Chris Crawford at 60

BoP was a good game though, it did open my eyes to a worldview that few games did back in the eighties. i was like in junior high, so learning about spheres of influence and the power of foreign aid… was kind of arcane to me.

and reading his articles… he does come off more as a teacher than game designer now. i did think that middle east simstory thing he did was pretty informative. that one on his website.

Well he did found the GDC, so he’s got THAT going for him. He’s an interesting guy to talk to and does a pretty fascinating lecture on the concept of interactive storytelling. The guy is crazy smart, but there were times as he was speaking it was clear just how out of touch he was with the modern games industry. At one point he was going over the kinds of things game designers should probably know about and he mentioned Rock-Paper-Scissors has an example of somthing military games could use to create a balanced design. One of my students raised his hand and noted that games have been doing that for well over a decade. He actually looked suprised.

But so what. He wanted games to go in a different direction, and I admire him for having the passion and drive to try to make it happen. If you hear him talk about Storytron you get the feeling that he’s working on interactive concepts that are light years beyond what anyone else has even considered. Frankly, we need people like this to push boundaries of games. Just shrugging him off and saying, “yeah but what has he done for us lately” is really kind of sad.

Frankly, we need people like this to push boundaries of games.

Frankly, what we need are people to push the boundaries not talk about pushing the boundaries. Talk is easy.

Maybe part of the disconnect is that he seems to be using ‘game’ more in the academic sense of the modeling of situations and behaviours, and the exploration of strategies and outcomes, rather than the “something fun you play for entertainment” sense the rest of us usually do.

He may not have produced anything particularly earth-shattering lately, but I guess only time will tell if his work has lent enough to the body of research behind the theory of gaming.

I keep reading this thread title as “Cindy Crawford at 60”. She’s only 44…

He’s pursuing games as intellectual exercises and not what they ultimately have to be in order to be successful, entertaining commercial products.

Sometimes those two things meet in the middle somewhere, but I think that’s rare. You have to build things people will play or its only so much brain twaddling that few will care about and fewer will pay for.

…and I say that as someone who owns the cartridge version of Eastern Front 1941 for Atari 800XL.

The point is, he hasn’t just been talking about it, he’s been working at it. Did you even read this thread?

No, and I have no idea who Chris Crawford is. You got me.

It sounds like he’s been “working on it” in the worst way possible, which is to sit in a dark room and iterate forever.

The reality is that hitting concrete goals, and improving incrementally, is vastly superior as you can learn from your failures in an absolute fashion. Aka if he’d been working on this WHILE shipping games, he would probably be much farther along now.

He may be attempting to carve out his own new thing, but he’s still been doing it the wrong way. It seems to me like the game industry has been making more progress than he has, and we don’t even assign development dollars to that kind of thing yet.

I saw him speak at GDC about ten years ago. He came into the room wearing some sort of massive poncho and it seemed like an old testament prophet had come into the room. A far cry from the exec with the carefully-prepared soundbite - this guy is the real deal.

His recent work on interactive storytelling is idiosyncratic, but some aspects of it (the inverse-parser) are way ahead of their time. I think these ideas would have had more direct impact if he had collaborated wider and not tried to solve such a large problem more or less entirely on his own.

His book on Interaction is a must-read for game designers.

Official coolness factor: 9 1/2 out of 10.

His book on Interaction is a must-read for game designers.

That book is terrible.

Even back in the 90s Crawford was out of touch with the industry. Witness his claim that he was the first EVAR to think about storytelling in games (well except for maybe one other person.)

Never mind all those games back in the day that, you know, had stories … like, say, the entire adventure games genre, which was quite active at the time. But they did not meet his standard of perfection and hence are not worthy of his notice.

He is literally incapable of seeing things that do not fit within his monomania. It’s clear to most people that games do not require story to be good games. After all, people have been playing things like sports, chess, go, etc. for thousands of years; people happily play Peggle today. But to Crawford, that’s irrelevant. Those aren’t actually good games, people merely suffer the delusion that they are.

Likewise if you look into it it’s clear that strong storytelling does not actually absolutely require characterization. Again, there are thousands of years of experience to back this up: myths, legends, and fairy tales do not include characterization. Yet people still talk about Theseus and King Arthur and Snow White today, even though they are complete ciphers as rounded characters. But to Crawford, making NPCs that are absolutely believable characters is essential.

(Crawford’s efforts to use Arthurian legend for his Storytron experiments are doubly quixotic–not only he trying to solve the “problem” of storytelling in games, he’s trying to impose modern notions of characterization onto a chaotic mishmash of legends and symbolism that cared not a whit about characterization.)

All of these mere facts mean nothing to him. There is One True Path, and the rest of us who explore the vast lands not on his Path are the ones wasting our time.

Nope. He’s been working on a true simulation of story. A real interactive narrative where the settings, characters, and perhaps the eventual goal are defined by the game designer and then as the player takes his role in the story, the character behavior is controlled by the simulation.

