The Gamemasters

The Gamemasters
The Contrarian: Roll the Dice

John Scott Tynes | 6 Sep 2005 12:01
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I'm reminded of Eric S. Raymond's essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar. He wrote about the differences between top-down, monolithic software development and bottom-up, open-source development. But the metaphor applies here too. If you've ever seen pictures of a baroque cathedral, you know the obsessive detail and ornamentation the designers put into it. When the city fathers of Seville decided to build one, their stated goal was to create a structure so amazing that future generations would think them mad. You don't often see that attitude in public-works projects, but European cathedrals were special that way. Money and talent poured into them and they became wonders of the world.

Yet around any great cathedral, what did you find? Poverty, little houses, narrow streets, peasants. All of that work went into one great edifice, an enclosure so vast as to screen the outside world from view. This is how people build videogames: a constricted realm that seems huge, ornate, and impressive, yet is merely an island within an empty ocean. If you escape from the confines of a videogame level, as software bugs often allow you to do, you literally fall off the edge of the world. There is no there, there.

That's the cathedral approach.

Tabletop games take place in bazaars. They are sprawling, diverse creations, and you quickly become convinced you can find anything in them if you look long enough. You're right: If you poke and prod and chatter for enough minutes, the gamemaster can hurriedly expand the bazaar, right there on the spot, then throw back the curtain and show you what you were looking for as if it had been there all along.

I've run tabletop games with no preparation other than a stack of photographs and an opening scene, spinning that into an intricate, multi-session mystery on the fly. Whatever wild-ass guess my players came up with was the right wild-ass guess, because I'd take their idea and run with it. It's not that hard. Veteran gamemasters do this stuff all the time. Players love to rummage and GMs love to haggle. Between them, they wander the bazaar until they find the plot.

Thinking about this stuff, I IM'ed an old friend of mine from tabletop gaming. These days, Mitch Gitelman is the Studio Manager for Microsoft's FASA Studio. He was the producer on the MechCommander series and the first MechAssault, and executive producer on the Xbox game Crimson Skies. FASA Studio, of course, grew out of a tabletop game company that did Battletech, Crimson Skies, Shadowrun, Earthdawn, and other titles.

Mitch got into videogames during the equivalent of the Wild West days, in the heady time shortly before the first Playstation, when people were still figuring out what "multimedia" was and "CD-ROM" was still a cool buzzword. He was one of many tabletop game writers looking to move into videogames, starting with computer projects. "I was a Mac guy. I didn't tell anybody I didn't know how to use a PC," Mitch says. "I just kinda winged it."

Things were different then. "My writing partner and I got in with Sony and Psygnosis and made our first deal in a goat pasture in Wales. The producer asked us how much we wanted. I pretended to add up some numbers, then quoted a figure double what we expected. They said yes. Then I said I had to talk to my partner. We stood to one side, surrounded by goat shit, and I babbled at him: 'What's a pixel? What's a polygon?' I was scared out of my mind."

In the years since, Mitch has worked with a lot of other tabletop designers who are getting into electronic gaming. It's been a bumpy ride.

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