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An Interview With Chris Crawford

Chris Crawford's resume in the industry is impressive, including time at (the original) Atari, co-founding the Computer Game Developers Conference, developing the old classic, Balance Of Power. Yet his outspoken views on the industry have made him a somewhat controversial figure. In this interview, he speaks up about the direction the industry's going, what's wrong with it, and what it might take to fix it.

Simon Carless, Blogger

June 5, 2003

17 Min Read

Chris Crawford has assumed an enigmatic, near-legendary profile in the game industry. He's been developing games for almost 30 years, including a stint at Atari during that company's glory days of the early '80s. He also wrote what is probably the first book on making games, The Art Of Computer Game Design, back in 1982. In addition to all this, he created the classic strategy game Balance Of Power, among many others, and he co-founded the Computer Game Developers Conference (the forerunner to today's Game Developers Conference). That's a formidable profile, to be sure.

However, his work over the past few years has put him on the fringes of the game industry. His often savage criticism of what games have become, plus his continued experimental work on interactive storytelling with the Erasmatron, have established him as a somewhat controversial game designer.

Crawford recently wrote a thought-provoking book, The Art Of Interactive Design (No Starch Press, 2002), and also plans a return to game development with a new version of Balance Of Power. In the current geopolitical scenario, this game could be more relevant than ever.

Q: What was the first computer game that you ever wrote?

A: That would be TANKTICS on an IBM 1130, back in 1976.

Selling the source code to your early Atari title Eastern Front, while the game was still being sold, seems like a great, but daring idea. What made you want to do that, and how did it work out?

I consider it an obvious and perfectly reasonable thing to do. I wanted to teach people how to build good games. Sure, there would be some rip-offs going on, but I didn't think that they'd hurt my sales significantly. Besides, everybody wins when there are more games produced. Sad to say, I am aware of only two products that emerged based on the source code. It seems that people had difficulty understanding it even when they had the source code.

Are many of your early co-workers at Atari still in the games industry, and if so, do they like being there?

No, very few still work in games. You'll have to ask them how they feel about it.

A relatively little-known early project of yours is the nuclear power plant simulator Scram. What did you do in the game, and is it as Homer Simpson-esque as it sounds?

Actually, I wanted to add some illumination to the nuclear power safety debate. The product as a whole takes a pretty serious view of nuclear power plant operations; it's really more edutainment than game. Yes, we had a system for generating accidents and you could even melt down the reactor, but that was the game, not the simulation, and we made it clear in the documentation that this was a fantasy scenario. I feel pretty good about the accuracy of the overall simulation.

Who owns the rights to your classic Cold War strategy game Balance Of Power, and are there any possiblities of seeing an updated or repackaged version in stores?

I own all the rights. People have been suggesting that I build a new version of the game for years, but I had always deferred doing so because I felt that I didn't have a clear view of the new world order after the collapse of the Soviet Union. About a year ago, however, I decided that I was ready to begin work on a completely new approach to the game, based on my Erasmatron interactive storytelling technology. Unfortunately, I have been buried in other projects-two books, teaching a course on interactivity, and several guest lectures-and so have made little progress. However, I have finally cleared away most of those tasks and now have some time to pursue this project more actively.

Which opposing powers would Balance Of Power feature if you were to remake it today?

The game posits the USA as the only superpower. The USA has no direct enemy, just lots of headaches. The task is to sort out many of the problems that keep the world in upheaval: Iraq, Palestine, China, North Korea, and so forth.

Trust And Betrayal [a late-'80s Crawford game, where you rose to power on an an alien planet by manipulating the trust of influential people] is another title of yours that seems to have been undervalued and somewhat buried over the years. Why do you think it didn't catch on with buyers?

Too weird; not at all like a traditional game. As one gamer put it, "All you do is run around TALKING to people!" Sheesh, you couldn't blow anybody's head off-what a boring game! The game was about interpersonal relationships, which is not at all what gamers care about.

What's the best advice you can give to a student graduating today (either from a game or non-game-related degree) who wants a job in the industry?

"Tear yourself out of your naïve notions about how much fun it will be. It's long hours, underpaid, working on a tiny part of the whole. You'll probably leave the industry within five or ten years."

During your "Dragon Speech" that heralded your retirement from strategy games and the start of your work on the Erasmatron, you talk about the difference between selling to game illiterates and game aficianados. It's a few years later - do you think that chasm is still there, and how do you think the games industry is trying to deal with it?

The chasm has grown greater. There are NO game illiterates now-either you're a gamer or you're a civilian. The games industry has abandoned all pretense of becoming a mass medium and is satisfied with being just a hobby. A very lucrative hobby, to be sure, but still a hobby, not a mass medium.

