Game talkMicrovision emulator release

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May 072017

I’ve been working for a while–five years!–on my emulation arcade cabinet, entitled Press Start: Emulating Videogame History. I started with a stock cabinet and control panel, and have been gradually modding it with stuff, like a robotics-driven auto-rotating monitor, LED lighting that matches whatever game is launched, and additional controls. I’ve been slowly working on getting emulation set up on it for everything historically important from Tennis for Two on forward.

But that’s another story. I mention it only because it led me to this little project.

The very first handheld console that supported cartridges was called the Microvision, and it was made by Milton Bradley in 1979. It had a 16×16 pixel LCD screen, and of course the only color it supported on that screen was black. Only a dozen or so games were ever made for it, and it was pulled from the market only two years later, losing the popularity contest to Nintendo’s Game and Watch series as well as the myriad other handhelds that emerged around the same time. It would take until 1989 before someone else gave the handheld cartridge idea a shot — that device was called the Gameboy. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the Microvision helped inspire the Game and Watch series.

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Game talkOnline Game Pioneers at Work

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Jun 042015

If you are interested in online game history, you probably want to check out Online Game Pioneers at Work. Morgan Ramsay managed to corner a whole bunch of people who were key figures in online game development over the last several decades, and interviewed all of us at great length. It’s a follow-up to his earlier book Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play.

Among the people in the book:

  • Emily Greer telling the story of Kongregate
  • Victor Kislyi explaining how World of Tanks came to be
  • The entire incredible story of Richard Garriott
  • John Romero and the birth of the online FPS
  • Jason Kapalka explaining how PopCap was built
  • Ian Bogost being, well, Ian

And way more… Funcom, Supercell, CCP, King, ng:moco… with a foreword by Dr Richard Bartle.

My own chapter starts clear back with MUDs, and goes up through departing Disney, including the business saga of Metaplace. The book has an emphasis on the business side of things, more so than the design side, so it often gets into telling the nitty-gritty stories of how companies get built and manage to stay alive.

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Game talkRIP, Ralph Baer

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Dec 072014

During a business trip for Sanders to New York City in 1966 I found myself waiting for another Sanders engineer at a bus terminal; he was going to join me for a meeting with a client. I took advantage of my free time and jotted down some notes on the subject of using ordinary home TV sets for the purpose of playing games. I have a distinct image in my mind of sitting on a cement step outside the bus terminal, enjoying a nice warm, sunny summer day, occasionally looking out at the passing traffic, waiting for my associate to show up and scribbling notes on a small pad. It was “Eureka” time — but of course I didn’t know that then. The concept of playing games on an ordinary TV set had bubbled up once again from my subconscious and I got that exciting feeling of “being on to something,” a feeling that is so familiar to me.

September 6, 1966 – Genesis!

When I got back to my office in New Hampshire on September 1, 1966, I transcribed those notes into a four-page disclosure document and tossed the New York notes into the wastebasket. In those four new pages I outlined the idea of playing interactive television games on a home TV set. That was the genesis of the industry.

–Videogames: In the Beginning

That’s an excerpt from Ralph’s book, which he sent to a mailing list we were both on years ago. We traded a few emails after that, where he showed himself to be a wise and thoughtful fellow, and generous with his time. Unfortunately, none of those emails seem to have survived the many transitions between computers that I have made over the last decade.

It had been years since I had talked with him, but today was a sad day.

Game talkGamemakingPrivateer Online

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Jun 192014

privateeronline7In the wake of the excitement over No Man’s Sky and its procedural worlds, I thought that it might be a good time to tell some of the story around the version of Privateer Online that I worked on, that never saw the light of day.

After I moved off the UO team, I worked on several MMO concepts for Origin. The mandate was explicitly “come up with something that we can make using the UO server and client pretty much intact, without big changes, because we need it quick.” This limited the possible projects enormously, of course.

So I started developing one-sheet concepts that fit the bill. None of them got farther than a few pages, and the idea was to give execs some choices on what we would go make.

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Nov 222013

Here is the full video of my talk at EVA13, entitled “El mundo de sistemas” (the world of systems). It’s in Spanish, and it’s an hour and a half long!

Sorry, no translated subtitles or anything. The talk starts out talking about systems and games, how there are many sorts of games but that a large proportion of them have what I call ludic systems underlying them. I talked a little bit about what some of the implications of systems are, how we learn from them and what sort of lessons they teach. And, of course, also how flaws in systems (or even emergent properties) can cause systems to really run amok, or enable players to really break everything.

