Review of Matt Barton's book, Dungeons & Desktops (2008), from A K Peters, Ltd.

Bill Loguidice's picture

Dungeons & DesktopsI finally received my copy of Matt Barton's Dungeons & Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, and it was definitely worth the wait. Similar to the popular Gamasutra articles Matt wrote and the book was inspired by, the book is broken up into various Ages, such as The Dark Age, The Golden Age, The Modern Age, etc., though in a greatly expanded fashion. This is a logical and effective means of organization and helps guide the reader through the progressively more sophisticated - though not necessarily better - CRPGs over the years.

There is plenty of theory and before you get into the meat of the book, exactly what is and what isn't a CRPG is discussed in great detail. For the most part I agree with the definitions and delineations of the various related genres (adventure, RPG, MUDs, JRPGs, etc.) and I believe this can be used as the basis for future works by other authors. In short, the reader gets a clear picture of what exactly the author means by "CRPG" in its many forms and why some of the other games - even though they might exhibit several RPG characteristics - really fall under another classification.

It's a fun, easy read with consistent pacing. There are no "dead" spots in the book and you are constantly looking forward to the next page. Matt has always balanced scholarly writing with a mainstream sensibility, and his reputation as the "Dennis Miller of Videogames" holds true here as well, with references to individuals like philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein sprinkled throughout the book. This approach works here as well as it ever has, providing some perspective for some of Matt's more original points.

While this book does not attempt in the course of discussion to catalog every CRPG ever made - and the fact that there have been many hobbiest and low circulation semi-pro works across hundreds of different platforms makes such a feat impractical - the vast majority of games worth discussing are all here, with a few nice surprises, like coverage of some of the games on the PLATO mainframe. In all, even the most jaded RPG enthusiast should find little to quibble about in the selection of games represented in the book.

Beyond being broken down into various Ages, the book further discusses individual games and series in each of these sections, in what some other reviewers have referred to as a collection of reviews. This is not exactly true, as the author is not reviewing each of the games as much as he's describing their components and what it does and doesn't advance in terms of the then state-of-the-RPG-art (in respect to the Age it's in). Nevertheless, based on the information, the reader can definitely get an idea of whether it's a game that he or she would like to play, so in that one way, it can act like a review despite it actually being a tool for the greater narrative.

So what are some of the downsides of this book? While there are hundreds of photos, some have come out too dark in the printing to make out details, which is disappointing as seeing the games and related items is a lot of fun. I also didn't care for the title screen of Ultima II being used rather than an in-game screenshot, particularly since the Ultima II title screen is repeated in the color insert (The color insert is tough to find because it's on thin paper stock, but it's definitely there!). Nevertheless, a high percentage of the images help enhance the narrative rather than detract from it and I'm sure the image contrast is something the publisher can fix in future editions of the book.

While we'll no doubt all have our personal criticisms of this work based on our own biases (what, obscure RPG y from obscure platform z is not there?!), one fact remains--this book is very, very hard to put down. For my money, that makes any minor criticism a non-factor in regards to the greater good of the overall work. So, kudos to my videogame brother for the accomplishment and if you have even the slightest interest in RPGs or video or computer games in general, buy this book!

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Matt Barton
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Thanks

Thanks so much for the detailed review, Bill! It really means a lot to me to have my friends coming out in support of this project, not just for my sake but for future projects like it. My dream is that future authors who want to write a book about games will have something to point to and say "people ARE interested in this stuff enough to read about it in book form." Once there's a proven market for it, who knows what treasures await?

On the positive side, I am really happy with the overall publication quality. The dust jacket is stunning--much better than I thought after looking at the cover on Amazon. They have really done Clyde's painting justice here. The print quality is also very high; the font looks great and is highly readable. Of course, unless you're a total nub here at AA, you know what to expect from the writing quality--it's highly detailed.

