The Orcs of Zork

Thoughts on Distributed systems vs Centralized mass production. This branched off the funny story about Obama, a Bust, and a quest to defeat fantasy enemies.

So, about thirty years ago video games were still in their early stages. There was a kind of video game that as far as I know has faded almost entirely from modern efforts: and of them all, the greatest was Zork I: The Great Underground Empire. It starts outside a house, with a mailbox; inside the house there is an elvish sword, a lantern, and a trapdoor hidden beneath a rug. You can play it here.

Obviously Iowahawk was a fan.

Well, we start off there but I ended up somewhere else.

Early games were text because graphic engines were either non-existent or in the prototype shape. Given the limitations of memory, pixelation made for cartoony characters. This was contrary to cultural expectations, which were set in 3d and movie quality animations\special effects. At this period in time, publishers did some licensing to allow the creation of interactive novels using certain source material and brand names.

When it was no longer popular to use a text interface, as 3d made the scene, the copyrights were withdrawn and invested in other endeavours. This meant that even if it was economically feasible to turn up a budget game using original music and source material, the copyright holders would refuse to allow its use. This pushed the gaming industry to use in house talent, such as writers or musicians or graphic designers. This is a direct consequence of particular anally retentive copyright philosophy amongst both book and music industries. The book publishing industry is of particular worth because they hold a significant portion of original source material in terms of plot, setting, and characterization. The music industry have their own reasons not to allow independent musicians to be able to advertise themselves and get a steady income without being under the umbrella of that culture. Although music videos and licensing for movies brought in sufficient funds, they didn’t go out of their way to nurture newer talent outside the music sub-culture.

Over time this became a habit, the usual business model. Since copyright holders were loath to provide licenses unless they got a guarantee of income and sales, people had to demonstrate pre-sales or demographic market, such as Lord of the Rings, to convince business people that this was a solid deal. This was a barrier to independent competition in some ways, as it pushed the costs of creating games up and made the Big Name licenses very attractive. Such that it overshadowed any competition that couldn’t bring in the big numbers, like a LOTRO movie. Only when the copyright holders see that a franchise is a big seller, do they invest in the money to make a game out of it. This applies to such franchises as Star Wars, of course, as well as Star Trek, LOTR, and other such. But those are of particular note precisely because they became successful first.

Since there weren’t a lot of work available for independent musiciains to sell music specifically for a game nor original source material from the book publishing market that could be cheaply and readily available, it just made more sense for game companies to hire their own people rather than worry about copyright issues. That, in itself, says a great deal about just how expensive and ridiculously difficult such processes were. It would have been much cheaper simply to use other people’s music and source material on a one time deal rather than employ several individuals for the duration of a game. It would have been, had it not been for extenuating circumstances.

As the demand for quality graphics and music and sound in games rose, so did the risk go up with the investment. To deal with this problem, games sought to reproduce movie quality and realistic modeling to compete directly with movies for the market share. The cost in developing 3d graphic engines were worth it, given the end result. Especially as the technology boomed and people strove to keep up with the Jones.

Things aren’t as simple as simply saying the advancesi n graphics technology and computer technology make human endeavours what they are, Eric. There is a very important facet you left out: human will and self-interest.


To a large extent, game companies compete with each other. So while movie licenses made popular sense to attempt to acquire or emulate, they were basing their decisions more on what would come out this season. Was the next Doom going to be able to beat the competition on the 3d graphics? How about multiplayer? But by the time we got to that point, there was no longer any gaming companies that made interactive novels to sell for profit, using either original source material or their own authors. Instead, the writers went into such fields as DnD to write. But given their position, they were never really given a project, like a novel, and said “write it yourself”. People had deadlines. they couldn’t wait for an author to churn out a novel before working with the plot. And they couldn’t go out and shop around the book publishing industry for a “good original” story to base their game on either, due to licensing difficulties mentioned before. What was being allowed as a license was the big name franchises and only the big companies could buy those up. Book publishers, for whatever reasons, didn’t see a profit from licensing the source material of their less well known authors.

However it ended up, the gaming industry went the path of hiring their own musicians and artists. This created a centralized, rather than distributed, system. This set the bar for competition higher and gave less light to small time independent game makers. They still exist, of course, but they don’t have access to original source material in the form of book licenses nor do they have access to bands in the music industry. That kind of gaming industry model did not prosper, so the agents of the musicians and book authors weren’t particularly interested in the “no names”, so to speak.

It didn’t need to be that way. Technology was not at fault. It just became that way. Without a way to distribute and advertise the talents of certain people, they will not be able to organize themselves to produce a finished product, such as a game or a song written expressly for somebody else’s original source material or artistic design. A distributed system is necessary to collate all the little no names at the bottom so that somehow the big names companies get wind of it and back them with money. A distributed system is required, for only a distributed system has the capability to handle so many potential successes and so many potential failures.

The key aspect was gaming expenses in the form of creating their own inhouse graphics engine, music, sound, and original source material. That kind of production almost necessitates centralized management, teamwork, and collaboration. The independent cowboys that created their own world and set out ot make it true, weren’t needed nor invited. Some succeeded. Many more failed due to the barriers placed in front of them. If there had been a profitable option to make games, but rely upon third parties for sound, music, original material, and such, then it would have allowed more people to try out their talents. Just like American Idol. Let the market decide who they like, rather than the companies only producing big name licenses once they knew what the public liked. Using only the latter method, people had to wait until something became popular. Using a distributed system, they can continually test until they Find what is popular. A more dynamic system in the end.

Americans simply did not tolerate nor see as mature “cartoony graphic animation”. This was part of the strong impulse to increase game production costs. If things had been different, if the culture had a view of artwork that didn’t necessitate the horsepower of making things as realistic as they can be, then older technology would have been more viable as a commercial product in games. A sort of sub-market, so to speak. Hardcore gamers remain hardcore gamers, but the people who buy novels or play those puzzle games on the net, would become the market instead. They, after all, wouldn’t need cutting edge graphics. A book doesn’t even have any graphics. Yet people buy them still for the story, characters, and what on. The market is right there, but it is inaccessible due to certain cost restrictions on the part of gaming companies. Of course, there’s a good reason for that. Music and book publishing companies are not particularly interested in inviting the gaming industry to compete directly with them for their own market share. That makes perfect sense, in the human sense.

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