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An Interview With Chris Crawford
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An Interview With Chris Crawford

June 5, 2003 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

Other prominent people, like Joseph Lieberman, would probably disagree that it's not a mass medium already. They see it as a mass medium with millions of users in the United States alone. How do you reconcile that?

A mass medium reaches a broad demographic: people in their 60s, working mothers, stock analysts, janitors, and so on. Games appeal to NONE of these people; they appeal to a single demographic: young males. They are a big medium, but not a mass medium.

What is the current state of the Erasmatron, and where are you considering going with it?

The storytelling engine is now in its third generation, and the Erasmatron development system is in its second generation. I have been preparing to begin work on the next generations of these two technologies, but first I must complete a demo based on the new Balance of Power game. The new storytelling engine will not introduce any substantial improvements- mostly small stuff to make it cleaner. The development system, however, will undergo some significant changes, all directed towards making it easier to use. One major innovation may become the basis for a new patent.

Balance of Power

Aspects of the Erasmatron project such as the '21 personality traits' almost seem prototypical of Will Wright's The Sims , in making virtual people with believable personalities. What do you think of the work Maxis have done there?

Will has been very honest about what The Sims is and what it isn't, but lots of people seem to attribute far more to The Sims than is really there. It is a simulation of daily life. It is not an interactive storytelling product- and I don't think Will intended it to be that. The people in The Sims don't have emotions or interpersonal relationships. There's no element of drama built into the design, no storytelling. My work goes in a completely different direction: I'm focusing on interactive storytelling, on matters of the heart rather than the bladder.

Some people in the games industry may not be aware of the content of your newest book, The Art Of Interactive Design, and how it differs from The Art Of Computer Game Design in subject and goals. Can you explain briefly?

[The Art Of Interactive Design] is much broader in scope than my first book, because it addresses interactivity in its entirety. The book applies to all forms of software design, not just game design (although there is a chapter on game design). And the book also addresses larger social and artistic issues arising from interactivity.

By the way, I just finished work on a new book on game design. it was originally intended to be The Art of Computer Game Design, Second Edition, but the publisher decided on the title Chris Crawford on Game Design. It's a much bigger book, with lots of detail, including a separate chapter for each game I have designed, explaining the design problems and my successes and mistakes.

How much are game developers governed by decisions coming out the publishers' marketing departments, in your view? And if it's an issue, how can this cycle be broken?

Far too much, although selection effects tend to ensure that the designers have already internalized the marketing department thinking. Thus, it doesn't need to come from the marketing department-the designer has already embraced the confined thinking.

How to break it? Nobody changes while they're fat and happy. What the games industry needs is a collapse in sales, something that scares the bejabbers out of everybody and forces people to ditch their current rules of thumb. That's unlikely, so I think that the second-best approach is the creation of an alternative industry selling games that aren't called games, products that appeal to the wider market that the games industry eschews.

Identify some cardinal sins that you think the games industry has been guilty of in terms of usability/understanding. What makes games more difficult to use or understand than they should be?

Most games have excellent user interfaces; indeed, I think that games have led the way on user interface design and quite a few researchers look to games to discover new ideas. The problems come with the interactivity design, not the user interface design. I think that a number of mistakes are made.

First, game designers try to achieve richness through a small verb set augmented with a large object set. For example, almost all games rely on spatial navigation with a small set of verbs for moving through a space. They then populate the game's space with all sorts of interesting, complex elements that provide the game with richness. This is fine-it works well. But game designers are stuck in this approach-they just can't see beyond spatial navigation. Why does every game on the market have to have a map? What's so all-encompassing about spatial reasoning? We have plenty of other mental modules packed into that brain of ours, but game designers seem to be unaware of anything other than spatial reasoning.

Why not have a big rich verb set with a small object set? Why not give players hundreds or thousands of verbs, instead of a half-dozen navigational verbs and hundreds or thousands of spatial variations? I've built a system for doing precisely this with the Erasmatron-why can't other game designers try other variations on this strategy?

Another problem is that game designers rely on player's past experience to provide increasing richness. First we had Castle Wolfenstein. Then we had Doom, which was Castle Wolfenstein with a few additional twists. Then we had Doom II, Quake, Unreal, Half-Life, and three zillion other variations, each of which added its own little twist to the basic design. Evolutionary development is a good thing, but there should also be a few grand leaps.

A particular target of annoyance that you called attention to in Understanding Interactivity is the lack of ease of game installation and initial guides/tutorials. What could the industry be doing to make this better?

