While Gary Gygax never did much more than dabble in video game development, the late Dungeons & Dragon creator had an unquestionable impact on the medium. That impact may not be entirely in the past tense, as the Gygax Trust has partnered with crowdfunding and investment site Fig to see some of the designer's original and unpublished intellectual property brought to video games.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz recently, Gary's son Alex Gygax said the first order of business is to find a single developer that shares his father's goals and has a demonstrated skill for narrative. They hope to work with that studio to create something based on an original campaigns of Gary's, one which Alex referred to as "kind of the original dungeon for Dungeons & Dragons."
"As my dad was creating Dungeons & Dragons, like a lot of games you need playtesters to work out the kinks and make a better game," Alex said. "So he started his own local group at home with some friends and family members. As he was creating the game, he had his personal story and it started growing and growing. It went from a tower in a town to a 10-level dungeon to a multi-level one that went all the way down to the depths of hell."
"Even 20 or 30 years later after he started this dungeon, he was still modifying and creating stuff based on what we did. It was his tool to make the game better"
And as should probably be expected of a Gary Gygax story, that's just the beginning.
"We're hoping to do a multi-plane aspect of this game where you're not pigeon-holed into being in one scenario or storyline," Alex said. "[The 1999 D&D follow-up] Lejendary Adventures had a campaign, The Hall of Many Panes, where you go to different realms, each one having a different mission, storyline, or theme to it. Creating something with his original works that could be expanded upon is what we're shooting for."
The campaign was a regular part of Gary's Thursday game nights, a tradition Alex joined as soon as he could. It was where Gary would try out new ideas and test various systems.
"Even 20 or 30 years later after he started this dungeon, he was still modifying and creating stuff based on what we did," Alex said. "It was his tool to make the game better."
That means whatever developer comes on board will be working not only with Gygax's narrative ideas, but his mechanical ones as well. And while many were devised for pen-and-paper play, a number of the mechanics were created with an eye toward eventual adaptation into gaming as well.
"There are multiple systems we could use," Alex said. "There are a few that would transfer over to a computer quite nicely, which I think would be good to use. Some stat-based and percentile-based ideas, but we're still pretty open. Once we pick a certain developer and start working with them, I think things will fall in line as we go."
"All the developers we've been talking to want the Gygax estate involved in this process. That's what's appealing to them, being true to Gary's memory and the work he created"
Of course, the developer isn't the only partner trying to make this game a reality. And even though Fig is best known as a crowdfunding site for developers with projects that are already in the works, company founder and CEO Justin Bailey doesn't see this particular project as being too far outside its wheelhouse.
"It's a natural fit for us because we like to think of ourselves as being a publisher that's centered around the community," Bailey said. "So getting the community involved, not just in the funding of it but giving feedback to things, being investors of it and helping get the word out... All those aspects of what people think of as publishing is where we step in.
"And I couldn't think of a better piece of work than what Gary's put together. This work and the campaign he was running actually formed his inspiration to create D&D. In discussions already with the developers we've been talking about who've been inspired by Gary's work, they've seen this unpublished work and they're just blown away."
Part of the reason the Gygax Trust is working with Fig is because the platform could serve some of the roles of a publishing partner while allowing the Gary's family to retain creative control. While some creators may ordinarily balk at those sorts of conditions, Bailey said that hasn't been the case in his early discussions with prospective developers.
"All the developers we've been talking to want the Gygax estate involved in this process," Bailey said. "That's what's appealing to them, being true to Gary's memory and the work he created. It's almost a no-brainer."
Alex also stressed that the family is seeking a collaborative process and will want everybody involved to contribute their ideas. That said, there are some things the Gygax Trust is planning to insist upon.
"He'd see me playing a game and the designer in him would kick in... 'Why do you like this game? What makes it fun?'"
"I just think it's important you keep some of the key elements in, and not stray away from what my dad brought to the table," Alex said. "Being creative, being able to create your own dungeon, create your own monsters, and run your own story, but at the same time create your own friendships and bonds through the guise of the game. I don't think we want to lose sight of that. And if you let go of the reins somewhere else, sometimes things get done maybe not how you'd like them to be done. So being able to be a part of the design process and creation of everything, I think it's going to make sure we don't lose sight of that."
That sounds like the kind of video game Gary Gygax would want to make, even if Alex says it's not quite the type of video game he actually played.
"He enjoyed a lot of the mental aspects [of video games]," Alex said, "though I think the biggest downfall for video games for someone of his age was a lot of it was reaction-based, real-time games where someone a little older who might not have the greatest eyesight or reaction time is at a huge disadvantage."
So instead of playing Diablo, World of Warcraft, and other games so clearly influenced by D&D, Alex said Gary preferred playing "extremely simple" turn-based and text-based RPGs. Something with quirky mechanics and a bit of math-based decision making was enough to keep him entertained.
That's not to say Gygax was uninterested in the more popular video games.
"He'd see me playing a game and the designer in him would kick in," Alex said. "If he saw me playing it a lot, he'd ask me about it. 'Why do you like this game? What makes it fun? What are you enjoying about it? Is there anything about this game you think I could add to one of my games to make it more fun?'"
Having seen D&D become the target of a parental panic, it's not hard to imagine Gary taking a very different tack with his own child when it came to video games. Alex confirmed that suspicion when asked if he was ever given a hard time for playing violent games.
"Not once did I hear a single thing about it," he said.
Alex recalled a trip to GenCon one year where he spent virtually the entire multi-day event at a booth promoting Thrill Kill, a notoriously violent PSone game that was completed but never released after Electronic Arts acquired the rights to the game along with a chunk of Virgin Interactive's gaming business.
"They just thought it was cool I was into something and wanted to know why I enjoyed it so much," Alex said. "Most kids were reading Goosebumps and I was reading Bram Stoker's Dracula in third or fourth grade."