Monday 29 January 2024

New DEUS EX game cancelled

A new Deus Ex game in early development at Eidos Montreal has been cancelled. The news broke as Embracer Group, who acquired Eidos Montreal in 2022, confirmed over 100 layoffs at the company.

"I never asked for this."
"A new Deus Ex game? I'm pretty sure everyone asked for that."
"No, I was referring to the layoffs and cancellation."
"Oh, that was unclear."
"Yeah, I get that now."

Embracer Group went on a buying spree of IPs and development studios during and just after the COVID pandemic, when video game stocks were riding high. Embracer planned to leverage a huge portfolio of talent to do a massive deal with a Saudi investment company. However, as the post-COVID video game bubble burst, the Saudi company pulled out, leaving Embracer suddenly flapping in the breeze. The company has since been shedding jobs and closing down studios at a rate of knots as it tries to balance its books.

The Deus Ex franchise is one of the best-regarded in all of video gaming, with original entry Deus Ex (2000) still often cited as one of the greatest video games ever made for its iconic story, characters and incredible freedom of choice. It is often cited as a shining example of both the RPG and immersive sim genres, with the player allowed to follow the story and events however they wish, no matter how implausible or seemingly game-breaking. Console-centric follow up Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003) was much less successful, both critically and commercially, and was believed to have killed the franchise. However, the series was brought back from the brink of extinction for Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011), which was regarded as another modern classic and sold extremely well. Sequel Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (2016) was critically praised, but sales were cooler, with anger over an attempt to monetise the single-player-only game with cosmetics and a cliffhanger ending which some believed made the game feel incomplete.

Eidos Montreal were moved to other projects, spearheading development of Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018) and working with Crystal Dynamics on Marvel's Avengers (2020). Eidos Montreal then developed the well-received Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy (2021) before the Embracer sale, and apparently began work on a new Deus Ex at that time. It was unclear if this game was a follow-up to Human Revolution and Mankind Divided (which followed the same cast and storyline) or a new story in the same universe, or even a remake of the original game.

The Deus Ex series has bounced back from total extinction the past, so hopefully that will be the case here.

Friday 26 January 2024

Happy 50th Birthday to DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, and the tabletop roleplaying genre

Dungeons & Dragons turns 50 years old today, or at least today-ish. The first few copies of the original release of the game hit the wild in late January and early February 1974, although the ad hoc nature of the game's development and release means there's always been ambiguity over the precise date.

D&D was co-developed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, two wargamers from Wisconsin. Since the 1960s they'd been playing and designing wargames, starting off in traditional arenas like Civil War and Napoleonic War games, as well as naval titles (including their first co-designed game, Don't Give Up the Ship!). By the end of the decade they had developed an interest in fantasy fiction, with Gygax particularly driven by his love of the works of Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, Michael Moorcock and Robert E. Howard. Arneson and some of their friends were also fans of The Lord of the Rings, which had recently blown up big time (Gygax was cooler on Rings, which he considered boring, preferring the shorter, more focused adventuring of The Hobbit).

Merging fantasy with wargaming seemed an obvious move, and as early as the late 1960s Gygax was organising a play-by-mail campaign set in a fantasy land called "the Great Kingdom." However, assembling a large army of elves, orcs and goblins was difficult, forcing players to substitute models of, say, French line infantry or Prussian hussars. In 1971 Gygax and Jeff Perren collaborated to create a wargame, which they named Chainmail. Drawing on 1968 wargame Siege of Bodenburg for inspiration, the game focused on medieval battles but also had a "fantasy supplement" with rules on incorporating elves, dwarves and magic into the game.

Arneson was a fan of Chainmail but had also been working on a fantasy variation of Braunstein, an experimental rules system allowing for the control of individual characters on the battlefield. As he developed the project, Arneson added elements including character classes and levels, experience points and armour class, as well as a background setting, which he called "Blackmoor." Arneson invited Gygax to play the game and Gygax immediately saw the potential for it. He developed many of the ideas in greater detail and play-tested the first variations at home with his wife and children. He and Arneson agreed to develop the game as a commercial project; according to legend, Gygax's then-two-year-old daughter picked the title "Dungeons & Dragons" from a list Gygax had been mulling over.

The original Dungeons & Dragons "white box" set from January 1974.

Arneson and Gygax set up the company Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) in October 1973 to handle the project. Their budget for the project was just $2,000 (about $12,450 in today's money), with only around $100 budgeted for artwork. With the budget limited, they were only able to print 1,000 copies, which they sold through local conventions and mail order ads in magazines and fanzines. Arneson and Gygax did not expect big success, but all 1,000 copies were sold within a few months and they rushed through a reprint; more than 3,000 copies were sold in 1975.

To Gygax and Arneson's surprise, they quickly had interest from overseas. In mid-1975 they were contacted by Ian Livingstone and Steven Jackson, who had set up a London-based company called Games Workshop, which was designing boards for popular games like Backgammon and Go. GW became the exclusive European importer of Dungeons & Dragons, which drove the success of both companies. GW later invested in miniatures, co-founding Citadel Miniatures in 1978 and developing a generic line of high-quality (for the time) fantasy figures for use with D&D and other fantasy games like Runequest and Middle-earth Roleplaying. When Games Workshop lost the exclusive distribution licence for D&D, they decided to create their own tabletop wargame using their fantasy figures...although that is a different story.

The popularity of D&D rapidly grew. Arneson and Gygax published several supplements and expanded TSR, launching a tie-in magazine (called The Dragon, later shorted to Dragon) and incorporating new rules and ideas. Notably, D&D did not launch with an established setting or world, instead encouraging Dungeon Masters to create their own world. Gygax and Arneson eventually detailed their home campaign worlds, named the World of Greyhawk and Blackmoor respectively, for supplements, but these remained optional.

