chris crawford

chris crawford

I'm Chris Crawford. I have been working with games -- I think I sold my first published game in 1978 on December 30th. That was very early in the days, and then I went to Atari. I worked there for some years until it collapsed. I went onto the Macintosh, did some games for that as a freelancer. And then I founded the Game Developer's Conference and the Journal of Computer Game Design and wrote some books about game design. For the last 20 years I've been working on interactive storytelling. 

In our emails you said you felt uniquely qualified to talk about why people stop playing games. Don't feel like you need to give a concise answer to this, but why does this happen? 

Well, they get bored.

That was pretty concise. 

Yeah. The basic problem is that a game must challenge in some cognitive dimension. That is, it offers a cognitive challenge. The question is what exactly does it challenge? Games challenge four standard cognitive talents, which are: First, spatial reasoning, the ability to figure out where you are and how to move around in some sort of environment, typically a maze; second, puzzle-solving; third, resource management, you've only got so many bullets and rockets and so forth; and lastly hand-eye coordination. Those are the four primary challenges in games, and the problem is those are I suppose I could call them "early learning challenges." That is, they are of great interest to a subclass of the population, primarily young males.

There are different weights on these, but spatial navigation is very important to males. Not so important to females. Hand-eye coordination, males are more interested in it. Puzzle-solving is a universal challenge. Resource-management is also something of a universal challenge. But the problem is people outgrow these. That is, when you're a child, hand-eye coordination is very important. I mean, much of childhood is devoted to running around, jumping, climbing, developing your motor skills. And so that's very important when you're young and becomes less important as you age. 

And so as people age, they lose interest in that aspect of gameplay. Spatial navigation, people don't age away from that as rapidly. The real problem with games is that the type of things that people grow more interested in as they age are not reflected in games. The most important of these goes under the general term "social intelligence." It has to do with the way people think about each other. The ability to get inside another person's mind and figure out what he's thinking or feeling. That is very much a talent valued by females, and so that's why -- we talk about chick flicks, and [in] chick flicks, they don't go around blowing people's fucking heads off. All they do it sit around and talk. Guys find them very boring, but chick flicks are about social interaction and how people think and feel. Guy flicks are about guns and shooting and violence, and so there's some fundamental differences here. 

Games tend to have all the stuff that the guys like, and that of course is why games are primarily a male thing. However, as males mature, they tend to develop greater interests in social intelligence and less and less interest in spatial navigation and so forth. And so they grow bored with games. The obvious conclusion from this is that we need to have games that challenge social intelligence and that's what I've been working on for the last 20 years. Vastly more difficult problem. 

The emphasis you just put on the word "talk" in chick flicks is usually the way I hear people talk about games, only they say that all you do in games is have fun. Do you think people will criticize the types of games you want to make in that same regard, or is it too early for you to even worry about that because they're so challenging to engineer in the first place?

It's intrinsically challenging to engineer. Human behavior is immensely more complicated than bullet trajectories and explosion radii. Immensely more complicated. And that's why it has been so difficult.

Do you think the audience is there? 

Oh yeah. If we build it, they will trample us to death to get at it. Look at entertainment forms in other media. How many chick flicks there are, or indeed, how many movies are fundamentally not about violence but about feelings. The same thing with literature. Go into a bookstore, go into the fiction line, and you'll see a variety of genres, and very few of them have stories along the lines of, "And then he ran into a room and killed all the monsters in it. Then he moved into another room and shot all the monsters in that room!" There are very few novels that work that way. Most of the novels are about people's feelings, and so that's what we need to be focusing on. 

Do you think games tell stories? This is something I've been thinking about a lot in the last year, and ultimately where I fall is: no. I think they just thinly explore a premise. 

In a technical sense, games do tell stories. "Once upon a time there was a guy with a gun, and he went into a room and he shot some monsters, and then he went into another room and shot some other monsters." That's a story. 

Sure, technically. 

