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.”

Players aren’t entirely sure who is who

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

Brian Train has designed a game based on the 1973 Chilean coup d’état that deposed socialist President Salvador Allende and brought Allende’s appointed army chief, Augusto Pinochet, to power. Rex Brynen of PAXsims reviews Chile ’73:

The game first involves a pre-coup phase (during which players try to bring various military, paramilitary, and civilian assets under their control) of several turns, and then a coup phase (when loyalists and opposition battle to control key locations around the city). During the pre-coup period, players aren’t entirely sure who is who (that is, whether others represent military, police, or civilian leaders), what their agenda is (seeking soft power, hard power, or a coalition), who is on which side, and what the loyalties of most units are. Each may recruit new assets, investigate the loyalties of other units, neutralize a rival player’s influence over a unit, block a rival player’s action, or move units. During the coup phase, units may move and fight. Some locations on the map yield particular bonuses or other game effects.

Chile '73

Chile ’73 is not intended as a high-fidelity simulation of the bloody events of September 1973. Although played on a zonal map of Santiago with units drawn from those that were present in real life, there’s no attempt to simulate the actual leaders and factions that shaped events. In this sense it might be thought of more as a Chile-themed coup game.

Maria Konnikova is putting off her poker book, because she’s making too much money at the game

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

A year ago, New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova announced that she was diving into the world of professional poker as a new player, in order to write a book about it, and now Poker News reports that she has put the book on hold, because she’s doing so well:

In January, Konnikova won $86,400 by beating a 240-person field at the PCA National; in her first tournament after deciding to drop blogs for cards, she won $57,000, according to PokerNews:

“PCA was the moment where everything kind of came together,” she said. “I’m learning and it’s sticking and I’m playing well. It’s a really wonderful feeling when you’re studying and working to have that validated.”

Her huge success forced Konnikova to re-evaluate her plans. With an incredible opportunity in what could be a historic poker event on the horizon, Konnikova decided she had to push the book schedule back and go all in on poker for the time being. She built a revised poker schedule, ramped up in terms of both buy-in sizes and quantity of events.

It paid off immediately, as she finished second in an Asia Pacific Poker Tour Macau event for $57,519.

This kind of stunt has a rich tradition among writers and amateur athletes. George Plimpton kicked it off with NFL, MLB, and NHL tryouts in the 1960s for a series of books. More recently, Sports Illustrated’s Michael McKnight spent huge amounts of time trying to learn how to dunk and hit a homer; Slate’s Stefan Fatsis wrote books about his attempts to become a kicker for the Denver Broncos and an elite Scrabble player; and Dan McLaughlin, who had never played a full round of golf before, decided to test out the Malcolm Gladwell-popularized 10,000 hour theory and become a professional golfer from the ground up. It didn’t work, exactly, though McLaughlin got very good.

Konnikova is maybe most similar to McLaughlin in her starting point — “I’m a total poker outsider. I came to this as someone who’d never had any experience with the game” — but she’s nearly peerless in the outcome. (Writer James McManus did finish fifth in the 2000 World Series of Poker while in Las Vegas on assignment to cover a murder case for what eventually became Positively Fifth Street, but he had been a somewhat serious amateur before that.)

The story of the rebel lieutenant

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018

Owen Stephens shares what might very well be the best roleplaying-game story of all time, the story of the rebel lieutenant, from when he was putting on a demo of the then-new Star Wars roleplaying game:

How Winchell Chung forged the first Ogre

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

When he was a high school student in 1975, Winchell Chung ordered the game Stellar Conquest through the mail from an ad in Analog Magazine:

Metagaming Concepts, the parent company of Stellar Conquest, advertised their fledgling newsletter called The Space Gamer within the game. For no particular reason, I doodled some starships in my subscription letter. Metagaming was so starved for artwork that they printed my drawings in the second issue and asked for more. I did quite a bit of art for subsequent issues. They later commissioned me to create illustrations for game manuals.

In 1976, he was commissioned to do the art for their new game, Ogre:

Studying the rules revealed that the Ogre had two big guns, six smaller guns, twelve antipersonnel weapons, six missiles, and zillions of tank treads. Oh, yes – the rules also mentioned that an Ogre would be facing an entire army. The frightening implication was a solitary Ogre possessed firepower equal to said army. This is the sum total of the information with which I had to work.

In addition to designing the Ogre, I also had to create the various army units as well. Different types of tanks, armored hovercraft with jet engines instead of propellers, and troopers clad in powered armor.

