January 1997, by Bruce Biskup
The State of Gaming
Hello to everyone out there. This Rambling inaugurates 1997 and another year of designing and publishing new games under our BoneGames banner. First off, I intend to be more regular in with this column. I know, I have said this before but now I mean it. I hope to have a new column out during the first week of every month. I hope to have something useful to talk about every month so we will see. So without further delay, I will begin my January ’97 installment of my Rambling.
Those readers on the Net are probably aware of the USENET discussion group rec.games.board. Recently there has been a discussion about the death of gaming and long discussions about why Toys“R”Us does not carry any particular game in this area. This is disheartening since in the world of boardgaming there has been several companies that have gone bankrupt. SPI/Victory Games and GDW are two companies I was familiar with in the early 80s that are no longer around. However, I am optimistic about the future of gaming but then again I believe that gaming industry is changing and on this I will elaborate.
The biggest challenge to the hobby of boardgaming is that since the 1980s there has been more choices for someone to spend their free-time. Those of you that were aware back in the early 80s when I first got interested into the hobby might agree. Today we have cable TV with over 50 channels, most everyone is within 15 minutes of at least one multiple screen theater and there are numerous restaurants in the area. However, the biggest challenge to boardgaming has been the development of the useable personal computer. The very fact that you are reading this column is an affirmation of that comment. It is the creation of visually impressive computer games that most hobbyists point to as the villain in the demise of boardgaming. While I agree that computer games have reduced the appeal of boardgames I personally believe that the boardgaming industry has been maturing over the past few years. I am not saying that there will be a renaissance in boardgaming, just that the industry will change sufficiently in order to survive and still supply the needs of us hobbyist.
The biggest reason to feel optimistic is that only recently have computers games and the hardware to run them have become sufficiently powerful enough to support real time, head-to-head play. In addition, no brilliant programmer has come up with an artificial intelligence that can simulate the absurd but innovative play that a human opponent is capable of making. Games like Quake and Warcraft are challenging when played against the computer but the experience of a human player makes for a more dangerous and enjoyable opponent. However, none of the current “wargame”-like computer games offer the feel like a good game of Star Fire or Panzer Blitz. Most have play-by-email capability but not real time play. Until someone makes a game with these capabilities there will still be a place for a boardgame.
Another thing to consider is that the way everyone is using Internet is changing. Currently we all enjoy the benefits of a highly subsidized Internet. Most of us are able to use the Internet for a flat fee no matter how much line time we use. Most college students receive their Internet access for free. This will change in spite of what we want. Local telephone companies are already investing in technologies that will allow them to distinguish between voice calls and modem calls so that the user can be charged differently depending upon how the line is used. In addition, companies (even Josh and I at BoneGames) are looking for methods to charge users for information they access or download. All of this point to higher costs for Internet access which will limit the appeal of using the Internet as the medium for head-to-head play. Again, computer gaming is here to stay but not at the total expense of boardgaming.
The boardgaming industry is also changing with the times. The digital age has spawned a printing revolution and the current crop of professional printed games are some of the most attractive games to have ever hit the market. This is possible because of the capabilities of the computer hardware and software that makes it easy to create high quality documents. One just has to look at the quality of the printing of a game from the Gamer’s or Avalanche Press to see what I mean. No longer do you see 4 color games that were common in the late 70s and early 80s. Today, multiple color maps and counters are the norm. High quality printing and spiffy fonts do not make a good game but it is now possible for boardgames to be published that are as attractive as an issue of National Geographic. However, this quality printing comes at a price. A typical hobby game can cost over $40 dollars. Back in the 70s and 80s a typical game sold for less than $25 and the difference today is not all due to inflation. The rise in cost is not too bad since a typical current release computer game can cost over $50 dollars and the boardgame lasts much longer. However, the technology that allows designers and publishers to digitally create great looking games also allows for novices (like we at BoneGames) to enter the fray and publish quality games and content with at lot less effort expended. This is the real source of excitement for the boardgame industry. It is now possible for a creative person or group to publish a new game on the Internet much like shareware in the computer industry. This fills the low-cost game niche and helps spawn new ideas in the gaming industry and will help keep the boardgame industry alive and healthy with innovations.
Finally, the topics of the boardgames are changing, especially here in the United States. In the US games have been looked upon as a juvenile pastime. The hobby of adult gaming was dominated by the wargame which limits the appeal of the hobby to a small segment of society. All other games in the US were aimed at children and have very little appeal for adults. Popular games like Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit are examples of “adult” oriented games that are popular in the US Fortunately, the major game publishers are creating games with mass appeal that are fun to play. Recent games like Avalon Hill’s History of the World and Wizard’s of the West Coast’s Roborally are examples of games from companies that have traditionally marketed to the adult hobbyist and not the general public that are publishing games with broader appeal. Finally, import games from Europe are coming into the market. It seems that the Europeans spend more time playing games than here in the US. This influx of new games and ideas will also help the industry stay alive in an era of increased competition for free-time.
So, I am personally optimistic about the future of boardgaming. Computers will never totally replace the boardgame just as boardgames never replaced miniature gaming. The quality of the games is improving as well as content aimed specifically for the mass adult audience. Finally, computer technology is available at a reasonable cost that will allow amateurs to publish their own games that will help bring novelty and innovation into the industry. I expect to be playing boardgames for some time to come.