The King is Dead, Long Live the King
Games come and games go, but there's something odd in the air right now, something I can't quite place. Is it the smell of quiet desperation as traditional pen-and-paper games fall by the wayside, stomped flat by their flashier computerized cousins? Is it the end of an era, or just the end of the beginning? Kenshiro Aette speaks his mind.
I remember purchasing my first role-playing game. At about the age of eleven, I bought a copy of the red boxed edition of Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set. Then, the first edition of the advanced game was still usually on the shelves in most of the bigger bookstores and all the hobby shops had it. Most of my friends had just heard about D&D and a few of them were impressed that I had it and wanted to play. My mother had some concerns that it had something to do with Satanic cults or something, since the news media was still reacting to the idea of role-playing. There was nothing really like the game to compare it to in the view of the general public; most of the hobby gamers out there still played war games, though there were the occasional Wizards & Warriors devotees out there. D&D was the first big game that wasn't a board game or developed from the Naval War College model.
I got into my first game session about a year later after finding a postcard tacked to the corkboard at the local library. There was a set group of people who played there, different ages, different backgrounds, though I was about the youngest. Not all of them liked D&D the best necessarily, but it was a gaming group and serious enough about playing games to devote some time to it, and they agreed on playing D&D for awhile because it was the game play they were after. There weren't many games around that were easy enough to find rulebooks for.
Flash forward a few years. Our group mostly went its separate ways, some discovering girls, some getting too busy, some trying to repair marriages or get a real job. We'd branched out to a whole slew of games by then, because there were a lot more to choose from than when we started. What I realized though, was that computers and the all-time nemesis, the Nintendo, were the reason a lot of the group was staying home.
Some of them still played RPGs despite the new machines out there, mostly because you couldn't find anything comparable in depth or interactivity to a tabletop gaming session back then. But a lot of people didn't need that much to get their fix. Besides, our group had always had its share of dice-rollers, the kind that just sat back and killed things to the annoyance of the Dungeon Master. These guys were the first to go. Now they had something else to do.
Fast forward a few more years. I went of to a University to start College. Ever the devoted gamer, I searched for people to waste my precious free time with, but shockingly, even at a major university, I could find only a tiny group getting together to play the games I knew. The excuse that these guys said they had most often was that no one had the time. Could it be that suddenly, College had stripped away the desire for this kind of recreation? As a computer science major, I knew way too many people who it didn't seem possible that they'd just grown up.
Then, a visit to the computer lab schooled me. Two reasons: Bulletin Board System games came first and then with the advent of the public Internet, Multi-User-Dungeon/Domains (MUDs) were out there. Armed with my old battleaxe 286, I found out what it was all about.
The players were still there, and just as devoted. But, they now had a choice; they didn't have to play the game of consensus with whoever was available. They logged on with their 9600 baud modems and - bam - they could get together for a game with players of whatever flavor they wanted, devoted to the same game they were, and stay for as long or as little as needed. They could still tank the Mountain Dew to stay up all night to play, but now they could also choose not to - without sending everyone else home because their character was too important. They could also go to the Super Nintendo or King's Quest on the PC if the online game wasn't interesting, but they could get their fix in their personal dosage of choice.
So, then I found myself hooked. All the players were there. Grades suffered, sleep disappeared, but I was happy again. I could play whenever I wanted, for as long as I wanted, and there was always someone around to join me. Even the dice-roller types were there, but really, everyone needs cannon fodder. Maybe the game wasn't as in depth as before, and maybe it was all text, but you could get into it right away and besides, hadn't we been playing what amounted to a cruder version with the old tabletops?
It made sense that this is the direction the games were going, because it was a lot easier to get into the game. You could roll up a character and do all the administrative work with the ease of a menu. You didn't have to roll any dice or figure out anything. The computer did it for you. All you had to do was learn a few basic commands, and you were set. If you wanted to, you could start a new character out any time you wanted, and instead of an hour it took about ten minutes. It was almost the same old thing, but with a computer to do all your chores.
Fast forward once again: I looked around the net. The MUD players I burned up so many hours were disappearing. They logged in less and less, and eventually, not at all. The discussion groups on every MUD I found looked about the same: "The game's not as fun anymore because no one's online," "We need people to help keep our game running," "Whatever happened to so and so?" Some of them moved on with life, I'm sure. I did too, really. Compared to ten years ago I spend a tiny fraction of the time gaming.. I got married and started a career. But I knew gamers were still out there. It's a need for expression that doesn't go away so easily and it's a widespread affliction. And there were new gamers out there - they had to be.
Logging into EverQuest, I found my answer. The players were migrating again. The Pentiums and the cable modems were letting everyone go right into a MUD that had all the people they wanted to play with, and not only that but they could actually see the world they were role-playing in. You didn't even have to memorize commands - a half dozen keystrokes and a menu interface and you were golden. A lot more dice-rollers were out there, but that wasn't surprising since the game was a lot easier to play (play I said, not win).
I've tried getting people for an old-time's-sake tabletop game with me. The new rulebooks are slick-looking, and have an even better feel down at the game store than I remember as a kid. But it didn't work. No one has the time, everyone has separate schedules. You get together with an instant role-playing group when you get online, and you don't even have to worry if the DM's mom will let him come over. I found a couple people who said they might play, but I got no replies when I actually tried to make a game go.
My favorite MUD, once host to a constant stream of players, now averages about two during its best times. A few of the old standby players have written the game off publicly, and still more are just giving up quietly. There's a few diehards around, but they aren't usually at their keyboards even when they're logged in.
EverQuest still shows over a thousand players online. Maybe I'll drop in for a quick game.