Where's the Creativity in Game Design?
Chris Crawford’s self-imposed exile into the wilderness of game design has not dimmed his firebrand reputation or his acerbic opinions on our industry. Whether you see him as a mad hermit or a clear-eyed visionary, he’s always worth a conversation. Colin Campbell listens in…
At GDC, Warren Spector held a seminar on storytelling. Crawford’s name came up. Spector said, "I've been reading so much of his stuff. Chris, just make a freakin' game." Spector has a point. Crawford has written some fascinating books on game design. He helped found GDC itself. In the mid-1980s, he wrote Balance of Power, one of the greatest games ever produced. But he hasn’t written a hit game for a very long time.
Crawford says, “I won’t have the word ‘game’ associated with what I’m doing. Games are about things. You move things. You shoot things. You acquire things. Stories are about people.”
His project is Storyworld, which he says “only about five people in the world truly understand”. It’s an online tool and destination that allows people to create interactive stories (not games) that other people can enjoy. The technology has seemingly been in development since Napoleonic times (in fact, 15 years). It’s entirely self-funded or based on volunteer work. It has no corporate sponsors.
Crawford says creativity is moribund in the game industry and that people really want to explore stories much more than they want to interact in pre-scripted adventures. His Storyworld allows creators to form the basis for the world they want to imagine.
“The game industry and I went off in different directions years ago. Games are seen as things that must offer action and excitement. The work I’m doing is not about action or excitement,” he says.
He also says that the public is going to have to be educated in order to understand Storyworld. “It’s like in the early days of movies. Everybody thought about it in terms of theatre. It took innovations like close-up shots, innovations that disorientated and frightened people, to move the art-form forward.”
He believes that people brought up on dual entertainment tracks of linear stories and scripted games are going to take time to appreciate real interactivity in storytelling. He wants to create emotional connections between his storytellers, the characters they create, and the people who consumer these tales.
I ask how it all works; what sort of stories it might engender; what the limitations are of player-control. He says the only way to understand it is to experience it. He says this difficulty has led to some less-than productive meetings with outsiders. A demo is being prepared so, perhaps, we can all figure out what the heck he’s on about.
Crawford is happy to acknowledge that his plan is a long way away from what we all might recognize as a game pitch. For him, the fact that it’s not easily understood is exactly the point. “Publishers are only willing to invest million of dollars in things that they can feel safe with. They are not interested in wild blue yonder ideas. That is why creative energy is always at odds with capital.”
Wild Blue Yonder
Curiously, he sees Hollywood as a more useful model for creative invention than the game industry. “They figured out the answers to questions the game industry hasn’t even bothered to ask,” he says “Hollywood is entirely geared up towards incoming creative ideas. In contrast, the game industry is a closed shop.”
In the game industry, he explains, most ideas are generated by a very small number of designers working for developers or publishers, augmented by technological or marketing associates. In contrast, Hollywood picks ideas up from anywhere and everywhere.
“Right now, there are 8 million people in the United States who are trying to write a novel. A small number will actually manage to create a manuscript. Of those 99% is garbage, but a small number will be published.
Of those, another small number will be considered worthy of a movie, and of those a very small number will be backed by a $100 million budget. It’s a beautiful system, a huge source of creativity.
”But the game industry is uninterested in outside ideas. It just keeps churning the same concepts.”
Crawford sees true interactive entertainment as something uninvited to the game industry. The universe of stories created by all that energy and all that life that’s out there, far from the out of town business districts and converted warehouses of game development, is just not welcome.
“We want to open that up and have thousands of people creating ideas. It’s the only way to truly create originality. No matter what you spend on internal resources, you can never achieve such a broad range of creativity.”
Back to Storyworld. Such is his focus on its absolute originality that he rejects any and all comparisons with the current videogame paradigm. It’s nothing like The Sims. It’s nowhere near an MMO.
From his website: “Each Storyworld is a universe of dramatic possibilities, which the player can shape into thousands of different stories by playing the role of the story's Protagonist. A Storyworld is comprised of two groups of information—dramatic components and dramatic principles. Dramatic components are the same things that make up any story—the story’s Actors, locations, props, and occurrences.
Dramatic principles are the unique way in which a storybuilder expresses his or her authorial voice—since the player, as the Protagonist, is free to take the story in any direction, the storybuilder doesn’t concern him or herself with plotting out a specific storyline—instead, he or she defines the underlying rules that affect the way Actors interact.”
If there is a business plan behind all this, it’s vague, at best. Crawford won’t allow anyone else to own the technology at least until it’s complete. There is no marketing plan above and beyond a belief that it will take off via the usual online viral route. “We could have a lucky blast off, a dream scenario where everyone gets it,” he says. “But I’m not betting on that. More likely, a small number of people will understand this, create around it, and it will grow from there. After that, the possibilities are endless.”
Whatever his creative direction or arc of commercial success, he’s not about to stop talking about game design and the game industry, even if he no longer feels that he’s a part of it. “If I was just some maniac ranting from the sidelines I’d have been forgotten about years ago. It’s only because I’ve been proven right that people still listen. I’ve been wrong a few times in the past, but mostly, the things I said that used to be seen as heresy are now accepted by everyone.”