But it's a really boring story. And that's the problem. A lot of games people have finally caught onto the importance of stories. [Laughs.] I remember 20 years ago when I started on this and was talking about stories, the general reaction I got was, "Stories‽ What do you mean‽" In fact, there was a classic conflict in the design of the game called Doom, which was the first big hit first-person game. And there was a battle in the design team between the people who wanted story and the people who wanted action, and in the end it was the action guys who won and the story guys left the company and Doom was a huge hit, so 20 years ago the notion of storytelling was rejected as "wimpy." Nowadays they caught onto the importance of it but they still have no idea how to do it. 

What they're doing right now is really a fake. [Laughs.] There's a little toy that has its own little name, in which you take a disc, and on one side of it you draw a picture of a bird, and on the other side, you draw a picture of a cage. And then you attach rubber bands or strings to each opposite edges of it, and then you can pull them to stretch it out and make it spin. And so this device, the disc, it spins, and it appears that the bird is inside the cage. Well, it's actually a bird on one side and a cage on the other. Those are two completely separate things. But game designers are basically attempting to do the same thing. They put a story on one side of the game and a game on the other side, and then they flip back and forth between them, and they say, "See? It's a story in a game." Well, no. It's a story and a game. Not in a game. There's no real unity between them. They think this is the best they can do, and the problem is that they're not thinking in fundamental terms about what really constitutes a story. Their story is really not interactive. They're able to put a thin layer, a veneer of interactivity on it, by giving you a tree with a few branches, a few buttons to push, and so forth. But it's not really interactive storytelling.

To do interactive storytelling, there are five fundamental challenges that you have to resolve. The first is the use of language. Language is the way people interact. Imagine any movie without any dialog at all. Now, we had that with the Silents, but even then they had to break in and have caption cards occasionally. Without language, people just can't interact dramatically. So you've got to be able to have your player use language to interact. That's a killer problem. 

The second big problem is personality model. You've gotta have a way to model the personality --

Sorry, not to cut you off, but do you mean to have the player use it, do you mean as some sort of input into the game? Them able --

Yeah, them able to express yourself linguistically. Ideally the player would just talk and say, "But John! I don't love you anymore!" That's way beyond us. Right? However, I have come up with a solution to this problem. It's a system I call Deikto, which I've been developing for 20 years and it's in good shape now. It works. Not fabulously, but it is adequate to the problem. 

The second thing you need is a personality model that is directed towards behavior. There are lots of personality models from psychology, most importantly the five-factor model, also called the OCEAN model. But that models real people, and you need a model for characters, not people. That is, a character in a movie does not behave rationally. I mean, the little girl says, "Oh dear, my car's broken down. I think I'll just go into that spooky old house over there and ask to use their telephone." No reasonable person in the world would go into that spooky old house. In the movies, they always do that. I mean, Luke Skywalker, if he had any sense at all, would've just stayed home. But no! He had to go out and fly around the galaxy. Sorry, that just makes no sense. But he's a dramatic character, and characters behave differently from real people. And so you don't want to use a regular psychology personality model. You have to develop one for dramatic use. 

Third major problem you need, and this is a killer, is a narrative engine. A whole system for controlling the way people interact and the consequences of their actions, and the options available to them and so forth. That's a huge task. 

Fourth task is you need what I call an integrated development environment. That's a programmer's term. Basically you need a system for editing this thing that you build. I call it a story world. You need to be able to build a story world that provides the raw data that the narrative engine processes and that is also a very, very big task. 

I have forgotten what the fifth element is right now, but what I'll say is: I have, after all these years, I think I've cracked all five problems. Not fabulously, but more than adequately. And so I am now building something. A game I'm calling Siboot that will use all of these things and provide what I believe to be genuine interactive storytelling. 

When are you hoping this will be out and available? 

Well, we're gonna launch the crowdfunding campaign in a couple of months. We're thinking it'll take a year after that to build the product. It depends on how much money we get. If we get a lot of money, then we can hire people to work full-time on it and it'll go faster. But I'm going to do this no matter what. If we don't get any money, I'll just continue plugging along alone and I'll get it done in five or 10 years. But we have already made enormous progress. We have a lot of the software operational now and there's still an enormous amount of work to be done, but we've got a big head start on this thing. 

