RPGnet Guest Column for December, 1997
Polyhedral Dice & Mirror Shades
by Greg Costikyan
Paper and computer gaming: compare and contrast.
Well, first of all, these are both badly fucked-up industries. Fucked up in different ways, to be sure.
Some things are the same. For one, designers don't get no respect. In paper gaming, they're lucky to get credit on the title page, and damn lucky if their name appears on the cover; and even if they manage that trick, the second edition is likely to credit someone else entirely for the work they did. As we all know, Zeb Cook is solely responsible for 2nd edition AD&D. Gygax and Arneson, they had nothing to do with it, right? Actually, Zeb is cool enough to credit Gygax (but not Arneson) in his intro, but the actual game credits don't. And you notice I had nothing to do with the 2nd edition of the Star Wars RPG, even though the game is basically my rules rewritten to eliminate all of the jokes.
Computer gaming works more or less the same way. Unless you're Sid Meier, you don't get cover credit. And for many computer companies, the game designer is well down the pecking order; Sandy Petersen may be the designer of Doom II, but the programmers get the press. Which for a game of that type may be appropriate; the interface and algorithms and gestalt weren't determined by Sandy; he was "level designer," an increasingly common thing in computer gaming, meaning he defined the tricks and traps and level lay-out but had nothing to do with the underlying game engine. As with film, computer game design is a collaborative form, more so even than paper gaming; and it's often difficult to say who has more creative input -- designer, producer, technical lead, or art director.
Still, none of these guys get much credit. As a f'rinstance, I recently had a tiff with Discovery, who put up the money for Evolution because they insisted on putting the Discovery credits ahead of the Crossover credits in the rulebook -- their director of sales has more to do with the game than the people who actually implemented it, I guess. Of course, we control the software, so the in-game credits put us first :).
A major difference is the sheer scale of financing. Typically, a freelance roleplaying game designer is lucky to get $10,000 for a complete original system -- advance against royalties, of course. And even counting in the cost of developing ancillary products and promotion, a new RPG takes low six figures to launch--and can be done for a lot less by a garage operation. In computer gaming, there are no garage operations any longer; you need a team of at least six, working for a year, to do a game of acceptable quality. And budgets start at a million and go up from there -- not counting the costs of manufacturing and promotion. That's pure development expense.
Contrariwise, the money is a helluvalot better, too. It is possible to make a reasonable middle-class living as a computer game designer. It's possible to live in squalor as a paper game designer -- if you work really really hard.
Do I miss anything about paper gaming? Yes; it's easier to be creative when the budgets are smaller. It's easier to find someone to publish something quirky when it doesn't involve a seven figure risk. And it's possible to do a game in a few months of effort by a single person -- something out of the question in computer gaming. The greatest fucked-upness of computer gaming is, in fact, the conservatism of the money guys; it's awfully hard to get funding for something original. A whole lotta first-person shooters and Command & Conquer clones out there, and it's going to get worse before it gets better.
Do I miss paper gaming? Nah. I like to eat. And I think of gaming as a unified whole; thirty years ago, there was no such thing as gaming of any kind, save for a few mass market boardgames, and these odd little wargames that appealed to Naziphiles... These days, gaming is the second largest entertainment industry in the world, grossing $5 billion annually -- that includes videogames, of course.
We're engaged in the creation of a whole new artform; and the same basic principles that apply to roleplaying apply to CD-ROM games, online games, boardgames, whatever. It's an exciting time to be working as a game designer, in whatever field; and in computer games, I can reach a larger audience as well as make a better living.
Will I ever do another paper game again? Idunno. The main advantage of roleplaying and boardgaming is that they are social activities; because of the single-user nature of the home PC, computer games have been strangely warped. In the depths of pre-history -- e.g., before Pong -- solitaire games were rare, and sad second-bests to real gaming. Computer games are inherently solitaire--and death matches and the like are sad, second-rate extentions of products mainly designed and sold for single-player use.
But with the growth of the net... I'd far rather get funding for a multiplayer online game than an RPG. Everyone is diving off the persistent world cliff; there's lots of other things you could do... Got any development bucks to spare?
You know, if I'm going to do something pointless and unremunerative for sheer artistic joy, I'd rather write another short story.
Print is dead.
But on the other hand.... the future's so bright, you gotta wear shades.