Dungeons and Dreamers

Like founding fathers of entertainment, people such as Steve Jackson, John Carmack, and John Romero blazed a trail of innovation others still follow, hoping to learn and improve on the design fundamentals The Great Old Ones established. Gaming’s infancy produced some of the greatest development minds to date.

In the early days, everyone knew everyone, and everyone worked for everyone. Warren Spector worked with Steve Jackson, before moving to Origin to work with Richard Garriott. The industry is still very small and incestuous, but in the 1980s, playing Six Degrees to Any Game Developer rarely had more than two hops. Geeks, like other humans, are pack animals at heart. They build small tribes – or brain trusts, in the case of early gaming – and focus intently on what stimulates them. Brad King and John Borland, the authors of Dungeons and Dreamers, tell the stories of some of the most influential game designers in history.

Reading like a collection of short stories, Dungeons and Dreamers draws us into the primal years of gaming, before huge budgets and formulaic story lines ruled the day. Companies were big if the staff broke 10, and more money was spent on pizza and beer than packing materials to ship finished titles.

The book pays special attention to Richard Garriott, creator of the hugely popular Ultima series. Richard Garriott’s Origin Studios, built on the nest egg his first few games helped him accrue, was based out of a rented house in New England, where he began throwing the Halloween parties for which he’s now famous. His work helped establish the game industry as something people could actually make money in, and inspired numerous other developers to create games in new ways.

Origin, back then, was more of a fraternity than it was a company. Designers lived in a communal state with one another, arguing the finer points of development between D&D sessions and all night benders. The industry was pure. Games brought the developers into your living room, their personalities leaving notable marks on their creations.

As gaming grows, the book draws away from Garriott and pays more attention to the rainmakers at id Software, John Romero and John Carmack. Their drive to bring people deep into Doom‘s universe revolutionized gaming. As multiplayer communities organically grew around Doom, the internet was just beginning to blossom. Players from all over the country were congregating both on- and offline, and were forming one of the earliest tribes of gamer culture. Later, conventions such as QuakeCon would be held near id’s Texas offices, and members of the team would play deathmatches with their fans. id’s chieftains eventually parted ways, moving on to individual endeavors, both in and out of the industry.

King’s and Borland’s book centers around a theory that Dungeons and Dragons had a profound effect on early videogaming. This theory finds support in the fantasy setting Garriott chose for the Ultima games, and is further solidified by the fact that id’s two premier games were based on D&D sessions. But D&D’s effect goes beyond mechanics.

King and Borland offer an underlying mission every developer seemed to share: connect to people in intimate ways. The great minds of electronic gaming’s formative stages were all concerned with reproducing the same feeling you get when you’re surrounded by your friends, collectively imagining a scene as a game master unfolds the bowels of a dungeon. Experiences just don’t exist until you share them with someone else, even if that person is thousands of miles away, as in the case with Ultima Online and the multiplayer versions of Doom. Garriott, Romero, and Carmack realized the power communities have, and helped form the culture gamers now comprise. Ultimately, Dungeons and Dreamers tells a story about people finding ways to connect to others, no matter what the medium or the subject, and weaves the tale in very can’t-put-it-down way.

Joe Blancato is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist Magazine, in addition to being the Founder of waterthread.org.

Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic
Brad King and John Borland
McGraw-Hill Osborne Media; 1 edition (August 19, 2003)

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