You were talking about language before, and I know something you've spoken about previously is there being a lack of verbs in games. Can you elaborate?

The verb is the fundamental component of any piece of software. Software is defined by its collection of verbs. For example, if I tell you I've got a mysterious piece of software here, you have to guess what it is, and here's some of the verbs: You can type, you can set tabs, you can delete words, you can set page sizes, you can change fonts. What is it? And you immediately know it's a word processor. 

Okay, I've got another piece of mysterious software here. You can change the color of the pen, you can set the size of the pen, you can draw on the screen, you can make rectangles, you can make circles, they can have different borders or different fills. What is it? It's a painting program. 

The verbs define the product. Not just games. Any piece of software. And so in games, the standard verbs are: turn to the right, turn to the left, move forward, move backwards, duck, jump, run, fire, pick something up, drop something, change guns. Those are the core verbs of most games. There are all sorts of secondary verbs depending on the type of game, but when you look at the verb list for these games, what you'll find is that most of the verbs focus on very simple, cognitive skills like spatial navigation, shooting things, hand-eye coordination, resource management, puzzle-solving, etc. If you want to have games about human interaction, you have to have verbs about human interaction. You have to have verbs along the line of "I love you" or "I hate you" or "I trust you" or "I don't trust you." You have to have what I call third-person verbs. Those are things like "John does not like you," "Mary trusts you," etc. That's gossip. That's one of the primary forms of dramatic interaction, although in most stories it takes very subtle expression. 

A second broad class of verbs that I think are crucial are deal-making verbs, which are, again, in real stories, very subtle. But they are basically "I'll do this if you do that." So, "Honey would you take out the garbage while I wash the dishes?" That's really a deal. So there's an awful lot of that going on in dramatic interaction. Those are some of the fundamental components of human interaction. And you don't see any of those verbs showing up in games. That's a major screw-up. That's a major failing. A game about human interaction must focus on those human-interaction verbs.

So why don't we see more of them? 

Because those verbs are really hard to do. For example, suppose that somebody tells you, "Mary doesn't trust you." Or better yet, you have a character in a game who tells another character, "John tells Tom that Mary doesn't trust Tom." How's Tom going to react to that? There are two aspects to the reaction. The pure emotional reaction. That is, how he feels about Mary. "Well, jeez, if she doesn't trust me, I'm not sure I like her anymore." Or then maybe he might think that he's being lied to. That there's skulduggery afoot and maybe he shouldn't trust what he's being told. And those are complex calculations. [Laughs.] They are not easy to do because they depend a lot upon his own personality. For example, some people, very gullible people, will take that as absolute truth. Very suspicious people will be quite dubious about it. So it depends on your personality as well as just what you're told. But then even more important are your reactions to it. What are you actually going to do when being told this? Do you ask more questions like, "Well, what did she actually say?" Do you challenge it and say, "Uh, I don't think so?" Do you confront Mary? You have to define every single option. You have to define the specifics of the option. The details of how it's going to be carried out. And most important, you have to figure out which of the options the character is most likely to take. And again, these require complex calculations. So this type of thing requires a huge range of algorithms to be concocted and it's funny: Most designers aren't that enthusiastic about building lots of complicated algorithms. Especially when these algorithms have no objective basis. These are purely artistic algorithms. 

