The Escapist on Greg Gorden

An Elder Scrolls game on a cellphone? It sounds like painting landscapes on rice grains. The most famous roleplaying games (RPGs) in Bethesda Softworks’ bestselling PC-based fantasy series – Morrowind, Daggerfall, and the upcoming Oblivion – are sprawling, open-ended extravaganzas so big you need a Lonely Planet guide.

Yet, here they are: Stormhold and Dawnstar, Java- and BREW-based Elder Scrolls games that run on dozens of different handsets, and Shadowkey for the N-Gage. Your jaw will drop: On a screen the size of a Federal Duck Stamp, they’re first-person- perspective RPGs with attractive art (by Elder Scrolls artist Mark Jones), multiple character classes, lots of quests, and dozens of detailed dungeon levels full of monsters and loot. Like bonsai sequoias growing on an end table or toy poodles that can sit in a coffee mug, the three ultra-miniaturized mobile RPGs in this Elder Scrolls: Travels series embody obsessive attention, a master’s skill, and a crazed urge to do the impossible. Who pulled it off?

“If it’s hard, I have to know if I can do it,” says Greg Gorden, who designed all three games working freelance with Vir2L Entertainment. “RPGs are the biggest challenge on mobile platforms. At the time we started doing the Travels games, there were no first-person phone games. They’re just beginning to come out with some now. With a lot of handheld games, you can burn through them in 45 minutes; they may be highly replayable, but you’re not seeing any new content. But there’s no such thing as a 45-minute console RPG. You have to give roleplayers generally twice as much as you do for an arcade game and 50 percent more than a strategy game, because that’s the expectation of the market.”

In the Travels games, Gorden and Vir2L give the market a concentrated, crack-like essence of Elder: the trademark first-person view, the feel of open-ended adventure, plenty of quests, and a world to explore. “Elder Scrolls games really play with the sense of scale,” Gorden observes. “Things can be vast, things can be cramped. That’s hard to do on a mobile phone. For that approach, Shadowkey was the most successful. We had stuff that felt crampy, stuff that felt large. The world seemed absolutely huge. That one was the most successful in bringing the entire world alive.”

Players like them all – and not just hardcore Scrolls fans, either. “Mobile games typically have a shelf life about one third as long as a PC title,” Gorden says. “You’re doing well if your game is still available after six months. You can still buy these Travels games after two years. At this point we’re bringing some new people in.”

In jamming full RPGs onto a phone, Gorden learned that “everything is bang-for-the-buck. If I crop an image by 15 pixels, does that free up memory for a dialogue or mission brief, another palette color? It was tradeoff after tradeoff. We squeezed until we could squeeze no more.” Some of the supported handsets have just 64K of RAM. “We did custom versions for each main phone branch,” Gorden says. “For the one we delivered to Sprint, we were within 17 bytes of the maximum.”

“Phenomenal cosmic power, itty-bitty living space”
Gorden has arrived at this microminiature niche after many designs that, in size and scope, can fairly be called spectacular. He started in the mid-’80s in the paper-and-dice roleplaying hobby. Victory Games’ licensed James Bond 007 roleplaying game, on which he was credited as system developer, was an early entry in the “universal table” school of design, where you resolve the success or failure of your actions by rolling dice and consulting a single chart. The all-purpose chart tells whether you succeed and how well.

Gorden became the leading proponent of this philosophy, gaming’s universal tablemaster. His pioneering DC Heroes comic-book RPG runs monomaniacally on two all-encompassing Action and Result Tables. They quantify everything, which is to say evvvvverything – strength, smarts, weight, time, distance, money, information, psychic force – in generic “Attribute Points” (APs). Six APs of time is four minutes; of distance, 200 yards; of weight, a ton and a half. If you have a Strength of 6 APs, you can lift 6 APs of weight, or throw 4 APs of weight for 2 APs of distance, or throw 1 AP of weight at 5 APs of speed, and so on. Whether you’re Batman interrogating a crook, the Flash sprinting across the Atlantic, or Superman punching the Moon out of its orbit, you turn everything into APs, and the two tables tell whether you succeed and how well. Maybe your eyes have already glazed over, but to any roleplayer who’s struggled with a Dungeons & Dragons encumbrance table, this is elegant stuff.

