This article originally appeared in Pyramid #2
As this issue of Pyramid came together, we realized our underlying theme seemed to be that ever-popular discussion topic, the future. We asked some industry visionaries what they thought the future of gaming would be, and we look forward to thoughts from our readers, as well. Just because we're running blind into the future doesn't mean we can't send our best scouts ahead of us, to feel the way.
Steve Jackson Says:Internationalism.
That's the future of gaming, in a nutshell. Perhaps that's the future of everything in a nutshell, but that's outside the scope of this particular article. What I'm here to tell you today is that gaming, our kind of gaming, is all over the world.
Case in point: I'm writing this in Brazil, where I'm a guest of the Primero Encontro Internacional de RPG (they do things a bit differently in Brazil, and they're not into short snappy con names). But by any name, the 1.E.I.d.RPG has to be one of the ten biggest game conventions in the world. At the end of the first day, they'd already registered more than 3,000 people.
And roleplaying is just catching on in Brazil. They've been playing for years, using English editions - I've met a lot of people who learned English from roleplaying. But before the hobby can really take off, it needs game books in Portuguese. Right now, they've got GURPS - which is why I'm here - and a couple of homebrewed games. TWERPS, Paul Jaquays' parody RPG, was just released today, reincarnated as a straight-faced introductory system in a deluxe 20-page version . . . and it works. I'm told that D&D has been licensed here and will hit the shelves sometime next year.
They're serious about it. I did four different TV interviews this afternoon, including one with Brazilian MTV. No "kid stuff" nonsense here, and no demon-worship bogeymen either . . . the Brazilians recognize RPG as a serious cultural phenomenon. Co-sponsors for this con included the city government of Sao Paulo (the second-largest city in the world, if you haven't been keeping score), the Bank of Brazil, and Varig Airlines. This is the real stuff, here in a country that most Americans still think is just a couple of great beaches hooked onto the Amazon River.
Case in point: France. This was the first non-English-speaking country to really take to roleplaying. Now it's got a fully-developed hobby, with publishers ranging from hole-in-the-wall to fully pro, a couple of good glossy magazines, and "name" designers putting out cutting-edge games.
American game publishers are figuring out that they're not the center of the world. They're looking at European products, and they're impressed. Before the end of 1994, you'll play a French game, translated into English, and you'll like it.
Case in point: Japan. The hobby is newer here than in France, though better-developed than in Brazil. Japanese publishers are publishing their own creations, as well as American products with a Japanese twist on them. RPG, in Japan, is now another one of the dozens of bases that a successful "property" touches. Manga (comic books), animation for TV and theater, novels, music, model kits, computer games . . . and now RPGs. (Incidentally, the Japanese discovered computer games before roleplaying, and "RPG" in Japan means a computer game. If you want to talk about people sitting around a table and playing with their friends, it's "TRPG," for table-talk RPG.)
Case in point: the Internet. I'm just beginning to get involved in games on the worldwide computer net . . . but the size of the Net doubles every six months. You may be connected now. If you're not, you will be. You'll probably be connected before there's a true multi-player RPG designed just for the Net. But if you hook up tomorrow, you'll be able to talk gaming, and play simple games, with people from all over the world.
I can't wait.
Whenever someone asks me what I think the future of roleplaying is going to be like, I am uncomfortably reminded of an ad campaign. You know the one - the "This new game will change the future of RPGs!" or "The greatest roleplaying game ever!" It seems to be an axiom of the industry that games which are unveiled under this sort of weighty tag line invariably sink into the mire of buzzwords and hype that make up the advertising world. But a revolution in roleplaying games is coming. It's sneaking up on us on little flat feet, but it's coming.
I call these fourth-generation games.
Let's take five seconds to talk history. Those in the gaming industry with a lot of time to kill have a theory that there have been three generations of roleplaying games. First-generation fames were the original RPGs of the early seventies: D&D, Traveller, Tunnels & Trolls are all classic first-generation games. This type of game is characterized by a wargame-like system and a plot that was pretty much mission-oriented: crawl through the dungeon, smuggle something for the patron, kill the marauding dragon. It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when characters in a game didn't do anything else but go on quests. There was none of this "development" nonsense, and Bog help the DM who started the game without a dungeon already mapped out - what were the players supposed to do in the meantime?
Eventually, we all got tired of "hack ‘n' slash" and worlds became more detailed than the local abandoned dragon horde. Enter the second generation. Second-generation games were based on systems; the most important thing about the game was the mechanics under which it operated, and all other things about the game were subordinate (Champions, Role- master, Living Steel and GURPS are all classic examples of second-generation games). Systems became increasingly complex in this period, because the designers were trying to model the very fabric of reality itself. It wasn't enough to know whether the sword hit the Orc; it was now critical to know how big the sword was, how sharp, where it was forged, how tough the Orc was and how many liters of blood (based on the viscosity of the fluid) the Orc would lose from the wound.