You say, "Well, what would cause somebody to lose their temper?" Well, there's no formula you can look up in a textbook for that. So how do you write an algorithm to define whether a person will lose his temper? Well, that depends on how hot-headed the person is. It depends on how much they like or dislike the person they're interacting with. It depends on how aggravating that person's behavior is. There are a lot of factors. How do you combine them and how do you give them the proper weights? These are all things that have to come out of your gut. And here we run into the fundamental, core problem. It was first described in 1958 by a British fellow, C.P. Snow, and it's called The Two Cultures problem, and that is our culture has bifurcated into two antagonistic subcultures: an arts and humanity subculture and a science and math subculture. The problem is people identify with one culture or the other, and there are very few people who truly cross over between them. In order to write an algorithm like this, you have to be really techie to write down the computer code to do it, but you also have to be really artsy in order to be able to trust your feelings to say, "Well, I think a person's temper will be based on this much of this and that much of that, and here's how I think they combined." That's very artsy.

So what you need is somebody who is comfortable on both sides of that divide and there are very, very few such people. There are an awful lot of posers, especially programmers who like to say, "Well, I am an artist." Mostly those are people who are demanding respect largely because games have such a tawdry image and they don't like that tawdry image. So they love to talk about art even though their library consists solely of science-fiction novels and their idea of an artistic movie is Star Wars. And unfortunately the artistic people are really afraid of the math and the programming and the coding and so forth solely because in their culture you don't do that kind of thing. There are some remarkable people who straddle a divide quite comfortably and these people are our hope for the future, but they are few and far between.

Are you talking about people like Jason Rohrer?

Yeah. Jason is one of those. Although he's more like me. I am primarily a techie who has artistic sensibilities, but I can't really call myself an artist. I think Jason and I are brethren here in that Jason is primarily a techie, but he's got very strong artistic sensibilities.

You quit the games industry in the early '90s because, if I'm remembering right, you felt games were becoming too graphically fixated.

Too narrow. That was the central point. Did you ever see my dragon speech?

Of course, yeah.

Yeah, that was the main thrust: Games were getting narrower and narrower when I felt they should be getting broader and broader. The entire field of games.

I know you've talked about this all before from a developer's perspective. But what about your habits as a person who played games? What did you enjoy about them until you stopped enjoying them as much?

Well, it's funny, I started off in the '70s playing the board wargames. Very serious strategy games. But when I joined Atari, that was all skill and action games. And I got into that. I had fun with that, indeed. Atari had an internal Space Invaders competition. Each department had its own little contest, and I ended up being the representative for the engineering department because I was the best player. I had won the contest at the department level. So I went to the Atari level and lost totally. They used settings that were very ferocious and I happened to have bad luck. I was killed in the first three-quarters of a second. [Laughs.] But, yeah, I got into the skill and action games. I played Pac-Man and Tempest and Battlezone and Space Invaders. All of those games. I played the entire gamut of games all throughout the Atari years. I really was playing everything. Especially when I was running the games research group, I required everybody in my group to play lots of different games. Every week we had a colloquium where somebody presented some odd, new game, and explained what was interesting about it. That was very good.

When I left Atari and went to Macintosh, there were very few games at first but I played pretty much everything that was available and that continued right up through the late '80s. And actually, quite a ways. I played pretty much everything that was available. Flight simulators, strategy games, skill and action. I remember I played Doom quite a bit. I spent a lot of time with Doom. So I was definitely enjoying those games, but it was around the early to mid '90s that I realized -- basically Doom was such a huge success that it was like when one species takes over the entire ecosystem of games. Basically it wiped out all the little, odd games that were coming out. 

During the '80s you could build a game under $100,000 easily. So there were all sorts of interesting exceptional games. Many of them were crap. But they were interesting. And that all started to collapse in the '90s when the games industry expanded and the market expanded and the expenditure increased. The cost of building games rose and so the artistic freedom to explore odd ideas diminished. I will place a lot of blame on one game in particular. It was a space-combat game. It was a rehash of Star Raiders on the Atari, and it went through many sequels. 

Basically, what these guys did was bought market share. They poured enormous amounts of money into each game and they actually lost money on every game they did but they finally became profitable. They had these expansion packs were what brought them back into profit, and so they were the ones who started this idea, "Well, let's pour enormous amounts of money into the artwork and the music and so forth and make a game that is so spectacular that everyone wants to buy it." They really pushed that hard. Chris Roberts was the guy behind it, I believe. That worked for a while. I think they got through five or six sequels and then the whole thing died out. 

