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Video Games are Dead: A Chat with Storytronics Guru Chris Crawford

June 12, 2006
 

Chris Crawford earned his gaming stripes by working for Atari as a game designer in 1979. Following the company’s collapse in 1984, Crawford went on to publish several simulation titles for the Macintosh. In 1982 he wrote “The Art of Computer Game Design,” considered by many to be a classic in its genre.

In 1992 Crawford left the arena of commercial game design and focused his time and energy on the concept of interactive storytelling. He took some time to speak with Gamasutra on the concepts behind it and his project, Storytronics, which is now 14 years in the making.

Gamasutra: You've been quoted as saying that video games are dead. Do you still feel that’s true?

Chris Crawford: What I meant by that was that the creative life has gone out of the industry. And an industry that has no creative spark to it is just marking time to die.

GS: How do you feel that the creative spark has gone out of the industry?

CC: Well basically, new ideas don't go anywhere. So the industry is just rehashing the same stuff over and over. During the 80s there was a lot of experimentation, a lot of new ideas being tried (many of them really bad) but there was at least experimentation. Now we don't see any experimentation whatsoever.

GS: When you say new ideas don't go anywhere, what kind of new ideas do you mean? Have you seen any that maybe popped up and fell flat?


Chris Crawford

CC: I haven't even seen any new ideas pop up. The industry is so completely inbred that the people working in it aren’t even capable of coming up with new ideas anymore. I was appalled, for example, at the recent GDC. I looked over the games at the Independent Games Festival and they all looked completely derivative to me. Just copies of the same ideas being recycled. I didn't see anything I’d call innovative, and this was from people not even interested in doing anything…in making money. It was just straight amateurs trying to be innovative and even they couldn't be innovative.

GS: Is there an argument to be made for revisiting an idea that people still enjoy? If people are still playing it and buying it and they want to play it…is it so terrible, in that instance, that something is not necessarily innovative?

CC: No, there's nothing inherently wrong with recycling the same thing over and over and over, but how do you know what you're missing if you're not trying? Has anybody noticed that we don't appeal to the general public? Has anybody thought that perhaps it might be a good thing? In fact, the industry has talked about reaching out to a broader audience for decades, but the industry is not willing to do anything about it. As long as you keep recycling the same product you're going to have the same markets.

GS: What would you say to companies like Nintendo, who recently announced their Touch Generations brand for the Nintendo DS, which is meant to categorize certain games into being more accessible to everyone? Do you feel that that's a step in the right direction, or is it just pandering?

CC: I view these kinds of things with skepticism because I've seen that so many times before. Does anybody remember some years back when Sony, with great fanfare, released the chip that they called the “emotion engine” and flooded the airwaves with interviews about how they were going to break the mold and do something completely different, and it never amounted to anything? And there have been other similar attempts that never go anywhere.

GS: With Nintendo, this isn't even an attempt to create content, but more of a branding and in some cases re-branding of games to be more accessible to a general audience.

CC: Yes, this is my point. There are no new ideas here. They're just sort of reshuffling the existing set of ideas.

GS: Continuing with the Nintendo theme, do you feel that the Wii in is a step in the right direction as far as innovation? Or do you think it's going to be the same old stuff only with a fancy new controller?

CC: More likely, the latter. I'm not a fortune teller. I don't know what they'll do. But I think that it is reasonable to expect that an industry that hasn't produced any innovation in at least a decade is unlikely to change its spots.

GS: So you'd call yourself a pessimist on this front.

CC: Yeah, I think that’s valid. Hey, maybe they'll surprise us. But I've been preaching this sermon for 20 years now…more than that, in fact, and I haven't seen any serious attempt to move in that direction. Indeed, I hear all sorts of arguments as to why “we don't need to change our spots, we’re doing just fine the way we are.” And in fact, and this is a fundamental point, nobody changes unless they're in pain. And the industry is not in pain. So it's going to keep doing the same thing until it hurts.

GS: I imagine that what you mean by the industry being in pain is that sales will be dropping off. People will not be buying the same old thing anymore, and by that point do you feel it will be too late to change?

CC: Actually, I don't think... the games industry is never going to go away. People are going to be buying these things for this foreseeable future. I just don't think that they will occupy the central position that they now enjoy. I think that there will be other types of interactive entertainment that come from a completely different direction, appeal to completely different markets, and ultimately end up becoming much more prominent.

 


Crawford Lecturing at Stanford, 2003

 

GS: On that note, can you explain the concept of Storytronics? If there is such a way to give a brief description.

CC: It's interactive storytelling.

GS: And what does that mean to the common person?

CC: It's a story you get to participate in as the protagonist. You're the hero...and you let the story go. It's not at all like a regular story. It's not as if you're just following the footsteps of the hero in a standard movie. Interactive storytelling has a more meandering feel to it. You don't charge down a plot line towards the end, you meander through a social environment. The key thing is that it's about people, not things. Social interaction, not mechanical interaction. The primary thing you do an interactive storytelling is talk to other people. What a concept! Most gamers react to that concept with some disdain: “all you do is sit around and talk? That’s no fun,” and it isn’t any fun for many gamers. But that's the kind of thing that most people spend most of their time doing.

