Archive | September, 2007

“Hobby Games: The 100 Best” or I Love Lists

10 Sep

Back when I was in college I started collecting people’s Ten Best Film Lists. I still have ’em, dozens of them. And someday, I’ll dig them out and embarrass people I haven’t spoken with in 30 years. (You’ve been warned!)

Anyway, since I was a kid, I’d been compiling and revising and recompiling my own lists — of favorite films, favorite cars, favorite racing cars, favorite TV shows, favorite what-have-you-got? I’ve always been a bug about lists.

It always fascinated me how my own criteria changed from day to day, and year to year. So seeing how other people ranked stuff was high entertainment indeed. With the movie lists, some folks used “significance” as their main criterion — did a movie change things… Others said “If I could only watch movie X or movie Y tonight, which would I watch?” (repeat until you’ve narrowed it down to 10)… Still others applied the desert island test — “If I could only watch ten movies for the rest of my life, over and over, which would hold up best?” Great stuff…

I mention all this because I was recently asked to participate in a book project called “Hobby Games: The 100 Best” from Green Ronin Publishing and edited by an old colleague from my papergame days, James Lowder. I only got to write one chapter, darn it, and I really wanted to write about Sid Sackson’s Acquire (the Best Boardgame Ever) but someone else got it first. I went with Tikal, instead, another terrific, terrific game, of course, and one I was thrilled to write about.

I won’t list the entire contents of the book (you can find that at the Green Ronin website), but I will say the list of games is fantastic (though I’d quibble with many of the entries), and the list of authors is a who’s who among game designers (though heavily skewed toward boardgame designers, as you might expect). Totally worth checking out if you’re into games and looking for a fun read (and you’re into lists!)

Also, my old TSR colleague (and buddy), Jeff Grubb, recently posted about the book on his blog. He did run the whole list of games and asked readers to identify which games they owned, which they’d played and so on. An interesting idea. Check it out.

Anyway, now that I’ve confessed my affection for lists, here are my fave games/movies lists. They’re highly idiosyncratic, to say the least. In making these lists, I gave no thought to “significance” or “influence” (except as the games and movies may have influenced me). I didn’t include any games I worked on. In some cases, I’ll acknowledge that there are games I think are better than some on the list (e.g., Ultima VI is, I think a way better/more fun game than Ultima IV, but U4 kind of changed my life, so U4 makes the cut and U6 doesn’t — plus, I worked on U6).  Mostly, these are just games and movies I love — no more, no less.

(NOTE: I reserve the right to change my mind and amend these lists at any time… I’m going to try to come back and provide more information about each game, and why I listed it — in the meantime, you’ll have to Google anything you’re not familiar with. Oh, and since this is my blog, I’m going to give myself an extra, honorable mention slot for a game that almost made the cut…)

Boardgames

  1. Acquire
  2. Daytona 500
  3. Domination
  4. Monopoly
  5. Ogre
  6. Risk
  7. Settlers of Catan
  8. Speed Circuit
  9. Tikal
  10. TransAmerica
  11. (Rail Baron)

Videogames

  1. Diablo
  2. Guitar Hero
  3. Half Life
  4. Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past
  5. Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
  6. Suikoden
  7. Super Mario 64
  8. Tetris
  9. Ultima IV
  10. Warcraft II
  11. (Ico)
  12. (Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess — okay, so I cheated and went for 12 on the videogame list. So sue me.)

Movies

  1. 7th Voyage of Sinbad
  2. 42nd Street
  3. Adventures of Robin Hood (and, boy, do I not mean the Kevin Costner film!)
  4. Casablanca
  5. The Hustler
  6. King Kong (the 1933 version, not the Peter Jackson)
  7. The Nutty Professor (the Jerry Lewis version, of course)
  8. On the Town
  9. The Searchers
  10. Sullivan’s Travels
  11. (American Graffiti)

Let the arguments begin!

Saving Our History Before It’s Gone, Part 2

6 Sep

So we had our big fundraiser for the Videogame Archive last night and I figured I should post something about it while the memories were fresh in my mind.

I can’t speak to the event’s success at actually raising money for the archive (not being privy to that sort of information, at least not yet). However, if you were one of the attendees, you already know — as entertaining evenings go, the event rocked.

I have to admit, I was a little nervous as the evening began. It poured buckets in Austin in the hours before the event was scheduled to start, and continued to rain off and on throughout the night… at our outdoor event… on Richard Garriott’s unpaved property. Let’s just say it was muddy. The amazing thing? No one seemed to care.

