, however, programmable microprocessors entered the field, changing everyone’s cost-benefit analyses. Building dual controls into an arcade cabinet was expensive, and the end result tended to take up a lot of space. The designers of arcade classics like Asteroids and Galaxian soon realized that they could replace the complications of a human opponent with hordes of computer-controlled enemies, flying in rudimentary, partially randomized patterns. Bulky multiplayer machines thus became rarer and rarer in arcades, replaced by slimmer, more standardized single-player cabinets. After all, if you wanted to compete with your friends in such games, there was still a way to do so: you could each play a round against the computerized enemies and compare your scores afterward.

While all of this was taking shape, the Trinity of 1977 — the Radio Shack TRS-80, Apple II, and Commodore PET — had ushered in the personal-computing era. The games these early microcomputers played were sometimes ports or clones of popular arcade hits, but just as often they were more cerebral, conceptually ambitious affairs where reflexes didn’t play as big — or any — role: flight simulations, adventure games, war and other strategy games. The last were often designed to be played optimally or even exclusively against another human, largely for the same reason Pong had been made that way: artificial intelligence was a hard thing to implement under any circumstances on an 8-bit computer with as little as 16 K of memory, and it only got harder when you were asking said artificial intelligence to formulate a strategy for Operation Barbarossa rather than to move a tennis racket around in front of a bouncing ball. Many strategy-game designers in these early days saw multiplayer options almost as a necessary evil, a stopgap until the computer could fully replace the human player, thus alleviating that eternal problem of the war-gaming hobby on the tabletop: the difficulty of finding other people in one’s neighborhood who were able and willing to play such weighty, complex games.

At least one designer, however, saw multiplayer as a positive advantage rather than a kludge — in fact, as the way the games of the future by all rights ought to be. “When I was a kid, the only times my family spent together that weren’t totally dysfunctional were when we were playing games,” remembered Dani Bunten Berry. From the beginning of her design career in 1979, when she made an auction game called Wheeler Dealers for the Apple II,[3]Wheeler Dealers and all of her other games that are mentioned in this article were credited to Dan Bunten, the name under which she lived until 1992. multiplayer was her priority. In fact, she was willing to go to extreme lengths to make it possible; in addition to a cassette tape containing the software, Wheeler Dealers shipped with a custom-made hardware add-on, the only method she could come up with to let four players bid at once. Such experiments culminated in M.U.L.E., one of the first four games ever published by Electronic Arts, a deeply, determinedly social game of economics and, yes, auctions for Atari and Commodore personal computers that many people, myself included, still consider her unimpeachable masterpiece.

A M.U.L.E. auction in progress.

And yet it was Seven Cities of Gold, her second game for Electronic Arts, that became a big hit. Ironically, it was also the first she had ever made with no multiplayer option whatsoever. She was learning to her chagrin that games meant to be played together on a single personal computer were a hard sell; such machines were typically found in offices and bedrooms, places where people went to isolate themselves, not in living rooms or other spaces where they went to be together. She decided to try another tack, thereby injecting the “online” part of POMG into our discussion.

In 1988, Electronic Arts published Berry’s Modem Wars, a game that seems almost eerily prescient in retrospect, anticipating the ludic zeitgeist of more than a decade later with remarkable accuracy. It was a strategy game played in real time (although not quite a real-time strategy of the resource-gathering and army-building stripe that would later be invented by Dune II and popularized by Warcraft and Command & Conquer). And it was intended to be played online against another human sitting at another computer, connected to yours by the gossamer thread of a peer-to-peer modem hookup over an ordinary telephone line. Like most of Berry’s games, it didn’t sell all that well, being a little too far out in front of the state of her nation’s telecommunications infrastructure.

Nevertheless, she continued to push her agenda of computer games as ways of being entertained together rather than alone over the years that followed. She never did achieve the breakout hit she craved, but she inspired countless other designers with her passion. She died far too young in 1998, just as the world was on the cusp of embracing her vision on a scale that even she could scarcely have imagined. “It is no exaggeration to characterize her as the world’s foremost authority on multiplayer computer games,” said Brian Moriarty when he presented Dani Bunten Berry with the first ever Game Developers Conference Lifetime Achievement Award two months before her death. “Nobody has worked harder to demonstrate how technology can be used to realize one of the noblest of human endeavors: bringing people together. Historians of electronic gaming will find in these eleven boxes [representing her eleven published games] the prototypes of the defining art form of the 21st century.” Let this article and the ones that will follow it, written well into said century, serve as partial proof of the truth of his words.

Danielle Bunten Berry, 1949-1998.

For by the time Moriarty spoke them, other designers had been following the trails she had blazed for quite some time, often with much more commercial success. A good early example is Populous, Peter Molyneux’s strategy game in real time (although, again, not quite a real-time strategy) that was for most of its development cycle strictly a peer-to-peer online multiplayer game, its offline single-player mode being added only during the last few months. An even better, slightly later one is DOOM, John Carmack and John Romero’s game of first-person 3D mayhem, whose star attraction, even more so than its sadistic single-player levels, was the “deathmatch” over a local-area network. Granted, these testosterone-fueled, relentlessly zero-sum contests weren’t quite the same as what Berry was envisioning for gaming’s multiplayer future near the end of her life; she wished passionately for games with a “people orientation,” directed toward “the more mainstream, casual players who are currently coming into the PC market.” Still, as the saying goes, you have to start somewhere.

But there is once more a caveat to state here about access, or rather the lack thereof. Being built for local networks only — i.e., networks that lived entirely within a single building or at most a small complex of them — DOOM deathmatches were out of reach on a day-to-day basis for those who didn’t happen to be students or employees at institutions with well-developed data-processing departments and permissive or oblivious authority figures. Outside of those ivory towers, this was the era of the “LAN party,” when groups of gamers would all lug their computers over to someone’s house, wire them together, and go at it over the course of a day or a weekend. These occasions went on to become treasured memories for many of their participants, but they achieved that status precisely because they were so sporadic and therefore special.

And yet DOOM‘s rise corresponded with the transformation of the Internet from an esoteric tool for the technological elite to the most flexible medium of communication ever placed at the disposal of the great unwashed, thanks to a little invention out of Switzerland called the World Wide Web. What if there was a way to move DOOM and other games like it from a local network onto this one, the mother of all wide-area networks? Instead of deathmatching only with your buddy in the next cubicle, you would be able to play against somebody on another continent if you liked. Now wouldn’t that be cool?

The problem was that local-area networks ran over a protocol known as IPX, while the Internet ran on a completely different one called TCP/IP. Whoever could bridge that gap in a reasonably reliable, user-friendly way stood to become a hero to gamers all over the world.



Jay Cotton discovered DOOM in the same way as many another data-processing professional: when it brought down his network. He was employed at the University of Georgia at the time, and was assigned to figure out why the university’s network kept buckling under unprecedented amounts of spurious traffic. He tracked the cause down to DOOM, the game that half the students on campus seemed to be playing more than half the time. More specifically, the problem was caused by a bug, which was patched out of existence by John Carmack as soon as he was informed. Problem solved. But Cotton stuck around to play, the warden seduced by the inmates of the asylum.

He was soon so much better at the game than anyone else on campus that he was getting a bit bored. Looking for worthier opponents, he stumbled across a program called TCPSetup, written by one Jake Page, which was designed to translate IPX packets into TCP/IP ones and vice versa on the fly, “tricking” DOOM into communicating across the vast Internet. It was cumbersome to use and extremely unreliable, but on a good day it would let you play DOOM over the Internet for brief periods of time at least, an amazing feat by any standard. Cotton would meet other players on an Internet chat channel dedicated to the game, they’d exchange IP addresses, and then they’d have at it — or try to, depending on the whims of the Technology Gods that day.

On August 22, 1994, Cotton received an email from a fellow out of the University of Illinois — yes, PLATO’s old home — whom he’d met and played in this way (and beaten, he was always careful to add). His name was Scott Coleman. “I have some ideas for hacking TCPSetup to make it a little easier. Care to do some testing later?” Coleman wrote. “I’ve already emailed Jake [Page] on this, but he hasn’t responded (might be on vacation or something). If he approves, I’m hoping some of these ideas might make it into the next release of TCPSetup. In the meantime, I want to do some experimenting to see what’s feasible.”

Jake Page never did respond to their queries, so Cotton and Coleman just kept beavering away on their own, eventually rewriting TCPSetup entirely to create iDOOM, a more reliable and far less fiddly implementation of the same concept, with support for three- or four-player deathmatches instead of just one-on-one duels. It took off like a rocket; the pair were bombarded with feature requests, most notably to make iDOOM work with other IPX-only games as well. In January of 1995, they added support for Heretic, one of the most popular of the first wave of so-called “DOOM clones.” They changed their program’s name to “iFrag” to reflect the fact that it was now about more than just DOOM.

Having come this far, Cotton and Coleman soon made the conceptual leap that would transform their software from a useful tool to a way of life for a time for many, many thousands of gamers. Why not add support for more games, they asked themselves, not in a bespoke way as they had been doing to date, but in a more sustainable one, by turning their program into a general-purpose IPX-to-TCP/IP bridge, suitable for use with the dozens of other multiplayer games out there that supported only local-area networks out of the box. And why not make their tool into a community while they were at it, by adding an integrated chat service? In addition to its other functions, the program could offer a list of “servers” hosting games, which you could join at the click of a button; no more trolling for opponents elsewhere on the Internet, then laboriously exchanging IP addresses and meeting times and hoping the other guy followed through. This would be instant-gratification online gaming. It would also provide a foretaste at least of persistent online multiplayer gaming; as people won matches, they would become known commodities in the community, setting up a meta-game, a sporting culture of heroes and zeroes where folks kept track of win-loss records and where everybody clamored to hear the results when two big wheels faced off against one another.

Cotton and Coleman renamed their software for the third time in less than nine months, calling it Kali, a name suggested by Coleman’s Indian-American girlfriend (later his wife). “The Kali avatar is usually depicted with swords in her hands and a necklace of skulls from those she has killed,” says Coleman, “which seemed appropriate for a deathmatch game.” Largely at the behest of Cotton, always the more commercially-minded of the pair, they decided to make Kali shareware, just like DOOM itself: multiplayer sessions would be limited to fifteen minutes at a time until you coughed up a $20 registration fee. Cotton went through the logistics of setting up and running a business in Georgia while Coleman did most of the coding in Illinois. (Rather astonishingly, Cotton and Coleman had still never met one another face to face in 2013, when gaming historian David L. Craddock conducted an interview with them that has been an invaluable source of quotes and information for this article.)

Kali certainly wasn’t the only solution in this space; a commercial service called DWANGO had existed since December of 1994, with the direct backing of John Carmack and John Romero, whose company id Software collected 20 percent of its revenue in return for the endorsement. But DWANGO ran over old-fashioned direct-dial-up connections rather than the Internet, meaning you had to pay long-distance charges to use it if you weren’t lucky enough to live close to one of its host computers. On top of that, it charged $9 for just five hours of access per month, with the fees escalating from there. Kali, by contrast, was available to you forever for as many hours per month as you liked after you plunked down your one-time fee of $20.

So, Kali was popular right from its first release on April 26, 1995. Yet it was still an awkward piece of software for the casual user despite the duo’s best efforts, being tied to MS-DOS, whose support for TCP/IP relied on a creaky edifice of third-party tools. The arrival of Windows 95 was a godsend for Kali, as it was for computer gaming in general, making the hobby accessible in a way it had never been before. The so-called “Kali95” was available by early 1996, and things exploded from there. Kali struck countless gamers with all the force of a revelation; who would have dreamed that it could be so easy to play against another human online? Lloyd Case, for example, wrote in Computer Gaming World magazine that using Kali for the first time was “one of the most profound gaming experiences I’ve had in a long time.” Reminiscing seventeen years later, David L. Craddock described how “using Kali for the first time was like magic. Jumping into a game and playing with other people. It blew my fourteen-year-old mind.” In late 1996, the number of registered Kali users ticked past 50,000, even as quite possibly just as many or more were playing with cracked versions that bypassed the simplistic serial-number-registration process. First-person-shooter deathmatches abounded, but you could also play real-time strategies like Command & Conquer and Warcraft, or even the Links golf simulation. Computer Gaming World gave Kali a special year-end award for “Online-Enabling Technology.”

Kali for Windows 95.

