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Chris Crawford's hope for the future: Indies 'will save video games'
Chris Crawford's hope for the future: Indies 'will save video games'
December 27, 2013 | By Christian Nutt

December 27, 2013 | By Christian Nutt
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    11 comments
More: Console/PC, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design



"The indie game developers are doing what the publishers should have been doing decades ago. They are the ones who will save video games."
- GDC founder and independent game developer Chris Crawford in a new profile by Simon Parkin.

Chris Crawford founded the Game Developers Conference in 1988 after having found tremendous success with his 1985 PC game Balance of Power. But in 1992, he left the game industry to work independently on tools to increase the storytelling potential of the medium -- after he became frustrated that he and the bulk of the industry were working toward different goals and pursuing different audiences.

These days he is known as an iconoclastic independent developer, far outside of the mainstream industry -- but that is precisely where he thinks the innovation he has hoped for for 20 years will arise.

Thanks to a new profile, you can understand his dreams and his story. Today, Simon Parkin speaks to Crawford about his work since he left the industry in 1992 -- both what he has achieved in the last 20 years, and what he still hopes to accomplish, and the changes he'd still like to see in games.

If that's not enough Crawford for you, a little-seen but engaging 2009 documentary about his work, filmed in conversation with Jason Rohrer (The Castle Doctrine) is available on YouTube.


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Comments


Michael Wenk
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I wonder how many gamers will appreciate that. I doubt I would. I find it similar to the whole "award winning" movie thing. Most em while I see why they are great, are not that entertaining. I would expect a lot of games that were made for arts sake to be very similar. So on one hand, while I hope for his sake he gets what he wants, on the other hand, I don't want his stuff to be the only thing. For example, I'd rather play my mario game which entertains me for the 30-40 mins I can spend than something thought provoking.

Ian Richard
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Even if he can't complete his goal before the beads run out, he was one of biggest inspirations for me getting into game development. I know there are many of us out there who've heard his call and are willing to hunt his dragon.

I don't fully agree with everything that he's said, but I do believe that our landscape of games is very limited. With every passing year, the mainstream industry becomes less and less varied. Everything MUST have deathmatches, everything MUST be a cover-shooter with RPG elements, everything MUST look pretty and have a B-Movie storyline about uber-men killing bad things. It's like the industry stopped trying to expand and just focuses on a smaller list of big-money possibilities.

I've seen more done for this industry by Indy's than any mainstream company. The explore new things and show us that games can be different. Indy developers restored my faith in games and I know that they will continue to do so.

Jay Anne
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The industry became what the market forced it to be. No more, no less. They make those games because they're generally the ones that make the current business model viable. They don't make other games because they tried some and failed. When smaller indie companies come along and find viable niches using a different business model and operating in a different market, that's not really solving the original problem. That's just a separate thing altogether, and they're only lumped in together because they both happen to be games.

Chris Crawford left the core PC gaming industry a long long time ago and he never entered the console gaming industry. I don't see a reason why he feels the need to speak with authority on the current industry climate, other than to garner attention for whatever he's been doing lately. But I'm glad that at least this time, his message is positive instead of negative.

Michael Joseph
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Everything you've said is basically wrong.

The "market" is not a force of nature and developers and players are not powerless against it. Markets are created and they're malleable. To think otherwise is to doom one's self to being a follower and never an innovator. Many successful indies use the same old business models that game developers have been using since the beginning.

Chris Crawford never left the core PC gaming industry. That industry left him with the creation of certain classes of products that appealed to broader audiences. Game developers who experiment and push the medium ARE the core of the industry.

Nobody would claim that McDonalds is the core of the restaurant industry just because they found a way to sell a bajillion mcfoodlike substances. Nobody would say that Kraft Foods and General Mills are the core of the food industry because they make billions selling processed foods.

Indies are not only the small local farmers of the industry... they are the only ones doing any farming at all. This industry has survived on the fruits grown by indies.

Ian Richard
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This market was created by the publishers and developers of our industry.

For as long as I can remember they've put all of they efforts into marketing games that appeal to the same audience. They sold everything on the guns and on the graphics.

This marketing caused the single audience to grow larger, while it pushed others away. Every year that went by, the industry became more dependent on this single "core audience".

Indies aren't successful because of their production values or big budgets... they succeed because they target different audiences. They expand the idea of gaming to people who would never consider playing "Call of Duty" or other shoot-y games.

How many people play Angry Birds, Farmville, or my mothers favorite game: Word Mole?

They are showing that there is room for growth in our industry. A chance to create new things and expand into markets. There are people that want games even if they are haven't been sold by our current industry.

We have the chance to explore and expand the very idea of "gaming". We can tell great stories and allow people to live out all sorts of unique fantasies. We can change people's perception of the world.

Or we can keep chasing that Male power-fantasy...

