Maxis didn’t want to make professional simulation games

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020

SimCity wasn’t meant to be taken seriously:

The game was inspired by research on real-world urban planning concepts, and although it was created as a way for players to experiment running a city, the goal was to be fun rather than accurate. “I realized early on, because of chaos theory and a lot of other things,” said designer Will Wright, “that it’s kind of hopeless to approach simulations like that, as predictive endeavors. But we’ve kind of caricatured our systems. SimCity was always meant to be a caricature of the way a city works, not a realistic model of the way a city works.”

“I think if we tried to make it realistic, we would be doing something that we wouldn’t want to do,” Wright said in an interview in 1999. But that didn’t stop companies from believing Maxis could design realistic simulations. Will Wright didn’t believe that was even possible. “Many people come to us and say, ‘You should do the professional version,’” he continued. “That really scares me because I know how pathetic the simulations are, really, compared to reality. The last thing I want people to come away with is that we’re on the verge of being able to simulate the way that a city really develops, because we’re not.”

Maxis didn’t want to make professional simulation games. But for two brief, strange years, they did.

From 1992 to 1994, a division called Maxis Business Simulations was responsible for making serious professional simulations that looked and played like Maxis games. After Maxis cut the division loose, the company continued to operate independently, taking the simulation game genre in their own direction. Their games found their way into in corporate training rooms and even went as far as the White House.

Almost nothing they developed was ever released to the public.

[...]

For Wright, games were a way of helping people create “mental models” for understanding parts of the world. The team at Maxis would research a topic like urban dynamics — or something like ant colony behavior, in the case of another game they made called SimAnt — and create a game where players could experiment with those ideas. The goal wasn’t to teach anything directly, but rather to help the player get the model of SimCity in their head, so that playing this game could help them understand how the different systems within a city interact.

For many people though, that nuance was lost, and instead they treated it like Maxis could build accurate simulations of the real world. And they wouldn’t stop asking about it. “In the first couple months after SimCity appeared,” Wright told Wired, “we were approached by a number of companies saying, ‘Hey that’s great! If you can do a city like that, we want you to do SimPizzaHut, or SimWhatever.’ We thought these things were so weird that we said no, but they kept coming in.”

“So at some point, as we got big enough, we decided to give it a go.”

John Hiles knew about SimCity. He also believed in the power of building mental models, and he saw something in SimCity that was missing from the simulation modeling work happening at Delta Logic: it was fun. It had an intuitive interface and friendly graphics. That was the missing ingredient. Hiles believed that if they teamed up — Maxis’s style with Delta Logic’s systems — they could create simulations that were fun and powerful. Maxis had been looking for new partners for software development, so Hiles used that as an opportunity to get in their orbit. He approached Jeff Braun, and in 1991, his company became a contractor for Maxis.

[...]

As part of the company’s restructuring in the wake of SimCity, in the summer of 1992, Maxis accepted a $10 million investment from Warburg Pincus Ventures, who received a 30% stake in the company and a seat at the board. According to Braun, Warburg Pincus wanted Maxis to start doing business simulation games more seriously.

With their new directive, Maxis decided to jump in all the way. That July, they purchased Delta Logic, turning them into a new division of the company — Maxis Business Simulations. John Hiles was named VP and general manager.

Their first project? Chevron wanted them to make a game about an oil refinery.

Oil refineries are really, really complicated. That’s why Chevron wanted Maxis to make them a game like SimCity, to teach the employees at their oil refinery in Richmond, California how it all worked.

To be clear, they didn’t want a game that was supposed to accurately train people how to run an oil refinery or replace an education in chemical engineering. That would’ve been incredibly dangerous. What they wanted instead was something that showed you how the dynamics of the refinery worked, how all the different pieces invisibly fit together, like SimCity did for cities.

The operators at the refinery sometimes had trouble getting a big picture for what was happening at the plant beyond their particular area of focus. “The whole goal if this was to teach operators that they are part of a bigger system,” Skidmore said. “Their concern at the time was that operators tended to be very focused on their one plant, and their one thing they do, and so [they] weren’t keeping in mind that what they do affected other parts of the plant. So they wanted a training tool that allowed operators to manipulate inputs and outputs of the various pieces of the refinery process to see how they impact.”