Competitors were rushing in at a breakneck pace by this time, some of them far more conventionally “professional” than Kali, whose origin story was, as we’ve seen, as underground and organic as that of DOOM itself. The most prominent of the venture-capital-funded startups were MPlayer (co-founded by Brian Moriarty of Infocom and LucasArts fame, and employing Dani Bunten Berry as a consultant during the last months of her life) and the Total Entertainment Network, better known as simply TEN. In contrast to Kali’s one-time fee, they, like DWANGO before them, relied on subscription billing: $20 per month for MPlayer, $15 per month for TEN. Despite slick advertising and countless other advantages that Kali lacked, neither would ever come close to overtaking its scruffy older rival, which had price as well as oodles of grass-roots goodwill on its side. Jay Cotton:

It was always my belief that Kali would continue to be successful as long as I never got greedy. I wanted everyone to be so happy with their purchase that they would never hesitate to recommend it to a friend. [I would] never charge more than someone would be readily willing to pay. It also became a selling point that Kali only charged a one-time fee, with free upgrades forever. People really liked this, and it prevented newcomers (TEN, Heat [a service launched in 1997 by Sega of America], MPlayer, etc.) from being able to charge enough to pay for their expensive overheads.

Kali was able to compete with TEN, MPlayer, and Heat because it already had a large established user base (more users equals more fun) and because it was much, much cheaper. These new services wanted to charge a subscription fee, but didn’t provide enough added benefit to justify the added expense.

It was a heady rush indeed, although it would also prove a short-lived one; Kali’s competitors would all be out of business within a year or so of the turn of the millennium. Kali itself stuck around after that, but as a shadow of what it had been, strictly a place for old-timers to reminisce and play the old hits. “I keep it running just out of habit,” said Jay Cotton in 2013. “I make just enough money on website ads to pay for the server.” It still exists today, presumably as a result of the same force of habit.

One half of what Kali and its peers offered was all too obviously ephemeral from the start: as the Internet went mainstream, developers inevitably began building TCP/IP support right into their games, eliminating the need for an external IPX-to-TCP/IP bridge. (For example, Quake, id Software’s much-anticipated follow-up to DOOM, did just this when it finally arrived in 1996.) But the other half of what they offered was community, which may have seemed a more durable sort of benefit. As it happened, though, one clever studio did an end-run around them here as well.



The folks at Blizzard Entertainment, the small studio and publisher that was fast coming to rival id Software for the title of the hottest name in gaming, were enthusiastic supporters of Kali in the beginning, to the point of hand-tweaking Warcraft II, their mega-hit real-time strategy, to run optimally over the service. They were rewarded by seeing it surpass even DOOM to become the most popular game there of all. But as they were polishing their new action-CRPG Diablo for release in 1996, Mike O’Brien, a Blizzard programmer, suggested that they launch their own service that would do everything Kali did in terms of community, albeit for Blizzard’s games alone. And then he additionally suggested that they make it free, gambling that knowledge of its existence would sell enough games for them at retail to offset its maintenance costs. Blizzard’s unofficial motto had long been “Let’s be awesome,” reflecting their determination to sell exactly the games that real hardcore gamers were craving, honed to a perfect finish, and to always give them that little bit extra. What better way to be awesome than by letting their customers effortlessly play and socialize online, and to do so for free?

The idea was given an extra dollop of urgency by the fact that Westwood Games, the maker of Warcraft‘s chief competitor Command & Conquer, had introduced a service called Westwood Chat that could launch people directly into a licensed version of Monopoly. (Shades of Dani Bunten Berry’s cherished childhood memories…) At the moment it supported only Monopoly, a title that appealed to a very different demographic from the hardcore crowd who favored Blizzard’s games, but who knew how long that would last?[4]Westwood Chat would indeed evolve eventually into Westwood Online, with full support for Command & Conquer, but that would happen only after Blizzard had rolled out their own service.

So, when Diablo shipped in the last week of 1996, it included something called Battle.net, a one-click chat and matchmaking service and multiplayer facilitator. Battle.net made everything easier than it had ever been before. It would even automatically patch your copy of the game to the latest version when you logged on, pioneering the “software as a service” model in gaming that has become everyday life in our current age of Steam. “It was so natural,” says Blizzard executive Max Schaefer. “You didn’t think about the fact that you were playing with a dude in Korea and a guy in Israel. It’s really a remarkable thing when you think about it. How often are people casually matched up in different parts of the world?” The answer to that question, of course, was “not very often” in the context of 1997. Today, it’s as normal as computers themselves, thanks to groundbreaking initiatives like this one. Blizzard programmer Jeff Strain:

We believed that in order for it [Battle.net] to really be embraced and adopted, that accessibility had to be there. The real catch for Battle.net was that it was inside-out rather than outside-in. You jumped right into the game. You connected players from within the game experience. You did not alt-tab off into a Web browser to set up your games and have the Web browser try to pass off information or something like that. It was a service designed from Day One to be built into actual games.

The combination of Diablo and Battle.net brought a new, more palpable sort of persistence to online gaming. Players of DOOM or Warcraft II might become known as hotshots on services like Kali, but their reputation conferred no tangible benefit once they entered a game session. A DOOM deathmatch or a Warcraft II battle was a one-and-done event, which everyone started on an equal footing, which everyone would exit again within an hour or so, with nothing but memories and perhaps bragging rights to show for what had transpired.

Diablo, however, was different. Although less narratively and systemically ambitious than many of its recent brethren, it was nevertheless a CRPG, a genre all about building up a character over many gaming sessions. Multiplayer Diablo retained this aspect: the first time you went online, you had to pick one of the three pre-made first-level characters to play, but after that you could keep bringing the same character back to session after session, with all of the skills and loot she had already collected. Suddenly the link between the real people in the chat rooms and their avatars that lived in the game proper was much more concrete. Many found it incredibly compelling. People started to assume the roles of their characters even when they were just hanging out in the chat rooms, started in some very real sense to live the game.

But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Battle.net became a breeding ground of the toxic behaviors that have continued to dog online gaming to this day, a social laboratory demonstrating what happens when you take a bunch of hyper-competitive, rambunctious young men and give them carte blanche to have at it any way they wish with virtual swords and spells. The service was soon awash with “griefers,” players who would join others on their adventures, ostensibly as their allies in the dungeon, then literally stab them in the back when they least expected it, killing their characters and running off with all of their hard-won loot. The experience could be downright traumatizing for the victims, who had thought they were joining up with friendly strangers simply to have fun together in a cool new game. “Going online and getting killed was so scarring,” acknowledges David Brevick, Diablo‘s original creator. “Those players are still feeling a little bit apprehensive.”

To make matters worse, many of the griefers were also cheaters. Diablo had been born and bred a single-player game; multiplayer had been a very late addition. This had major ramifications. Diablo stored all the information about the character you played online on your local hard drive rather than the Battle.net server. Learn how to modify this file, and you could create a veritable god for yourself in about ten minutes, instead of the dozens of hours it would take playing the honest way. “Trainers” — programs that could automatically do the necessary hacking for you — spread like wildfire across the Internet. Other folks learned to hack the game’s executable files themselves. Most infamously, they figured out ways to attack other players while they were still in the game’s above-ground town, supposedly a safe space reserved for shopping and healing. Battle.net as a whole took on a siege mentality, as people who wanted to play honorably and honestly learned to lock the masses out with passwords that they exchanged only with trusted friends. This worked after a fashion, but it was also a betrayal of the core premise and advantage of Battle.net, the ability to find a quick pick-up game anytime you wanted one. Yet there was nothing Blizzard could do about it without rewriting the whole game from the ground up. They would eventually do this — but they would call the end result Diablo II. In the meanwhile, it was a case of player beware.

It’s important to understand that, for all that it resembled what would come later all too much from a sociological perspective, multiplayer Diablo was still no more persistent than Moria and Oubliette had been on the old PLATO network: each player’s character was retained from session to session, but nothing about the state of the world. Each world, or instance of the game, could contain a maximum of four human players, and disappeared as soon as the last player left it, leaving as its legacy only the experience points and items its inhabitants had collected from it while it existed. Players could and did kill the demon Diablo, the sole goal of the single-player game, one that usually required ten hours or more of questing to achieve, over and over again in the online version. In this sense, multiplayer Diablo was a completely different game from single-player Diablo, replacing the simple quest narrative of the latter with a social meta-game of character-building and player-versus-player combat.

For lots and lots of people, this was lots and lots of fun; Diablo was hugely popular despite all of the exploits it permitted — indeed, for some players perchance, because of them. It became one of the biggest computer games of the 1990s, bringing online gaming to the masses in a way that even Kali had never managed. Yet there was still a ways to go to reach total persistence, to bring a permanent virtual world to life. Next time, then, we’ll see how mainstream commercial games of the 1990s sought to achieve a degree of persistence that the first MUD could boast of already in 1979. These latest virtual worlds, however, would attempt to do so with all the bells and whistles and audiovisual niceties that a new generation of gamers raised on multimedia and 3D graphics demanded. An old dog in the CRPG space was about to learn a new trick, creating in the process a new gaming acronym that’s even more of a mouthful than POMG.



Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.


Sources: the books Stay Awhile and Listen Volumes 1 and 2 by David L. Craddock, Masters of Doom by David Kushner, and The Friendly Orange Glow by Brian Dear; Retro Gamer 43, 90, and 103; Computer Gaming World of September 1996 and May 1997; Next Generation of March 1997. Online sources include “The Story of Battle.net” by Wes Fenlon at PC Gamer, Dan Griliopoulos’s collection of interviews about Command & Conquer, Brian Moriarty’s speech honoring Dani Bunten Berry from the 1998 Game Developers Conference, and Jay Cotton’s history of Kali on the DOOM II fan site. Plus some posts on The CRPG Addict, to which I’ve linked in the article proper.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The PLATO Moria was a completely different game from the 1983 single-player roguelike that bore the same name.
2 Not the same game as the 2002 Bioware CRPG of the same name.
3 Wheeler Dealers and all of her other games that are mentioned in this article were credited to Dan Bunten, the name under which she lived until 1992.
4 Westwood Chat would indeed evolve eventually into Westwood Online, with full support for Command & Conquer, but that would happen only after Blizzard had rolled out their own service.
 
 

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Televising the Revolution

When we finished Broken Sword, the managing director of Virgin [Interactive] called me into his office and showed me a game from Argonaut [Software] called Creature Shock. He said, “These are the games you should be writing, not adventure games. These are the games. This is the future.”

— Charles Cecil, co-founder of Revolution Software

Broken Sword, Revolution Software’s third point-and-click adventure game, was released for personal computers in September of 1996. Three months later, it arrived on the Sony PlayStation console, so that it could be enjoyed on television as well as monitor screens. And therein lies a tale in itself.

Prior to this point, puzzle-based adventure games of the traditional stripe had had a checkered career on the consoles, for reasons as much technical as cultural. They were a difficult fit with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the console du jour in the United States during the latter 1980s, thanks to the small capacity of the cartridges that machine used to host its games, its lack of means for easily storing state so that one could return to a game where one had left off after spending time away from the television screen, and the handheld controllers it used that were so very different from a mouse, joystick, and/or keyboard. Still, these challenges didn’t stop some enterprising studios from making a go of it, tempted as they were by the huge installed base of Nintendo consoles. Over the course of 1988 and 1989, ICOM Simulations managed to port to the NES Deja VuUninvited, and Shadowgate; the last in particular really took off there, doing so well that it is better remembered as a console than a computer game today. In 1990, LucasArts[1]LucasArts was actually still known as Lucasfilm Games at the time. did the same with their early adventure Maniac Mansion; this port too was surprisingly playable, if also rather hilariously Bowdlerized to conform to Nintendo’s infamously strict censorship regime.

But as the 1990s began, “multimedia” was becoming the watchword of adventure makers on computers. By 1993, the era of the multimedia “interactive movie” was in full swing, with games shipping on CD — often multiple CDs — and often boasting not just voice acting but canned video clips of real actors. Such games were a challenge of a whole different order even for the latest generation of 16-bit consoles. Sierra On-Line and several other companies tried mightily to cram their adventure games onto the Sega Genesis,[2]The Genesis was known as the Mega-Drive in Japan and Europe. a popular console for which one could purchase a CD drive as an add-on product. In the end, though, they gave it up as technically impossible; the Genesis’s color palette and memory space were just too tiny, its processor just too slow.

But then, along came the Sony PlayStation.