I might point out that (with Bill) that this isn't some sort of reference book about CRPGs. I didn't see any reason to do that, since there's already great online resources like Moby Games as well as plenty of platform-specific sites (Lemon Amiga, etc.) My project is to put all of these games into their historical context, focusing on games that made influential innovations (Ultima, Gold Box, Quest for Glory)--but also covering more obscure experiments that modern developers might want to revisit (Alien Fires, Star Saga, Sword of Fargoal). My point wasn't to cover every game, but rather tell the story of how this genre evolved over time. What innovations were introduced? What worked, what didn't work, and why? Each of the ages is prefaced with an overview of the technology of the era, which becomes critical in discussions of interface (as well as porting).

I've also took pains to make it as interesting as possible to read, inserting wherever appropriate my own personal experiences with the game in question. I have some fun with the descriptions and have put many subtle puns throughout the book. Of course, most of these will likely be missed by the casual reader, but the true geek will find them. I think one of my favorite descriptions is this one:

...it stands out against the all-too-common black and white CRPGs in which the enemy is always clearly defined and unambiguously in need of a mace to the skull.

(I bet you can guess the game!)

I've talked to the publisher about the image problem. Obviously, there's nothing they can do about the books already out, but the first run was a mere 2,000 books. After that, it goes into a second printing, and there's an opportunity to fix the problems. I've already put the image problem on the table, and he assures me that is also at the top of his list. So, basically, this will only affect the first run. I should also point out that it certainly isn't a problem with ALL the images.

To further address the problem, I've been trying to plan some type of cross-promotion involving posting the original screenshots on the web. I will probably end up using flickr and cross-posting like Bill has been doing with his pieces. What I might do is take it chapter by chapter, posting the pics and then taking the opportunity to write editorials on the subject matter. I'm still trying to find the most convenient means to do this. Maybe Bill could even chip in with some supplementary pics from his collection once this gets underway (hint hint). :)

The only problem is that this the absolute peak of by workload business at school, so I haven't had time to pee, much less take this on at the moment. However, you know I will eventually get it up! :)

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Bill Loguidice
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No problem

I will absolutely contribute whatever images you need now that my computer software collection is cataloged and I have reliable screen capture (and video) capabilities. We can plan something out. And yes, I did forget to mention how nice the book looks outside of some of the too dark images. It's definitely a quality hard cover book suitable for any shelf.



Wii: 1345 2773 2048 1586 | PS3: ArmchairArcade
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.

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yakumo9275
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wow only 2000 int he first

wow only 2000 int he first run! I hope amazon sell out to warrant more runs to prove there are markets for books like this

-- Stu --

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Bill Loguidice
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The sad state of videogame books
yakumo9275 wrote:

wow only 2000 int he first run! I hope amazon sell out to warrant more runs to prove there are markets for books like this

-- Stu --

Well, it would be available at more places than just Amazon. Even as little as two or three years ago, publishers were much more willing to gamble on videogame-related titles. Now, not so much due to weak sales over the past several years (due in no small part to a lot of them being crappy). That's part of the reason why it's taking so long to find a new publisher for my book (which Matt is now co-author on). Apparently a strong seller is a videogame book that sells 10,000+ copies, with only two or three having ever reached that. Obviously you can see why that would make publishers hesitant to publish any more. I believe strongly that the right book with the right publisher and marketing can still sell 10,000+ copies, but it's sure hard to get a publisher convinced of that. We seem close with this one publisher, but they seem hesitant to target the mass market with it, so it could be promoted mostly to industry insiders, meaning it could be another low print run on the first edition. We'll see. Regardless, the point is, with a combination of crappy books, poor marketing efforts and too much similar coverage, the market is barely considered viable these days. It will take a series of strong, original works and corresponding sales to begin to change that. Hopefully what Matt and I have been doing can be part of getting that started... (by the way, what DOES sell well still are hint books and walk-throughs, and on the computer side, how-to books)



Wii: 1345 2773 2048 1586 | PS3: ArmchairArcade
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.

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Matt Barton
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A lot of it seems so obvious

A lot of it seems so obvious to us that it's hard to convince the publisher. I mean, duh, people like reading about classic gaming (to wit; armchair arcade, etc.) Much of what we've been asked to prove is painfully obvious to most of us: there is an audience for well-written, well-researched material about game history.

