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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 Previous Page 2 of 2

I was at the talk when Chris Crawford said the games industry is dead. I originally became interested in the industry because of Chris Crawford on Game Design (a fantastic read by the way). However, I now believe Chris Crawford is blind to the realities of the industry. There is innovation everywhere these days, just look at some of the games being developed on Gamedev! The number of games being created that are innovative in some facet or another is astounding. Now I know the argument can be made that there is nothing groundbreaking, or truly innovative coming out now or in the past few years, but here's the thing. We, as an art form, are young; younger than any other art form by years and years. Did painting ever endure 10 year spans of little or no innovation? Has music ever been stagnant for a period of years or even centuries? I believe so. In comparison, we are the most innovative art form on the history of the planet. Within a 20 year span, the state of both the art and the industry has transformed dramatically, to the point that someone involved with it 20 years ago, may not recognize it today (Chris Crawford).
-Derek Ehrman, Full Sail

As much as I would like to disagree, there is a lot he says that I feel is right. However, as much as I respect Mr. Crawford, I can't help but feel that that primary goal of that interview was to be a "commercial" for Storytronics. Unfortunately, I think his comparisons to the movie industry were way off too.
Currently, the game industry is running parallel to the movie industry in the way it markets and the types of projects it pushes. Hollywood is constantly putting out the "same ole, same ole". Many production houses simply are not willing to put forth the kind of money it would take to make certain movies that fall outside the norm. It is the independent houses that get these movies made.
The game industry is running the same way. They feel the risk is too great to spend on development of a game, just for it to end up losing the company money. In the end, it is still a business and companies do not operate too well when they lose money. So they lower the overall risk by doing what has been proven to sell. I think it is very telling in how he refers to interactive storytelling as being this great thing, when he says it has been worked on for 14 years and they have yet to have anything that really works. Unless I am misunderstanding exactly what the goal of his project is, it feels like he is trying to recreate the wheel as a way to be "innovative". After all, video games are inherently "interactive stories". Now most stories are far from being Hemmingway in quality, hell, not even King quality, but they try.
Unfortunately, as long as people continue to buy these re-hashed games, the business mind of game companies are going to follow the money. In the end, it is not the lack of ideas, but rather the company "money men" who veto and form those original ideas into something more mainstream and normal. Besides, with people like Will Wright out there doing their thing, I don't see how anyone can say that "nothing" is being done.

On the whole, I would agree with Chris. But there have been a few outstanding exceptions that I'm sure are being pointed to by everyone responding: Spore; Oblivion. And that's about all that comes to mind, currently. We all know the problem. We need investors to fund the game, and investors are interested in a sure thing - based on previous successful formulae - and getting their investment back with interest. There just isn't any money in genre-breaking, which leads to a fetid industrial cesspool.
-Travis Lackey

Innovation isn't dead, but it isn't exactly thriving either.. The monster publishers have grown a bit conservative. Sequelitis. Let's cure ourselves of this, please. New ideas with excellent follow-through is the only way out of the rut created by repetitive iterations in game design.
I don't think the problem is a lack of innovation. Certainly, innovation is around. But the market is already massive, and that push towards wider audiences has shifted the flow of money in the direction of the familiar and easily accessible, which is ultimately the least innovative.
On the hardware side of things, gaming has maybe never been more innovative. It is incredible how many progressive and difficult problems are being tackled with the newest hardware solutions. This almost forces innovation as software people must try new things and use hardware in different ways than they have previously. Almost. Often the first software for new hardware is of the mindset "Well, let's see how these new devices handle our old IP."
Perhaps the most important contributor to progressively more innovative game development will be the increasingly versatile nature of the new consoles. The coming generation of consoles will be a monumental leap forward in gaming.

