Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Online Gaming Slays Old-School Roleplaying

Here's a link only geeky readers over the age of 25 can truly appreciate. The NYTimes recently ran an article about Dungeons & Dragons going online, and how the 'gaming' market has been almost completely subsumed by online/computer gaming (The article is at the bottom of this post in case they've archived it by the time you read this). Apparently this online version of the D&D experience stays pretty true to the original. They're even trying to replicate the group experience by building in a mic feature that will allow online players to chat with each other. Overall, it sounds pretty interesting, an online treat for the 30-40-something geeks out there. But is it going to pass the discriminating tastes of the comic book guy demographic? Don't count on it. It seems like most of the old-school gamers out there aren't too impressed with the idea. The NYTimes article gives us this quote from one middle-aged gamemaster (I highly recommend you try reading it out loud in the voice of the comic book guy a couple of times for full effect):
I play because I have a very creative mind and a very noncreative job. So the game helps me balance it out. There is no creativity at the computer, because you're limited by what the programmers thought you might do. Here in person, I can react dynamically to the players and craft an adventure specifically for them.

The most surprising revelation of the entire article was finding out that Vin Diesel is a hardcore Dungeons and Dragons freak. You can find corroborating evidence of that fact in this Wikipedia on Diesel. Here's the relevant part of the wiki bio:

Diesel is a long time fan and player of Dungeons & Dragons and other role playing games, a fact that he proudly states in various interviews. He occasionally makes reference to D&D in his films, such as in XXX where one of the tattoos on Xander Cage (Diesel's character) reads "Melkor," the name of one of Diesel's old player characters. (Melkor is also the original name of the Satan-like character in The Silmarillion and other Tolkien stories.) It has been said that his portrayal of Richard Riddick in the Pitch Black series of movies and games is based somewhat on this favorite character, a Drow "witch-hunter" who was a loner, and that Diesel has the character's image tattooed on his leg. He has also written the foreword to the commemorative book 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of D&D, a collection of stories and essays which chronicles the history of D&D. It is also rumored (though never confirmed) that Diesel plays the popular game World of Warcraft under the alias "Dish".

Priceless. Vin Diesel is a massive D&D dork, and is actually very proud of it. I guess it goes a long way in explaining how he gets sucked into these horrific action movies. Hilarious, you can't make this stuff up. Here's another amusing link from bbspot on how a geek with social anxiety overcame his condition by turning his life into to a roleplaying game. The sad thing is, I can actually see this approach working with some hardcore socially-inept gamers out there. And for those of you who doubt the geeky depths roleplaying depravity take a look at these two videos.

Dungeon Masters in Cyberspace

Published: February 27, 2006

Gary Gygax, the original dungeon master, can see as well as anyone how computers have changed the face of gaming. All he has to do is look down the hall at his home in Lake Geneva, Wis.

Three decades ago, when Mr. Gygax helped create the world's first role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, advanced game technology meant the exotic 20-sided dice players roll to determine if their imaginary sword has skewered the orc or manticore they are confronting.

Traditional D&D is still around (the noted role-player Vin Diesel wrote the adoring foreword to a 2004 book celebrating the game's 30th anniversary). But these days, aspiring wizards, druids and paladins are more likely to click and type their way through the evil necromancer's tower rather than huddle around a table casting spells between grabbing bites of pizza. In recent years, millions of people have flocked to rich online games that let players express their inner warlock without leaving home.
"My youngest son — he's 19 — even he stays up until 4 or 5 in the morning many times at the computer playing games like World of Warcraft," Mr. Gygax said recently, referring to one of the world's most successful online games, which could take in $1 billion in revenue this year. "The analogy I make is that pen-and-paper role-playing is live theater and computer games are television. People want the convenience and instant gratification of turning on the TV rather than getting dressed up and going out to see a live play. In the same way, the computer is a more immediately accessible way to play games."

So in classic if-you-can't-beat-'em, join-'em fashion, dozens of programmers and artists in a Boston suburb have spent more than three years trying to bring Dungeons & Dragons online. Many hardcore "old-school" players continue to turn up their noses at digital fare, yet even Mr. Gygax and D&D's other co-creator, Dave Arneson, have lent their voices to the new project. The new game, called, simply enough, Dungeons & Dragons Online, is to be released tomorrow.

"There have been a lot of video games based on Dungeons & Dragons, but in the past they have been almost entirely solo, single-player experiences," Jeff Anderson, chief executive of the company that makes the online game, Turbine Inc., based in Westwood, Mass., said last week. "Now, with the Internet and advances in graphics, we can finally create an online version of that classic sitting-around-the-kitchen-table Dungeons & Dragons experience, without people having to actually go out."

More than 300,000 people signed up to test the game in recent months, and if a similar number subscribe to the final product, which will cost about $15 a month, Turbine and Hasbro, which now owns the Dungeons & Dragons brand, will have a moderate hit on their hands. Mr. Anderson hopes that the well-known D&D brand will bring in players from other online games while his project's close adherence to traditional D&D rules will also entice pen-and-paper holdouts to give cyberspace a chance.