For all that the usual focus of these histories is computer games, I’ve already felt compelled to write at some length about the PlayStation here and there. As I’ve written before, I consider it the third socially revolutionary games console, after the Atari VCS and the Nintendo Entertainment System. Its claim to that status involves both culture and pure technology. Sony marketed the PlayStation to a new demographic: to hip young adults rather than the children and adolescents that Nintendo and its arch-rival Sega had targeted. Meanwhile the PlayStation hardware, with its built-in CD-drive, its 32-bit processor, its 2MB of main memory and 1MB of graphics memory, its audiophile-quality sound system, and its handy memory cards for saving up to 128 K of state at a time, made ambitious long-form gaming experiences easier than ever before to realize on a console. The two factors in combination opened a door to whole genres of games on the PlayStation that had heretofore been all but exclusive to personal computers. Its early years brought a surprising number of these computer ports, such as real-time strategy games like Command & Conquer and turn-based strategy games like X-COM. And we can also add to that list adventure games like Broken Sword.

Their existence was largely thanks to the evangelizing efforts of Sony’s own new PlayStation division, which seldom placed a foot wrong during these salad days. Unlike Nintendo and Sega, who seemed to see computer and console games as existing in separate universes, Sony was eager to bridge the gap between the two, eager to bring a wider variety of games to the PlayStation. And they were equally eager to push their console in Europe, where Nintendo had barely been a presence at all to this point and which even Sega had always treated as a distant third in importance to Japan and North America.

Thus Revolution Software got a call one day while the Broken Sword project was still in its first year from Phil Harrison, an old-timer in British games who knew everyone and had done a bit of everything. “Look, I’m working for Sony now and there’s this new console going to be produced called the PlayStation,” he told Charles Cecil, the co-founder and tireless heart and soul of Revolution. “Are you interested in having a look?”

Cecil was. He was indeed.

Thoroughly impressed by the hardware and marketing plans Harrison had shown him, Cecil went to Revolution’s publisher Virgin Interactive to discuss making a version of Broken Sword for the PlayStation as well. “That’s crazy, that’s not going to work at all,” said Virgin according to Cecil himself. Convinced the idea was a non-starter, both technically and commercially, they told him he was free to shop a PlayStation Broken Sword elsewhere for all they cared. So, Cecil returned to his friend Phil Harrison, who brokered a deal for Sony themselves to publish a PlayStation version in Europe as a sort of test of concept. Revolution worked on the port on the side and on their own dime while they finished the computer game. Sony then shipped this PlayStation version in December of 1996.

Broken Sword on a computer…

…and on the PlayStation, where it’s become more bleary-eyed.

To be sure, it was a compromised creation. Although the PlayStation was a fairly impressive piece of kit by console standards, it left much to be desired when compared to even a mid-range gaming computer. The lovely graphics of the original had to be downgraded to the PlayStation’s lower resolution, even as the console’s relatively slow CD drive and lack of a hard drive for storing frequently accessed data made them painfully sluggish to appear on the television screen; one spent more time waiting for the animated cut scenes to load than watching them, their dramatic impact sometimes being squandered by multiple loading breaks within a scene. Even the voiced dialog could take unnervingly long to unspool from disc. Then, too, pointing and clicking was nowhere near as effortless using a game controller as it was with a mouse. (Sony actually did sell a mouse as an optional peripheral, but few people bought one.) Perhaps most worrisome of all, though, was the nature of the game itself. How would PlayStation gamers react to a cerebral, puzzle-oriented and narrative-driven experience like this?

The answer proved to be, better than some people — most notably those at Virgin — might have expected. Broken Sword‘s Art Deco classicism may have looked a bit out of place in the lurid, anime-bedecked pages of the big PlayStation magazines, but they and their readers generally treated it kindly if somewhat gingerly. Broken Sword sold 400,000 copies on the PlayStation in Europe. Granted, these were not huge numbers in the grand scheme of things. On a console that would eventually sell more than 100 million units, it was hard to find a game that didn’t sell well into the six if not seven (or occasionally eight) figures. By Revolution’s modest standards, however, the PlayStation port made all the difference in the world, selling as it did at least three times as many copies as the computer version despite its ample reasons for shirking side-by-side comparisons. Its performance in Europe was even good enough to convince the American publisher THQ to belatedly pick it up for distribution in the United States as well, where it shifted 100,000 or so more copies. “The PlayStation was good for us,” understates Charles Cecil today.

It was a godsend not least because Revolution’s future as a maker of adventure games for computers was looking more and more doubtful. Multinational publishers like Virgin tended to take the American market as their bellwether, and this did not bode well for Revolution, given that Broken Sword had under-performed there in relation to its European sales. To be sure, there were proximate causes for this that Revolution could point to: Virgin’s American arm, never all that enthused about the game, had given it only limited marketing and saddled it with the terrible alternative title of Circle of Blood, making it sound more like another drop in the ocean of hyper-violent DOOM clones than a cerebral exercise in story-driven puzzle-solving. At the same time, though, it was hard to deny that the American adventure market in general was going soggy in the middle; 1996 had produced no million-plus-selling mega-hit in the genre to stand up alongside 1995’s Phantasmagoria, 1994’s Myst, or 1993’s The 7th Guest. Was Revolution’s sales stronghold of Europe soon to follow the industry’s bellwether? Virgin suspected it was.

So, despite having made three adventure games in a row for Virgin that had come out in the black on the global bottom line, Revolution had to lobby hard for the chance to make a fourth one. “It was frustrating for us,” says Revolution programmer Tony Warriner, “because we were producing good games that reviewed and sold well, but we had to beg for every penny of development cash. There was a mentality within publishing that said you were better off throwing money around randomly, and maybe scoring a surprise big hit, instead of backing steady but profitable games like Broken Sword. But this sums up the problem adventures have always had: they sell, but not enough to turn the publishers on.”

We might quibble with the “always” in Warriner’s statement; there was a time, lasting from the dawn of the industry through the first half of the 1990s, when adventures were consistently among the biggest-selling titles of all on computers. But this was not the case later on. Adventure games became mid-tier niche products from the second half of the 1990s on, capable of selling in consistent but not huge numbers, capable of raking in modest profits but not transformative ones. Similar middling categories had long existed in other mass-media industries, from film to television, books to music, all of which industries had been mature enough to profitably cater to their niche customers in addition to the heart of the mainstream. The computer-games industry, however, was less adept at doing so.

The problem there boiled down to physical shelf space. The average games shop had a couple of orders of magnitude fewer titles on its shelves at any given time than the average book or record store. Given how scarce retail space was, nobody — not the distributors, not the publishers, certainly not the retailers themselves — was overly enthusiastic about filling it with product that wasn’t in one of the two hottest genres in gaming at the time, the first-person shooter and the real-time strategy. This tunnel vision had a profound effect on the games that were made and sold during the years just before and after the millennium, until the slow rise of digital distribution began to open fresh avenues of distribution for more nichey titles once again.

In light of this situation, it’s perhaps more remarkable how many computer games were made between 1995 and 2005 that were not first-person shooters or real-time strategies than the opposite. More dedicated, passionate developers than you might expect found ways to make their cases to the publishers and get their games funded in spite of the remorseless logic of the extant distribution systems.

Revolution Software found a way to be among this group, at least for a while — but Virgin’s acquiescence to a Broken Sword II didn’t come easy. Revolution had to agree to make the sequel in just one year, as compared to the two and a half years they had spent on its predecessor, and for a cost of just £500,000 rather than £1 million. The finished game inevitably reflects the straitened circumstances of its birth. But that isn’t to say that it’s a bad game. Far from it.

Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror kicks off six months after the conclusion of the first game. American-in-Paris George Stobbart, that game and this one’s star, has just returned to France after dealing with the death of his father Stateside. There’s he’s reunited with Nico Collard, the fetching Parisian reporter who helped him last time around and whom George has a definite hankering for, to the extent of referring to her as his “girlfriend”; Nico is more ambiguous about the nature of their relationship. At any rate, an ornately carved and painted stone, apparently Mayan in origin, has come into her possession, and she has asked George to accompany her to the home of an archaeologist who might be able to tell them something about it. Unfortunately, they’re ambushed by thugs as soon as they arrive; Nico is kidnapped, while George is left tied to a chair in a room whose only other inhabitants are a giant poisonous spider and a rapidly spreading fire.

If this game doesn’t kick off with the literal bang of an exploding bomb like last time, it’s close enough. “I believe that a videogame must declare the inciting incident immediately so the player is clear on what their character needs to do and, equally importantly, why,” says Charles Cecil.

With your help, George will escape from his predicament and track down and rescue Nico before she can be spirited out of the country, even as he also retrieves the Mayan stone from the dodgy acquaintance in whose safekeeping she left it and traces their attackers back to Central America. And so George and Nico set off together across the ocean to sun-kissed climes, to unravel another ancient prophecy and prevent the end of the world as we know it for the second time in less than a year.

Broken Sword II betrays its rushed development cycle most obviously in its central conspiracy. For all that the first game’s cabal of Knights Templar was bonkers on the face of it, it was grounded in real history and in a real, albeit equally bonkers classic book of pseudo-history, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Mayans, on the other hand, are the most generic adventure-game movers and shakers this side of Atlanteans. “I was not as interested in the Mayans, if I’m truthful,” admits Charles Cecil. “Clearly human sacrifices and so on are interesting, but they were not on the same level of passion for me as the Knights Templar.”

Lacking the fascination of uncovering a well-thought-through historical mystery, Broken Sword II must rely on its set-piece vignettes to keep its player engaged. Thankfully, these are mostly still strong. Nico eventually gets to stop being the damsel in distress, becoming instead a driving force in the plot in her own right, so much so that you the player control her rather than George for a quarter or so of the game; this is arguably the only place where the second game actually improves on the first, which left Nico sitting passively in her flat waiting for George to call and collect hints from her most of the time. Needless to say, the sexual tension between George and Nico doesn’t get resolved, the writers having learned from television shows like Moonlighting and Northern Exposure that the audience’s interest tends to dissipate as soon as “Will they or won’t they” becomes “They will!” “We could very easily have had them having sex,” says Cecil, “but that would have ruined the relationship between these two people.”

The writing remains consistently strong in the small moments, full of sly humor and trenchant observations. Some fondly remembered supporting characters return, such as Duane and Pearl, the two lovably ugly American tourists you met in Syria last time around, who’ve now opted to take a jungle holiday, just in time to meet George and Nico once again. (Isn’t coincidence wonderful?)

And the game is never less than fair, with occasional deaths to contend with but no dead ends. This manifestation of respect for their players has marked Revolution’s work since Beneath a Steel Sky; they can only be applauded for it, given how many bigger, better-funded studios got this absolutely critical aspect of their craft so very wrong back in the day. The puzzles themselves are pitched perfectly in difficulty for the kind of game this is, being enough to make you stop and think from time to time but never enough to stop you in your tracks.

Broken Sword or Monkey Island?

In the end, then, Broken Sword II suffers only by comparison with Broken Sword I, which does everything it does well just that little bit better. The backgrounds and animation here, while still among the best that the 1990s adventure scene ever produced, aren’t quite as lush as what we saw last time. The series’s Art Deco and Tintin-inspired aesthetic sensibility, seen in no other adventure games of the time outside of the equally sumptuous Last Express, loses some focus when we get to Central America and the Caribbean. Here the game takes on an oddly LucasArts-like quality, what with the steel-drum background music and all the sandy beaches and dark jungles and even a monkey or two flitting around. Everywhere you look, the seams show just a little more than they did last time; the original voice of Nico, for example, has been replaced by that of another actress, making the opening moments of the second game a jarring experience for those who played the first. (Poor Nico would continue to get a new voice with each subsequent game in the series. “I’ve never had a bad Nico, but I’ve never had one I’ve been happy with,” says Cecil.)

But, again, we’re holding Broken Sword II up against some very stiff competition indeed; the first game is a beautifully polished production by any standard, one of the crown jewels of 1990s adventuring. If the sequel doesn’t reach those same heady heights, it’s never less than witty and enjoyable. Suffice to say that Broken Sword II is a game well worth playing today if you haven’t done so already.

It did not, however, sell even as well as its predecessor when it shipped for computers in November of 1997, serving more to justify than disprove Virgin’s reservations about making it in the first place. In the United States, it was released without its Roman numeral as simply Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror, since that country had never seen a Broken Sword I. Thus even those Americans who had bought and enjoyed Circle of Blood had no ready way of knowing that this game was a sequel to that one. (The names were ironic not least in that the American game called Circle of Blood really did contain a broken sword, while the American game called Broken Sword did not.)

