Since we’ve been talking about #GamerGate all day today, I thought we ought to actually talk about games too, which makes this the perfect time to post this article about one of the great, and massively underrated game designers, Steve Fawkner.
Fawkner released his first full game, Quest for the Holy Grail,
for the Sinclair Spectrum in 1983. “I didn’t know about publishing or
about how to get a game to the store,” he says. “So what I would do is
go to a gaming convention and take some copies of Quest for the Holy Grail in a snap-lock bag, with some instructions just printed out.”
He gave them away to attendees, free of charge, with a message at the
start and end of the game requesting players send $5 to fund the next
one. He didn’t expect to earn a penny, but Fawkner got 32 checks —
Encouraged by this unexpected success, he developed more games,
building up a mailing list of people who liked his work. He’d send them
games through the mail, and they’d pay another $5 for each title they
enjoyed. “It was extremely, extremely primitive, but it was kind of
pizza and beer money when I was a teen.”
Then one day in early 1989 he finished a game that seemed too good to
give away, either in snap-lock bags or through snail mail to his small
list of previous customers. Warlords combined two games Fawkner had been playing at the time: a strategy video game called Empire,
by White Wolf Productions co-founder and former Space Shuttle Program
flight designer Mark Baldwin, and a board game by TSR called Dragons of Glory.
A turn-based affair, it put you in charge of one or more clans — each
possessing heroes and citadels and soldiers — and asked you conquer at
least two-thirds of the map.
Fawkner thought maybe he could sell Warlords commercially.
“I sent it around to a few publishers,” he says, “and just got told no.
They weren’t interested in a game that was 90 percent finished by
someone they’d never heard of.” He also sent it to distributors, unaware
of the difference between the two. “They certainly weren’t interested
in something that didn’t come shrink-wrapped in a box.”
Almost ready to give up, Fawkner chased one last lead: Strategic
Studies Group (SSG) in Sydney. “They do strategy games,” he remembers a
friend saying. “OK, they’re tanks and planes and military kind of
strategy, but why don’t you send it to them?” Fawkner shipped a copy
off, and initially heard no response.
“Six weeks later, I got a phone call,” he recalls. SSG co-founder Ian
Trout confessed that his company had thrown the game out because it had
knights and dragons in it, but they gave it another look after his son,
Alex Shore, found the Warlords disk and dug in. “I owe Alex a
huge debt of gratitude for actually finding my game in the garbage and
playing it,” Fawkner says. “Because SSG published it. It reviewed really
well, sold I think tens or hundreds of thousands of units and did very
Steve’s a modest man. Warlords was also CGW’s 1991 Game of the Year. It’s still such a good game that Ender still plays it from time to time when he isn’t playing Fantasy General or Civ5. Warlords 2 was even better, although I thought 3 and 4 lost a bit of the plot, being too influenced by the newfound popularity of the RTS genre.
But then to come back with Puzzle Quest, which started the whole Puzzle RPG craze, was simply amazing. Anyhow, notice that not only did no one ever welcome to the industry with encouragement and snuggles, but despite the massive respect with which he is regarded by veterans throughout the industry, he still has to scratch and claw to find the money to make the games he wants to make.
I still have my original boxes, manuals, and disks for Warlords here in my library, an honor I convey on only the very best classic games.