Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Greg Costikyan

Posted by Randolph Carter on September 17, 2009

Author’s website:

If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind discussing your background in the gaming industry?

My first game was published when I was 16; it was a board wargame based on the battle of Alamein. I continued to design games for SPI, a wargame publisher, throughout high school and college, though most of my games were based on SF or fantasy themes. In the early-mid 80s, I was director of R&D for West End Games, where I managed all game development and publication efforts, and personally designed several games, including Paranoia (with Dan Gelber and Eric Goldberg) and Star Wars: The RPG. For several years thereafter I was a house husband, writing novels and doing work for Prodigy, the old commercial online service, in my “spare” time. In the early-mid 90s, I went to work for Crossover Technologies, one of the few game developers in NYC, where I designed several online and PC games, as well as a series of ecommerce applications. I was then a consultant for a time, the founded one of the first North American mobile game companies in 2000. After it failed, I went to work for Nokia, first as editor of the games portion of their developer support website, then as a “games researcher.” In 2005, I founded Manifesto Games, an attempt to expand the market for independently developed computer games; I shut the company down earlier this year.

I’ve written a lot about games, game design, and game industry business issues for many publications; have consulted to many Fortune 500 companies on the industry; have lectured about game design at universities both in the US and Europe; have designed more than 30 commercially published games; and am the recipient of 5 Origins Awards and the IGDA’s Maverick Award, as well as an inductee into the Adventure Gaming Hall of Fame.

As the CEO of Manifesto Games, which retails independently developed games and creator of the website Play This Thing! you are obviously a big fan of indie games. Why are you so committed to this?

See: “Death to the Game Industry, Long Live Games”

What would you say to someone who has never strayed from the AAA titles in their gaming experience? What are they missing out on?

Doesn’t it all start to feel the same after a while? The conventional industry is lucky if it sees -one- innovative title in the course of a year, and in general, unless your name is Wright or Miyamoto, you will never be allowed to work on anything other than a game the marketing dweebs know how to slot into an existing market category.

If you actually want some spark of creativity in your games, you have to look outside the mainstream. This is true of film and music as well, of course.

You designed the first online game to attract more than one million players. Would you mind discussing this game a bit and what the experience was like for you?

That was MadMaze, a game for Prodigy, one of the commercial online services that existed before the Internet was opened up to commercial use. The miracle is that it didn’t suck, since one of the constraints was that no original programming could be required; it used two existing Prodigy applications, one for posting news stories, and one for running little q&a quizzes. Like miany highly constrained game development projects, it was actually rather tedious to work on, really, but Prodigy paid me quite well, and it’s hard to argue with success.

Are you still designing games?

Yes. My current project is a boardgame commissioned by the Macarthur Foundation that is designed to teach middle- and high-school kids from the Chicago area something about the Burnham Plan, the landmark 1909 urban plan for the city of Chicago that had a big impact on the 20th century development of the city, and to encourage them to think about how they would reshape the city given the chance.

I’m also working on a 2-8 player boardgame about naval conflict in the Mediterranean in the 16th century, tentatively titled “Philip & Suleiman.”

Kim Wilkins, one of the authors recently interviewed for this site, had this to say about the future of writing: “If you want to see the future of narrative, it’s in games. As written entertainment goes digital, I think we’ll see more and more quality writing in games. It’s going to be awesome.” Would you have anything to say to this?

I think it’s horseshit. There’s a fundamental conflict between the demands of narrative and the demands of games, which I’ve written extensively about here: “Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String.”

The typical game story is a thud-and-blunder heroic melodrama of such limited literary virtue that it would make Robert E. Howard blush. Games do power fantasy pretty well, but nuance of character is lost when you hand over control of a character to a player, and most of the things that create tension or interest in a story are difficult or impossible to show in a game (how upbrigning shaped a character, the complexities of love and betrayal, any sort of emotion beyond fiero and frustration). Mind you, I applaud people who try to extend the narrative reach of games, but to look to games as the future of narrative strikes me as insane.

She also happens to be a big fan of World of Warcraft. Speaking of narratives, what is your take on the current state of MMOs?

Narrative in MMOs consists of a) backstory that everyone ignores, and b) quest text that you blip over as quickly as possible to extract the essential information you need to know, e.g., where do I have to go and what do I have to do.

