Daikatana

Daikatana

Every so often I get a little spoiled with too much classic retrogaming goodness, and begin to take for granted the great storylines, coding and sheer fun that most of my game collection contains.  It’s at that point that I find it helpful to look back on a game that is best played while under the influence of mood-altering substances.  Such a game is the pile of stinking defecation brought to us in 2000 called Daikatana.

Daikatana - PC
Front cover of the 2000 PC game, Daikatana.

What hopes everyone had for this game.  After all, the lead designer was John Romero, he who was quoted to say, “Design is Law”, was one of the co-founders of id Software, and was one of the co-creators of the industry-changing Doom.  This was a person who gamers could count on to bring his “A” game to the design process.  Or so we thought.

Daikatana - PC
Hello, I’m John Romero, and you’re not.

Much has been said about the incredible excesses of Romero’s studio while working on Daikatana.  Around $40 million was spent on this game, which was a result of both Romero’s desire to be surrounded by luxury (complete with a multi-million dollar office at the very top of a skyscraper in Dallas), and his inability to keep the game on schedule.  Critical errors were made from the start of the project, as Romero estimated a seven-month development cycle using the Quake engine.  But id Software beat him to the market with Quake II, which meant retooling Daikatana with the Quake II engine to avoid looking like a tired old retread.  If that wasn’t enough, Romero saw his entire development team quit, which meant further delays.  Add these factors together and it’s easy to see how Daikatana quickly became a money pit.

Daikatana - PC
Gameplay screen for Daikatana.

Perhaps if Romero didn’t project himself as such a larger-than-life personality, gamers would have been more willing to forgive him for such a catastrophe.  But even the advertising campaign was offensive to the buying public.  “John Romero’s about to make you his bitch. Suck it down.”  Seriously, how does an ad copy like that make its way all the way from a brainstorming session to publication?  Simultaneously insulting, crude, and a challenge to all gamers, everywhere, this ad campaign created an expectation that anything short of a coding love child between Sid Meier and John Carmack would be marked a failure.

Daikatana - PC
The offensive Daikatana ad campaign.

Once the game was released, the sheer mediocrity of the product became evident.  The game mechanic was wonky, with the player getting the “benefit” of two sidekicks that you needed to keep alive to help solve various puzzles during the game.  Of course, they had the AI equivalent of a gnat, so you tended to see them die. A lot.  And did I mention that if the sidekicks died you lost the level?  That’s just bad design, which is unforgivable from someone who believes, “Design is Law.”  The good news for the sidekicks is that the AI for the enemies is just as bad, perhaps worse.  If a solid object is between you and your enemy, fret not, as they’ll keep trying to walk straight toward you rather than go around it.  You could even go out for a smoke break and come back in to see them still trying to become an irresistible force.  But you can’t take that break, as your stupid sidekicks will take the opportunity to walk directly into the line of fire while you’re gone.

Daikatana - PC
Gameplay screen for Daikatana.

In the end, Daikatana sold 200,000 copies, probably to people who wanted to create a drinking game based on how bad it was.  The stark reality was after $40 million in development expenses and only 200K of boxes sold, Daikatana was an epic failure on a scale reserved for such amazing debacles such as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (for the Atari 2600).

Atari 2600 E.T.
Daikatana is E.T.’s bestest friend!

So, game designers, study well the example that John Romero has left you and take note of what happens when ego and extravagance trumps hard work and diligence.  Let’s not have another Daikatana happen to us again, shall we?

Ten Questions: Matt Barton

Matt Barton is one of the smartest and most interesting people you can find online discussing, loving and showing off old & new games. Now, although you should preferably get to know him via his work on Matt Chat, the Amrchair Arcade and some rather impressive books, reading the following interview should be both enlightening and considered as an appetizer.
dungeons and desktops dragon-1
1. Matt, care to introduce yourself to the merry retro loving lot that are the Gnomeslair.com & Obsolete Gamer readers?

I’m Matt Barton, host of Matt Chat, a weekly YouTube show dedicated to classic games. I’m also co-founder of Armchair Arcade and author of Dungeons & Desktops and Vintage Games (co-authored with my friend and colleague Bill Loguidice). I’m also an assistant (soon to be associate) professor of English at St. Cloud State University, where I teach classes in writing, rhetoric, and new media.