That said, in Europe too, where the game had no such excuses to rely upon, the sales numbers it put up were less satisfactory than before. A PlayStation version was released there in early 1998, but this too sold somewhat less than the first game, whose relative success in the face of its technical infelicities had perchance owed much to the novelty of its genre on the console. It was not so novel anymore: a number of other studios were also now experimenting with computer-style adventure games on the PlayStation, to mixed commercial results.

With Virgin having no interest in a Broken Sword III or much of anything else from Revolution, Charles Cecil negotiated his way out of the multi-game contract the two companies had signed. “The good and the great decided adventures [had] had their day,” he says. Broken Sword went on the shelf, permanently as far as anyone knew, leaving George and Nico in a lovelorn limbo while Revolution retooled and refocused. Their next game would still be an adventure at heart, but it would sport a new interface alongside action elements that were intended to make it a better fit on a console. For better or for worse, it seemed that the studio’s hopes for the future must lie more with the PlayStation than with computers.

Revolution Software was not alone in this; similar calculations were being made all over the industry. Thanks to the fresh technology and fresh ideas of the PlayStation, said industry was entering a new period of synergy and cross-pollination, one destined to change the natures of computer and console games equally. Which means that, for all that this site has always been intended to be a history of computer rather than console gaming, the PlayStation will remain an inescapable presence even here, lurking constantly in the background as both a promise and a threat.


Where to Get It: Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror is available as a digital download at GOG.com.



Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.


Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Video Games Conquered the World by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene; Retro Gamer 6, 31, 63, 146, and 148; GameFan of February 1998; PlayStation Magazine of February 1998; The Telegraph of January 4 2011. Online sources include Charles Cecil’s interviews with Anthony Lacey of Dining with Strangers, John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun, Marty Mulrooney of Alternative Magazine Online, and Peter Rootham-Smith of Game Boomers.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 LucasArts was actually still known as Lucasfilm Games at the time.
2 The Genesis was known as the Mega-Drive in Japan and Europe.
 
 

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Putting the “J” in the RPG, Part 3: Playing Final Fantasy VII (or, Old Man Yells at Cloud)

Fair warning: this article includes plot spoilers of Final Fantasy VII.

Historians and critics like me usually have to play the know-it-all in order to be effective at our jobs. My work flow begins with me going out and learning everything I can about a topic in the time I have available. Then I decide what I think about it all, find a way to structure my article, and share it with you as if I’ve been carrying all this information around with me all my life. Often I get things wrong, occasionally horribly wrong. But I can always count on you astonishingly knowledgeable folks to set me straight in the end, and in the meantime being direct is preferable in my book to equivocating all over the place. For, with the arguable exception of a wide-eyed undergraduate here or there enrolled in her first class in postmodern studies, absolutely no one wants to read a writer prattling on about the impossibility of achieving Complete Truth or the Inherent Subjectivity of criticism. Of course complete truth is an unattainable ideal and all criticism is subjective! I assume that you all know these things already, so that we can jump past the hand-wringing qualifiers and get right to the good stuff.

Still, I don’t believe that all criticism is of equal value, for all that it may in the end all be “just, like, your opinion man!” The most worthwhile criticism comes from a place of sympathy with the goals and expectations that surround a work and is grounded in an understanding of the culture that produced it. It behooves no one to review a blockbuster action movie as if it was an artsy character study, any more than it makes sense to hold, say, Michael Crichton up to the standards of fine literature. Everything has its place in the media ecosystem, and it’s the critic’s duty to either understand that place or to get out of the way for those that do.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why I start getting nervous when I think about rendering a verdict on Final Fantasy VII. I am, at best, a casual tourist in the milieu that spawned it; I didn’t grow up with Japanese RPGs, didn’t even grow up with videogame consoles after I traded my Atari VCS in for a Commodore 64 at age eleven. Sitting with a game controller in my hand rather than a keyboard and mouse or joystick is still a fairly unfamiliar experience for me, almost 40 years after it became the norm for Generation Nintendo. My experience with non-gaming Japanese culture as well is embarrassingly thin. I’ve never been to Japan, although I did once glimpse it from the Russian island of Sakhalin. Otherwise, my encounters with it are limited to the Star Blazers episodes I used to watch as a grade-school kid on Saturday mornings, the World War II history books I read as an adolescent war monger, that one time in my twenties when I was convinced to watch Ghost in the Shell (I’m afraid it didn’t have much impact on me), a more recent sneaking appreciation for the uniquely unhinged quality of some Japanese music (which can make a walking-blues vamp sound like the apocalypse), and the Haruki Murakami novels sitting on the bookshelf behind me as I write these words, the same ones that I really, really need to get around to reading. In summation, I’m a complete ignoramus when it comes to console-based videogames and Japan alike.

So, the know-it-all approach is right out for this article; even I’m not daring enough to try to fake it until I make it in this situation. I hesitate to even go so far as to call what follows a review of Final Fantasy VII, given my manifest lack of qualifications to write a good one. Call it a set of impressions instead, an “old man yells at cloud” for the JRPG world where the joke is quite probably on the old man.

In a weird sort of way, though, maybe that approach will work out okay, just this once. For, as we learned in the last article, Final Fantasy VII was the first heavily hyped JRPG to be released on computers as well as consoles in the West. When that happened, many computer gamers who were almost as ignorant then as I am now played it. As I share my own experiences below, I can be their voice in this collision between two radically different cultures of gaming. The fallout from these early meetings would make games as a whole better in the long run, regardless of the hardware on which they ran or the country where they were made. It’s this gratifying ultimate outcome that prompted me to write this trilogy of articles in the first place. Perhaps it even makes my personal impressions relevant in this last entry of said trilogy, despite my blundering cluelessness.

Nevertheless, given the intense feelings that JRPGs in general and this JRPG in particular arouse in their most devoted fans, I’m sure some small portion of you will hate me for writing what follows. I ask only that you read to the end before you pounce, and remember that’s it’s just my opinion, man, and a critic’s aesthetic judgments do not reflect his moral character.


The trains in Final Fantasy VII look like steam locomotives. This doesn’t make much sense, given what we know of the technology in use in the city of Midgar, but it’s kind of cool.

I had heard a lot about Final Fantasy VII before I played it, most of it extremely positive, to put it lightly. In fact, I had seen it nominated again and again for the title of Best Game Ever. For all that I have no personal history with JRPGs, I do like to think of myself as a reasonably open-minded guy. I went into Final Fantasy VII wanting to be wowed, wanting to be introduced to an exciting new world of interactive narrative that stood apart from both the set-piece puzzle-solving of Western adventure games and the wide-open emergent diffusion of Western RPGs. But unfortunately, my first couple of hours with Final Fantasy VII were more baffling than bracing. I felt a bit like the caveman at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing with this new bone I had just picked up.

After watching a promisingly understated opening-credits sequence, accompanied by some rather lovely music, I started the game proper. I was greeted with a surreal introductory movie, in which a starry sky morphed into scenes from a gritty, neon-soaked metropolis of trains and heavy industry, with an enigmatic young girl selling flowers amidst it all. Then several people were leaping off the top of a train, and I realized that I was now controlling one of them. “C’mon, newcomer!” shouted one of the others. “Follow me.” I did my best to oblige him, fumbling through my first combat — against some soldierly types who were chasing us for some reason — along the way.

The opening credits are the last part of Final Fantasy VII that can be described as understated. From that point on, even the swords are outsized.

Who the hell was I? What was I supposed to be doing? Naïve child of 1980s computer gaming that I was, I thought maybe all of this was explained in the manual. But when I looked there, all I found were some terse, unhelpful descriptions of the main characters, not a word about the plot or the world I had just been dropped into. I was confused by everything I saw: by the pea soup of bad translation that made the strictly literal meanings of the sentences the other characters said to me impossible for me to divine at times; by the graphics that sometimes made it hard to separate depth from height, much less figure out where the climbable ladders and exit points on the borders of the maps lay; by the way my character lazily sauntered along — “Let’s mosey!”, to quote one of the game’s famously weird translations — while everyone else dashed about with appropriate urgency; by the enemies who kept jumping me every minute or two while I beat my head against the sides of the maps looking for the exits, enemies whom I could dispatch by simply mashing “attack” over and over again; by the fact that I seemed to be a member of a terrorist cell set on blowing up essential civic infrastructure, presumably killing an awful lot of innocent people in the process; by the way the leader of my terrorist group, a black man named Barret, spoke and acted like Mr. T on old A-Team reruns, without a hint of apparent irony.

What can I say? I bounced. Hard. After I made it to the first boss enemy and died several times because, as I would later learn from the Internet, the shoddy English translation was telling me to do the exact opposite of what I needed to do to be successful against it, I threw the game against the metaphorical wall. What did anyone see in this hot mess, I asked my wife — albeit in considerably more colorful language than that. She just laughed  — something that, to be fair, she spends a lot of time doing when I play these crazy old games on the television.

The first hill on which I died. Final Fantasy VII‘s original English translation is not just awful to read but actively wrong in places. When you meet the first boss monster, you’re told to “attack while it’s [sic] tail’s up!” The Japanese version tells you not to attack when its tail’s up. Guess which one is right…


I sulked for several weeks, deeply disappointed that this game that I had wanted to be awesome had turned out to be… less than awesome. But the fact remained that it was an important work, in the history of my usual beat of computer gaming almost as much as that of console gaming. Duty demanded that I go back in at some point.

When that point came, I steeled myself to fight harder for my pleasure. After all, there had to be some reason people loved this game so, right? I read a bit of background on the Internet, enough to understand that it takes place on an unnamed world whose economy is dominated by an all-powerful mega-corporation called the Shinra Electric Power Company, which provides energy and earns enormous profits by siphoning off the planet’s Mako, a sort of spiritual essence. I learned that AVALANCHE, the terrorist cell I was a part of, was trying to break Shinra’s stranglehold, because its activities were, as Barret repeats ad nauseum, “Killin’ the planet.” And I learned that the main character — the closest thing to “me” in the game — was a cynical mercenary named Cloud Strife, a former member of a group called SOLDIER that did Shinra’s dirty work. But Cloud has now switched sides, joining AVALANCHE strictly for the paycheck, as he makes abundantly clear to anyone who asks him about it and most of those who don’t. The action kicks off in the planet’s biggest city of Midgar, with AVALANCHE attempting to blow up the Shinra reactors there one by one.

With that modicum of background information, everything began to make a little more sense to me. I also picked up some vital practical tips on the Internet. For example, I discovered that I could push a button on the controller to clearly mark all ladders and exits from a map, and that I could hold down another button to make Cloud run like everybody else; having to do so basically all the time was a trifle annoying, but better than the alternative of moseying everywhere. I learned as well that I could turn off the incessant random encounters using a fan-made application called 7th Heaven, but I resisted the temptation to do so; I was still trying to be strong at this point, still trying to experience the game as a player would have in the late 1990s.

Things went better for a while. By doing the opposite of what the bad translation was telling me to do, I got past the first boss monster that had been killing me. (Although I didn’t know it at the time, this would prove to be the the only fight that ever really challenged me until I got to the very end of the game). Then I returned with the others to our terrorist hideout, and agreed to help AVALANCHE blow up the next reactor. (All in a day’s work for a mercenary, I suppose.) While the actual writing remained more or less excruciating most of the time, I started to recognize that there was some real sophistication to the narrative’s construction, that my frustration at the in medias res beginning had been more down to my impatience than any shortcoming on the game’s part. I realized I had to trust the game, to let it reveal its story in its way. Likewise, I had to recognize that its environmentalist theme, a trifle heavy-handed though it was, rang downright prescient in light of the sorry state of our own planet a quarter-century after Final Fantasy VII was made.

Which isn’t to say that it was all smooth sailing. After blowing up the second Mako reactor, Cloud was left dangling from a stray girder, hundreds of feet above the vaguely Blade Runner-like city of Midgar. After some speechifying, he tumbled to his presumed doom — only to wake up inside a cathedral, staring into the eyes of the flower girl from the opening movie. “The roof and the flower bed must have broken your fall,” she said. While my wife was all but rolling on the floor laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of this idea, I bravely SOLDIERed onward, learning that the little girl’s name was Aerith and that she was being stalked by Shinra thugs due to some special powers they believed her to possess. “Take me home,” she begged Cloud.

“Okay, I’ll do it,” he grunted in reply. “But it’ll cost you.” (Stay classy, Cloud… stay classy.)

And now I got another shock. “Well, then, let’s see…” Aerith said. “How about if I go out with you once?” Just like that, all of my paradigms had to shift. Little Aerith, it seemed, wasn’t so little after all. Nonetheless, playing Cloud in this situation left me feeling vaguely unclean, like a creepy old guy crashing his tweenage daughter’s slumber party.

