Friday, March 4, 2011

A little bit of insight from the gods: Part 1 - Chris Crawford

Today, I had the enormous privilege of being able to sit, listen to, and take notes from four GDC sessions that were part of a special series being run in commemoration of this 25th year of GDC (formerly CGDC).

The first one was from none other than the man who literally wrote the book on computer game design (the first one, anyway) - Chris Crawford. I had, at my previous job, gotten used to seeing people in person that I had previously only read about in articles and books for years. Even then, seeing Chris Crawford in person is a real trip. A man who is pushing 60 with a chrome dome AND long hair, a hairstyle I will henceforth refer to as "the Crawford", he is as animated and passionate about games as ever. We were regaled with stories about early computers and games (particularly the ones he designed) - core memory, the 6502. We even got to see some sample output from a very early game of his which represented farm animals as series of digit-LED patterns that would move across the display until you would "name" the animal by pressing its "name", which just happened to be the first character in its representation. He would go through how much these machines cost at the time in todays dollars (ridiculously expensive) and tell us a few anecdotes from each time period. It felt a lot like a grandfather passing lore down to the little kiddies. And, in a sense, that's exactly what he was doing.

A few nuggets of wisdom from the old man:
* learn better game design by playing and studying board games, particularly German-style board games
* read Homo Ludens by Huizinga and Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
* games are about interaction, first and foremost. everything else is secondary to the interaction.
* his first law of software design: whenever you sit down to write a game, and every moment after that, ask yourself "What does the user DO?", not what they see or what they hear, but what they do.
* the basic structures of games has not changed in 30 years (although the games themselves have gotten way better)
* entertainment is and always has been fundamentally about people, NOT things. many people in the games industry, especially those who believe that games should evolve and strive to be like big budget movies with lots of special effects and highly paid actors, etc., STILL do not get this.
* story is all about character

The Q&A portion of the talk revealed an audience truly grateful for this man's return to GDC (after proclaiming in 2006 that games are dead), with one comment at a mic noting that various tweets has named his talk "unofficial keynote of GDC2011". He seemed a bit humbled by this prospect. Another person asked if he would be willing to release the code to some of his other early games as open source, to which he made a note and said he'd look into it, but wasn't sure how recoverable some of the code was.

What I found most interesting about this talk was that he hasn't really changed his views much at all on how games should be and how the industry keeps not-innovating toward these goals; however, I did not sense much of any disagreement in the room. Quite the opposite, I couldn't help but feel a lot of respect for the guy, even though he hasn't made a game in Although this is my first year of GDC, it is my understanding that there are a lot more indies at the conference this year than in previous years (myself included) due, no doubt, to the recent explosion the number indie game development studios formed by various folks leaving their old jobs to find fame and fortune with something they truly love. Maybe we're at some kind of intersection here - but whether that results in more future games being more "about people", as Crawford insists they should be, is something only time will tell.

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