Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Crawdaddy

It's just so easy to harsh
on Chris Crawford these days.

I enjoy his ruminations on game and interactive drama theory, but it's tough to see him as more than just a wanker spitting the same tired flow for the last fifteen years without producing results. If the Storytron (nee Erasmatron) had a greater profile in the gaming community at large it would be a bigger joke than Duke Nukem Forever.

Well, maybe that's a little too harsh. Crawford is great at organizing abstract concepts and discussing theory, it's just that after awhile it starts to look like yet another RPGnet post about narratology-vs-ludology.

But then again, Crawford gives an interview and says shit like this:

"I haven't even seen any new ideas pop up. The industry is so completely inbred that the people working in it aren't even capable of coming up with new ideas anymore. I was appalled, for example, at the recent GDC. I looked over the games at the Independent Games Festival and they all looked completely derivative to me. Just copies of the same ideas being recycled. I didn't see anything I'd call innovative, and this was from people not even interested in doing anything . . . in making money. It was just straight amateurs trying to be innovative and even they couldn't be innovative."

First off, we don't know his definition of 'innovative'; That word is instantly suspect to me anyway. When that word is thrown out like some kind of gaming El Dorado it makes me gag a little.

Then he doesn't seem to realize that sometimes indie developers work on familiar designs because certain tropes are proven concepts and can lead to greater exposure or the available programming tools don't always allow large amounts of experimentation or the programmers aren't yet skilled enough and need to cut their teeth.

I didn't learn how to play guitar by putting money into a big concert and walking onstage and attempting to play free jazz. I worked on small, familiar songs, eventually learning how to improvise and rearrange until I got to a certain level of competence.

Things were so much better back when things were so much better:

"During the 80s there was a lot of experimentation, a lot of new ideas being tried (many of them really bad) but there was at least experimentation. Now we don't see any experimentation whatsoever."

No. Experimentation. Whatsoever. That's some moxie right there.

This sounds like the lament of a guy who goes to the gaming store, sees the new DnD rulebook and starts bitching that tabletop RPGs haven't changed since the 70s, while completely ignoring something like, say, Dogs in the Vineyard.

And even then, if you pointed out some of the great, creative indie RPGs available he'd still complain that they use dice or coin tosses or some kind of resolution mechanic while ignoring the other elements that might make such games 'innovative.'

For those of us following Chris Bateman's excellent discussion of structural/play specifications it seems clear that most games have many elements in common, especially where their verbs are concerned. Am I supposed to believe that this was not the case in the 1980s?

Then Crawford talks about appealing to the general public and how important it is and how the game industry is not appealing, and then dismisses Nintendo's attempt to appeal to everyone, and then explains that appealing to the general public is just reshuffling and devoid of new ideas.

According to the ESA, fifty-percent of all Americans play video games. I think those numbers show that video games are pretty appealing but, yes, I'll agree that fifty percent is not everyone.

The rest of the interview doesn't clarify what Crawford is considering when he looks for innovation. Hardware? Software? Interface? Controllers? Theme? Art design?

I suspect that whatever his focus, he's wrong wrong wrong.

Just a hunch.


The second half of the interview covers Crawford's favorite subject: Storytronics.

I won't criticize him for bragging. It's his baby.

Now let me throw it out with the bathwater.

After a good summary of verbs and their role in games, Crawford says:

"So you end up mapping a lot of verbs into a kind of spatial reasoning, and that in turn keeps the verb count low and game designers like that, game players like that. The problem is, with social interaction, you just can't get away with a tiny verb set, you need hundreds of verbs for social interaction."

That's not a bad breakdown, but it doesn't really make his case. He admits that game players like low verb counts. I wouldn't use that as a strict rule, but I think it bears out in a large number of cases. But why, then, bother with his system? It has a huge number of verbs.

And that's where Crawford hasn't made his case. What's my interest in this technology?

A few points I pulled from the interview:

1. Storyworlds are not games.
"Well, they're not games. We call them Storyworlds, because the emphasis is on drama, and it's so different from games it's kind of misleading to refer to them with that terminology, because they feel very different from that in play."

2. The tech will be useless to traditional game developers.
"We've been building this thing to be very flexible and very powerful, but we have not built it as a library. It has no hook that you can just plug it into another game."

3. Interactive storytelling will not appeal to very many people.
"Interactive storytelling appeals to a very different kind of audience. The kind of people who like games will likely not enjoy interactive storytelling."

4. Chris Crawford has been to Bizarro-Hollywood.
"There's an awful lot of Hollywood money that goes to supporting oddball ideas, because Hollywood has learned the hard way that entertainment is a high risk business that requires innovation." And it goes on. Someone else can fisk this section, my brain hurts.

So, again, I ask, "What is my interest in Storytronics, other than the technophile aspect?"

There's nothing emotional in Crawford's explanations. Which is strange, because he's advocating a system reliant on dramatic interaction between actors. I have never gotten a feeling for what it would be like to play/navigate/traverse/whatever a Storyworld. Actors, verbs, this emotion linked to this actor with this weight, and so on, but what do I do?