The encouragement was well-taken, however, with a young Canadian teenager named Ed Greenwood converting a world he'd created as a little kid for short stories into a D&D campaign world, which he dubbed Forgotten Realms, and started writing Dragon articles in the setting. A very young British writer, Charles Stross, was also encouraged to create his own monsters, "borrowing" the name "githyanki" from an obscure novel called Dying of the Light (by an ultra-obscure writer called George R.R. Martin) for a memorable species for the Fiend Folio tome. Meanwhile, a writer in South Carolina called Oliver Rigney, Jr. agreed to run D&D campaigns for his young stepson and started pondering his own ideas for a fantasy world. In California, the Abrams Brothers were inspired to create their own D&D world, which they called Midkemia. They quickly moved beyond D&D to other rules systems and developed the world further; when a friend from university called Ray Feist asked if he could write a novel called Magician based on the same world, they said okay. Over in the UK a press officer working for a nuclear power plant, named T. Pratchett, invited his co-workers to a D&D night at the local pub and was dismayed when they went totally off the rails and trashed the campaign; he was at least satisfied with one of his creations for the game, an ambulatory chest which ran around on tons of little legs, carrying the adventurers' gear.

Up north in Canada, two archaeology students started playing a D&D game. They quickly tired of the focus on killing monsters and looting their stuff, but became intrigued by applying archaeological principles to the game: who are the monsters, who built these dungeons, and what history led to these events? In 1986 they switched their gaming to the newly-released GURPS system and developed what became known as the Malazan world, with Ian Esslemont penning the first proto-Malazan novel, Night of Knives in 1986 and Steve Lundin (aka Steven Erikson) writing a film script in the same world called Gardens of the Moon; with zero interest from Hollywood he redeveloped it into a novel in 1991, and the rest was, as they say, history.

The AD&D Player's Handbook, 1st Edition, 1978.

Back in the late 1970s, Arneson was not hugely interested in working in a corporate environment and bailed on the game, instead happy to collect his royalties as the game's success began to explode exponentially. This irked Gygax, who continued to work in the trenches of game development, writing and making new business deals. According to some theories, Gygax began development of a new D&D derivative which Arneson which would not be involved in, allowing Gygax to claim sole copyright (and thus royalties) over. This resulted in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, aka D&D 1st Edition, which appeared in 1978. Arneson's lawyers were unhappy with Gygax's argument, and later legal deals were settled in both parties' favour. However, the existence of "Advanced" D&D kind of required the continued existence of a "Basic" D&D, which appeared in 1981 (after a prototypical version was tested in 1977). The Basic D&D line eventually became the biggest-selling line of D&D projects, shifting over six million copies.

In 1983, TSR shifted strategies by planning a "multimedia event," one of the first of its kind, with a major new campaign set in a brand new world focusing on dragons. This resulted in the Dragonlance setting, spearheaded by a 16-volume adventure series and a novel trilogy, The Dragonlance Chronicles, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. The novels became bestsellers, shifting four million copies before the end of the decade. 

In the early 1980s, Gygax decamped to Hollywood to work on a D&D movie and TV show, eventually resulting in the release of a Dungeons & Dragons animated series, but no movie. With Gygax apparently distracted by partying at the Playboy Mansion (as you do), TSR recalled him and manoeuvred him out of the company in 1985.

With Gygax gone, designers felt uncomfortable carrying on using his Greyhawk setting. With Dragonlance featuring many deviations from "core" D&D rules, it was decided to develop a new campaign world. TSR called on Ed Greenwood, who'd been contributing to Dragon Magazine for a decade with articles set in the Forgotten Realms, and bought the setting from him, publishing it in 1987. Tie-in novels also appeared, with the third novel published, The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore (featuring a dark elf protagonist, Drizzt Do'Urden), becoming an immediate big hit. The success of the Realms encouraged a whole slew of new campaign settings, although none became as big as the Realms or the earlier setting: Spelljammer (1989), Dark Sun (1991), Al-Qadim (1992), Planescape (1994) and Birthright (1995).

The 2nd Edition D&D Player's Handbook, 1989.

The 2nd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons launched in 1989, but the game started dropping sales in the early 1990s. D&D had effectively created the entire tabletop roleplaying game industry, resulting in a bunch of other games soon appearing: Empire of the Petal Throne (1975), Boot Hill (1975), Traveller (1977), RuneQuest (1978), Gamma World (1978), Call of Cthulhu (1981), Champions (1981), Star Trek (1982), Palladium (1983), Heroes Unlimited (1984), Paranoia (1984), Doctor Who (1985), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1985), MechWarrior (1985), Robotech (1986), GURPS (1986), Star Wars (1987), Cyberpunk (1988) and Shadowrun (1989), among many others.

Hugely important was Vampire: The Masquerade, which appeared in 1991. With a streamlined rules system and a cool setting with a ton of deep lore, the game quickly became hugely popular, eclipsing D&D in sales. Weird Western Deadlands, which launched in 1996, was also hugely successful in a similar vein. D&D was increasingly seen as old-fashioned and old-hat, with its rules system feeling archaic (with many core features largely unchanged since 1974, despite three distinct versions of the game having existed) and its overwhelming focus on combat over the social side of roleplaying feeling dated. Unbeknown to fans and players, TSR was also in financial trouble, trouble that continued to expand through bizarre business decisions and the policy of creating more product to push through publishers to create churn, even though the products were not selling.

In 1997 TSR effectively collapsed and had to be rescued by Seattle-based Wizards of the Coast, the company founded just a few years earlier to sell the Magic: The Gathering card game. Magic: The Gathering was a colossal, ludicrous sales success and it was easily able to buy TSR and settle its immense debts. Goodwill towards D&D was starting to build again, thanks to the success of the tie-in video games from BioWare and Black Isle Studios, including Baldur's Gate (1998), Planescape: Torment (1999) and Icewind Dale (2000), along with the various sequels. Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition in 2000 to immediate success and acclaim, reasserting the game's position as the market-leading roleplaying game. The d20 rules system pioneered by 3E soon spawned a whole host of other games.

The D&D 3rd Edition Player's Handbook (2000), the first recognisably "modern" iteration of the game.