That was really shitty, super simplified way of explaining it. In his lecure he goes into a lot more detail. He pops the hood on Storytron and the tools that he and his small team developed and shows how the designer goes about creating characters, places, items and then goes about defining how they exist in the story. It actually works… kinda. The tools are there to use. But it’s not polished, it’s very hard to use, and as Crawford himself admitted, developing a truly interactive story is way more time consuming than he ever thought it would be when he began the project. Maybe the best way to describe it is to think of The Sims, but with near limitless, designer and player defined attributes that have an effect on everything else in the environment.

I don’t think it’s fair to say he’s all talk or that he hasn’t been working at something he truly believes in. Nor do I think it’s accurate to say that he’s “doing it wrong.” He’s not doing this for financial gain or commercial success. He honestly want to make a real interactive narrative. It makes me a little sad to see him realize that he might not ever achieve that.

Wasn’t that one of the caveats of his book? The tools and process to what he was trying to achieve were not possible in the current market and industry. It would take someone/people outside the industry(industry being the entire method of how one thinks about game creation) to reach the storytelling goal.

It’s been a while since I’ve read his stuff. I liked Koster’s book more.

He will be remembered for his writing. And for starting the GDC.

I think this points out the fundamental flaw in Crawford’s lifelong approach.

Crawford wants an emergent interpersonal story world, where you are having rich conversational interactions with multiple other actors, all of which have an interesting and deep behavioral (and conversational) model capable of surprising interactions.

And he’s building tools that let you construct this by hand.

That’s the failure. Constructing an interesting AI by hand has never been done. There is just too much that goes into a rich model of what the world is, and how it works. But that’s the kind of thing that has to be present as a starting point before you can start building plots, narratives, and drama out of it.

Even building that kind of a world model as its own job is extremely difficult. The Cyc project never really got to critical usability after decades of work. And that had a lot more people working on it than Crawford’s thing.

Recently, though, there have been some new approaches to trying to build a knowledge base that’s usefully large. The Nell project at CMU is the most interesting example I know of – basically guided self-teaching from the Internet. (God help that poor computer.)

I would not be surprised if, sometime in the next ten to twenty years, some Nell-like system is made available (hopefully with at least one open source implementation, including the knowledge base) for game developers to start working with. It’ll be a system that you can ask questions to and get reasonable answers back, because it understands both language and the world well enough to… yes… have a conversation.

Then you can start building models of intention, motivation, subterfuge, etc., on top of that foundational ability to reason about the world.

In other words, Crawford’s whole lifetime goal has been building dramatically convincing artificial intelligence. He’s simply been too far ahead of his time, and his shoot-for-the-moon attempts have only shown how it’s a bigger problem than one man, or one team, or one entire industry, can solve alone. But systems like Nell show that we are getting closer, and I hope so, because getting Turing-esque AIs is definitely on the Wow, I’m In The Future list, and it would be nice if Crawford lived long enough to see the first examples.

Edit: Nell’s twitter feed is pretty funny.

Chris has definitely been off in the weeds for a long time now, but he was actually way ahead of his time on some very important design concepts and theory back during the Journal of Computer Game Design days. For example, he talked about “simulation vs. emulation” years before Looking Glass designers started talking about this stuff (he talked about it in the more primitive terms of the day, so he called it “prefer multiplies to if-statements”, but it’s the same core idea). He also nailed the idea that emergent gameplay is more important to our form than scripted sequences, when he compared and contrasted gameplay in doom with myst. Years later, again, Doug Church talked about the stories generated by players in Quake vs. Myst in similar ways at some important GDC lectures. The JCGD stuff is all online.

So, there’s a direct lineage from some of his early writings, through LG, to games people value highly now, like Bioshock and Far Cry 2. And yes, he started the GDC, which a lot of people find very valuable.

I do agree with the statements that he’s been doing it wrong for the past decade or more, though. It’s sad, and hopefully he’ll get back and make actual games soon.


This was probably after you left, but DigiPen actually hired the guy as a teacher for a short bit. That didn’t work out so well. He’s quirky and is a good public speaker. But lecturing uninterested programmers on high falutin’ design concepts that he can’t actually implement in any real fashion wasn’t the best fit.

PS. As someone who never played Balance of Power, he just comes across as your typical crackpot, he could be spouting about his car that runs on water really.

For people in the industry and those interested in game design issues that is true. But for people who are just gamers, Balance of Power is his defining game.

That’s a very accurate portrayal of the game. However, there were two things that were important about it - 1) it was an interactive, if simplistic, way to demonstrate that foreign policy in the Cold War era wasn’t as simple as a lot of people thought and 2) for the time the game allowed a level of freeform play that was uncommon and was also challenging and not easily beaten (if it was beatable at all).

In creating CGDC (now GDC), Chris Crawford has had a bigger impact on the game industry than all but a handful of people in the history of the field.