2. And what would you say some of your favourite games are? Any particular love for a genre or a gaming machine?

My favorite genres are adventure games, role-playing games, and strategy games. Some of my favorites include Baldur’s Gate, Pool of Radiance, World of Warcraft, Civilization, and the Nancy Drew series of adventure games. I have many consoles, but my favorite gaming device is the PC. Going further back, I will always be an Amiga and Commodore fan at heart.

3. So, Armchair Arcade, how would you describe the site and what’s the story behind it?

We were friends on a forum dedicated to Shane R. Monroe’s Retrogaming Radio show. We talked about putting together an online magazine, and eventually set it up. For awhile we focused on “issues” and tried to make it look like a retromag. We were amazed by how much attention it got, frequently mentioned on Slashdot and many other sites (even Slate and the Discovery Channel). Eventually, though, we morphed into a blog format and started selling our features to other sites (especially Gamasutra). Now we use AA as our home base for communicating to fans and fellow retrogamers, talking about our latest projects, and so on.

4. Same question on the incredibly well produced Matt Chat episodes… How did you decide to start a video show on retro games, and what would you say is this little something that makes Matt Chat unique (for, believe me, it is unique)? By the way, love that gaming wall you got in the background.

Matt Chat has come a long, long way in a short time. When I first started, it was just me and a webcam trying to hawk my books. The production quality was terrible! But I wanted to learn more about videos because Bill and I are producing a feature documentary for Lux Digital Pictures (Gameplay: The Story of the Videogame Revolution). I figured I needed more experience with videos to really handle a project like that, so I kept learning and experimenting, trying to refine my techniques. If you notice, I usually try to put in one more technique or one more refinement per episode, so I’m always learning something new.

I don’t think Matt Chat is unique. There are many, many other YouTubers out there doing similar shows. For instance, ianwilson1978 does great work on the Sega Genesis and Marlin Lee covers a variety of games. I guess one thing that makes my show special is that I feature games from all platforms, especially covering PC and computer titles that the others miss. Most other shows are dedicated to consoles, especially Nintendo classics. I figure those games already get enough love, so I try to cover ground that is not covered by the other shows–such as Dungeons of Daggorath for the Tandy CoCo, Tunnels of Doom for the TI-99/4A, or even the PLATO platform. I also feature interviews with classic developers, such as John Romero and Al Lowe. I’ll soon release my interview with Chris Avellone.

5. Really, is it tough producing something of this quality on a weekly basis?

It can be. Sometimes my editing program (Sony Vegas Platinum) crashes so much during rendering that I’m tempted to just give up. I would really love a better setup! The other big problem is capturing footage from games, especially old Windows games. Even with fraps, virtualdub, and the rest, it can be a nightmare sometimes capturing decent footage.

Other than these purely technical problems, though, it’s not hard at all. I can easily come up with things to say, and I like researching the games anyway. I also enjoy inserting inside jokes and humor, and interacting with the fans is a real joy.

6. How about your books? They are two on games and one on Wikis, correct? Do you feel gamers actually bother reading?

I think most gamers are highly intelligent; at least the ones I talk to. I know plenty of professors and graduate students who are serious gamers. But, of course, there are many who never pick up a book. That is sad, of course, since I couldn’t imagine living life without good books to read. It’s really important to read good books, not just newspapers and such. You can always tell when you’re talking to an avid reader, because he or she will be more knowledgeable on a broader range of topics–plus, I think it makes you more articulate and, frankly, intelligent. I had a friend who read War and Peace just for fun, but he told me later he felt more intelligent after reading it. Some people laugh at comics and graphic novels, but they are actually much more sophisticated now than they used to be. You could certainly learn a thing or two from Moore‘s work.

There’s really no excuse for being ignorant. So read!

7. Now, let’s focus a bit on the rather epic Dungeons and Desktops. Why CRPGs? Could you briefly describe the book? Has it sold to your expectations? Did you enjoy writing it?

It’s pretty much what it says; the history of computer role-playing games. I tried to talk about every important or even remotely influential game in the book, describing what makes them fun and how they fit into the grand history of the genre. I tried to show connections across eras and styles, so you could get a sense of the diversity. Someone may have heard of Baldur’s Gate, for instance, but be unaware of Planescape: Torment, Pool of Radiance, or Eye of the Beholder. I meet people who may know all about Zelda and Final Fantasy, but have never heard of Ultima or Lord British. That bothered me, so I thought it was time to write a book on the topic.

