Series Info...Playing with History #13:

History in the Industry

by Michael Karlin
August 6, 2003

“Work, as we usually think of it, is energy expended for a further end in view; play is energy expended for its own sake, as with children’s play, or as manifestation of the end or goal of work, as in ‘playing’ chess or the piano. Play in this sense, then, is the fulfillment of work, the exhibition of what the work has been done for.” — Northrop Frye, critic.

The quote of this week was central to my thinking when strolling the myriad of booths at the 2003 GenCon Indianapolis a couple of weeks ago. The amount of money invested in an industry that works to supply products one plays at the fulfillment of work was startling, and cheekily ironic. I made it a point to look out for history wherever I could find it on the Exhibitors' floor, and my conclusions did not surprise me. Despite the fact that history has already happened, it remains one of the most pliable genres in the gaming industry today.

Most roleplaying games being developed for the market that were shown at GenCon shied away from history. All manner of fantasy, space-based sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, and furry games were being assembled, but there were few large historical reproductions being touted by the Big Boys at the Con. Sure, there are exceptions. A friend of mine (and fellow Skotosian) purchased a game that took place in an alternate Roman Empire that had developed gunpowder-based weapons (Fvlminata, I believe). It seemed like a reasonable extrapolation of what would have occurred if the Romans had discovered gunpowder, and was quite complete in its description of that historical world given the blatant anachronism.1 What I found particularly notable is that Fvlminata was published by a small, independent company (Thrysus Games). The larger companies or licences were not pushing historically accurate games as the next frontier. Most Westerns were of the "steampunk" subgenre, most medieval games were fantastical. There were examples of board games that allowed you to take command of Napoleon's armies as they trounced Europe, or settle cities in a realistic fashion, but still few RPGs.

This makes me believe that historical accuracy is a niche concept in game marketing. I'm a bit orthodox in thinking that if many consumers wanted a historically accurate RPG to play, the larger companies would respond accordingly and produce one. Therefore, considering that there were few historically accurate RPGs present at the Con, one of the largest representations by the gaming industry, I think this to be a niche genre. And why not? Historical fiction isn't really a genre unto itself, rather it is a salvo of smaller subgenres loosely bound together. Just because one game is set in Pharaonic Egypt and another during the Boxer Revolution, it doesn't mean that each will attract the same consumer base. Everyone seems to have a particular era in history that appeals to them the most, either aesthetically or because the era possessed a romantic charm to it. Most fantasy games tended to have some degree of standardisation; most included magic and mages, fighters and chain mail armour, rogues and tattered green tunics. Historical fiction doesn't have that element to it, and isn't as recognisable or marketable. Even the Civil War, subject to fascination in the US of A, failed to make itself popular on the RPG front at this year's offering.

How did Egypt fare? Let's just say that at the second appearance of the god Horus dressed in full plate armour shooting a crossbow-shaped laser rifle (yes, à la Chewbacca), I burst out laughing. Aesthetically, Egypt is very popular in the RPG and board gaming world. Anthropomorphic gods who don't think well of each other have been extrapolated to fighting monstrosities who lead armies of identical men into battle for little reason. How did Egypt fare? It was butchered into small bits of sensationalism. I'm not here to judge, rather I'm here to fill a demand.

We met with the Skotos-Seven project leaders, as well as Christopher Allen (President of Skotos) and Shannon Appelcline (VP of Skotos) for lunch and I believe that this conclusion was recognised. Glory of the Nile will inevitably be in a niche category of games that is vastly under-fulfilled by current offerings. We want to create our world so that a novice in Egyptian history can pick up at the same place an amateur Egyptologist can, despite the latter being better able to appreciate the surroundings and the level of detail we have invested in keeping the game fairly true to evidence. This means that we are engaging in a bit of a makeover as we quickly review current work to see if it conforms, and engaging in even more research. Don't fret though, we aren't making it a history lecture. As I continue reading, the adage "real life is more interesting than fiction" holds true. It isn't going to matter in terms of learning curve, either. To appreciate any game, there is a certain amount of information that needs to be digested. I do not believe that it matters if this information is factual or fictitious, just that concepts are introduced at a steady and manageable pace. The only difference that does exist is a merit of historical fiction: that while learning a game, you learn something interesting about real life.

Yes, you will still see Set politicking with his priests, but I promise that you won't see a god dressed in plate mail shooting laser beams. I'll leave that to everyone else.

(1) You can read an review of Fvlminata, second edition here.

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