International Games Week October 29 – November 4

International Games Week

What’s afoot, September edition: the last couple of months in games

Posted on September 18, 2014

Hey everyone! Apologies all round for missing this update last month - there was a lot on and I was a little too stretched to cover it all properly. That's still the case, alas, so here are the major headlines from the last couple of months!

Gen Con 2014

Gen Con bills itself as "The Best 4 Days in Gaming", and speaking from personal experience I can attest that it's not a far-fetched claim. Of particular interest to us in library land is that we actually get the best five days in gaming: for the last few years, Gen Con has featured a trade day on the Wednesday before it starts (it normally runs Thursday to Sunday), with streams for retailers, teachers - and librarians. Having attended in 2011 with my partner (a primary teacher) we can vouch for two out of the three! It is an excellent professional development and networking opportunity. Plus you get early entry into the dealers' hall on the following day... and given that Gen Con is the biggest tabletop gaming convention in the US (not the world - that honour goes to Essen Spiel - but with over 55,000 unique attendees, it's pretty big), that's kinda like getting early entry into BookExpo America... if it were twice the size.

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

Of particular interest at this year's Gen Con was the official release of the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Honed in a massive public playtest over the last couple of years, the new edition is - to my eye, and based on a preliminary skim rather than a deep engagement with the rules - a solid distillation of the core elements of the game as it's manifested over the past 40 years and 4 editions (though fans of each previous edition will not find the more outlying features from that edition; it's very much about finding the unifying thread rather than the best individual elements), with a few nice modern design touches thrown in. It's still basically a swords-and-sorcery adventure generator, of course!

Readers with keen memories may recall the discussion of the licensing shifts around previous editions of D&D in the Paizo sponsor profile. It's not yet entirely clear how the third-party licensing will work for this edition, though the fact that this license isn't yet available is already a departure of sorts from both 3rd and 4th editions (as is the fact that only the Player's Handbook has been released - the other two "Core Rulebooks", the Dungeon Master's Guide and the Monster Manual, come out later this year). However, they have already taken a novel step with the release of a freely reproducible "Basic Rules" document which contains enough rules material to start playing with typical builds of the four best-known classes in the game - fighter, rogue, cleric and wizard. While the material in this PDF is more generic and has fewer customisation options than experienced tabletop roleplayers would like, as an introduction to the basics of the game it works perfectly well. And its price point makes it viable for any library looking for an interesting activity... or, given the potentially endless stories the game enables, an ongoing series of activities.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this edition of the game (and the license for others to contribute to the ruleset) develops!

The ENnie Awards

ENworld.org is... hard to describe, actually. It's the kind of sprawling undertaking - part community forum, part semi-official news site and gossip mill, part collective archive - that seems to spring up disproportionately often among gamer circles; the combination of tech-headedness and a proclivity towards user-creation seems to provide particularly fertile terrain for their growth. Since originally starting back in 1999 as an unofficial clearinghouse for news about 3rd edition D&D, it's gone on to become all the above and more: most noticeably a publisher in its own right (with several substantial publications, both in print and electronic, under its belt now), and - from quite early on, starting online in 2001 and hosting at Gen Con since 2002 - the host of the premier awards in the English-speaking tabletop roleplaying game world, the ENnies.

In the table of nominees below (which was lifted from enworld.org's announcement of nominees), the Silver Award recipient is bolded and the Gold Award recipient is bolded in red - yellow being too hard to read!

Best Adventure

Best Aid/Accessory

Best Art, Interior

Best Art, Cover

Best Blog

Best Cartography

Best Electronic Book

Best Family Game

Best Free Product

Best Game

Best Miniatures Product

Best Monster/Adversary

Best Podcast

Best Production Values

Best RPG Related Product

Best Rules

Best Setting

Best Supplement

Best Software

Best Writing

Best Website

Product of the Year

 

2014 Judges’ Spotlight Winners

PAX Prime and (vs.?) DragonCon

The other biggest gaming convention in the USA - this time focused on videogaming, though in reality both conventions feature plenty of overlap with each other's focus[1] - PAX Prime took over from E3 when that convention made the fatal decision to shift from being open to a general audience towards a more industry-insider event. This year it also expanded to four days, Friday 29 August - Monday 1 September, making it one of the major contestants for Gen Con's "Best 4 days" title - and also placing it 100% in competition with (fellow contestant for best 4 days) general-geek-culture convention DragonCon, which ran on the exact same dates.

(Crowdfunded MMO-in-beta Shroud of the Avatar - Ultima creator Richard Garriott's latest project - cunningly played up this rivalry by running a PvP test pitting players from the two conventions against each other. Despite being the smaller and nominally less game-focused convention, DragonCon won convincingly, 34 to 14.)

More news to cover, and all three conventions have received plenty of other coverage, so we'll move on.

Microsoft buys Mojang (makers of Minecraft) for $2.5 billion. Yes, with a "b".

You presumably know that Minecraft is kind of a big deal. It's sold upwards of 33 million copies, and occupies a healthy chunk of the planet's attention at any given time.

Even so, $2.5 billion seems like a lot. As a point of reference, Oculus, the folks who are likely to be bringing the world a whole new mode of interacting with technology and imagined worlds (they rekindled the push towards head-mounted virtual reality displays with their Kickstarted Rift device), were bought by Facebook not long ago for $2 billion - i.e. less than Mojang.

It seems a little excessive, especially since it can only be a matter of time before the next craze starts, right...? But, as many commentators before me have pointed out, what Microsoft has bought is not just the game, nor the company that made it (indeed, the founders of Mojang are all leaving), but the userbase. An audience - or, to a corporation, a market - of that size is a significant commodity. (An interesting word to apply to a collection of actual humans...)

