Top Tens of 1997
by Allen Varney
Asked to summarize the year in adventure gaming, I thought what you're thinking: Who cares? I make my living writing for trade magazines about games like Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, but the hobby of card, board, and paper role-playing games raises barely a blip on the pop-culture radar. In North America we have maybe 200,000 dedicated gamers, tops; in Austin, only a few hundred. Would a summary of adventure gaming in 1997 read like "Model Railroading: The Year in Review" or "Top Ten Stories in Cross-Stitch Weaving"? But thinking further, I found parallels between this cottage industry and what we might call "real life." Look what 1997 brought:
1. Corporate acquisition. When Time Warner bought out Ted Turner, TV pundits talked a lot like gamers did this past May, when Wizards of the Coast (Seattle) bought TSR (Lake Geneva, WI), publisher of Dungeons & Dragons. In five years, Wizards has grown from a garage operation to a near-monopoly of hobby gaming, propelled by its mega-hit Magic: The Gathering card game. TSR lost much of the D&D role-playing audience to Magic, and after years of bad management it was tottering. Wizards founder Peter Adkison, who'd started his company so he could publish his own D&D knockoff, bought TSR for $25 million, the way you'd buy a hot fudge sundae. But TSR, stiff-necked to the last, wouldn't deign to negotiate the buyout directly with Wizards. An intermediary company, tiny Five Rings Publishing (Bellevue, WA), worked out the deal as a go-between. Its price: Wizards had to buy Five Rings, too.
Now, Wizards owns the biggest card games, the biggest role-playing game, and the biggest gaming conventions. In short, it calls all the shots. But how well will Wizards/TSR blend? No one knows yet. The corporate cultures are wildly different: TSR, a Kremlin dictatorship under Lorraine Williams, called "the Whim Queen"; Wizards, a hundred-headed hydra big on "employee empowerment" (translation: No one can make a decision). Most of TSR's creative staff moved to Wizards, where they must feel like East Berliners after the Wall fell. But the old TSR brought out half a dozen products a month, clockwork; at Wizards, its schedule is already slipping badly. Is anything like this happening in your industry?
2. Patent restraint. Because the millions Wizards earned from Magic sales weren't enough, this fall Magic inventor Richard Garfield secured U.S. Letters Patent #5,662,332 for "the trading card game method of play." Granted by clueless Patent Office non-gamers, this patent covers any game where each player custom-builds his own deck from a larger universe of cards (the central Magic innovation). And not just cards -- the patent applies to any imaginable game component. It's like inventing the hot-air balloon and patenting all forms of air travel.
This is a symptom of recent changes in Patent Office practice. The government now awards patents for just about anything and lets the courts decide their validity. As if infected by TSR's evil-empire karma, the once genial Wizards has inflicted a draconian licensing agreement on other publishers of trading card games. This looks likely to shut down most competition, because no one has the bucks to challenge the patent in court.
I leave parallels with the software industry as an exercise for the reader.
3. Anti-gaming nuts in disarray. On October 15, Pat Pulling, 47, died of cancer in Richmond, Virginia. In 1982, after her son committed suicide, Pulling became convinced his D&D hobby was to blame. She founded the activist group Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons, which linked role-playing games to teen suicide and Satanic worship. In the mid-Eighties "Satanic panic," BADD grabbed plenty of headlines, along with Dr. Thomas Radecki's National Coalition Against Television Violence and a guy named Larry Jones, who produced the "File 19" newsletter for Christian police officers.
The panic died in the late Eighties, after insurance companies stopped paying claims for "ritual Satanic abuse." Radecki surrendered his medical license in 1992 amid charges of unprofessional conduct; Jones just vanished; Pulling went into real estate. Her death symbolizes the utter failure of her agenda. This past spring, a few diehards tried to link a rash of "vampire murders" in Virginia to White Wolf's Vampire role-playing game; not many in the media bit, pardon the pun. Again, gaming mirrors society. I'm feeling a bit more relaxed now than in the Reagan years, how about you?
4. The residue. It was a big year in this little hobby, but even I can't scrounge mass-audience parallels for the rest of the stories. Good games (I like the Blue Planet, RPG, and Aliens Predator card game); strong growth for Austin's best gaming stores, King's Hobby and Dragon's Lair; local computer game company Origin finally released Ultima Online to huge success, but California-based owner Electronic Arts still seems intent on strangling Origin like a jungle creeper.
You're thinking: Whoopee! As interesting as the Cross-Stitch Top Ten. Maybe so, but that could change someday. Wizards of the Coast has taken as its avowed mission "to make games as big as the movies," a genuine mass-market recreation. That's ambitious -- the hobby today grosses perhaps $200 million a year, barely housekeeping money compared to movies or computer games. But the goal isn't insane; gaming is already that big in, for instance, Germany.
Having conquered the hobby, Wizards may move on to bigger games. In a few years you may be following this stuff as closely as I do. I'll be glad for the company.