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Ethics in Strategy Gaming, Part 1: Panzer General

I apologize for liking German generals. I suppose I ought not to.

— Desmond Young

When I attempted to play the SSI computer game Panzer General as part of this ongoing journey through gaming history, I could recognize objectively that it was a fine game, perfectly in my wheelhouse in many ways, with its interesting but not overly fiddly mechanics, its clean and attractive aesthetic presentation, and the sense of unfolding narrative and personal identification that comes with embodying the role of a German general leading an army through the campaigns of World War II. But for all that, I just couldn’t enjoy it. When I conquered Poland, I didn’t feel any sense of martial pride; all I could see in my mind’s eye were the Warsaw ghettos and Auschwitz. I found I could take no pleasure in invading countries that had done nothing to my own — invasions that were preludes, as I knew all too well, to committing concerted genocide on a substantial portion of their populations. Simply put, I could take no pleasure from playing a Nazi.

So, Panzer General prompted me to ask a host of questions about the way that we process the events of history, as well as the boundaries — inevitably different for each of us — between acceptable and unacceptable content in games. At the core of this inquiry lies a pair of bizarrely contradictory factoids. The Nazi regime of 1933 to 1945 is widely considered to be the ultimate exemplar of Evil on a national scale, its Führer such a profoundly malevolent figure as to defy comparison with literally anyone else, such that to evoke him in an argument on any other subject is, so Godwin’s Law tells us, so histrionic as to represent an immediate forfeiture of one’s right to be taken seriously. And yet in Panzer General we have a mass-market American computer game in which you play a willing tool of Adolf Hitler’s evil, complete with all the flag-waving enthusiasm we might expect to see bestowed upon an American general in the same conflict. If the paradoxical attitudes toward World War II which these factoids epitomize weren’t so deeply embedded in our culture, we would be left utterly baffled. For my part, I felt that I needed to understand better where those selfsame attitudes had come from.

I should note here that my intention isn’t to condemn those people whose tolerance for moral ambiguity allows them to enjoy Panzer General in the spirit which SSI no doubt intended. Still less do I want this article to come across as anti-German rather than anti-Nazi. The present-day population of Germany is still reckoning with those twelve terrible years in their country’s long and oft-inspiring history, and for the most part they’re doing a decent job of it. As an American, I’m certainly in no position to cast aspersions; if a different game had crossed my radar, this article might have been about the legacy of the American Civil War and the ongoing adulation in many American cultural corners of Confederate generals who fought for the privilege of continuing to enslave their fellow humans. As always here, my objective is to offer some food for thought and perchance to enlighten just a bit. It’s definitely not to hector anyone.


Prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp greet their liberators, April 1945.

The occasional reports which reached the Allied countries of the horrors of the Holocaust during the early and middle years of World War II were widely dismissed, unfortunately but perhaps understandably, as gross exaggerations. But when American and British armies finally began to liberate the first of the concentration camps in late 1944, those reports’ veracity could no longer be denied. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied forces attacking Germany from the west, made it a point to bear witness to what had taken place in the camps. He ordered that all of his men should pass through one or more of them: “We are told the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, we know what he is fighting against.” Eisenhower also made special provisions for bringing journalists to the camps to record the “evidence of atrocity” for readers back home and for posterity.

After the war, the hastily convened Nuremberg trials brought much more evidence of the Holocaust to light, not just for the assembled panel of judges but for ordinary people all over the world; the proceedings were covered in great detail by journalists. But after the trials concluded in late 1946, with eleven defendants having been sentenced to death and a further seven sentenced to prison terms of various lengths, the Western political establishment seemed to believe the matter was settled, evincing a devout wish just to move on that was out of all keeping with the crimes against humanity which had been uncovered. To understand why, we need look no further than the looming Cold War, that next titanic ideological struggle, which had started taking shape well before the previous war had ended. Now that the Cold War was becoming an undeniable reality,  the United States and its allies needed the new West Germany to join their cause wholeheartedly. There was no time for retribution.

A pernicious myth took hold at this juncture, one which has yet to be entirely vanquished in some circles. It lived then, as it still does to some extent today, because it served the purposes of the people who chose to believe in it. The historian Harold Marcuse names “ignorance, resistance, and victimization” as the myth’s core components. It claims that the crimes of the Holocaust were entirely the work of an evil inner cabal that was close to Hitler personally, that the vast majority of Germans — the so-called “good Germans” — never even realized any of it was happening, and that most of those who did stumble across the truth were appropriately horrified and outraged. But in the end, as the reasoning goes, they were Hitler’s victims as well, unable to do much of anything about it if they didn’t want to suffer the same fate as the people already in the concentration camps.

There were grains of truth to the argument; certainly the Gestapo was a much-feared presence in daily German life. But the fact remains that German resistance to Hitler was never as widespread as the apologists would like it to have been; every metric we have at our disposal would seem to indicate that the Nazi regime enjoyed broad popular support at least until the final disastrous year or two of the war.

The claim of widespread public ignorance of Hitler’s crimes, meanwhile, was patently absurd on the face of it. The Holocaust wasn’t a plot hatched in secret by shadowy conspirators; it was a massive bureaucratic effort which marshaled the resources of the entire state, from the secretaries who requisitioned the stocks of Zyklon B poison gas to the thousands of guards who tortured and killed the prisoners in the camps. Could the “good Germans” really not have seen the trains lumbering through their villages with their emaciated human cargoes? Could they really not have smelled the stench of death which rose over the concentration camps day after day? In order not to know, one would have had to willfully closed one’s eyes, nose, and ears if not one’s heart — which may very well have been the case for some, but is hardly a compelling defense.

Nevertheless, the myth of the ignorant, resistant, and victimized “good” Germans was widely accepted by the beginning of the 1950s. The Germans who had actually lived through the war had every motivation to minimize their complicity in the abominations of Nazism, while the political establishment of the West had no desire to rock the boat by asking difficult questions of their new allies against communism. The Holocaust was treated as vaguely gauche — a disreputable topic, inappropriate for discussion in polite company. To confront people with it was regarded as an act of irresponsible political agitation. In 1956, for example, when the French director Alain Resnais announced Night and Fog, a chilling 32-minute film which juxtaposed images of the concentration camps as they looked in that year with archival footage from the war years, the West German government lodged an immediate complaint with the French government, which in turned pressured the Cannes Film Festival into rejecting the movie as anti-German agitprop. The attitudes inculcated during this period begin to explain the existence of Panzer General so many years later, casting you cheerfully and with no expressed reservations whatsoever in the role of a German general of the Second World War.


The ugly truth behind Panzer General‘s glorification of Nazi aggression: a group of Polish prisoners are lined up against a wall and shot in the fall of 1939. Images like this one run through my mind constantly whenever I attempt to play the game.

But they aren’t a complete explanation, given that it would seem to be even harder to believe in the guiltlessness of German soldiers than civilians. The former were, after all, the ones who actually pointed the guns and pulled the trigger; their crimes would seem to be active ones, as opposed to the passive acquiescence of the latter. Even if they wished to claim that they personally had only pointed their rifles at enemy combatants, they couldn’t possibly plead ignorance of the horrifying crimes against noncombatants that were committed right under their noses by those all around them, right from the first weeks of the war. But, remarkably, a defense was mounted on their behalf, one that was similar in the broad strokes at least to that of the “good” German civilians.

The myth of the “clean Wehrmacht” held that the vast majority of German officers and soldiers were in fact no more guilty than the soldiers of the Allied armies. Most or all of the German war crimes, so the reasoning went, were the work of the dreaded SS Einsatzgruppen who traveled just behind the regular army units, maiming, torturing, raping, and massacring civilians in staggering numbers. Anecdotes abounded — some of them probably even true — telling how the ordinary German soldiers and their “professional” leadership had regarded their SS comrades with disgust, had considered them no better than butchers — cowards who preferred enemies that couldn’t fight back — and had shunned their company completely.

To be sure, the Einsatzgruppen were real, and did fill precisely the grisly role ascribed to them. But they were hardly the only German soldiers who murdered in cold blood. And, even if they had been, the fact that the ordinary soldiers found them unappealing doesn’t absolve them of blame for facilitating their activities. Note that the “ignorance” part of the “ignorance, resistance, victimization” defense has fallen away uncontested in the case of the German soldiers — as has, for that matter, the claim of resistance. All that’s left to shield them from blame is the claim of victimhood. Their country ordered them to carry out ethnic cleansing, we are told, and so they had no choice but to do so.

For all its patent weaknesses as an argument, the clean Wehrmacht would become a bedrock of a new strand of historical writing as well as a culture of wargaming that would be tightly coupled to it — the same culture that would eventually yield Panzer General. We can perhaps best understand the myth and its ramifications through the career of its archetypal exemplar, not coincidentally a wargaming perennial: Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.


Erwin Rommel in 1942, during his heyday as the “Desert Fox.”

Like Hitler, Rommel fought in the trenches during World War I, albeit as a junior officer rather than an enlisted man. He remained in the army between the wars, although his progress through the ranks wasn’t meteoric by any means; by 1937, when he published an influential book on infantry tactics, he had risen no higher than colonel. Having expressed no strong political beliefs prior to the ascension of Hitler, he became by all indications a great admirer of the dictator and his ideology thereafter. Although he never formally joined the Nazi party, he became close friends with Joseph Goebbels, its propaganda minister. “Yesterday the Führer spoke,” he wrote in a letter to his wife in 1938. “Today’s soldier must be political because he must always be ready to take action for the new politics. The German military is the sword of the new German worldview.”

That year Rommel was assigned personal responsibility for Hitler’s security. The Fūhrer, who had read his book and felt the kinship of their front-line service in the previous war, took as much of a shine to Rommel as Rommel did to him. On March 15, 1939, in the final act of German aggression prior to the one which would spark a world war, Rommel entered what was left of an independent Czechoslovakia at Hitler’s side; he would later take proud credit for having urged Hitler to push aggressively forward and occupy Prague Castle with a minimum of delay. He was promoted to major general shortly thereafter.

Rommel played a part in the invasions of Poland and then France and the Low Countries in the early years of World War II, winning the Knight’s Cross for his bold leadership of an armored division in the latter campaign. Then, on February 12, 1941, the newly promoted lieutenant general was sent to command the German forces in North Africa. It was here that his legend would be made.

Over the course of the next twenty months, Rommel led his outnumbered army through a series of improbably successful actions, punctuated by only occasional, generally more modest setbacks. Hitler promoted him to field marshal after one of his more dramatic victories, his capture of Tobruk, Libya, in June of 1942.

The North African front was a clean one by the standards of almost any other theater of World War II; it was largely a war of army against army, with civilians pushed to the sidelines. Thus it would go down in legend as “the war without hate,” a term coined by Rommel himself. This was war as wargamers would later wish it could always be: mobile armies duking it out in unobstructed desert terrain, a situation with room for all kinds of tactical give-and-take and noble derring-do, far removed from all that messiness of the Holocaust and the savagery of the Eastern Front. North Africa was never more than a secondary theater, the merest sideshow in comparison to the existential struggle going on in the Soviet Union — but it was precisely this fact that gave it its unique qualities.

Rommel’s men came to love him. They loved his flair for the unexpected, his concern for their well-being, and the way he stood right there with them on the front line when they engaged the enemy. More surprisingly, the soldiers he fought against came to respect him just as much. By early 1942, they had given him his eternal nickname: “The Desert Fox.” They respected him the way an athlete might respect a worthy and honorable player for the opposing team, respected not just his real or alleged tactical genius but the fact that he waged war with a scrupulous adherence to the rules that seemed a relic of a long-gone age of gentlemen soldiers.

The growing weight of Allied manpower and equipment following the entry of the United States into the war finally brought Rommel up short at the Second Battle of El Alamein in northern Egypt in October and November of 1942, forcing him to make a months-long retreat all the way to Tunisia. (Winston Churchill famously wrote about this battle that “before Alamein, we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.”) Rommel was recalled to Germany in March of 1943, by which time North Africa had become a lost cause despite all of his efforts. The last German forces left there would surrender two months later.

In November of 1943, Rommel was placed in charge of the armies defending the coastline of France against the Allied counter-invasion that must inevitably come. By now, he was apparently beginning to entertain some doubts about the Führer. He flirted with a cabal of officers who were considering, as they put it, “extra-military solutions” to bring an end to a war which they now believed to be hopeless. Some of these officers’ discussions evolved into an attempted assassination of Hitler on July 20, 1944. The attempt failed; the bomb which Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg planted within the Führer’s headquarters caused much chaos and killed three men, but only slightly injured its real target.

There has been heated debate ever since about Rommel’s precise role in the conspiracy and assassination attempt. We know that he wasn’t present at the scene, but surprisingly little beyond that. Did he give the plan his tacit or explicit blessing? Was he an active co-conspirator, possibly even the man slated to take the reins of the German state after Hitler’s death? Or did he have nothing whatsoever to do with it? The temptations here are obvious for those who wish to see Rommel as an exemplar of moral virtue in uniform. And yet, as we’ll shortly see, not even his most unabashed admirers are in agreement about his involvement — or lack thereof — in the plot. There’s enough evidence to pick and choose from to support almost any point of view.

At any rate, Rommel had much else to occupy him at that time; the D-Day invasion had come on June 6, 1944. Three days before the assassination attempt, while he was out doing what he could to rally his overstretched, outnumbered army of defenders, his staff car was strafed by Allied fighters, and he was seriously wounded. Thus he was lying in hospital on the fateful day. Although he was not suspected of having been one of the conspirators for quite some time thereafter, Hitler had been none too pleased with his decision to fall back from the beaches of Normandy, ignoring express orders to fight to the death there. For this reason, Rommel would never return to his command.

Three months after these events, after having conducted dozens of interrogations, the Gestapo had come to suspect if not know that Rommel had been involved in the assassination plot at one level or another — and such a suspicion was, of course, more than enough to get a person condemned in Nazi Germany. Two officers visited him in his home and offered him a choice. He could commit suicide using the cyanide tablets they had helpfully brought along, whereupon his death would be announced as having come as a result of his recent battle injuries and he would be buried with full military honors. Or he could be dragged before the People’s Court on charges of treason, which would not only mean certain death for him but quite probably death or imprisonment for his wife and two children as well. Rommel chose suicide, thus putting the crowning touch on his legend: the noble warrior who makes the supreme sacrifice with wide-open eyes in order to spare his family — a fate not out of keeping with, say, a hero of the Iliad.


The book which, more than any other, is responsible for cementing the vision of an heroic, noble Rommel in the popular imagination.

For all that Rommel’s story perhaps always had some of the stuff of myth about it, his canonization as the face of the clean Wehrmacht was by no means always assured. It is true that, during his period of greatest success in North Africa, a mystique had begun to attach itself to him among Allied journalists as well as Allied soldiers. After his defeat at the Second Battle of El Alamein, however, the mystique faded. Few to none among the Allied brass were losing sleep over Rommel before the D-Day landings, and The New York Times mentioned his eventual death only in passing, referring to him only as a “Hitler favorite,” making no use of his “Desert Fox” sobriquet. At war’s end, he was far from the best known of the German generals.

The man responsible more than any other for elevating Rommel to belated stardom was a Briton named Desmond Young, a journalist by trade who saw combat in both world wars and somehow still managed to retain the notion that war can be a stirring adventure for sporting gentlemen. In June of 1942, while serving as a brigadier in charge of public relations for the Indian divisions fighting for the Allies in North Africa, he was captured by the Germans, and had a passing encounter with Rommel himself that left an indelible stamp on him. Ordered by his captors to drive over with them and negotiate the surrender of another Allied encampment which was continuing the fight, he refused, and the situation began to grow tense. Then Rommel appeared on the scene. Young:

At this moment a Volkswagen drove up. Out of it jumped a short, stocky but wiry figure, correctly dressed, unlike the rest of us, in jacket and breeches. I noticed that he had a bright blue eye, a firm jaw, and an air of command. One did not need to understand German to realize that he was asking, “What goes on here?” They talked together for a few seconds. Then the officer who spoke English turned to me. “The general rules,” he said sourly, “that if you do not choose to obey the order I have just given you, you cannot be compelled to do so.” I looked at the general and saw, as I thought, the ghost of a smile. At any rate, his intervention seemed to be worth a salute. I cut him one before I stepped back into the ranks to be driven into captivity.

From that one brief, real or imagined glance of shared understanding and respect stemmed the posthumous legend of Erwin Rommel. For in 1950, Young published a book entitled simply Rommel, a fawningly uncritical biography of its subject in 250 breezy pages. Even as he emphasized Rommel’s chivalry, courage, and tactical genius at every turn, Young bent over backward to justify his willingness to serve the epitome of twentieth-century evil. One passage is particularly amusing for the way it anachronistically places Rommel’s avowed support for Hitler into a Cold War, anti-communist context, revealing in the process perhaps more than its author intended.