Third-generation games were the next revolution in RPGs. These games were based on genres - doing an RPG on a topic or license that had never been covered before. The idea in genre games was to be the first, and to make the best version of the particular genre. If you couldn't be first (face it, there's only a limited number of topics you can cover in and RPG, and the Steven Hawking Particle Physics Warfare RPG isn't one of them), you found a new angle on the topic. Classic third-generation games are in the majority today - some of the best examples are Cyberpunk, Vampire, Bushido and Shadowrun.
Now we come to the fourth generation. It's already being born; but it lacks one important element to come into its own.
And that's a place in popular culture.
Let's define that, okay? When something is part of popular culture, it means that everyone knows about it, even if they don't personally get involved. For example, everyone in America knows about comic books. There are literary reviews about them, TV shows and movies on comic topics, even spinoffs into games, books and video games. Comics are well known; even though not everyone reads them, they still know what they are about (in a general way), and why they might be fun to read. With RPGs, you currently have the reverse. Most RPGs are still playing to a limited audience. They don't generate a lot of crossmarketing, and they aren't well recognized as a legitimate media (no one writes New York Times articles about the social significance of, say, BattleTech. But they do write about Superman).
RPG sales focus on a certain age and market, and we've pretty well covered every person who would naturally stumble over roleplaying games. What we don't reach are the kids who would never think of enjoying an RPG, because it's not something anyone they know does. During long, alcohol-sodden convention ramblings among industry pros (I'm guilty of it myself, after enough beers), we all like to talk about the Holy Grail of the mass market, that game which will sell to every kid in America. But the Holy Grail will always be a chimera, because in order to sell to every kid in America, you first have to make every kid in America aware of RPGs as part of the general cultural background. They have to see RPGs the same way they see comics, TV shows, video games and movies: as one of a number of choices available to them. One way to do this is through public education, by telling people about our hobby in a lot of different media. Another way is to start designing our games to be more accessible to the rest of the world, to make them more fun and easier for the non-gamer to understand. Not so that he'll necessarily play them, but so he'll have an idea of what we're all doing with the funny dice and he'll be willing to at least talk about it and bring RPGs into the daily social fabric. That's where fourth-generation games will come in.
To be a fourth-generation game, an RPG will have to have at least three things going for it:
1) It should be easy to learn and easy to use. We've pretty well linked up with every person who wants (or has the time) to memorize a 350-page rule book. If a game is to get beyond the few who are willing to commit this much time, it's going to have to be rules-light and those rules are going to have to be easy to read and use without a lot of table-checking. Dice may be replaced by spinners, lists by easy-to-use equipment cards, rules by simpler play sheets or even small "in-the-box" computers (don't laugh: the Japanese already do this).
2) It should place a greater emphasis on roleplaying, not stats or skills. Anyone can play Cowboys and Indians, and most people can actually pretend pretty well. What they can't do is min/max a 50-point normal into a 10,000-point superhero without using a scientific calculator. Fourth-generation games may not "roll up" characters at all - they may allow a player to come up with the character and impose stats based on a combination of decided strengths and weaknesses, or even by picking a template from among hundreds of choices.
3) It should have a detailed world to play in. Take a look at any comic or TV show. They aren't showing a generic universe in which generic people are doing generic things. No, they're showing a detailed world and plot line in which stories evolve, where there are distinct heroes and villains, and where a new and interesting discovery lies around every corner. This is why it's much easier to license X-MEN than it is to license an RPG: there are detailed, distinct characters, vehicles and places which create an identity for the world. Future RPGs may not look like game books at all; they may be more like novels or reference works, where the rules are secondary to portraying the world in an exciting way.
Where we are now is the third generation. But the future is with the fourth wave, with the games that your family, neighbors and the general media will know about and even play (what would you give to see Regis and Kathy Lee in a heavy RPG session on national TV?). In this generation, we will see games that will break all the "rules" about how RPGs are designed: games that will move drastically away from gaming's wargame roots. Your kid's RPG will not necessarily be your RPG. But it will continue in the spirit of the hobby just the same, as a fun way to visit other worlds without leaving the comfort of your living room.
And isn't that what the future of roleplaying is about?
Since I routinely do a two-hour seminar called "Radical Future" on the future of roleplaying, I hardly know where to start in a few hundred words.
Obviously that's not enough room to talk about neural self-programming, or Game Mastering in virtual reality, or even psycho-social simulations. Steve Jackson and the other visionaries can talk about the future of the roleplaying market. For $22.95 (shameless self-promoting plug!) anyone can pick up Amber Diceless Role-Playing, and read about future techniques of roleplaying.
Still, one weird and woolly event might foretell the future of roleplaying . . .