However, 3rd Edition lacked the long tail of earlier versions of the game, something the release of a "3.5 Edition" in 2003 seemed to exacerbate rather than solve (fans angered by the release of new rulebooks barely three years after the last). Faced with dwindling sales, WotC released the 4th Edition of the game years ahead of schedule in 2008, but the game saw a huge move away from D&D's original rules, resulting in a lot more anger from fans. Many decamped to rival fantasy game Pathfinder, established in 2009 and carrying on the 3rd Edition line of rules. D&D went through a nadir of sales and popularity in the early 2010s, with WotC rumoured to be considering cancelling the game outright. The 5th Edition, released in 2014, was a big improvement, at least in the eyes of the game-buying public, and livestreams of games over the Internet (particularly the Critical Role webseries) soon triggered high sales. The game also got a boost from the major role it played in Netflix series Stranger Things (2016-present). 5th Edition's sales became the healthiest seen for the game since the early 1980s. A revision of 5th Edition is due for release later this year.

It's not always been plain sailing. WotC have been criticised in recent years for ambiguity over AI artwork, trying to cancel the Open Game Licence (allowing third parties to produce compatible material) and a lacklustre approach to D&D's heritage, with very few novels or decent setting material being published. An overzealous approach to copyright protection (resulting in private detectives storming a YouTuber's house after he received a product before its review date) has also proven controversial.

In its fifty years on sale, D&D has shifted around 20 million core rulebooks and sourcebooks, over 100 million spin-off novels and around 30 million video games. A minimum of 50 million people are believed to have played D&D. It spawned the entire tabletop roleplaying industry and played a key role in the development of video games. At least dozens and likely hundreds (maybe even thousands) of published fantasy authors have played the game. Its impact on fantasy, especially secondary world, epic fantasy, might be second only to that of The Lord of the Rings. Hopefully it can enjoy at least fifty more years of success.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Tuesday 23 January 2024

Netflix releases trailer and release date for AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER

Netflix have unveiled the trailer and release date for their live-action take on the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The original animated show ran for three seasons from 2005 to 2008 and won significant critical acclaim, which has only increased over the years through reruns and re-releases. It spawned a spin-off show, The Legend of Korra, which ran for four seasons from 2012 to 2014.

The main cast includes Gordon Cormier as Aang, Dallas Liu as Prince Zuko, Kiawentiio as Katara, Ian Ousley as Sokka, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as General Iroh, Elizabeth Yu as Princess Azula, Daniel Dae Kim as Fire Lord Azula. Recurring castmembers include Ken Leung as Commander Zhao, Maria Zhang as Suki, Lim Kay Siu as Gyatso, Amber Midthunder as Princess Yue, Yvonne Chapman as Avatar Kiroshi, C.S. Lee as Avatar Roku, Danny Pudi as the Mechanist, Utkarsh Ambudkar as King Bumi, James Sie as the Cabbage Merchant, Arden Cho as June the Bounty Hunter, Momona Tamada as Ty Lee, Thalia Tran as Mai, Meegwun Fairbrother as Avatar Kuruk, Hiro Kanagawa as Fire Lord Sozin, George Takei as Koh the Face-Stealer and Sebastian Amoruso as Jet.

The first season consists of eight episodes. Original Avatar creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko are listed as the writers of the first episode and the co-writers of the sixth episode, despite parting ways with the project early in development. DiMartino and Konietzko are developing new Avatar animated projects with Nickelodeon, including a new animated sequel movie to the original series.

Avatar: The Last Airbender arrives on Netflix on 22 February.

Sunday 21 January 2024

Franchise Familiariser: BattleTech (2023 update)

There has been a recent surge of interest in BattleTech, the venerable franchise about people piloting giant robots and trying to beat up or destroy other giant robots, all in a well-realised setting (think of Pacific Rim meets Game of Thrones and you're halfway there). The science fiction tabletop wargame is now one of the best-selling in its field, and more people are trying it out thanks to recent successful video games and Kickstarters for the wargame.

There’s more interest in the franchise than there has been in maybe a decade, but what to do if you’re intrigued but have no idea what it’s all about? Time for a Franchise Familiariser course!

(A previous version of this article was published in 2018.)

The second edition of BattleTech and the first to use that name, released in 1985.

The Basics

BattleTech (and its related brand, MechWarrior) – neither to be confused with Robotech – is a franchise that merges elements of space opera, feudalism and military science fiction, all influenced and inspired (at least early on) by Japanese manga and anime. It was originally created as a tabletop wargame, followed by a pen-and-paper RPG, but gained its greatest exposure through video games and a lengthy series of novels. A short-run animated series which ran for half a season in 1994.

BattleTech was created by Jordan Weisman and L. Ross Babock III for FASA Corporation in 1984 as a tabletop wargame. The original idea had been to create a wargame using large, human-piloted robots known as BattleMechs or ‘mechs. Originally called BattleDroids, the game had to change its name after a few months due to a copyright claim by Lucasfilm (who claimed that they had copyrighted “droids” as part of their Star Wars franchise, a questionable tactic but one that FASA did not have the legal firepower to fend off). A companion tabletop roleplaying game, MechWarrior, was published in 1986. The first BattleTech video games, The Crescent Hawk’s Inception and The Crescent Hawk’s Revenge, were released in 1988 and 1990 respectively.

The franchise received a significant boost in popularity, however, through the MechWarrior video game series. The original MechWarrior (1989) was well-received but it was MechWarrior 2 (1995) that took the series to new heights. Released at exactly the right moment to capitalise on the 3D gaming craze and more powerful PCs, the game was a huge success. It was followed by MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries (1996), MechWarrior 3 (1999), MechWarrior 4: Vengeance (2000), MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries (2002), MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries (2019) and MechWarrior 5: Clans (2024).

In 2001 FASA almost went bust and sold the BattleTech and MechWarrior properties to WizKids. In 2003 WizKids was bought by Topps but continued to release new material under the WizKids name. They have also provided companies such as FanPro and Catalyst Games with licences. Since 2007, Catalyst Game Labs has been releasing new versions of the classic wargame and the roleplaying game, whilst Piranha Studios and Harebrained Schemes have released new video games.

In 2018 the franchise had one of the biggest boosts to its popularity from the extremely successful turn-based strategy game BattleTech from Harebrained Schemes, overseen by franchise creator Jordan Weisman. The game sold millions of copies and produced several expansions. A sequel to the game was proposed in 2023 but it's unclear if that project is moving forwards.