Are you talking Wing Commander

Yes! Wing Commander! I mean, that was a good game, but its success was based on, as I said, buying market share. It was a huge investment. They poured lots and lots of money into the development costs and thereby grabbed up all sorts of market share.

What were your games-media consumption habits like during your playing career? It overlaps with the rise of game magazines, and I'm not sure if you read anything like that at all anymore.

No, I don't.

Was there a time when you paid attention to them?

Yeah. Yeah, when there was something to be said. The problem is starting about the mid-'90s, games simply lost their creative edge. The stuff that was coming out was all just straight rehashes of stuff that had been done before. And there was less and less that was new and interesting. The only thing that came out that was in anyway new and interesting after 1995 was The Sims, which was a big break, although it was not the first of its kind. About 13 or 14 years earlier, Activision had come out with a game called Little Computer People. It was basically The Sims, but it was primitive and didn't really hang together.

The Sims was brilliant in the way it unified all the various components. But the problem is basically we have four basic game types: first-person shooters, role-playing games, graphic adventures, and strategy games. And those are the only games we have, and all we see are variations on those different combinations of them. In fact, the best indication of just how bad the situation is is to look at any review website and they'll always start off by saying, "Game X is a fantasy role-playing strategy game." I mean, the categories are so well-defined that they'll start off describing a game with just a few basic labels and then they go on to describe the tweaks on it. "Well, instead of having three spaceships, you have four!" "Instead of having machine guns, you have chain guns!" It's all minor variations on a few basic themes.

There are a few people in the indie movement or are pushing weird, new ideas. Jason Rohrer is one of them. There are quite a few others. But even they aren't pushing at the fundamentals. I think we lack people who are asking deep questions about what the nature of a game is and how it really works and what we can do to improve it. People are still -- here's a simple metaphor that describes the situation. Most people imagine the universe of games to be a huge, vast territory with mountains and rivers and plains and forests and so forth. There is a small, explored area within that. Most people start somewhere in that area and they look down at their feet and go, "Well, where could I go by taking one step?" And they simply take a step from one position. Everybody's looking down at their feet thinking, "Where can I go from here?" There's nobody who's looking up and saying, "Oh, look, there are mountains over there. There's a river over there. I'd like to go to that river. How can I get there?" People are thinking in purely incremental terms. "How can I make a small change in what's already there to come up with something better?" I am not seeing people asking fundamental questions about where they want to go. One of my fundamental rules of design is if you don't know where you're going, you probably won't get there.

So how can people get better at removing their lenses and being able to see and ask these fundamental questions of the fundamentals?

Think in terms of the basics. Why do people play games? What's going on in their heads? What do they want? What do they like? We see lots of people looking at movies for inspiration, but their analysis of the movies is skin deep. They need to ask at a deeper level: What is it about movies that is entertaining? And that requires study. One of the things that bothers me is so many people working in the games industry don't take the time to really dig deeply into these issues. They talk about movies but their knowledge of movies is based on watching movies and reading movie reviews. You have to actually study cinema as an artform. There are books about it. Games people should be reading books about cinema. They should be learning about everything. 

If you wanna do art, you gotta know some stuff about art. There's a wonderful book called The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination, which is a beautiful story of the development of art over the course of history. It's a magnificent book. If you really wanna call yourself an artist, you really should read the damn book. I have been telling people for decades now: You really need to study linguistics, because ultimately what goes on between the user and the computer is a linguistic communication. It's all carried out with icons and keyboard and mouse and all of that stuff. It's important to understand the underlying concepts if you really intend to improve upon them. 

