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GDC 2011: CGDC Founder Chris Crawford: Ask Yourself 'What Does The User Do?'
GDC 2011: CGDC Founder Chris Crawford: Ask Yourself 'What Does The User Do?'
March 3, 2011 | By Brandon Sheffield

March 3, 2011 | By Brandon Sheffield
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    18 comments
More: Console/PC, GDC



In an impassioned talk at GDC 2011 on Thursday, Computer Game Developers Conference founder and game designer Chris Crawford discussed where the industry has been, and where it’s gone now.

Going through the early micro computers, he noted that while primitive, games were made for these things. Books would be released with games in them, and you’d have to code them in in order to play.

One wrote software with pencil and paper, in Assembly. “Of course you had to memorize the rules, but you also had to compile it in your head. The hardest part about it was counting backward in hexadecimal so you could do your loops.”

But then came the Atari Stella/VCS. It could talk to a television set. For CRT televisions, 15 years ago you had a screen buffer, and you’d write it into the ram with scanlines. But the VCS was even more primitive. “What we had with Stella was a line buffer,” he began. “You could store one scanline of graphics imagery."

"And while it was drawing that scanline, you had to prepare the data for the next scanline, and get it all in there before the next line is traced. You had to specify all the components of that scanline while the previous one was being drawn.”

In the modern era, we went from micro computers to home computers. “The obvious one you all remember is the Apple II, but there were others,” said Crawford. “Like the Commodore PET and the Tandy TRS-80, commonly known by people who didn’t own one as the trash 80.”

He had a game called Tanktics, which he had made for previous microcomputers, and he made a port for the Commodore PET. “You took all the pieces, you put that inside a ziplock bag, punched a hole in it, and the retailer hung it up on the wall,” he said. “One wall would be the entire software from the entire world.” He charged $15, and sold 150 copies, “which probably represents a larger market penetration than any game today,” he joked. “I sold my first copy on December 30 1978 to a guy named Bill…can’t quite remember his last name.”

In 1984, the great catastrophe came. “That was a catastrophe whose magnitude is difficult to appreciate,” he said. “About 95% of people working in games lost their jobs. That’s how bad it was. And many of them couldn’t get new jobs because so many people were dumped on the job market at the same time.”

“Back then to be a game programmer, you had to be a hero,” said Crawford. “You had to do everything! People in the game industry were basically working alone. We didn’t know each other.” That’s why he founded the conference in 1988. “And it seems as though I’ve succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, because you are certainly not alone right now!” he joked.

“There was a lot of crap back then. Really bad games, but there was also a lot of diversity,” he said. Modern games seem to be less diverse, in his estimation. “When you’re putting millions of dollars into a game, you can’t afford to be too creative.”

Crawford closed by restating his first law of software development: “Whenever you sit down to design a game, throughout the entire process, you must repeatedly ask yourself ‘What does the user do?’” He says this is important, because players don’t watch games, they don’t read them, they don’t listen to them, they play them.

He noted similarities between old games and new, where the core concepts of platformers, shooters, and strategy games haven’t changed much. “What the player does has not changed in 30 years,” he said. “I want to be very careful here. I’m not saying that modern games are no better than ancient games,” he added.

Still, modern computers are billions of times faster, and tools are much more friendly than they were before. Is Halo billions of times better than Combat? “I’m not going to answer those questions,” he posed, “but you should contemplate them.”


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Comments


Jeffrey Crenshaw
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"... the Tandy TRS-80, commonly known by people who didn’t own one as the trash 80.”



Awesome, historical fanboyism :)

Chuan Lim
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Melbourne House "Penetrator" 1982 / Phillip Mitchell

Amazing achievement, and 1st game to ship w/ a level editor. 'Nuff said!

You saved levels to a C60 cassette and had to ride the volume dial to load them as data was de-modulated from the audio coming off the tape.



There was a real charm to all this stuff and even piracy was around but it consisted of mostly weird anti-social 30-year old electronics nerds who'd graduated from building kit computers, hanging around school or community centres at meet-ups that were mostly word of mouth.



You brought your Trash- or System-80, a couple of cables and jammed knives in between the FF / PLAY button on one machine and FF / REC button on the other to dub tapes at full speed. They don't make computers like they used to either -- with fake wood-panelling on the sides ..!





-- Chuan

Nat Loh
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so essentially a history lesson?

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Glenn Storm
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Always made tons of money, or sold many units and controlled marke share? It seemed he was saying, even while it got a lot of people to buy home computers, it eventually killed competition along with commodore, which effectively killed the industry at that time.



Personally, this particular lesson seemed more apt today, given the race-to-the-bottom price war on some game markets.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Alvaro Gonzalez
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I didn't have the opportunity to be there. =(

While I read the article I can only imaging Mr.'s Crowfords waving hands all over the place and his funny/serious expression on the face.

I take this line from him, and I would save it for my next project approach:

"Is Halo billions of times better than Combat?"

I hope GDC put this lecture for free on his GDSVault.

Ted Kehoe
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I want that hat. :)

Patrick Dugan
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He got that networking strategy from Darius Kazemi.

Ted Kehoe
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Is he like a Japanese Yosemite Sam? :o

Mark Venturelli
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Essentially a waste of time.