2018-19 was dubbed the “year of BattleTech”, with two new video games (BattleTech from Harebrained and MechWarrior 5 from Piranha) and a refreshed version of the wargame from Catalyst. Since this time the franchise has maintained its franchise, producing add-ons for both video games and more wargaming material, as well as a new tabletop RPG, MechWarrior: Destiny.


Saturday 20 January 2024

The Last of Us: Part I

Twenty years after a fungal parasite devastated humanity, killing billions and transforming millions more into mindless animals, Joel and his partner Tess are surviving in the ruins of Boston, working for and amongst other groups to get by. When Joel is contracted by a freedom-fighting group known as the Fireflies to escort a 14-year-old girl, Ellie, across the country to a research base, his first instinct is to refuse. Convinced to undertake the mission, Joel and Ellie find their journey to be arduous, difficult and beset by betrayal and dashed hopes.

Originally released in 2013, The Last of Us became one of the torchbearer games of its generation, arguably the last classic game released for the PlayStation 3. It was later remastered for the PlayStation 4, turned into a critically-lauded HBO TV series, and it's now been fully remade in the same engine as its successor, and (finally!) given its first release on PC. So how does the game hold up in 2024?

For the most part, reasonably well. The Last of Us: Part I (as this edition is now known) is an effective game combining a linear, narrative-driven adventure with elements from the survival, horror and action genres. The game is played in third person and sees the player controlling Joel - and, occasionally, Ellie - as they traverse each level. Levels can vary from being very tight and linear to more open, with more choices of what routes to take and what side-areas to explore for supplies. Ammo and materials are in low supply throughout the game, encouraging thorough exploration, but some areas are also extremely dangerous, with huge waves of enemies threatening to attack if you linger too long or make too much noise. The Last of Us is an effective game of choices and trade-offs.

Still, those used to the dominant open-world genre of the present day may find the game confining. Although you can go off the beaten path a little, it's not long before a locked door, surprisingly dense hedge or inconveniently-crashed car stymies all progress in a particular direction and you're forced back onto the exact path the game wants you to take. As someone who's occasionally railed against the often-needless bloat of open-world games and felt nostalgic about more directed game experiences, I did find the lack of choice in the game quite old-fashioned. Of course, the game is almost a dozen years old at this point, so it's hard to entirely hold that against it.

The game's combat and stealth systems are fairly robust. It's possible to fully stealth most missions, and this can turn the game into a very tense game of cat and mouse as you study enemy patrol routes, sneak up on them from behind and take them down without anyone else realising they're gone. There's some awkwardness in how this is done - you can force enemies at gunpoint to relocate to an area where their body will not be located, but you can't carry their dead bodies around - but it is an effective and tense way of picking enemies off without alerting the whole lot. However, once you realise that combat is rarely loud enough to attract enemies from more than a couple dozen feet away, the temptation is go in all guns blazing. The game accounts for headshots (and sometimes tries to stymie them with armoured helmets) and close-range weapons like shotguns can take out all but the hardiest enemies with one shot.

The weapons roster is robust, with pistols, shotguns and hunting rifles sitting alongside knives and the stealthy bow. Depending on the situation (indoors or out), weather conditions and enemy (human, animal or cordyceps), your weapons shine in different situations. The only awkward fit is an assault rifle, which is not very fun to use and shows up so late in the game that they might as well not have bothered.

The narrative is pretty solid, although I found the experience of having watched the TV show first did make the game narrative less tense: obviously the show spoils the general direction of the story and also has time for much more dialogue and in-depth characterisation, which can't help but leave the game's story feel a little undercooked in comparison. It's still a pretty solid story, but does not land as well as it did in 2013. The Left Behind DLC - included here at no extra charge - has better writing and a more refreshing, original structure. The voice acting is, famously, excellent throughout.

The game's status as a remake does create a rather schizophrenic feel. Graphically, it looks amazing with some of the most well-detailed environments you can see in a current video game (only the fantastic Alan Wake II reliably outshines it, with moments bordering on the genuinely photorealistic), and some terrific lighting and weather effects. However, movement and animation can both be clunky, and human characters look decidedly uncanny-valley-ish (the care lavished on Joel, Ellie and a handful of other characters is not shared by the random mook enemies or NPC allies). The suspicion here is that 2023/24-level textures have been dropped onto 2013-era level design and maybe even models, creating a weird duality that doesn't quite work. Don't get me wrong, it looks great and is preferable to playing the OG 2013 version, but the illusion isn't as sold as well as it could be. It also doesn't help that the game's original PC release was blighted with technical issues. These have mostly been resolved, but the game is fairly punishing on modern hardware.

The Last of Us: Part I (****) is a very solid, enjoyable game which tells its story with skill. It's no longer as fresh as it was back in the day and the remake doesn't feel as cohesive as it could, but it's still a thoroughly engrossing gaming experience, with some excellent set-pieces, vistas and voice acting. The game is available on PC and PlayStation consoles now. A sequel, The Last of Us: Part II, is available now on PlayStation 4 and 5, with a PC version expected a couple of years down the line.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Tuesday 16 January 2024

For All Mankind: Season 4

2003. Happy Valley has expanded into a full-scale colony on Mars, where technology is being developed to allow humans to capture asteroids and swing them into Mars or Earth orbit to exploit their resources. The United States and Soviet Union are now full-blown allies, marching jointly into the exploration of space. The many workers who lost their livelihoods with the collapse of the oil industry are now finding fresh employment on the Moon and Mars, but the same problems of low pay and class divides follow them. The discovery of a metal-rich asteroid which can solve Earth's shortages in a single swoop spurs a dangerous mission, but political turmoil in Moscow and growing discontent at Happy Valley make the mission anything but straightforward.

For All Mankind's first two seasons staked a claim for the show to be the best slice of science fiction on television at the moment (certainly following the wrapping up of The Expanse). A cool alt-history take on the space race, fantastic visuals and pretty good writing all made for a compelling drama. Season 3 abruptly reversed that course, with hackneyed love triangles and tedious personal drama threatening to undo all the good work achieved in worldbuilding (not the first time this has happened on a Ron Moore-produced show, to be fair).