"As gaming has become more popular, you've started to see a change in how it's perceived socially," he said. "It went from something you did as a 13-year-old in the basement to something you might do with buddies in the living room. And a lot of those 13-year-olds are now 35-, 40-year-old guys. And we're hoping we can appeal to them."

But judging by the general reaction Thursday night at Neutral Ground, a gaming store and parlor in Manhattan, the online game may be a tough sell to pen-and-paper diehards.

"The video games are just so impersonal," said Louis Pirozzi, 38, of Jersey City, as he and five friends gathered around a table and prepared to play a D&D module called "Time's Tide on Bright Sands," an adventure into the desert wasteland controlled by a character named Rary the Traitor. "Role-playing games are about interacting with other players, other real people, not about interacting with a computer."

Sam Weiss, 41, from the Bronx, leaned over a few dice and the erasable grid on the table that players use to lay out combat scenarios with miniature figures. "Computer games are inherently limited because they only give you a set number of options," he said. "In a game like this, what we can do is limited only by our minds."

The night's dungeon master, Rich, tax director for a New York City company, would not divulge his last name out of what he described as professional discretion. "I play because I have a very creative mind and a very noncreative job," he said (though some tax experts might disagree). "So the game helps me balance it out. There is no creativity at the computer, because you're limited by what the programmers thought you might do. Here in person, I can react dynamically to the players and craft an adventure specifically for them."

Nonetheless, D&D Online is meant in almost every way to mimic the classic pen-and-paper dungeon crawl. In both the online and traditional game, each player creates an avatar, with its own special abilities based on its race and profession, such as a dwarf warrior or an elf cleric. The players then form an adventuring band and strike off into a game world that is usually filled with innumerable monsters ripe for defeat and plunder.

While pen-and-paper role playing usually involves thick rule books and sacks of special dice, in D&D Online the computer handles the number-crunching and rules adjudication while the players can see a computerized representation of their actions rather than having to (or being enabled to) imagine them.

While players in most online games communicate by typing, Turbine has tried to enhance the in-person feel of D&D Online by building voice-chat software into the game so players can speak with one another using a microphone plugged into their computer. And while most video games try to adopt a cinematic mode of storytelling, D&D Online plainly reminds users that they are playing a computer approximation of a pen-and-paper game. During combat, an icon of a spinning 20-sided die appears in a corner of the screen, just as modern slot machines still show spinning reels even though a microchip has already decided if you've won the jackpot.

Experienced video gamers will scoff at such window dressing, but those little touches are meant to provide a comfort level for pen-and-paper traditionalists. In addition, the game's makers hope to recapture men who may have played D&D in their youth but then given it up amid the mundane responsibilities of adulthood. (Women are a clear minority in almost all serious gaming circles.)

"One of the hardest things about pen-and-paper games is that you have to actually get people together — 'Hey, can you come over on Thursday night? No? How about Saturday afternoon?' " said David Eckelberry, one of D&D Online's lead designers. "It was a lot easier to do that when we were younger, but it's harder to find time with your friends as we get older and get lives and jobs and families. With the computer, the game world is always waiting for you, so you can play when you want."

Keith Baker, a novelist in Colorado, who created the imaginary world of Eberron, where D&D Online is set, said that online gaming could provide a bonding experience for far-flung friends who might not just pick up the phone to chat.

"What am I going to do, call my friends and just talk for four hours?" Mr. Baker said. "That's not going to happen. But if I have my friend in Austin and my friend in Los Angeles and we can get together online to go defeat the mummy king, it gives us something to do. And we can talk about other stuff while we're doing it, but it gives us a shared activity. Whether it's pen-and-paper or online, playing together with friends is what Dungeons & Dragons is all about."


Anonymous harzerkatze said...

hmmm. You don't have an awful lot to say on the subject, have you? I mean, all you do is randomly quoting the article and giggling "Gee, so Vin is a dork" into your beard? Wow, that's quite some astute insight there. And making fun of geeks sure is the epitome of fine humor and creativity.

On the other hand, the article was little more than a press reliese, anyway. I see no indication that "Online Gaming Slays Old-School Roleplaying" than that video games or TV or LARP did (or that video killed the radio star). More like "Many pen and Paper roleplayers not too impressed by DDO." Which is neither a surprise nor news.

In short: Move along, nothing to see here.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Chadwick said...

Sir Real here-

Don't mind harzerkatze- he has impossibly thin skin when it comes to the self-deprecating humor of us RPG fans. It must be awful to be so sensitive.

re:D&D- they've had some good single player d20 console games like Knights of the Old Republic, so it's amazing to me that they've taken this long to get a MMORPG off the ground. They had the best brand recognition out there and they dropped the ball. Better late than never, but still.

Re:Vin- A hot RPG fan of ambiguous sexuality? Woof. Thanks for sharing.

I don't know is there's a plastic blog ring, but there should be. (Probably IS, I'm just too lazy to find it.)


11:57 AM  
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3:45 AM  
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3:03 PM  

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