Chris Crawford has always been one of the most forward-looking and prescient gaming commentators, and looking back upon his writing it’s remarkable just how far ahead of the pack he was. Trip Hawkins’ EA may have claimed to have seen farther but it was Crawford who actually did. In 1981, he was anticipating the negative effects of anti-piracy solutions on consumers and, in an era of crude blobs bleeping obnoxiously, he was heralding the awesome potential of games as participatory art.
He’s developed games and written books about game development but his finest hour was the speech he made at the Computer Game Developers Conference in 1992. Even 19 years later, The Dragon speech (video: part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) remains one of the most exhilarating and dejecting works you’ll ever read, hear or see about gaming. It is at once a glorious paean to gaming’s importance and a strong condemnation of its failure to achieve its ultimate potential. It’s Crawford at his very best with everything on display: the intelligence, the arrogance, the bluntness, the humour, the passion, the theatrics and most importantly, the insight.
Here’s what he had to say about game difficulty:
“Think in terms of a scale of difficulty with simple games at the bottom and hard games at the top. But the scale applies to people as well with inexperienced people at the bottom and very expert game players at the top. Now any given game falls somewhere on this scale but it doesn’t fall at a single point. It actually has a window. There’s the lower level of difficulty and the upper level of difficulty. When you first start playing a game, you normally start off below the lower level and what happens? You get stomped, the game clobbers you and you lose. But no problem, you come back and try it again and you learn and you get better. You start climbing the ladder and as you climb the ladder pretty soon you climb above the lower level of difficulty and you climb into the fun zone where the game is challenging and interesting and fun. You keep playing so you keep learning and you keep climbing the ladder and as you do, the day comes when you climb above the upper level. Now the game is too easy to beat. It’s boring. You don’t play it anymore. You put it aside. And then what do you do? Well, you buy another game. But this game is going to be a little more difficult than the previous one. It’s going to be higher up on the scale so you’ll climb up through that game and put it aside and buy another game and another and another. You’re just going to climb up that ladder, improving your expertise. And the result is something I call games literacy.”
(The downside of being so far ahead of the pack is when the pack does finally catch up it will have completely forgotten those who were there before, resulting in inadvertent rediscoveries of old discoveries. What Crawford described as the ladder of difficulty is now known as the Chick Parabola.)
Though that may seem like a simple observation, and one hardly worth pointing out since it would appear to be fairly obvious, it’s actually a very important one as it informs a lot of behaviours, patterns and expectations in gaming.
Games built to stand the test of time
As gamers improved their game literacy, game designs could grow in complexity, going from simple, instantly accessible arcade games designed to divest players of their coins to more thoughtful and ambitious designs that constantly gave players interesting decisions to make.
No one company better represented this gradual rise in design complexity in the 80s and 90s than MicroProse. The company started out with an arcade-inspired game and eventually went on to produce complex simulations and deep strategy games. This increase in complexity and depth happened gradually, as it indeed needed to. The hardware wasn’t ready in the early days — memory was measured in kilobytes and data chugged along at floppy disk speeds — and just as importantly neither was the general gaming audience.
Just as you wouldn’t make a child immediately go from Enid Blyton to David Foster Wallace, it would have been too much of an ask to get an average gamer in those days to immediately make the leap from arcade games to simulations. Dara O’Briain is spot on when he observes gaming is unique among the art forms in the way it imposes barriers that deny the consumer content unless they’re skilled enough to overcome the challenges presented. Gamers needed to work on those skills in gateway games like Hellcat Ace before making their way slowly up the ladder of difficulty to complex games like F-19 Stealth Fighter.
The F word
It is important to acknowledge that adding complexity to a game does not make it any more enjoyable or better. Games can be easily encumbered by extraneous detail, leaving players overwhelmed by fussy, fiddly, distracting bits that do not add anything meaningful to the experience. Complex games aren’t necessarily fun games.
Yet gaming needs complexity because some rich experiences cannot be shoehorned into simple game designs. The classic Dynamix flight simulator Red Baron taught more about air combat over the muddy battlefields of Verdun than the Atari arcade game of the same name. Indeed, no simple arcade game could hope to convey the difficulties of battling in those early fighter planes, kites so fragile they would shed their wings in a steep dive, so underpowered they’d stall during a steep climb. Short of hopping in an actual Fokker Eindecker, there was no better way than playing a flight sim to truly appreciate Max Immelmann‘s audacity and bravura as he attempted revolutionary manoeuvres.
Finding the right balance between complexity and fun is an art and MicroProse co-founder Sid Meier was a master of it. His games had complexity in the form of realistic details and historical flavour without sacrificing the fun factor and this was hammered home by great MicroProse designs like Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon and Civilization. He described his approach in High Score! succinctly, “When fun and realism clash, fun wins.”
This, of course, only serves to bring to mind a question Crawford raised back in 1992: why do games have to be fun? Not all books are fun, not all movies are fun, not all music is fun. Yet “it’s just not fun …” is still the most damning thing that can be said about a game. Where does the expectation games should be fun come from? Is it because most gamers first encountered games as children or adolescents and their appreciation of games remains at that stunted level?