Season 4 occupies a ground much closer to the former than the latter. Thankfully, it stops and reverses the rot from Season 3. The story is much better, the aggravating love triangle story from Season 3 has been fully exorcised from the show and we're back to the interesting mix of science and alt-reality politics that made the first two seasons compelling. However, the show hasn't fully swung back to that level of quality. There's still some rather far-fetched plotting, and the show's failure to commit to getting rid of its increasingly ancient central character is quite daft.

The season divides its plot between several character arcs. Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) is a reluctant political refugee in the Soviet Union, where her space knowledge is being wasted, until a political realignment brings her to the attention of a new regime. Aleida (Coral Peña), still suffering traumatic after-effects from the bombing of NASA at the end of Season 3, decides on a new career path. Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), now in his seventies, is comically squatting on Mars and refusing to leave, so NASA has left him in a command position (and, although it's under-explored, possibly studying the impact of low-gravity existence on his ageing body). Newcomer Miles Dale (Toby Kebbell) is a redundant oil worker who gets a new job on Mars, but finds the job isn't all that he thought it might be.

Season 4 balances these storylines well and ties them together nicely at the end of the season, creating a much more cohesive storyline than the spotty third season. This is no mean feat with multiple groups of characters active in the United States, Soviet Union, on Mars and on various spacecraft. The interaction of the storylines is pretty good.

However, the show continues to mix cool realism (the long travel times to Mars and the inability to engage in real-time conversation with Earth) with decidedly bonkers speculative elements (gigantic giga-engines that can steer asteroids). This mix was odd in Season 2 but has become de rigour for the show by this point, and does give us some cool visuals and awesome vfx sequences, so fair enough.

Anyone who's read Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy can probably see some of the plot twists coming a mile off, with musings on capitalism-in-spaaaace and how it leads to the predictable repeating of patterns we see on Earth. So the Happy Valley colony quickly becomes a stratified society between the above-deckers and the maintenance workers belowdecks, complete with a black market and secret bars. We're not quite at the point of full independence (I suspect that will rear its head several seasons down the line) but this is a clear transitional story. It's not that original, to be honest, but Kebbell's solid performance as Miles Dale and fellow newcomer Tyner Rushing's great turn as Samantha Massey both help sell it.

On the negative side, the lengths the show goes to in order to keep previous main characters in the frame remains quite implausible. Ed should have been retired at least one season ago, and Kelly has relatively little to do. At least Margo gets a meaty storyline with some intriguing twists. And I'll forgive a lot of these problems for keeping Danny out of the picture this season. On another flipside, the absence of former-President Ellen feels jarringly abrupt, but I suppose her story purpose has been fulfilled.

Season 4 of For All Mankind (****) splendidly improves on the tedious third season and brings us back much closer to the quality of the first two. We're still not back to the show at its best, but this season is a big improvement over last year and opens the story up for a very interesting fifth season.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Monday 15 January 2024

RIP Howard Waldrop

News has sadly broken of the passing of Howard Waldrop, a highly-acclaimed author of science fiction and fantasy short fiction, at the age of 77.

Waldrop was born in Houston, Mississippi in 1946. He spent most of his life in Texas, and became a childhood fan of genre fiction and comic books. He began a correspondence with George R.R. Martin via nascent comics fandom in the 1960s and they became lifelong friends.

Waldrop's writing career began in 1972 with the short story "Lunchbox" in Analog. Notably, this was John W. Campbell Jr.'s last discovery before his death. Waldrop was best known for his short fiction, publishing only two full-length novels in his career: The Texas-Israeli War: 1999 (1974) and Them Bones (1984), along with the novella A Dozen Tough Jobs (1989), which some have pondered as an influence on the Coen Brothers O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) (especially as the latter has a character called "Vernon Waldrip").

Waldrop was more at home with short fiction, penning around eighty published stories in his career. "The Ugly Chickens" (1980), about the extinction of the dodo, was probably his most acclaimed work, winning the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards and getting a Hugo nomination. "Night of the Cooters" (1990) was probably his joint-best-known tale. It was adapted for film in 2022 by Vincent D'Onofrio, and produced by Waldrop's friend George R.R. Martin.

His other joint-best-known story also owes something to Martin: in 1987 he contributed "Thirty Minutes Over Broadway!" as the very first Wild Cards story, in the very first collection in the series. The story depicts the adventures of Jetboy as the Wild Card virus is released over New York City and acts as the origin story for the franchise. The story also features the franchise's most-quoted line of dialogue: "I can't die yet! I haven't seen the Jolson Story!" Waldrop was offered the chance to pen more stories but he declined, only allowing that he might return to write the very last story in the series if Martin decided to wrap it up. Alas, that opportunity will now not arise.

His stories were assembled in numerous collections, most notably Things Will Never Be the Same (2007) and Other Worlds, Better Lives (2008). Waldrop's fiction was noted for its sense of humour and he became popular for his lively readings of his stories at conventions, including the annual ArmadilloCon in Austin, Texas. More than once, he was called "the court jester of SF."

A smart and interesting writer of idiosyncratic, lively fiction, Howard Waldrop will be missed.

Saturday 13 January 2024

The SFF All-Time Sales List (2024 Edition)

After a lengthy break (six years since the last version), the (non-) patented, utterly non-definitive Wertzone Official SFF All-Time Bestseller List returns.

There have been some changes this time. The last list was getting on for 300 entries strong, and unreliable and variable reporting meant the lower half of the list had more holes in it than Swiss cheese after being visited by lactose-loving moths, due to patchy reporting. I have limited the numbered list to authors with more than 1 million copies sold for the sake of sanity. I have left in the remainder of the list from last time, but take those positions and sales figures with a pinch of salt the size of Greenland.

The usual string of caveats: reporting of sales for authors is bizarrely spotty, with some authors happy to broadcast their sales, some guarding their figures with incredible tenacity and others happily admitting they don’t have a clue what they are, reliant on intermittent reporting by various publishers across the world. There is also frequent confusion over “books sold,” “books in print” (i.e. the number of books that are currently sitting unsold on shelves or in warehouses across the world) or “sales-per-book,” which can sometimes lead to conflicting information. There is also tremendous lag, with reports sometimes being many years behind sales themselves. Some of the sales figure sources are brand-new, some are a few years old and some are twenty years old with absolutely no interest from the publishers in updating them. The sources for the list are therefore all over the place (but noted where possible).