Chris Crawford
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Bill, I am always interested in improving my knowledge base. The statements I made regarding the C64 were based on a range of sources at that time, including press reports and industry scuttlebutt, which I acknowledge to be somewhat unreliable. However, let me point out that the version of history that I presented does accord with two crucial established facts: 1) that Jack Tramiel left Commodore in January of 1984, and 2) that he bought parts of Atari six months later. If he had been presiding over a roaring success I very much doubt that anybody would want him to leave CBM. There is also the unquestionable fact that sales of C64s didn't hold up for long after 1984 -- certainly the companies making games for C64 were struggling during 1984 and had largely abandoned it by 1985-86. What information do you have on this matter?

James Hofmann
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On the last point, there's an enormous library of C64 games produced between 1987-1991; most are European, but titles from EA and Origin also make the list. If you were talking about the Atari 8-bit line I would be in agreement, as substantial production of new Atari games nearly disappeared after 1984 and only continued into the 1990s in Poland.



My best guess is that the C64's U.S. gaming position got overrun by the post-1984 platforms(16-bit computers, Nintendo, etc.), but they made up for it internationally.

Chris Crawford
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Damn editor threw away my earlier reply; here goes again: I was not aware of international sales of C64 hardware and software; do we know whether the C64 was priced as aggressively overseas as it was in the USA?



As to your second point, Nintendo didn't have much US presence until 1987, the Mac had too small an installed base in 1984-85, and the PC had such lousy graphics that games people shunned it until about 1986. Thus, 1984 and 1985 were bad years for the games industry.

Roberto Dillon
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Interesting points. I was in the hall too and, indeed, I was also surprised by Mr. Crawford's remarks on Commodore not being profitable during that time.



I recently wrote a book on the golden age of video games ( on sale next week: feedback welcome! :-) ) and, according to all the sources I checked, the information I have is in line with earlier statements. For example, Tomczyk in his "Home Computer wars" (1984) clearly states Commodore was always profitable despite all the price cuts.

Regarding Tramiel's departure from Commodore, the exact reasons are unknown but the relationship between Jack and Irving Gould was always a difficult one and, most likely, disagreements on the roles that Jack would have liked to assign to his sons within the company were the last straw. Indeed, I believe Tramiel started involving his sons in Atari as soon as he moved in.



Cheers!

Chris Crawford
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We may have an explanation for the discrepancies, then, by contrasting US sales of the C64 with foreign sales. The scenario I imagine is as follows: Tramiel deeply discounts the C64 in the states to gain market share. He's losing money in the USA, but foreign hardware sales, at higher prices, are solidly profitable. So Commodore is still in the black. However, he wants to extend his deep discounts overseas, and that fight leads to his departure.



The suggestion that his desire to employ his sons led to his departure does run afoul of one problem: if his policies were the cause of Commodore's success, why didn't the BoD at Commodore indulge him? If the CEO is earning you millions and millions of dollars, why lose him by refusing to hire his sons for a few hundred thousand dollars? In business terms, that makes no sense.



Moreover, nobody voluntarily leaves their own creation; they go because they're forced out, nicely or nastily. The BoD at Commodore was displeased with his performance, and it could only have been due to the effects of his policies on the bottom line. The prime suspect for poor fiscal performance would obviously be his pricing policies.



The earlier suggestion that Commodore's vertical integration made such deep discounts possible seems far-fetched to me. It's true that Commodore was more efficient than its competitors and could make money at lower prices, but the final price of the C64 in the USA -- a number I do not specifically recall -- was so far below the competitor's prices that I cannot believe that Commodore was making money with it. Consider this: Atari was making tons of money with its home computers before the C64 began the price war. Atari's production lines were domestic; its failure to match Commodore's prices in Christmas 1982 was due to the fact that it had not yet completed its move of manufacturing to Hong Kong. If you were a big company that was able to turn a profit, if only you had the time to tighten up the manufacturing and reduce your overhead, would you concede the entire market to an upstart merely because their prices were temporarily lower than yours? No, the Warner executives caved in because they knew that there was no way that Atari could EVER meet Commodore's prices.



Still, this is all indirect reasoning; it would be great if somebody had some more solid facts on which we could anchor our analysis. In particular, it would be good to know what the prices for the C64 were in Europe. Even better would be a P&L statement from Commodore over those years. It's entirely possible (although unlikely) that Commodore was making enough money on other products that they could afford to make losses on C64 in anticipation of future profits. But we know it didn't turn out that way.

Roberto Dillon
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Thanks for taking the time of elaborating on this. Very interesting.



Regarding Tramiel's departure, the impression I got from my researches was that both Jack and Irving had a very, very big ego and the two were often in conflict since the company started making real money thanks to the PET. Once they reached $1Billion in sales thanks to the C64, I think Jack was feeling like he could do anything he wanted with "his" company, while Gould thought that the company was now big enough to go on even without Jack and he wanted a different leadership to grow it even further... basically, they were both fed up with each other despite their success (or, maybe, right because of it?)

Of course this is only speculation. I wish Tramiel himself'd decide to shed some more light on this someday.

Chris Crawford
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My explanation is based on the assumption that all the players in that situation were rational actors. As economists have shown, humans are not necessarily rational actors, and when you throw big egos into the picture, my explanation gets a lot weaker. If I ever retell that story, I'll tone it down and include more uncertainty. The question remains: why didn't home computers continue to thrive using the C64 as a platform? It's a certainty that the games industry, instead of simply transferring its efforts to the C64 and continuing to thrive, shrank considerably.


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