************************************************************** * * * CYBERSPACE * * A biweekly column on net culture appearing * * in the Toronto Sunday Sun * * * * Copyright 1999 Karl Mamer * * Free for online distribution * * All Rights Reserved * * Direct comments and questions to: * *
* * * ************************************************************** TSR is a company that makes role playing games. Since the craze began in 1975, TSR has been the overwhelming market leader with its Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) rule book series. TSR really took off during the recession of the early '80s. AD&D appealed to imaginative, cash-strapped university students. Theoretically, AD&D is a cheap hobby, requiring a one-time investment in a set of rule books and some special dice. Using the rule books, gamers can then create and share their own adventures. It doesn't quite work out that way, mind you. Once hooked, most role players dump a few hundred dollars on rule supplements, miniatures, dice bags, and other "essentials". Probably the biggest actual requirement, besides the manuals, is paper. Role playing requires lots and lots of paper, mostly for recording character stats and writing adventures. Gamers at university found that their other pastime, hanging out in the computer room, offered access to garbage bins full of paper. Role players also discovered that computers made great gaming aids. Modules and rule supplements could be created, stored in public directories, and when the Internet came online in a big way, these works could be shared over ftp and the web. The relationship between TSR's success and university students appeared to be a strong one. Universities hosted role playing conventions. Like-minded gamers formed campus clubs. Universities Internet sites housed vast amounts of these home- made materials. An Internet newsgroup called rec.games.frp.dnd was created to further the spread of the hobby. One would think that this is an example of a perfect win-win relationship. TSR gets loads of free publicity, TSR's coffers get topped up as more people are attracted to the hobby, and gamers get access to the works others have created. TSR thought differently. In 1994 TSR representative Rob Repp informed the readers of rec.games.frp.dnd that distribution of derivative works using trade-marked terms via public Internet sites must stop! It was an infringement of TSR's copyrights. Simultaneously, TSR issued letters to system administrators informing them to either remove the material or face legal action. Administrators, not wanting to facing a costly legal battle, dutifully complied. A howl of protest erupted immediately on rec.games.frp.dnd. Gamers on the net view themselves as some of TSR's best customers and wondered why the company would return loyalty an insulting slap. Early in its growth curve, TSR experienced a nasty backlash from the Religious Right. Fundamentalists -- spooked by the game's demons, elder gods, and wizardry -- began letter writing campaigns, asking school principles, church priests/pastors, and public librarians to ban D&D clubs. Stores that carried the game were threatened with pickets. TSR's founder Gary Gygax made a personal appeal to the game's adherents to help counter the anti-D&D campaigns. Loyal gamers answered Gygax's call and patiently explained to their local school officials, priests, and library superintendents that the game wasn't creating baby killing Satanists but was fostering in many kids an interest in history, probability, writing, and literature. TSR, forgetting that the company would have amounted to nothing without these evangelical efforts, ostensibly saw the issue as going no deeper than a fear that allowing users to distribute "derivative" works put TSR's ownership of certain copyrights at risk. Netizens **didn't** quite buy that explanation. Id Software doesn't stop people from trading home-brewed additions to its Doom and Quake games. Wizards of the Coast, makers of the highly successful Magic: The Gathering card game (aka Magic: The Addiction), didn't seem to be chasing down users putting up pages featuring rules modifications. Many suspected TSR, which was no longer in the hands of its founder Gary Gygax and had gone "corporate" in a big way, simply wanted to shake down gamers. Some felt TSR was afraid "amateur" authors would offer works superior to TSR's increasingly diluted product line. Others suggested the company wasn't so much out to protect current copyrights but future copyrights. Movie companies return all unsolicited manuscripts unopened to maintain plausible denial should they be sued for theft of intellectual property rights. TSR, with a demonstrable net presence, would have a harder time arguing such ignorance. It's not too hard to image a corporate lawyer suggesting TSR risked a lawsuit every time it published a module because someone had publish something similar via a web page. Users miffed by TSR's action called for a boycott and questioned whether or not TSR had a legal right to put the kibosh on netizens distributing derivative works. After all, the game is unplayable if one cannot distribute works using trademarked terms. TSR representatives online counter argued that there was a difference between playing the game by sharing works with few close friends and distributing works to anyone and everyone on the net. Netizens retorted that sharing these works was simply a new facet of "playing" the game. So who the hell was TSR to tell people how they should play? A lot of debate about trademark law passed back and forth on the net, but gamers eventually had to admit that they didn't know enough about the law to say anything useful. In what maybe TSR viewed as a conciliatory move, online reps suggested that gamers could still distribute generic fantasy material, as long as they didn't use TSR's trade marked terms. That did little to stop the flame wars on rec.games.frp.dnd. A particularly nasty one was touched off when, in an act of supreme idiocy, a TSR online rep known as "TSRKeith" compared consumers dissatisfied with the company's products and net.policy to members of "the Hitler Youth". Not a good move. People were pretty pissed off about New Coke, but the good people of the Coca Cola Corporation never, in public, called its more emotional critics "Nazis". TSRKeith's remark confirmed that the once pioneering game company had lost all connection with its dwindling fan base and certain realities. Being number one for so long had imbued the corporate culture with a supreme arrogance that made the company lose touch with some obvious facts. Gaming culture was moving online. Few software companies would dare release a computer game without a network play feature. A pencil and paper role playing game in an era of word processors and the net was not much different. Users want to play games they **can** tweak and then share with their peers on the net. Creating a cool new monster or a cool new spell can you win you your fifteen minutes of fame in the halls of gaming. Since TSR wasn't letting anyone do it (save for a single public ftp site that admitted only a handful users at a time) role players moved to games produced by companies with more enlightened net policies. On June 3, 1997 came the announcement users rec.games.frp.dnd of had been predicting since TSR stumbled onto the net back in 1994: TSR was bankrupt. It was being bought out by a company who had used the net to its success, Wizards of the Coast, makers of Magic: The Gathering.