One gaming night, about 600 Thursday sessions into my weekly "Dragonright" fantasy campaign, a 16-year-old player named John Speck started moving through one of my fiendish mazes rather quickly.
"We'll turn left here," he said, his eyes glittering with inspiration. "Past the casket, then right where I dropped the dagger, then straight through the next three rooms, then two right turns . . ."
"Hold it!" He was moving so fast I couldn't keep up.
He was maneuvering by memory, visualizing his path based on about seven weeks of his character's imaginary wanderings, while I moved my finger on the original "map," a flow diagram with hundreds of arrows and boxes.
Over the years I had constantly upgraded the problems facing my players. From conventional mazes I'd progressed to mazes with walls that moved in cycles, through mazes that wandered up and down stairs, shafts and tunnels, to true three-dimensional mazes that packed cubic solids, to 3-D mazes made even more diabolical by the use of "wrap-around" dimensional doors . . .
John was rushing his character through a maze even more challenging: a four-dimensional structure, a tesseract, that appeared to be a series of rooms. Through the eyes of a character, the arrangement of the rooms was bewildering, because I'd arranged them logically, but as if assembled by some four-dimensional creature.
If John were merely retracing his steps, it would have made sense. But he wasn't; he was venturing into areas where his character had never been, just as you can walk quickly through the inside of a strange house after getting a good look at the outside.
You'd think that would be impossible, but there's been at least one guy who claimed to see the world in four dimensions.
Back in the 1880s, there was a particularly bizarre mathematician, Charles Howard Hinton (see The Fourth Dimension by Rudy Rucker). Aside from inventing an automatic baseball pitching machine, Howard was known for being able to visualize things in an interesting way. Howard had decided that we humans really don't see things in three dimensions. Just as you can draw a picture of a cube, or a house, on a piece of paper (a two-dimensional surface), so humans see things in a limited way.
Howard tried an experiment. He used his imagination to build a three-dimensional structure in his mind. Block by block, he visualized a structure of 36 by 36 by 36 cubes, with each of the little cubes colored according to its position, and identified by a Latin name.
After a few years of practice Howard was able to "look" at objects (like chairs) as if they were embedded inside the structure of cubes. Then, using his knowledge of topography, Howard started to experiment with visualizing four-dimensional objects, "drawing" them on (or in) the imaginary cubes, just as you would draw a box on a piece of paper.
As Charles Howard Hinton was able to visualize in four dimensions, I believe that John Speck, caught up in the excitement of a roleplaying game, was able to navigate in four dimensions.
However, the mathematician spent years working at visualizing things in a different way; the roleplayer spent only weeks playing, stretching his imagination.
Which brings us back to the future of roleplaying.
In roleplaying, unlike virtually any other endeavor, we must stretch our imaginations in ways that are not only unbounded, but also structured. We exercise our powers of visualization, with no physical props upon which to focus, but in a way that is controlled by the fact that we must share our vision with the Game Master and fellow roleplayers. At the same time good roleplaying is also synergistic in that the imaginary playground can be expanded and enriched at any time by the consensus of the group, allowing all participants to contribute.
Or, to put it simply, it's more fun to learn a new thing when you're roleplaying. And maybe, just maybe, we'll find out there are things that can only be learned by roleplaying.
Rather than write about my extreme futuristic hopes for roleplaying - virtual reality, cyberspace, artificial intelligence, real-time raytracing, etc. - I'm going to take a look at the next 5-10 years.
I believe that, as computers become smaller, more powerful and cheaper, a subtle revolution will take place in the way that a gaming session is run. I already rely heavily on my computer to maintain my various campaigns - I use XyWrite to write all my text, Deluxe Paint to draw maps, ProWrite and Ventura Publisher to integrate the words with the pictures, VistaPro to create imaginary landscapes and maps and various public domain programs to create dungeon maps, etc.
This is nothing compared to how I'd like to use computers. Imagine everyone around the table having a palmtop or laptop computer with color SVGA graphics. Each of these computers is connected to an Ethernet hub running client software slaved to my computer (functioning as a server). This client software has custom windows for secret communications between myself and the other players. Combat and spellcasting is resolved using a graphic interface - simply point and click. For those players who can't stand to give up their dice, a window is provided for inputting die results.
In addition to text windows, there would also be graphics windows that handle automapping - I merely select the area of the map that is now visible to the PCs and it is shot to the player's machine, which automatically updates their map window. High-res color images are compressed by my system, sent to the player and uncompressed on their end - so quickly that the user never notices.
With fast rendering software and a good RPG-specific object library, an entire dungeon (or any other setting) could be constructed by plugging in pre-designed objects. The players could now move through the 3-D environment and actually see where they were.
Beats graph paper any day.
Add a digital cellular modem and players don't have to be in the same room - or even the same state. Use a SLIP connection (cellular or otherwise) and the Internet, and players don't even have to be in the same country.
