Archive for September, 2008

We’re Number 23!

September 27, 2008

Most people aspire to be number 1 — you know, the sports fan’s cry of “We’re Number One!” and all that. Well, not me. I mean, it’d be great to be #1, but I now have a new goal.

You see, in its June 27/July 4th issue (which I only just got around to reading recently, proving I’m behind on all sorts of things in my life — not just blogging!), Entertainment Weekly did a cover story on what they called The New Classics — “the 1000 best movies, TV shows, albums, books & more of the last 25 years.”

Well, games fell into the “& more” category, and Deus Ex made the cut. Check it out, it’s right there on page 128.

Here’s what they had to say: “Vast conspiracies abound in Deus Ex, a smart cyberpunky RPG where you play a nanotechnology-enhanced agent.” The description isn’t likely to get anyone’s heartrate up, but it’s nice to be recognized, for sure.

I mention this not to brag or anything, but because I started wondering how DX stacked up against comparable titles in the other lists. (Some of you may remember an earlier series of posts where I confessed to a fondness for… okay, an obsession with… lists.) I wondered what movie was ranked #23, what album, what book and so on. Here’s what I found:

Movie: Memento
Television: West Wing
Music: The Soft Bulletin (from The Flaming Lips)
Book: The Ghost Road (by Pat Barker)
Style: Andre 3000 (of “Hey Ya!” fame)
Stage: M: Butterfly
Tech: Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader

Ni…ice! Yeah, being #1 would be cool, but #23 is, apparently, all about quirkiness. And that appeals to me, big-time. But when I look at the #23 slot, I see more than “quirk.” For one thing, I see stuff I really like a lot — I mean, Memento blew me away. West Wing was, for years, my favorite television program. The Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin? Come on — enchanting. And I lust after a Kindle with every fiber of my being — if Amazon would drop the price another 50 bucks I’d have one in a hot second!

More than just “I like them,” I see in the 23’s (we’re all part of a club, now, at least in my warped imagination) work that set out to to make a political or cultural statement (assuming there’s any difference between the political and the cultural…). At #23, I see creative enterprises that set out to challenge assumptions — sometimes public assumptions, sometimes a creator’s personal assumptions about his or her own work. I see projects that changed things, that influenced the content or aesthetics of their respective media or changed the direction of the businesses of which they were a part.

And I’m proud that something I worked on is in such august company.

So that’s my new goal. No more “#1” aspirations; I’m shooting for #23, where all the quirky, cool things are! (Okay, just kidding, Disney — #1 would be cool, too!)

Has it really been that long?…

September 21, 2008

I was watching TV with the Lovely Wife, Caroline, the other day when a commercial came on for some teen-oriented anti-perspirant or something. Aside from being appalled that someone was targeting teens with something like that (and note that I said “appalled” not “surprised”…) I was kind of weirded out by the commercial’s overuse of the acronym “OMG.”

Being an old fart, and not knowing, I assume that stands for “oh my god.” And, while I understand the need to abbreviate when texting (I do a LOT of texting myself…) it still got under my skin that, in commercials and everyday non-texting life, we couldn’t actually, you know, use our words.

But, despite what you may think, this isn’t a post about the corruption of our language and so on and so forth. In fact, kind of the opposite. I love the fact that language changes and that I can embrace that change. In fact in fact, I’m writing this because I just had my own genuine OMG moment — my first!:

I was awakened from a pretty sound sleep with a heartfelt “OMG” about to burst from my mouth (which I stifled when I realized such an outburst would wake up the aforementioned Lovely Wife — and that wouldn’t be good for anyone). Anyway, what was my OMG moment?

I realized that this month, September, was my 25th anniversary in the game business. Yow!