Still, some interesting trends can be discerned: the rise of "Romantasy" is quite notable, with a massive explosion of sales for Sarah J. Maas, whose sales growth is eclipsing almost everyone else in the field (she's catching Brandon Sanderson up like a freight train), and newcomer Rebecca Yarros selling around 2.4 million copies in a year, which is the type of explosive debut we haven't seen this side of Patrick Rothfuss. YA and younger category sales also remain a huge deal, with the enormous sales growth of the Percy Jackson series being particularly eye-popping. Traditional epic fantasy still does quite well but at a much lower level, with solid growth for the likes of Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, Michael J. Sullivan and James Islington. Brandon Sanderson remains a strong outlier, and Robert Jordan is doing pretty well for someone who passed away seventeen years ago, with The Wheel of Time recently joining the 100 million+ club.

Should you take this list as Gospel? Nope! But it is, hopefully, a reasonable indication as to what's going on out there.

1) JK Rowling (600 million)

Rowling completed her ludicrously successful Harry Potter series seventeen years ago, and various attempts to follow up on that have not garnered anywhere near as much success. Legacy sales for the series remain strong but seem to be dropping; her reported sales in 2023 are not dramatically higher than in 2018, and her once-thought-unreachable position does seem to be in reach of several other authors. Still, sitting on her throne of dollar bills, she probably does not care very much. <source>

[Eiichiro Oda (500 million)]

I’m generally not including manga in this list because that’s a whole other medium, but will note some of interest. Eiichiro Oda is the biggest-selling manga author in Japanese history, with his well-known One Piece pirate fantasy series surpassing 523 million copies sold as of last year. With the enormous success of the Netflix live-action adaptation, a second season on the way, dramatically increased viewership of the existing 1,000+ episode anime and a new, revamped anime for overseas audiences on its way, expect this figure to just keep shooting up and up. <source>

2) R.L. Stine (400 million)

Stine is best-known for his 62-volume Goosebumps series of novels aimed at younger readers, as well as assorte spin-offs. His other works include the Fear Street, Rotten School, Mostly Ghostly and Nightmare Room series. <source>

3) Stephen King (350 – 400 million)

Stephen King had sold 350 million novels by 2006 and he remains a perennial bestseller, with numerous books published since then and two massive film adaptations of his novel IT, so I think it’s comfortable to say he is in the 400 million range, although The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1996) makes a good argument that his sales/copies read are incalculable given his myriad overseas rights and pirate copies. King’s Dark Tower series, his most vital contribution to “regular” fantasy alongside Eyes of the Dragon, has sold over 30 million copies by itself. <source>

4) J.RR. Tolkien (350 million +)

Likewise, J.R.R. Tolkien’s sales are incalculable due to vast numbers of pirate copies of his books and unauthorised overseas translations and sales (madly, the first American paperback edition of Lord of the Rings as an unauthorised edition exploiting a copyright loophole). Conservative figures from around 1995 suggested 150 million for Lord of the Rings, but some research suggest that figure was drawn from sales of Fellowship of the Ring alone (!) and Tolkien’s true sales total, including 100 million copies of The Hobbit and millions more for The Silmarillion and various spin-off books, probably stands at well over 350 million. The Lord of the Rings also sold around 50 million extra copies in the five years after The Fellowship of the Ring was released in cinemas in 2001. Even this figure may be highly conservative. <source>


[Jin Yong (300 million+)]

The late Jin Yong has sold over 300 million copies of his wuxia novels, which cross the boundary between fantasy and historical fiction. He is best known for his Legend of the Condor Heroes series. <source>


5) Stephenie Meyer (250 million+)

The Twilight series has sold over a quarter-billion copies. Sparkly! However, there have been no updated figures for the series since 2015, so even given a drop-off in sales (the books and films are no longer dominating the cultural discourse as they were a decade ago), this figure will likely be somewhat higher. <source>


[Dean Koontz (c. 200 million)]
Dean Koontz's official website claims sales of 450 million, which seem hard to credit for an author with a big profile, but nowhere near that of King or Rowling. Other figures suggest 200 million, which seems much more credible. However, Koontz's eligibility for the list is questionable given that he has written numerous non-SFF novels (though many of them still within the horror or suspense thriller genres). Thus, his placement on the list is for those who consider him to be a genre author. <source>


[Michael Crichton (c. 200 million)]
Michael Crichton published 27 novels during his lifetime, selling more than 200 million copies. Only eight of those novels are SF, but these include most of his best-known novels (including Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Sphere, Congo and The Andromeda Strain). He also created the Westworld franchise. His placement here is for comparative purposes and for those who consider him to be a genre author. <source>

6) Rick Riordan (190 million+)

Rick Riordan is the author of the Percy Jackson series, which has so far spawned two successful movie adaptations, a Disney+ TV series and driven renewed sales of the books. Riordan is easily the biggest jumpers on the list, with almost 100 million newly-reported sales since 2018 and a probable increase in sales imminent due to the TV adaptation of the books. <source>


[Star Wars (160 million)]

Del Rey and Bantam sold over 160 million Star Wars novels, mostly from the "Expanded Universe," between 1991 and 2012. This figure does not include those books published by Lucasfilm directly and Disney. <source>


7) Anne Rice (136 million)
Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles series was a huge phenomenon through the 1980s and 1990s, bolstered by the Tom Cruise/Brad Pitt movie, and additional adaptations. <source>

8) CS Lewis (120 million+)
Lewis is best-known for his seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia series, which has had multiple film, audio, stage and television adaptations (with a new film and TV series incoming from Netflix). His other works include The Space Trilogy. <source>


9) Sir Terry Pratchett (100 million+)
Pratchett remains one of the biggest-selling SFF novelists in the world and, because his Discworld books are mostly stand-alone novels, he may actually have a lot more readers than several of the above. Despite his passing in 2015 and only mixed success for various adaptations, Pratchett’s profile and sales seem to be accelerating as younger generations of readers discover his accessible, prolific, thought-provoking and funny fiction. <source>