Like ninety percent of Germans who had no direct contact with Hitler or his movement, he [Rommel] regarded him as an idealist, a patriot with some sound ideas who might pull Germany together and save her from Communism. This may have seemed a naïve estimate; it was no more naïve than that of many people in England who saw him as a ridiculous little man with a silly mustache. Both views were founded in wishful thinking. But the Germans, having had a bellyful of defeat and a good taste of Communism, at least had some excuse for believing what they wished to believe.

Only one component of the full legend of Rommel as it is known today is missing from Young’s hagiography: Rommel, said Young, “had never been a party to the [attempted] killing of Hitler, nor would he have agreed to it.” He had rather been the loyal soldier to the end, right down to his swallowing of the final poison pill.

Rommel became a success out of all keeping with any normal military biography upon its publication in Britain, then an equally big bestseller in the United States upon its publication there one year later. Some historians and thoughtful reviewers pointed out the problematic aspects of Desmond Young’s unabashed hero worship, but their voices were drowned out in the general acclaim for what truly was an entertaining, well-written, even oddly endearing little book. In the end, it sold at least 1 million copies.

Its initial success in Britain was such that Hollywood rushed a movie into production before the book had even made it across the Atlantic. Wanting to get the film out quickly, before the Rommel craze had run its course, 20th Century Fox didn’t have time to stage much in the way of battle scenes; the filmmakers would later admit that a closing battlefield montage of old newsreel footage was inserted in the hope that viewers would leave the theater thinking that “they have seen a lot more action and battle stuff than they actually have.” Rommel was played by stolid leading man James Mason; he and all of the other German characters spoke American English with the flat Midwestern enunciation so typical of the Hollywood of that period.

Although it hewed closely to Desmond Young’s book for the most part, the movie did make one critical alteration: it postulated that Rommel had turned definitively against Hitler late in the war and, after a long internal struggle over whether it was honorable to do so, had joined the assassination plot. This change was made not least because, even in this period of reconciliation and letting bygones be bygones, studio executives were nervous to release a film that made a hero out of a man who had died an unrepentant Nazi. But on the other hand, a repentant Nazi who saw the light, took action against evil, and died for having done so was, as the film’s screenwriter put it, a downright “Shakespearean” protagonist. From now on, then, this generous interpretation too became an integral part of Rommel’s legend.

Desmond Young, who served as an advisor for the film, didn’t seem overly bothered by its departures from what he believed to be the real circumstances surrounding the death of Rommel. In fact, to capitalize on what future generations would have called the marketing synergy between his book and the film, later editions of the former picked up a new subtitle: The Desert Fox.

The film proved a big hit, on much the same terms as the book: widespread popular acclaim, accompanied by the merest undercurrent of concern that a Nazi general might be less than entirely worthy of such full-throated approbation. Among the most strident of the critical voices was the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council:

We regard this film as a cruel distortion of history, an affront to the memory of the brave soldiers of all allied nations, a gratuitous insult to the free peoples who spent their strength and their substance to save a world from engulfment by Nazism. There is only one major villain in this picture: Hitler. The audience is asked to believe that only he was both a buffoon and an evil man; that the soldier Rommel — and other German generals — were military men, without “political” aims or motivations, carrying out orders. The world knows that totalitarianism infects the whole body politic of a nation, that neither fascism nor communism can be sustained except with the active collaboration in its depravity of politicians, diplomats, and generals — especially generals. To depict Rommel as less than such an active collaborator in Nazism is to twist history beyond recognition.

In 1953, the final building block of the legendary Rommel fell into place when the British historian and military theorist B.H. Liddell Hart published a book called The Rommel Papers. Hart was himself a complicated, vaguely pathetic character. At the end of the Second World War, he had been in nearly complete disgrace, having been one of the primary architects of the Allies’ disastrous would-be defense of France against the German invasion of 1940, a classic example of trying to fight the last war — in this case, imagining a repeat of the static trench battles of the First World War — rather than reckoning with the realities of the current one. But in the years that followed, he rehabilitated his reputation by latching onto some of his old writings from the 1920s, when he had been at least occasionally an advocate for a more mobile approach to warfare. Hart befriended many of the surviving German generals — often by visiting them in their prison cells — and bolstered his case via a tacit quid pro quo that would have gone something like this if anyone had dared to speak it aloud: “Say that you developed Blitzkrieg warfare by reading my old texts, and I’ll use my influence to promote the position that you were only a soldier following orders and don’t deserve to die in prison.” Being friendly with Desmond Young, Hart convinced the latter to include another assertion of his influence in his biography of Rommel: Rommel, wrote Young, had before the war “studied the writings of Captain Liddell Hart with more attention than they received from most British senior officers.” This was completely untrue; Rommel probably never even heard of Hart during his lifetime.

Be that as it may, Hart definitely did ingratiate himself with the general’s widow Lucia and his son Manfred after the war was over, and enlisted their aid for his own book about Rommel. The Rommel Papers proved a shaggy, unwieldy beast, combining together the following, presented here in order of historical worthiness: 1) what existed of a memoir which Rommel had been writing during the months of limbo that preceded the demand that he commit suicide; 2) a selection of Rommel’s wartime letters to Lucia; 3) Manfred Rommel’s recollections of the circumstances of his father’s death; and 4) Hart’s own oft-extended footnotes, “clarifying” and embellishing the other texts. Hart wrote of Rommel that “he was a military genius — more so than any other soldier who succeeded in rising to high command in the war.” He then went on to make the cheeky claim — writing of himself in the third person, no less! — that Rommel “could in many respects be termed Liddell Hart’s pupil” in the science of mobile, mechanized warfare. Meanwhile Manfred Rommel, who would go on to a long and fruitful political career, was almost as transparently self-serving in writing that his father had definitively “broken” with Nazism by 1943 and “brought himself, from his knowledge of the Führer’s crimes, to act against him.”

The Rommel Papers was another big success, its sales figures more than sufficient to drown out anyone who voiced concern about its editor’s patent lack of objectivity. The man who had for a time been Hitler’s favorite general was now firmly ensconced as an odd sort of folk hero in the postwar democratic West.


Brave warrior or foolish prima donna? Rommel leads the charge from his half-track.

We’ll return to our examination of how this romantic figure paved the way for the likes of Panzer General momentarily. Before we do that, though, it might be worthwhile to examine the sustainability of this version of Rommel’s life story. We can boil our skepticism down to two questions. Was Rommel really all that as a general? And what is his true moral culpability for the role he played in the Second World War?

The first question is, if not exactly straightforward to answer, at least somewhat less fraught than the second. Rommel’s primary asset, many students of military strategy now agree, was his sheer boldness rather than any genius for the intricate details of war. Throughout his career, he had the reputation of a maverick, born of a willingness to disobey orders when it suited him. And as often as not, his seemingly reckless gambits caught his enemies off-guard and wound up succeeding.

But Rommel certainly had his weaknesses as a battlefield tactician, as even many of his biggest fans will reluctantly acknowledge. The greatest of them was probably his complete disinterest in the logistics of war. Rommel made a regular habit of outrunning his supply chains in North Africa. “The desert,” he said, “is a tactician’s paradise and a quartermaster’s hell” — but he did nothing to make his quartermaster’s job easier. When his army ran out of fuel or bullets, he started by blaming his subordinates, then moved on to blaming the Italian navy, which was in fact delivering more supplies than his army actually required most days, only to watch them pile up on the wharves of the Middle East’s port cities for want of a way to transport them inland to an army that had burrowed too deeply too quickly into the enemy’s territory.

Rommel’s men may have loved him, but his peers in the hierarchy of the Wehrmacht had little use for him for the most part, considering him a glory hound whose high-profile commands were mostly down to his friendship with Joseph Goebbels. They pointed out that his much-vaunted habit of standing with his men on the front lines during battles, pistol in hand like a latter-day Napoleon, made it impossible for him to observe the bigger tactical picture. There was a reason that most other generals of the war stayed in their headquarters tents well back from the front, right next to a junction box of telephone cables — and this reason had nothing to do with personal cowardice, as some Rommel boosters would have you believe.

Len Deighton, a well-known author of military fiction and nonfiction, writes bluntly in Blood, Tears and Folly, his recent revisionist history of World War II, that “Rommel was not one of the war’s great generals,” calling him “more adept at self-publicity than skillful in the conduct of warfare.” He credits much of Rommel’s success in North Africa to the German signals-intelligence service, which tapped into most of the principal Allied communication networks. (To be fair, Rommel’s opponents would be given an even more complete picture of his own plans and movements before the North African war was over, once the Enigma code breakers fully came into their own.)

In the end, then, we can say that Rommel possessed a remarkable ability to inspire his men combined with no small measure of battlefield audacity, but that these strengths were offset by a congenital unwillingness to sweat the details of war and an inability to play well with others as part of a joint military operation. The degree to which his strengths outweighed his weaknesses, or vice versa, must inevitably be in the eye of the beholder. We can say with certainty only that the North African theater, which gave his audacity such a sprawling blank canvas to paint upon and which allowed him nearly absolute authority to do whatever he liked, was the perfect place to make a legend out of him. Fair enough. What of the other, still thornier question of Rommel’s moral culpability?

The linchpin of the absolution which Desmond Young, Liddell Hart, and so many others since them have given Rommel is that he was simply a professional soldier obeying orders as he had sworn to do, all while remaining studiously apolitical. As we’ve already seen, this doesn’t quite jibe with the facts of the case: prior to 1943 at least, Rommel was a personal friend of Goebbels and an enthusiastic follower of Hitler, and plainly stated before the war that he considered it a good soldier’s duty to be political. But let’s accept the premise on its own terms for the moment at least, and see what else we can make of it.

On a strictly legal basis, “I was just following orders” is far from a cut-and-dried defense. Most codes of military justice state explicitly that a soldier is obligated not to follow an order which violates international laws to which his country is a signatory, such as the Geneva Convention. When Rommel led an armored division into France in 1940, the Einsatzgruppen traveled behind it. The fact that Rommel may have been made personally uncomfortable by their actions, may have made a conscious or unconscious decision not to witness them, may even have managed to avoid having similar units attached to his army in North Africa, doesn’t absolve him of guilt any more than it does any other German soldier who was a knowing accomplice to atrocity.

But then, legalistic arguments are inadequate if we really want to get to the heart of the matter. Rommel’s actions in Czechoslovakia, in Poland, in France, and elsewhere in Europe led directly to the murder of millions of Jews. And had the “war without hate” in North Africa ended in German victory, the ethnic hatred of his Nazi masters would have made its presence felt there too soon enough. I believe that a human being has a higher moral duty that transcends jurisprudence and the military chain of command alike. Surely it ought to be eminently noncontroversial to say that being a party to genocide is categorically wrong. I don’t pretend to know what I would have done in Rommel’s situation, but I do know what would have been the right thing to do. Leading genocidal armies of conquest with the excuse that such is one’s “duty” as a soldier strikes me as moral cowardice rather than its opposite. I hope that we can someday live in a world free of the sort of didactic thinking that is still used far too often to excuse Rommel for doing so.

But you are of course free to make your own judgments on these questions; these are merely my opinions, which I present by way of explaining why I don’t wish to deify Erwin Rommel and why Panzer General‘s glorification of his ilk makes me feel so queasy.


The History Channel — also sometimes known as the “all World War II, all the time” channel.

“It is well that war is so terrible,” said Robert E. Lee, famously if apocryphally. “Otherwise we would grow too fond of it.” New Yorker profile writer Larissa MacFarquhar struck a similar note from the opposite direction in a recent interview:

People who are pacifists always talk about how terrible war is because it is so bloody and violent and wasteful. What they’re not getting is that people who like war — or don’t dislike war — admit all that; they know all that. It’s very obvious, but for them it’s worth it because of the stimulation, as they see it, to human greatness.

I cannot hope to solve the puzzle of humanity’s eternal attraction to war despite the suffering and death it brings. I can note, however, that one way to enjoy the good aspects of war without all that pesky suffering and dying is to wage it in the imagination rather than in physical reality. Once the political questions which wars decide have been settled and the casualties have been tallied and mourned, we can fight the conflicts of yore all over again in our imaginations, milking them for all of the drama, heroism, and adventure that may have been obscured in the moment by their other horrifying realities. Desmond Young, Liddell Hart, and their fellow travelers embraced this idea enthusiastically during the middle of the twentieth century, and in doing so founded what amounted to a whole new genre of books: the popular military history.

Many more broad-minded historians came to hate this new class of writers for their willingness to wave away the truly important aspects of history. Military historians, they complained, insisted on viewing war as a sport (American football and cricket were common metaphors) or a game (chess tended to be the point of comparison here), all whilst ignoring their causes and effects on the broader scale of human civilization — not to mention the many pivotal changes in the course of human history that have had nothing to do with wars and battles. Some went so far as to claim that the military historians weren’t writing proper histories at all, but merely escapist entertainments, the equivalent of romance novels for the middle-aged men who consumed them.

Personally, I wouldn’t put it quite so strongly, any more than I generally rush to criticize anyone for his choice of reading materials. It seems to me that military history can be educational and, yes, enjoyable, but one does have to be aware of its limitations. It provides a window into only a single, very specific area of human experience. Its obsessive interest in how wars were fought at a granular level leaves unanswered more important questions about why they were fought and how the world changed in their aftermath.

Nevertheless, military history has been the dominant face of popular history in the West ever since Desmond Young and Liddell Hart wrote about Erwin Rommel. By the 1990s, the “Military History” shelf of the typical bookstore was twice as large as all the rest of its history section put together. Authors like Stephen Ambrose sold millions of books with their vivid depictions of combat on land, in the air, and at sea, even as cable-television stations like The History Channel reran the greatest battles of World War II on an endless loop. Needless to say, the legend of the noble warrior Erwin Rommel featured prominently in all of this. One particularly overwrought television documentary, for example, labeled him “the last knight,” and concluded with these words: “Erwin Rommel, soldier, was laid to rest in the village cemetery of Herrlingen. It planted back into the soil of a disgraced Germany at least one seed of honor and decency for a new flower.” (Perhaps the romance-novel charge does have some merit…)


The first release of Afrika Korps. It’s telling that the game is named after Rommel’s army in North Africa, not the Allied one.

In the same year that The Rommel Papers were published, a correspondent for The Irish Times attended an odd museum exhibition in London that was devoted to Rommel’s exploits. He wrote the following afterward:

One fact was impressed upon me: that there is a strategy of warfare which, for the devotees, has little to do with blood and horror and death. The maps were being scrutinized like precious works. There was the impression that war was an enthralling game, like cricket. Viewing Rommel in this sense, I concluded that I had as much right to make a judgment as a professional footballer at a modern-art exhibition.

If military history approached war as a metaphorical game, then why not turn it into a literal game? After all, what could be better for a military-history buff than to live out the conflicts that had heretofore existed only within the pages of his books and try out alternate strategies? In 1954, Charles S. Roberts published a board game called Tactics through his new Avalon Hill Game Company. The canonical first commercial wargame ever, it depicted warfare in a somewhat abstracted, non-historical context. But six years later, Roberts and his company surfaced again with Gettysburg, the first wargame to engage with an historical conflict. Going forward, not all readers of military history would be wargamers, but all wargamers would be readers of military history.

Avalon Hill released a steady trickle of games over the next few years, most of them depictions of other battles of the American Civil War, the only conflict that even approached the popularity of the Second World War among American military-history readers. But by 1964 sales figures were trending in the wrong direction. Seeking to reverse the slide, Roberts shifted his focus to World War II, designing what would prove to be one of his company’s biggest and most iconic games of all.

As the name would imply, Afrika Korps dealt with the North African theater of the war, giving armchair generals a chance to step into the smartly shined boots of Erwin Rommel: “Now the legend of the Desert Fox is recreated!” trumpeted the box text. The game established several precedents. First, it made the North African front into a perennial favorite with wargamers for the same reasons that it was so popular with military-history authors and their readers: its wide-open terrain and the resulting room for tactical maneuvering, and its supposedly sporting, gentlemanly nature. Second, it taught many who played it that the Germans were simply cooler: they had better technology, better esprit de corps, even better uniforms than the stodgy Allies to offset their generally inferior numbers. And finally, it introduced the wargame cliché of the “Rommel unit”: a unit whose commander is such a superhero that he can break the rules that usually govern the game by sheer force of will. As a whole, notes Joseph Allen Campo in his recent PhD thesis on cultural perceptions of Rommel, “the focus on Rommel and more generally the German side (many wargames feature prominent German military motifs and use German military nomenclature) cater to a genre that customarily finds more interest in playing the underdog, relying on [the player’s] brains rather than overwhelming force, and accepting the challenge of reversing the historical result.”