Games are a demanding medium yet gamers don’t seem to be demanding more from their games.
By the numbers
If it’s a little puzzling why consumers remain stuck in the “games must be fun” mindset, it’s much easier to suss out the driving forces for keeping games simple and fun on the making and selling side: simple fun is easy and simple fun sells very, very well.
For the developer, churning out simple designs is easier as they likely fit existing design templates, have fewer moving parts and can be quickly produced. For the publisher, simple games are undeniably easier to market. There’s no need for in-depth explanations of how an FPS plays because gamers are accustomed to those and can simply dive right in instead of paying the fun tax of learning how to play the game.
To borrow a phrase, no developer ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the average gamer. The key to popularity and thus profits is to keep things as simple as possible: thumbstick to move, aim-assist to help target, tap this button to shoot, jab that button to switch weapons and everything else is explicitly spelt out with onscreen prompts (“Press X to accomplish the incredibly complicated task of opening this closed door”) as an embarrassing reminder of just how low the lowest common denominator is for these games.
Embarrassing or not, these games sell in the millions whereas complex games, aside from a few key franchises like Civilization, generally do not sell well even historically. UFO: Enemy Unknown (a.k.a. X-COM: UFO Defense), by today’s low standards a very complex game, sold 600,000 copies on the PC. If an FPS by a major publisher sold only 600,000 copies today, there would be a ritualistic disembowelling ordered at corporate headquarters.
To explain their unwillingness to support complex games like strategy games, publishers hide behind excuses like “strategy games are just not contemporary.” What they actually mean is “strategy games sell but they don’t sell enough copies to make our major shareholders’ pee-pees tingle” and the key thing to remember is the decision-makers who green light projects are shareholders themselves.
If Crawford’s observation about game difficulty and game literacy perfectly captured the gaming scene two decades ago, it’s no longer applicable today. The gaming landscape has changed dramatically and in ways Crawford himself might not have anticipated back then.
There are now large swathes of the gaming population who have no inclination whatsoever to improve their game literacy. These gamers play a lot so they cannot be categorised as casual gamers but the crucial distinction is they are content to replay the same simple games with limited run-jump-shoot verb sets. They may want to play those simple games in HD, 3D and with motion or touch controls, but they are otherwise happy to experience the same familiar gameplay over and over again.
This is akin to a reader content to stick with Enid Blyton because her books are simple, comfortable and familiar. Now, those books might be fine for prepubescents but past that age, one would think that they would be ready to expand their horizons and move on to something more stimulating than the thrilling adventures of Julian, Dick, Ann, George and Timmy the Dog.
But that isn’t happening with games for a lot of gamers these days. Perhaps it’s the nostalgic longing for simple childhood pleasures, an inability to handle complex rulesets, a palate incapable of appreciating richer designs or some combination of all those factors.
Yet, just as no one should expect Justin Bieber fans to eventually move on to classical opera, there’s no reason to expect fans of simple games will improve their game literacy. There can be no accounting for taste, after all. If the average gamer (who is a 37-year-old according to current statistics) is perfectly happy playing a simple FPS or platform game, so be it.
More interestingly, Crawford’s theory also no longer applies to a lot of formerly hardcore gamers. They might have once climbed up the ladder of complexity in their younger days but these days they are climbing right back down, content to play simpler and shorter games either on the couch or on portable systems.
It’s easier to explain this. Their lives are a lot more hectic now and they have a great many other things that make great demands on their time. They can no longer spare dozens of hours learning how to play a game, poring over thick manuals dense with rules, tables and appendices. It’s entirely understandable they would use what little time they have for leisure on instantly accessible games with simple rulesets that quickly and constantly reward them for playing.
The last flight
The entirely predictable result of this focus on the simple and the easily accessible is genres that feature complex designs are a dying breed.
These games are still being developed and published in continental Europe where audiences seem to be a lot more patient and willing to give them a chance. (This has been partly attributed to the fact the European market is less inundated by games because of translation issues.) Unfortunately, the average gamer is unlikely to be even aware of their existence.
Complex games like flight simulators and deep strategy games are rarely covered by the mainstream gaming media, which obsesses over last month’s web site hits just as much as the industry it covers obsesses over sales, share prices and Metacritic numbers, because those types of games rarely figure prominently on the sales charts and are thus unlikely to get enough site hits to warrant coverage.
But the more pressing problem is the average gamer, conditioned to expect immediately accessible and instantly rewarding games, is simply not sufficiently game literate now to play complex games.
The pessimist has every reason to believe this could be the last generation of gamers who remember what it’s like to play a flight sim or a wargame or a strategy game that isn’t Civilization because as things stand, the only ones capable of handling deep, complex designs are those gamers dizzyingly high up the Crawford ladder. Those gamers do not constitute a growth market and without the crucial gateway games designed to introduce new gamers to complex genres, the market for those games is only going to shrink further.