GS: Now, something like an online game would try to implement some degree of interaction, but it would always take a backseat to the game itself. What you're saying is that with Storytronics, this is the reason people are going to pick up and then get into the experience?

CC: Yeah, that's the heart of it, that's the value we are selling. Not the action, but the interaction with other characters. Most online multiplayer games, functionally they operate as chat rooms with some structure behind them. That is, the social interaction all takes place in what is essentially nothing more than a chat room. And then there's a game interaction going on outside the chat room, but the two are pretty distant. So if you want to talk about social interaction, well hell, you're talking about a chat room. We don't need a game for that.

GS: You talk a lot about the idea of the “verb” in the interactive storytelling experience. Again, for the common person, what would your explanation be for how that works within Storytronics?

CC: The verb is the core of all interaction. Any piece of software has verbs in it. The verbs in a word processor are the keys on the keyboard, set the tab, change font, different color for the font, paragraph size and so on, are all verbs. You're telling the application “do this” or “do that.” In a game you have verbs. The classic verbs in a shooter are turn right, turn left, move forward, move back, and fire. That's five basic verbs, and you'll find those five basic verbs in every shooter, and then there will be another dozen ancillary verbs and things like move faster, run, jump, aim high and low, that kind of thing. But the whole trick in all of these games is to reduce the verb set. For example one example in the great majority of shooters is the joining of the verb “pick up” with the verb “go.” In other words, you don't stop and pick something up, all you do is step over it and that picks it up. Same thing with a door…you bump into the door and it opens. So the verb “go” ends up handling an awful lot of other verbs implicitly. So you end up mapping a lot of verbs into a kind of spatial reasoning, and that in turn keeps the verb count low and game designers like that, game players like that. The problem is, with social interaction, you just can't get away with a tiny verb set, you need hundreds of verbs for social interaction.

GS: Would the player be creating content as they went along? Or is it simply that a much larger verb set would be built in, and if they had an idea to try something it would be there for them to use?

CC: That's correct. We can't let the player create his own verbs because the verbs are the heart of the game. And in a sense they are the rules. However, we can have... I differentiate between designers (who we call Storybuilders) and players. The designers create the rules within the systems, and then the players get the palette of verbs to play with.

GS: Has this idea been implemented yet, or is it merely conceptual?

CC: We're in the fourth generation of the technology. There has never been a complete demonstration of any of the previous generations. And that's one reason why people have difficulty understanding what we’re driving at. Right now, there's nothing you can even sit down and play with (what we call a Storyworld) that does all the things we want it to do. So a certain skepticism is justified.

GS: So are you on a timetable? Are you working to get a playable model released, or a demonstration out to the public?

CC: We have already released what we would call a pre-alpha version of the development system, called Swat. It doesn't have all the features, so it's pre-alpha. But we released it so people can start learning the technology, because the technology is gigantic. Interactive storytelling is very complicated business. It’s taken me 14 years to develop all these ideas. We figure we'll have Swat in alpha form in a month or two. I'm going to be moving on to the engine very soon. The engine is what actually calculates the way a story develops. The core engine is already in place and in operation. But it still needs lots and lots of work in the front end, which is called Storytron. These are three separate programs, and the front end is also operational in skeletal form. So we've already got proof of concept; all the basic programs operate in a very dumb way right now.

GS: But they are working? This isn't just brainstorming at this point?

CC: No, these aren’t just concepts; these are three working programs at this point. They're all functional; they really stink, but they’re functional. We figure that we will have something…we're figuring September or October for the first time that we will have something that people can actually sit down and use the whole system as a whole and see what it all means. Even then there won't be any demo. We figure we won't have good demos until the beginning of next year.

GS: Now is this system basically going to be a framework upon anything can be applied? So a developer could make any sort of program or game from within these parameters?

CC: Well, they're not games. We call them Storyworlds, because the emphasis is on drama, and it's so different from games it's kind of misleading to refer to them with that terminology, because they feel very different from that in play. They're more deliberate in pace…there's no rush. They use a linguistic interface, not a spatial interface. So they feel very very different, but yes, any dramatic social interaction can be addressed by this technology. We are confident that we can do, say, corporate training products with this that provide training in working with other people. And of course any kind of story can be addressed quite readily with this technology.

GS: Now, if a developer was not willing to necessarily produce a Storyworld in and of itself, do you feel that the technology could be applied to a traditional game with positive results?

CC: No, I don't think so for several reasons. First, there's a technological reason. We've been building this thing to be very flexible and very powerful, but we have not built it as a library. It has no hook that you can just plug it into another game. It's not that way. More important is the marketing sense. It's kind of like saying, “can we bundle a novel in the box with a game?” Yeah, you could, but anybody who buys the game doesn't want to read a novel. Interactive storytelling appeals to a very different kind of audience. The kind of people who like games will likely not enjoy interactive storytelling.