Judging from his facepalm, Cloud may have been as shocked by Aerith’s offer of affection for protection as I was.

Ignoramus though I was, I did know that Japanese society is not generally celebrated for its progressive gender politics. (I do think this is the biggest reason that anime and manga have never held much attraction for me: the tendency of the tiny sliver of it which I’ve encountered to simultaneously infantalize and sexualize girls and women turns me right off.) Now, I realized that I — or rather Cloud — was being thrown into a dreaded love triangle, its third point being Cloud’s childhood friend and fellow eco-terrorist Tifa. Going forward, Aerith and Tifa would spend their character beats snipping at one another when not making moon-eyes at Cloud. Must be something about that giant sword he carries around, tucked only God knows where inside his clothing…

I was able to identify Tifa as an adult — or at least an adolescent — from the start, thanks to her giant breasts, which she seems to be trying to thrust right out of the screen at you when you win a fight, using them as her equivalent of Cloud’s victoriously twirling sword. (This was another thing my wife found absolutely hilarious…) The personalities of the women in this game demonstrate as well as anything its complete bifurcation between gameplay and story. When you control Aerith or Tifa in combat, they’re as capable as any of the men, but when they’re playing their roles in the story, they suddenly become fragile flowers utterly dependent on the kindness of Cloud.

Anyway, soon we got to Wall Market. Oh, my. This area is unusual in that it plays more like a puzzle-based adventure game than anything else, featuring no combat at all — what a blessed relief that was! — until the climax. Less positively, the specific adventure game it plays like is Leisure Suit Larry at its most retrograde. Tifa gets abducted and forced to join the harem of a Mafia kingpin-type named Don Corneo, and it’s up to Cloud and Aerith to rescue her. Aerith decides that the only way to get Cloud inside Corneo’s mansion and effect the rescue is to dress him up like… gasp… a girl! This suggestion Cloud greets with appropriate horror, understanding as he does that the merest contact with an article of female clothing not hanging on a female body carries with it the risk of an instant and incurable case of Homosexuality. But he finally comes around with all the good grace of a primary cast member of Bosom Buddies. Many shenanigans ensue, involving a whorehouse, a gay bathhouse, erectile dysfunction, a “love hotel,” cross-dressing bodybuilders, and a pair of panties, all loudly Othered for the benefit of the insecure straight male gaze. What the hell, I wondered for the umpteenth time, had I gotten myself into here?

You can’t make this stuff up…

But I didn’t let any of it stop me; I pushed right on through like the SOLDIER Cloud was. No, readers, what broke me wasn’t Don Corneo chasing Cloud-in-a-dress around his  bedroom, but rather the goddamn train graveyard. Let me repeat that with emphasis… the goddamn train graveyard.

In a way, this area illustrates one of Final Fantasy VII‘s more admirable attributes, its determination to give you a variety of different stuff to do. It’s a combination of a maze and a sort of Sokoban puzzle, as you must climb in and over broken-down train carriages and engines in an abandoned depot, even sometimes putting on your engineer’s cap and driving a locomotive out of the way. This is fine in and of itself. What I found less fine was, as usual, the random combat. I would be working out my route in my pokey middle-aged way, coming up with a plan… and then the screen would go all whooshy and the battle music would start, and I’d have to spend the next 30 seconds mashing the attack button before I could get back to the navigational puzzle, by which time I’d completely lost track of what I had intended to do there. Rinse and repeat. Words cannot express how much I had learned to loath that battle music already, but this took the torture to a whole new level, as combat seemed to come at twice, thrice, five times the rate of before. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I quit. Not willfully… I just stopped playing one evening and didn’t start again the next. Or the next. Or the one after that. You know how it goes.

The second hill on which I died.

So, real life went on. But as it did so, my conscience kept pricking me. This game is important, it said. People love this game. Can you not find some way to make friends with it?

I decided to give it one last shot. This time, however, I would approach it differently. Final Fantasy VII has a passionate, active fan community — have I told you that people love this game? — who have done some rather extraordinary things with it over the years. I already mentioned one of these things in passing: 7th Heaven, an application that makes it effortless to install dozens of different “mod” packages, which can alter the game in ways both trivial and major, allowing you to play Final Fantasy VII exactly the way that you wish.

Now, I normally consider such things off-limits; my aim on this site is to give you the historical perspective, which means playing and reviewing games as their original audience would have known them. Still, I decided that, if it could help me to see the qualities other people saw in Final Fantasy VII that I all too plainly was not currently seeing, it might be okay, just this one time. I installed 7th Heaven and started to tweak away. First and foremost, I turned off the random encounters. Then I set it up so Cloud would run rather than mosey by default. Carried away by my newfound spirit of why the heck not, I even replaced the Windows version’s tinny MIDI soundtrack with the PlayStation version’s lusher music.

And then, having come this far, I really took the plunge. A group of fans who call themselves “Tsunamods” have re-translated all of the text in the game from the original Japanese script. As if that wasn’t enough, they’ve also found a way to add voice acting, covering every single line of dialog in the game. I went for it.

I was amazed at the difference it made — so amazed that I felt motivated to start the game all over from the beginning. The Tsunamods voice acting is way, way better than it has any right to be — far better than the average professional CD-ROM production of the 1990s. Being able to listen to the dialog flowing by naturally instead of tapping through text box after text box was a wonderful improvement in itself. But I was even more stunned by the transformation wrought by the fresh translation. Suddenly the writing was genuinely good in places, and never less than serviceable, displaying all sorts of heretofore unsuspected layers of nuance and irony. Instead of fawning all over Cloud like every teenage boy’s sexual fantasy, Aerith and Tifa took a more bantering, patronizing attitude. The Wall Market sequence especially displayed a new personality, with Aerith now joshing and gently mocking Cloud for his hetero horror at the prospect of donning a dress. Even Barret evinced signs of an inner life, became something more than an inadvertent caricature of Mr. T. when he expressed his love for the little orphan girl to whom he’d become surrogate father. And I could enjoy all of this without having to fight a pointless random battle every three minutes; only the meaningful, plot-dictated fights remained. I was, to coin a phrase, in seventh heaven. I had abandoned all of my principles about fidelity to history, and it felt good.

At the same time, though, I wasn’t really sure whose game I was playing anymore. In his YouTube deconstruction of Final Fantasy VII‘s original English translation, Tim Rogers states that “I believe that no such thing exists as a ‘perfect’ translation of a work of literature from one language to another. All translation requires compromise.” I agree wholeheartedly.

For the act of translation — any act of translation — is a creative act in itself. Even those translations which strive to be as literal as possible — which in my opinion are often the least satisfying of them all — are the product of a multitude of aesthetic choices and of the translator’s own understanding of the source text. In short, a work in translation is always a different work from its source material. This is why Shakespeare buffs like me get so upset when people talk about “modernizing” the plays and poetry by translating them into 21st-century English. If you change the words, you change the works. Whether you think it’s better or worse, what you end up with is no longer Shakespeare. The same is true of the Bible; the King James Bible in English is a different literary work from the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament. (This is what makes the very idea of Biblical Fundamentalism — of the Bible as the incontrovertible Word of God — so silly on its face…)

Needless to say, all of this holds equally true for Final Fantasy VII. When that game was first translated into English, it became a different work from the Japanese original. And when it was translated again by Tsunamods, it became yet another work, one reflecting not only these latest translators’ own personal understandings and aesthetics but also the changed cultural values of its time, more than twenty years after the first translation was done.

Of course, we can attempt to simply enjoy the latest translation for what it is, as I was intermittently able to do when I could shut my historian’s conscience off. Yet that same conscience taunts me even now with questions that I may never be able to answer, given that I don’t expect to find the time and energy in my remaining decades to become fluent in Japanese. Lacking that fluency, all I am left with are suppositions. I strongly suspect that the first English translation of Final Fantasy VII yielded a work that was cruder and more simplistic than its Japanese source material. Yet I also suspect that the latest English translation has softened many of the same source material’s rough edges, sanding away some racism, misogyny, and homophobia to suit the expectations of a 21st-century culture that has thankfully made a modicum of progress in these areas. What I would like to know but don’t is exactly where all of the borders lie in this territory. (Although Tim Rogers’s video essays are worthy in their way, I find them rather frustrating in that they never quite seem to answer the questions I have, whilst spending a lot of time on details of grammar and the like that strike me as fairly trivial in the larger scheme of things.)

What I do know, however, is that the Tsunamods re-translation and voice acting, combined with the other tweaks, finally allowed me to unabashedly enjoy Final Fantasy VII. I was worried in the beginning that forgoing random encounters might leave my characters hopelessly under-leveled, but the combat as a whole is so unchallenging that I found having a bit less experience to actually improve the game, by forcing me to employ at least a modicum of real strategy in some of the boss fights. I had a grand old time with my modified version of the game for the first seven or eight hours especially, when my party was still running around Midgar on the terrorist beat. Being no longer forced to gawk at the writing like a slow-motion train wreck, I could better appreciate the storytelling sophistication on display: the willingness of the plot to zig where conventional genre-narrative logic said it ought to zag, the refusal to shy away from the fact that AVALANCHE was, whatever the inherent justice of its cause, a gang of reckless terrorists who could and eventually did get lots and lots of innocent people killed.

After I carried the fight directly to the Shinra headquarters, I was introduced to the real villain of the story, a fellow named Sephiroth who used to be Cloud’s commanding officer in SOLDIER but had since transcended his humanity entirely through a complicated set of circumstances, and was now attempting to become a literal god at the expense of the planet and everyone else on it. Leaving Midgar and its comparatively parochial concerns behind, Cloud and his companions set off on Sephiroth’s trail, a merry chase across continents and oceans.

Wandering the world map.

This chase after Sephiroth fills the largest chunk of the game by far. Occasionally, dramatic revelations continued to leave me admiring its storytelling ambition. While the tragic death of Aerith at the hands of Sephiroth had perhaps been too thoroughly spoiled for me to have the impact it might otherwise have had, the gradual discovery that Cloud was not at all what he seemed to be — that he was in fact a profoundly unreliable narrator, a novelistic storytelling device seldom attempted in games — was shocking and at times even moving. Whenever the main plot kicked into gear for these or other reasons, I sat up and paid attention.

But a goodly portion of this last 80 percent of the game is spent meandering through lots and lots of disparate settings, from “rocket cities” to beach-side resort towns to a sprawling amusement park of all places, that have only a tangential relation to the real story and that I don’t tend to find as intrinsically interesting as Midgar. I often got restless and a bit bored in these places, with that all too familiar, creeping feeling that my time was being wasted. I’ve played and enjoyed plenty of Western RPGs whose watchword is “Go Forth and Explore,” but that approach didn’t work so well for me here. I found the game’s mechanics too simplistic to stand up on their own without the crutch of a compelling story, while the graphics, much-admired though they were by PlayStation gamers back in the day, were too hazy and samey in that early 3D sort of way to make the different areas stand out from one another in terms of atmosphere. Even the apparent non-linearity of the huge world map proved to be less than it seemed; there is actually only one really viable path through it, although there is a fair amount of optional content and Easter eggs for the truly dedicated to find. Being less dedicated, I soon began to wish for a way to further bastardize my version of the game, by turning off the plot-irrelevant bits in the same way I’d turned off the random encounters. Like a lot of RPGs of the Western stripe as well, Final Fantasy VII strikes me as far, far longer than it needs to be, an enjoyable 25-hour experience blown up to 50 hours or more, even without all those random encounters. I was more than ready for it to be over when I got to the end. The last fight was a doozie, what with my under-leveled characters, but it was nice to be pushed to the limit for once. And then it was all over.

What, then, do I think about Final Fantasy VII when all is said and done? For me, it’s a game that contains multitudes, one that resists blithe summation. Some of it is sublime, some of it is ridiculous. Sometimes it’s riveting, sometimes it’s exhausting. It certainly doesn’t achieve everything it aims for. But then again, how could it? It shoots for the moon, the sun, and the stars all at once when it comes to its story. It wants to move you so very badly that it’s perhaps inevitable that some of it just comes off as overwrought. Still, I’ll take its heartfelt earnestness over bro-dudes chortling about gibs and frags any day of the week, and all day on Sunday. “Can a computer make you cry?” asked another pioneering company almost a decade and a half before Final Fantasy VII was released. Square, it seems, was determined to provide a definitive affirmative answer to that question. And I must admit that the final scene, of ugly old Midgar now overrun with the beautiful fruits of the earth, did indeed leave a drop or two of moisture in the eyes of this nature lover, going a long way toward redeeming some of my earlier complaints. Whatever quibbles I may have with this game, its ultimate message that we humans can and must learn to live in harmony with nature rather than at odds with it is one I agree with, heart, mind, and soul.

