Series Info...Biting The Hand #24:

Cosmic Encounters From the Old Days

by Jessica Mulligan
April 30, 2002

These past two weeks have been replete with flashes from the past. Sometimes, life just works that way. The older I get, the more it seems to happen. I’m sure there is a philosophical truth in there somewhere, though I’ve no idea what it might be.

A cosmic encounter with Cosmic Encounter

Some games just seem to live forever. If you’re one of the gaming grognards who attended the Computer Game Developer’s Conference in the old days (i.e. 1989 to 1994), you know it was not unusual to walk through the lobby or bar of any of the nearby hotels at any time of the day or night and find a number of Cosmic Encounter sessions in progress.

Like Dani Bunten’s M.U.L.E. for the computer, Cosmic Encounter was and is a ‘paper’ favorite with designers and developers. It is a bit hard to describe the game: it is part board game, part card game, part role-playing game and entirely absorbing. Sessions tend to be short, about thirty minutes or so, accompanied by many groans, cheers and vows of revenge. The idea is to use your alien main character to try to defend your own worlds and colonize other planets which, of course, belong to other players. The aliens each have special powers which can be brought into play and the game depends heavily on diplomacy, convincing other players to assist you in your conquests. The play tends to be fast and furious, with games lasting thirty minutes or so. It first shipped in 1980 and its closest analog is Magic: The Gathering, without the need to collect the cards. In fact, Richard Garfield, the creator of M:tG, once said, “Though there are about a dozen games that have directly influenced Magic in one way or another, the game's most influential ancestor is a game for which I have no end of respect: Cosmic Encounter.”

The board game has been in print continuously since 1980, the latest version of which is shipped by Avalon Hill, and has won pretty much every award a board game can win. When I was at America Online in 1988-89, there was actually an Apple IIgs online version of the game developed for play on the old Applelink: Personal Edition service (which later became part of the AOL service we know today). For some reason, that game was never launched, although I remember helping to test the final versions of it. That was a huge disappointment to me, because CE is one of those few board/card games in which the style and excitement of the game play actually translates well to the online venue.

Thus, it is good news for Cosmic Encounter fans everywhere that Peter Olotka, one of the original designers, along with his son Greg and with the assistance of long-time designer Alan Emrich and developer Quicksilver Software, is bringing the game to the Web in an all-Flash version.

Peter and the team took me through a quick game of the online Beta the other day and even though it has been at least six years since I played the game, all the fun of the paper version and the late-night sessions at the CGDC came rushing back. The special alien powers weren’t working yet, but pretty much everything was there, including the social aspect so important to online gaming in general. Peter tells me the powers will go in soon in the next major update of the game. It is scheduled for release sometime in Summer or early Fall.

If you are interested in game design and want to know what kind of games developers play to learn about tight, interesting and absorbing game play, check out Cosmic Encounter. Don’t be surprised if you check it out for the learning and stick around for the game play, though; this one has a way of getting under your skin.

Cosmic encounter #2

The other cosmic encounter I had last week concerned an old friend and associate.

While reading Jerry Pournelle’s daybook website, I saw a hyperlink to a name I recognized from ‘way back. I hadn’t heard from or seen Dean Esmay for years, not since the last GEnie SysOp Convention I attended back in 1992. Dean alternately worked on and then ran the Apple-related RoundTables on GEnie back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. ‘RoundTables’ would be ‘forums’ or ‘Web sites’ to you new-fangled netizen types. This was back in the days before more than a handful of people even knew the Internet existed and the Apple brand of computers still had a decent share of the consumer marketplace. At the same time, I was at GEnie with the title of Games Product Manager. As there were only five of us PMs to manage over 400 products on GEnie, that meant that I also handled sports, the chat rooms, a bunch of small RTs and other products and, thankfully, Roberta Pournelle’s Education RoundTable and the simply-named Jerry Pournelle RoundTable.