Coincidentally or not, tabletop wargaming grew in popularity by leaps and bounds after the release of Afrika Korps. At its peak in 1980, the industry sold 2.2 million games.

I hope that the chain of causation and influence which brought us Panzer General thirty years after Afrika Korps is becoming clear by now. I won’t belabor it unduly, given that I’ve already told most of the story in other articles. Suffice to say that in 1979 an avid young tabletop wargamer named Joel Billings decided to found a company to bring his hobby to the personal computers that were just entering the marketplace at that time. That company, which Billings called Strategic Simulations, Incorporated, specialized in digital wargames for much of its existence, and was the very same one which brought Panzer General to store shelves in 1994.


The gallant panzer general gets his orders. (How can you argue with cool uniforms like these?) The game studiously avoids swastikas. In popular culture, the swastika has come to stand for the Gestapo, SS, and other “bad” Nazis, while the older iconography of the Iron Cross or eagle wings stands in for the “clean” Wehrmacht. But the real distinction is, as we’ve seen, less clear-cut than many would like it to be.

Erwin Rommel is never mentioned by name in Panzer General, but his larger-than-life persona of legend is stamped all over it. He is, after all, the personification of the Wehrmacht as wargamers know it — not as barbaric invaders and espousers of a loathsome racist creed which they are all too eager to use to justify genocide, but as clever, audacious, courageous warriors with great fashion sense and all the best kit. Afrika Korps: “You can re-create Field Marshall Rommel’s daring exploits at Bengasi, Tobruk, El Alamein, and points in between!” Panzer General:

Imagine that you are the Panzer General. You are the brightest and best of the new Axis generals in the Second World War. Go from triumph to triumph, invading and seizing the capitals of Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and ultimately the United States of America on your way to conquering the whole world!

In terms of the broader culture — the one that doesn’t tend to read a lot of military history or play a lot of wargames — Panzer General was already an anachronism in 1994. In 1960, the American journalist William L. Shirer had published The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which over the course of its 1200-plus pages documented in meticulous detail exactly what the Nazi regime had done and how it had done it. Close on that book’s heels, the capture and trial of Holocaust administrator Adolf Eichmann in an Israeli court consumed the world’s attention much as the Nuremberg trials had a decade and a half previously — only now television brought the proceedings, and the atrocities they documented, to a much more visceral sort of light. In West Germany, the student activism of the hippie era, accompanied by the election of a social-democratic chancellor who was less beholden to the tradition of forgetfulness, finally pushed the country toward a proper reckoning with its past. A spate of unsparing books, films, and even museums about the Holocaust and the other crimes of the Nazi regime appeared in West Germany and elsewhere in the years that followed, fully acknowledging for the first time the complicity of those Germans who weren’t in Hitler’s inner circle. A new understanding became palpable among Germans: that they couldn’t escape from their past by denying guilt and wishing atrocities away; that the only way to ensure that something like the Third Reich never took root again was to examine how they themselves or their parents, living in a nation as civilized as any other in Europe, could have been tempted down such a sickening path.

These developments were as welcome as they were necessary, both for Germans and for all of the other citizens of the world. Yet Panzer General and the cultural milieu that had spawned it remained caught in that strange interregnum of the 1950s, as do most of the wargames of today.

So, having now a reasonable idea of how we got to this place where patriotic Americans bought a game in which they played the role of genocidal foreign conquerors of their country’s capital, it’s up to each of us to decide how we feel about it. What sorts of subject matter are appropriate for a game? Before you rush to answer, ask yourself how you would feel about, say, a version of Transport Tycoon where you have to move Jews from the cities where they live to the concentration camps where they will die. If, as I dearly hope, you would prefer not to play such a game, ask yourself what the difference between Panzer General and that other game really are. For your actions in Panzer General will also lead to the deaths of millions, at only one more degree of remove at best.

Or am I hopelessly overthinking it? Is Panzer General just a piece of harmless entertainment that happens to play with a subset of the stuff of history?

It’s a judgment call that’s personal to each of us. For my part, I can play the German side in a conventional wargame easily enough if I need to, although I would prefer to take the Allied side. But Panzer General, with its eagerness to embed me in the role of a German general goose-stepping and kowtowing to his Führer, is a bridge too far for me. I would feel more comfortable with it if it made some effort to acknowledge — even via a footnote in the manual! — the horrors of the ideology which it depicts as all stirring music and proudly waving banners.

Before I attempt to say more than that, I’d like to look at another game released the same year as Panzer General, designed by a veteran of the same wargaming culture that spawned SSI. It takes place in a very different historical milieu, but leaves us with some of the same broad questions about the ethical obligations — or lack thereof — that come attached to a game that purports to depict real historical events.

(Sources: the books Adenauer’s Germany and the Nazi Past by Norbert Frei, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in Two Germanys by Jeffrey Herf, War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany by Robert G. Moeller, Rommel: The Desert Fox by Desmond Young, The Rommel Papers by B.H. Liddell Hart, In Hitler’s Shadow by Richard J. Evans, Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp, 1933-2001 by Harold Marcuse, Blood, Tears, and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II by Len Deighton, War Without Hate: The Desert Campaign of 1940-43 by John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Real War (1914-1918) by B.H. Liddell Hart,  Uncovering the Holocaust: The International Reception of Night and Fog by Ewout van der Knaap, and The Complete Wargames Handbook by James F. Dunnigan. But my spirit guide and crib sheet through much of this article was Joseph Campo’s superb 2019 PhD thesis for UC Santa Barbara, “Desert Fox or Hitler Favorite? Myths and Memories of Erwin Rommel: 1941-1970.”)

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2020 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Opening the Gold Box, Part 7: Back to the Roots

We made it simple yet complex enough for those people who really got into it. We added graphics and made it a beautiful game with a totally transparent interface. It took all the ugly stuff out of playing a military strategy game and left the fun and the gameplay. That was a conscious effort. It wasn’t just, “Gee, I like artwork in wargames, so let’s throw it in.”

— SSI marketing manager Karen Conroe, speaking about Panzer General in 1996

When we last checked in with Joel Billings and his crew of grognards turned CRPG mavens at SSI, it was early 1994 and they had just lost their Dungeons & Dragons license, by far their biggest source of revenue over the past seven years. While Billings continued to beat the bushes for the buyer that his company plainly needed if it was to have any hope of surviving in the changed gaming landscape of the mid-1990s, it wasn’t immediately obvious to the rest of the in-house staff just what they should be doing now. Ever since signing the Dungeons & Dragons deal with TSR back in 1987, virtually all they had worked on were games under that license; SSI’s other games had all come from outside studios. But now here they were, with no Dungeons & Dragons, no clear direction forward, and quite possibly no long-term future at all. Instead of devoting their time to polishing up their résumés, as most people in their situation would have done, they plunged into a passion project the likes of which they hadn’t been able to permit themselves for many years. And lo and behold, the end result would prove to be the game that turned their commercial fortunes around, for a while anyway.

The project began with Paul Murray, an SSI stalwart who had first begun to program games for the company back in 1981. Most recently, he had been assigned to port Dark Sun: Shattered Lands, SSI’s ambitious and expensive attempt to prove to TSR that they deserved to retain the Dungeons & Dragons license, to the Super Nintendo console. But cash-flow problems during 1993 had forced Billings to shelve the port, leaving Murray without much to do. So, he started to tinker with a style of game which SSI hadn’t done in-house in nearly a decade: a traditional hex-based wargame, based on World War II in Europe. From the beginning, he envisioned it as a “lite” game, emphasizing fun at least as much as historical accuracy — i.e., what old-timers called a “beer and pretzels” wargame. In much of this, he was inspired by a Japanese game for the Sega Genesis console called Advanced Daisenryaku, which had never been officially imported to the United States or even translated into English, but which he and his office mates had somehow stumbled upon and immediately found so addicting that they were willing to struggle their way through it in Japanese. (When Alan Emrich from Computer Gaming World magazine visited the SSI offices, he saw them all playing it “with a crude translation of the Japanese manual lying beside the Sega Genesis.”)

After Dark Sun was released to disappointing sales, thus sounding the death knell for the Dungeons & Dragons license, Murray continued to poke away at his “fast and fun little wargame,” which he called Panzer General. And a remarkable thing happened: more and more of his colleagues, both those in technical and creative roles and those ostensibly far removed from them, coalesced around him. Even Joel Billings and his right-hand man Chuck Kroegel, who between them made all of the big decisions in the executive suites, rolled up their sleeves and made their first active contributions to the nuts and bolts of an SSI game in years. They did so largely after hours, as did many of the others who worked on Panzer General. It became a shared labor of love, a refuge from those harsh external realities that seemed destined to crush SSI under their weight.

At this point, a music fan like me finds it hard to resist comparisons with some of great dead-ender albums in the history of that art form, like Big Star’s Third. If SSI’s beer-and-pretzels wargame doesn’t have quite the same heft as an artistic statement like that one, it is true that the staff there felt the same freedom to experiment, to make exactly the game they wanted to make, all born from the same sense that there was nothing really left to lose. Desperation can be oddly freeing in that respect. Billings still speaks of Panzer General as the most satisfying single project he’s ever been involved with. After the extended detour into Dungeons & Dragons, he and his like-minded colleagues got to go back to the type of game that they personally loved most. It felt like going home. If this was to be the end of SSI, how poetically apt to bring things full circle before the curtain fell.

But make no mistake: Panzer General was not to look or sound like the ugly, fussy SSI wargames of yore. It was very much envisioned as a product of the 1990s, bringing all of the latest technology to bear on the hoary old wargame genre in a way that no one had yet attempted. It would be the first SSI game to require high-resolution SVGA graphics cards, the first to incorporate real-world video clips and voice acting, the first to take full advantage of the capabilities of CD-ROM. Luckily, the nature of the game lent itself to doing much of this on the cheap. Instead of filming actors, SSI could simply digitize public-domain newsreel footage of World War II battle scenes. Meanwhile the voice acting could be limited to a single Reichsmarschall giving you your orders in the sort of clipped, German-accented English that anyone who has ever seen a 1950s Hollywood war movie will feel right at home with. Thanks to the re-purposed media and plenty of free labor from SSI staffers, Panzer General wound up costing less than $400,000 to make — barely a third the cost of Dark Sun.

In addition to all of its multimedia flash, Panzer General evinced a lot of clever design. During 1994, strategy-game designers seemed to discover all at once the value of personalizing their players’ experiences, by giving them more embodied roles to play and by introducing elements of story and CRPG-style character progression. X-COM and Master of Magic are the first two obvious examples of these new approaches from that year, while Panzer General provides the third. One can only assume that SSI learned something from all those Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs.

The overall structure of Panzer General draws heavily from Advanced Daisenryaku. It’s a scenario-based rather than a grand-strategy game. If you choose to play the full campaign, you begin on September 1, 1939, leading the Wehrmacht into Poland. You then progress through a campaign which includes 38 potential scenarios in all, covering the Western and Eastern Fronts of the war in Europe as well as the battles in North Africa, but you’ll never see all of them on a single play-through. Panzer General rather uses a Wing Commander– style campaign tree: doing poorly will lead you to the “loser scenario,” and can eventually get you drummed out of the military entirely; doing well leads you to the next stage of world domination, with additional rewards in the form of “prestige points” which you can spend to improve your army. There’s an inherent design tension in such an approach, which I discussed at some length already in the context of Wing Commander: it gives beginning or unskilled players an unhappy experience by punishing them with ever more brutally difficult missions, even as it “rewards” the players who might actually have a chance of beating those missions by bypassing them. Within its chosen framework, however, Panzer General‘s campaign is very well-executed, with plenty of alternative outcomes on offer. In the absolute best case — in game terms, that is — you can invade and defeat Britain in 1940, as Adolf Hitler so conspicuously failed to do in real life, then go on to take Moscow, and finally attain the ultimate Panzer General achievement: conquering Washington, D.C.

As that last unlikely battle in particular would suggest, Panzer General‘s fidelity to real history is limited at best. You don’t have to look too far to find veteran grognards complaining about all the places where it falls short as a simulation, perhaps most notably in its near-complete disinterest in the vagaries of supply lines. But then again, the realism of even those wargames that strive more earnestly for historical accuracy can be and often is exaggerated; those games strike me more as arbitrary systems tweaked to produce the same results as the historical battles they purport to simulate than true simulations in the abstract.

The most important thing Panzer General has going for it is that, historically accurate or not, it’s fun. The interface is quick and well-nigh effortless, while the scenario-based approach assures that you’re only getting the exciting parts of warfare; your forces are already drawn up facing the enemy as each scenario begins. And the game is indeed very attractive to look at, with the flashier elements employed sparingly enough that they never start to annoy.

Still, its true secret weapon lies in those aforementioned CRPG elements. Even as you play the role of a German general who collects more and more prestige, accompanied by more and more exciting battlefield assignments, the units you command also move from battle to battle with you, improving their own skills as they go. The effect comes close to matching the identification which X-COM so effectively manages to create between you and your individual soldiers; you can even name your units here, just as you can your soldiers in that other game. You develop a real bond with the units — infantry, artillery, tanks, airplanes, in places even ships — who have fought so many battles for you. You begin to husband them, to work hard to rescue them when they get into a jam, and find yourself fairly shattered — and then fairly livid — when an enemy ambush takes one of them out. You can even mold the makeup of your army to suit your play style to some extent, by choosing which types of units to spend your precious prestige points on. This makes your personal investment in their successes and failures all the greater; the emotional stakes are surprisingly high in this game.


Each scenario in Panzer General begins with some vintage newsreel footage, an approach which has ironically aged much better than the cutting-edge green-screened full-motion-video presentations of so many of its contemporaries. Unlike them, Panzer General has remained an aestheically attractive game to this day.

The map where all of the actions take place. The game is entirely controlled by clicking on your units and the strip of icons running down the right side of the screen. You can mouse over a unit or icon to see a textual description of its status and/or function at the bottom or top of the screen — as close as any 1995 game got to the tool tips of today. SSI’s overarching priority was to make accessible a genre previously known for its inscrutability.

Clashes between units take place right on the main map, accompanied by little animations which spice up the proceedings without overstaying their welcome.

A unit-information screen, showing not only its raw statistics but a running tally of its battle record. You can name your units and watch them collect experience and battle citations as the war goes on.

You can tailor the makeup of your army by spending prestige points to purchase units that suit your style of play.



While his staff beavered away on Panzer General, Joel Billings continued to cast about for a buyer for his company before it was too late. It wasn’t easy; with the loss of the Dungeons & Dragons license he had lost his most enticing single asset. All of SSI’s core competencies were profoundly out of fashion; CRPGs in general were in the doldrums, and wargames were niche products in an industry that had little shelf space left for anything beyond the broadly popular. Nevertheless, he managed in the end to make a deal.

The backstory leading up to that deal has much to tell us about the waves of mergers and acquisitions that had been sweeping the industry for years by this point. It begins with The Software Toolworks, a company founded by an enterprising kit-computer hacker named Walt Bilofsky all the way back in 1980. He quietly built it into a major player in educational and consumer software over the course of the next decade, by jumping early into the distribution and media-duplication sides of the industry and through two blockbuster products of the sort which don’t attract the hardcore gamer demographic and thus seldom feature in histories like this one, but which had immense Main Street appeal in their day: The Chessmaster 2000 and Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. The combined sales of these two alone exceeded 750,000 units by 1989, the year The Software Toolworks acquired Mindscape.

The latter company was formed in 1983 by one Roger Buoy, and went on to make a name in educational software as well as with innovative games of a slightly intellectual bent: the civilian-spaceflight simulation The Halley Project; a line of bookware text adventures; the early point-and-click graphic adventures developed by ICOM Simulations; Balance of Power, Chris Crawford’s seminal anti-wargame of contemporary geopolitics. Then, too, Mindscape imported and/or distributed many additional games, including those of Cinemaware. But as the decade wound down their bottom line sank increasingly into the red, and in December of 1989 Buoy sold out to The Software Toolworks for $21.5 million.

In the years that followed that acquisition, The Software Toolworks moved into the Nintendo market, releasing many games there under the Mindscape imprint; console titles would make up 42 percent of their overall revenue by 1994. At the same time, they continued to enjoy great success on computers, with the Mavis Beacon series in particular. That entirely fictional typing teacher — a black woman at that, a brave and noble choice to have made in the mid-1980s — became an odd sort of virtual celebrity, with other companies going so far as to ask for her endorsement of their own products, with journalists who joined much of the general public in assuming she was a real person repeatedly asking for interviews. In 1994, The Software Toolworks’s annual sales hit $150 million. On May 12 of that year, the Pearson Group of Britain bought the fast-growing company.