The non-technical staff at the Richmond refinery needed to know how it worked too. The people in human resources and accounting weren’t chemical engineers, but it would help their work to see how the different areas of the plant were networked together, how one department affected another department.

Chevron paid Maxis $75,000 for a prototype of a refinery simulator. The project began even before Maxis bought Delta Logic, back when they were still just contractors.

How do you get started on a project like this? They did it the same way Maxis developed their own games: they did research.

John Hiles and the Bruces took a visit to the Chevron Richmond Refinery, where they met with a specialist who took them on a tour of the plant and explained how it worked. It was a collaborative relationship with Chevron throughout the development process; Chevron sent them the raw formulas they used at the refinery, and as Maxis Business Simulations turned that into a game, Chevron would double-check their work.

[...]

John Hiles said that most of the trainers at Chevron wanted to use it as a conventional training tool, “but some of the more astute teachers said, ‘Let’s just get you started here by seeing if you can wreck the oil refinery, if you can abuse the inputs and the settings and essentially get fired,’” he remembered.

That was a legitimate way to learn how a refinery worked: if you start breaking the refinery, you can see how ruining one part of the plant will affect the other parts of the plant. “The tool — the game — was agnostic,” Hiles explained, correcting himself. “It would work for someone trying to ruin an oil refinery just as well as somebody trying to run it efficiently.”

SimRefinery was finished in fall 1992, earlier than the 1993 date that’s usually reported online. The trademark registration for SimRefinery suggests that the game was officially handed over to Chevron on Monday, October 26, 1992. (It’s unusual to have a specific release date for a corporate training product, but that’s a result of Maxis trademarking the SimRefinery name almost a year after it was completed.)

Chevron liked it. They started testing the game with their staff in September, and Chevron reported that communication from marketing and finance staff “improved dramatically.” Speaking to The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Chevron training specialist Susan Gustin praised the game’s effectiveness. “Just dumping information on people isn’t effective,” she said. “People only remember what they use.” She told Computerworld, “Some of these relationships aren’t at all obvious until you play the game a bit.”

It seems to have even won over one of its critics, Will Wright. “He was initially skeptical,” Skidmore said. “I think when we eventually finished SimRefinery, I think he approved of it.”

[...]

Whatever the long-term interest in SimRefinery, it wasn’t adopted at Chevron out of the gate, and that was the start of a pattern for the games by Maxis Business Simulations — a skepticism towards the idea that a simulation game could teach you something. Or should teach you something.

Good isn’t stupid, or weak, or nice

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2020

Good isn’t stupid, or weak, or nice, Rick Stump argues:

I had spent my early years reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, Andre Norton, Le Morte d’Arthur, and (especially) the stories of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers. Heck, I read Vance’s Lyonesse before I read The Fellowship of the Ring.

The great thing about the books that I read first and most, from the Twelve Peers to The Return of the King, was that they all give a very clear idea of what is meant by good and evil, especially within the milieu of fantasy, be it literature or tabletop role playing.

The Twelve Peers, John Carter, Allan Quatermaine all shared a few traits — they were brave, they were honest, the protected the weak, and they were decisive. They also laughed, had close friends, drank, and fought. But they also were champions of the weak, loyal friends, fierce enemies, and able to judge others by their words and deeds rather than being bigoted (John Carter not only has friends of all of the races of Mars he forges close ties between them for the first time in millenia; Allan Quatermaine admires and supports Umbopa/Ignosi long before he learns he is a king; if a man is a good fighter and a Catholic his past is his past to the paladins.

Note that I didn’t mention King Arthur or his knights here. This is because in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (and unlike the earlier source material) Arthur and most of the rest are actually cautionary figures; Arthur is a deeply flawed man and poor king who begets an illegitimate son with his own half-sister, then kills all of the newborns in his lands trying (and failing) to hide this sin; Merlin is capricious and advises Arthur to hide his sins through mass infanticide; Lancelot is portrayed as not very clever and, essentially, a plaything of Guinevere who believes his sins are not sins because the queen says so; Gareth is underhanded and deceitful in his quest for fame and tries mightily to break his chastity; the list goes on. Suffice it to say that Le Morte d’Arthur was written during the Wars of the Roses and was meant to be a warning about men who claimed to be good but were not. It is truly unfortunate that Malory’s work is so popular that many modern readers mistake the figures in his version of the stories as examples rather than warnings.