That was partly because The Center for American History and University of Texas folks who did all the heavy lifting to make the event happen were organized, prepared and had backup plans for backup plans, so people weren’t inconvenienced TOO much by the weather. But more than that, I think everyone was excited at the legitimacy the event brought to gaming. I mean, this is a major university saying “Videogames are important.” And on top of that, the event brought an incredibly diverse group of people together, which is always entertaining. And there were some crazy “Zero G Mojitos,” whatever those are — I can’t really say, other than to point out that they’re highly intoxicating, which probably helped keep everyone’s spirits up as they got soaked!

Anyway, hundreds of people showed up to hang out, hear what was going on with the archive, play arcade games, eat terrific food, listen to terrific music from a band made up of game developers (and they were really good, despite that). There were a bunch of press folks with video crews talking to folks. The speeches were short (always a good thing!). And, oh man, was the auctioneer a pro — he had folks bidding on stuff like nobody’s business, so I know we raised SOME money for the archive. There were arcade games (including a VERY original old pong game, sent by Ralph Baer himself — Google him if you don’t recognize the name — that was as much fun as any game on the market today).

The high points for me were the sight of university types mingling with gamers… local philanthropists side by side with playtesters… movie people talking to game designers… Personally, I had a fine old time talking to Joe Garrity, the Origin Museum guy (he’s the Good Kind of Fan), along with a fellow I hadn’t met before, Stephen Emond, who’s written a book called “Ultima: The Ultimate Collector’s Guide” that has to be the most comprehensive history of the Ultima series I can imagine. I have to get a copy!

Really, though, I have to say the Auction was the biggest blast of all. There were so many great items available, and people really got into the spirit of the thing and bid way higher than I expected, being the cynic I am… Richard Garriott auctioned off a complete set of Ultima games from his personal stash, including (one of only 20 copies of) Akalabeth, the one Ultima-ish game I don’t own, darn it! THAT went for a ton of money, let me tell you, to one of the guys who made Red Vs. Blue, I think. Oh, and of course there was the little bidding war I got into with Lord British himself (whose bank account is just a WEE bit bigger than mine…) for possession of a collage of Denis Loubet artwork from Ultima Underworld. I HAD to own it and did, in fact, win — but only because Richard was being nice to me… It was that kind of evening.

Anyway, I realize this doesn’t really tell you much about the event, but I’m not a reporter. With luck one of the journalists who was there will post something more informative. I just figured I should post my impressions and have now done so.

Saving Our History Before It’s Gone

3 Sep

As a once-upon-a-time film historian, I used to spend hours bent over microfilm machines (hey, it was a long time ago!) and rifling through 60 year old memos from guys like David O. Selznick to Alfred Hitchcock. I loved getting my hands on history, touching all that original material. It made me feel closer to the material I was writing about and more confident that when I wrote up an article or a book about the history of the medium I loved and lived for back then (this was before there WERE videogames, of course), I might actually be saying something real and true and valuable.

At that time, I was struck by two things: First, how cool it was that so much material from the early days of film history still existed and, second, how much had been lost. For every David O. Selznick or Gloria Swanson, who kept EVERYTHING, there were a dozen John Fords, who seemingly kept nothing. And when you start talking about the Oscar Micheaux and Laura La Plantes of the world (look ’em up…), the picture starts looking really grim. According to some sources, 80% of films made before 1930 are gone forever. We’ll never see them. Ever. Imagine how much less of the supporting material exists–the contracts and script drafts and sheet music and so on. It’s enough to make a grown man cry…

Rather than cry, I decided that wouldn’t happen to me–to MY medium. So, to the chagrin of my lovely wife, Caroline, I’ve been saving a ton of stuff related to my work–concept art, design docs, emails, you name it. I’ve always believed videogames were going to be Important, someday, and that historians would want to know what REALLY happened as we created an entirely new medium, from scratch. Arrogance? Conceit? Sure, I guess. But the worst case was that I end up being wrong and Caroline, the aforementioned lovely wife, has boxes (okay, truckloads) of junk to throw away when I shuffle off this mortal coil. And, if I’m right, the detritus of my work becomes source material for generations of future game scholards and researchers.