My biggest problem with Final Fantasy VII — or rather with the version of it that I played to completion, which, as noted above, is not the same as the one Square created in Japanese — is that it tries to wed this story and message to a game, and said game isn’t always all that compelling. It’s not that there are no good ideas here; I do appreciate that Final Fantasy VII tries to give you a lot of different stuff to do, some of which, such as the action-based mini-games, I haven’t even mentioned here. (Suffice to say now that, while the mini-games won’t blow anyone away, they’re generally good enough for a few minutes’ change of pace.)

Still, and especially if you’re playing without mods, most of the gamey bits of this game involve combat, and the balance there is badly broken. Final Fantasy VII‘s equivalent of magic is a mystical substance called “materia,” which can be imbued with different spell-like capabilities and wielded by your characters. Intriguingly, the materia “levels up” with repeated usage, taking on new dimensions. But the balance of power is so absurdly tilted in favor of the player that you never really need to engage with these mechanics at all; there are credible reports of players making it all the way to the final showdown with Sephiroth without ever once even equipping any materia, just mashing that good old attack button. (To put this in terms that my fellow old-timers will understand: this is like playing all the way through, say, Pool of Radiance without ever casting a spell.) Now, you could say that this is such players’ loss and their failure, and perhaps you’d be partially correct. But the reality is that, if you give them the choice, most players will always take the path of least resistance, then complain about how bored they were afterward. It’s up to a game’s designer to force them to engage on a deeper level, thereby forcing them to have fun.

When I examine the history of this game’s development, I feel pretty convinced why it came to be the way it is. Throwing lots and lots of bodies at a project may allow you to churn out reams of cut scenes and dialog in a record time, but additional manpower cannot do much beyond a certain point to help with the delicate, tedious process of testing and balancing. What with a looming release date precluding more methodical balancing and the strong desire to make the game as accessible as possible so as to break the JRPG sub-genre for good and all in the West, a conscious decision was surely made to err on the side of easiness. In a way, I find it odd to be complaining about this here. I’m not generally a “hardcore” player at all; far more vintage games of the 1980s and 1990s are too hard than too easy for my taste. But this particular game’s balance is so absurdly out of whack that, well, here we are. I do detest mindless busywork, in games as in life, and if mashing that attack button over and over while waiting for a combat to end doesn’t qualify for that designation, I don’t know what does. If it couldn’t be balanced properly, I’d have preferred a version of Final Fantasy VII that played as a visual novel, without the RPG trappings at all. But commercial considerations dictated that that could never happen. So, again, here we are.[1]The game’s tireless fan base has gone to great lengths, here as in so many places, to mitigate its failings by upping the difficulty in various ways. I didn’t investigate much in this area, deciding I had already given the game the benefit of enough retro-fitting with the mods I did employ.

As it was, I found my modified version of Final Fantasy VII intermittently gripping, for all that I never quite fell completely in love with it. It’s inherently condescending for any critic to tell a game’s fans why they love it despite its flaws, and I don’t really want to do that here. That said, it does occur to me that a lot of Final Fantasy VII‘s status in gaming culture is what we might call situational. This game was a phenomenon back in 1997, the perfect game coming at the perfect time, sweeping away all reservations on a tide of novelty and excitement. It was a communal event as much as a videogame, a mind-blower for millions of people. If some of what it was and did wasn’t actually as novel as Generation PlayStation believed it to be — and to be fair, some of it was genuinely groundbreaking by any standard — that didn’t really matter then and doesn’t matter now. Final Fantasy VII brought high-concept videogame storytelling into the mainstream. It didn’t do so perfectly, but it did so well enough to create memories and expectations that would last a lifetime.

Even the romance was perfectly attuned to the times, or rather to the ages of many players when they first met this game. The weirdness of Wall Market aside, Cloud and Aerith and Tifa live in that bracket that goes under the name of “Young Adult” on bookstore shelves: that precious time which we used to call the period of “puppy love” and which most parents still wish lasted much longer, when romance is still a matter of “girls and guys” exchanging Valentines and passing notes in class (or perhaps messages on TikTok these days), when sex — or at least sex with other people — is still more of a theoretical future possibility than a lived reality. (Yes, the PlayStation itself was marketed to a slightly older demographic than this one, but, as I noted in my last article, that made it hugely successful with the younger set as well, who always want to be doing what their immediate elders are.) I suspect that I too would have liked this game a lot more if I’d come to it when the girls around me at my school and workplace were still exotic, semi-unknowable creatures, and my teenage heart beat with tender feelings and earthier passions that I’d hardly begun to understand.

In short, the nostalgia factor is unusually strong with this one. Small wonder that so many of its original players continue to cherish it so. If that causes them to overvalue its literary worth a bit, sometimes claiming a gravitas for it not entirely in keeping with what is essentially a work of young-adult fiction… well, such is human nature when it comes to the things we cherish. For its biggest fans, Final Fantasy VII has transcended the bits and bytes on the CDs that Square shipped back in 1997. It doesn’t exist as a single creative artifact so much as an abstract ideal, or perhaps an idealized abstraction. Like the Bible, it has become a palimpsest of memory and translation and interpretation, a story to be told again and again in different ways. To wit: in 2020, Square began publishing a crazily expansive re-imagining of Final Fantasy VII, to be released as a trilogy of games rather than a single one. The first entry in the trilogy — the only one available as of this writing — gets the gang only as far as their departure from Midgar. By all indications, this first part has been a solid commercial success, although not a patch on the phenomenon its inspiration was in a vastly different media ecosystem.

As for me, coming to this game so many years later, bereft of all those personal connections to it: I’m happy I played it, happy to have familiarized myself with one of the most important videogames in history, and happy to have found a way to more or less enjoy it, even if I did have to break my usual rules to do so. I wouldn’t call myself a JRPG lover by any means, but I am JRPG curious. I can see a lot of potential in the game I played, if it was tightened up in the right ways. I look forward to giving Final Fantasy VIII a try; although it’s widely regarded as one of the black sheep of the Final Fantasy family, it seems to me that some of the qualities widely cited as its failings, such as its more realistic, less anime-stylized art, might just strike my aesthetic sensibilities as strengths. And I understand that Square finally got its act together and sprang for proper, professional-quality English translations beginning with this installment, so there’s that.

Now, to do something about those Haruki Murakami novels on my shelf…


Where to Get It: The original version of Final Fantasy VII can still be purchased from Steam as a digital download. If you’re an impatient curmudgeon like me, you may also want to install the 7th Heaven mod manager to tweak the game to your liking. For the record, the mods I wound up using were “OST Music Remastered” (for better music), “Echo-S 7” (for the better translation and voice acting), and “Gameplay Tweaks — Qhimm Catalog” (strictly to make my characters “always run”; I left everything else here turned off). With 7th Heaven alone installed, you can toggle random encounters off and on by pressing CONTROL-B while playing. Note that you need to do this each time you start the game up again.



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Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The game’s tireless fan base has gone to great lengths, here as in so many places, to mitigate its failings by upping the difficulty in various ways. I didn’t investigate much in this area, deciding I had already given the game the benefit of enough retro-fitting with the mods I did employ.
 
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Posted by on December 22, 2023 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Putting the “J” in the RPG, Part 2: PlayStation for the Win

From the Seven Hills of Rome to the Seven Sages of China’s Bamboo Grove, from the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to the Seven Heavens of Islam, from the Seven Final Sayings of Jesus to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the number seven has always struck us as a special one. Hironobu Sakaguchi and his crew at Square, the people behind the Final Fantasy series, were no exception. In the mid-1990s, when the time came to think about what the seventh entry in the series ought to be, they instinctively felt that this one had to be bigger and better than any that had come before. It had to double down on all of the series’s traditional strengths and tropes to become the ultimate Final Fantasy. Sakaguchi and company would achieve these goals; the seventh Final Fantasy game has remained to this day the best-selling, most iconic of them all. But the road to that seventh heaven was not an entirely smooth one.

The mid-1990s were a transformative period, both for Square as a studio and for the industry of which it was a part. For the former, it was “a perfect storm, when Square still acted like a small company but had the resources of a big one,” as Matt Leone of Polygon writes.  Meanwhile the videogames industry at large was feeling the ground shift under its feet, as the technologies that went into making and playing console-based games were undergoing their most dramatic shift since the Atari VCS had first turned the idea of a machine for playing games on the family television into a popular reality. CD-ROM drives were already available for Sega’s consoles, with a storage capacity two orders of magnitude greater than that of the most capacious cartridges. And 3D graphics hardware was on the horizon as well, promising to replace pixel graphics with embodied, immersive experiences in sprawling virtual worlds. Final Fantasy VII charged headlong into these changes like a starving man at a feast, sending great greasy globs of excitement — and also controversy — flying everywhere.

The controversy came in the form of one of the most shocking platform switches in the history of videogames. To fully appreciate the impact of Square’s announcement on January 12, 1996, that Final Fantasy VII would run on the new Sony PlayStation rather than Nintendo’s next-generation console, we need to look a little closer at the state of the console landscape in the years immediately preceding it.


Through the first half of the 1990s, Nintendo was still the king of console gaming, but it was no longer the unchallenged supreme despot it had been during the 1980s. Nintendo had always been conservative in terms of hardware, placing its faith, like Apple Computer in an adjacent marketplace, in a holistic customer experience rather than raw performance statistics. As part and parcel of this approach, every game that Nintendo agreed to allow into its walled garden was tuned and polished to a fine sheen, having any jagged edges that might cause anyone any sort of offense whatsoever painstakingly sanded away. An upstart known as Sega had learned to live in the gaps this business philosophy opened up, deploying edgier games on more cutting-edge hardware. As early as December of 1991, Sega began offering its Japanese customers a CD-drive add-on for its current console, the Mega Drive (known as the Sega Genesis in North America, which received the CD add-on the following October). Although the three-year-old Mega Drive’s intrinsic limitations made this early experiment in multimedia gaming for the living room a somewhat underwhelming affair — there was only so much you could do with 61 colors at a resolution of 320 X 240 — it perfectly illustrated the differences in the two companies’ approaches. While Sega threw whatever it had to hand at the wall just to see what stuck, Nintendo held back like a Dana Carvey impression of George Herbert Walker Bush: “Wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture…”

Sony was all too well-acquainted with Nintendo’s innate caution. As the co-creator of the CD storage format, it had signed an agreement with Nintendo back in 1988 to make a CD drive for the upcoming Super Famicom console (which was to be known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in the West) as soon as the technology had matured enough for it to be cost-effective. By the time the Super Famicom was released in 1990, Sony was hard at work on the project. But on May 29, 1991, just three days before a joint Nintendo/Sony “Play Station” was to have been demonstrated to the world at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, Nintendo suddenly backed out of the deal, announcing that it would instead be working on CD-ROM technology with the Dutch electronics giant Philips — ironically, Sony’s partner in the creation of the original CD standard.

This prototype of the Sony “Play Station” surfaced in 2015.

Nintendo’s reason for pulling out seems to have come down to the terms of the planned business relationship. Nintendo, whose instinct for micro-management and tough deal-making was legendary, had uncharacteristically promised Sony a veritable free hand, allowing it to publish whatever CD-based software it wanted without asking Nintendo’s permission or paying it any royalty whatsoever. In fact, given that a contract to that effect had already been signed long before the Consumer Electronics Show, Sony was, legally speaking, still free to continue with the Play Station on its own, piggybacking on the success of Nintendo’s console. And initially it seemed inclined to do just that. “Sony will throw open its doors to software makers to produce software using music and movie assets,” it announced at the show, promising games based on its wide range of media properties, from the music catalog of Michael Jackson to the upcoming blockbuster movie Hook. Even worse from Nintendo’s perspective, “in order to promote the Super Disc format, Sony intends to broadly license it to the software industry.” Nintendo’s walled garden, in other words, looked about to be trampled by a horde of unwashed, unvetted, unmonetized intruders charging through the gate Sony was ready and willing to open to them. The prospect must have sent the control freaks inside Nintendo’s executive wing into conniptions.