My take on the current state of MMOs is that it essentially sucks. One the one hand, we have eight-budget spectaculars that look for WoW numbers and are even less willing to experiment than the conventional console-and-PC market; and on the other we have low-budget “free play” titles designed to gull you into splurging on digital content and therefore offer degraded gameplay in an effort to maximize per-player revenues.

Mind you, I continue to play WoW, and I highly recommend A Tale in the Desert and something remarkable and different from the norm.

Why do you play WoW?

WoW is a pretty bad gamemaster, but it’s always there and I don’t have to work to get together a group of friends or (as GM) to prepare an adventure. It’s a useful way to satisfy a gaming jones at fairly minimal effort.

I’ve previously made an analogy to tailoring: A tabletop RPG session is like a bespoke, hand-tailored suit, crafted by your GM to the tastes and interests of his or her friends. An MMO is like a suit bought off-the-rack — it won’t fit as well because it’s tailored to the lowest common denominator rather than your individual measurements, but it will satisfy some of the same requirements.

What do you see as the biggest unrealized potential of the genre?

Which genre? RTS, FPS, TCG, board wargame, computer wargame, miniatures wargame, LARP, ARG, tabletop RPG, computer RPG, console RPG, JRPG, indie RPG, Eurogame, aufbaustrategiespiele, sim/tycoon game, MMO, casual game, adventure game, sports game, sports management game, shmup, sidescroller, platformer, turn-based strategy, turn-based fantasy, flight sim, vehicle sim, choose-your-own-ending book, or maybe tower defense?

Games are not a genre; games are a form, and incorporate a great many genres.

Let’s try this again: What do you see as the biggest unrealized potential in MMOs?

Virtually every MMO on the market at present is essentially a dikuMUD variant. That is, it’s based on hack-and-slash gameplay and level advancement. In the history of MUDs, there were many other successful game styles — to give one very different example, in a Pern MOO, advancement fundamentally depends on establishing positive relationships with other members of the weir and getting permission to imprint a dragon, go on raids, etc. Or as one of the few examples of an MMO that’s quite different, A Tale in the Desert is basically a crafting game, with a specific end-goal and victory condition, in which all combat, even PvE, is prohibited.

Hack-and-slash is far from the only style of play you can accommodate in a thousands-of-players online environment, but virtually no one is experimenting with anything other than minor permutations on the dikuMUD model.

first contractYou also happen to have several published novels under your belt. For gamers who would like to check out something you’ve written, what would you suggest?

Several of my short stories are readable for free at my site at  Of my novels, First Contract is the one I like best.

I am curious to know whatever happened to your Magic of the Plains series. I see where book 1, By the Sword was published a while back, but I wasn’t able to locate any of the subsequent volumes in the series.

By the Sword was written as a stand-alone novel (actually, originally, as a one-chapter-a-week series for Prodigy). Tor got all excited about it and slapped the “Magic of the Plains” label on it in the hope that it would become a series. The first book didn’t really sell well enough to justify a sequel.

I can more properly be chastised for the Cups & Sorcery series, which is hanging at two books and definitely needs a third to come to completion. I rather doubt I’ll ever get to it, however.

What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into the field of writing for games? Would your advice be any different for aspiring authors?

First, play LOTS of games. Second, understand that you are a hired gun; the game designer is the one actually shaping the experience, and you are being brought in to fill in little bits of dialog that need to be written, or little bits of story that get transmitted here and there, or, in very rare cases, to flesh out the basic game system with sidequests or other story elements. In other words, not only are you not a novelist, with complete control over the final product, you are not even a screenwriter, the original fount of the movie even if it later gets reshaped by others. You’re pouring content into a structure defined by others.

Third, understand that writing for an interactive medium is very different from writing for linear media: “First, they go to Bree….” But what if they don’t? What if they decide to light out for the West?

And of course, network, network, network… People hire people they know. And it doesn’t hurt to get famous or quasi-famous as a writer first (e.g., Marc Laidlaw was a pretty well known science fiction novelist before he was hired by Valve).

How do you escape these days?

There is no escape this side of the grave.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

Immortal Defense:

My Life with Master:

The Upgrade:

The most interesting uses of narrative in games today are -not- found in boxes from EA or Activision.

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