Proton Fire…

Vaporware Isn’t Just For Computer Games… After the Break…

Proton Fire…

There’s a certain amount of quality that older media, whatever their medium, possesses that newer media simply can’t match.

Let’s be fair – Newer media looks great. Sharp graphics. Crisp layouts. Digitized music. Superb voice acting. Affordable pricing.

The ability to produce professional quality content in the technical sense is far superior today than at any other point. I could download open-source productivity software right now and produce just as compelling a newsletter or a poster or a piece of music or a CGI movie or a side-scrolling platformer as someone twenty years ago using professional-grade (and ultra-expensive) equipment. I can’t, of course; I don’t have the skills to produce the next CGI movie or write the next hit song. Yet the tools are there, free of charge, just waiting to be used by someone who does have those skills.

While the ability to present content has definitely increased over the years, what is less-than-certain is how competent that media is. There are thousands of movies being made every year but how many of them are “good” movies? How many songs have the potential to be popular? How many computer games will genuinely become so demanded that the creator will be awash in cash and prestige for years to come? Yes, anyone nowadays can make a movie, write a song, create a computer game, write a book… But has the total books produced versus books that are “good” equation changed any over the years? Or, for that matter, games? Songs? Movies?

This is why older media has an inherit advantage over newer media: There is an unperceived bias that it had to be good. The barrier of entry for that media was higher. You couldn’t afford to introduce a sub-par product to the marketplace. If you were producing a movie than you were producing it on actual film stock and not digitally. The special effects were all physical, not CGI. If you were making a computer game, that game had to be pressed onto discs or CD-ROMs… The game needed a box and it needed a printed, physical manual. If you were going to present something to the marketplace, you were going to bleed money in order to do so. There were no “trial balloons,” no print-and-play PDFs, no YouTube or Netflix exclusives.

And this is why, sometimes, we never got to see some of that older media. Sometimes, the project never reached the proverbial “critical mass.” Producers back out of movie projects all of the time once they feel that the production is no longer profitable. A board game goes into a testing phase but never emerges into the marketplace because girls aged 7-14 don’t understand it or boys 10-16 get bored from it. Garage bands never get any exposure because bars don’t find the musical group attractive enough or the songs aren’t catchy enough or the group’s attitude is not professional enough.

The analogy is this: We live in age where arrows are absurdly cheap and plentiful. If you have a million arrows, you can afford to have some of them fly astray of where you wanted them to fly. If you only have three arrows though and they are each grotesquely expensive than you had better aim very, very carefully the first time.

Vaporware is sometimes the result of people failing to create a product at all. The project is too ambitious and the technical know-how for the project just doesn’t exist yet. We all would enjoy seeing a practical flying car but the technology isn’t there – Yes, we can build one but it’s really more like a poorly-designed plane that can drive (or “taxi,” in aviation parlance) fair enough.

Vaporware, though, is sometimes the result of products that get made but no one wants to pay the bill to deliver it to the public. “Sam and Max: Freelance Police” was going to be a title from LucasArts in 2004. It was going to mark the triumphant return of a dog and rabbit team of private detectives. The game was fairly far along in it’s production; All that was left was the usual elimination of ‘bugs’ (glitches in the game caused by erroneous computer code) and the installation of the final voice acting. That was it. And yet, LucasArts backed out from delivering that mostly-completed game to market because by the mid-2000s, adventure games were dead as a bankable genre in the gaming industry. It still existed as a niche genre but you couldn’t mass-market it wide enough for it to be profitable. To this day, the game has never been played by anyone outside of the developers.

Sometimes, the games are complete but never make it to market anyway. “Ultima VIII: The Lost Vale” was set to be the expansion to the computer game “Ultima VIII: Pagan.” The Ultima series was the premier RPG series for it’s time, sort of the equivalent of what the “Elder Scrolls” series is now and perhaps even more so. Unfortunately, “Ultima VIII” sold poorly because of a variety of reasons. Ultima fans regarded Ultima VIII as “the beginning of the end” for the series in terms of quality, with several design decisions made to appease to a larger audience rather than focusing on gameplay. “Ultima VIII: The Lost Vale” was all set; The game was done. DONE. This wasn’t a case of little bugs that needed to be corrected or voice acting that needed to be performed; The game was all set to go… But the main game sold poorly and the result was that “The Lost Vale” remains, to this day, one of the ‘Holy Grails’ of computer gaming, a ‘lost’ game that, for all we know, has been lost to time.

“Proton Fire” is neither a computer game, record album, movie or novel. Instead, “Proton Fire” was a pen-and-paper RPG that was all but completed by TSR, the company that made the penultimate pen-and-paper RPG of the 1970s and 80s, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). “Proton Fire” was set to be released in the mid 1980s, around the time when pen-and-paper RPGs were just beginning their decline in the mass marketplace. Advanced advertising had begun on the game. It was advertised in upcoming catalogs, complete with adventure modules.

And yet, it never came out. Canceled even before it debuted.

There are those who say that the ideas from “Proton Fire” eventually made it into another RPG, “Star Frontiers,” as a supplement (sort of like an expansion) but this idea has since been discredited.

In the age of newer media, in an age where anyone can create a PDF file and even someone like myself can create a basic tri-column template page in a desktop publishing program, one must wonder if a product such as “Proton Fire” would have been released. It probably would have. Yet, on the other hand, would a game have received as much playtesting or attention in an age where practically anyone can create a pen-and-paper RPG, create a watermarked PDF and throw it into an RPG store?

The allure of “Proton Fire” is that it is greatness that was never realized, never evaluated by the public at large. We always think that lost treasures are just that; Great items irrevocably yanked away from us. Sometimes, though, vaporware is just lousy stuff that someone finally realized wouldn’t sell or wouldn’t make a profit.

I’d like to think that it is a shame that so much time and effort went into a project that never got the chance to be evaluated by an eager public. “Proton Fire” may well be a watered-down, compromised version of what it once was by the time the TSR executives canceled it… But I’d still like to see it anyway. It, along with all of the other completed-but-never-released media throughout the years, deserves it’s chance to entertain the crowd. In this day and age where anyone can crank out an RPG and place it onto a website, there’s no more excuses.

I hope that there is a copy of “Proton Fire” floating around out there, maybe in someone’s basement, maybe in someone’s attic. It’s time for it to find it’s way into the hands of a grateful public. That delivery may be decades late but it will be a delivery well worth waiting for.

The lousiest product that exists is better than the best product that never existed. “Proton Fire” existed and it deserves it’s place amongst all of the other products of it’s type.

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