And I suspect that this may have a lot to do with the confusion some have over how to play good — modern culture is saturated with King Arthur and the Knights as being exemplars of knighthood when they weren’t.

[...]

I am far from the first guy to point out that Good is not Weak. C. S. Lewis directly addressed this more than once, perhaps most famously in this quote,

“Then he is safe?” asked Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver, “Didn’t you hear what she told you? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Or this one, more detailed is less famous,

“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.”I am dying of thirst,” said Jill.

“Then drink,” said the Lion.

“May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.

The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.

The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.

“Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.

“I make no promise,” said the Lion.

Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.

“Do you eat girls?” she said.

“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.

“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.

“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.

“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

Both of these quotes from C. S. Lewis are concerning Aslan the lion who is a stand-in for Jesus Christ. Lewis was eager to dispel the mistaken concept that being good means being soft, weak, or harmless.

[...]

Traditionally, while demons might be able to overwhelm any human they stood no chance against angels and typically fled at their approach. While movies like The Prophecy and Constantine change this in the hopes of good storytelling they skew the traditional concept of the power of angels and nerf them pretty badly.

In the bible when an angel appeared to a human their mere presence was so overpowering that the first thing they usually said was a variation of ‘don’t be afraid’. John Milton mentions this in Paradise Lost, book IV, when he wrote, “Abashed the Devil stood, and felt how awful goodness is.”

Medieval books of magic warned would-be summoners to never attract the notice of an angel and certainly never to summon one, because angels would destroy them for attempting to make pacts with evil and their power was so vast no warding circle could stop them.

Make torches burn for one hour

Sunday, April 19th, 2020

Old-school dungeon master Rick Stump explains that if you really want your players to engage with your game world, make torches burn for 1 hour and weigh 21/2 lbs.:

Remembering that AD&D is a resource management game is the key to having players and character motivations intersect with your campaign.

Way back when in the late ’70′s when I started playing I dutifully wrote down my maximum encumbrance, recorded all of the locations and weight of my gear, listed containers, etc. As a DM I have all the PCs do the same for themselves, their mounts, their henchmen, and I track hirelings. It affects movement, naturally.

I also keep careful track of time overland and in the dungeon which means I track food, water, and light source usage.

I use reaction and morale checks. I use the disease and parasite rules. I use the overland movement rules, the rules for getting lost, and random encounter checks. When missile weapons are used the ammo is often lost or broken.

Even in 1977 when I was first playing a few DMs weren’t doing these things. They had everything from rolls to see if you still had arrows after you fired the first 12 to blithe indifference – everyone had infinite food, water, light, and ammo.

I also noticed that in virtually all of those games the PCs had damn near zero interaction with NPCs and henchmen were vanishingly rare. And in a ton of them the DM’s complained that no matter what else they tried the game was only about fighting.

Here’s how the enforcement of the basic rules on resources demands my PCs engage with the campaign in one easy, if long and boring, lesson. The source of great power and great loot (as well as great mystery) is Skull Mountain, a remote area surrounded by the Briars. The only safe-ish way to get there is the Old Road – there is one stream halfway up the Old Road and no food available along it. For an unencumbered man on horse in good weather it is 3 days to the mountain and 3 days back to the nearest town, Esber. So if you want to spend a day in the mountain you must have no less than seven days of food and the capacity for 3 days of water so the bare minimum encumbrance per person is 31 lbs and per horse (horses aren’t bicycles! They eat and drink, remember?) you’ll need a minimum of 100 lbs per horse. So for a party of 5 on horses that’s about 660 lbs just for provisions.

I’ll write a big blog post on logistics someday soon, and it’ll be about 12,000 ‘why yes I was a soldier, why do you ask?’ words.

If you switch to foot travel to avoid horses you go up to 9 days food and 4 days water, minimum, etc.

