A Conversation with Chris Crawford

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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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.

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.”

I asked him why it was called the Dragon Speech. “Throughout the lecture I used the rhetorical device of the Dragon as the artistic ideal, with me as Don Quixote – the fool who defies all industry logic and imposes his own reality.”

“I concluded the lecture speaking as Don Quixote. ‘All right, I am leaving the industry. And by leaving the industry I can see the Dragon. I can see him now. Yes, yes, you frighten me, Dragon. You hurt me! I can feel your claws ripping through my soul.’ I almost screamed the words out. It really scared the audience. I pulled out my sword – a real, leaf-bladed sword – held it up, and shouted ‘Come Dragon, I shall fight you! CHARGE!’ And went galloping down the lecture hall, ran right out of the door, and never came back. That was how I announced my departure from the games industry.”

If Crawford’s departure was larger than life, his post-departure ambitions were even larger. Crawford’s goal was to create a new art form: Interactive storytelling. “I thought it would take me eighteen months, maybe two years, to put together interactive storytelling. I’ve been working on this for eleven, or twelve years now.”

What exactly is interactive storytelling? “Games about people instead of about things,” explained Crawford. “It’s very difficult to understand. It’s just like the problem they had with the cinema – it took them about fifteen years to figure out what cinema really is. Around the turn of the century, the thought was that cinema was like a play with the camera sitting where the audience sits. That’s where we are with interactive storytelling – people can’t conceive of it.”

The closest anyone has come, said Crawford, is an interactive story called <a href=”http://www.interactivestory.net/” target=”_blank” title=”Fa

We were looking at samples of Deikto code for a bit when I suddenly realized I’d been interviewing Crawford for almost two hours. I decided to press him for a self-evaluation: “You remind me of Albert Einstein, post-relativity. Have you, like Albert, lost your way?”

Crawford thought for a moment. “I think it’s a fair comparison, me to Einstein, post-relativity theory. I am searching for a grand, unified theory – a grand wonderful solution to all of our problems, and I have not produced an answer yet. The difference is that Einstein really was groping the entire time. He never showed a major step forward. Whereas I am much more confident that Erasmatron will solve the problems. And Mateas and Stern have published a tiny version of Unified Field Theory – so we know it can be done. But it’s weird and immensely difficult. I may not have the strength to pull it off, but I retain great confidence in the likelihood of success.”

It is the peculiar tragedy of genius that the greatest minds of any generation find themselves drawn to challenges that are beyond the limits of their era. Tesla invented the radio and the alternating current before embarking on a fruitless quest for broadcast power. Einstein gave us the special and general theories of relativity before turning his attention to the unified field theory that eluded him to his death. It is quite possible that Chris Crawford, perhaps the most gifted designer of his generation, is destined for a similar fate.

But I actually think not. When Crawford emerges from the wilderness of his isolation, like Musashi with the Book of Five Rings, count me as unsurprised.

Max Steele is an enigma wrapped inside a riddle. When not actively being mysterious, he passes his time manipulating time and space to fit his plans for world domination.

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