That then leads to some anecdotes and postmortem thoughts from Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. Most of these are probably ones that many of you have heard about before:

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Aug 282013

I didn’t plan it this way, but we have two interviews on back to back days! This one was for Adam Tingle over at, and it focuses mostly on MMOs specifically, as you might expect, with a lot of retrospective stuff. You can read it here.

We talk a bit about the making of Ultima Online, the development travails of SWG, the promise of Metaplace, and even the origins of sandboxy features back in LegendMUD. A snippet:

MMORPG: Do you believe in structuring a players experience, or prefer giving them tools to create a more emergent adventure?

Raph Koster: Both, really. But I strongly believe that you can’t build the emergent tools on top of a static world. As soon as you decide to make storytelling or quests or whatever the basis of your experience, you sacrifice having dynamic and emergent things in the game, because you can’t break or upset all the static content. Whereas if you start with a foundation of simulation or UGC, and layer static stuff on top, that works fine, because the static content is built to assume shifting foundations.

Jun 062013

In the wake of Indie Game: The Movie, I was asked on Quora about other works that are descriptive of gamer culture, suitable for someone who doesn’t play games, isn’t trying to learn how to make them, but rather is interested in learning about gamer culture.

Something that presents the human side, rather than the technical, and doesn’t assume a lot of prior knowledge. As many of you know, portrayals of the gaming hobby in the mass media have often been rather sensationalistic or inaccurate.

So here’s a quick list of ones that I have enjoyed and recommend for this purpose. It’s not in any particular order. I avoided “business books” that are more about how a company was built, in favor of ones that tell human stories.

In terms of being interested  in gaming culture, and game development culture, but not in “how-to” books, I would recommend: Continue reading »

Game talkVideogame History Museum in danger

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Aug 192011

If you have been to E3 lately, you have seen the awesome stuff that the Videogame History Museum puts together for its shows. If not, check out this video:

But now Gamasutra is reporting that Time May Be Running Out For The Videogame History Museum, because they have been unable to raise the money via Kickstarter to continue what they are doing by opening an actual physical museum.

They’ve got 12 days to go, and are only halfway there. If you want to keep this charity going and help them towards their goal of having a permanent museum location, please visit their Kickstarter page and donate!

Game talkHappy birthday, Super Mario Bros.

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Sep 132010

Super Mario Bros. is 25. Of course, lots of folks no longer remember its antecedent, just called Mario Bros., which wasn’t in the model of a “platformer” at all, though it did include platforms. 🙂

Prior to SMB, there were plenty of platformers, but they had different modalities of play:

  • In the original Donkey Kong, the challenge was “get to the other side” — where the side was the top.
  • In ones like Miner 2049er it was all about “painting the map” (literally, in that game’s case — you changed the color of the platforms you walked on), akin to Pac-Man in that sense.
  • In others, it was about collecting objects, such as in Lode Runner (itself derived from Apple Panic) or Jumpman. This is a very different challenge from the one of hitting every spot.
  • And Kangaroo is where I first saw a traditional platformer that included the notion of attacking opponents directly (DK had the hammer, but that was more in the nature of a power-up; Mario Bros. had fighting turtles in essentially the SMB mode, but that was the core gameplay activity, rather than platforming. Almost like a co-op version of Super Smash Bros. actually).

For me, a big part of the genius of SMB has always been the way in which it adopted all these variants and modified them into what has become the template for all platforming since. The sense of completeness that the “visit every spot” games encouraged became the secrets you could find. The fighting was seamlessly woven into the overall “get to the other side.” The sense of environmental modifiability of Lode Runner is present via breaking blocks. Collecting specific objects within the map became an ancillary mechanic rather than mandatory.

Perhaps most importantly, the seeds of narrative that were present and so surprising in Donkey Kong reached full flower — it was here that what we think of as the classic Nintendo universe was really born. It is easy to forget that the rather slight story in DK was a bit of a revolution at the time, when what passed for narrative was the insertion of “cutscenes” about Ms Pac-Man’s relationship in between levels — or more often,  just text on the side of an arcade cabinet.

In essence, by taking all these elements, not in a literal sense, but in a functional, mechanical sense, SMB became the prototype for a “feature-complete” platform game. In a lot of ways, the games have not changed since. The addition of a third dimension didn’t change the core mechanics much, and embedding games such as occasional racing or dodge’em elements is clearly additive.

In a sense, this is a birthday for not only Super Mario Bros., but for all the platformers since, which owe it a huge design debt.