Pearson was a giant of print publishing, both in their homeland and internationally. Formed in 1843 as a construction company, they began buying up magazines and newspapers in the 1920s, building themselves a veritable print empire by the 1970s, with such household names as Penguin Books in their stable. Their sudden plunge into computer software in 1994 was endemic of what we might call the second wave of bookware, when it was widely anticipated that interactive multimedia “books” published on CD-ROM would come to supplement if not entirely supplant the traditional paper-based variety. Bookware’s second wave would last little longer than its first — it would become clear well before the decade’s end that the Internet rather than physical CD-ROMs was destined to become the next century’s preferred method of information exchange — but while it lasted it brought a lot of big companies like the Pearson Group into software, splashing lots of money around in the process; Pearson paid no less than $462 million for The Software Toolworks. Being unenamored with the name of the entity they had just purchased, Pearson changed it — to Mindscape, an imprint that had heretofore represented only a quarter or so of The Software Toolworks’s overall business.

But the wheeling and dealing wasn’t over yet. Within weeks of being themselves acquired, the new Mindscape entered into serious talks with Joel Billings about the prospect of buying SSI. The latter was manifestly dealing from a position of weakness. The Dungeons & Dragons license was gone, as was the reputation SSI had enjoyed during the 1980s as the industry’s premiere maker of strategy games; that crown had been ceded to MicroProse. The only really viable franchise that remained to them was the Tony La Russa Baseball series. Nevertheless, Mindscape believed they saw talent both in SSI’s management and in their technical and creative staff. Said talent was worth taking a chance on, it was decided, given that the price was so laughably cheap. On October 7, 1994, an independent SSI ceased to exist, when Mindscape bought the company for slightly under $2.6 million. Billings was promised that it would be business as usual for most of them in their Sunnyvale, California, office, apart from the quarter of existing staff, mostly working on the sales and packaging side, who were made redundant by the acquisition and would have to be let go.

Once that pain was finished, a rather spectacular honeymoon period began. Mindscape was able to give SSI distribution they could only have dreamed of in the past, getting their games onto the shelves of such mainstream retailers as Office Depot and K-Mart. And in return, SSI delivered Panzer General. Released just a month after the acquisition was finalized, it garnered a gushing five-out-of-five-stars review from Computer Gaming World, who called it “not just a wargame but an adventure” in reference to its uniquely embodied campaign. Add to that its attractive multimedia presentation and its fun and accessible gameplay, then sprinkle over the whole the eternal American nostalgia for all things World War II, and you had a recipe for one of the breakout hits of that Christmas season — the first example of same which SSI had had since Eye of the Beholder back in 1991. Helped along no doubt by Mindscape’s distributional clout, it went on to sell more than 200,000 copies in its first fifteen months. Eventually it surpassed even the sales figures of Pool of Radiance to become SSI’s most popular single game ever. In fact, Panzer General still stands today as the most successful computerized wargame in history.

The game’s success was positively thrilling for Joel Billings, now ensconced as a “regular, full-time employee” of Mindscape, complete with a 401(k) plan and eligibility for the Executive Bonus Plan. His real passion had always been wargames; those were, after all, the games he had originally founded his company in order to make. To have come full circle here at the end of SSI’s independent existence, and to have done so in such smashing fashion at that, felt like a belated vindication. There was only one slight regret to mar the picture. “I wonder what would have happened if Panzer General had come out before the Mindscape acquisition…” he can’t help but muse today.

Taken as a whole, Panzer General deserved every bit of its success: it was and is a fine game. For some of us then and now, there is only one fly in the ointment: we have no desire to play a Nazi. I’ll return to a range of issues which Panzer General raises about the relationship of games to the real world and to our historical memory in my next article. For today, however, I have another story to finish telling.



To say that Mindscape was initially pleased with their new acquisition hardly begins to state the case. “We rocketed!” thanks to Panzer General, remembers Billings: “Mindscape loved us!” And why not? As an in-house-developed original product with no outside royalties whatsoever to pay on its huge sales, Panzer General alone recouped two and a half times the cost of purchasing SSI in its first year on the market. A set of three shovelware collections which between them included all of the old Gold Box Dungeons & Dragons CRPGS also did surprisingly well, selling more than 100,000 profit-rich copies in all before the final expiration of even SSI’s non-exclusive deal with TSR forced them off the market on July 1, 1995.

In the longer run, however, the mass-market ambitions of Mindscape proved a poor fit with the nichey tradition of SSI. To save production costs and capitalize on the success of Panzer General, SSI used its engine as the basis of a 5-Star General series, first presenting World War II from the perspective of an Allied general in Europe, then moving farther afield to a high-fantasy setting, to outer space, to World War II in the Pacific. Although those games certainly had their fans — Fantasy General in particular is fondly remembered today — the overall trend line was dismayingly similar to that of the Gold Box games: a rather brilliant initial game followed by a series of increasingly rote sequels running inside an increasingly decrepit-seeming engine, resulting in steadily decreasing sales figures. By the time the engine was updated for Panzer General IIPeople’s General, Panzer General III, and, Lord help us, Panzer General 3D Assault, a distinct note of desperation was peeking through. SSI’s other attempts to embrace the mass-market, such as a series of real-time strategy games based on the tabletop-miniatures game Warhammer, felt equally sterile, as if their hearts just weren’t in it.

Certainly Joel Billings personally found the mainstream market to be less than congenial. In February of 1996, he was promoted to become the head of Mindscape’s entire games division, but found himself completely out of his depth there. Within six months, he asked for and was granted a demotion, back to being merely the head of SSI.

But even SSI was no longer the place it once had been; it seemed to lose a little more of its identity with each passing year, as the acquisitions and consolidations continued around it. Mindscape was bought by The Learning Company in 1998, after Pearson’s realization that software — at least software shipped on physical media — was not destined to be the future of publishing writ large. Then Mattel bought The Learning Company in 1999. They closed SSI’s Sunnyvale offices the following year, keeping the name as a brand only. That same year, they sold The Learning Company once again, to the Gores Technology Group, who then turned around and sold all of the gaming divisions to the French publisher Ubisoft in 2001. SSI was now a creaky anachronism in Ubisoft’s trendy lineup. The last game to ship with the SSI name on its box was Destroyer Command, in February of 2002 — almost exactly 22 years after a young Joel Billings had first started calling computer stores to offer them something called Computer Bismark.

Billings himself was long gone by 2002, cast adrift with the final closing of SSI’s Sunnyvale offices. Thoroughly fed up with the mainstream-gaming rat race, he returned to the only thing he had ever truly wanted to do, making and selling his beloved wargames. For almost two decades now he’s run 2 By 3 Games with Gary Grigsby and Keith Brors, two designers and programmers from the salad days of SSI. They make absurdly massive, gleefully complex, defiantly inaccessible World War II wargames, implemented at a level of depth and breadth of which SSI could only have dreamed. And, thanks to the indie revolution in games and the wonders of digital distribution, they manage to sell enough of them to keep at it. Good for them, I say.

Melancholy though SSI’s ultimate fate proved to be, they did outlive their erstwhile partners TSR. After flooding their limited and slowly shrinking market of active Dungeons & Dragons players with way too many campaign settings and rules supplements during the first half of the 1990s, TSR saw the chickens come home to roost right about the time they parted ways with SSI, when sales of the paperback novels that had done much to sustain them to this point also began to collapse. For all that they had never been anyone’s idea of literary masterpieces, the early Dungeons & Dragons novels had been competently plotted, fast-paced reads that more than satisfied their target demographic’s limited expectations of them. For years, though, editorial standards there as well had been slowly falling, and it seemed that readers were finally noticing. After the Christmas season of 1996, Random House, who distributed all of TSR’s products to the bookstore trade, informed them that they would be returning millions of dollars worth of unsold books and games. TSR lacked the cash to pay Random House, as they did to print more product. And, laboring under a serious debt load already, they found there was no one willing to lend them any more money. They were caught in a classic corporate death spiral.

The savior that emerged was welcome in its way — any port in a storm, right? — but also deeply humiliating. Wizards of the Coast, the maker of the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering which had done so much to decimate TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons business in recent years, now bought their victim from Lorraine Williams for about $30 million, with much or most of that sum going to repay of the debts TSR had accrued.

Still, TSR’s final humiliation proved a welcome development on the whole for their most famous game; in the eyes of most gamers, Wizards became a better steward of Dungeons & Dragons than TSR had been for a long time if ever. They cut back on the fire hose of oft-redundant product, whilst streamlining the rules for new editions of the game that were more intuitively playable than the old. Ironically, many of the new approaches were ported back to the tabletop from digital iterations of Dungeons & Dragons, which themselves found a new lease on life with Interplay’s massive hit Baldur’s Gate in 1998. Meanwhile the “open gaming” D20 license, which Wizards of the Coast launched with great fanfare along with the official third edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 2000, drew from the ideals of open-source software. While tabletop Dungeons & Dragons would have its ups and downs under Wizards of the Coast, it would never again descend to the depths it had plumbed in 1997. A world without Dungeons & Dragons now seems all but unimaginable; in 1997, it was all too real a prospect.

All of which is to say that Dungeons & Dragons will continue to be a regular touchstone here as we continue our voyage through gaming history. Whether the computerized versions of the game that came after the end of an independent TSR and SSI are up to the standards of the Gold Box line is of course a matter of opinion. But one thing cannot be debated: the story of Dungeons & Dragons and computers is far from over.

(Sources: As with all of my SSI articles, much of this one is drawn from the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Other sources include the book Designers and Dragons, ’70 to ’79 by Shannon Appelcline; Computer Gaming World of June 1994, September 1994, December 1994, and January 1995; PC Review of June 1992; Retro Gamer 94 and 198; Chicago Tribune of December 2 1985 and December 6 1989; New York Times of June 13 1994. Online sources include Matt Barton’s interview with Joel Billings, the Video Game Newsroom Time Machine interview with Joel Billings, and the Mental Floss “profile” of the fictional Mavis Beacon.

Oddly given its popularity back in the day and its ongoing influence on computer wargaming, the original Panzer General has not been re-released for digital distribution; this is made doubly odd by the fact that some of the less successful later games in the 5-Star General series have been re-released. It’s too large for me to host here even if I wasn’t nervous about the legal implications of doing so, but I have prepared a stub of the game that’s ready to go if you just add to the appropriate version of DOSBox for your platform of choice and an ISO image of the CD-ROM. A final hint: as of this writing, you can find the latter on archive.org if you look hard enough.)

 
 

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Opening the Gold Box, Part 6: A Troubled Marriage

This pie chart prepared by the investment firm Piper Jaffray Research provides a snapshot of the American computer-game industry as of 1993. Sierra leads the pack with a market share of 11.8 percent, trailed closely by Spectrum Holobyte, who have just increased their profile dramatically by acquiring MicroProse Software. Electronic Arts comes in at only third place here, even following their recent acquisition of Origin Systems, but this chart reflects only their computer-game sales; their total sales including computers and consoles are vastly higher than those of Sierra by this point. SSI manages to come in at a respectable fifth place, thanks not least to the two aforementioned acquisitions of comparably sized competitors, but their trend lines are all moving in the wrong direction; their last new release to cross the magical threshold of 100,000 copies sold was Eye of the Beholder from February of 1991, while their biggest game of 1993 will sell just over 70,000 copies.

Two individually unhappy spouses aren’t the recipe for a happy marriage. By 1992, the computer-game publisher SSI and the tabletop-game publisher TSR, whose announcement of a partnership had so shocked both of their industries back in 1987, were learning this reality the hard way. Dungeons & Dragons, both on the computer and on the tabletop, was in trouble, and the marketing synergy which the two companies had so successfully created just a few years before had now turned into a deadly embrace that threatened to pull them both under.

In many ways, SSI’s problems were typical of any small publisher in their changing industry. Players’ audiovisual expectations of the games they purchased were growing rapidly, and it just wasn’t clear where the money to meet them was to come from. SSI had ridden their Gold Box engine for Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs way too hard, churning out nine games using it — eleven if you count two reskinned science-fictional Buck Rogers games — in a span of less than four years. The engine had received some modest improvements over the course of that time, in the form of rudimentary mouse support and VGA- rather than EGA-standard graphics, but at bottom it still played like what it was: an artifact from an entirely different epoch of gaming, designed around the affordances of the 8-bit Commodore 64 rather than the latest 32-bit Intel wonders. It was so outdated as to seem almost laughable beside a boundary-pushing wunderkind like Origin Systems’s Ultima VII.

Just as distressingly, SSI hardly seemed to be trying anymore even when it came to their Gold Box designs. No later Gold Box game had possessed anything like the creative flair of Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, the first two games of the line and by far the best.

And so, as the technology had aged and design standards had fallen, gamers had reacted appropriately: sales had dropped almost linearly from title to title. Pool of Radiance had sold 264,536 copies upon its release in August of 1988; Dark Queen of Krynn, the anticlimactic end of the Gold Box line, sold 40,640 copies after its release in May of 1992. SSI was still profitable that year, but only by a whisker: during the fiscal year which ended on September 30, 1992, profits amounted to just $168,000 on sales of a little under $13 million, the latter of which fell short of expectations by $1 million. What would the next year bring?

TSR was a larger and more diversified company, but they were facing the same essential problem: sales of their own Dungeons & Dragons line for the tabletop had been going in the wrong direction as well for the past couple of years, and it wasn’t immediately clear how to reverse that trend. A flood of new rules supplements and settings — by 1993, TSR would offer an extraordinary eight separate boxed “worlds” in which to play the game, ranging from traditional high fantasy to the Arabian Nights to the depths of outer space — certainly wasn’t doing the trick. In fact, by making Dungeons & Dragons ever more impenetrable to newcomers, the torrent of product was arguably hurting TSR more than it was helping them.

Thanks to these trends, Dungeons & Dragons was in danger of seeing its position as the commercial ne plus ultra of tabletop RPGs usurped for the first and only time in the history of the hobby. The biggest threat to its status came from a new RPG called Vampire: The Masquerade, whose rules-lite, storytelling-oriented approach was the antithesis of the baggy monstrosity which Dungeons & Dragons had become. By catching a wave of “goth” inspiration that was sweeping pop culture more generally, Vampire had even accrued a degree of street cred the likes of which TSR’s nerdier, more pedantic offerings couldn’t have hoped to match even in their early 1980s heyday. TSR’s entire Dungeons & Dragons gaming line was in danger of becoming the world’s most elaborate loss leader, fueling sales of the one part of their empire that was still consistently earning money: their vast and ever-growing lineup of fantasy novels based on their gaming properties.

Human nature being what it is, it was perhaps inevitable that SSI and TSR, these two partners with good reason to be profoundly worried about their futures, would each come to blame the other for at least some of their difficulties. SSI noted pointedly that the Gold Box line was supposed to have been a creative as well as financial partnership between the two companies, with TSR’s staff contributing much of the content for the computer games and TSR themselves publishing tie-in products for the tabletop. All of those synergies, however, had dried up after Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds. (The status of these two very first games as the very best of their line begins to seem like less of a puzzle in light of TSR’s active involvement with them.) SSI had been left to their own devices from 1990 on, albeit still subject to the frequently exercised veto power which TSR enjoyed over their ideas.

Meanwhile, even as SSI complained about their creative abandonment, it was hardly lost on TSR that the Gold Box engine had fallen badly behind the state of the art. As they judged it, its antiquity had become extreme enough to actively hurt their brand, not only on the computer but on the tabletop as well; when struggling against their tabletop game’s popular image as a kitschy relic of the 1980s, TSR’s marketers weren’t excited to be confronted with computers games that themselves looked like products of the previous decade. TSR was also unhappy with SSI’s failure to port the Gold Box games from computers to consoles; out of all of them, only Pool of Radiance had been ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System, by a Japanese developer rather than SSI themselves. SSI tried to point out that this port, which played badly and sold worse, only served to illustrate all the ways in which this style of game just wasn’t suitable for consoles, but TSR was having none of it. In their view, the porting issue was a problem for SSI to solve rather than to explain away.