Then you’re in the dungeon. Low-level parties don’t have Continual Light objects and Light spells use up rare slots and don’t last long. Assuming the party is underground for 8 hours and has two light sources (a lantern and a torch) they’ll need 5 lbs of food and water (bare minimum) each and 31 lbs of light sources total. And this leaves no room for error, at all. Need to be underground for days at a time? Without magic you’ll need about 50 lbs of light sources per day if you all sleep in the dark.

[...]

So if you enforce encumbrance, food, time, distance, etc. rules the characters have to be prepared and the players have to plan. This is a perfect excuse to make them interact with the world you’re building and toss in tons of details they will get no other way.

The players will need to find sources for food and equipment, like torches or oil. This makes everyone think – where does the oil or resin come from? Can I get more/a better price if I go to the source? Are there limits? What food is available? In what season? How much? Where? etc.

As the party prepared for the Mapping expedition, a full year in the Briars with a base camp in the Mountain, the party had to source 13 months worth of food, water, light sources, etc. and get it to the mountain. The result?

Most of the light sources in the Mountain ended up being torches, then candles because they bought all the oil in the region and the few torch makers couldn’t keep up with demand. Food prices in Esber skyrocketed because they bought all the smoked ham, salted fish, and cheese to be had for ever-increasing prices. They also stripped the area of oats and sheep tallow, making the local favorite breakfast (unleavened oatcakes fried in sheep tallow) rare and angering many. The price of mules and pony carts went through the roof because they bought every one they could find in the kingdom for the bi-weekly caravans to the mountain. Independent merchants from Adrian started making runs up the Old Road to try to sell to the base camp (even though 3 in 4 vanished, never to be seen again).

In the end the increased demand opened up trade and diplomacy between Seaward and Banath for the first time in a generation, all because the party was feeding 25 people and 20 horses in a remote area for a year as well as stocking up a mountain hidey-hole for future expeditions.

I’d also like to note that the party did fun stuff like replacing or repairing a number of strategic doors and putting locks on them; hiding huge stashes of food, water, torches, lamp oil, candles, rope, spikes, etc. in several places; and conducting regular patrols in the upper levels. they effectively added treasure and random encounters to my dungeon.

The party also hired factors (merchants that buy and sell for you) in 5 towns and cities, bought an inn within Esber as a base and storehouse; met with the local Baron and Bishop to smooth things over with them, and; gave generously to the poor affected by the lack of food.

They also then had to use the mule train to get the loot from the Briars and the Mountain down to Esber, then sell everything off (taking a loss) before feeding the mules wiped out their treasure.

If I simply said,

“Don’t worry about food, water, light, or time. Let’s just play.”

None of that happens. They don’t have ties to NPC factors in five towns and cities (that have already triggered 3 more adventures), no meeting with the baron and bishop, no interaction with farmers, or the beggars, no long argument with the muleskinners about if they should get paid as much as light infantry if they also fought the kobolds, no stash of 3,000 gp worth of gear on Level Three, none of it.

The resource portion of AD&D is there for reasons, and the reason isn’t to annoy you. It is to point out that the characters live in a world that is supposed to make (at least internal) sense and provide a non-combat challenge for players to overcome with wit and skill.

Want the players involved in the campaign? Want them doing domain level stuff?

Then make torches burn 1 hour and weigh 21/2 lbs.

(Hat tip to Benjamin I. Espen.)

Being able to quick draw is probably the number-one skill in this sport

Sunday, March 15th, 2020

John Jackson is credited with founding the sport of archery dodgeball in 2011:

Also known as combat archery and archery tag, it’s grown to more than 1,300 locations throughout the U.S.

Rules differ state to state, but essentially when a referee blows a whistle, teams rush to a central dividing line, grab as many arrows as possible and attempt to hit their opponents while simultaneously dodging incoming fire. Unlike dodgeball, players can shield themselves behind inflatable obstacles. If players are hit, they’re eliminated and move to their team’s sideline. If they catch an arrow, the shooter is out and a sidelined teammate can return.

“At a distance, you can catch or dodge an arrow, but at close range you’re getting hit,” Mr. Reckner says. “The speed and force is comparable to a dodgeball thrown by an adult who is pretty good at dodgeball.”