Minecraft Hunger Games

Before anyone asks - we have no indication that this will have any effect on our plans for the Minecraft Hunger Games. Naturally, if there is any sign of anything changing, we will let you know! But barring the unforeseen, those of you who expressed a desire to participate should be hearing from the good folks at Ann Arbor District Library shortly - and those who have not yet registered should do so pronto - it's not too late until we tell you it is!

Game profiles: The art of simulating imagination

Posted on June 23, 2014

And from tabletop RPGs we go to electronic RPGs with another fantastic piece by one of our volunteers: Ben Manolas surveys the meteoric rise of the Western RPG, a form whose time came with the rise of the computer.

The evolution of roleplaying games (RPGs) is a subject which could easily fill volumes, from children role-playing as other people or fictional characters to the most detailed and complicated pen-and-paper RPG. There are an almost endless number of ways for individuals to create an entirely new persona and explore places that may or may not exist. For this game profile piece, however, I will be looking at the evolution of Western RPGs on computers and consoles from text-based adventures to fully immersive graphical epics with the potential to last for hundreds of hours.

Computer RPGs found their beginnings in Text-based RPGs in the mid to late 70s, heavily influenced by Dungeons & Dragons. From this starting point, basic quasi-graphical symbolic interfaces soon started to appear, with ASCII characters representing objects and characters in the game world; probably the most famous of this type of RPG was Rogue, the game which lends it name to the entire genre dubbed ‘roguelike’. These games featured procedurally-generated levels where players could explore, find treasure (loot) and encounter enemies in an effort to level up and get as far down the dungeon as possible. These games had a massive influence on later action RPGs (ARPGs) such as Diablo, Sacred and Path of the Exile.

The next step in the evolution of the Western RPG was the introduction of full graphical user interfaces (GUIs) which allows developers to create games that can be easily identified as the ancestors to the games we enjoy today. In the Ultima and Wizardry series players find the introduction of plot, parties, colour graphical representations of players, objects and enemies in the game world and, beginning with Ultima III, the ability to use keystrokes to move a character rather than having to type out commands. While Ultima stayed with the traditional top-down view found in roguelikes, the Wizardry series used a first-person perspective to attempt to more fully immerse the player.

From this point many beloved franchises continued to produce sequels and new franchises emerged including Might & Magic and my personal favourite, Lands of Lore (this being the first game I ever purchased). Gameplay was improved, graphics continued to get better, sound effects and speech were introduced - I can still remember sitting at the computer with my father and going crazy when the noise of a horse’s hooves changed as it went from a dirt road to a wooden drawbridge in the first Lands of Lore, or Patrick Stewart’s amazing voice work. Unfortunately, over time, the Western RPG marketplace started to stagnate with many sequels not showing enough improvements over previous instalments to warrant interest and new franchises feeling much like carbon copies of more popular entries in the genre.

Then along came arguably the most influential studios in the history of Western RPGs, Black Isle, BioWare and Blizzard. Together these studios released some of the greatest RPGs and ARPGs ever including Baldur’s Gate and Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, Fallout and Fallout 2, all three entries in the Diablo series, Neverwinter Nights and Neverwinter Nights 2, Planescape: Torment, World of Warcraft, Mass Effect etc. The list is large and almost all of the games these studios released were instant classics, redefining how people approach not only RPGs but games outside of that genre, while also pushing both technical and artistic boundaries.

Arguably the most revolutionary of these games was Planescape: Torment. In this game the player wakes up in a morgue with no memory of who they are or where they have been and quickly acquire a talking, floating skull as a companion. What made this game so revolutionary was not only the amount of script created for the game (approximately 880,000 words) but the amount of choice players are given: the focus of the game isn’t conflict, but rather the story itself and the question that underpins it - "What can change the nature of a person?". Planescape: Torment helped RPGs move away from the "dungeon crawl" past exemplified by roguelikes and showed what can be achieved if a game focuses on storytelling, allowing the action to be a plot device rather than the plot itself.

One of these studios is also responsible for the leviathan of a sub-genre known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG). World of Warcraft (WoW) is an online RPG based in the world of the Real Time Strategy series Warcraft, both of which were developed by Blizzard Entertainment. Since its release in 2004, WoW has been the biggest MMORPG in existence; there were others before, such as Ultima Online and Everquest, but it was WoW that really pushed the MMORPG genre to the front of stage, gaining it attention from gamers and non-gamers alike. This is due largely to the number of subscribers peaking at 12 million individual players in 2010, something that has never been accomplished by an MMORPG before. Many large MMORPGs have been launched since, such as Guild Wars 1 and 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic and The Elder Scrolls Online, each with their own features to try and set them apart, but none has come close to repeating the success the Blizzard found with WoW.

Modern-day RPG enthusiasts are spoilt for choice, with Steam and GOG.com allowing them to reach back (almost) to the start of the Western RPG and play all the classics right up the present. There are a huge number of quality modern RPGs out there such as The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, The Witcher series, the Mass Effect series, the Dragon Age series, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, Grimrock... and with Kickstarter allowing developers to resurrect the classic franchises of the 90s, such as a new Torment game, Wasteland 2 and a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate in form of Pillars of Eternity. Even better is the ease with which fans are modding games, creating whole new stories and even entirely new games based on the engines of the original (of particular note are Skyrim and Dragon Age: Origins). RPG elements are bleeding in to other genres more than ever, with quest and levelling systems now found in everything from First Person Shooters to Strategy games. I don’t think there has been a better time to be an RPG gamer, so maybe it’s time to lose yourself in another world for an hour or 300.

 

Ben Manolas is a Children’s and Youth Librarian at the City of Melbourne. He has been playing RPGs since he was 8, has lived in far too many other worlds for his own good and considers himself a chaotic good battlemage.

   
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