Other prominent people, like Joseph Lieberman, would probably disagree that it's not a mass medium already. They see it as a mass medium with millions of users in the United States alone. How do you reconcile that?

A mass medium reaches a broad demographic: people in their 60s, working mothers, stock analysts, janitors, and so on. Games appeal to NONE of these people; they appeal to a single demographic: young males. They are a big medium, but not a mass medium.

What is the current state of the Erasmatron, and where are you considering going with it?

The storytelling engine is now in its third generation, and the Erasmatron development system is in its second generation. I have been preparing to begin work on the next generations of these two technologies, but first I must complete a demo based on the new Balance of Power game. The new storytelling engine will not introduce any substantial improvements- mostly small stuff to make it cleaner. The development system, however, will undergo some significant changes, all directed towards making it easier to use. One major innovation may become the basis for a new patent.

Aspects of the Erasmatron project such as the '21 personality traits' almost seem prototypical of Will Wright's The Sims , in making virtual people with believable personalities. What do you think of the work Maxis have done there?

Will has been very honest about what The Sims is and what it isn't, but lots of people seem to attribute far more to The Sims than is really there. It is a simulation of daily life. It is not an interactive storytelling product- and I don't think Will intended it to be that. The people in The Sims don't have emotions or interpersonal relationships. There's no element of drama built into the design, no storytelling. My work goes in a completely different direction: I'm focusing on interactive storytelling, on matters of the heart rather than the bladder.

Some people in the games industry may not be aware of the content of your newest book, The Art Of Interactive Design, and how it differs from The Art Of Computer Game Design in subject and goals. Can you explain briefly?

[The Art Of Interactive Design] is much broader in scope than my first book, because it addresses interactivity in its entirety. The book applies to all forms of software design, not just game design (although there is a chapter on game design). And the book also addresses larger social and artistic issues arising from interactivity.

By the way, I just finished work on a new book on game design. it was originally intended to be The Art of Computer Game Design, Second Edition, but the publisher decided on the title Chris Crawford on Game Design. It's a much bigger book, with lots of detail, including a separate chapter for each game I have designed, explaining the design problems and my successes and mistakes.

How much are game developers governed by decisions coming out the publishers' marketing departments, in your view? And if it's an issue, how can this cycle be broken?

Far too much, although selection effects tend to ensure that the designers have already internalized the marketing department thinking. Thus, it doesn't need to come from the marketing department-the designer has already embraced the confined thinking.

How to break it? Nobody changes while they're fat and happy. What the games industry needs is a collapse in sales, something that scares the bejabbers out of everybody and forces people to ditch their current rules of thumb. That's unlikely, so I think that the second-best approach is the creation of an alternative industry selling games that aren't called games, products that appeal to the wider market that the games industry eschews.

Identify some cardinal sins that you think the games industry has been guilty of in terms of usability/understanding. What makes games more difficult to use or understand than they should be?

Most games have excellent user interfaces; indeed, I think that games have led the way on user interface design and quite a few researchers look to games to discover new ideas. The problems come with the interactivity design, not the user interface design. I think that a number of mistakes are made.

First, game designers try to achieve richness through a small verb set augmented with a large object set. For example, almost all games rely on spatial navigation with a small set of verbs for moving through a space. They then populate the game's space with all sorts of interesting, complex elements that provide the game with richness. This is fine-it works well. But game designers are stuck in this approach-they just can't see beyond spatial navigation. Why does every game on the market have to have a map? What's so all-encompassing about spatial reasoning? We have plenty of other mental modules packed into that brain of ours, but game designers seem to be unaware of anything other than spatial reasoning.

Why not have a big rich verb set with a small object set? Why not give players hundreds or thousands of verbs, instead of a half-dozen navigational verbs and hundreds or thousands of spatial variations? I've built a system for doing precisely this with the Erasmatron-why can't other game designers try other variations on this strategy?

Another problem is that game designers rely on player's past experience to provide increasing richness. First we had Castle Wolfenstein. Then we had Doom, which was Castle Wolfenstein with a few additional twists. Then we had Doom II, Quake, Unreal, Half-Life, and three zillion other variations, each of which added its own little twist to the basic design. Evolutionary development is a good thing, but there should also be a few grand leaps.

A particular target of annoyance that you called attention to in Understanding Interactivity is the lack of ease of game installation and initial guides/tutorials. What could the industry be doing to make this better?

Let go of this obsession with graphic performance that pushes the software into the Never-never land of unreliability. KISS.

In a particularly charged section in your book, you compare the pointless killing of countless monsters in videogames to the atrocities of the Nazi Holocaust. What do you think game-makers should be focusing on instead?