GS: Now, as far as the gaming industry: you are a published author on the subject. I can pretty much tell from what you’ve been saying what you feel they're doing wrong. Do you feel there's anything they could be doing right? In keeping with the traditional sense of what a game is, how could games be better, in your opinion?

CC: My advice to the gaming industry would be to sincerely copy Hollywood more closely. The gaming industry really does operate on a model very similar to Hollywood with one huge exception, and that is that they have no system for harvesting new concepts. Hollywood knows that it needs new ideas. The games industry doesn't know. Hollywood goes out of its way to provide itself with a seed stock of new talent and ideas, the games industry doesn't. Hollywood spends an enormous amount of money supporting colleges and universities, and training programs at those settings. The games industry does not. Hollywood has a system for honoring weird ideas that aren't necessarily commercial. The games industry really doesn't. That is, Hollywood actually backs these things up with real money.

There's an awful lot of Hollywood money that goes to supporting oddball ideas, because Hollywood has learned the hard way that entertainment is a high risk business that requires innovation. So you spread a lot of money over a large area and most of it is just dead loss. You'll find one idea out of a hundred that's worthwhile, and Hollywood has developed a balanced system. They don't throw money away. They've developed a balanced system that generates enough creative return for their monetary investment. They look very closely at books; they use novels as the basis for movies. The games industry doesn't do that. They support film festivals and a variety of other things that allow aspiring young talent to get just enough funding to devise an advance. They have a pyramid system in place to creators, and at the very top are the Steven Spielbergs and the big expensive blockbusters. But that thing doesn't sit there in the air; underneath those hundred million dollar movies are layer after layer after layer of cheaper, more creative, more varied ideas, and there's money flowing down that. Because they know they need the support. The creative support of all these new ideas. The games industry doesn't do anything like that and that's why it has no new ideas. It just keeps recycling the same old ideas.

GS: One could argue that independent developers are encouraged to make their games, but you say for some reason, the games they are turning out are the same old stuff. Is that a trend you see being reversed in any way?

CC: It could be reversed, but it would take real monetary support, such as Hollywood does provide, and the monetary support would go for people who come up with innovative new idea. In Hollywood, there are an awful lot of really bad films that get some kind of funds and an awful lot of really weird films they get some kind of funds, and the games industry doesn't do anything like this at all.

GS: As far as the books you've written, the tone has definitely changed over the years from the art of computer game design to speaking on interactive storytelling. Do you feel this is a shift that may happen in the industry itself in the future?

CC: I see the games industry itself as pretty much static. That is, when I look 20 years into the future, I see pretty much the same games industry. Same players, you know, EA, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Same basic kinds of games. Racing cars and slaying dragons and shooting monsters. Much snazzier, but essentially the same gameplay. But I see that the big difference is that in 20 years that will be a small subset of a much larger universe of interactive entertainment.

GS: Are there other people taking up the move towards interactive storytelling versus the traditional game that you know of, or are you pretty much on your own?

CC: There's an awful lot of energy in this direction. That is, you can trace the amount of ink spilled on the subject or the number of electrons transmitted on this topic. It was basically zero in 1992 or so. We got the first serious thought founded in about 95 and by 2000 there were occasional references to it. With conferences and such in the last three years or so…the broad topic of interactive narrative has become almost common. There was a time when I could keep track of every single conference that in some way referred to interactive storytelling or interactive narrative or whatever and I would speak at many of them. Nowadays I’m much pickier because these things are a dime a dozen.

GS: Do you feel that's a trend toward actual committed development of the technology or people just paying lip service?

CC: No, this is still academic research, and I think it is quite revealing that much of this research has led to a dead end. That is, you track some of these academic projects, and they start off with grand and glorious goals and then three or four years later, the project is dead. And they publish a couple of papers, but they didn't get anything to work. That's largely because people have difficulty appreciating the magnitude of the problem. Interactive storytelling is not something that you can slap together in a year or two. However, the appreciation of that is developing and people are more seriously discussing the building blocks of the problem. I know there are a lot of graduate students all over the world who are seriously attacking some of these issues, and really do seem to appreciate them. We already have a couple of academics who are again seriously tackling the issue of interactive storytelling. So we're definitely in the early stages of solid academic pursuit. When will this turn into commercial product? Well on that aspect I'm pretty far ahead of everyone else, but I'm confident that we will see some of these bright graduate students coming up with really weird ideas and bringing them to a pre-commercial level within the next five years.

GS: Are people overall embracing the idea of interactive storytelling? Have you encountered any resistance to it?

CC: We've had lots of expressions of interest, and of course those don't mean anything. My own impression…I've dealt with Hollywood people for 15 years now. My own impression is that nobody who is already successful is going to be interested in it, because this is pioneering work and to learn it you have to unlearn a great deal of what you already know and start over, you have to re-learn from a completely new angle. Nobody is going to give up what they already have if what they already have is working for them. We are very liberally reaching out for the people who are not successful. We want people with a lean and hungry look to them, who have talent and energy and drive and feel they're being shut out. Those are the people who will, I think, do wonderful things with interactive storytelling.


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