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Question of the Week Responses: Is Crawford Right?
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Question of the Week Responses: Is Crawford Right?

June 22, 2006 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

Our latest Question of the Week asked our audience of game professionals, referencing one of the more controversial Gamasutra articles in recent memory:

"What examples of innovation (in design, business, or other areas) do you think disprove the notion that the game industry is not evolving as quickly as it should be? Or is Chris Crawford right?"

With this in mind, our professional game developer respondents expressed their thoughts on the current state of innovation in the video game industry, and Chris Crawford's eye-opening rhetoric. Personnel from companies such as Harmonix, Obsidian, Crystal Dynamics, NCSoft, and many more gave some varied and excellent insights and opinions - particularly interesting sections are highlighted in bold.

Chris Crawford is right, but at the same time, the game industry is evolving through experimental game design. Independent game developers, like myself, are part of the game industry, whether bloated suits like it or not. We (independents) are the ones who are doing the experimental game designs online. And our games are played! Ed Averett, the creator of K.C. Munchkin once said "The Internet solves the biggest roadblock to game designers, which is distribution." It is through the Internet where our experimental games are being distributed to gamers.
-Trevor Cuthbertson, N.R. Computronics Ltd

In the area of immersive, emotionally-powerful storytelling, progress has been painfully slow. The notion that computer-based interactive entertainment must be a "game" and must adhere to specific game genres has diminished what could otherwise be a lucrative branch of entertainment that would attract a new audience. I believe there is a massive audience out there waiting for the experience of being “inside” something like a television series or movie. Call this new form of entertainment a maximally immersive story world sim, where it's never shoved in your face that this is, after all, only a game. And where great minds work to make NPCs as seemingly alive and affecting as possible. In order to achieve this new form of computer-based entertainment, there must be the will to do it, and there must be a willingness to include professional storytellers and dramatists in the design process. Whoever achieves this first will become wealthy and will go down in history as the person who started a new renaissance in storytelling and the next evolution of drama.
-Randy Littlejohn

Of course Chris Crawford is right! But does it matter? Yes, the verbs in games have solidified and remained the same for some time. Games. The word reminds me of sports. Which incidentally also share a lot of the verbs we use to describe rules and actions in our games: jump, shoot, run etc. Are anybody complaining about the development of sports being stale or non-existent? I am all for innovation, it is dawning on me that innovation for innovation's sake just might not be the holy grail this industry should be chasing. Perhaps this is what games are?
-Marque Pierre Sondergaard, Heroes Team

I think Chris is right that we've gone through a long period of "me too" products. However, it seems to me there is a breath of fresh air coming from several directions. The Nintendo DS is fostering some very innovative (and successful) games. Microsoft's Live Arcade business model has created a channel for smaller, lower-development-cost games to be marketed profitably at much lower price points. And the Wii controller promises revolutionary new game UI.
-Michael Dornbrook, Harmonix Music Systems

I don't think it's a matter of evolving as quickly as it should. This industry has matured. Just like the movie industry, our industry now churns out mainstream products that appeal to the widest possible audience, with only one thing in mind: revenue.
When consoles hit the market in the mid / late ‘80s, it killed originality and risk taking. Nintendo's "seal of approval" meant that only games that were good enough (read: mainstream) would make it to market. Becoming a developer was prohibitively expensive and time consuming. Since consoles are closed systems and home computers were merrily PCs running Windows, bedroom coding died overnight. Ironically, it sounds like Nintendo is trying to reverse this trend by making Wii cheaper to develop for. Still, an individual can't just pick up a Wii dev kit and start hacking away. Although I applaud Chris' initiative, in the end, it all boils down to money. This industry will never go back to its roots as it has become too big a business.
And even if a publisher does take a risk and puts something original out, you can bet that it will get zero to no marketing thereby sealing its fate. Chris' product (because that's really what it is) will target developers in order to make money. And round and round we go... Where's the love...?

First of all, who decides how quickly the industry "should be" evolving or innovating? That's an entirely subjective measurement. Along the same lines, who decides what is innovative? The industry has no objective standard for innovation so again it falls down to personal belief.
To answer the spirit of the question, there are several recent games that demonstrated innovation in various categories:
-Emotional Innovation: Shadow of the Colossus . Rather than the mixture of triumph and relief from frustration you find with most games, Shadow added elements of sadness and loss. You felt bad for the poor beast you just killed as well as a sense of victory.
-Level Design Innovation: Psychonauts and Shadow of the Colossus . Shadow's mechanic of turning the level itself into the boss battle was genius and incredibly engaging. Psychonauts presented its levels as internal mindscapes, allowing for truly unique and fun experiences exemplified by the milkman, disco and Napoleon levels.
-Mini-game Innovation: Warioware and Brian Age both innovated on the pace of gameplay giving us entire games made up of very short mini-games.
-Story Innovation: KOTOR2 's character influence system gave your interactions with party members new meaning. Interacting with characters in the world became more than just a method to dispense quests. Your influence with them would change who they were as a character as well as eventually turning them into Jedi if you chose.
-Experience Innovation: Earth and Beyond was the first 3D MMO to award experience for more than killing monsters. Players could level up their characters by exploration and trade.
-Interface Innovation: The Nintendo DS touchscreen and stylus are huge innovations resulting in some truly unique gameplay experiences. Trauma Center and Big Brain Academy are just two examples of how this mechanic is currently being used.
I think the major failing with Mr. Crawford's argument is that he is looking for revolution in the game industry and masking that desire by calling for innovation, which is present. If Mr. Crawford is seeking revolution, I'd invite him to apply for a job in the industry and demonstrate what he is looking for through actual work rather than commenting safely from the sidelines.
-Brian Heins, Obsidian Entertainment