Nothing I've proposed is beyond current technology. If I had $50,000 and a year to work on the software, I could equip a group of 10 players with a working prototype. As soon as 486/50 laptops drop down to about $1,000 . . .
The future of roleplaying games will be determined by one factor alone: the commercial viability of the game. If a game does not have an appeal for the majority of the market out there, it will not attract attention and, therefore, will not be imitated. It will be an evolutionary dead end. It might have been the greatest design in the world, but no one will remember it or care about it.
The key to commercial viability is story. The importance of story is a trend that Flying Buffalo saw and misidentified back when evaluating the appeal of the Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures and the Citybooks products. (We had letters about Citybooks, asking us to drop the pretense and publish the city from which we were taking establishments - in the absence of obvious story, readers were projecting story into the products.) The overwhelming success of Dragonlance pointed this out the first time, and Shadowrun drove the point home for even the most dense of folks out there.
System, as Shadowrun proved, means nothing. If I had a nickel for everyone who played Shadowrun because they found the world and story compelling, yet hated the system, I'd be doing quite well indeed. Dark Conspiracy and White Wolf's Vampire and Werewolf are other victories of stories over systems that are clunky or insubstantial. And the Amber Diceless RPG shows that system is quite unnecessary for a game to work.
Story, then, will be the core of the future for RPGs. Whereas we used to use RPGs to provide a framework for playing the worlds created by our favorite novelists, now game designers are providing the world along with the means of accessing it. Designers are developing new intellectual properties instead of working off old ones. It's like putting up a resort hotel in a remote part of the world: build it and they will come.
The means of access to these new worlds marks a second, strong point in the future of games. The multi-media approach to publishing (RPGs, board games, novels, figures, mass-market games, computer games, cartoons, comic books and feature films or TV) is a key to success. The more folks see the product, the more attracted to it they will be. Again, FASA's Shadowrun and BattleTech product lines make this obvious. Renegade Legion, a FASA product that was not treated as richly with this sort of approach, has languished by contrast.
The short-term future will be determined by fads. "Dark" RPGs started with Shadowrun and Vampire, and the summer of 1993 will be the summer of dark. This year we get the second-tier dark games, and in the summer of 1994 we get the third and final assault of dark. Nihilism, I believe, is a dead end and, by winter '94-95 industry leaders like FASA and White Wolf will have found a new direction to take things.
If you want to see where the future of gaming lies, look at three companies: TSR, FASA and White Wolf. TSR, by its sheer market share, defines mainstream. All other products will be marked by their distance from the line TSR draws. FASA has both the creativity and maturity that means anything they do will be well thought out and fun to play. EarthDawn, I expect, will bear me out on this point. White Wolf has the youthful enthusiasm of most companies ten years ago, so on sheer adrenaline they will push new products out there. Their legion of fans will guarantee a minimum of success, so the products will be around to establish trends.
In the midst of technological upheaval, it's not unusual to find yourself musing what the future may have in store. Many, for example, see the future of communications as a single format that combines computer technology with telephones, television, and radio. To see the future of computer gaming, we simply have to take a look at where computer technology is already heading.
We watched computer adventure games develop from text-based "choose your own adventure" type games to lengthy campaign-style games with iconic representations and complicated interfaces, and finally to illustrated "maze" style graphic adventures. This final incantation of the floppy-disc-based adventure game was intriguing for a while, but its tendency to "tile" and re-use images and sounds soon became monotonous. In addition, the interfaces of these games were still very complicated, and they ate up a good chunk of hard-drive space. So when CD-ROM came along and consumer-based 3D modeling software became available, people began to see a way to escape the constraints of limited storage space and crude 2D illustrations.
As today's media continue to merge, it's probable that future CD-ROM games will be an even closer hybrid between games and movies. They will offer movie-like plots to be unfolded by the player, who will have the ability to move and look about freely in computer-generated 3D worlds. Just a little beyond this, you'll probably be able to put on your virtual reality gear and immerse yourself in the adventure. To go to an extreme, it's not difficult to imagine a future where you can simply power up your teleputer, call your local digital service bureau, and engage in your favorite virtual gaming experience. Imagine being locked in hand-to-hand mortal combat with Achilles in the Coliseum, becoming Jack Ryan in a Tom Clancy novel, or visiting faraway places without leaving home.
We see the computer as the canvas of a new kind of art form. This new media allows an artist to re-create the images of his mind's eye with vivid three-dimensional strokes of photorealism. The game-makers of the future will be masters of the etherial. Using only a stream of digital data as their medium, they will be able to create an entire reality that has no more substance than the images formed by electrosynaptic impulses in the imaginations of today's gaming enthusiasts.
Article publication date: August 1, 1993
Copyright © 1993 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to firstname.lastname@example.org.