I remember vividly walking into Steve Jackson’s house for my interview back in September of 1983. (Heck, I remember exactly what I was wearing: a khaki shirt, green military-style pants, a green vest and some stupid brown suede-covered athletic shoes — Italian, which at the time I guess signified cool, to me, even if they did hurt like the dickens.) Anyway, I remember marching up to Steve’s house for an interview that felt like a fun conversation with a gaming buddy, and I remember him offering me a minimum wage job as an Assistant Editor, and I remember leaving feeling like the happiest guy on Earth.

Since then, I have learned a TON in the game business, and have wracked up debts I’ll never be able to repay. At risk of annoying all sorts of people, I have to thank in some semi-public way (which, I guess, this blog qualifies as) the folks who’ve made the last 25 years great and terrible and educational and absolutely, wouldn’t-trade-it-for-anything incredible:

Steve Jackson – for giving me a start and for providing me with a great education in game design. SJG was like a college course in game design.

Allen Varney – for being a fantastic collaborator for most of the last 25 years. In the world of tabletop games, I did my best work with Allen (though I hate to admit it!) and we’ve continued doing great work together this whole time. It’s weird working with a guy who’s so different from me and yet so much on the same wavelength — Allen’s the only person I’m not married to who routinely finishes my sentences. It’s freaky…

Richard Garriott – if Steve Jackson was Mentor #1 and gave me an undergrad eduction, Richard was Mentor #2 for me and represents my gaming Masters degree and PhD. He taught me the difference between electronic games and tabletop games. Working with him on the early design of Ultima VI was a revelation and a privilege. And let’s not forget that Ultima IV was the game that proved to me that games could be so much more than they were at the time. Utterly inspirational.

Paul Neurath – for teaching me how to flowchart, on Space Rogue, and for getting the Underworld project off the ground and for starting Blue Sky Productions (later Looking Glass Technologies) and for… oh, man, we don’t have space.

Doug Church – for being, probably, the best designer, programmer, project director, you-name-it I’ve ever met. Oh, and a great friend, too! It’s totally weird encountering someone who’s basically better than you are at everything you do. If I have to admit I did “my” best tabletop game work with Allen Varney, I have to do the same, looking back on my years in electronic gaming, and say Doug’s been there for all of “my” best videogames. Doug wins the Unsung Hero award in videogame history — we should all start singing…

There have certainly been others I ought to thank — Bruce Sterling and Walton “Bud” Simons for getting me into the whole gameplaying thing in the first place and without whom I wouldn’t even have known there was a game business to be in… Greg Costikyan, for writing the original manuscript that became TOON: The Cartoon Roleplaying Game… the amazingly talented writers and designers at Steve Jackson Games and TSR, all of whom I SHOULD single out and mention by name… Mike Dobson, for offering me a life-changing job at TSR… Chris Roberts, for showing me what it takes to manage the kind of large-scale projects that would come to dominate gaming, and for showing me the power of uncompromising commitment to a creative vision… John Romero, for making me the offer I couldn’t refuse to become a part of Ion Storm… The Deus Ex team, for being utterly inspired (and inspiring), if at times painfully dysfunctional! (DX team leads Harvey Smith, Chris Norden and Jay Lee, you deserve more credit!)… Art Min, Mike Grajeda and Stan Herndon for being terrific partners and friends… Bob Picunko, Mike Ryder, Mark Meyers and Graham Hopper for signing me up with Disney and allowing me to put a check by the “Work for Disney” box on my to-do list of life… Seamus Blackley, for being both friend and agent, and hooking me up with some truly amazing people and opportunities… the JPS team, especially the folks who’ve stuck with me from the start (no easy feat, given the roller coaster ride it’s been)… and, of course, all the non-game friends who’ve been there with me the last 25 years (with a special thanks to the Saturday Breakfast Bunch, with whom I’ve had breakfast, without fail, every Saturday since 1989 — without you guys anchoring my week I’d have gone crazy… okay, crazi-ER… long ago).

Most of all, though, I have to thank the Lovely Wife, Caroline, for putting up with my crazy hours, wild mood swings, days and weeks away from home on business, and all the other nonsense I’ve put her through. I’ve often described her as “the most understanding woman in the world” and that still stands. I don’t know how or why she’s put up with me, but I’m sure glad she continues to amaze me with her love and support.