Now came the research phase. I checked out from the library every single reference book that had pictures of tanks. I filled page after page of newsprint paper with rough sketches from those pictures. Fortuitously, my high school art teacher was a WWII tank expert and I shamelessly picked his brains about tank construction, battle tactics, design philosophies, and related matters. I immediately noticed that the Ogre had similarities to the Bolos from Keith Laumer’s novels. That did not help much since Laumer was vague on the details and the book cover illustrations were uninspiring.

Yeah, that does sound fortuitous.

About this time I showed these and other drawings to my art teacher. He noted that the deep indent between the heavy tank’s cupola and the body was “shot-trap city,” that is, it would funnel incoming hostile fire into the fragile connection between cupola and body. As an off-the-cuff remark, he said it would be nice for the Ogre to have a telescoping sensor boom so it could hide behind a hill and peek over it.

I thought I would take a break from the Ogre design and instead work on the cover art composition. I roughed out the placement of the design elements, and almost without thinking I sketched in the Ogre. Right before my eyes everything gelled. I knew the Ogre had lots of tread units, so I placed parallel tracks. I placed a telescoping sensor boom. I placed a pair of stumpy primaries in oversized ball mounts. Most important of all I used the sloping front. Suddenly there was the classic Ogre “look”: the massive invulnerable appearing front, the signature sensor boom, and the twin primaries looking like huge evil eyes. It was impressively scary.

Mr. Jackson sent directions for alterations, annotating a photocopy with red ink, and I made the alterations. But the basic design was established at that point and has not changed for over 40 years.

OgreFig4

The game is now in its sixth edition.

Taking turns to contrive a story gives off a radical whiff

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

In 2017, playing Dungeons & Dragons — outside the realm of the Internet — can feel slightly rebellious, the New Yorker suggests:

This turn of events might shock a time traveller from the twentieth century. In the seventies and eighties, Dungeons & Dragons, with its supernatural themes, became the fixation of an overheated news media in the midst of a culture war. Role players were seen as closet cases, the least productive kind of geek, retreating to basements to open maps, spill out bags of dice, and light candles by which to see their medieval figurines. They squared with no one. Unlike their hippie peers, they had dropped out without bothering to tune in. On the other side of politics,Christian moralists’ cries of the occult and anxiety about witchcraft followed D. & D. players everywhere. Worse still, parents feared how this enveloping set of lies about druids in dark cloaks and paladins on horseback could tip already vulnerable minds off the cliff of reality.

[...]

In 2017, gathering your friends in a room, setting your devices aside, and taking turns to contrive a story that exists largely in your head gives off a radical whiff for a completely different reason than it did in 1987. And the fear that a role-playing game might wound the psychologically fragile seems to have flipped on its head. Therapists use D. & D. to get troubled kids to talk about experiences that might otherwise embarrass them, and children with autism use the game to improve their social skills. Last year, researchers found that a group of a hundred and twenty-seven role players exhibited above-average levels of empathy, and a Brazilian study from 2013 showed that role-playing classes were an extremely effective way to teach cellular biology to medical undergraduates.

Adult D. & D. acolytes are everywhere now, too. The likes of Drew Barrymore and Vin Diesel regularly take up the twenty-sided die (or at least profess to do so). Tech workers from Silicon Valley to Brooklyn have long-running campaigns, and the showrunners and the novelist behind “Game of Thrones” have all been Dungeon Masters. (It’s also big with comedy improvisers in Los Angeles, but it’s no surprise that theatre kids have nerdy hobbies.)

Successful games yield “a-ha moments”

Monday, October 16th, 2017

A national security game designer at RAND describes how games can help America take advantage of different potential futures:

[A] recent RAND project designed a game-theoretic model of conflict in space to identify conditions that support deterrence. The research team developed an initial model of possible decisions an actor could make to escalate or de-escalate a budding conflict in space, but given the costs of building and running a program that could examine thousands of cases, they wanted to make sure that the model accurately reflected human behavior before they began programing. The team designed a short manual game where subject-matter experts were asked to manage a conflict that could easily escalate into war in space. We watched the players to see if they would behave the same way as the model predicted. For example, we hypothesized that players would be more aggressive when they felt themselves at a disadvantage. Over and over players acted out of a concern that they needed to “appear strong” — escalating the conflict exactly as the model predicted.

[...]

Game designers and participants in successful games often describe an “a-ha moment” — an unexpected game event or a statement made in the game that offered new insight on a familiar problem. For example, in the space game, participants took actions not for their operational effect, but rather to signal intentions. While the game designers had not previously included signaling actions in the design of the model, as soon as we heard it we knew it must be included. Similarly, in the RAND Baltic Games, players realized again and again that the short distance between the Russian border and Baltic capitals required forces to be prepositioned in order the have a fighting chance.