Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Game Over? The Fate of “Dead” Games

Is a game really “dead” when its publisher stops supporting it?

Fans debate this issue constantly. Do they continue playing a game, particularly a roleplaying game, after the publisher stops supporting it with supplements, scenarios, and additional rules? Or do they move on to the next big thing? While this remains a choice for individual gaming groups, as far as a game is concerned, it remains “alive” as long as the components (rules, boards, pieces, etc.) remain and fans continue playing it.

People have persisted playing chess, backgammon, and the classic games of history; thanks to research into ancient, medieval, and Asian games, we can even try our hand at games previously unexposed to our contemporary culture. Family board game classics remain on store shelves (and closet shelves), many with renewed graphics or redesigned gameplay to cater to modern audiences. Game publishing companies are only half the equation; without players (also consumers), their games remain lifeless.

“Dead” games seem a phenomenon of the modern game-publishing scene, particularly roleplaying games. A roleplaying game rarely consists of a single core rulebook, but an entire line of products supporting that game. The appearance of “life” comes from companies constantly publishing additional materials to support the initial core game release. Scenarios, rules supplements, setting sourcebooks, miniatures, magazines, and the numerous “splatbooks” detailing various factions, equipment, and other elements of the setting fuel the game’s momentum and drive sales (bearing in mind that publishing is a business). While continuous releases create the impression that the game lives, ceasing those constant publications seemingly “kills” a game; and for publishers, the game is essentially dead unless future resurrection makes good business sense.

But while today’s modern publishing scene causes the “death” of some games, modern technology enables a game to live on through the efforts of an active fan base and its access to internet publishing. Fans produce a huge amount of source material for their own games; sharing that with a broader audience seems natural. With the dawn of desktop and internet publishing, fans with a grasp of writing, editing, and layout can create good-looking material supporting their favorite game. Now it’s far more possible thanks to e-mail and the internet that in the early days of roleplaying games. Today, long after a game is gone, websites provide unofficial support for those still actively playing the game or luring former players back to a nostalgic pastime. The emergence of the “open gaming” and “creative commons” license concepts enables some games and systems -- the D20 and D6 Systems primarily come to mind -- to reside in the hands of gaming fans. Granted, these fan efforts do not represent a business endeavor, but an informal yet high-spirited volunteer effort to create and share new materials honoring a game’s legacy.

Dead Games We Love

In perusing my game collection, I’ve found a few “dead” games that still have an active fan following today.

Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons: Many gamers entered the hobby through the classic Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets which included the rulebooks, dice, and seminal adventure modules B2 Keep on the Borderlands and X1 Isle of Dread. Older gamers don’t always have the time to immerse themselves in volumes of rules and numerous setting splatbooks published for the current incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons (now in its fourth edition). Some don’t care much for the new game system itself or the innumerable skills, feats, spells, and other powers one can use to improve a character when they “level up” like a computer game. An active fan base for “Old D&D” exists, one creating old-style modules or even distilling their own rules sets for fast, simplified play.

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game: Two versions exist, one by West End Games based on the cinematic D6 System and a second by Wizards of the Coast based on the D20 System also used in recent incarnations of Dungeons & Dragons. Both have their legions of fans with websites about their own campaigns, home-grown game stats and setting supplements, and a host of other resources. I still make a point of running one D6 Star Wars roleplaying game scenario when attending conventions, despite my urge to run other games; the Star Wars games still fill up with longtime fans of the setting and system. (Full Disclosure: I worked as a full-time game designer and editor for West End Games while it held the Star Wars Roleplaying Game license, and subsequently contributed to several D6 System supplements for West End after acquisition by Purgatory Publishing.)

Space 1889 and Castle Falkenstein: These two “steampunk” games enjoyed limited popularity and small but loyal followings when they released. Victorian-era games tend to do poorly with American audiences compared with other genres, possibly because of our educational system’s limited scope in covering the history of the British Empire. Occasionally fan-produced material for Space 1889 appears on the internet; regrettably Castle Falkenstein has far less online support. Space 1889 stands as a perfect example of a “dead” game coming back to life, in this case the classic GDW game coming back in a Savage Worlds edition from Pinnacle Entertainment Group.

Star Frontiers: In the earlier days of roleplaying games (the early 1980s…) industry giant TSR published Star Frontiers, one of the few space opera games with solid support a fun universe in which to play (especially when one of the other, harder science fiction games of the time, GDW’s venerable Traveller, included character generation with a life-path system that could conceivably kill a character before creation was complete). Online fan support remains high, spearheaded by the Star Frontiersman fanzine.

Pirates of the Spanish Main: The only non-roleplaying game to make the list (since many board and card games withstand “death” better than roleplaying games), this collectible “pocketmodel game” let players construct small pirate ship models which sailed in fleets to collect gold from islands and blast their nautical rivals. It was a fun concept with practical, good-looking ship miniatures; but due to corporate takeovers and maneuvering, the fate of the line has remained uncertain since the last expansion set was released in 2008. A small but avid fan following continues to provide support for the game by sharing their home-grown rules options and graphic materials.