Whatever Happened To...

Whatever Happened To...
A Conversation with Chris Crawford

Max Steele | 27 Sep 2005 12:00
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The man known as the Dean of American Game Design toils alone, unfunded and underappreciated, in a forest in Oregon. He has renounced games; or perhaps, one might say, games have renounced him.

Who is Chris Crawford, and why does he toil alone?

Is he Don Quixote, a dreamer slaying dragons that exist only in his own imagination? Is he Albert Einstein, an unsurpassed genius fruitlessly spending his winter years chasing an impossible, grand theory while his peers reap high praise for incremental improvements in proven fields? Or is he Miyamoto Musashi, a peerless master soon to emerge from the wilderness of his isolation with brilliant insights into his craft?

I've hunted him down to find out.

A Portrait of the Designer as a Young Man
I didn't know where to start, so I started at the beginning and asked Crawford about his life before games. He didn't say much.

"I studied physics, got my masters in physics, and then I taught physics for two years. Then I moved back to California and had a teaching job that was kind of crazy. I did high school assemblies on the Energy Crisis." He was quick to add that "I was working on games pretty hard, even then. I built my first computer game back in 1976 on an IBM 1120."

Crawford joined Atari in 1979, where he created two educational simulation games, Energy Czar and Scram, for the Atari Home Computer System, before he was promoted to manage programmer training. In his spare time, he created Eastern Front (1941), which went on to become his first best-seller.

Eastern Front (1941) was one of Crawford's most noteworthy creations so I decided to press him for details. "Eastern Front was a creative implementation of an obvious idea. 'Let's do a good wargame on a computer!'" he said. "Pulling it off involved an awful lot of creativity, but it required tactical creativity as opposed to strategic creativity."

I was puzzled by what he meant. Crawford has a reputation for being outspoken, but it's a cryptic sort of outspokenness, profound to the point of incomprehensibility. Talking to him can be like reading A Brief History of Time at 120 words a minute. You always feel like you're missing something.

"Tactical creativity is implementation creativity. How do we build a good map? How do we move units around? How do we build a good AI system? You already know where you are going and you are just figuring out how to get there."

"So would you say in today's game industry we have a lot of tactical creativity and less strategic creativity?" I asked.

"Nowadays the stuff we call creative is tiny, tiny stuff. It's hard to even call it creative at all. Technically, yes, I see a lot of creativity. But I see almost no design creativity in the stuff that's coming out there."

I decided we should review the rest of his work before we moved into philosophy. We got back to the details. After Eastern Front, Crawford created Legionnaire, Gossip, and Excalibur, and wrote The Art of Computer Game Design, the first of his many books. His reasons for the book were intensely introspective.

"I wrote Art of Computer Game Design really as a self-education exercise. The best way to figure something out is to write a book. You don't realize how ignorant you are until you try to write it down," he explained. "The book took me a year to write and there isn't that much prose in it, and that's because it took me so much time to sort things out."

The intellectual self-development paid off, as Crawford's following game, Balance of Power, was his most successful. It sold 250,000 units in 1984 - a staggering number for the time, more so given it was in the Dark Age after Atari had imploded and before Nintendo came onto the scene.

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