The book has sold well. Of course, something like this won’t be a bestseller. But I wrote this book for people like us, not the mainstream. By “us,” of course, I’m talking about people who love games like Wizardry and Fallout and enjoy nothing more than talking and thinking about them.

8. Should we expect more books from you? Maybe even a new project or collaboration?

Almost certainly, though it’s very hard to find publishers interested in game books. I have been dying to write a book on adventure games similar to D&D, but no takers so far. Bill and I have been talking about a book on the Atari 2600, and I’ve got one on virtual worlds that needs development. We will probably also write a book based on our documentary.

9. And now for something that interests me quite a bit on a personal level. How did you really manage to -effortlessly, it seems- combine an academic career with all this quality work on computer and video games?

In a sense gaming is my job. A professor is expected to research as well as teach, and game studies is an important part of new media. I’m presenting on aspects of gaming at two national conferences later this year (Computers and Writing, Rhetoric Society of America). People tend to think of “English” strictly as literature and grammar, but it’s far more than that! There are many of us studying games as well as other technologies like wikis and social networking. All of these things involve communication and rhetoric.

10. Finally, have you thought about actually creating a game yourself?

I have, though I’m not satisfied with the results! But a few years ago I taught myself C++ out of some books and made a simple adventure game, which I entered into the Interactive Fiction contest. I was shocked that it was 28th in the 12th annual interactive fiction competition. At any rate, it was fun learning C++, and I’d love to try something more ambitious one day.

Get Lamp

Get Lamp

Get Lamp,  is a documentary about video games. Old video games. Mostly old video games. Mostly old video games that do not sport graphics and are not to be played on consoles. Actually and to finally get to the point, it’s a documentary about a very special kind of text-only video games: interactive fiction (or text adventures). A documentary about the most literary and rewarding form of digital gaming so far and the only genre to truly and fully challenge ones imagination and intellect.

What’s more, Get Lamp is a brilliant and quite impressive -both in scope and execution- documentary, that, carrying on with the themes of impressiveness and brilliance, also makes for a rather great movie. After (not so) extensive field testing I can actually assure you that even people who couldn’t care less about any form of interactive entertainment whatsoever, thought it was fascinating and were actually moved to give Infocom’s Planetfall a try.

Get Lamp was directed and produced by Jason Scott, the same person that was responsible for the BBS Documentary, and the same person that apparently traveled throughout the US in a quest to conduct almost a hundred interviews, that were eventually molded into the basis of the documentary. Among the interviewed, you’ll find such impressive names as Don Woods, Scott Adams, Ian Bogost, John Romero and almost everyone from Infocom, as the movie takes viewers on a mostly chronological trip through the history of interactive fiction, stopping only to focus and expand on the important bits, in what can only be described as an excellent whole. This main feature comes in interactive (something like a simple but well-implemented choose your own adventure thingy) and non-interactive flavors and covers the genesis, rise, fall and current evolution of the genre.

[youtube width=”600″ height=”480″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRhbcDzbGSU[/youtube]

But you think I’m over-reacting, don’t you? Well, I could be, though the truth is that Get Lamp is very well shot, masterfully presented and quite extensive in its coverage. It also sports some amazing production values, filling two DVDs with hours of greater and smaller features and featurettes, comes in a beautifully illustrated case (complete with a fantastic coin), features a written intro on text adventures by Scorpia, and even provides gamers with more than a few interactive fiction offerings and a variety of other digital goodies. Oh, yes, and everything is fully subtitled too.

Actually, the only thing lacking and my main gripe -both regarding the main feature and the tons of extras- is coverage of the European and generally non-US text adventure. Now, I do understand that traveling to Europe would have been far too costly, but the omission of Magnetic Scrolls, Level 9, Zenobi, Delta 4, Gilsoft and a variety of other classic publishers and developers was quite a bit disappointing, especially as Get Lamp is such an immensely enjoyable and frankly brilliant offering.

To grab your own copy of Get Lamp, simply follow this very link to its official website. Anyone ever interested in interactive fiction will simply have to own the thing.