Chris Crawford has assumed an enigmatic, near-legendary profile in the game industry. He's been developing games for almost 30 years, including a stint at Atari during that company's glory days of the early '80s. He also wrote what is probably the first book on making games, The Art Of Computer Game Design, back in 1982. In addition to all this, he created the classic strategy game Balance Of Power, among many others, and he co-founded the Computer Game Developers Conference (the forerunner to today's Game Developers Conference). That's a formidable profile, to be sure.
However, his work over the past few years has put him on the fringes of the game industry. His often savage criticism of what games have become, plus his continued experimental work on interactive storytelling with the Erasmatron, have established him as a somewhat controversial game designer.
Crawford recently wrote a thought-provoking book, The Art Of Interactive Design (No Starch Press, 2002), and also plans a return to game development with a new version of Balance Of Power. In the current geopolitical scenario, this game could be more relevant than ever.
Q: What was the first computer game that you ever wrote?
A: That would be TANKTICS on an IBM 1130, back in 1976.
Selling the source code to your early Atari title Eastern Front, while the game was still being sold, seems like a great, but daring idea. What made you want to do that, and how did it work out?
I consider it an obvious and perfectly reasonable thing to do. I wanted to teach people how to build good games. Sure, there would be some rip-offs going on, but I didn't think that they'd hurt my sales significantly. Besides, everybody wins when there are more games produced. Sad to say, I am aware of only two products that emerged based on the source code. It seems that people had difficulty understanding it even when they had the source code.
Are many of your early co-workers at Atari still in the games industry, and if so, do they like being there?
No, very few still work in games. You'll have to ask them how they feel about it.
A relatively little-known early project of yours is the nuclear power plant simulator Scram. What did you do in the game, and is it as Homer Simpson-esque as it sounds?
Actually, I wanted to add some illumination to the nuclear power safety debate. The product as a whole takes a pretty serious view of nuclear power plant operations; it's really more edutainment than game. Yes, we had a system for generating accidents and you could even melt down the reactor, but that was the game, not the simulation, and we made it clear in the documentation that this was a fantasy scenario. I feel pretty good about the accuracy of the overall simulation.
Who owns the rights to your classic Cold War strategy game Balance Of Power, and are there any possiblities of seeing an updated or repackaged version in stores?
I own all the rights. People have been suggesting that I build a new version of the game for years, but I had always deferred doing so because I felt that I didn't have a clear view of the new world order after the collapse of the Soviet Union. About a year ago, however, I decided that I was ready to begin work on a completely new approach to the game, based on my Erasmatron interactive storytelling technology. Unfortunately, I have been buried in other projects-two books, teaching a course on interactivity, and several guest lectures-and so have made little progress. However, I have finally cleared away most of those tasks and now have some time to pursue this project more actively.
Which opposing powers would Balance Of Power feature if you were to remake it today?
The game posits the USA as the only superpower. The USA has no direct enemy, just lots of headaches. The task is to sort out many of the problems that keep the world in upheaval: Iraq, Palestine, China, North Korea, and so forth.
Trust And Betrayal [a late-'80s Crawford game, where you rose to power on an an alien planet by manipulating the trust of influential people] is another title of yours that seems to have been undervalued and somewhat buried over the years. Why do you think it didn't catch on with buyers?
Too weird; not at all like a traditional game. As one gamer put it, "All you do is run around TALKING to people!" Sheesh, you couldn't blow anybody's head off-what a boring game! The game was about interpersonal relationships, which is not at all what gamers care about.
What's the best advice you can give to a student graduating today (either from a game or non-game-related degree) who wants a job in the industry?
"Tear yourself out of your naïve notions about how much fun it will be. It's long hours, underpaid, working on a tiny part of the whole. You'll probably leave the industry within five or ten years."
During your "Dragon Speech" that heralded your retirement from strategy games and the start of your work on the Erasmatron, you talk about the difference between selling to game illiterates and game aficianados. It's a few years later - do you think that chasm is still there, and how do you think the games industry is trying to deal with it?
The chasm has grown greater. There are NO game illiterates now-either you're a gamer or you're a civilian. The games industry has abandoned all pretense of becoming a mass medium and is satisfied with being just a hobby. A very lucrative hobby, to be sure, but still a hobby, not a mass medium.