The arrows are foam tipped:

Games consist of seven rounds, each of which may have different rules. For example, each team may have a target resembling a domino, with foam circles as dots. If a player shoots a foam circle out of the opposing target, an eliminated player on the shooter’s team can return to play. The round ends when one team has all players eliminated.

“It’s easy to think the most accurate shot wins, but really the game is more about being quick on your feet, being fast with the bow and having solid cardio conditioning,” Mr. Reckner says. The Cincy Aimbots have won a round in as little as 30 seconds, but Mr. Reckner says some last over five minutes. “Getting gassed in the middle of a round makes you an easy target,” he says.

Mr. Reckner started watching YouTube videos of Danish archer Lars Andersen:

To build speed, he lines up five arrows on the ground and attempts to pick up, load and fire all five within 10 seconds. “Being able to quick draw is probably the number-one skill in this sport,” he says. He repeats the drill 10 to 20 times. To build muscle memory, he loads an arrow on the bowstring and draws it back 25 to 50 times as quickly as possible.

Mr. Reckner says being able to hold an extra arrow is very useful—you become vulnerable when you attempt to grab an arrow from the gym floor. To build grip strength, he practices shooting while holding an extra arrow or two in his left hand. He also keeps three grip trainers of varying resistances in his living room. While watching TV, he’ll do three sets of 10 reps with each grip trainer. “I don’t have the biggest hands, so a strong grip helps me hold a bow and extra arrows,” he says.

He rides his Peloton bike four to five days a week, simulating hill climbs to build leg strength. “There is a lot of squatting during the matches, to either hide behind a low barrier or to pick up an arrow from the arena floor,” he says. He isn’t as committed to his strength routine and says he only uses his home gym one to two days a week, performing dead lifts, squats, bench presses and overhead presses.

Their writings were taken quite seriously

Monday, December 16th, 2019

In There Will Be War Volume II, Jerry Pournelle introduces “On the Shadow of a Phosphor Screen” with some thoughts on war-gaming:

In the late 50’s and early 60’s, the US Department of Defense became interested in war games. These were highly complex affairs, typically conducted in three rooms laid out with one-way glass so that those in the “Control Room” could see into each of the two participant rooms. I was involved in several of those war games. In one series, it was my responsibility to try to inject the consequences of tactical air power into a ground forces engagement.

Eventually that series of games led to the creation of the 11th Air Assault Brigade; which became the Air Cavalry. Helicopter troops are now a mainstay of US (and Soviet) military forces.

[...]

Such games can be useful. For example: it is nearly impossible to simulate Fall Gelb (Operation Gold), the German breakthrough which brought about the Fall of France in 1940. Any rational analysis leads to a clean win by the Allies, who had a preponderance of armor, men, and supplies, and who were defeated only by a total lack of understanding. Thus, one might think, had gaming fanatics and the tools for simulations games existed in the 30’s, the course of the war would have been far different.

[...]

Lest one place too much faith in these analyses, it should be remembered that the intellectual tools leading to Blitzkrieg were developed by Captain B. H. Liddell Hart and General J. F. C. Fuller, both of His Majesty’s forces. Their writings were taken quite seriously — but alas, only by the Germans.

Crowther wanted to connect better with his daughters

Thursday, November 21st, 2019

Fenton Wood recently mentioned that his latest novel includes a labyrinth chapter “incorporating classical myths, video game lore,” etc. I asked if it featured “a maze of twisty little passages, all alike” — one of the memorable bits from Colossal Cave Adventure:

Will Crowther was a programmer at Bolt, Beranek & Newman (BBN), and helped to develop the ARPANET (a forerunner of the Internet). Crowther and his wife Pat were experienced cavers, having previously helped to create vector map surveys of the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky in the early 1970s for the Cave Research Foundation. In addition, Crowther enjoyed playing the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons with a regular group which included Eric S. Roberts and Dave Lebling, one of the future founders of Infocom.

Following his divorce from Pat in 1975, Crowther wanted to connect better with his daughters and decided a computerized simulation of his cave explorations with elements of his role-playing games would help. He created a means by which the game could be controlled through natural language input so that it would be “a thing that gave you the illusion anyway that you’d typed in English commands and it did what you said”. Crowther later commented that this approach allowed the game to appeal to both non-programmers and programmers alike, as in the latter case, it gave programmers a challenge of how to make “an obstinate system” perform in a manner they wanted it to.