I know a handful of other folks who feel the same way I do, and save their work-related stuff–notably Richard Garriott–but most seem to believe their efforts are ephemeral, at best, and no one cares, so they just throw stuff away. Drives me nuts. So earlier this year, I got together with some other folks–Richard Garriott, William Bottorff (of Austin Business Computers) and George Alistair Sanger (aka “The Fat Man”)–and we made a plea to the University of Texas’ Center for American History to create a Videogame Archive and Research Center. A place dedicated to the preservation of videogame history and a mecca for students, researchers, historians and even fans interested in learning how the medium became whatever the heck it’s going to become.

To my amazement, they expressed strong interest. I think it was largely Bill Bottorff being an absolute bulldog with a bone–he wasn’t going to stop until they said “yes.” And the fact that Richard and George have charisma to burn and can convince anyone to do anything. And maybe an email I drafted had SOMETHING to do with it. Here’s what I said in that email:

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I have been hoping someone involved with UT would put together some sort of Game History collection for some time, but never really knew who to talk to about it. (Everyone I worked with at the HRC, back in the late 70s is long gone, I’m afraid, and I have no connections anywhere else inside the university.)

As someone who’s done a bunch of primary research in the area of film history, I know how devastating it can be to KNOW something happened but not be able to trace back how it happened, because the people and institutions involved didn’t see the value to future generations of preserving their work-in-progress. “Hey, we’re just making movies—no one’ll ever care about what we do day-to-day” was the order of the day in the film biz and that’s even more true today in games.

The fact is that the history of the videogame business is being written every day and, sadly, being lost just about as quickly. Few among us developers cares about this stuff or sees the value in preserving old contracts, correspondence, marketing materials, design documentation, source code, etc. Once a game is done, most folks empty out their files, delete their emails and move on.

So here’s my thought: Someone needs to step up NOW and recognize the cultural and academic importance of videogames. We’re a $25 billion business, and rising. We’re central to American culture and world culture (for better or worse!). Though many may not realize it, especially among the academic gatekeepers and politicians, we ARE an art form, a serious medium of expression, with serious practitioners whose work will be important to future generations. Luckily, we’re still a young enough medium, that nearly all of those serious practitioners are still alive and available to be interviewed and/or solicited for contributions to an archive of research and reference materials.

And Texas is the right place to build such an archive.

Austin has been home to more influential developers than you can shake a stick at—from Steve Jackson to Richard Garriott. We’ve been home to major offices of some of the biggest players in the industry—from Electronic Arts to Nintendo. Expanding the circle to Dallas and Houston opens up incredible opportunities for archivists, with id Software, Ensemble, Ritual and many others just up the road. Austin could easily establish itself as the center of game studies in the United States.

Who cares, you ask? Well, there are now hundreds of universities offering game studies courses and degrees—USC, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, University of Michigan, Northwestern and many, many more. Academics need access to primary sources. UT could be the hub of a new and burgeoning field of academic study, one that’s of growing importance.

So, what I propose is this: Take my papers. Please. Take Richard Garriott’s materials. Empty John Carmack’s files before he shoots all his old stuff into space. Provide an archivally sound place to store that stuff—anything would be better than the old file cabinets and cardboard boxes I have at home! Set up a program of interviews with leading lights in the game business (and non-leading lights, too), before all of us die and it’s too late. Get started soon. The fact is, the pioneers in this business ARE getting older and we won’t be around forever. And there’s competition for our archives already.

Obviously, I could go on for days about this, but I’ll stop here. I want to see Richard Garriott’s “collection” housed in a manner similar to the Selznick collection and the Gloria Swanson collection and the like. And I’d prefer that it be in Austin, if at all possible, If you can help, I’d love to talk.

Warren Spector
Austin, Texas
September 14, 2006

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The folks at the Center for American History responded with enthusiasm. We had an event announcing the creation of the Videogame Archive back in February and tomorrow, Tuesday, September 4th, we’re having a BIG fund-raising event which promises to be incredibly cool. You can find out more about the event here:

http://www.cah.utexas.edu/projects/videogamearchive/

I’m pretty sure the event is completely sold out, so it’s probably too late to attend, even if you’re an Austin local. But I’m sure the Center for American History would love to hear from you–about donations of funds to support the hiring of dedicated archive staff and the purchase of materials, space for storage, etc.. And be sure to click on the About the Archive link at the top of the page. There’s lots of good info about what we’re trying to do (and about the Center for American History, which is just a cool deal, even outside their interest in games).

Speaking personally, I’d like to ask all of you reading this, if you’re a developer or a journalist or a practitioner in any area of games and game development, PLEASE stop throwing away our history. Soon enough there’ll be a place where all your stuff can live and be made available to historians. Save our history, don’t trash it!