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The brilliance of DC Heroes, and the most telling sign of Greg Gorden’s breadth of vision, is that each additional AP is worth about twice as much as the AP before it. So, for instance, a character with Strength 6 is twice as strong as Strength 5. If 1 AP of surface area gives you a tabletop; just 51 APs (fifty doublings) gives you Earth. (A mere 5 APs of information separate Gorden’s cell phone dungeon-crawls from Morrowind.) This lets the DC Heroes‘ design gracefully accommodate both petite and planetary, normal and superheroic, Jimmy Olsen and Superman, all on the same scale.

Gorden pushed this idea to the limit with the cinematic action RPG Torg. A sprawling free-for-all in both design and setting, Torg depicts a war among realities, competing universes (“Realms”) in a surreal land-grab for Earth. The genre-spanning premise conjures competing Realms of fantasy, science fiction, cyberpunk, pulp adventure, and Victorian-era horror – supervillains, ninjas, dragons, dinosaurs – magic, cybernetic implants, shamanism, and theocratic sorcery. Gorden’s design boils down his earlier universal tables to a single line, and then layers on rules for Realm-specific genre conventions, Possibility Points, a Drama Deck of cards, a system for collecting story outcomes from individual player groups nationwide and quantifying their combined effects to shape the published war storylines. By now you see why reading Torg is like eating an entire pineapple upside-down cake – rich, delicious, much too much of a muchness.

Did his experience in creating these giant games, among many others, help Gorden in condensing the Elder Scrolls to 64K? “Yes, it actually did,” he says, “it’s more just being old. You have an established bag of tricks, a game toolkit. A lot of the techniques are the same,” regardless of the game type. “You can hearken back to some of the old solitaire dungeons and build-your-own-dungeon tile-laying games, and turn that into something easy to execute in code. In Shadowkey it’s just the ability to put a narrative together that’s spread across 50 bite-size pieces” – a technique Gorden mastered in his trading card game Killer Instinct, with Shane Hensley. Gorden relates, “I believe it was Greg Costikyan who said, ‘Mobile games are designed by haiku.’ If you’ve done that in the past, you know what to do better than someone who’s come to the platform from a console game.”

First-person perspective
Gorden’s presence in the mobile space echoes an earlier influx of paper-game designers into computer and console games – a horde that includes Warren Spector (Deus Ex), Chris Avellone (Planescape Torment), Zeb Cook (Metroid Prime, City of Villains), and not least, Ken Rolston, who did standout work for paper RPGs RuneQuest and Paranoia before designing – what was it? – oh yeah: Morrowind.

The gameplay ideas these designers brought to computers are now filtering virally into phones, and Gorden is one vector. “I love RPGs, and the mobile space is growing like crazy. I thought, ‘If I’m gonna jump in, it’s certainly better to jump in now.'”

Apart from his future projects with Vir2L (nothing has been announced), Gorden is shopping around a mobile game he designed with longtime collaborator, Anthony Gill: Marble Mazeness, a J2ME version of those infernal wooden tilting-table dexterity toys in which you guide a steel ball along a path while avoiding holes, or more often, not. The phone game adds divots, bumpers, lasers, lava, trapdoors, power-ups, and magnetic walls. Mazeness went gold in May and may appear by late 2005.

From cosmos-spanning epics to … marbles. With the Travels games, Gorden has brought vigor to mobile RPGs – sort of created them, really – but platform strictures forbid surpassing the scope of his paper masterpieces.

Gorden is philosophical about his future role in the space. “I think the coolest mobile game genre is yet to be developed. My experience on Travels got me closer to seeing how you could build an entirely new experience on the mobile phone. But I’m not there yet. I consider myself a laggard in the race, but I definitely want to see who wins.

So when will we see this breakthrough phone-game experience? Gorden doesn’t know – he’s not planning it himself – but he offers a guess: “My feeling is, in the next 18 months it will be out, and it will absolutely blow up the mobile business. I’m looking forward to seeing it.”

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