I respect Chris Crawford. I admire the work he's doing on storytronics a great deal, but is innovation dead? I don't know about that. Part of me wants to agree, militantly, but part of me disagrees to the same amount. The risk-averse atmosphere of our publishers is certainly killing our success and the lack of original titles is making the market bored, but is innovation really dead? No. Innovative titles still happen, as rare as they are. It's not the end of the world, yet. Ask me again in 10 years, though - if we haven't found a way for our industry to take more risks and release more games that don't rely on tried-and-true formulas, we really will be at the end of our reign.
-Adam Maxwell, NetDevil

Games have evolved just as fast as the technology that is driving them. Not only that, but games are creeping into more common everyday aspects of life. Some surgeons limber up playing games, the military is using them as training aids. C'mon! People have to keep in mind the industry is roughly only 30 years old (marked by the mainstream playing actual video games, not pinball). The average age of a gamer is 29 for a reason. His logic is flawed. Is every movie released today filmed digitally, with CGI effects, and in 3D? Thankfully, no. And thankfully, games only need about 6 or 7 verbs to get the job done. Hey, if a limited lexicon worked for the cavemen, it should surely work for his descendents.
-J Kelly, Sea Cow Games

Chris Crawford is somewhere in la-la-land. His statement that game innovation is dead is downright wrong. Look at games like Loco Roco, Brain Training, Eye-toy, Nintendogs, Spore, Guitar Hero. That's just some of the more high profile titles. Sure, the majority of games are not trying for innovation but for good, solid craftsmanship. Is that a bad thing? People have favorite movie styles, book genres, music themes, food ingredients... Why not the same with games?
-Soeren Lund, Deadline Games

Nintendo seems to be the only one really innovating at the moment. It's taking the risks, so hopefully it'll reap the rewards. So what is Chris Crawford doing, I mean besides complaining?

The game industry's artistic depth has been evolving steadily, but its artistic breadth has advanced much more slowly, in fits that are few and far between. The game industry explores gamers' favorite subject matters in great depth: for example, no other art form explores spatial combat action more thoroughly. The action-gamer is quick to draw distinctions between Quake, God of War and Resident Evil, since – even though all three games consist mainly of killing and avoiding being killed in a 3D spatial environment – the action-gamer is a connoisseur, and appreciates the different approaches these three games take in exploring this subject matter. Chris Crawford is not interested in spatial combat. No amount of innovation applied to deepening and splintering the spatial combat genres (of which our industry has many) will get Chris interested in these kinds of games; for this we need a new genre independent of spatial combat (or military strategy like X-Com: UFO Defense, or resource management like The Sims, or any of the many existing genres the game industry can rightfully be proud of expressing so well). Since the game industry almost never really funds genre-creating experiments that end in noble failure, it also usually fails to evolve in artistic breadth with successful, compelling and truly new genres.
Should the game industry keep enriching and splintering existing genres with depth-oriented innovation? Absolutely; our sizable audience really appreciates these kinds of interactive aesthetics. Should the game industry expend significantly more time and money experimenting with new genres of interactive art, and thereby inspire non-gamers like Chris? Absolutely, and I applaud Mr. Crawford for doing just that.
-Nathan Frost, Crystal Dynamics

I can't think of anything that fundamentally contradicts Chris's point, actually. I am working in the world of MMOs now, because I think the chance for breakthrough is highest in this genre. The design goals here are fundamentally different from what they have been for most of the history of computer games development.
When we get to the point where players can actively share a variety of rich, interesting story experiences with each other, online, in real time, generated by their in-game activities, perhaps we'll have come up with something fresh at that point. I remain a firm believer that most "player storytellers" are not particularly good at it, and that we need to find a way to expand the narrative experience in a game to a level of professionalism that we are just beginning to understand on the visual and spatial side in the medium.
Most of the efforts along these lines continue to be either radically amateur, or fundamentally misguided by too much reliance upon the construction principles for narrative in non-games media. There is perhaps one company out there that "gets" this, but they do so only within the confines of a single-player game. The real ambition is to figure out how to embroider narrative expectations into something like an MMO, in a form that feeds effectively into the dynamics of an ongoing social gamelife. No one has even started on this project, yet.
-Steven Wartofsky, NCSoft