In my opinion, Mr.Crawford seems to have mixed up innovation and revolution. As for revolution, I almost agree but am still not sure because of the Nintendo Wii. As for innovation, I would like to ask Mr Crawford where should I put Indigo Prophecy, Half-Life 2 (for physics gameplay), Katamari Damacy, Spore, Assassin's Creed (for interaction with environment), Shadow of the Colossus, Civilization 4 (I think it is pretty innovative even though it is a sequel). Yes, Call of Duty is just another shooter, but has anyone experienced being WWII solder in such an immersive manner before? Isn't it an innovation by all means?
-Taras Korol, Abducted Artists

Chris Crawford is absolutely right! The industry has been this way for the last 10 years at least!! The ONLY area of gaming that has seen substantial improvement, which isn't necessarily the same as innovation, is graphics and many "new" games are even missing the boat here as well. I suppose one could argue that music and voice have also improved, but again, improvement isn't necessarily innovation. The gameplay experience has pretty much seen no innovation for a long time now. An RTS game today plays almost exactly like RTS games of the early ‘90s, simulation and adventure games are virtually non-existent today, FPS games don't play any different, the RPG formula hasn't changed, and arcade/fighter games are as arcade as they've ever been – they all just have new/better graphics! Anyone who argues that innovation has been happening needs to understand that innovation is more than just doing one little thing a little different. Innovation is making the entire gameplay experience more satisfying for experienced gamers and more accessible and enjoyable to new gamers. AI, difficulty settings, damage modeling, inventory controls, story telling, even interfaces are all areas that aren't seeing much innovation, and there are undoubtedly others. So yeah, Chris Crawford hit the nail on the head.
-John Gwynn

I've been following Chris Crawford for a while now and have an adequate grasp on what he is trying to say here. You have to understand where he is coming from when he makes bold claims of an industry completely devoid of anything new or fresh. Of course, as this QofW will surely confirm, we have had what most game players and developers would consider innovation. Most responses will probably bring up Katamari and Nintendo, and rightfully so in your context, but Chris is talking about a different kind of innovation here, a different context, and I think miscommunication is occurring because of it. I'm not sure why he didn't explain it in his interview or the GDC rant but Mr. Crawford has written in the past about play spaces and how they are more varied than usually taken advantage of. Almost all 'games', as we know them, remain entirely in a spatial play space. Moving, throwing, and grabbing along x-, y-, and sometimes z-axes pretty much sums up the industry right now.
Chris Crawford has taken up the challenge of developing play within the emotional space, which is so foreign to the current concept of a 'game' that he has had to completely break away from any association with the game culture.
There are no spatial x-, y-, z-axes in a emotional play space, instead being replaced with axes such as love, fear, and trust, and instead of moving through just one system of coordinates at will, there is a separate system for each character that refers to every other character that is 'navigated' though a dialogue with said characters. This is only an emotional space, one of many other types of play spaces that are just waiting to be experimented with. Chris Crawford was one of the first and is still one of the only people to even attempt such a venture.
This is the type of innovation Crawford calls out for and although his methods of education may be incendiary, it cannot be denied that this is an exciting new front with possibilities no one has even thought of yet.
-Jacob Gahn

There is tons of innovations in the industry, that's not a problem. Sure it's going really slow but I think Crawford's argumentation is flawed. The game industry does have a lot in common with Hollywood; there is big budget production, hit or miss successes. There is tons of awards for both of them and the video game industry does not lack in encouragement for the independent developers. We even have our own legends, like Steven Spielberg or David Lynch in Hollywood. The game industry sure ain't as mature as the film industry but it's not as old either.
I see so much people involved in making the industry better, the IGDA, the GDC, the Montreal Game Summit and all the others shows I don't even know of. Crawford is really trying to pigeon-hole the whole industry into a small bucket but it smells too much like a marketing plan for his story-telling machinery.
With Nintendo's Wii and DS, with mobile games and Microsoft's Live Anywhere, there is a lot of new stuff even though most of the productions are remakes of older game. But that's just another point we got in common with Hollywood : they love remaking old films! And it works.
So comparison with Hollywood is not a strong argument in my mind. The game industry is exactly the same as any industry. And by the way, I don't see the story-telling industry evolving fast either. Anyway, in my mind, that's still just a niche in the game industry that is not more or less worthy than anything else. We all need to have an open mind and some respect for every innovation that can be tried. Interactive story-telling is not different and there's no reason to try to place it apart from the rest. By the way, I wonder why Crawford is still participating in gaming conferences and round tables if he thinks he doesn't have anything to do with the game industry anymore?
-Kevin Trepanier, Gameloft Montréal