Developed over 1975 and 1976, Crowther’s original game consisted of about 700 lines of FORTRAN code, with about another 700 lines of data, written for BBN’s PDP-10 timesharing computer. The data included text for 78 map locations (66 actual rooms and 12 navigation messages), 193 vocabulary words, travel tables, and miscellaneous messages.

Jon Peterson discusses the birth of wargaming

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

I recently shared Invicta’s video, How did war become a game?, and now it looks like the show has brought on Jon Peterson, author of Playing at the World, to do a Q&A, since his book was the primary source for the original piece:

Jon Peterson also co-wrote Art & Arcana: A Visual History of D&D.

Fortnite’s dominance is ebbing

Wednesday, July 10th, 2019

The Wall Street Journal takes a look at the man behind Fortnite:

By age 30, Epic Games Inc. founder and CEO Tim Sweeney had a couple of successful videogames under his belt and was starting to make real money.

“I had a Ferrari and a Lamborghini in the parking lot of my apartment,” he recalled. “People who hadn’t met me thought I must be a drug dealer.”

Today, Mr. Sweeney, at 48, is worth more than $7 billion, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index. Epic was last valued at $15 billion, counting Walt Disney Co. and China’s Tencent Holdings PLC among its investors. And “Fortnite,” its blockbuster game, has racked up 250 million players and $3.9 billion in estimated revenue.

[...]

While the biggest U.S. videogame companies are clustered in Los Angeles, New York and the Bay Area, Epic is based in Cary, N.C., down the road from Raleigh. Mr. Sweeney said the location prevents Epic from being swayed by Silicon Valley groupthink.

[...]

Epic tried something different. It made “Fortnite” free and put it on every major device people use to play games — consoles, computers, smartphones and tablets. It put its own spin on a trendy new genre called Battle Royale, where a large group of players fight until only one person or squad is left standing. It constantly tweaked the game’s virtual world to give players something new to discover. And it took the popular shooter format and made it less violent and more playful, with colorful characters who compete with dance moves as well as firearms.

[...]

By erasing the barriers between players with different devices, Epic effectively turned “Fortnite” into a massive social network. Wearing headsets to talk to one another, groups of friends trade jokes and gossip while battling to survive.

[...]

Mr. Sweeney founded Epic in 1991 from his parents’ basement, at age 20, funding it with $4,000 in personal savings. He later dropped out of the University of Maryland a few credits shy of a mechanical-engineering degree. “I went from mowing lawns to being CEO of Epic,” said Mr. Sweeney, who got his diploma in 2018.

In its early years, the company had some success with a handful of games, including “Unreal Tournament” and “Gears of War,” that followed more traditional shoot-’em-up formats.

[...]

Today, “Fortnite’s” dominance is ebbing. Monthly revenue from sales of virtual perks such as costumes and dance moves for players’ avatars has fallen 56% since peaking at a record $372.2 million in December, according to Nielsen’s SuperData.

How did war become a game?

Sunday, June 30th, 2019

How did war become a game?

Setback in The Sassoon Files

Tuesday, March 26th, 2019

A small independent game publisher is claiming that its Lovecraftian horror adventure book, set in the Shanghai of the 1920s, has been ordered destroyed by its Chinese printer.

Sacrifices must be made!

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018

The Occult Defence Agency Budgeting Simulator looks like a bit of fun:

Occult Defence Agency Budgeting Simulator
“Sacrifices must be made!”

The minister, who was previously in charge of education, and before that, of health, and who is now heading occult affairs after the most recent cabinet reshuffle, having once again failed to unseat the prime minister, shakes your hand. His skin is damp and oddly yielding. You relax when you realize he doesn’t mean human sacrifices. He just wants to reduce your organisation’s budget, he explains. By twenty percent. Effective immediately.