Seems like as long as I can remember, I have heard this. And not just about games either; television, movies, music, even books and plays before them. How does lack of innovation account for games like Katamari Damacy, Brain Age, or Guitar Freaks? I cite these as example because they also happen to be smash hits, but there are others like Shadow of the Colossus, Prince of Persia, and the upcoming Spore. To say that games today are mere rehashes flies in the face of the very history of innovation, which has always been about synthesis of new ideas from the ashes of the old. I think if anything, we have simply developed an impatience for continuing innovation in healthy steps, a knee-jerk reaction to short-term trends, and an inability to detect innovation when it actually exists. I can tell you from the trenches that, due to competition and community, innovation is alive and well today.
-Robert Martin, Amaze Entertainment

There are examples, of course, like Katamari, Guitar Hero, Loco Rocco, Spore... But they are few, much less than one would expect from an industry based on innovation as the primary drive. He has a point - a strong one - and I must agree that I would like to see far more in terms of experimentation than what's actually available or under development.
-Henrique Olifiers, Jagex Ltd.

The Wii controller and the touchpad/stylus setup for the DS are both examples of new control schemes that are expanding the ways we play games. The DDR pad and the Guitar Hero controller are more focused examples. Games that stand out in my mind for innovation include Guitar Hero, Nintendogs, and of course Spore. I also believe there's a lot of life left in the existing types of games. We're not just rehashing old content. We're innovating and improving on it. Games that come to mind as excellent in that regard include Oblivion, Shadow of the Colossus, World of Warcraft, and Civilization IV. From my point of view as an AI engineer, this is a very exciting time to work in the industry. AI is getting better every year. This may not be as obvious because the AI is sort of behind the scenes, but the improvements are there and they're very real. If you compare the intelligence in a modern strategy game to what we got in, say, the original Warcraft, it's just amazing.
-Kevin Dill, Blue Fang Games

It seems a bit presumptuous to believe that any industry should be evolving at some particular rate. I should think that the game industry is in virtually the same state as many other maturing industries, with larger companies consolidating their position and looking more for acquisition than innovative research and development, and with smaller companies fighting for shelf space and taking chances to try to stand out from the crowd. Other similar industries are in exactly the same state (e.g., digital audio and video production, traditional gaming industry (non-computer), etc.). Having said all this, I would think that the evolution (indeed, revolution) of the game industry will be its migration towards and through the next paradigm shift, when performance makes an order of magnitude change. It is the innovation in these areas (e.g., physics processors and AI processors), if anywhere, that is most likely to drive the next shift in the industry.
-Todd Morin, VideoMagic Technologies

If I wanted to talk to other people in an interactive storytelling environment I'd play D&D. But then again, perhaps Mr. Crawford would classify D&D as a victim of 're-branding' within the video game industry. Or I could be sporty and play a game like Counter-Strike that has a thriving competitive community with teams across the globe talking to each other over voice communication software like Ventrilo, discussing strategy and making friends/enemies over the Internet. Mr. Crawford says that interactive storytelling translates into meandering along in a social environment without an established plotline, and then proceeds to lambaste a game like World of Warcraft, that has some of the most fulfilling social interaction provided by a game and offers up game mechanics that have enchanted gamers from China to the US to Europe. In this game, the players become the citizens of the world, and can choose to role-play accordingly. My question to Mr. Crawford is: What's so innovative about Storytronics that we haven't seen in a good D&D game?
-Ryan Daly, Filament Studios

What Chris was primarily doing in that interview was advertising his new engine and business model. The aim of this advertisement was to touch on the occasional indie developer who feels the same sort of revolutionary spark and might want to create content with Storytronics. If you take him too seriously you're bound to be infuriated, because there are plenty of innovative projects going on in the industry and the indie scene. Cloud, Play With Fire, Braid, Nintendogs, Trauma Center: Under The Knife; plenty of games are innovating with pure gameplay. As for interactive storytelling, Crawford's monolith isn't the only project, I'm aware of at least one AAA studio that's exploring social play for the next-gen, and there are at least four independent projects going on that attack the problem from different angles, one of which I'm fortunate to be directly involved with. Crawford calls for revolution over evolution, storyplay over gameplay, interactivity over immersion. Evolution happens in punctuated jumps that look like revolutions, good storyplay requires mechanical framing that can still be called a "game", and immersion, while not the soul of a system, is still an important part of the experience, especially if you want your story engine to see mass success. Storytronics will certainly foster interesting experiments and perhaps masterworks, but it's not the whole story.
-Patrick Dugan, True Vacuum

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