Name: Chris Crawford
Title: Artist / Designer
[Again, originally written in 1997 - since then, Crawford has published a new book on "Understanding Interactivity",
a portion of which is available online, and is continuing to work on the very forward-thinking Erasmatron on his excellent website. I hope desperately the Erasmatron
won't be overlooked, but is in some danger of being so. Ladies and gentlemen, he's still way ahead.]
Yep, we've managed to get an interview with one of the most
interesting characters involved in interactive entertainment. He started
the Computer Games Developer Conference, he worked at Atari during much of their glory
years, he designed the _seminal_ strategy game "Balance Of Power", and he's
written some of the only decent books on computer game design.
For the last few years he's been working on Erasmatron, a work that seeks to get
non-technical creative types the ability to make their own interactive worlds. Ladies and
gentlemen, he is Chris Crawford, and if his opinions don't make you have a
long hard think about the state of the games industry, then nothing will.
h0l:How do you like your role as one of the elder statesmen of computer
game design? :)
CC:It really doesn't mean anything. That's a status thing, something you
do to impress people, but in the larger scheme of things, all the status in the
world doesn't accomplish anything worthwhile. The work I do is what
matters; whether people kowtow to me is meaningless.
h0l: It's clear that your work on Erasmatron is getting closer towards
real virtual worlds with (if anything) the emulation of emotion being key..
But there's still a place for visceral, violent shoot-em-ups and 2D,
completely conceptual puzzle games, right?
CC: Sure there's a place for those things, and there always will be.
Indeed, right now, that place is a lot more lucrative then interactive
storytelling. Of course, when I started working on computer games, they
weren't very lucrative either.
h0l: So should games be getting more real or less real?
CC: De gustibus non est disputandem.
Do you worry that Erasmatron won't get the attention it deserves
because of the attitude the rest of the industry gives off, that game construction
is for tech-heads only?
Of course the Erasmatron is going to have an uphill battle getting
people's attention. Indeed, right now its worst problem is getting people to
understand what it is. People look at it, scratch their heads, and say, oh,
it's an adventure game generator, right? When I say no, they say, well, is
it a role-playing game? I say no, and they try a few other possibilities
before they get frustrated and ask, what kind of game is it, then? To which
I reply, it's not a game, it's interactive storytelling. But they don't
know what that is, so they just shrug their shoulders and walk off. There's
nothing wrong with this; when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone,
he thought that it would be used to pipe live opera into people's homes.
The concept of a "telephone conversation" just didn't click for him,
because it was so utterly novel. Most people insist on viewing everything
through the lens of past experience, so when you do something completely
new, they just don't get it.
Why did you want to write books about computer game design?
It seems as if almost nobody else has.
Your question made me realize something fundamental about the
difference between myself and most other computer games people. I'm a communicator; I
thrive on getting through to people one way or the other. I enjoy public
speaking, I enjoy writing, and I enjoy using the computer to express ideas.
Computer games people, though, are coming from a completely different
angle. Their passion is for the technology; they want to make it jump
through hoops in fascinating new ways. So they create games that show off
great new hoop-jumping tricks, but they don't have anything to say in their
games. My work doesn't jump through any hoops -- it's about what I have to
h0l: Name your five favourite games of all time.
I assume you mean to play, not to respect the design. They are:
"M.U.L.E", "Dandy", "Doom", "Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe", and
h0l: Erasmus appears to be a big influence on yourself, judging
by the profile of him on your webpage
Do you aim for the same mix between the comic and the profound'
when making games? Or do you just like him because he wore cool hats?
I'm still trying to understand my fascination with Erasmus. He was a
loner -- that strikes a chord with me. He rejected all forms of power for simple
truth -- I like that, too. He was really hard to understand at times --
that makes for a good challenge. And he was further ahead of his times than
any man in all of human history. I think I have a lot to learn from this
guy. I'm writing a new book -- on my website -- about him, mostly as a
personal means of figuring it out (By the way, that's why I wrote The Art
of Computer Game Design -- to figure out game design by trying to write it
down). You can follow this new book as I put the pieces together on the
h0l: Is the games industry forging ahead
into new worlds or just wandering around inside a little cage, chasing its tail?
Definitely the latter. Nobody changes until they're in pain. Do you see
any pain in this industry?
h0l: What makes you smile?
Gee, what a great opportunity to refer back to the previous answer...
naahh... too sick...
Real answer: a new realization, a better integration of previously
disconnected parts of my intellectual universe. There's no finer, warmer,
fuzzier feeling than that moment of insight when an intellectual butterfly
in my mental Beijing triggers a cognitive thunderstorm in my mental Oregon.
h0l: Can you shed any light on the problems of constantly slipping release
dates on games? Is it because games are unique in their composition, of just because
game developers are inefficient?
It's not because of inefficiency, it's due to the difficulty of
bringing discipline to such an intensely personal task as code-writing. The way to
meet schedules is to depersonalize the design and coding process. Games are
getting there -- but you can see the result in the lack of personality in
What games magazines do you read?
None. George Patton once said that the point in war is not to die for
your country, but to make the other poor bastard die for his country. I don't
want to read about what everybody else is doing, I want to do work of such
quality that they'll all have to read about what I'm doing.
Why are you no longer so greatly (at all?) involved with CGDC? Does
this upset you?
They kicked me out. It certainly upset me at the time -- these people
were my close friends, and they kicked me out of my own creation, confiscated my
stock, and sold it to Miller-Freeman for $3 million. I really must pick my
friends more carefully.
Do you think the Japanese are better at games than the Americans or
I don't think so. They have several advantages: their programmers
aren't the prima-donnas that American programmers can be, and their culture has
greater respect for games than ours. However, the Americans have their own
advantages, particularly in personal creativity and business formation, and
the Europeans have their advantages, too.
Are there any games you're looking forward to this year?
In five years you expect to be doing.. what?
Working on version 3 of the Erasmatron storytelling technology. The
field of interactive storytelling is intrinsically far larger than computer
games, yet right now there is only a handful of people working in the
field. In five years we should have a much larger presence, and I expect to
play a role in it. Hey! Maybe I can publish a journal on interactive
storytelling, then found a conference, then get some friends together to
help me with it...
Finally, give all those aspiring game designers out there some hints
about how to get ahead of the pack?
Concentrate on people and ideas, not technology. If all you want to do
is make your computer perform cute tricks, then you'd better resign yourself
to a future as a programmer-drudge. Concentrate on the big ideas and what
makes people tick, then use the computer as a means to an end rather than
the end in itself. Read!!! Read lotsa things, everything. If all you read
is technical manuals and science fiction, you're doomed. Read psychology,
economics, biology, genetics, history, law, physics, philosophy. You don't
realize the POWER of all the ideas out there! But don't read Erasmus -- too
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