It was a strange situation any way you looked at it. The Super Famicom might soon become the host of not one but two competing CD-ROM solutions, an authorized one from Philips and an unauthorized one from Sony, each using different file formats for a different library of games and other software. (Want to play Super Mario on CD? Buy the Philips drive! Want Michael Jackson? Buy the Play Station!)

In the end, though, neither of the two came to be. Philips decided it wasn’t worth distracting consumers from its own stand-alone CD-based “multimedia box” for the home, the CD-i.[1]Philips wasn’t, however, above exploiting the letter of its contract with Nintendo to make a Mario game and three substandard Legend of Zelda games available for the CD-i. Sony likewise began to wonder in the aftermath of its defiant trade-show announcement whether it was really in its long-term interest to become an unwanted squatter on Nintendo’s real estate.

Still, the episode had given some at Sony a serious case of videogame jealousy. It was clear by now that this new industry wasn’t a fad. Why shouldn’t Sony be a part of it, just as it was an integral part of the music, movie, and television industries? On June 24, 1992, the company held an unusually long and heated senior-management debate. After much back and forth, CEO Norio Ohga pronounced his conclusion: Sony would turn the Play Station into the PlayStation, a standalone CD-based videogame console of its own, both a weapon with which to bludgeon Nintendo for its breach of trust and — and ultimately more importantly — an entrée to the fastest-growing entertainment sector in the world.

The project was handed to one Ken Kutaragi, who had also been in charge of the aborted Super Famicom CD add-on. He knew precisely what he wanted Sony’s first games console to be: a fusion of CD-ROM with another cutting-edge technology, hardware-enabled 3D graphics. “From the mid-1980s, I dreamed of the day when 3D computer graphics could be enjoyed at home,” he says. “What kind of graphics could we create if we combined a real-time, 3D computer-graphics engine with CD-ROM? Surely this would develop into a new form of entertainment.”

It took him and his engineers a little over two years to complete the PlayStation, which in addition to a CD drive and a 3D-graphics system sported a 32-bit MIPS microprocessor running at 34 MHz, 3 MB of memory (of which 1 MB was dedicated to graphics alone), audiophile-quality sound hardware, and a slot for 128 K memory cards that could be used for saving game state between sessions, ensuring that long-form games like JRPGs would no longer need to rely on tedious manual-entry codes or balky, unreliable cartridge-mounted battery packs for the purpose.

 

In contrast to the consoles of Nintendo, which seemed almost self-consciously crafted to look like toys, and those of Sega, which had a boy-racer quality about them, the Sony PlayStation looked stylish and adult — but not too adult. (The stylishness came through despite the occasionally mooted comparisons to a toilet.)

The first Sony PlayStations went on sale in Tokyo’s famed Akihabara electronics district on December 3, 1994. Thousands camped out in line in front of the shops the night before. “It’s so utterly different from traditional game machines that I didn’t even think about the price,” said one starry-eyed young man to a reporter on the scene. Most of the shops were sold out before noon. Norio Ohga was mobbed by family and friends in the days that followed, all begging him to secure them a PlayStation for their children before Christmas. It was only when that happened, he would later say, that he fully realized what a game changer (pun intended) his company had on its hands. Just like that, the fight between Nintendo and Sega — the latter had a new 32-bit CD-based console of its own, the Saturn, while the former was taking it slowly and cautiously, as usual — became a three-way battle royal.

The PlayStation was an impressive piece of kit for the price, but it was, as always, the games themselves that really sold it. Ken Kutaragi had made the rounds of Japanese and foreign studios, and found to his gratification that many of them were tired of being under the heavy thumb of Nintendo. Sony’s garden was to be walled just like Nintendo’s — you had to pay it a fee to sell games for its console as well — but it made a point of treating those who made games for its system as valued partners rather than pestering supplicants: the financial terms were better, the hardware was better, the development tools were better, the technical support was better, the overall vibe was better. Nintendo had its own home-grown line of games for its consoles to which it always gave priority in every sense of the word, a conflict of interest from which Sony was blessedly free.[2]Sony did purchase the venerable British game developer and publisher Psygnosis well before its console’s launch to help prime the pump with some quality games, but it largely left it to manage its own affairs on the other side of the world. Game cartridges were complicated and expensive to produce, and the factories that made them for Nintendo’s consoles were all controlled by that company. Nintendo was notoriously slow to approve new production runs of any but its own games, leaving many studios convinced that their smashing success had been throttled down to a mere qualified one by a shortage of actual games in stores at the critical instant. CDs, on the other hand, were quick and cheap to churn out from any of dozens of pressing plants all over the world. Citing advantages like these, Kutaragi found it was possible to tempt even as longstanding a Nintendo partner as Namco — the creator of the hallowed arcade classics Galaxian and Pac-Man — into committing itself “100 percent to the PlayStation.” The first fruit of this defection was Ridge Racer, a port of a stand-up arcade game that became the new console’s breakout early hit.

Square was also among the software houses that Ken Kutaragi approached, but he made no initial inroads there. For all the annoyances of dealing with Nintendo, it still owned the biggest player base in the world, one that had treated Final Fantasy very well indeed, to the tune of more than 9 million games sold to date in Japan alone. This was not a partner that one abandoned lightly — especially not with the Nintendo 64, said partner’s own next-generation console, due at last in 1996. It promised to be every bit as audiovisually capable as the Sony PlayStation or Sega Saturn, even as it was based around a 64-bit processor in place of the 32-bit units of the competition.

Indeed, in many ways the relationship between Nintendo and Square seemed closer than ever in the wake of the PlayStation’s launch. When Yoshihiro Maruyama joined Square in September of 1995 to run its North American operations, he was told that “Square will always be with Nintendo. As long as you work for us, it’s basically the same as working for Nintendo.” Which in a sense he literally was, given that Nintendo by now owned a substantial chunk of Square’s stock. In November of 1995, Nintendo’s president Hiroshi Yamauchi cited the Final Fantasy series as one of his consoles’ unsurpassed crown jewels — eat your heart out, Sony! — at Shoshinkai, Nintendo’s annual press shindig and trade show. As its farewell to the Super Famicom, Square had agreed to make Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, dropping Nintendo’s Italian plumber into a style of game completely different from his usual fare. Released in March of 1996, it was a predictably huge hit in Japan, while also, encouragingly, leveraging the little guy’s Stateside popularity to become the most successful JRPG since Final Fantasy I in those harsh foreign climes.

But Super Mario RPG wound up marking the end of an era in more ways than Nintendo had imagined: it was not just Square’s last Super Famicom RPG but its last major RPG for a Nintendo console, full stop. For just as it was in its last stages of development, there came the earthshaking announcement of January 12, 1996, that Final Fantasy was switching platforms to the PlayStation. Et tu, Square? “I was kind of shocked,” Yoshihiro Maruyama admits. As was everyone else.

The Nintendo 64, which looked like a toy — and an anachronistic one at that — next to the PlayStation.

Square’s decision was prompted by what seemed to have become an almost reactionary intransigence on the part of Nintendo when it came to the subject of CD-ROM. After the two abortive attempts to bring CDs to the Super Famicom, everyone had assumed as a matter of course that they would be the storage medium of the Nintendo 64. It was thus nothing short of baffling when the first prototypes of the console were unveiled in November of 1995 with no CD drive built-in and not even any option on the horizon for adding one. Nintendo’s latest and greatest was instead to live or die with old-school cartridges which had a capacity of just 64 MB, one-tenth that of a CD.

Why did Nintendo make such a counterintuitive choice? The one compelling technical argument for sticking with cartridges was the loading time of CDs, a mechanical storage medium rather than a solid-state one. Nintendo’s ethos of user-friendly accessibility had always insisted that a game come up instantly when you turned the console on and play without interruption thereafter. Nintendo believed, with considerable justification, that this quality had been the not-so-secret weapon in its first-generation console’s victorious battle against floppy-disk-based 8-bit American microcomputers that otherwise boasted similar audiovisual and processing capabilities, such as the Commodore 64. The PlayStation CD drive, which could transfer 300 K per second into memory, was many, many times faster than the Commodore 64’s infamously slow disk drive, but it wasn’t instant. A cartridge, on the other hand, for all practical purposes was.

Fair enough, as far as it went. Yet there were other, darker insinuations swirling around the games industry which had their own ring of truth. Nintendo, it was said, was loath to give up its stranglehold on the means of production of cartridges and embrace commodity CD-stamping facilities. Most of all, many sensed, the decision to stay with cartridges was bound up with Nintendo’s congenital need to be different, and to assert its idiosyncratic hegemony by making everyone else dance to its tune while it was at it. The question now was whether it had taken this arrogance too far, was about to dance itself into irrelevance while the makers of third-party games moved on to other, equally viable alternative platforms.

Exhibit Number One of same was the PlayStation, which seemed tailor-made for the kind of big, epic game that every Final Fantasy to date had strained to be. It was far easier to churn out huge quantities of 3D graphics than it was hand-drawn pixel art, while the staggering storage capacity of CD-ROM gave Square someplace to keep it all — with, it should not be forgotten, the possibility of finding even more space by the simple expedient of shipping a game on multiple CDs, another affordance that cartridges did not allow. And then there were those handy little memory cards for saving state. Those benefits were surely worth trading a little bit of loading time for.

But there was something else about the PlayStation as well that made it an ideal match for Hironobu Sakaguchi’s vision of gaming. Especially after the console arrived in North America and Europe in September of 1995, it fomented a sweeping change in the way the gaming hobby was perceived. “The legacy of the original Playstation is that it took gaming from a pastime that was for young people or maybe slightly geeky people,” says longtime Sony executive Jim Ryan, “and it turned it into a highly credible form of mass entertainment, really comparable with the music business and the movie business.” Veteran game designer Cliff Bleszinski concurs: “The PlayStation shifted the console from having an almost toy-like quality into consumer electronics that are just as desired by twelve-year-olds as they are by 35-year-olds.”

Rather than duking it out with Nintendo and Sega for the eight-to-seventeen age demographic, Sony shifted its marketing attention to young adults, positioning PlayStation gaming as something to be done before or after a night out at the clubs — or while actually at the clubs, for that matter: Sony paid to install the console in trendy nightspots all over the world, so that their patrons could enjoy a round or two of WipEout between trips to the dance floor. In effect, Sony told the people who had grown up with Nintendo and Sega that it was okay to keep on gaming, as long as they did it on a PlayStation from now on. Sony’s marketers understood that, if they could conquer this demographic, that success would automatically spill down into the high-school set that had previously been Sega’s bread and butter, since kids of that age are always aspiring to do whatever the university set is up to. Their logic was impeccable; the Sony PlayStation would destroy the Sega Saturn in due course.

For decades now, the hipster stoner gamer, slumped on the couch with controller in one hand and a bong in the other, has been a pop-culture staple. Sony created that stereotype in the space of a year or two in the 1990s. Whatever else you can say about it, it plays better with the masses than the older one of a pencil-necked nerd sitting bolt upright on his neatly made bed. David James, star goalkeeper for the Premier League football team Liverpool F.C., admitted that he had gotten “carried away” playing PlayStation the night before by way of explaining the three goals that he conceded in a match against Newcastle. It was hard to imagine substituting “Nintendo” or “Saturn” for “PlayStation” in that statement. In May of 1998, Sony would be able to announce triumphantly that, according to its latest survey, the average age of a PlayStation gamer was a positively grizzled 22. It had hit the demographic it was aiming for spot-on, with a spillover that reached both younger and older folks. David Ranyard, a member of Generation PlayStation who has had a varied and successful career in games since the millennium:

At the time of its launch, I was a student, and I’d always been into videogames, from the early days of arcades. I would hang around playing Space Invaders and Galaxian, and until the PlayStation came out, that kind of thing made me a geek. But this console changed all that. Suddenly videogames were cool — not just acceptable, but actually club-culture cool. With a soundtrack from the coolest techno and dance DJs, videogames became a part of [that] subculture. And it led to more mainstream acceptance of consoles in general.

The new PlayStation gamer stereotype dovetailed beautifully with the moody, angsty heroes that had been featuring prominently in Final Fantasy for quite some installments by now. Small wonder that Sakaguchi was more and more smitten with Sony.

Still, it was one hell of a bridge to burn; everyone at Square knew that there would be no going back if they signed on with Sony. Well aware of how high the stakes were for all parties, Sony declared its willingness to accept an extremely low per-unit royalty and to foot the bill for a lot of the next Final Fantasy game’s marketing, promising to work like the dickens to break it in the West. In the end, Sakaguchi allowed himself to be convinced. He had long run Final Fantasy as his own fiefdom at Square, and this didn’t change now: upper management rubber-stamped his decision to make Final Fantasy VII for the Sony PlayStation.

