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On designing a game to outlive you

In this editorial from the June 1997 issue of Game Developer magazine, Chris Crawford bemoans industry shortsightedness, suggesting it might be better to plant oaks than short-lived weeds.

Chris Crawford

October 29, 2013

4 Min Read

In this editorial reprinted from the June 1997 issue of Game Developer magazine, developer Chris Crawford (Eastern Front (1941), Balance of Power) bemoans the industry's short-sighted outlook, and suggests it might be better to plant oaks than short-lived weeds. Fourteen years ago, I moved into a new house in the hills and commenced planting trees on a few acres of open ground. I was urged to plant Monterey Pine, eucalyptus, and other fast-growing species. I did plant a few of those, but I also planted lots of oaks. I groused acorns from underneath good-looking trees and planted them on my land. Some of my friends shook their heads in good-natured dismay at my naivete. I'd be dead before those trees were mature, they said. They were right -- but who ruled that the account books on a man's life close when he dies? I can derive just as much satisfaction from the expectation of a long-term achievement as from instant gratification. If the mind's eye can see into the future clearly, the fruits of the future are just as sweet as those of the present. The computer games industry seems to take the opposite approach. They like to plant weeds, not oaks. Consider, for example, the clonitosis that is endemic in the industry. Everybody's rushing to make Command & Conquer clones. A few years ago, Doom and Myst were being frantically imitated. Yet Command & Conquer is little more than a remixing of design concepts that we've seen hundreds of times in previous games. Doom is just a souped-up version of Wolfenstein 3D, which in turn was based on an Apple II game called Castle Wolfenstein. Myst is an utterly conventional adventure game, in design terms no different from the original Adventure computer game, only souped up with '90s graphics. It seems that we are dizzily cloning the clones of old clones. Wouldn't it be better in the long run to take the time to design something original once in a while? Then there's the emphasis on the latest techie-gee-whiz stuff. The industry spends lots of time and money sweating the newest technical develop- ments, with each developer trying to one-up everybody else with some new software gizmo. First it was "2.5 D" displays; then it was 3D displays; then it was 30fps 3D displays. Fortunately, the universe stops at three dimensions, or we'd surely be seeing claims of "3 1 ⁄ 2 D" or even "4D" ("and 5D is just around the corner!"). Wouldn't it be better to invest some of that money in the occasional creative fling? What nobody seems to notice is that today's cutting-edge technology is tomorrow's silly fad. Remember lava lamps? They were high-tech in the '70s -- now they're gauche. My game Eastern Front (1941) attracted lots of attention in 1981 because it had "smooth scrolling" -- nifty-keen! Fortunately it was also a decent game. Even so, it's laughable by current standards. How'd we get ourselves into this hole? I think that it's primarily due to the Silicon Valley get-rich-quick mentality. Slap that company together, get that IPO out, then cash in -- what happens after the IPO doesn't matter. Such a mentality prefers flash and glitter to substance, and it seeps into every sinew of our community. We ship boxes with fabulous exteriors and mostly air inside. Our advertising takes hype to heights that would make Madison Avenue blush. Even our companies combine snazzy corporate offices with high-turnover workforces. My only emotional response to this is a sense of sadness for the futility of a community that measures success by current income. All those weeds crowd and shove each other, fighting for sunlight/money, and when one weed manages to grab a bigger portion of sunlight/ money, all the little weeds gaze on approvingly and whisper, "If he's rich, he must be right!" Then winter comes and they all die. Still, weeds have their place in the ecosystem, and we'll always have computer games companies making their living on the latest fads. Indeed, I suspect that the entire industry is permanently wedded to weed-think. Which is fine by me. My weed-loving friends smirk at my little oak seedlings. I smile at their ribbing. Someday, my seedlings will be mighty oaks towering far over the heads of the weeds.

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