Behind all the bickering loomed a daunting reality: SSI’s exclusive license to Dungeons & Dragons was due to expire on January 1, 1993. One of the partners had far more cause for concern about this fact than the other. For those in the boardroom at TSR, the question of the contract’s renewal was just another business debate to be hashed out, but for SSI it was quite possibly of existential importance. After signing his first contract with TSR, Joel Billings, SSI’s founder and president, had rejiggered the public and private face of his company, from that of a maker of hardcore wargames inspired by the tabletop grognard tradition of Avalon Hill and SPI into the Computerized Home of Dungeons & Dragons. While SSI still published some wargames in the early 1990s, they generally sold even worse than the final stragglers from the Gold Box line, and were made strictly by outside developers; almost the entirety of SSI’s internal development efforts had been devoted to Dungeons & Dragons for the past five years. SSI’s identity had become so bound up with TSR’s flagship property that it wasn’t clear what they could or should be without the Dungeons & Dragons license.

The uncertainty surrounding the future of the contract left SSI paralyzed. It was obvious that they needed a better, more modern engine if they were to continue to make Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs, but it would be foolhardy to embark on that expensive project before they were sure of retaining the license that would let them use it for its intended purpose.

Thus Billings must have breathed a sigh of relief in early 1992, when TSR, despite all their recent misgivings about SSI’s handling of the license, agreed to an eighteen-month contract extension. It would take the license out to July 1, 1994, giving SSI enough time to make a new engine and at least one new game with it. Still, the short length of extension served notice that they were on probation; if the marriage was to continue, SSI would have to deliver a hit of Pool of Radiance proportions.

Billings put his people to work on an engine that would build upon the best ideas of SSI’s competitors, not least Origin’s much-admired Ultima VII engine. Like that one, this one would be designed with a mouse in mind from the start; would offer free-scrolling real-time movement over a large world; would go almost entirely mode-less in terms of interface, integrating combat into the same view where conversation and exploration took place. Gone would be the fussy paragraph books, graph-paper maps, and code wheels of the Gold Box games, which could make the experience of playing them feel almost like a hybrid between a computer and tabletop game. SSI had a very different experience in mind this time out. They planned make the engine effortless enough for the player that it could be ported to the Super Nintendo for play on living-room couches. And if that version did well, other console ports would follow.

TSR, eager to give a boost to one of their sales-challenged alternate settings, convinced SSI to set the first game made with the new engine in the land of Dark Sun, a desert world with a vaguely post-apocalyptic feel. Billings, aware that he was on shaky ground with TSR, also initiated development of an original science-fiction game that was to use the engine as well, just in case the Dungeons & Dragons license went away.

Creating such a complex engine alongside the first two games to use it was a truly enormous task — by far the biggest thing SSI had ever attempted, dwarfing even the initial software engineering that had gone into the Gold Box engine. Development dragged on and on after the Gold Box line had petered out with Dark Queen of Krynn. SSI attempted to plug the Gold Box-sized gap in their product line with such second-string releases as Prophecy of the Shadow, an internally developed, non-licensed CRPG-lite (25,875 copies sold); Pirates of Realmspace, a buggy computerized take on TSR’s Spelljammer setting from an outside developer known as Cybertech (23,280 copies sold); The Summoning, a simple action-RPG from Event Horizon Software (25,273 copies sold); Veil of Darkness, a game of a similar stripe to the previous from the same developer (9866 copies sold); Legends of Valor, a poor man’s Ultima Underworld from Synthetic Dimensions (12,588 copies sold); and Unlimited Adventures, a final hurrah for the Gold Box in the form of a public release of many of SSI’s internal development tools, thereby to let the diehards make more games of their own of the old type (32,362 copies sold).

As the sales figures above attest, none of these games set the world on fire. Indeed, their sales managed to make even the latter days of the Gold Box line look pretty good by comparison. In all, SSI released just three games between the summers of 1992 and 1993 that managed to top 40,000 units: Great Naval Battles in September (43,774 copies sold), Tony La Russa Baseball II in March (70,902 copies sold), and Eye of the Beholder III in May (50,664 copies sold). Of this trio, only the last was a Dungeons & Dragons title, and only the last was developed internally. Needless to say, the bottom line suffered. During the fiscal year which ended on September 30, 1993, revenues fell to $10.5 million, and the company lost $500,000 — the first annual loss SSI had posted in more than a decade.

Joel Billings wrote in that year’s annual report that it had been “the most difficult year in SSI’s 14-year history.” He spoke his personal truth not least. Throughout this period, over the course of which development of the Dark Sun game and its engine kept dragging on far longer than expected, Billings was scrambling madly to stem the bleeding. He put an organization that had always had the atmosphere of a family company through the trauma of its first-ever layoff, slashing the employee rolls from 115 to 75 employees; the memory of doing so still haunts Billings, a gentle soul at heart, to this day. Having been forced to cut the staff needed to create the science-fiction game earmarked for the new engine, he cut that as well, putting all his eggs into the single basket that was the Dark Sun game. Even the Super Nintendo version of that game, which his programmers had been struggling mightily to realize, would have to be set aside as well, at least for now. Much to TSR’s chagrin, this latest Dungeons & Dragons game too would have to live or die on computers.

Yet all of Billings’s scrambling constituted no more than financial triage. The existential obstacle which SSI faced was that of being a small, boutique publisher in an industry whose economies of scale were making it harder and harder for such an entity to survive. It was getting ever harder to win shelf space at retail, harder to pay for advertising in the glossy magazines — and, most of all, harder to foot the ever-increasing bill of developing modern games that met all of the expectations of the 1990s. Billings reluctantly concluded that he had but one choice: he had to sell out, had to find a buyer for the family business he had spent almost a decade and a half building from the ground up.

Accordingly, he spent much of his time in 1993 beating the bushes for just such a buyer. Yet here he was stymied once again by the realities of the marketplace. SSI was far from the only small publisher looking for a port in the storm, and many of the others had — or at least were judged to have — more attractive portfolios of extant and forthcoming games. Thus Billings faced a dispiriting, borderline-humiliating series of near misses, of seeing SSI cast aside in favor of alternative acquisitions in the fast-consolidating industry.

At the beginning of June, he thought he had made a deal with Spectrum HoloByte, an oddly bifurcated publisher that was almost entirely dependent on two wildly divergent games: the ultra-hardcore flight simulator Falcon, whose manual was roughly the size of a Tom Clancy novel, and the casual phenomenon Tetris, a game so brilliantly simple that it took only about 30 seconds of experimentation at the keyboard to spawn a lifetime’s addiction. Both of these games, radically different though they were in personality, were equally successful with their own demographics. Just as importantly, Spectrum HoloByte was absurdly well-connected with the movers and shakers of international finance, and was awash in venture capital as a result.

Due diligence between SSI and Spectrum HoloByte was completed, and a plan was made to meet again and sign a letter of intent as soon as that year’s Summer Consumer Electronics Show was behind both of them. At that show, however, Spectrum HoloByte met with Microprose, whose financial circumstances were even more desperate than those of SSI but who had a much more impressive array of upcoming titles to show to potential suitors. To make a long story short, Spectrum HoloByte bought MicroProse instead, leaving SSI stranded at the altar.

A few months later, the same scenario repeated itself. This time the would-be acquirer was Electronic Arts, a company with which SSI already had a longstanding relationship: Trip Hawkins had been a member of SSI’s board since before he founded EA, SSI had been piggybacking on EA’s distribution network as an “affiliated label” since 1987, and EA in fact already owned 20 percent of SSI thanks to an investment made in 1987, when the smaller company was first scaling up to take on Dungeons & Dragons. For all these reasons, the deal at first seemed a natural one. But Hawkins, the biggest proponent of the acquisition on EA’s side, was busy with a new semi-subsidiary known as 3DO and no longer had the day-to-day involvement necessary with the parent company to push it through. After kicking the tires a bit, the rest of EA’s management decided that SSI just wasn’t worth the asking price — especially given that EA already owned Origin Systems, one of SSI’s biggest rivals in CRPGs. Contrary to Joel Billings’s best intentions, SSI would thus be forced to exit 1993 as they had entered it: still an independent company, facing a future that looked more perilous than ever.

SSI’s struggle to find a buyer was a sign not only of their own weakness but of the diminished commercial profile of Dungeons & Dragons. Five years earlier, three quarters of the industry would have rushed to scoop up SSI, if only to acquire the enviable licensing deal they had recently signed. Now, though, the tabletop game was at a low ebb of its own, even as it seemed hopelessly antithetical to all of the winds of change in digital gaming. Where did this nerdy game played in parents’ basements, all tables and charts and numbers, fit in an industry rushing to make slick, kinetic interactive movies featuring real Hollywood actors? Dungeons & Dragons just wasn’t cool. It had never really been cool, of course, but that hadn’t been a problem when the computer-game industry as well was thoroughly uncool. But now, as computer-game moguls were busily penning paeans to themselves as the next wave in mainstream entertainment, its uncoolness was extremely problematic.

Amidst all of this — in September of 1993, to be specific — Dark Sun: Shattered Lands finally got completed and released. It was the most important game SSI had published since Pool of Radiance; the future of the TSR partnership, and thus their own future as a company, rode on its success or lack thereof.

When viewed separately from all of these external pressures, as just a game to be played and hopefully enjoyed, it revealed itself to be a nobly earnest attempt to improve on SSI’s most recent efforts in the realm of CRPGs, even if it wasn’t an entirely unblemished one. On the technological side, SSI’s next-generation engine largely delivered where it needed to: it was indeed vastly slicker, prettier, easier, and more modern than the Gold Box engine, feeling like a true product of the 1990s rather than a holdover from the last decade. It was an engine that could even stand next to the likes of an Ultima VII without undue embarrassment. Indeed, SSI seemed to have learned from their rival’s mistakes and done Origin one better in some places. For example, in place of the real-time, well-nigh uncontrollable frenzy that was combat in Ultima VII, SSI’s engine lapsed seamlessly into a turn-based mode as soon as a fight began; this allowed combat in Shattered Lands to retain most of the tactical complexity and interest that had marked its implementation in the Gold Box games, with the additional advantages of increased audiovisual interest and a less cryptic interface.

At the same time that they endeavored to keep combat interesting, however, SSI’s design team had clearly made a concerted effort to move beyond the exercises in incessant combat and very little else which the Gold Box games had become by the end. Shattered Lands offered much better-developed characters to talk to, along with heaps of real choices to make and alternative pathways to discover. The new approach was enough to impress even so committed an SSI skeptic as Scorpia, Computer Gaming World magazine’s longtime adventure columnist, who had been roundly criticizing the Gold Box games in print for their “incessant, fight-after-fight” nature for half a decade by this point. Now, she could write that “SSI is taking their role-playing line in a new direction, which is good to see”: “the solution to every problem is not kill, kill, kill.” Shay Addams, another prominent adventure pundit, had a similar take: “It’s no secret that I never liked the Gold Box games. Dark Sun, however, kept me coming back to the dungeon for more: more combat, more exploring, more story.”

Still, the game had its fair share of niggles — more than enough of them, in fact, to prevent its achieving a classic status to rival Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds. While SSI was to be commended for attempting to give the setting and plot more nuance and texture, that just wasn’t the sort of thing they did best, and they were still receiving little to no help from TSR on that front. The writing and plotting were derivative in several different directions at once, hackneyed even by the usual standards of the genre. Mind you, the writing wasn’t actually worse than most of that which had accompanied the Gold Box games — but here, moved as it was from a paragraph book onto the screen and expected as it was to do a lot more heavy lifting, its weaknesses were magnified.

Shattered Lands was also damaged as a computer game by its need to conform to TSR’s tabletop rules. The boxed set which presented the Dark Sun setting for the tabletop included a whole range of new rules complications and variations to distinguish it from the already convoluted Dungeon & Dragons base game, and most of these SSI was expected to implement faithfully as part of their licensing agreement. And so Shattered Lands came complete with a bunch of races and classes unfamiliar even to most Gold Box and tabletop Dungeons & Dragons veterans, along with a veritable baseline expectation that every character would be double- or triple-classed. Clerics suddenly had to choose an “element” to worship, which limited their selection of spells — and now everyone had access to a whole parallel sphere of magic known as psionics, and had to choose a specialty there as well. No game designer starting a CRPG from scratch would ever have inserted so much cruft of such marginal utility to the ultimate goal of fun; it was the sort of thing that could only arise from a company like TSR throwing rule after rule at the wall over the course of years in order to sell more supplements. Certainly none of it made much sense in a game explicitly envisioned as a new beginning for Dungeons & Dragons on computers, a place for fresh players to jump aboard. Nor, for that matter, did the choice of the oddball world of Dark Sun as a setting; for all that critics like me have long railed against the tendency, gamers for time immemorial have been demonstrating their preference for CRPGs set in generic high-fantasy worlds — such as that of TSR’s own Forgotten Realms, home of the most commercially successful of the Gold Box games — over more unique settings like this one.

But whatever its intrinsic strengths and weaknesses, Shattered Lands suffered most of all from one undeniable external failing: it was deeply, thoroughly unfashionable in the context of 1993. At a time when the whole industry was moving toward multimedia “talkies,” its many conversations and descriptions were still implemented via screenful after screenful of boring old text. And in addition to the old-fashioned implementation, there also remained the fact that the Dungeons & Dragons name just wasn’t the force it once had been. A measure of the industry’s attitude toward the game and its commercial prospects can be gleaned from its placement in the magazines. Even as they were giving it reasonably positive reviews, Computer Gaming World buried it on page 124 of 276, Shay Addams’s Questbusters newsletter on page 8 of 16. (The lead review of that issue, evidently judged to be more immediately interesting to the newsletter’s readers than a review of Shattered Lands, was of Legend Entertainment’s Gateway 2, a fine game in its own right but one which still had a parser, for God’s sake.)

So, you’ve probably guessed where this is going: Dark Sun: Shattered Lands proved a devastating disappointment to TSR and especially to SSI. After costing more than $1 million and eighteen months to make, with the additional opportunity cost of preventing SSI’s internal developers from doing much of anything else over the course of that period, it sold just 45,917 copies. To put this figure into perspective, consider that it’s barely 5000 more copies than the last tired release of the old Gold Box line, or that it’s about one-sixth of the sales of Pool of Radiance — this in spite of an expanded marketplace in which the number of copies which a hit game could hope to sell was actually far greater than it had been five years before.

When SSI and TSR met again early in 1994, after it had become all too clear that Shattered Lands wasn’t to be the next Pool of Radiance, TSR stated matter-of-factly that they no longer wished to remain in the marriage. Some tense negotiation followed, during which TSR did make some concessions to a frantic SSI, who were facing down the apocalyptic prospect of a license due to expire in less than six months while they still had a lot more Dungeons & Dragons product from third-party developers in the pipeline. TSR agreed to extend the exclusive license for six more months, to January 1, 1995, and to allow SSI to continue to release new games under a non-exclusive license until July 1, 1995. After that, though, the marriage was through. TSR emphasized that there would be no further settlement agreements.

Thus SSI’s final string of Dungeons & Dragons releases, of which there would still be a considerable number, would have something of the feel of a lame-duck session of government. DreamForge Intertainment provided two real-time CRPGs set in TSR’s Gothic world of Ravenloft and a third set in the Forgotten Realms; Cyberlore Studios provided a similar game set in the Arabian Nights World of Al-Qadim; Lion Entertainment provided a Doom-influenced hack-and-slasher set nowhere in particular. An overoptimistic SSI had launched into Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager, a sequel to Shattered Lands, before the commercial verdict on the first game and TSR’s final judgment on the whole partnership that had led to it had come in. They finished that game up too, after a fashion anyway, and released it, still full of bugs, unimplemented features, and placeholder writing. It became their final in-house-developed Dungeons & Dragons title. It made for a slightly pathetic way to bow out, but at this point they just couldn’t be bothered to do better; they were now a long way indeed from those enthusiastic early days of Pool of Radiance. None of these games sold more than a few tens of thousands of copies. But then, no one, least of all SSI, had much expected them to.

The news that TSR and SSI were parting ways reached the magazines almost immediately. The two newly minted divorcees couldn’t resist a bit of veiled sniping in the press. SSI, for instance, told Computer Gaming World that they were “unhappy with the rules and restrictions imposed with the license that limited their creativity,” and said they could be perfectly happy and very successful making original CRPGs instead. TSR, for their part, said they’d learned a lesson about binding themselves too inextricably to others, and thus wouldn’t be entering into any more exclusive arrangements at all. Instead they’d play the field, signing deals with publishers on a title-by-title basis, and might just learn how to make computer games of their own.

Yet behind all these brave words lurked a difficult reality for both companies; it was by no means clear that either or both of them would really be better off apart than they’d been together. As if it hadn’t had problems enough already, tabletop Dungeons & Dragons was now getting pummeled by a new arrival with huge appeal to the same demographic: Magic: The Gathering, a fast-playing, accessible “collectible card game” of fantasy combat psychologically engineered to sell an endless amount of content to gamers looking for that one perfect card which could give them an edge over their chums. Magic decks were soon eating up much of the shelf space in hobby stores that had once gone to Dungeons & Dragons, and pushing it out of their display windows entirely. TSR’s only solution was the same as it had always been: to churn out yet more source books. And so the spiral of diminishing returns continued.

