The Red Box Diaries

The Red Box Diaries
On the Origin of Games

Adam Niese | 14 Sep 2010 12:31
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The computer "island" has abundant computational resources, but you can only access them through highly structured means, i.e. code. Games that thrive on computer island are good at efficiently handling complex rules. A videogame can process the actions of eighteen warriors and thirty-seven goblins in real time without struggling. It doesn't matter if each combatant has varying stats and special abilities that, say, alter initiative order, because it's just crunching numbers. You can add an elemental affinity system, real-time experience advancement, and physics-driven combat without taxing a processor. Wargamers lose entire weekends meticulously tracking similar statistics, but computers can transform Spreadsheet: The Game into the Active Time Battle system.

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Meanwhile, over on the human island, tabletop games need to run on a conceptually simpler rule set as well as one that players can adapt on the fly. Without simple rules, a game will stall while everyone calculates the shrapnel trajectory from a catapult shot. Adaptive rules are important because some player inevitably makes an insane diplomatic attempt to culturally assimilate the goblins of De'thtr'p. When they happen to critically succeed on a Diplomacy check, it should be relatively easy for the Dungeon Master to improvise rules for goblins in a service economy.

Videogames and tabletop games evolved largely in parallel for a decade or two. Ideas that worked well in one setting eventually appeared in the other. Where the consumable spellcasting mechanics in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons worked well in Final Fantasy, the MP mechanics in Final Fantasy IV worked well in D&D 3rd edition as power points for Psions. Although it's impossible to establish a direct inspirational relationship between the two series, primacy is irrelevant. In the same way hedgehogs and echidnas both acquired quills because sharp barbs make an effective predator deterrent, Final Fantasy and D&D share mechanics because both need a way to regulate powerful abilities that threaten game balance. What matters is that the same mechanics work for both systems because they share the same goals and needs. They fill the same niche in different ecosystems.

This would make for a simple rubric for discussing the two game formats, but something happened to games in 1988 that never happened to Darwin's finches. The gulf between islands narrowed; computer technology had advanced enough for a passable D&D videogame. Pool of Radiance, the first "gold box" game, let you choose a fighter, thief, mage, or cleric to lead a team of six adventurers. Your party explored the world through a first-person slideshow that switched to an overhead map for strategic combat, like switching out of Street View in Google Maps. Glorious EGA graphics allowed remarkably high-fidelity renderings of art from the D&D Monster Manual. Other videogames had mimicked tabletop roleplaying rules, but Pool of Radiance was the first to license the D&D name and officially adapt the rules for use in a computer game. It was highly limited, but Pool of Radiance was unmistakably D&D.

The release of Pool of Radiance heralded a shift from parallel evolution to convergent evolution. As technology shrinks the gap, resources on the two islands become mutually accessible and the islands become more similar. When ecosystems converge, so does evolutionary pressure.

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