Your organisation is in charge of defending the United Kingdom from paranormal threats. Vampire covens, stray werewolves, pixie swarms, cultists with funny robes and impractical daggers, unlicensed hauntings, and more obscure matters. Also, to liaise with sister organisations as part of the EUROCC framework — except maybe not anymore, as no one can agree on whether EUROCC, which predates the EU, is affected by Brexit — and to render occult aid and advice to the government — as if they’d ever listen.

Your predecessor, in charge for over twenty years, finally retired last year, got his life peerage, and is now spending most of his time with ducks. He left behind a sprawling agency and very little documentation as to which parts are vital to the defence of the realm, and which parts are the hobby-horses of an eccentric Oxfordian.

Well, you’re just going to have to find out. Start cutting.

Art & Arcana

Thursday, October 25th, 2018

I haven’t kept up with Dungeons & Dragons, which is now in its fifth edition, but Art & Arcana seems designed for people who grew up with the game, whether they kept up or not, and for youngsters who want to know about the good old days:

What makes Art & Arcana so special are the creative minds who came together to write it. They include Michael Witwer, author of Empire of the Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons, and Jon Peterson, author of Playing at the World, two of the most well-regarded books on the early history of D&D. Together with filmmaker Kyle Newman and actor Sam Witwer, their depth of knowledge is as substantial as the massive, 440-page coffee table book itself.

Art & Arcana is especially informative for those who’ve come to D&D with its fourth and fifth editions, both of which were launched after the turn of the century. Many new fans simply aren’t aware of just how grassroots the birth of the original RPG was, or how it challenged its creators, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

Illustration was particularly difficult to secure. Neither of the two men were trained artists, but their imaginations were overflowing with wild creature designs. How do you describe a mind flayer or a beholder to a consumer, let alone the poor artist tasked with drawing one for the first time? The communication challenges alone are astonishing, and Art & Arcana does an excellent job explaining them in the context of the evolution of the look and feel of D&D as we know it today.

Some of the earliest art for Dungeons & Dragons, at that time published by TSR, was created by a teenager from Rockford, Illinois named Greg Bell. His style, remarks the book’s authors, was “a blocky rendering of strong shapes and lines, [which] translated surprisingly well to the crude printing process TSR could afford.”

Art and Arcana Strange Inspirations

It was also heavily inspired by period Marvel comics. Some of D&D’s earliest images were, in fact, conspicuously similar to pages from Strange Tales #167 featuring Dr. Strange and Nick Fury.

But comics weren’t D&D’s only inspiration. A set of toy creatures, common in pharmacies and convenience stores in the 1970s, are a dead ringer for some of D&D’s most iconic monsters. That includes this grey/green critter which would go on to become the bulette, also known as the “landshark.”

Art_and_Arcana___art_on_page_66_2

Art and Arcana Bulette Illustration

Some of D&D’s most iconic adventures, dating to 1978 and 1979, have a unique pastel cover. Assembled together on a single page, these so-called “monochrome” covers create one of the many collages that make Art & Arcana such a delight to explore.

Art and Arcana Module Covers

A fantasy world that stood in as a facsimile for the real one

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

It should come as no surprise that D&D players test well:

A group of Grade 9 students in Texas who substantially outperformed their district on a statewide standardized test all had one surprising thing in common: they all were members of the school’s Dungeons & Dragons club.

The real question:

A coincidence? Otherwise, how does a fantasy role-playing game produce improved test scores? The obvious explanation is that the club draws the bright kids who are already academically inclined. But many of the kids in the club at the Title I school had histories of struggling with academics.

For Kade Wells, the teacher who runs the club at Davis Ninth Grade School outside Houston, the answer is simple: “Playing Dungeons & Dragons makes you smarter.”

The two explanations aren’t mutually exclusive.

In one striking example, educational researcher and teacher Alexandra Carter used a student-modified version of Dungeons & Dragons as the centerpiece of a yearlong program with a Grade 3 class that combined math, reading, writing, and social studies. Many students in the class struggled with academic and behavioral challenges, but rooting their core subjects in the game produced remarkable results.

In a paper she authored recounting the experience, Carter describes a wealth of student success stories, both behavioral and academic. “I was able to see progress in all of the students,” summarizes Carter, “and was especially impressed with the work that those who struggled the most produced.”