Psychology, I think it is critical that people understand more about the human psyche. For example, I get in a lot of trouble because I talk about gender differences in preferences. For example, I was saying that females place greater emphasis on social intelligence. That rubs some people the wrong way, and the thing is they're just wrong. [Laughs.] The scientific evidence for a lot of these psychological differences is overwhelming. If you really want to cope with these problems, you've really got to understand the human nature involved. I have devoted years to studying these issues. Now, I admit, I have kinda overdone it. I have a library of thousands of books now and I've read every one of them and I'm an avid reader and I really don't expect people to go that far. However, they should at least study basic concepts.

Why does the videogame industry have such a fascination with Hollywood? 

Well, that's a twin aspect. First, it's sort of a counter to the tawdriness image. That is, "Golly gee, we don't get no respect, and we'd like to have the respect that Hollywood has." And the second aspect of it is the glamor factor. That is, you think of Hollywood and one of the images that pops into your mind is the limousine rolling up to the red carpet and the big star steps out with his gorgeous woman on his arm, and they march up with people cheering and cameras flashing and so forth. Golly, they're just so glamorous. They're so sexy. And me, I'm just an ugly, fat geek. I got no glamor. They want to think of themselves in those terms. 

I call this "Hollywood envy" in analogy to a previous, Freud, here. [Laughs.] Yeah, there's definitely a sexual component to it but I think the primary factor is the, "I don't get no respect and Hollywood does, and why can't I have that respect? I am an artist!" 

It's funny, if you challenge that claim, what's striking is they get mad. 

About them being artists? 

Yeah. If you deny that games are an artform, you get some very angry reactions because you are basically questioning their masculinity is what it boils down. They don't like to hear that at all. 

So when it comes to games on the whole, why does it matter whether they're less creative? Who is it really hurting? 

Oh, nobody! Nobody at all. The problem here isn't a negative one. It isn't that games are bad. Games are fun. People enjoy them. That's wonderful. Hooray for that. My complaint is that they could be so much more and they're not. It's not a negative observation. It's an observation of a lost positive. They could be even so much better.

Last time we talked, you said that word gets back to you about perceived revelations and revolutions in game. I think you told me you checked out the new Dragon Age: Inquisition game, because people had nudged you to. To what extent do you pay attention to games in the greater landscape? Do you still play at all?

Oh, I play some small games. I play crossword puzzles. Actually the only game that I play anymore, and that is rarely, is Civilization 4. I haven't even bothered with Civ 5. The reviews said it was actually worse than 4. But I don't know. I don't play they very often at all. A few times a year, maybe. I do occasionally download a game to look at it. Maybe once a month I'll take some time to look at a game. The problem is I just get mad every time.

I think, "Oh God! Don't these people have any imagination at all?" So it's such an unpleasant experience that I don't like repeating it.

And yet you're still working and trying to improve or broaden it. Why? 

Well, I don't see my work as being within the games industry. What I'm doing is entertainment software, and we'll call it a game because in fact the one I'm building now, Siboot, I'm designing it as a bridge game between games and genuine interactive storytelling. But I believe that when everything works out, when these problems have been solved and we have a new industry, that industry will be quite separate from the games industry because it will appeal to a very different audience. There is a stupendous audience out there just waiting to be addressed, and that's the female audience. We are not really touching that at all, and it is sad how the games industry loves to lie about that. 

They love to quote all of these statistics saying, "52 percent of all game players are women." Well, what they do is they go out and do a survey and say, "Have you ever at any time in your life played any kind of game?" And the woman says, "Well, yes." And they say, "Hot ziggity! You're a game player!" And it turns out if you actually look -- my wife plays games. She's got a Scrabble game, and she plays it rather frequently. Of course she doesn't spend any money on it, and that's the only game she plays. But, yeah, she's a game player. 

The really more important question to ask is who's spending the money.When you ask that question, you end up with very few women buying games for themselves. Women do buy games for men, but the amount of money being spent by women for women is microscopic compared to what's being spent for men. So, in honest terms, women are an addressed minority.

Although I will say girls do enjoy playing some of the games, but they get out of it typically by age 18. They are out of it. Girls mature faster than boys. [Laughs.] The guys get out of it around age 35 or so. Twice as old. [Laughs.] 

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