Anyway, here’s to the next 25 years, and a bunch of new names on the “thank you” list I write up in September of 2023!

D&D Victorious or When Did Life Become About Leveling Up?

September 14, 2008

I’m trying to scale back on my Facebook time. As I said in an earlier post, I find the site curiously addictive, but I think I let things get a little out of hand. (Thank god Scrabulous went away — talk about a time sink!)

Anyway, all the time I’ve spent on Facebook got me confused and enthused about something:

When did life — I mean REAL life, not game life — become all about “leveling up”?

Dungeons & Dragons really has taken over the world, in ways Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson never could have predicted.

Sure, there’s always been an element in life of “I make more money than you do, so I win!” or “My house is bigger than yours” or “My car goes faster than yours (not that I’ll ever see that kind of speed in real life).”

But what’s really brought home for me the reality of “Life as Leveling” is the ascendancy of Facebook and, to a lesser extent, World of Warcraft (a pastime I gave up a while back — though the lovely wife, Caroline, is still well and truly hooked, keeping it in the forefront of my thinking).

WoW‘s D&D-ness is obvious. Yeah, yeah, it’s all about community. Sure, it’s about cooperating with friends to accomplish goals together. Whatever. Cut past all the stuff and nonsense and it’s about “I’m level 70 and you’re not.” It’s about achieving vicariously, virtually, a “level” of success most of us will never achieve in life. And then, most important, it’s about lording it over our friends.

In other words, WoW‘s a little obvious in its game-ness (it’s a game, after all!) and in its D&D-ness. But Facebook… Ah, Facebook. That’s something different. It has its non-leveling uses, to be sure. It is a useful tool for keeping in touch with friends and reconnecting with schoolmates you haven’t thought about in years. But let’s be honest — if that was it, would millions of us care? We could accomplish most of that by writing letters or picking up a phone. Facebook offers far, far more than that — and that “more” is D&D-ness.

Facebook turns community into currency. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had over the last few months that sound something like this:

“Darn. You have more friends than me.”

“How did you get to be level 54 in Packrat?”

How much money do you have in Parking Wars?”

“Damn. I’m only ranked 10,000,000 in the world in the movie quiz.”

Much of the Facebook experience (like World of Warcraft and, let’s not forget, high school) is about status. And status, in this case, is measured in concrete terms not unlike a traditional roleplaying game.

I realize I’m sounding pretty negative about this but, mostly, I find this phenomenon odd — and oddly comforting. I mean, at least leveling is a mechanism I understand, unlike a lot of social stuff.

And speaking of social stuff, would someone please clue me in on Facebook etiquette? I’m thinking specifically about all the folks you’ve never heard of who want to be your friend. My first instinct is to say, “Sure, let’s be virtual friends.” What’s the harm in establishing a virtual connection with a fan or with a friend of a friend of a friend? But then I start thinking about the fact that accepting someone you don’t know gives that someone access to the profiles of every other someone you know and that kind of freaks me out. So what do you do? Ignore folks you don’t know and look like a jerk or a snob? Let everyone into the fold and dilute the value of “true” friendship (or as close at you can get online)? I’m kerflummoxed. Help!

Beyond that, I’m still wrestling with whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing (or just a thing) that the world — at least the part of it on Facebook — knows I’m having lunch with my sister at the Museum of Modern Art in New York… or awake at 2 a.m. stealing stuff from my wife and friends in Packrat… or just generally feeling good about myself…

Bottom line — I get World of Warcraft. It’s a game. You play it. You level up. You get cool stuff. It has a social component lacking from singleplayer games. Rah, rah, rah. Not so different from games of thousands of years ago. Facebook, though… Facebook, this thing I don’t quite understand, is a real agent of change in the world. And I don’t have a handle on the rules of this non-game. Still, I’m enjoying playing. So far.