Let go of this obsession with graphic performance that pushes the software into the Never-never land of unreliability. KISS.

In a particularly charged section in your book, you compare the pointless killing of countless monsters in videogames to the atrocities of the Nazi Holocaust. What do you think game-makers should be focusing on instead?

Not instead-in addition to. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with violence. What's wrong is the obsession with violence. If we could balance our violent games with a broad range of other games-cowboys and Indians games, comedy games, tragedy games, highbrow games, lowbrow games, Shakespeare games, Gilligan's Island games, games about a prostitute with a heart of gold, games about a boy and his dog-then the violence wouldn't be a problem. But does anybody know how to build such games? Of course not -- nobody's tried because it's too easy to make money with violent games.

There's getting to be a lot more formal academic study of games, with academic projects such as Serious Games and attempts by Doug Church, Noah Falstein and others to lay out specific elements of game design in The 400 Project and others. How formal can you get before over-pontification sets in? And how far into documenting game design have we, as an industry, got?

Well, there's already a great deal of nonsense floating around. Some of the people approaching games from the field of semiotics leave me utterly baffled, and there are a bunch of new media people who seem intent on defining games in terms that have nothing to do with games. Some of them flatly deny the importance of interactivity. So we've already got plenty of academic bull flooding the airwaves. Fortunately, we also have plenty of interesting and useful academic work being done. The problem is not with academics; it's with the refusal of some academics to take games on their own terms, and their insistence on viewing games through old microscopes.

Is breadth of education still the key criterion in making a successful game designer, or are there other factors that have become important?

I doubt that education is important to financial success in any field; if you're determined enough, ruthless enough, and work hard enough, you can be financially successful in any field. Being good at it, however, requires talent, vision, and expertise-and a broad education is crucial to developing these traits in a game designer.

What do you think of private game development schools, which are increasingly educating tomorrow's game developers? Is this a good way to make game professionals, from what you've seen of the curriculum?

I have mixed feelings about these schools. They do a great job of cranking out the foot soldiers for the games industry, which is their fundamental goal, but they're not good at teaching game design per se. Because they are commercial operations, they have to satisfy the current requirements of the games industry, which are constantly in flux. Perhaps the best way to articulate my unease is to note that these schools train students; they don't educate them.

Do you think the Internet has affected the games industry for the worse or the better?

Definitely for the better, primarily because it has permitted much more intense discussion of game design. When I founded the Computer Game Developers' Conference, it was important because it was the ONLY place where game designers could get together to talk shop. Now there are plenty of excellent venues for such discussions on the Internet.

The other benefit of the net is it's loosening of the iron grip of the distribution channels. It is possible for a small operation to put its work on the Web and get some attention, and maybe even a little money. It's hard, but it can be done.

Are you ever tempted to come back and make a large-development-team project for the PC or new generation of consoles? If so, what type of game might it be?

I am currently engaged in discussions aimed at commercializing the Erasmatron technology. This would put interactive storytelling products on the market.

Who do you currently admire in the game industry and why?

Will Wright. I love to rag on the shortcomings of The Sims, but the fact remains that it is a revolutionary product, and I love revolutions. Gordon Walton, now at Sony, because he's an executive who actually understands games.

Finally, what product in the world of interactivity have you seen recently that makes you happy?

Optical mice; they're so much nicer than the old mechanical type. And this brings up a cute story. I was recently in the airport in Frankfurt, Germany with a few hours to kill. I found a kiosk put up by Samsung, I think, that offered free Internet access to all comers. There were about eight PCs set up. I thought it might be nice to check my email, but the trackball on the machine I was using was really filthy and I had great difficulty getting the thing to work. After much frustration, I decided to be a good citizen and clean out their trackball for them. After all, I've been cleaning gunk out of mice for 19 years now, and I know something about how to do this job. I removed the retaining ring and popped the trackball out. Sure enough, both rollers were covered with gunk and hair. Working carefully, I got them cleaned out pretty well. Then I reassembled everything and tried it out. the trackball was dead-nothing was happening. I disassembled it, re-checked my work, and tried again. Still dead. I spent the next ten minutes trying to revive the dead trackball, but I just couldn't figure it out. There were people standing in line, waiting to use the machine, watching me mess with the trackball. I fiddled around until the line finally disappeared, then slunk off as fast as I could, hoping that nobody would notice. If you're ever in the airport in Frankfurt and you try to use the Internet kiosk, and the trackball doesn't work-would you mind fixing it for me?



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