30 - The Dragon Speech, and Chris Crawford's improbable dream
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It was "the greatest speech he ever gave in his life", and it marked a turning point in his pursuit of his dream, but it had the note of a eulogy. This is the story of how — and why — the legendary designer Chris Crawford left the games industry in an opening-day lecture at the 1993 Game Developers Conference, an event that he had founded just six years prior.
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Chris is still at it, still chasing his dragon, now with a more stripped-back storyworld and storyworld engine. You can read about these — and perhaps have a go at making your own interactive storyworld — at his website, which is full of essays, reflections, development diaries, and educational materials from the past 30+ years of his life.
Thank you to my patreon supporters for making this episode possible — especially my producer-level backers Scott Grant, Carey Clanton, Wade Tregaskis, Simon Moss, Seth Robinson, Vivek Mohan, and Rob Eberhardt.
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Thank you also to my sponsor, Richard Bannister, for his support. You can check out his modern reimaginings of classic arcade games at retrogamesformac.com.
[Most episode transcripts/scripts are reserved for my Patreon supporters (at least for the time being), but I like to give you at least a taster here — or in this case, the first half of the episode.]
Welcome to the Life and Times of Video Games, a documentary audio series about video games and the video game industry, as they were in the past and how they've come to be the way they are today. I'm Richard Moss, and this is episode 30, The Dragon Speech, and Chris Crawford's improbable dream.
We'll get going in just a moment.
*pause for pre-roll ad slot*
Chris Crawford didn't always have a dream. He wasn't always tormented by a menacing dragon that he could not defeat.
it wasn't so very long ago, when I knew the dragon. It was in nineteen seventy five when I first encountered the concept of a computer game. That was a new concept to me. For me, the computer had always been a tool for scientific calculation.
Now, the notion of using it to play…well, that was a fascinating and utterly unconventional concept to me. And so I decided to begin to acquaint myself with this technology. I had no dream as yet. For me, the dragon still slept…
He was a teacher at the time, parlaying his knowledge of physics to students at a small community college in Nebraska, and he'd just met a man who was attempting to program a computerised version of a boardgame — a strategy wargame called Blitzkrieg.
Intrigued, he started to ponder the problem. And before long he made his own computer game, a turn-based tactical wargame he called Wargy 1. You played against a computer-controlled opponent with help from a physical board and some pieces from an Avalon Hill boardgame. You'd make your moves on the board, then input them into the computer, and in return it would print out coordinates for its own moves.
That game would eventually become a commercial program called Tanktics, which he initially self-published for Commodore-PET computers in 1978 — for a grand total of 150 sales, which was impressive at the time. And in 1981 he would have the game re-published on multiple systems by Avalon Hill.
But by then Chris was firmly entrenched in the video game business. He'd left his teaching job to join Atari in 1979, eager to become a part of this exciting video game revolution. At Atari he briefly learnt the basics of programming for the Video Computer System, or the Atari 2600, as we know it today, before he shifted over to the group that really excited him — the group focused on developing games for the Atari 800 home computer, which at the time had the finest graphics and sound capabilities of any home computers on the market.
The 800 was so far ahead of everything else. It was the machine to learn on, and I knew nothing about graphics and sound. So I hurled myself into the machine, absorbing everything I could, learning all about graphics and sound. Some of you may find it ironic to learn that for a time there I was known as 'the graphics wizard of Atari'. And indeed, there was a period of time there where my game, Eastern Front, was the most graphically advanced product in the marketplace. Because that was a phase I needed to go through. I needed to understand that.
I needed to feel that I had a good grip on it.
And so all through this period, from 1975 to 1981, for six years, I was apprenticing myself to this technology. I was turning it over and over in my hands. I was getting the feel of it in my fingertips. And for six years I had no dream at all. All I did was learn. And by 1981 I felt that I understood the technology. I felt that I knew what this medium was about, but I had no dream I could — I couldn't see the dragon, but by 1981 I could hear him thrashing about in the forest. I knew he was out there somewhere. I knew he was big, whatever he was, and I wanted to find it. And then in one of those fortuitous circumstances that is so perfectly timed that we can only ascribe its event, its occurrence, to the the workings of fate, then Alan Kay came into my life.
And here, in 1981 — this is where our story starts. That name, Alan Kay, may sound familiar to you; he's one of the fathers of the personal computer, and of a concept called the Dynabook, which eventually manifested in the form of the iPad. Alan Kay did a PhD in computer science in the late 1960s, where he was mentored by the fathers of computer graphics, Ivan Sutherland and David Evans, and then joined Xerox PARC, the research and development company that created the Xerox Alto computer — which would inspire Apple to create the Macintosh. Alan Kay and his colleagues at Xerox also invented the concept of object-oriented programming, as well as graphical user interfaces and lots of other forward-thinking things that took decades to turn into mainstream technologies.
In 1981, Alan Kay became Atari's chief scientist. He was hired to form a corporate research group that would push the boundaries of what's possible with video games. And Chris was asked to join that group, to apprentice himself to this great master of technology — whose mind races decades ahead, who could see and describe revolutions coming 20, 30, 50 years before they actually hit us.
Alan Kay had a massive influence on Chris, and he taught Chris myriad lessons. But Chris recalls that one lesson stood out above all else.
Chris Crawford: I'd say the most important one was to dream big, or aim high. One of his most useful adages was if you don't fail at least 90 percent of the time, you're not aiming high enough.
Another way of viewing dreaming is to think in terms of alternate realities. There is, of course, reality, the real reality. But when we fantasise, we create an imaginary, a desired universe. But we don't care about whether the universe works, whether it's possible. Only when we dream do we create a universe that is actually possible.