Carter observes that a great deal of the project’s success hinged on students being motivated to learn and practice skills that applied to the game. Students often have trouble appreciating the value of what they learn in school when it is abstracted from its real-world purpose. In this case, learning was meaningful for the students because it had traction in a fantasy world that stood in as a facsimile for the real one, the central dynamic of play and a key feature of its value for development and learning.

The Lazy Goldmaker is Azeroth’s most famous financial guru

Thursday, September 13th, 2018

The Lazy Goldmaker is the World of Warcraft’s financial guru:

In August, shortly after the release of World of Warcraft’s seventh expansion, Battle For Azeroth, The Lazy Goldmaker posted one of his meticulous spreadsheets to the WoW economy subreddit. It contains a set of expertly appraised auction house margins for all of Azeroth’s many tradeskills—blacksmithed weapons, stat-buffing cooking recipes, excavated gems.

[...]

The Goldmaker himself chooses to remain anonymous, but he does disclose that he is 30 years old and Norwegian. It was during the Burning Crusade, more than a decade ago, that he first became interested in the economic side of Blizzard’s immortal MMO, and he’s been operating The Lazy Goldmaker blog—where he posts columns, analysis, and other musings—since 2016, shortly after the launch of the Legion expansion.

[...]

World of Warcraft lets The Goldmaker experiment—he’ll spend hours tinkering with the untapped capital of, say, the profit yields of the new Inscription recipes—and he’ll report back on his blog detailing each of his successes and failures, much to the glee of his international bulwark of disciples. After all, it’s not like he’s risking anything truly disastrous or life-changing. As the Goldmaker reiterates to me, we’re talking about the currency of elves, dwarves, and orcs in a computer game. He can afford to be a little cavalier with his investments, because “it’s just pixels at the end of the day.”

“I’m always looking for markets that players aren’t focusing on,” he says. “Because there are only so many people in the gold-making scene, so there’s always going to be something that players aren’t looking at.”

[...]

You can read the fundamentals of how The Goldmaker breaks down his economic principles in a beginner’s guide he posted to his website this March. “World of Warcraft is a game about constantly improving your character,” he writes, and as a financial opportunist, it’s your job to provide avenues to either help those characters boost their power levels or beautify their models. So, as an upstart auction house shark, you’ll learn to farm efficient materials in Azeroth, target specific high-value recipes that you can turn around quickly, and buy out supplies when they’re abundant and repost them when they’re scarce.

eSports update

Saturday, September 8th, 2018

Tyler Cowen shares an eSports update:

Tournament prize pools now rival those for some of the biggest events in traditional sports, and global audiences for some big gaming events have surpassed 100 million viewers, driven largely by esports’ exploding popularity in Asia.

The lion’s share of esports revenue comes from corporate sponsorships, according to industry analysis firm Newzoo, with ticket sales, merchandising and broadcasting rights bringing in additional revenue. Newzoo estimates that esports will generate $345 million in revenue in North America this year, in addition to more than half a billion dollars in revenue overseas.

Commenter Stuart “worked in an earlier era of this business (2008)” and notes that “it is a weird world”:

A key challenge I perceived then as now is the opaque visible display of athleticism. The gap between a great tennis player and myself is quite easy to see. I can pick up a racket, but I can’t do much more. In contrast, I can play the same games as these pros and feel accomplished by virtue of a sliding scale of difficulty which games have relied on for decades. Certainly a youth league for Tennis offers a similar analogy to this, but games are designed to be winnable, creating some ambiguity about the difference between the average joe and the pros. The more one plays, the clearer the contrast becomes, but the level of understanding on the part of the general public to the nuance of this struck me then as the reason why it would not gain mass appeal.

What has happened in the intervening decade seems to be a continued disregard for any ‘mainstream’ audience but the continued development of a formerly niche viewership which can appreciate the nuance, strategy and skill on display.

Like other ‘nerdy’ pursuits, eSports still seem to wrestle with a hunger for mainstream acceptance (e.g. lobbying for inclusion in the Olympics), but are clearly at their best when speaking to their core, which is growing by the year.

As another commenter noted, the incentives are unusual in eSports, where a developer owns the game. “Imagine what the NFL would do differently if they were trying to maximize the number of people playing football instead of the number of people watching football.”