The announcement struck Japan’s games industry with all the force of one of Sakaguchi’s trademark Final Fantasy plot twists. For all the waves Sony had been making recently, nobody had seen this one coming. For its part, Nintendo had watched quite a number of studios defect to Sony already, but this one clearly hurt more than any of the others. It sold off all of its shares in Square and refused to take its calls for the next five years.

The raised stakes only gave Sakaguchi that much more motivation to make Final Fantasy VII amazing — so amazing that even the most stalwart Nintendo loyalists among the gaming population would be tempted to jump ship to the PlayStation in order to experience it. There had already been an unusually long delay after Final Fantasy VI, during which Square had made Super Mario RPG and another, earlier high-profile JRPG called Chrono Trigger, the fruit of a partnership between Hironobu Sakaguchi and Yuji Horii of Dragon Quest fame. (This was roughly equivalent in the context of 1990s Western pop culture to Oasis and Blur making an album together.) Now the rush was on to get Final Fantasy VII out the door within a year, while the franchise and its new platform the PlayStation were still smoking hot.

In defiance of the wisdom found in The Mythical Man-Month, Sakaguchi decided to both make the game quickly and make it amazing by throwing lots and lots of personnel at the problem: 150 people in all, three times as many as had worked on Final Fantasy VI. Cost was no object, especially wherever yen could be traded for time. Square spent the equivalent of $40 million on Final Fantasy VII in the course of just one year, blowing up all preconceptions of how much it could cost to make a computer or console game. (The most expensive earlier game that I’m aware of is the 1996 American “interactive movie” Wing Commander IV, which its developer Origin Systems claimed to have cost $12 million.) By one Square executive’s estimate, almost half of Final Fantasy VII‘s budget went for the hundreds of high-end Silicon Graphics workstations that were purchased, tools for the unprecedented number of 3D artists and animators who attacked the game from all directions at once. Their output came to fill not just one PlayStation CD but three of them — almost two gigabytes of raw data in all, or 30 Nintendo 64 cartridges.

Somehow or other, it all came together. Square finished Final Fantasy VII on schedule, shipping it in Japan on January 31, 1997. It went on to sell over 3 million copies there, bettering Final Fantasy VI‘s numbers by about half a million and selling a goodly number of PlayStations in the process. But, as that fairly modest increase indicates, the Japanese domestic market was becoming saturated; there were only so many games you could sell in a country of 125 million people, most of them too old or too young or lacking the means or the willingness to acquire a PlayStation. There was only one condition in which it had ever made sense to spend $40 million on Final Fantasy VII: if it could finally break the Western market wide open. Encouraged by the relative success of Final Fantasy VI and Super Mario RPG in the United States, excited by the aura of hipster cool that clung to the PlayStation, Square — and also Sony, which lived up to its promise to go all-in on the game — were determined to make that happen, once again at almost any cost. After renumbering the earlier games in the series in the United States to conform with its habit of only releasing every other Final Fantasy title there, Square elected to call this game Final Fantasy VII all over the world. For the number seven was an auspicious one, and this was nothing if not an auspicious game.

Final Fantasy VII shipped on a suitably auspicious date in the United States: September 7, 1997. It sold its millionth unit that December.

In November of 1997, it came to Europe, which had never seen any of the previous six mainline Final Fantasy game before and therefore processed the title as even more of a non sequitur. No matter. Wherever the game went, the title and the marketing worked — worked not only for the game itself, but for the PlayStation. Coming hot on the heels of the hip mega-hit Tomb Raider, it sealed the deal for the console, relegating the Sega Saturn to oblivion and the Nintendo 64 to the status of a disappointing also-ran. Paul Davies was the editor-in-chief of Britain’s Computer and Video Games magazine at the time. He was a committed Sega loyalist, he says, but

I came to my senses when Square announced Final Fantasy VII as a PlayStation exclusive. We received sheets of concept artwork and screenshots at our editorial office, sketches and stills from the incredible cut scenes. I was smitten. I tried and failed to rally. This was a runaway train. [The] PlayStation took up residence in all walks of life, moved from bedrooms to front rooms. It gained — by hook or by crook — the kind of social standing that I’d always wanted for games. Sony stomped on my soul and broke my heart, but my God, that console was a phenomenon.

Final Fantasy VII wound up selling well over 10 million units in all, as many as all six previous entries in the series combined, divided this time almost equally between Japan, North America, and Europe. Along the way, it exploded millions of people’s notions of what games could do and be — people who weren’t among the technological elite who invested thousands of dollars into high-end rigs to play the latest computer games, who just wanted to sit down in front of their televisions after a busy day with a plug-it-in-and-go console and be entertained.

Of course, not everyone who bought the game was equally enamored. Retailers reported record numbers of returns to go along with the record sales, as some people found all the walking around and reading to be not at all what they were looking for in a videogame.

In a way, I share their pain. Despite all its exceptional qualities, Final Fantasy VII fell victim rather comprehensively to the standard Achilles heel of the JRPG in the West: the problem of translation. Its English version was completed in just a couple of months at Square’s American branch, reportedly by a single employee working without supervision, then sent out into the world without a second glance. I’m afraid there’s no way to say this kindly: it’s almost unbelievably terrible, full of sentences that literally make no sense punctuated by annoying ellipses that are supposed to represent… I don’t know what. Pauses… for… dramatic… effect, perhaps? To say it’s on the level of a fan translation would be to insult the many fans of Japanese videogames in the West, who more often than not do an extraordinary job when they tackle such a project. That a game so self-consciously pitched as the moment when console-based videogames would come into their own as a storytelling medium and as a form of mass-market entertainment to rival movies could have been allowed out the door with writing like this boggles the mind. It speaks to what a crossroads moment this truly was for games, when the old ways were still in the process of going over to the new. Although the novelty of the rest of the game was enough to keep the poor translation from damaging its commercial prospects overmuch, the backlash did serve as a much-needed wake-up call for Square. Going forward, they would take the details of “localization,” as such matters are called in industry speak, much more seriously.

Oh, my…

Writerly sort that I am, I’ll be unable to keep myself from harping further on the putrid translation in the third and final article in this series, when I’ll dive into the game itself. Right now, though, I’d like to return to the subject of what Final Fantasy VII meant for gaming writ large. In case I haven’t made it clear already, let me state it outright now: its arrival and reception in the West in particular marked one of the watershed moments in the entire history of gaming.

It cemented, first of all, the PlayStation’s status as the overwhelming victor in the late-1990s edition of the eternal Console Wars, as it did the Playstation’s claim to being the third socially revolutionary games console in history, after the Atari VCS and the original Nintendo Famicom. In the process of changing forevermore the way the world viewed videogames and the people who played them, the PlayStation eventually sold more than 100 million units, making it the best-selling games console of the twentieth century, dwarfing the numbers of the Sega Saturn (9 million units) and even the Nintendo 64 (33 million units), the latter of which was relegated to the status of the “kiddie console” on the playgrounds of the world. The underperformance of the Saturn followed by that of its successor the Dreamcast (again, just 9 million units sold) led Sega to abandon the console-hardware business entirely. Even more importantly, the PlayStation shattered the aura of remorseless, monopolistic inevitability that had clung to Nintendo since the mid-1980s; Nintendo would be for long stretches of the decades to come an also-ran in the very industry it had almost single-handedly resurrected. If the PlayStation was conceived partially as revenge for Nintendo’s jilting of Sony back in 1991, it was certainly a dish served cold — in fact, one that Nintendo is to some extent still eating to this day.

Then, too, it almost goes without saying that the JRPG, a sub-genre that had hitherto been a niche occupation of American gamers and virtually unknown to European ones, had its profile raised incalculably by Final Fantasy VII. The JRPG became almost overnight one of the hottest of all styles of game, as millions who had never imagined that a game could offer a compelling long-form narrative experience like this started looking for more of the same to play just as soon as its closing credits had rolled. Suddenly Western gamers were awaiting the latest JRPG releases with just as much impatience as Japanese gamers — releases not only in the Final Fantasy series but in many, many others as well. Their names, which tended to sound strange and awkward to English ears, were nevertheless unspeakably alluring to those who had caught the JRPG fever: Xenogears, Parasite Eve, Suikoden, Lunar, Star Ocean, Thousand Arms, Chrono Cross, Valkyrie Profile, Legend of Mana, Saiyuki. The whole landscape of console gaming changed; nowhere in the West in 1996, these games were everywhere in 1998 and 1999. It required a dedicated PlayStation gamer indeed just to keep up with the glut. At the risk of belaboring a point, I must note here that there were relatively few such games on the Nintendo 64, due to the limited storage capacity of its cartridges. Gamers go where the games they want to play are, and, for gamers in their preteens or older at least, those games were on the PlayStation.

From the computer-centric perspective that is this site’s usual stock in trade, perhaps the most important outcome of Final Fantasy VII was the dawning convergence it heralded between what had prior to this point been two separate worlds of gaming. Shortly before its Western release on the PlayStation, Square’s American subsidiary had asked the parent company for permission to port Final Fantasy VII to Windows-based desktop computers, perchance under the logic that, if American console gamers did still turn out to be nonplussed by the idea of a hundred-hour videogame despite marketing’s best efforts, American computer gamers would surely not be.

Square Japan agreed, but that was only the beginning of the challenge of getting Final Fantasy VII onto computer-software shelves. Square’s American arm called dozens of established computer publishers, including the heavy hitters like Electronic Arts. Rather incredibly, they couldn’t drum up any interest whatsoever in a game that was by now selling millions of copies on the most popular console in the world. At long last, they got a bite from the British developer and publisher Eidos, whose Tomb Raider had been 1996’s PlayStation game of the year whilst also — and unusually for the time — selling in big numbers on computers.

That example of cross-platform convergence notwithstanding, everyone involved remained a bit tentative about the Final Fantasy VII Windows port, regarding it more as a cautious experiment than the blockbuster-in-the-offing that the PlayStation version had always been treated as. Judged purely as a piece of Windows software, the end result left something to be desired, being faithful to the console game to a fault, to the extent of couching its saved states in separate fifteen-slot “files” that stood in for PlayStation memory cards.

The Windows version of Final Fantasy VII came out a year after the PlayStation version. “If you’re open to new experiences and perspectives in role-playing and can put up with idiosyncrasies from console-game design, then take a chance and experience some of the best storytelling ever found in an RPG,” concluded Computer Gaming World in its review, stamping the game “recommended, with caution.” Despite that less than rousing endorsement, it did reasonably well, selling somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million units by most reports.

They were baby steps to be sure, but Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy VII between them marked the start of a significant shift, albeit one that would take another half-decade or so to come to become obvious to everyone. The storage capacity of console CDs, the power of the latest console hardware, and the consoles’ newfound ability to easily save state from session to session had begun to elide if not yet erase the traditional barriers between “computer games” and “videogames.” Today the distinction is all but eliminated, as cross-platform development tools and the addition of networking capabilities to the consoles make it possible for everyone to play the same sorts of games at least, if not always precisely the same titles. This has been, it seems to me, greatly to the benefit of gaming in general: games on computers have became more friendly and approachable, even as games on consoles have become deeper and more ambitious.

So, that’s another of the trends we’ll need to keep an eye out for as we continue our journey down through the years. Next, though, it will be time to ask a more immediately relevant question: what is it like to actually play Final Fantasy VII, the game that changed so much for so many?



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Sources: the books Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World by Matt Alt, Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life by Chris Kohler, Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West by Aidan Moher, Atari to Zelda: Japan’s Videogames in Global Contexts by Mia Consalvo, Revolutionaries at Sony: The Making of the Sony PlayStation by Reiji Asakura, and Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff. Retro Gamer 69, 96, 108, 137, 170, and 188; Computer Gaming World of September 1997, October 1997, May 1998, and November 1998.

Online sources include Polygon‘s authoritative Final Fantasy 7: An Oral History”, “The History of Final Fantasy VII at Nintendojo, “The Weird History of the Super NES CD-ROM, Nintendo’s Most Notorious Vaporware” by Chris Kohler at Kotaku, and “The History of PlayStation was Almost Very Different” by Blake Hester at Polygon.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Philips wasn’t, however, above exploiting the letter of its contract with Nintendo to make a Mario game and three substandard Legend of Zelda games available for the CD-i.
2 Sony did purchase the venerable British game developer and publisher Psygnosis well before its console’s launch to help prime the pump with some quality games, but it largely left it to manage its own affairs on the other side of the world.
 
 

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