Dean was a regular contributor to the Pournelle RT, as were several dozen other smart folks and a bunch of us hangers-on. The kind of self-revelation that Dean describes in his article, “The Brainteaser That Changed My World,” was not an uncommon occurrence. Pournelle and some of his regulars had this way of asking questions just so; you’d tend to wake up in the middle of the night thinking, “Hey, what the hell did he mean by that?” What he and some of the other regulars usually meant was some research and common sense would show the answer to your question.

Dean carries on that tradition on his own site, and I was glad to find it. Unfortunately, it is an unusual and sometimes unpopular way of thinking these days; Jerry (and, I imagine, Dean, too) is regularly lambasted for what amounts to having informed opinions. In these days of Internet egalitarianism, everyone’s opinion is supposed to count, apparently. No judgment is made on the worth of the opinion; it just exists and is supposed to be taken into account. It is like a perfect democracy: one body, one ‘vote,’ with the opinion being the vote.

At the risk of seeming elitist, I’ve never believed that. If you have an informed opinion, I’ll listen to you; if you’re just speaking ex cathedra from your nether regions, your opinion goes into the bit-bucket, pronto. For example, I have plenty of opinions on quantum theory and I’ve even read quite a bit about it, but I’d be horrified if Cal Tech gave my opinions equal weight to those of Kip Thorne or Stephen Hawking or even those of a first-year physics major. For that matter, most of us have a firm opinion on the issue of gun control, but how many of us formed those opinions based on knee-jerk emotions and how many have actually done any research on the long-term effects of it and come to informed decision on whether or not it is a good thing? We both know that the answer is “many emotional opinions and damn few informed ones.” You can insert your favorite polarized issue in place of ‘gun control’ and no doubt come up with the same results.

You may be asking yourself, “That’s all very interesting, Jessica, but what does it have to do with games?” Glad you asked; it has everything to do with it. Being a gamer, I tend to hang out with them a lot. Being a professional in the industry, I’m also very interested in what games these people intend to buy and why. Not three days ago as I write this column, a co-worker looked up from his computer, where he was perusing news on games to be shipped soon, and exclaimed to me, “Wow, such-n-such game looks awesome!” I reminded him that he said the same thing about Dungeon Siege before he rushed out to be the first on his block to buy it, and which he played for all of ten hours before he got bored and trashed it. His wry response: “Damn you.”

How many times has this happened to you or one of your friends? I’d wager it happens a lot these days. At least, anecdotal evidence I’m constantly presented with would suggest it. As happened with my co-worker friend, it seems to me that gamers tend to have mostly uninformed opinions about upcoming products that interest them. If they like real-time strategy games, for example, they tend to believe they know what the basics will be and focus on the marketing hype for ‘new’ and ‘awesome’ features.

Reading marketing fluff is not the way to make an informed opinion. One has to wonder how many games are sold because buyers focus on the sizzle instead of the steak. The importance of this is that publishers know sizzle works better than steak right now, because the sales figures tell them so. Which is why we see so many retreads and clones hit the shelves every year, most of which disappear within days. It is much easier and cheaper to try to create a hit with Internet sizzle than devoting resources to ‘steaking’ a game; that takes time, talent and, more importantly, money. This is why 1,500 games reach the retail shelf each year, 1,475 of which need to be buried at a crossroads and treated to a ‘stake’ of a different nature.

The lesson here should be obvious; if you want better games, demand better information than pretty pictures and hyperbole on which to base your opinion and buying decision. If more gamers did that, there would be fewer games, but they would be of much higher quality.

I don’t know about you, but I’d accept fewer games that cost $5 or $10 more each, if the quality matched the price rise.

Coming up:

I’ll be at E3 in three weeks, chairing the two-hour workshop on The Business of Persistent Worlds. The panel of experts will be Jonathan Baron from Microsoft’s Xbox Live team, Richard Garriott from NCsoft, Rich Lawrence from Sony Online Entertainment/Verant, Bridgette Patrovsky from MM3D, Inc. and Gordon Walton from Electronic Arts/Maxis. Between us the six of us, there is cumulative experience in the business of online game development of almost sixty years.

Considering how opinionated we all are, it promises to be a lively session, to say the least. If you’re attending E3 this year, drop by and say hello.

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