Friday, January 05, 2007

Movies: Now for Gamers by Gamers

In the second issue of their customer newsletter, The Strategic Review, the upstart gaming company TSR claimed that the inspiration for the company was the "satisfaction in creating and/or publishing a good set of game rules." Brian Blume put a great deal of emphasis on the fact that TSR was a company of gamers who would make games for other gamers. In other words, TSR was a company that produced games "for gamers by gamers."

It was a battle cry that the company was compelled to make due to two things. First, the rapid rise of success TSR experienced was making some people, who are particularly "precious" about their interests, question whether TSR was "genuine" or "corporate." Second, TSR had set itself apart from a good deal of the gaming hobby. TSR's roleplaying game D&D would have long term negative affects on the wargaming industry, as it existed in the late 70s, and TSR quickly set their own gaming convention GenCon against the industry standard Origins convention. There is a long editorial in the April 1976 issue where Gary Gygax responds to Don Greenwood, the New Products Manager for Avalon Hill (one of the sponsors of Origins) at the time, who claimed that Origins was "the national convention."

TSR was a company establishing its identity and place in the world of gaming and it wanted to make sure that its audience new that TSR was a company "for gamers by gamers." In the 1980s, a computer game company by the name of Interplay also used this battle cry in the promotion of its products.

Members of a niche audience, in this case gamers, have a desire that the products designed for and destributed to them are made by members of the niche audience. This may sound like an exclusionary attitude, and in some ways it is, but it is also a good defense mechanism. After all, is it fair to ask a gamer to only be able to purchase "games by people who disdain gamers but what their disposible income?" I think not. Often those who are best able to make a product for a desired audience are those who have an appreciation for the product in the first place, Joss Whedon's run on the X-men comes to mind as a perfect example of a for x by x synergy.

I have been keeping track of one upcoming product "for gamers by gamers" and was alerted to another just the other day. There was one difference this time, both of the products are upcoming movies. That's right, some gamers have decided to make movies "for gamers and by gamers."

The first of these film projects is the Midnight Chronicles which is being funded by Fantasy Flight Games, the people who designed the world in which the film(s) will take place. The Midnight setting is a game world Fantasy Flight Games designed for use with the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game. The setting is a typical Tolkeinesque setting, with one significant alteration. In Midnight the bad guys won the big war and the setting is about what happens after "the Dark Lord" has been victorious. What isn't emphasized enough in the film clips/discussion is the reason the Dark Lord won, which is what I think actually makes the setting an interesting adaptation of the cliche. The Dark Lord's victory was secured when the "heroes of the age" sided with him instead of battling against him. The what if of the setting isn't just, "what if Sauron won?" The question is actually, "what if Aragorn, Boromir, and Gandalf sided with Sauron?"

The Fantasy Flight project is already deep into production, and has produced both a short and long trailer. By the discussions on the site, it appears that the hopes are more to make the Midnight Chronicles into a SciFi channel original series than into a single movie. The film(s) are being shot on HD and are being entirely produced by Fantasy Flight Games.

The second project, which I am equally excited though more worried about (more on that below), is the news that a movie inspired by the Brave New World roleplaying game is on the way. Reactor 88 Studios, a group of independent filmmakers in the Chicago area, have begun work on the project. The work is still in the early stages, but Brave New World is a roleplaying game with a devoted audience. Brave New World was a superhero roleplaying game created by Matt Forbeck which featured a dystopian present day America. The tag line for the game was "superpowered gaming in a fascist America." The setting was dark, but no completely hopeless. The game itself featured "functional" mechanics, unless you wanted to know exactly how much your superstrong character could lift, and one of the best innovations in the history of gaming, website's devoted to the milieu's resistance. Brave New World was in many ways a precursor to the modern Alternate Reality Game, in that it attempted to use existing communications media to further immerse gamers into the world environment. The game faced tough competition in the Hero Games dominated superhero rpg market, in addition to other pressures from a changing rpg marketplace.

I am excited about both of these projects because they are inspired by the hobby that I love. Both these projects have the potential to increase exposure, in a positive non-creepy way, to the roleplaying hobby and demonstrate the creative and inventive natures of those who participate in the hobby. I just worry about quality.

When it comes to game design, by gamers for gamers is a good philosophy. I don't know if the same maxim holds true for different entertainment media. Fans of Dungeons and Dragons the game shouldn't forget that Courtney Solomon claimed to be a fan/player of the game when he was promoting his Dungeons and Dragons movie. Integrity and a respect for the target audience are certainly necessities for quality in a gamer targeted movie project, but so is talent. In fact, directorial/creator talent is the single most important attribute necessary in the production of entertainment. So far the Midnight project looks like it is being done by people who are proficient at what they are doing, though some of the acting is suspect. I worry more about the Reactor 88 project, only because I have yet to see what their work looks like. I am limited by what I have seen of their website, which I hope isn't an omen of what their film will be like. To be fair, it is highly possible to be a talented filmmaker who only has limited web-programming skills so it isn't the best criterion with which to judge.

Gamers can be a forgiving, if hard to access, audience. Sales of the rough, ragged, and sometimes insulting "The Gamers" were enough to warrant a sequel and special edition. Though I prefered Gamers the Movie, if only because it was directed by a classmate of my wife's who I know is a real gamer. Gamers the Movie featured rendered environments and special effects that dwarf The Gamers and a score by Battlestar Galactica's own Bear McCreary, that and the fact that the Sound Editor, Wes Kobernick, plays in the Eberron game I DM. Speaking of USC student films, if you ever get a chance to see Fist of Iron Chef go immediately. It may be one of the single best student films ever made, that and it was a selection for 2005 Taipei Film Festival.
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