When Alan Kay taught Chris to dream, and dream big, Chris did exactly that. He dreamed of what games might become, of what games could be. At first his dream was imprecise, unclear, but as he thought upon it more, and as he wrote his first book, The Art of Computer Game Design, slowly it solidified in his mind.
And by 1983, I had my dream. I could see the dragon clearly in my mind's eye.
Let me tell you about my dream.
I dreamed of the day when computer games would be a viable medium of artistic expression, an art form. I dreamed of computer games encompassing the broad range of human experience and emotion, computer games about tragedy or self-sacrifice, games about duty and honour, patriotism, of satirical games about politics or games about human folly. Games about man's relationship to God, or to nature. Games about the passionate love between a boy and a girl, or the serene and mature love between [a] husband and wife of decades. Games about family relationships or death, mortality, a boy becoming a man or a man realising he is no longer young. Games about a man facing truth at high noon on a dusty main street, or boy and his dog, or a prostitute with a heart of gold.
All of these things and more were part of this dream, but by themselves they amounted to nothing because all of these things have already been done by other art forms. There's no advantage, no purchase, no — nothing superior about this dream. It's just an old rehash. All we are doing with the computer — if, if, if all we do is just reinvent the wheel with poor-grade materials, well, we don't have a dream worth pursuing.
The critical piece of Chris's dream, the part to made it so important to him, that elevated it above the idea of games as an imitation of other art forms, to become a true art form all their own — that was interactivity. Games are interactive. They tap into a need to learn through play that's hardwired into our very being. Chris wanted all those things he dreamed of to be presented in a deeply interactive way, in a way that was unique only to video games.
So he began to work on turning his dream to reality.
This work involved an attempt to lead by example — to make games about social interaction, games about geopolitics (and it's worth noting that his one game there, the so-called "un-war" game Balance of Power, was a very big seller), games about things that matter — but also it involved trying to facilitate high-level discussion about games as an emerging art form.
He did this by contributing the occasional essay or letter to Computer Gaming World, a magazine that positioned itself as an unofficial journal of computer games. And he did it by creating his own publication, the Journal of Computer Game Design, a publication he himself edited for its 150 subscribers, with essays from his peers about the theory and practice of designing games. And, most importantly, he did it by founding the still-running Computer Game Developers Conference — CGDC for short, or GDC, as it's known today.
Gordon Walton: He literally said, hey, look, why don't we — we're not going to get anywhere unless we have a community. Why don't we do a community? Even though he'd been fine being a kind of a mountain man, a loner, just, you know, that's more who he is. But he said, no, no, we need to make changes. We need to change how people think about this medium. And the only way to make those changes is to get together.
This is Gordon Walton, an industry veteran who today is known for his work on MMOs but back then ran a company called Digital Illusions. They specialised in porting games from one platform to another. He was one of 26 people in the room at that first CGDC, which took place in Chris's living room in 1987.
Gordon Walton: Chris is a guy who's always looking over the horizon and he's not trying to, you know, he's a world changer, right? He wants to change the world and change the way people think about things. And so that's always been his driver.
But CGDC wasn't changing much in the way people think about things. It was amazing for fostering a sense of community in the games industry, and it did help the industry advance — by enabling conversations between people working on different genres and platforms and in different parts of the world, but as the conference grew bigger and more successful, it also drifted further and further away from Chris's primary goal.
Chris Crawford: Well. Its evolution was natural, and I expected this direction of evolution. I wasn't surprised by it at all. But I was hoping to get in some consideration for art in that. And I failed. I knew that as the industry was growing, it would become more commercial, more focussed on quick profits.
Chris Crawford: But I thought that some of the wiser heads in the industry would be looking further down the road. And I was wrong. I mean, people were thinking exclusively in terms of, you know, next quarter.
Year after year, his discontent grew. He saw marketing efforts focus on the tried and true, preaching to the converted and settling on a narrow range of established game genres — rather than attempting to expand the gaming audience with new genres. Meanwhile, the idea that games must be "fun" — not just compelling or entertaining or engaging, but specifically "fun" — that idea spread like a virus — a virus that would not have an antidote until the "serious games" movement emerged at the turn of the century.
And at the same time, in an amplifying effect, game development budgets climbed ever higher — distorting the economics so that publishers became averse to taking risks on new or different concepts.
It was the beginning of what we now call triple-A games publishing, where the most successful games are often — though certainly not always — the best-presented, highest-funded, and most-widely-marketed ones, but often also the least innovative, getting by on beautiful graphics and polished sound and whatever themes and mechanics are in trend at the time.
And Chris hated it. He saw such games as the antithesis of what games should be. Expensive and expansive but creatively shallow, the beginnings of an obsession with mimicking Hollywood, rather than forging a new path unique to games.
The biggest problem we face here is the lack of people in our games. Have you ever noticed computer games? All of our games are about things, not people. We shoot things, we chase things, things shoot us, things chase us.
We manipulate things, manoeuvre things, allocate things, manage things. But it's always things, things, things. There are never any people in any of our games. Now, sure, I've seen the pitiful excuses for characters in our games. They are Potemkin villages that — the characters in our games are like a cardboard box with a picture of a face pasted onto the front, but nothing inside. There's no heart and soul. And all I have are a couple of buttons on front. Push one button and he says, I am your friend now.
And you push the other button and he says, I am your enemy now.
(For more, including the tale of how Chris concluded his speech, why he felt compelled to give it, and how he reflects on his quixotic quest now, you'll have to either just listen to the episode or sign up as a supporter on Patreon — everyone who pledges $3 or more a month gets access to full episode transcripts [amongst other things].)