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Crawford Redux

Games, specifically computer/console games, are now such big business that they can no longer be ignored, grossing even more than the movie industry. Aware that jobs in this burgeoning industry, as computer programming did before it, will attract more than fanatics and visionaries, a few of the less tradition-minded colleges have even pioneered programs in computer game design. Not computer programming, not software development, but specifically game coding. In keeping with this trend, we’re seeing how-to books on the shelves, far more sophisticated than the “Write your own computer games in BASIC for your TRS-80”-type titles of my youth. And some of these are written by big names in the industry.

Or what were big names in the industry, at least. Chris Crawford has a book, The Art of Computer Game Design, laying out several dozen rules he’s learned in his long tenure as game designer. His long, long tenure. I say this because, even though I really, really admire his work, and especially his attention to elegance in game design, a lot of what he has to say is at odds with what I’m hearing from the rest of the industry.

This should come as no great surprise. Crawford had a reputation for arrogance ‘way back in the ’80s, a reputation he acknowledges was well-deserved. (He claims to be humbler now, but it doesn’t show in the writing. His apologies and self-criticism admit to falling short of perfection, but cut no more slack than he ever did for others falling short, and he continues to congratulate himself for the brilliance of Erazzmatazz, universally considered a monstrosity.) At the time, the craft of game design was making a transition from lone coder working from his home to small team working out of a cheap office, dividing specialized tasks according to expertise. Crawford refused to adapt to the team model, trusting in his own skill, and so fell by the wayside as teams began producing—and thus gamers began demanding—more polished products. Design may be more important than graphics, but graphics count. And graphics sell, too. Playtesting matters, too, no matter how brilliant the concept, and no single person can coordinate all the playtesting today’s titles demand. So far as I can tell, Crawford hasn’t been in the loop for twenty years or so. The last actual game I heard Crawford was working on was some kind of MU* in the early ’00s, and by the description was less promising than MMOs already on the market.

So Crawford’s advice sounds out of date, too, geared to the gaming auteur instead of the actual designer working today. Or would, were it not for one salient point.

Just as computer games have become big business, rivaling the Hollywood engine, they have succumbed to the Hollywood blockbuster business model. The big budgets and the polish that big teams can bring is welcome, but it comes at a price: big budgets are almost inherently conservative, preferring a proven formula over the kind of innovation that can really make a winner. As a result, designers with a passion and ideas are increasingly turning to small, casual, often browser-based game design as an outlet for their creative urges. Big game production studios continue to crank out rewarding, professional titles, but almost every game that has made me say, “Hey, neat!” for the past ten years has been some tiny shareware or freeware game. And just as they did at the dawn of the personal computer, some lucky few catch everyone’s attention and make a fortune.

In that sense we’ve come full circle, although computing power means that even the low-budget titles of today often make big sellers from the ’80s look shoddy. And for that kind of game design, Crawford’s advice may again be salient.

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