The Answer to Everything

The Answer to Everything
The Revolution Began With Paper

Greg Costikyan | 25 Apr 2006 12:01
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Conventional histories of digital games generally take, on the one hand, arcade amusements and pinball, and on the other, academic experiments with computer games like Space War and Colossal Cave as their starting point - and while those were important influences, any history that doesn't recognize the importance of tabletop roleplaying is missing the boat. A whole generation of digital game designers became fascinated with games at least as much through their exposure to D&D as because of the Atari 2600 or the arcade. Richard Garriott's Ultima was directly inspired by D&D, as were almost all the earliest Western digital RPGs - Wizardry and The Bard's Tale and the rest. Will Crowther, the original creator of Colossal Cave/Adventure, the ur-text adventure, has also said he was inspired by D&D (although the earliest version of Colossal Cave predates D&D's release), and there's a reason that Bartle and Trubshaw's MUD-1 was a "multi-user dungeon." Indeed, you can make the case that a huge number of modern digital game styles - RPGs, adventure games, action-adventure games, and MMOGs - derive directly from tabletop roleplaying.

The last big piece of the hobby game market is the trading card game, created by Richard Garfield in 1993 with the publication of Magic: The Gathering. Garfield observed that hobby games were increasingly being sold in comic book shops - and that many of these stores stocked trading cards in additional to games and comics. He understood that this was merchandise they were comfortable handling, and that a game based on trading cards could be successful. Magic was the result; and like D&D before it, it quickly became a cultural phenomenon, growing to eclipse the tabletop RPG market in terms of dollar volume, with kids comparing cards and playing the game at playgrounds everywhere. So far, aside from a few "virtual" TCGs (and Magic Online), TCGs have had little direct impact on digital games - but then, the generation that played and loved Magic has not yet gotten into positions of power in the game industry, and its impact may be to come.

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In the mid-'80s, when I was Director of Research & Design for West End Games, a wargame and tabletop RPG publisher, we got into contact with Irad Hardy, who had held the same position a decade before for SPI. Irad had left the industry for a career in the car rental industry, and was astonished that a market still existed for hobby games. He assumed it had been crushed by the juggernaut of videogames.

But the truth is, the rise of digital games has been accompanied by a rise, not a decline, in non-digital games; in the early '70s, the hobby market grossed no more than $20 million annually, and today it grosses several hundred million (there are no reliable industry figures). In essence, videogames have helped hobby games to thrive, by making "gaming" an acceptable and broad practice across society, and inculcating a whole generation with a love of and desire to play games. Tabletop roleplaying games and Magic players play videogames, too - and many videogamers are wholly comfortable sitting down with a German boardgame, a TCG or a tabletop RPG. Games, of all sorts, are no longer the purview of a few proud geeks, but the common vernacular of anyone under 40.

Paper games are largely ignored by both the industry and general press, and it's understandable why: Non-digital games, as a business, are an order of magnitude smaller. But the reality is that the two sides co-evolve - the growth of digital games brings new players to paper ones, and the ability of the paper field to innovate and experiment at far lower cost than digital games gives it a disproportionate influence on the imaginations of designers. That influence is more than indirect, too; many designers began in paper gaming and moved to digital, if only because if you want a career as a designer and also to live a reasonably comfortable middle class living, it's hard to do that in hobby games. See the chart for some examples.

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