The contrast between TSR and Wizards of the Coast, the upstart makers of Magic, was a telling one. The latter engaged with their customers directly at every opportunity, skillfully goosing the grass-roots excitement around their products to yet further extremes. But TSR, still led by the widely disliked non-gamer Lorraine Williams, seemed out of touch, utterly disinterested in their fans and their opinions. Ryan Dancey, who has done a lot of research into TSR’s history, sums up the company’s attitude in damning fashion:

In all my research into TSR’s business, across all the ledgers, notebooks, computer files, and other sources of data, there was one thing I never found — one gaping hole in the mass of data we had available. No customer profiling information. No feedback. No surveys. No “voice of the customer.” TSR, it seems, knew nothing about the people who kept it alive.

The brainy kids who used to fall into the Dungeons & Dragons rabbit hole around the time they entered junior high were now getting their first Magic decks at that age instead. With the red ink beginning to pile up to a truly alarming extent — even the novels were no longer selling like they used to — TSR looked to be headed for an ugly reckoning.

And yet, if TSR was in dire straits, SSI’s position was if anything even worse. Without Dungeons & Dragons, they had almost literally nothing; the strongest remaining item in their portfolio was the Tony La Russa Baseball franchise developed by Stormfront Studios. But a baseball simulation alone wouldn’t be enough to sustain the company, and the sales picture of their other recent products wasn’t pretty. They were still in desperate need of a savior, but now lacked even the TSR connection to offer to potential buyers. Who in the age of multimedia would want to buy a failing publisher of stats-heavy wargames and traditionalist CRPGs? Joel Billings didn’t know, but he had no choice but to keep looking for someone crazy enough to take the plunge.

(Sources: As with all of my SSI articles, much of this one is drawn from the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Other sources include the book Designers and Dragons by Shannon Appelcline; Computer Gaming World of September 1993, December 1993, April 1994, and December 1994; Questbusters of October 1993. Online sources include Matt Barton’s video interviews with Joel Billings and David Shelley and Laura Bowen.

The two Dark Sun games are available as digital purchases at GOG.com.)

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2019 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Life on the Grid

I’ve long been interested in the process by which new games turn into new gaming genres or sub-genres.

Most game designers know from the beginning that they will be working within the boundaries of an existing genre, whether due to their own predilections or to instructions handed down from above. A minority are brave and free enough to try something formally different from the norm, but few to none even of them, it seems safe to say, deliberately set out to create a new genre. Yet if the game they make turns into a success, it may be taken as the beginning of just that, even as — and this to me is the really fascinating part — design choices which were actually technological compromises with the Platonic ideal in the designer’s mind are taken as essential, positive parts of the final product.

A classic example of this process is a genre that’s near and dear to my heart: the text adventure. Neither of the creators of the original text adventure — they being Will Crowther and Don Woods — strikes me as a particularly literary sort. I suspect that, if they’d had the technology available to them to do it, they’d have happily made their game into a photorealistic 3D-rendered world to be explored using virtual-reality glasses. As it happened, though, all they had was a text-only screen and a keyboard connected to a time-shared DEC PDP-10. So, they made do, describing the environment in text and accepting input in the form of commands entered at the keyboard.

If we look at what happened over the ten to fifteen years following Adventure‘s arrival in 1977, we see a clear divide between practitioners of the form. Companies like Sierra saw the text-only format as exactly the technological compromise Crowther and Woods may also have seen, and ran away from it as quickly as possible. Others, however — most notably Infocom — embraced text, finding in it an expansive possibility space all its own, even running advertisements touting their lack of graphics as a virtue. The heirs to this legacy still maintain a small but vibrant ludic subculture to this day.

But it’s another, almost equally interesting example of this process that’s the real subject of our interest today: the case of the real-time grid-based dungeon crawler. After the release of Sir-Tech’s turn-based dungeon crawl Wizardry in 1981, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the ideal next step would be: a smooth-scrolling first-person 3D environment running in real time. Yet that was a tall order indeed for the hardware of the time — even for the next generation of 16-bit hardware that began to arrive in the mid-1980s, as exemplified by the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga. So, when a tiny developer known as FTL decided the time had come to advance the state of the art over Wizardry, they compromised by going to real time but holding onto a discrete grid of locations inside the dungeon of Dungeon Master.

Gamers of today have come to refer to dungeon crawls on a grid as “blobbers,” which is as good a term as any. (The term arises from the way that these games typically “blob” together a party of four or six characters, moving them in lockstep and giving the player a single first-person — first-people? — view of the world.) The Dungeon Master lineage, then, are “real-time blobbers.”

By whatever name, this intermediate step between Wizardry and the free-scrolling ideal came equipped with its own unique set of gameplay affordances. Retaining the grid allowed you to do things that you simply couldn’t otherwise. For one thing, it allowed a game to combine the exciting immediacy of real time with what remains for some of us one of the foremost pleasures of the earlier, Wizardry style of dungeon crawl: the weirdly satisfying process of making your own maps — of slowly filling in the blank spaces on your graph paper, bringing order and understanding to what used to be the chaotic unknown.

This advertisement for the popular turn-based dungeon crawl Might and Magic makes abundantly clear how essential map-making was to the experience of these games. “Even more cartography than the bestselling fantasy game!” What a sales pitch…

But even if you weren’t among the apparent minority who enjoyed that sort of thing, the grid had its advantages, the most significant of which is implied by the very name of “blobber.” It was easy and natural in these games to control a whole party of characters moving in lockstep from square to square, thus retaining another of the foremost pleasures of turn-based games like Wizardry: that of building up not just a single character but a balanced team of them. In a free-scrolling, free-moving game, with its much more precise sense of embodied positioning, such a conceit would have been impossible to maintain. And much of the emergent interactivity of Dungeon Master‘s environment would also have been impossible without the grid. Many of us still recall the eureka moment when we realized that we could kill monsters by luring them into a gate square and pushing a button to bash them on the heads with the thing as it tried to descend, over and over again. Without the neat order of the grid, where a gate occupying a square fills all of that square as it descends, there could have been no eureka.

So, within a couple of years of Dungeon Master‘s release in 1987, the real-time blobber was establishing itself in a positive way, as its own own sub-genre with its own personality, rather than the unsatisfactory compromise it may first have seemed. Today, I’d like to do a quick survey of this popular if fairly brief-lived style of game. We can’t hope to cover all of the real-time blobbers, but we can hit the most interesting highlights.


Bloodwych running in its unique two-player mode.

Most of the games that followed Dungeon Master rely on one or two gimmicks to separate themselves from their illustrious ancestor, while keeping almost everything else the same. Certainly this rule applied to the first big title of the post-Dungeon Master blobber generation, 1989’s Bloodwych. It copies from FTL’s game not only the real-time approach but also its innovative rune-based magic system, and even the conceit of the player selecting her party from a diverse group of heroes who have been frozen in amber. By way of completing the facsimile, Bloodwych eventually got a much more difficult expansion disk, similar to Dungeon Master‘s famously difficult Chaos Strikes Back.

The unique gimmick here is the possibility for two players to play together on the same machine, either cooperatively or competitively, as they choose. A second innovation of sorts is the fact that, in addition to the usual Amiga and Atari ST versions, Bloodwych was also made for the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, and Sinclair Spectrum, much more limited 8-bit computers which still owned a substantial chunk of the European market in 1989.

Bloodwych was the work of a two-man team, one handling the programming, the other the graphics. The programmer, one Anthony Taglioni, tells an origin story that’s exactly what you’d expect it to be:

Dungeon Master appeared on the ST and what a product it was! Three weeks later we’d played it to death, even taking just a party of short people. My own record is twelve hours with just two characters. I was talking with Mirrorsoft at the time and suggested that I could do a DM conversion for them on the C64. They ummed and arred a lot and Pete [the artist] carried on drawing screens until they finally said, “Yes!” and I said, “No! We’ve got a better design and it’ll be two-player-simultaneous.” They said, “Okay, but we want ST and Amiga as well.”

The two-player mode really is remarkable, especially considering that it works even on the lowly 8-bit systems. The screen is split horizontally, and both parties can roam about the dungeon freely in real time, even fighting one another if the players in control wish it. “An option allowing two players to connect via modem could only have boosted the game’s popularity,” noted Wizardry‘s designer Andrew Greenberg in 1992, in a review of the belated Stateside MS-DOS release. But playing Bloodwych in-person with a friend had to be if anything even more fun.

Unfortunately, the game has little beyond its two-player mode and wider platform availability to recommend it over Dungeon Master. Ironically, many of its problems are down to the need to accommodate the two-player mode. In single-player mode, the display fills barely half of the available screen real estate, meaning that everything is smaller and harder to manipulate than in Dungeon Master. The dungeon design as well, while not being as punishing as some later entries in this field, is nowhere near as clever or creative as that of Dungeon Master, lacking the older game’s gradual, elegant progression in difficulty and complexity. As would soon become all too typical of the sub-genre, Bloodwych offered more levels — some forty of them in all, in contrast to Dungeon Master‘s twelve — in lieu of better ones.

So, played today, Bloodwych doesn’t really have a lot to offer. It was doubtless a more attractive proposition in its own time, when games were expensive and length was taken by many cash-strapped teenage gamers as a virtue unto itself. And of course the multiplayer mode was its wild card; it almost couldn’t help but be fun, at least in the short term. By capitalizing on that unique attribute and the fact that it was the first game out there able to satiate eager fans of Dungeon Master looking for more, Bloodwych did quite well for its publisher.


Captive has the familiar “paper doll” interface of Dungeon Master, but you’re controlling robots here. The five screens along the top will eventually be used for various kinds of telemetry and surveillance as you acquire new capabilities.

The sub-genre’s biggest hit of 1990 — albeit once again only in Europe — evinced more creativity in many respects than Bloodwych, even if its primary claim to fame once again came down to sheer length. Moving the action from a fantasy world into outer space, Captive is a mashup of Dungeon Master and Infocom’s Suspended, if you can imagine such a thing. As a prisoner accused of a crime he didn’t commit, you must free yourself from your cell using four robots which you control remotely. Unsurprisingly, the high-tech complexes they’ll need to explore bear many similarities to a fantasy dungeon.

The programmer, artist, and designer behind Captive was a lone-wolf Briton named Tony Crowther, who had cranked out almost thirty simple games for 8-bit computers before starting on this one, his first for the Amiga and Atari ST. Crowther created the entire game all by himself in about fourteen months, an impressive achievement by any standard.

More so even than for its setting and premise, Captive stands out for its reliance on procedurally-generated “dungeons.” In other words, it doesn’t even try to compete with Dungeon Master‘s masterful level design, but rather goes a different way completely. Each level is generated by the computer on the fly from a single seed number in about three seconds, meaning there’s no need to store any of the levels on disk. After completing the game the first time, the player is given the option of doing it all over again with a new and presumably more difficult set of complexes to explore. This can continue virtually indefinitely; the level generator can produce 65,535 unique levels in all. That should be enough, announced a proud Crowther, to keep someone playing his game for fifty years by his reckoning: “I wanted to create a role-playing game you wouldn’t get bored of — a game that never ends, so you can feasibly play it for years and years.”

Procedural generation tended to be particularly appealing to European developers like Tony Crowther, who worked in smaller groups with tighter budgets than their American counterparts, and whose target platforms generally lacked the hard drives that had become commonplace on American MS-DOS machines by 1990. Yet it’s never been a technique which I find very appealing as anything but a preliminary template generator for a human designer. In Captive as in most games that rely entirely on procedural generation, the process yields an endless progression of soulless levels which all too obviously lack the human touch of those found in a game like Dungeon Master. In our modern era, when brilliant games abound and can often be had for a song, there’s little reason to favor a game with near-infinite amounts of mediocre content over a shorter but more concentrated experience. In Captive‘s day, of course, the situation was very different, making it just one more example of an old game that was, for one reason or another, far more appealing in its own day than it is in ours.


This is the screen you’ll see most in Knightmare.

Tony Crowther followed up Captive some eighteen months later with Knightmare, a game based on a children’s reality show of sorts which ran on Britain’s ITV network from 1987 until 1994. The source material is actually far more interesting than this boxed-computer-game derivative. In an early nod toward embodied virtual reality, a team of four children were immersed in a computer-generated dungeon and tasked with finding their way out. It’s an intriguing cultural artifact of Britain’s early fascination with computers and the games they played, well worth a gander on YouTube.

The computer game of Knightmare, however, is less intriguing. Using the Captive engine, but featuring hand-crafted rather than procedurally-generated content this time around, it actually hews far closer to the Dungeon Master template than its predecessor. Indeed, like so many of its peers, it slavishly copies almost every aspect of its inspiration without managing to be quite as good — much less better — at any of it. This lineage has always had a reputation for difficulty, but Knightmare pushes that to the ragged edge, in terms of both its ridiculously convoluted environmental puzzles and the overpowered monsters you constantly face. Even the laddish staff of Amiga Format magazine, hardly a bastion of thoughtful design analyses, acknowledged that it “teeters on unplayably tough.” And even the modern blogger known as the CRPG Addict, whose name ought to say it all about his skill with these types of games, “questions whether it’s possible to win it without hints.”

Solo productions like this one, created in a vacuum, with little to no play-testing except by a designer who’s intimately familiar with every aspect of his game’s systems, often wound up getting the difficulty balance markedly wrong. Yet Knightmare is an extreme case even by the standards of that breed. If Dungeon Master is an extended explication of the benefits of careful level design, complete with lots of iterative feedback from real players, this game is a cautionary tale about the opposite extreme. While it was apparently successful in its day, there’s no reason for anyone who isn’t a masochist to revisit it in ours.


Eye of the Beholder‘s dependence on Dungeon Master is, as the CRPG Addict puts it, “so stark that you wonder why there weren’t lawsuits involved.” What it does bring new to the table is a whole lot more story and lore. Multi-page story dumps like this one practically contain more text than the entirety of Dungeon Master.

None of the three games I’ve just described was available in North America prior to 1992. Dungeon Master, having been created by an American developer, was for sale there, but only for the Amiga, Atari ST, and Apple IIGS, computers whose installed base in the country had never been overly large and whose star there dwindled rapidly after 1989. Thus the style of gameplay that Dungeon Master had introduced was either completely unknown or, at best, only vaguely known by most American gamers — this even as real-time blobbers had become a veritable gaming craze in Europe. But there was no reason to believe that American gamers wouldn’t take to them with the same enthusiasm as their European counterparts if they were only given the chance. There was simply a shortage of supply — and this, as any good capitalist knows, spells Opportunity.

The studio which finally walked through this open door is one I recently profiled in some detail: Westwood Associates. With a long background in real-time games already behind them, they were well-positioned to bring the real-time dungeon crawl to the American masses. Even better, thanks to a long-established relationship with the publisher SSI, they got the opportunity to do so under the biggest license in CRPGs, that of Dungeons & Dragons itself. With its larger development team and American-sized budget for art and sound, everything about Eye of the Beholder screamed hit, and upon its release in March of 1991 — more than half a year before Knightmare, actually — it didn’t disappoint.

It really is an impressive outing in many ways, the first example of its sub-genre that I can honestly imagine someone preferring to Dungeon Master. Granted, Westwood’s game lacks Dungeon Master‘s elegance: the turn-based Dungeons & Dragons rules are rather awkwardly kludged into real time; the environments still aren’t as organically interactive (amazingly, none of the heirs to Dungeon Master would ever quite live up to its example in this area); the controls can be a bit clumsy; the level design is nowhere near as fiendishly creative. But on the other hand, the level design isn’t pointlessly hard either, and the game is, literally and figuratively, a more colorful experience. In addition to the better graphics and sound, there’s far more story, steeped in the lore of the popular Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms campaign setting. Personally, I still prefer Dungeon Master‘s minimalist aesthetic, as I do its cleaner rules set and superior level design. But then, I have no personal investment in the Forgotten Realms (or, for that matter, in elaborate fantasy world-building in general). Your mileage may vary.

Whatever my or your opinion of it today, Eye of the Beholder hit American gamers like a revelation back in the day, and Europe too got to join the fun via a Westwood-developed Amiga port which shipped there within a few months of the MS-DOS original’s American debut. It topped sales charts in both places, becoming the first game of its type to actually outsell Dungeon Master. In fact, it became almost certainly the best-selling single example of a real-time blobber ever; between North America and Europe, total sales likely reached 250,000 copies or more, huge numbers at a time when 100,000 copies was the line that marked a major hit.