10) Edgar Rice Burroughs (100 million+)
Edgar Rice Burroughs was a hugely prolific author. He has sold more than 100 million copies of his novels, including the SF Barsoom, Pellucidar, Venus, Caspak and Moon series and the non-SF Tarzan series. <source>

11) Sir Arthur C. Clarke (100 million+)
Sir Arthur C. Clarke gains the distinction of being the only author on the list to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and have an orbit named after him. Clarke was already a well-known, big-selling SF author when the film 2001: A Space Odyssey and his television coverage of the first moon landing catapulted him into becoming a household name in both the United States and United Kingdom. A steady stream of best-selling, high-profile and critically-acclaimed SF novels continued into the 1980s, when his profile was again boosted by his TV series, Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World. As well as his SF novels he also published a large number of non-fiction books and volumes of criticism on matters of science. <source>


12) Suzanne Collins (100 million+)

Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games hadn't even been published when I created the very first list. The trilogy has been published in full, sold over 100 million copies (over 65 million in the USA alone) and generated four hit movies since then. Very impressive. Additional books have followed. <source>


13) Robert Jordan (100 million+)

Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time epic fantasy series rapidly became the biggest post-Tolkien epic fantasy series after its launch in 1990, with enormous sales driving Tor Books to become the biggest name in science fiction and fantasy publishing. Books 8 through 14 were each a New York Times #1 bestseller, an unheard-of feat for epic fantasy. After Robert Jordan passed away in 2007, the series was completed by Brandon Sanderson in 2013. Sales of the series have continued to grow since then, but got a sharp boost from the launch of Amazon’s Wheel of Time television series in 2021, with more than 5 million additional sales in five years. <source>


14) Andre Norton (90 million+)
Andre Norton was one of science fiction and fantasy's most prolific authors, penning around 300 books (either novels or story collections) in a career stretching over decades. <source>

15) George R.R. Martin (91 million+)

A Song of Ice and Fire’s sales growth was initially modest: from 1996 to 2005 the series sold around 5 million copies. Thanks to Internet word of mouth, sales accelerated to reach around 12 million by the time A Dance with Dragons launched in 2011. Propelled by the explosive success of the HBO adaptation, Game of Thrones, the series reached over 90 million sales by 2016. Further sales figures have not been given since then, but have been presumed not to have surpassed 100 million just yet (but, with the success of House of the Dragon, is likely very close).

Martin has also sold over 1 million copies of the first trilogy in his Wild Cards superhero anthology series, and over a million copies of companion volume The World of Ice and Fire by itself.<source>

[H. Rider Haggard (85 million+)]

H. Rider Haggard is an influential writer of the late 19th Century, most famous for King Solomon's Mines. His novel She: A Novel of Adventure features significant supernatural influences (such as the main villain being immortal and killed by a supernatural force), but most of his work can be classified as adventure fiction rather than SFF. <source>

16) Sherrilyn Kenyon (80 million+)
Sherrilyn Kenyon is a prolific urban fantasy author who also publishers supernatural-tinged historical fantasy under the pen name Kinley MacGregor. She has over 80 million books in print in over 100 countries. She is best-known for her Dark-Hunter series. <source>

[John Saul (60 million+)]
John Saul has sold over 60 million copies of his horror novels. Most of them fall into the psychological horror or thriller sub-categories, with only a few involving supernatural forces. <source>

17) James Herbert (54 million+)
The late James Herbert has sold more than 54 million copies of his horror novels, most of which had an SF or supernatural twist. His best-known work is The Rats (1974). <source>

18) Terry Brooks (51.7 million+)

Terry Brooks has sold over 30 million copies in the USA alone with his international sales boosting this massively. He has also sold some 1.7 million copies in German. He remains best-known for his Shannara fantasy series, with its first volume, The Sword of Shannara, credited with beginning the post-Tolkien epic fantasy boom in 1977. He has also written the Magic Kingdom of Landover sequence. <source>

19) Richard Adams (50 million+)

Watership Down has sold more than 50 million copies by itself, though its fantasy status is debatable. I tend to count it as such, since aside from the talking rabbits there's also the fact that ghosts and spirit guides play a role. Adams has also sold not-inconsiderable numbers of his adult fantasy novels set in the Beklan Empire, Shardik and Maia, not to mention further works related to Watership Down. <source>

[Dennis Wheatley (50 million)]
Dennis Wheatley was the biggest-selling British author of the 1960s and 1970s, routinely selling more than a million copies a year for over a decade. The majority of his books were crime, political or spy thrillers. However, he also published novels featuring supernatural elements, resulting from his own fascination with the occult. As a result, a small number of his books may be of genre interest. <source>

20) Robert Heinlein (50 million)
One of the grand masters of old-school SF and one of the "Big Three" of late 20th Century SF alongside Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, Heinlein had sold 11.5 million books by the early 1980s and about 50 million in total to date.  <source>


Thursday 11 January 2024

BABYLON 5 reboot still in development, streaming services showing interest

Confirming what was rumoured last year, the Babylon 5 reboot project is officially dead at the CW. The CW has focused its attention away from drama towards cheaper television fare. As also expected, Warner Brothers has not junked the project entirely but, after regaining the rights, is now shopping the project to streaming services, with at least two apparently showing interest. Original Babylon 5 creator, showrunner and head writer J. Michael Straczynski remains attached to the project.

Which streaming services are interested is as yet unknown. The most logical option, HBO Max (recently retitled just Max), is seemingly out of the question because they have their own budget and development issues in the wake of their recent Discovery merger (one of the few shows to survive the merger process, Our Flag Means Death, was cancelled last week). HBO proper do not seem interested, despite the presence of self-confessed Babylon 5 fan George R.R. Martin in the development process there.

Warner Brothers has excellent relations with Netflix, and is currently producing the Sandman live-action show for them. Sandman showrunner-producer Neil Gaiman is a good friend of Straczynski's, and wrote an episode for the original Babylon 5 way back in 1998. One of Babylon 5's myriad alien races, the Gaim, is named for him. Straczynski himself has a relationship with Netflix, having co-produced the first two seasons of Sense8 for them almost a decade ago. Netflix also lacks a high-profile, ongoing, live-action space opera at the moment.