The problem is that the mass media seems to think that only fluff will sell. Thus, the depressingly bad stuff on G4 and most websites. Meanwhile, a carefully researched and deadly accurate piece such as our Vectrex article goes mostly unnoticed. What gets the attention? Oh, the latest "10 Games that Changed History by Not Actually Changing History But Hell it's somehow related to Wii so w00t woot" piece on ign. Meh.

My guess is that the publishers are seriously underestimating the intelligence of the "average joe." My approach has always been (and you know it's true); give them what YOU would want to read. If it doesn't measure up, don't release it yet. Keep at it. We've always believed here at AA that the best way to build an audience is by actually caring about the product. We work hard to bring you high quality content that you can depend on. If we are unsure about something, we make that clear and ask for help. If you compare that to the latest piece on XYZ game site you know we've got a special formula here at AA.

Argh, okay. Rant over. :)

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adamantyr
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Great!

Just got my copy a few days ago, and it was great! Definitely could have used more color prints instead of the rather dark B/W, but I presume that was a cost-cutting measure.

Also, hate to nitpick, but you forgot Jade Empire. :) I only bring it up because it was notable for being a CRPG based upon eastern Asian fantasy elements without actually being a JRPG.

yakumo9275
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Matt, I'd love to see the

Matt, I'd love to see the interview/notes with Roth/Stark etc. of Shard of Spring/Demons Winter. (DW is one of my fav's....). Is it something you could put up on AA?

Shame Charles W. Dougherty isn't around/findable to poke about Q1/Q2/LotA/LoB and his whole involvment with SSI/EPYX/EA mix.

-- Stu --

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Matt Barton
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omissions
yakumo9275 wrote:

Matt, I'd love to see the interview/notes with Roth/Stark etc. of Shard of Spring/Demons Winter. (DW is one of my fav's....). Is it something you could put up on AA?

Shame Charles W. Dougherty isn't around/findable to poke about Q1/Q2/LotA/LoB and his whole involvment with SSI/EPYX/EA mix.

I'll have to check my email and see if that was an email or phone interview. If it's an email, I will put it up, but the phone ones would be far more difficult. I had no way to record the calls, so just had to rely on jotting down notes.

As I mentioned earlier, if you try hard enough, you will find games that aren't mentioned. Blame it on ignorance, carelessness, or whatever, but it was a big project and there are bound to be slips. I've already had to bite my tongue at a few people who accused me of doing lousy research just because I didn't mention some obscure homebrew Linux project or another that only a few dozen people ever played. I mean, c'mon. I guarantee you, most authors, there would be far bigger and more serious gaps, not to mention errors--I saw a video on G4 the other day that claimed Zelda was the first RPG. Even the "Official Book of Ultima" didn't even mention Mt. Drash, not even in a footnote. How many know about the zelda games for the CD-i?

In my defense, though, it appears that Jade Empire was an Xbox game, though there has been a PC port (last year, I think?). In any case, I haven't played it yet. ;) I will hopefully get the chance to make some changes for the second printing, and it might be worth adding a game or two if you folks think it'd be helpful.

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Calibrator
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Dougherty & Garriott
yakumo9275 wrote:

Matt, I'd love to see the interview/notes with Roth/Stark etc. of Shard of Spring/Demons Winter. (DW is one of my fav's....). Is it something you could put up on AA?

Definitely!

Quote:

Shame Charles W. Dougherty isn't around/findable to poke about Q1/Q2/LotA/LoB and his whole involvment with SSI/EPYX/EA mix.

And also the "copyright case" around Questrons Ultima-like tile mapping and how SSI resolved this.
Garriott wouldn't say much except that he got a minimal licensing fee per game sold.
But how long did it take? Did they have other options? Why did he do this in the first place?
He had better dungeons - why didn't he put more weight on that? etc. etc.

take care,
Calibrator

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Matt Barton
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There's a new review of the

There's a new review of the book at GamerTell.

A great resource guide that proves to be an educational, insightful and enjoyable look at computer-based role-playing games. A surprisingly readable history book that will certainly inspire a new appreciation for a long-lived and much-loved genre. Despite the old school art cover, this book is suitable for any gamer.

Funny how they didn't like the cover. Other reviewers count that as a prime asset!

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