It's like he's talking about Magic: The Gathering, but his only focus is on the mechanics of the cards. Lands and creatures and tap and untap and upkeep, the framework but none of the flavor. And maybe that would be okay in a card game (though I would argue that Magic became as popular as it did in part because it had a compelling, unified theme) but doesn't sound compelling or interesting.

Why does Crawford always sound angry, but never passionate?

Storytronics, the way Crawford describes it, sounds like a personality simulator without any personality.

Crawford sets up Storytronics as "interactive storytelling" to differentiate it from gaming, which honestly only supports the notion that he is completely out of touch with the gaming industry. The way he tells it, interactive storytelling is the wave of the future and taking off and completely creative -- and none of these developments are related in any way to the history of videogames or their rising popularity.

So we have an incredibly complex interactive narrative that will not appeal to gamers (i.e., at least fifty-percent of Americans) and will, for some reason, be Hollywood's choice for future development dollars even though it is unproven and cannot be integrated into the current game development model.

That's one hell of a sales pitch.


At this point I've run out of vitriol, so I'll offer some advice to Mr. Crawford.

In the future, get King Lud IC to explain your technology. He makes it sound much more interesting and at least somewhat useful.

And he doesn't need to disparage the entire video game industry to do it.

On that note, I'll let El-P play The Crawster out the door (picture Will Wright spitting these lines - or Greg Costikyan):

"Back when the independent scene remained faceless
We were the only crew who promised your ass we'd take it
Mold it, shape it, living outside the matrix
Hold it, make it, more than miniature major labels
Hold it sacred, living it for the culture
Told ya plainly, protected it from the vultures
That's why I always get respect from true soldiers
While half of the critics claim it every year: "Hip hop's over."
FUCK YOU, hip hop just started
It's funny how the most nostalgic cats are the ones who were never part of it
But true veterans'll give dap to those who started it
Then humbly move the fuck on than come with that new retarded shit
New slang, new thought, new sound
Whose heart you thought you had?
You clown, you don't, you drown
I won't dumb it down, I'm dumbing now for these rounds
I'm a live motherfucker plus I'm gunning for clowns
You're mine motherfucker, don't be coming for pounds
So you can break out of that invisible box, you're not down
My favorite ones are the ones who started out young rappin 'bout
Comic books, spaceships, and Obi-Quan one
And even though they were soft they had fun
But they couldn't break out the frame of the town they came from
Some of these faggots used to send me their demos
I'm keeping their puppy styles in the Company Flow kennels
But since they had no identity from the start
They started to resent the scene when they couldn't become a part
They've been failing for years and call themselves Vets, that's bold
Motherfucker, you're not a Vet you're just old
I'll slap the shit out of you to continue my nerve racket
Making this money fist over fist, fuck what you heard
Jukie cats talk about boom bap and golden ages
Patting themselves on the back for making that new outdated shit
I've been putting out vinyl since '93 and never looked back once
At ya'll trying to chase me
You don't innovate because you can't innovate
It's not a choice despite what you might tell your boys
Keep your identity crisis under the table
I always knew who I was and I'll always be more famous . . ."


Chris said...

Thanks for the kind words!

I think Chris Crawford is just stressed. He's under a lot of scrutiny. I don't envy him this. He could use to chill out a little - I reckon Patrick could teach him a thing or two in this regard. :)

Patrick Dugan said...

I personally believe that if Chris Crawford has smoked reefer to a Velvet Underground album once in his life the industry would have had interactive storytelling in the mid-90s, and it would have been better than anything that could be done with Storytron.

Sadly, my attemtps to chill out Crawdaddy have failed. So I'm pulling a Fleetwood Mac and going my own way, and by "my own" I mean with the help of people smarter than me.

Check out this bit Perko wrote: http://projectperko.blogspot.com/2006/06/rocket-heart.html

A better refutation of Crawford's positon than any interview dissection could hope.

I do like your point about low verb counts, I'd been somewhat brainwashed to believe that high verb counts are better, like getting a 6 pc. chicken nugget versus an 18 pc. But as Perko recently hammered into my skull, thats bullshit. But since even Crawford admits it, indirectly, I've since changed my position. As the Ying Yang
Twins once said: get lo, get lo.

Thomas said...

Shorter Chris Crawford: Sure, I have trouble relating to people. That's what makes me perfect for designing a gam--sorry, storyworld based on interpersonal interaction!

Thomas said...

Also, do I get to take credit for the Crawdaddy thing? Or did someone think of that first?

Patrick Dugan said...

I've had it in my Cell-dex since March.

Thomas said...

Yeah, but I mocked him with it back in November, if I remember correctly.

Anonymous said...

Crawford doesn't see innovation at an industry conference that costs $10,000 minimum to exhibit. Hmmm. Can anyone think of a reason why?

Patrick Dugan said...

I hereby succeed the honors of wit and originality to Thomas, who so nobly came up with "Crawdaddy" back in November.

Just kidding dude. But its funny how these things slip into the ether and resurface in peoples' subconscious.

Anonymous: Crawford ware referring to the IGF, which only requires a finalist judgement and maybe fourty bucks of an entry fee to have your game displayed. There was actually some nice innovation in that, so Crawford was most decidedly full of shit in saying he was appalled by what was on displayed. Appalled? Thats pretty strong language there. Maybe disappointed would be a better word, as in "we're disappointed with you Crawdaddy."