Jay Anne
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@Michael Joseph
Chris Crawford's rants for the last decade referred to core games, which were largely action PC and console games. Today, those games are the way they are due to market forces, and they're very hard to change. $60 MSRP that is now perceived to be a very high premium pricing, which leads to consumer expectations of huge value (20+ hours, multiplayer, feature checklist), reluctance to buy titles from new franchises. When developers respond by saying, "Just try harder", that just comes across as naive. Spend some time with data, and you'll see why things are the way they are.

It's now difficult to speak of one single "game industry". Things are so different between console games, Facebook games, mobile games, social games, PC F2P games, indie games, Flash games. They're practically different industries with different business models. It's not worth trying to lump them together and speak of them as one, or diagnose their problems as one. It mostly just leads to misunderstandings. It's often unclear whether someone was talking about console games or mobile games, etc.

Chris Crawford explicitly left the core gaming industry after storming out with his Dragon speech and spent almost 2 decades building Storytron. It's a text-based drama engine. I don't think anyone would confuse it with any core game. He said that interactive storytelling is doomed if it's perceived as a video game, so his only path is to come at it from another angle. Interactive fiction is where he tried to place roots, it seems. It's unfortunate that those roots did not take hold.

Michael Joseph
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@Jay Anne
If Mozart lived to be 200 years old and declared in 1950 that he was going to stay with classical music despite the mainstream popularity of jazz, blues and rock we would not say that he had left the core music industry. So long as he was continuing to work on classical compositions he could not have "left" anything regardless of whatever declarations he may have made in public!

You define core as "mainstream" and I tried to explain why I think that is wrong. Call it mainstream. Core means something entirely different to people who look at games as a medium of expression and not just as a multimedia product format.

well i think we'll just keep talking past each other so we'll just have to agree to disagree.

Jay Anne
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@Ian Richard
I don't believe this market is the way it is solely due to publishers and developers. The reasons why a market changes over time are far more complex than just what games were greenlit. Most developers understand that rising dev costs, rising hardware costs, digital distribution, F2P PC games, Facebook games, mobile games are all having SOME type of effect. What exactly those effects are...are highly debatable.

It's probably the case that so many console games are shooters because it's one of the few genres that can consistently sell 3+ million copies. You need to sell that many copies because of rising dev costs, rising consumer expectations of production value, rising consumer expectations of game longevity, rising costs in distribution and marketing, the necessity of betting on existing brands instead of new brands due to rising cost to launch a new brand, the necessity to hit corporate revenue targets with just a few products. To use Raph Koster's analogy of biological evolution, those are the environmental conditions and they are what they are. Just because shooters are strongly adapted to survive those conditions doesn't mean that the lack of other genres is caused by "lack of innovation" or "near-sighted unimaginative developers".

So when you look towards other places with different conditions, you have to wonder. Remember when the iOS Top Grossing charts were filled with Angry Birds-style games? Notice how they're completely replaced with things like Clash of Clans and casino games? Or remember when Farmville and other Zynga-style builder games ruled the Facebook charts? Notice how that completely changed? Remember when word games were all over the tops of mobile charts? Notice how there are almost no word games in the Top 50 Grossing charts. You should ask around about what conditions have changed to make all those things occur.

The conditions are probably what allow games to flourish. And conditions change. You can get all romantic about how pubs and devs are able to part seas and move mountains, but the sad reality is likely that their effect is very limited. Usually, the most they can do is identify new incoming conditions and ride those waves. Most companies don't have the leverage to really change underlying conditions. What happened to arcade developers once home console hardware became more powerful than arcade hardware? What happened to middle class AA console games once F2P games undercut their audience? What happened to the console platformer genre once younger gamers moved onto handhelds and mobile? What happened to Zynga's stronghold on social gamers once Facebook gamers moved onto mobile? What happened when Facebook changed their NewsFeed rules on what viral spam could be sent? What happened to word games once mobile user acquisition costs rose?What happens to Steam if Microsoft decides to close their Windows ecosystem? What happens to Nintendo franchises if the WiiU continues to sell poorly? What happens to any given indie Steam title when there are 10,000 Steam greenlit indie games a month?

Christian Philippe Guay
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We just have all those problems, because game developers aren't the ones running game companies. What big publishers and game companies do doesn't reflect the desires of their game developers and in the end, both game developers and gamers aren't happy. That's just not a sustainable business model.

Lennard Feddersen
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CPG, MJ - there is room for indies (I've been one for 10 years) but you are both ignoring market realities that definitely include people who are happy to plunk down $60 for something like Watch Dogs or The Last of Us that could only be made by big studios with huge budgets. Those big experiences are remarkably expensive and can only be created for the broadest markets regardless of what their developers would prefer to spend their time doing. That's not to say there isn't a place for all the rest of us to make unique experiences but you can't deny those big experiences and the folks who are rolling the dice on very big gambles to bring them to the world.

Judy Tyrer
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In my study of entrepreneurship, one of the biggest mantras is that entrepreneurs CREATE their market. The game industry is not creating new markets. It is relying on old ones. I think this is where Indies are going to have their biggest impact. They will create the new markets. Hopefully they will, like me, go after markets that don't currently exist. My games will never appeal to the current gamer market. That is intentional!


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