Following the success of Eye of the Beholder, the dam well and truly burst in the United States. Before the end of 1991, Westwood had cranked out an Eye of the Beholder II, which is larger and somewhat more difficult than its predecessor, but otherwise shares the same strengths and weaknesses. In 1993, their publisher SSI took over to make an Eye of the Beholder III in-house; it’s generally less well-thought-of than the first two games. Meanwhile Bloodwych and Captive got MS-DOS ports and arrived Stateside. Even FTL, whose attitude toward making new products can most generously be described as “relaxed,” finally managed to complete and release their long-rumored MS-DOS port of Dungeon Master — whereupon its dated graphics were, predictably if a little unfairly, compared unfavorably with the more spectacular audiovisuals of Eye of the Beholder in the American gaming press.


Black Crypt‘s auto-map.

Another, somewhat more obscure title from this peak of the real-time blobber’s popularity was early 1992’s Black Crypt, the very first game from the American studio Raven Software, who would go on to a long and productive life. (As of this writing, they’re still active, having spent the last eight years or so making new entries in the Call of Duty franchise.) Although created by an American developer and published by the American Electronic Arts, one has to assume that Black Crypt was aimed primarily at European players, as it was made available only for the Amiga. Even in Europe, however, it failed to garner much attention in an increasingly saturated market; it looked a little better than Dungeon Master but not as good as Eye of the Beholder, and otherwise failed to stand out from the pack in terms of level design, interface, or mechanics.

With, that is, one exception. For the first time, Black Crypt added an auto-map to the formula. Unfortunately, it was needlessly painful to access, being available only through a mana-draining wizard’s spell. Soon, though, Westwood would take up and perfect Raven’s innovation, as the real-time blobber entered the final phase of its existence as a gaming staple.


Black Crypt may have been the first real-time blobber with an auto-map, but Lands of Lore perfected the concept. Like every other aspect of the game, the auto-map here looks pretty spectacular.

Released in late 1993, Westwood’s Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos was an attempt to drag the now long-established real-time-blobber format into the multimedia age, while also transforming it into a more streamlined and accessible experience. It comes very, very close to realizing its ambitions, but is let down a bit by some poor design choices as it wears on.

Having gone their separate ways from SSI and from the strictures of the Dungeons & Dragons license, Westwood got to enjoy at last the same freedom which had spawned the easy elegance of Dungeon Master; they were free to, as Westwood’s Louis Castle would later put it, create cleaner rules that “worked within the context of a digital environment,” making extensive use of higher-math functions that could never have been implemented in a tabletop game. These designers, however, took their newfound freedom in a very different direction from the hardcore logistical and tactical challenge that was FTL’s game. “We’re trying to make our games more accessible to everybody,” said Westwood’s Brett Sperry at the time, “and we feel that the game consoles offer a clue as to where we should go in terms of interface. You don’t really have to read a manual for a lot of games, the entertainment and enjoyment is immediate.”

Lands of Lore places you in control of just two or three characters at a time, who come in and out of your party as the fairly linear story line dictates. The magic system is similarly condensed down to just seven spells. In place of the tactical maneuvering and environmental exploitation that marks combat within the more interactive dungeons of Dungeon Master is a simple but satisfying rock-paper-scissors approach: monsters are more or less vulnerable to different sorts of attacks, requiring you adjust your spells and equipment accordingly. And, most tellingly of all, an auto-map is always at your fingertips, even automatically annotating hidden switches and secret doors you might have overlooked in the first-person view.

Whether all of this results in a game that’s better than Dungeon Master is very much — if you’ll excuse the pun! — in the eye of the beholder. The auto-map alone changes the personality of the game almost enough to make it feel like the beginning of a different sub-genre entirely. Yet Lands of Lore has an undeniable charm all its own as a less taxing, more light-hearted sort of fantasy romp.

One thing at least is certain: at the time of its release, Lands of Lore was by far the most attractive blobber the world had yet seen. Abandoning the stilted medieval conceits of most CRPGs, its atmosphere is more fairy tale than Tolkien, full of bright cartoon-like tableaux rendered by veteran Hanna-Barbera and Disney animators. The music and voice acting in the CD-ROM version are superb, with none other than Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame acting as narrator.

Sadly, though, the charm does begin to evaporate somewhat as the game wears on. There’s an infamous one-level difficulty spike in the mid-game that’s all but guaranteed to run off the very newbies and casual players Westwood was trying to attract. Worse, the last 25 percent or so is clearly unfinished, a tedious slog through empty corridors with nothing of interest beyond hordes of overpowered monsters. When you get near the end and the game suddenly takes away the auto-map you’ve been relying on, you’re left wondering how the designers could have so completely lost all sense of the game they started out making. More so than any of the other games I’ve written about today, Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos, despite enjoying considerable commercial success which would lead to two sequels, feels like a missed opportunity.


Real-time blobbers would continue to appear for a couple more years after Lands of Lore. The last remotely notable examples are two 1995 releases: FTL’s ridiculously belated and rather unimaginative Dungeon Master II, which was widely and justifiably panned by reviewers; and Interplay’s years-in-the-making Stonekeep, which briefly dazzled some reviewers with such extraneous bells and whistles as an introductory cinematic that by at least one employee’s account cost ten times as much as the underwhelming game behind it. (If any other anecdote more cogently illustrates the sheer madness of the industry’s drunk-on-CD-ROM “interactive movie” period, I don’t know what it is.) Needless to say, neither game outdoes the original Dungeon Master where it counts.

At this point, then, we have to confront the place where the example I used in opening this article — that of interactive fiction and its urtext of Adventure — begins to break down when applied to the real-time blobber. Adventure, whatever its own merits, really was the launching pad for a whole universe of possibilities involving parsers and text. But the real-time blobber never did manage to transcend its own urtext, as is illustrated by the long shadow the latter has cast over this very article. None of the real-time blobbers that came after Dungeon Master was clearly better than it; arguably, none was ever quite as good. Why should this be?

Any answer to that question must, first of all, pay due homage to just how fully-realized Dungeon Master was as a game system, as well as to how tight its level designs were. It presented everyone who tried to follow it with one heck of a high bar to clear. Beyond that obvious fact, though, we must also consider the nature of the comparison with the text adventure, which at the end of the day is something of an apples-and-oranges proposition. The real-time blobber is a more strictly demarcated category than the text adventure; this is why we tend to talk about real-time blobbers as a sub-genre and text adventures as a genre. Perhaps there’s only so much you can do with wandering through grid-based dungeons, making maps, solving mechanical puzzles, and killing monsters. And perhaps Dungeon Master had already done it all about as well as it could be done, making everything that came after superfluous to all but the fanatics and the completists.

And why, you ask, had game developers largely stopped even trying to better Dungeon Master by the middle of the 1990s?1 As it happens, there’s no mystery whatsoever about why the real-time blobber — or, for that matter, the blobber in general — disappeared from the marketplace. Even as the format was at its absolute peak of popularity in 1992, with Westwood’s Eye of the Beholder games selling like crazy and everything else rushing onto the bandwagon, an unassuming little outfit known as Blue Sky Productions gave notice to anyone who might have been paying attention that the blobber’s days were already numbered. This they did by taking a dungeon crawl off the grid. After that escalation in the gaming arms race, there was nothing for it but to finish whatever games in the old style were still in production and find a way to start making games in the new. Next time, then, we’ll turn our attention to the great leap forward that was Ultima Underworld.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of April 1987, February 1991, June 1991, February 1992, March 1992, April 1992, November 1992, August 1993, November 1993, October 1994, October 1995, and February 1996; Amiga Format of December 1989, February 1992, March 1992, and May 1992; Questbusters of May 1991, March 1992, and December 1993; SynTax 22; The One of October 1990, August 1991, February 1992, October 1992, and February 1994. Online sources include Louis Castle’s interview for Soren Johnson’s Designer Notes podcast and Matt Barton’s interview with Peter Oliphant. Devotees of this sub-genre should also check out The CRPG Addict’s much more detailed takes on Bloodwych, Captive, Knightmare, Eye of the Beholder, Eye of the Beholder II, and Black Crypt.

The most playable of the games I’ve written about today, the Eye of the Beholder series and Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos, are available for purchase on GOG.com.)


  1. If one takes the really long view, they didn’t, at least not forever. In 2012, as part of the general retro-revival that has resurrected any number of dead sub-genres over the past decade, a studio known as Almost Human released Legend of Grimrock, the first significant commercial game of this type to be seen in many years. It got positive reviews, and sold well enough to spawn a sequel in 2014. I’m afraid I haven’t played either of them, and so can’t speak to the question of whether either or both of them finally managed the elusive trick of outdoing Dungeon Master

 
 

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Games on the Net Before the Web, Part 3: The Persistent Multiplayer CRPG

Black Dragon, CompuServe’s first CRPG, was popular enough that the service sold tee-shirts.

The first CRPG to go online with CompuServe was also one of the first entirely original games to appear on the service, following the initial glut of institutional-computing refugees. Black Dragon, written by a programmer of telephone switching systems named Bob Maples, was at bottom a simplified version of Wizardry — not a hugely surprising state of affairs, given that it made its debut in 1981, at the height of the Wizardry craze. The player created a character — just one, not a full party as in Wizardry — and then began a series of expeditions into the game’s ten-level labyrinth, fighting monsters, collecting equipment and experience, and hopefully penetrating a little deeper with each outing. Only the character’s immediate surroundings were described on the scrolling, text-only display, so careful mapping became every bit as critical as it was in Wizardry. The ultimate goal, guaranteed to consume many hours — not to mention a small fortune in connection charges — was to kill Asmodeus, the black dragon of the title, who lurked down on the tenth level. Any player who managed to accomplish that feat and escape back to the surface was rewarded by seeing her name along with her character’s immortalized on the game’s public wall of fame.

Those bragging rights aside, Black Dragon had no multiplayer aspect at all, which might lead one to ask why its players didn’t just pick up a copy of Wizardry instead; doing so would certainly have been cheaper in the long run. But the fact is that not every CompuServe subscriber’s computer could run Wizardry in those early days. Certainly Black Dragon proved quite popular as the first CompuServe game of its kind. Sadly lost to history now, it has been described by some of its old players as far more cleverly designed than its bare-bones presentation and its willingness to unabashedly ride Wizardry‘s coattails might lead one to believe.

Black Dragon‘s success told Bill Louden, the “games guy” at CompuServe, that subscribers had a taste for this sort of experience. In 1982 a second, somewhat more sophisticated single-player CRPG went up. Known as Dungeons of Kesmai, it was, as the name would imply, another work of the indefatigable John Taylor and Kelton Flinn — i.e., Kesmai, the programmers also responsible for CompuServe’s MegaWars III and, a bit later, for GEnie’s Air Warrior. Like so many of CompuServe’s staple games, both Black Dragon and Dungeons of Kesmai would remain on the service for an absurdly long time, until well into the 1990s.

But more ambitious games as well would come down the pipe well before then. A few years later after these first single-player online CRPGs debuted, CompuServe made the leap to multiplayer virtual worlds. As we’ve already seen in my previous article, MUD washed up from British shores in the spring of 1986 under the name of British Legends, bringing with it the idea of the multiplayer text adventure as virtual world. Yet even before that happened, in December of 1985, the CRPG genre had already made the same leap thanks to still another creation from Kesmai: Island of Kesmai.

Taylor and Flinn had originally hoped to make Dungeons of Kesmai something akin to the game which Island would later become, but that project had been cut back to a single-player game when Bill Louden deemed it simply too ambitious for such an early effort. Undaunted, Kesmai treated Dungeons as something of a prototype for their real vision for a multiplayer CRPG and just kept plugging away. They never saw nor heard of MUD when developing the more advanced game, meaning that said game’s innovations, which actually hew much closer than MUD to the massively-multiplayer games to come, were all its own.

Island of Kesmai demonstrated just how far games’ presentation had come on CompuServe in the four years of creeping advancement that had followed Black Dragon. While it was still limited to text and crude character graphics, the latest terminal protocols did allow it to make use of color, and to divide the screen into quadrants dedicated to different purposes: a status “window” showing the state of the player’s character, a pseudo-graphical overhead view of the character’s surroundings, a text area for descriptions of the environment, a command line for the player to issue orders. Island of Kesmai looked like a roguelike, a genre of hardcore tactical CRPG that was a bigger favorite with hackers than with commercial game developers. This roguelike, however, was a multiplayer game set in a persistent world, and that changed everything.

Island of Kesmai used the ASCII graphics typical of roguelikes. Here “>” represents the player’s character; “A” is a monster; “B” is another player’s character; “@@” is a spider web; and “$” is a treasure or other item. The brackets are walls, while “–” represents a closed door and “/” an open one.

As with British Legends, up to 100 players could share Island of Kesmai‘s persistent world at the same time. Yet Kesmai’s creation was a far more coherent, far more designed experience than the cheerful insanity that was life on MUD. Players chose a class for their characters, along with an alignment, a gender, and even a land of origin. As befitted the game’s grounding in CRPG rather than text-adventure tradition, combat was a far more elaborate and tactical affair than in MUD. You had to reckon with the position of your character and your opponents; had to worry about initiative and fatigue; could be stunned or poisoned or even fumble your weapon. The magic system, too, was far more advanced and subtle than MUD‘s handful of ad-hoc spells that had often been added as much for comedic value as anything else.

The Island that gave the game its name was divided into five regions, comprising in total some 62,000 discrete locations, over which roamed some 2500 creatures in addition to one’s fellow players. The game was consciously designed to support differing levels of player engagement. “A person can play casually or seriously,” said Ben Shih, a “scenario designer” hired by Kesmai to continue evolving the game. “He or she can relax and take out frustrations on a few goblins or unwind by joining other players in hunting bear and griffin. But to become a superstar, a ‘mega-character,’ takes time.”

Ben Shih, John Taylor, and Kelton Flinn of Kesmai.

Scenario designers like Shih added content on a regular basis to keep the game fresh even for veteran players, sometimes giving a unique artifact to the first player to complete a new quest. Kelton Flinn was still excited about adding new stuff to the game three years after it had first gone online:

We don’t feel we’re designing games. We’re designing simulations. We create a world and then we let the players roam around in it. Of course, we’re always adding to our view of the world, fiddling with things all the time, creating new treasures, making things work better. I suppose at some point you have to call a halt and say, “Let’s see if we want to make a clean break and try something bigger.” But we haven’t reached that stage yet.

For all the changes the game went through, the ultimate achievement in Island of Kesmai remained always to kill the dragon, the toughest monster in the game. Players who did so were rewarded with everlasting fame as part of the true elite. As for the dragon: he of course re-spawned in a few days’ time, ready to serve as fodder for the next champion.

Those who hoped to do well were almost forced to buy the 181-page manual for the game, available for the low, low price of $16.50 directly from CompuServe. A rather stunning percentage of the elements described therein would still ring true to any World of Warcraft player of today. There was, for instance, a questing system, a ladder of challenges offering ever greater rewards in return for surviving ever greater dangers. Even those looking for an equivalent to the endless stream of World of Warcraft expansions can find it with Island of Kesmai. In 1988, Kesmai opened up the new lands of Torii and Annwn, filled with “more powerful weapons, tougher monsters, and a variety of treasures.” Advanced players were allowed to travel there only after their characters had hit the old Island’s level cap, and weren’t allowed to return again after they passed through the magic portal, lest they wreak havoc among the less powerful monsters and characters they once left behind.

While play on the Island was much more structured than it was in The Land of MUD, it was still the other players who really made the game what it was. Taylor and Flinn went into the project understanding that, and even anticipating to an extraordinary degree the shape of virtual societies to come. “We fully expect that a political system will evolve,” said Taylor upon the game’s launch, “and someone may even try to proclaim himself King of Kesmai.” Much of the design was put in place to emphasize the social aspect of the game. For example, a conference room was provided for strategizing and conspiring, and many quests were deliberately designed to require the cooperation of several characters. The verbiage adopted by players in relation to the quest system still rings true to modern ears. For example, a verb was coined for those loners determined to undertake quests on their own: to “solo.”

Although player-versus-player combat was allowed, it was restricted to specific areas of the Island; an attempt to attack another character in a “civilized” area, such as the town where new players began their adventures, would be met by the Sheriff, an invincible non-player character guaranteed to grind the brawniest hero into dust. Alignment also played a role: a karma meter kept track of players’ actions. Actions like assault or theft would gradually turn a good character neutral, then finally evil. The last alignment was highly undesirable from many perspectives, not least in that it would prevent you from entering the town, with its shops, bars, and trainers.