He's right. Aside from the business and creative angles of this issue, part of the problem is the technology we have to work with. At the moment, creating any sort of meaningful content requires an enormous effort from a team of people. This is partly due to the software/content creation tools currently at our disposal. The nature of C++ requires a programmer to describe things in excruciating detail in order to get anything meaningful on screen. Building a character animation requires an artist to detail bones, movement etc., which takes too much time. The hardware we have to work on doesn't help either: nice graphics, but not much CPU muscle we could use for general programming issues. It seems as an industry we are cutting down trees with blunt saws.
We need to invest more in tools and techniques that reduce development time and relieve developers from mundane tasks (how many times do we have to write database code?) so we can get to work on the things that attracted us to this industry. As an industry we need take time to sharpen the saw.
-Amonn Phillip, Nokia

Think about other industries, for example the movie industry. Other than new special effects, there is not a lot of innovation that comes to the mainstream audience. Also the music industry changes a lot but doesn't really have a big net gain in innovation, every succeeding generation is a counter-culture of the previous. If you think about these industries, change may take years. But gaming is one of the few industries that can bring innovation to the mainstream. After all, what's the point of innovating if no one sees it? Think about all the innovative music sub-genres that few people listen to. Rehashed movie-based games aren't the ones going to the top-selling list, it's games like Nintendogs and Brain Age. That's what's so great about this industry, the innovative titles aren't some unknown game winning first prize at some unknown game festival, they are games that your mom would know.
-Mayuran Thurairatnam, Avocado Overboard

I don't agree with everything Chris Crawford says but it should be clear to most developers that there is a lot of truth to what he says about the lack of innovation in the game industry today. The biggest vacuum of innovation is in gameplay design. When you break down the average mainstream video game into it's core gameplay components (stripping away the "garnish" like story, cutscenes, dialogue trees, fancy graphics, 7.1 audio, AI etc...) videogames basically boil down to the same standard FPS shooter, strategy, RPG or platform game we've been playing for the last 20 years. The vast majority of games adhere to one of these molds and may claim innovation in the form of slight variations on a basic component of the genre blueprint. A lot of these games have even less gameplay depth than their predecessors. Not only do most games base themselves on one of these basic blueprints but on every project I've worked on, designers lend themselves to pilfering design concepts from other high-profile games. Leading to directives like: "We're going to make this game Halo for the PS2" or "This week we're going to implement the control scheme from Half-Life 2, the control scheme from Zelda didn't work out." even if these design concepts don't fit within the context of the game. What this amounts to is a lot of cookie-cutter games that all look very similar (how many games at E3 had giant crabs or a first person perspective of a big gun or an MMO world full of elves and dwarves?). Gameplay is definitely not evolving at the same rate technical innovations are evolving.

Chris Crawford takes up a very important point about the industry, that we're in fact producing sequels on a conveyor belt, and that every "new" title is a copy of a copy. But in the same time, he fails to see the small innovations that are being carefully embedded into each new game.
Yes, we're evolving slowly, where the main sales point for each new game is the "improved graphics", and not "improved gameplay". We need to take a step away from that and realize that the game industry needs risk takers, and not a statistically correct formula for producing good sales. During GDC '05 Will Wright spoke about player created content, and noted that player stories will always be more powerful than scripted stories we try to tell the players. I find this very important and the more we allow the gamers to make their own choices, and allow them a much broader interaction within the game itself, the more they'll feel immersed in the actual gameplay experience. Warren Spector summed up my point with excellence when he said in a recent interview: "The key for me is not to preplan every step of the player's experience. Putting players on rails, even if it does result in an emotionally compelling experience, seems like kind of a waste of time. To my mind, if we can offer players a choice, if we can let players make a decision, we should always do so. And then we have an obligation to show players the consequences of their choices and decisions. The game should unfold differently depending on how you play, how you solve problems."
Finally, I would like to point out that Chris Crawford isn't really creating a game here. He himself states that it's misleading to refer to it as a game, and that the kind of people who like games will most likely not enjoy his "interactive storytelling". Hence, his complaints about the game industry as large, seems like misdirected, because he hasn't taken part of the industry for over a decade, and will most likely not take another part in it ever again.