Amazon are also a possibility, as they currently lack a space opera show after the cancellation of The Expanse a couple of years ago.

Other streamers seem to be well set-up for space opera: Disney+ has multiple Star Wars shows in development and recently added The Orville to its streaming lineup, whilst Paramount+ is veritably drowning in Star Trek content, not to mention Halo. Apple TV+ has For All Mankind and Foundation as ongoing space-based shows.

An intriguing possibility is Tubi, an ad-supported streaming service which began operation in 2014 and has over 74 million users in the United States. Tubi is predominantly available in the United States and Central America, but GDPR issues have seen it unable to launch in the UK and European Union. Tubi has been airing Babylon 5 itself for the past few months.

Tubi mostly airs content from other supplies, but has aired some original programming, including the animated comedy Freak Brothers, a cooking show, the second season of The Nevers (after it was dropped by HBO). Tubi has voiced an ambition to create more original content for its service, and Babylon 5 might be an attractive franchise, especially if Straczynski can work his magic like it's 1993 all over again to produce the show on a competitive budget.

More news as it comes in.

Wednesday 10 January 2024

Marvel finally, officially canonises the Netflix Marvel-verse

After many years of speculation, Marvel has updated their websites and Disney+ pages to confirm that the six television series which aired on Netflix from 2015 to 2019 are now officially counted as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

As originally spotted by CanWeGetSomeToast here.

The six TV series have been unofficially called the "Netflix Marvel-verse" or some other derivative, due to Marvel's prior reluctance to rule on their canonical status. The shows aired as part of a deal between Marvel Studios, ABC and Netflix, but which did not include MCU guiding light Kevin Feige as part of the decision-making process. The line of shows did not stick around for very long - just four years - but produced a stunning amount of content in that time: 161 episodes airing across 13 seasons in six distinct shows. Although each season stood alone, there were some shared characters and motifs which culminated in the event mini-series Defenders, which saw Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist join forces against a mutual threat. The Punisher, which had not been originally planned, spun out of the character's well-received guest role in the second season of Daredevil.

With Disney planning to launch its own rival streaming service to Netflix in the shape of Disney+, the deal was cancelled in 2019. The contract required Disney to wait two years before developing their own versions of those characters, but when the time came they intriguingly used the same actors. Vincent D'Onofrio reprised his role as Kingpin in Hawkeye, whilst Charlie Cox reprised his role as Daredevil in the film Spider-Man: No Way Home and then the Disney+ series She-Hulk and Echo. D'Onofrio, Cox and John Bernthal as the Punisher will all reappear in Daredevil: Born Again, currently in production.

Despite this, some believed that these actors were nonetheless playing "new" versions of the characters, not necessarily the same ones we saw on Netflix. Fortunately, it appears that Marvel finally realised that was too weird and confusing. By officially canonising the shows and moving them into a more prominent slot on Disney+, they may also be hoping to pick up some fresh views. This also possibly opens the door to Krysten Ritter reprising her role as Jessica Jones, as well as Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple, Finn Jones as Danny Rand (I mean, if you really want to), Mike Colter as Luke Cage and Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing.

The other pre-Disney+ Marvel TV shows which aired on ABC are still not listed in the official timeline, including Agents of SHIELD, Runaways and Inhumans (in the last case, that may be for the best). Their fans may hold out some hope that they may yet be reunited with the main timeline.

The Netflix Marvel-verse in Release Order
  1. Daredevil: Season 1 (2015)
  2. Jessica Jones: Season 1 (2015)
  3. Daredevil: Season 2 (2016)
  4. Luke Cage: Season 1 (2016)
  5. Iron Fist: Season 1 (2017)
  6. The Defenders (2017)
  7. The Punisher: Season 1 (2017)
  8. Jessica Jones: Season 2 (2018)
  9. Luke Cage: Season 2 (2018)
  10. Iron Fist: Season 2 (2018)
  11. Daredevil: Season 3 (2018)
  12. The Punisher: Season 2 (2019)
  13. Jessica Jones: Season 3 (2019)

RIP Tracy Torme, STAR TREK writer and SLIDERS co-creator

Genre scriptwriter Tracy Tormé has sadly passed away at the age of 64. 

Tormé was born in 1959 in Los Angeles, the son of singer Mel Tormé. He began his career in the 1970s as a writer on SCTV before moving to Saturday Night Live in 1982. He also wrote the 1988 film Spellbinder.

In 1986 he was hand-picked by Gene Roddenberry to work as a writer on Season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, penning the episode The Big Goodbye, the only episode of the entire Star Trek franchise to win a Peabody Award. Roddenberry enjoyed his work so much he made Tormé the executive story editor for the entire last third of the season. He also wrote the less well-received episode Haven and the controversial script for Conspiracy. Tormé was given an in-universe role in Star Trek as the fictional author of the equally fictional novels featuring mid-20th Century detective Dixon Hill.

Tormé came into conflict with effective head writer Maurice Hurley, who was angry that Roddenberry had overridden his decision not to develop Conspiracy in Season 1. Tormé found his Season 2 scripts - The Schizoid Man, The Royale and Manhunt - being extensively rewritten by Hurley, to the point that he demanded his name be taken off them. Tormé was also moved sideways into the role of "Creative Consultant" on Season 2, in which he had less responsibility. Despite Hurley being fired at the end of Season 2 and Tormé being one of the few writers invited back for Season 3 by Rick Berman, Tormé declined.

Tormé worked on the 1992 TV movie Intruders and the 1993 film Fire in the Sky. His greatest success came in 1995 when he co-developed the TV series Sliders alongside Robert K. Weiss. Sliders ran for three seasons on Fox before being cancelled, but it was saved by the Sci-Fi Channel, who aired two further seasons. Sliders saw a group of characters moving from one parallel Earth to another, trying to get home.

Alongside and subsequent to Sliders, Tormé wrote for The Outer Limits, Odyssey 5 and Carnivàle, and was a script consultant for the 1997 film Contact. He also wrote the original treatment for Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend (2007).

Tormé passed away on 4 January from complications from diabetes. A keen SF screen writer, he will be missed.