And there were still other mechanisms for discouraging the veterans from tormenting the newbies in the way so many MUD players so enjoyed. Players were urged to report griefers who preyed excessively upon newbies, even if they only did so in the dungeons and other “uncivilized” areas where player-versus-player combat was technically allowed. If enough people lodged complaints against them, the griefers might find themselves visited by the wrath of the “ghods of Kesmai,” the game’s administrators — the alternate spelling was used so as not to offend the religious — who might take away experience points, steal back their precious magic items, or just smite them dead as punishment. The game thus tended to foster a less cutthroat, more congenial atmosphere than MUD, with most players preferring to band together against the many monsters rather than fight with one another.

A journalist from the magazine Compute’s Gazette shared this tale of his own almost unbelievably positive first encounter with another player in the game:

I desperately wish I could afford to buy a few bottles of balm sold by the vendor here in the nave, but at 16 gold pieces each they are far above my limited budget. Another player walks in from the square. “Hello, Cherp!” she says, looking at me. Taking a close look at her, I recognize Lynn, a middle-aged female fighter from my home country of Mnar.

“Howdy to you. Are you headed down into the dungeon? I’ve just arrived and this is my first trip down,” I tell her.

“Ah, I see. Yes, I was headed down, but I don’t think it’s safe for you to hunt where I’ll be going. Do you have any balm yet?” she asks as she stands next to the balm vendor.

“No, I haven’t got the gold to afford it,” I say hesitantly.

“No problem. I have a few extra pieces. Come and get them.”

“Thank you very much,” I say. Lynn drops some gold on the ground, and we wait as the vendor takes the gold and drops the balm bottles for us. I pick up the bottles and add them to my meager possessions.

“I can’t thank you enough for this,” I say. “Is there some way I can repay you? Perhaps we could meet here again later and I could give you some balms in return.”

“No,” she laughs, “I have no need of them. Just remember there are always other players who are just starting out. They may find themselves in the same position you are in now. Try to lend them a hand when you are sufficiently strong.”

At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, I will just note one more time that this attitude stands in marked contrast to the newbie-tormenting that the various incarnations of MUD always seemed to engender. At least one player of Island of Kesmai so distinguished himself through his knowledge of the game and his sense of community spirit that he was hired by Kesmai to design new challenges and serve as a community liaison — a wiz mode of a different and much more lucrative stripe.

But the community spirit of Island of Kesmai at its finest is perhaps best exemplified by Valis, one of the game’s most accomplished players. This online CRPG was actually the first RPG of any stripe he had ever managed to enjoy, despite attending university during the height of the Dungeons & Dragons fad: “I could never get into sitting around eating crackers and cheese doodles and arguing for twelve hours at a time. I can do as much in a half hour in Island of Kesmai as they did in twelve hours.” Valis became the first person to exhaustively map the entire Island, uploading the results to the service’s file libraries for the benefit of all. Further, he put together a series of beginners classes for those new to what could be a very daunting game. CompuServe’s hapless marketers advertised his efforts as an “escort service,” a name which perhaps didn’t convey quite the right impression.

We think we’ve come up with the perfect way of teaching a beginners class. We spend an hour or so in the conference area with a lecture and questions. Then we go on a “field trip” to the Island itself. I lead the beginners onto the Island, where we encounter a few things and look for some treasure. That usually is enough to get them started.

In many respects, the personal stories that emerged from Island of Kesmai will ring very familiar to anyone who’s been reading my recent articles, as they will to anyone familiar with the massively-multiplayer games of today. Carrie Washburn discovered the game in 1986, just after her son was born fourteen weeks premature. During the months the baby spent in intensive care, Island of Kesmai became the “link back to reality” for her and her husband. After spending the day at the hospital, they “would enter a fantasy world in order to forget the real one. The online friends that we met there helped pull us through.” Of course, the escape wasn’t without cost: Washburn’s monthly CompuServe bill routinely topped $500, and once hit $2000. Later she divorced her husband and took to prancing around the Island as the uninhibited Lynn De’Leslie — “more of a slut, really” — until she met her second husband there. Her sentiments about it all echoed those expressed by the CB Simulator fraternity on another part of CompuServe: “One of the great things about meeting people online is that you get to really known them. The entire relationship is built on talking.” (Appropriately enough for a talker, Washburn went on to find employment as the administrator of the Multiplayer Games Roundtable on GEnie.)

Kelton Flinn once called Island of Kesmai “about as complicated as a game can be on a commercial system.” Yet it deserves to be remembered for the thought that went into it even more than for its complexity. Almost every issue that designers of the massively-multiplayer games of today deal with was anticipated and addressed by Kesmai — sometimes imperfectly, yes, but then many of the design questions which swirl around the format have arguably still not been met with perfect answers even today. Incredibly, Island of Kesmai went online in December of 1985 with almost all of its checks and balances already in place, so thoroughly had its designers thought about what they were creating and where it would lead. To use Richard Bartle’s terminology from my previous article, Island of Kesmai was a “product” rather than a “program,” and it was all the better for it. While MUD strikes me as a pioneering work with an awful lot of off-putting aspects, such that I probably wouldn’t have lasted five minutes if I’d stumbled into it as a player, Island of Kesmai still sounds like it must have been fantastic to play.

 

One big name in the field of single-player graphical CRPGs took note of what was going on on The Island quite early. In 1987, a decade before Ultima Online would take the games industry by storm, Richard Garriott and Origin Systems began doing more than just muse about the potential for a multiplayer Ultima. They assigned at least one programmer to work full-time on the technology that could enable just such a product. This multiplayer Ultima was envisioned on a more modest scale than the eventual Ultima Online or even the current Island of Kesmai. It was described by Garriot thus: “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.” Despite the modest number of players the game would support and the apparent lack of plans for a persistent world, Origin did hold out the prospect of a partnership with CompuServe. In the end, though, none of it went anywhere. After 1987 the idea of a multiplayer Ultima was shelved for a long, long time; Origin presumably deemed it too much of a distraction from their bread-and-butter single-player CRPG franchise.

Another of the big single-player CRPG franchises, however, would make the leap — and not just to multiplayer but all way to a persistent virtual world like that of MUD or Island of Kesmai. Rather than running on the industry-leading CompuServe or even the gamer haven of GEnie, this pioneering effort would run on the nascent America Online.

Don Daglow was already a grizzled veteran of the games industry when he founded a development company called Beyond Software (no relation to the British company of the same name) in 1988. He had programmed games for fun on his university’s DEC PDP-10 in the 1970s, programmed them for money at Intellivision in the early 1980s, been one of the first producers at Electronic Arts in the mid-1980s — working on among other titles Thomas M. Disch’s flawed but fascinating text adventure Amnesia and the hugely lauded baseball simulation Earl Weaver Baseball — and finally came to spend some time in the same role at Brøderbund. At last, though, he had “got itchy” to do something that would be all his own. Beyond was his way of scratching that itch.

Thanks to Daglow’s industry connections, Beyond hit the ground running, establishing solid working relationships with two very disparate companies: Quantum Computer Services, who owned and operated America Online, and the boxed-game publisher SSI. Daglow actually signed on with the former the day after forming his company, agreeing to develop some simple games for their young online service which would prove to be the very first Beyond games to see the light of day. Beyond’s relationship with the latter would lead to the publication of another big-name-endorsed baseball simulation: Tony La Russa’s Ultimate Baseball, which would sell an impressive 85,684 copies, thereby becoming SSI’s most successful game to date that wasn’t an entry in their series of licensed Dungeons & Dragons games.

As it happened, though, Beyond’s relationship with SSI also came to encompass that license in fairly short order. They contracted to create some new Dungeons & Dragons single-player CRPGs, using the  popular but aging Gold Box engine which SSI had heretofore reserved for in-house titles; the Beyond games were seen by SSI as a sort of stopgap while their in-house staff devoted themselves to developing a next-generation CRPG engine. Beyond’s efforts on this front would result in a pair of titles, Gateway to the Savage Frontier and Treasures of the Savage Frontier, before the disappointing sales of the latter told both parties that the jig was well and truly up for the Gold Box engine.

By Don Daglow’s account, the first graphical multiplayer CRPG set in a persistent world was the product of a fortunate synergy between the work Beyond was doing for AOL and the work they were doing for SSI.

I realized that I was doing online games with AOL and I was doing Dungeons & Dragons games with SSI. Nobody had done a graphical massively-multiplayer online game yet. Several teams had tried, but nobody had succeeded in shipping one. I looked at that, and said, “Wait, I know how to do this because I understand how the Dungeons & Dragons system works on the one hand, and I understand how online works on the other.” I called up Steve Case [at AOL], and Joel Billings and Chuck Kroegel at SSI, and said, “If you guys want to give it a shot, I can give you a graphical MMO, and we can be the first to have it.”

The game was christened Neverwinter Nights. “Neverwinter” was the area of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting which TSR, makers of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG, had carved out for Beyond to set their games; the two single-player Savage Frontier games were also set in the region. The “Nights,” meanwhile, was a sly allusion to the fact that AOL — and thus this game — was only available on nights and weekends, when the nation’s telecommunications lines could be leased relatively cheaply.

Neverwinter Nights had to be purchased as a boxed game before players could start paying AOL’s connection fees to actually play it. It looked almost indistinguishable from any other Gold Box title on store shelves — unless one noticed the names of America Online and Quantum Computer Services in the fine print.

On the face of it, Neverwinter Nights was the ugliest of kludges. Beyond took SSI’s venerable Gold Box engine, which had never been designed to incorporate multiplayer capabilities, and grafted exactly those capabilities onto it. At first glance, the end result looked the same as any of the many other Gold Box titles, right down to the convoluted interface that had been designed before mice were standard equipment on most computers. But when you started to look closer, the differences started to show. The player now controlled just one character instead of a full party; parties were formed by multiple players coming together to undertake a quest. To facilitate organizing and socializing, a system for chatting with other players in the same map square had been added. And, in perhaps the trickiest and certainly the kludgiest piece of the whole endeavor, the turn-based Gold Box engine had been converted into a pseudo-real-time proposition that worked just well enough to make multiplayer play possible.

It made for a strange hybrid to say the least — one which Richard Bartle for one dismisses as “innovative yet flawed.” Yet somehow it worked. After launching the game in June of 1991 with a capacity of 100 simultaneous players, Beyond and AOL were soon forced by popular demand to raise this number to 500, thus making Neverwinter Nights the most populous virtual world to go online to date. And even at that, there were long lines of players during peak periods waiting for others to drop out of the game so they could get into it, paying AOL’s minute-by-minute connection fee just to stand in the queue.

While players and would-be players of online CRPGs had undoubtedly been dreaming of the graphics which Neverwinter Nights offered for a long time, smart design was perhaps equally important to the game’s long-term popularity. To an even greater degree than Island of Kesmai, Neverwinter Nights strove to provide a structure for play. Don Daglow had been interested in online gaming for a long time, had played just about all of what was available, and had gone into this project with a clear idea of exactly what sort of game he wanted Neverwinter Nights to be. It was emphasized from the get-go that this was not to be a game of direct player-versus-player conflict. In fact, Beyond went even Kesmai one better in this area, electing not just to ban such combat from certain parts of the game but to ban it entirely. Neverwinter Nights was rather to be a game of cooperation and friendly competition. Players would meet on the town’s central square, form themselves into adventuring parties, and be assigned quests by a town clerk — shades of the much-loved first Gold Box game, Pool of Radiance — to kill such-and-such a monster or recover such-and-such a treasure. Everyone in the party would then share equally in the experience and loot that resulted. Even death was treated relatively gently: characters would be revived in town minus all of the stuff they had been toting along with them, but wouldn’t lose the armor, weapons, and magic items they had actually been using — much less lose their lives permanently, as happened in MUD.

One player’s character has just cast feeblemind on another’s, rendering him “stupid.” This became a sadly typical sight in the game.

Beyond’s efforts to engender the right community spirit weren’t entirely successful; players did find ways to torment one another. While player characters couldn’t attack one another physically, they could cast spells at one another — a necessary capability if a party’s magic-using characters were to be able to cast “buffing” spells on the fighters before and during combat. A favorite tactic of the griefers was to cast the “feeblemind” spell several times in succession on the newbies’ characters, reducing their intelligence and wisdom scores to the rock bottom of 3, thus making them for all practical purposes useless. One could visit a temple to get this sort of thing undone, but that cost gold the newbies didn’t have. By most accounts, there was much more of this sort of willful assholery in Neverwinter Nights than there had been in Island of Kesmai, notwithstanding the even greater lengths Beyond had gone to prevent it. Perhaps it was somehow down to the fact that Neverwinter Nights was a graphical game — however crude the graphics were even by the standards of the game’s own time — that led to it attracting a greater percentage of such immature players.

Griefers aside, though, Neverwinter Nights had much to recommend it, as well as plenty of players happy to play it in the spirit Beyond had intended. Indeed, the devotion the game’s most hardcore players displayed remains legendary to this day. They formed themselves into guilds, using that very word for the first time to describe such aggregations. They held fairs, contests, performances, and the occasional wedding. And they started at least two newsletters to keep track of goings-on in Neverwinter. Some issues have been preserved by dedicated fans, allowing us today a glimpse into a community that was at least as much about socializing and role-playing as monster-bashing. The first issue of News of the Realm, for example, tells us that Cyric has just become a proud father in the real world; that Vulcan and Dramia have opened their own weapons shop in the game; that Cold Chill the notorious bandit has shocked everyone by recognizing the errors of his ways and becoming good; that the dwarves Nystramo and Krishara are soon to hold their wedding — or, as dwarves call it, their “Hearth Building.” Clearly there was a lot going on in Neverwinter.

The addition of graphics would ironically limit the lifespan of many an online game; while text is timeless, computer graphics, especially in the fast-evolving 1980s and 1990s, had a definite expiration date. Under the circumstances, Neverwinter Nights had a reasonably long run, remaining available for six years on AOL. Over the course of that period online life and computer games both changed almost beyond recognition. Already looking pretty long in the tooth when Neverwinter Nights made its debut in 1991, the Gold Box engine by 1997 was a positive antique.

Despite the game’s all-too-obvious age, AOL’s decision to shut it down in July of 1997 was greeted with outrage by its rabid fan base, some of whom still nurse a strong sense of grievance to this day. But exactly how large that fan base still was by 1997 is a little uncertain. The Neverwinter Nights community insisted (and continues to insist) that the game was as popular as ever, making the claim from uncertain provenance that AOL was still making good money from it. Richard Bartle makes the eye-popping claim today, also without attribution, that it was still bringing in fully $5 million per year. Yet the reality remains that this was an archaic MS-DOS game at a time when software in general had largely completed the migration to Windows. It was only getting more brittle as it fell further and further behind the times. Just two months after the plug was pulled on Neverwinter Nights, Ultima Online debuted, marking the beginning of the modern era of massively-multiplayer CRPGs as we’ve come to know them today. Neverwinter Nights would have made for a sad sight in any direct comparison with Ultima Online. It’s understandable that AOL, never an overly games-focused service to begin with, would want to get out while the getting was good.

Even in its heyday, when the land of Neverwinter was stuffed to its 500-player capacity every night and more players were lining up outside, its popularity was never all that great in the grand scheme of the games industry; that very capacity limit if nothing else saw to that. Nevertheless, its place in gaming lore as a storied pioneer was such that Bioware chose to revive the name in 2002 in the form of a freestanding boxed CRPG with multiplayer capabilities. That version of Neverwinter Nights was played by many, many times more people than the original — and yet it could never hope to rival its predecessor’s claim to historical importance.

The massively-multiplayer online CRPGs that would follow the original Neverwinter Nights would be slicker, faster, in some ways friendlier, but the differences would be of degree, not of kind. MUD, Island of Kesmai, and Neverwinter Nights between them had invented a genre, going a long way in the process toward showing any future designers who happened to be paying attention exactly what worked there and what didn’t. All that remained for their descendants to do was to popularize it, to make it easier and cheaper and more convenient to lose oneself in a shared virtual world of the fantastic.

(Sources: the books MMOs from the Inside Out by Richard Bartle and Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsey; Online Today of February 1986, April 1986, August 1986, June 1987, January 1988, August 1988, September 1988, and February 1989; Computer Gaming World of June/July 1986; The Gamers Connection of September/October 1988; Compute!’s Gazette of July 1989; Compute! of November 1991; the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Online sources include Barbara Baser’s Black Dragon walkthrough, as preserved by Arthur J. O’Dwyer; “The Game Archaeologist Discovers the Island of Kesmai” from Engadget. Readers may also be interested in the CRPG Addict’s more experiential impression of playing Neverwinter Nights offline — and be sure to check out the comments to that article for some memories of old players.)

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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