Both statements are true. Let us recall that there is an extremely large "game" industry that does not, as radical as this sounds, use computers, but in some cases ships very large numbers of copies. For example, the Dutch translation of The Settlers of Catan shipped a half-million copies, and this was after German and several other versions were available. These strategy games are not exploited for computer use, yet represent enormous amounts of innovation and evolution in the complete game industry, as witness evolution in the Spiele des Jahres winners over the past decade. There is a very large 'Eurogame' industry that produces multi-player family strategy games (more sophisticated than e.g. Risk; for computers we need a bit of hardware innovation so four or six can play cheaply with private screens in the same room) with straightforward rules, play times of 1-2 hours, non-controversial themes, and demanding strategies... that would be available as models for gameplay. Those models are not being exploited much in the computer game industry, though note Tom Vasel and I are just completing two books (Contemporary Perspectives in Game Design with study problems is about to appear from Third Millennium) on related design issues. Similarly, while there are many military combat computer games, the impact of the board wargame design field on computer game design texts is rather limited. Thus, there is a great deal of evolution and innovation, but Crawford is arguably right that his segment of the game industry (computers) is less innovative.
-George Phillies, WPI

Around 1995, when the industry realized the existence of the "casual" player, the format of games changed radically. The long, hard and obscure games of the ‘80s were replaced by much more accessible, shorter and easier titles. Ten years later, we have 2 billion television viewers, 1 billion Internet users but only 1-200 million gamers. More than ever, gaming as a media is threatened: it can no longer pretend to be the ultimate electronic entertainment.
For that reason, the format of the games is going to undergo another radical change to address the hundreds of millions of non-gamers. Games which require a commitment of tens of hours will no longer be the dominant form. Instead, new gamers will turn to games that allow shorter sessions, or that are coupled with a strong social experience.
In fact, this shift has already started. The proof? The Internet policy of the console manufacturers enabling developers to publish smaller games easily, web-based game portals that reach millions with simple concepts, MMOSG (social games) which address new audiences, mobile gaming, the many new forms of multiplayer gaming. All of this contributes to a complete renewal of the game media. There is a strong, tangible effort to create a new gaming paradigm.
-Jerome Cukier,

Konami's Bemani series evolved music games past Simon. Dance Dance Revolution takes a simplified approach to dance steps and makes it into an aerobic exercise that's actually fun. Beatmania and Beatmania IIDX show how a sequence mini-keyboard can be fun and super-challenging. As for the evolution of gaming? Sequels are made when they sell well, and stop when they sell poorly. Selling well means it's pleasing the target audience. All that means is that the industry is too slow evolving for Mr. Crawford and his peers. I actually think that games are getting a bit derivative. However, Chris Crawford is being overly pessimistic. It's almost like breaking the sound barrier. If you believe it can't be done, it won't be done.
- Robert Gauss, US Army Developmental Test Command

He is right in regards to most big budget games. Innovation tends to be the exception that is tacked on to a proven formula. I'd say the funds given over to blue sky research (and the expectation that they must return something) form the main limitations to innovation. The idea that Crawford brought forward, of Hollywood 's wide spreading of funds to generally promote innovation, is a model that would greatly benefit the industry. With more money now flowing in and more rehashing of old ideas being done, it seems this will be a natural progression.

I would disagree on his use of Hollywood as an example of innovation in story telling. One could parallel distinct similarities between Hollywood studios and game studios throwing money at the next sequel/sure thing and passing on the risky/different. More often than not, it takes someone out of the mainstream to attempt what hasn't been done. The majority of what's holding back the industry is how the gamer interacts with the game. Wii is a small step in the right direction but more has to be put into how a gamer interacts. Immersion should be the next frontier to conquer. Some of what Mr. Crawford said is right and I feel the industry is close to being able to make significant changes with innovations that will allow new levels of interaction with games as well as increases the AI. Until then it's still a joystick/keyboard and a TV/monitor.
-Matthew Barry


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