Whatever Happened To...

Whatever Happened To...
A Conversation with Chris Crawford

Max Steele | 27 Sep 2005 12:00
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In 1987, Crawford founded the Game Developers Conference, which he would chair for the next seven years. He also created Trust & Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot. "It's the game of which I'm most proud," he said. "Trust & Betrayal went further beyond games than anything else I had done. It had major innovations. If we think of an innovation or creativity as a leap, then Eastern Front had some good sized jumps, Balance of Power some very good sized jumps, and Trust & Betrayal had a bunch of truly mighty leaps. It was completely alien."

Alien indeed. Trust & Betrayal put the player in the role of an alien acolyte competing against six computer-controlled acolytes of other species for the title of Shepherd. Each of the computer-controlled competitors had a distinct personality and the core of the gameplay was figuring out which ones to ally with and which to oppose. It was a pioneering attempt to put real characters into computer games, relying on artificial personality and language parsing solutions that were innovative or clumsy. No one had ever made a game like it before, nor since.

It sold only about 5,000 copies.

Trust & Betrayal was the beginning of the end of Crawford's pursuit of computer game design. In the eight years prior he had designed twelve games. In the next four, he did just four, and two of them were sequels (Balance of Power II and Patton Strikes Back). The other two were global simulations, both released in 1990: Guns & Butter and Balance of the Planet.

When I asked Crawford about Balance of the Planet all he said was "it was good, but it was not one of my best." A few years ago, he was not so circumspect. In a 1997 essay, Crawford spoke of his reaction to the release of Balance of the Planet:

I was so proud of that design! ...I wanted to create a game that honestly addressed environmental policy problems, something to show just how powerfully a computer could present a complex issue. I did just that... Yet when I released it to the world, the reaction of industry, press, and consumers was unenthusiastic. Perhaps their reaction is best summarized by a review of Balance of the Planet appearing in Computer Gaming World. The reviewer noted that 'it is the closest thing to art to be sold as computer entertainment...but it is just not fun...if the game is not fun, it simply wouldn't be right to endorse it...' Here we have an acknowledgement that Balance of the Planet is some kind of art, yet the review refuses to endorse it because it isn't fun! ...perhaps our reviewer would react to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony like this: "Gosh, Mr. Beethoven, your symphony made my heart soar in awe at the majesty of the universe, but you know, it's just not fun. We need some tunes we can dance to, or catchy jingles we can snap our fingers to.

Ulysses
Crawford, I believe, could have endured commercial failure for his artistic work, if he had received critical acclaim as a visionary. But critical condemnation for lack of "fun factor" was too much for him to endure. He left the game industry in 1993, beginning a decade-long odyssey of false starts and fresh ideas that continues to this day.

Crawford announced his departure in a famously histrionic lecture known as the Dragon Speech. "It was the greatest lecture I've ever given in my life," Crawford told me. "It talked about my pursuit of games as an art form, and how I had seen the industry moving away from that dream in the pursuit of money. It had completely discarded any pretense of doing anything worthwhile. It was just pure money-grubbing of the most short-sighted kind. And the industry had no real future with that sort of an attitude. So I decided to just go off and do my own thing."

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