Not instead-in addition to. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with violence. What's wrong is the obsession with violence. If we could balance our violent games with a broad range of other games-cowboys and Indians games, comedy games, tragedy games, highbrow games, lowbrow games, Shakespeare games, Gilligan's Island games, games about a prostitute with a heart of gold, games about a boy and his dog-then the violence wouldn't be a problem. But does anybody know how to build such games? Of course not -- nobody's tried because it's too easy to make money with violent games.

There's getting to be a lot more formal academic study of games, with academic projects such as Serious Games and attempts by Doug Church, Noah Falstein and others to lay out specific elements of game design in The 400 Project and others. How formal can you get before over-pontification sets in? And how far into documenting game design have we, as an industry, got?

Well, there's already a great deal of nonsense floating around. Some of the people approaching games from the field of semiotics leave me utterly baffled, and there are a bunch of new media people who seem intent on defining games in terms that have nothing to do with games. Some of them flatly deny the importance of interactivity. So we've already got plenty of academic bull flooding the airwaves. Fortunately, we also have plenty of interesting and useful academic work being done. The problem is not with academics; it's with the refusal of some academics to take games on their own terms, and their insistence on viewing games through old microscopes.

Is breadth of education still the key criterion in making a successful game designer, or are there other factors that have become important?

I doubt that education is important to financial success in any field; if you're determined enough, ruthless enough, and work hard enough, you can be financially successful in any field. Being good at it, however, requires talent, vision, and expertise-and a broad education is crucial to developing these traits in a game designer.

What do you think of private game development schools, which are increasingly educating tomorrow's game developers? Is this a good way to make game professionals, from what you've seen of the curriculum?

I have mixed feelings about these schools. They do a great job of cranking out the foot soldiers for the games industry, which is their fundamental goal, but they're not good at teaching game design per se. Because they are commercial operations, they have to satisfy the current requirements of the games industry, which are constantly in flux. Perhaps the best way to articulate my unease is to note that these schools train students; they don't educate them.

Do you think the Internet has affected the games industry for the worse or the better?

Definitely for the better, primarily because it has permitted much more intense discussion of game design. When I founded the Computer Game Developers' Conference, it was important because it was the ONLY place where game designers could get together to talk shop. Now there are plenty of excellent venues for such discussions on the Internet.

The other benefit of the net is it's loosening of the iron grip of the distribution channels. It is possible for a small operation to put its work on the Web and get some attention, and maybe even a little money. It's hard, but it can be done.

Are you ever tempted to come back and make a large-development-team project for the PC or new generation of consoles? If so, what type of game might it be?

I am currently engaged in discussions aimed at commercializing the Erasmatron technology. This would put interactive storytelling products on the market.

Who do you currently admire in the game industry and why?

Will Wright. I love to rag on the shortcomings of The Sims, but the fact remains that it is a revolutionary product, and I love revolutions. Gordon Walton, now at Sony, because he's an executive who actually understands games.

Finally, what product in the world of interactivity have you seen recently that makes you happy?

Optical mice; they're so much nicer than the old mechanical type. And this brings up a cute story. I was recently in the airport in Frankfurt, Germany with a few hours to kill. I found a kiosk put up by Samsung, I think, that offered free Internet access to all comers. There were about eight PCs set up. I thought it might be nice to check my email, but the trackball on the machine I was using was really filthy and I had great difficulty getting the thing to work. After much frustration, I decided to be a good citizen and clean out their trackball for them. After all, I've been cleaning gunk out of mice for 19 years now, and I know something about how to do this job. I removed the retaining ring and popped the trackball out. Sure enough, both rollers were covered with gunk and hair. Working carefully, I got them cleaned out pretty well. Then I reassembled everything and tried it out. the trackball was dead-nothing was happening. I disassembled it, re-checked my work, and tried again. Still dead. I spent the next ten minutes trying to revive the dead trackball, but I just couldn't figure it out. There were people standing in line, waiting to use the machine, watching me mess with the trackball. I fiddled around until the line finally disappeared, then slunk off as fast as I could, hoping that nobody would notice. If you're ever in the airport in Frankfurt and you try to use the Internet kiosk, and the trackball doesn't work-would you mind fixing it for me?



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About the Author(s)

Simon Carless


Simon Carless is the founder of the GameDiscoverCo agency and creator of the popular GameDiscoverCo game discoverability newsletter. He consults with a number of PC/console publishers and developers, and was previously most known for his role helping to shape the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Conference for many years.

He is also an investor and advisor to UK indie game publisher No More Robots (Descenders, Hypnospace Outlaw), a previous publisher and editor-in-chief at both Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine, and sits on the board of the Video Game History Foundation.

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