The 4 colour quandary
If there can be little doubt gaming is losing complexity, the big question is: so what? So what if gaming loses diversity? So what if gaming does get restricted to a narrow path consisting of simple fun experiences?
To appreciate the perils of going down that path, one need only look at the state of comic books in North America.
There are numerous parallels between comics and gaming, of course. Comics could boast of incredible diversity in its early decades with romance, Western, war, pirate and horror titles available right alongside the superhero titles which would eventually go on to dominate the market. Similarly, games could boast of remarkable diversity in the early years as designers experimented with the medium. There were simple fun games but these were complemented by provocative text adventures, sims of all sorts, wargames, etc. There were no niches in the early days of both mediums, just a giddy excitement as both creators and consumers explored the endless possibilities.
Just as comics had to survive scares over the seduction of the innocent when the sceptical older generation struggled to both understand the appeal of the medium and evaluate its actual impact on youth in the Fifties, games would go through the same phase of fear-mongering four decades later. It was a time when correlation rather than causality was sufficient to assign blame solely to gaming for any incident, a time when simple FPS games could be decried as murder simulators.
Just as comics went through a period of ruthless brand exploitation in the early Nineties with relaunches, spin-offs, collector-bait first issues and multiple cover variants, games are now experiencing the same thing as publishers and developers collude to produce designs calculated to extract as much money as possible from the consumer. This is the era of the sixty-dollar Smurfberry pack, and clumsy exploitation of old brands. For gaming, this is the taste of the new generation:
Given the similarities, it might be instructive to look at the state of comics today to get a hint of where gaming might end up in a few decades. The signs are not promising. A quarter of a century after Maus was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, comics are still stuck in the cultural ghetto. That may be hard to believe since every other movie released seems to be based on a superhero comic book and comic-to-film adaptations are some of the biggest blockbusters of recent years. But comics themselves are not prospering. The top titles sell less than 200,000 copies a month now, a fraction of comics at their peak when titles that sold that amount would be cancelled. Digital comics on tablet devices don’t seem to offer any possible salvation. According to one publisher, digital comics account for less than 1% of total revenue.
The problem isn’t the medium or the delivery mechanism; it’s the perception comics are adolescent power fantasies featuring superbeings in tights beating each other up. It’s a boneheaded and ignorant perception but a very damaging one nonetheless as it results in an exasperating feedback loop that sees the top 40 titles in any given month feature superbeings in tights beating each other up precisely because the perception perpetuates the stereotype.
Is that gaming’s future? A future in which games are deemed only for those into simple, forgettable fun because those are the only games that sell well and so those are the only ones made?
The future in motion
If comics point the way to folly, gaming must look to movies to see the lofty position it could feasibly occupy in the cultural landscape.
Consider the impact of movies in the latter half of the 20th century and its continuing impact in the 21st. Movies are cultural events, newsprint and television airtime are devoted to upcoming movies and movies just released, movie actors and actresses are elected to public office, movie critics are household names, every writer has a movie script on the backburner, every movie-goer has an Oscar acceptance speech prepared. Movies are even responsible for the fame and well-being of one Michael Benjamin Bay.
It’s no surprise movies influence the way games are created and appreciated. The movie-style cutscene (the least interesting method of depicting stories in an interactive medium) is still the primary method for most games to handle narrative and game criticism still borrows heavily from film criticism.
Could games achieve the same impact as movies? Might the White House someday invite Sid Meier to solicit his viewpoints on the situation in Sudan? Will CliffyB run for Governor of California on the “Yeah! Wooo! Bring it on, sucka! This my kinda shit!” platform in the future?
That’s never going to happen if gaming sticks with the simple fun mentality. Gaming needs greater diversity — the kind of diversity movies have — if it is to escape being pigeon-holed in the cultural ghetto. Gaming may boast of titles that scratch the same itches Michael Bay does but has thus far failed to produce anything comparable to Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.
That really is the most frustrating aspect of this. Games can be so much more than what they are now.
There’s one thing games can potentially do better than any other medium: empathy. This is a natural result of the control the player has over the experience. As Crawford pointed out in The Art of Computer Game Design, when it is your choice, your experience is much more personal and much more emotionally satisfying because you invest a little of yourself in every decision you make. And what is a game but a multitude of personal decisions? How better to empathise with the Other than through an interactive medium that asks so much investment of the Self?
Gaming has the potential to create experiences so moving and affecting the player is compelled into taking remedial real-world action but thus far that potential has been untapped. There are games that let the player empathise with dwarves and elves but no games that let the player understand what it must be like to be a Somalian mother scrounging for food for her starving baby. That wouldn’t be a fun experience but games should aspire to be more than just fun.
Gaming may be a great form of escapism but it could perhaps be more potent as a medium when it faces up to reality. As usual, Crawford was quicker to grasp this than the rest of the gaming industry. A teacher at heart, he understood early on that to play is to learn and thus gaming was a great way to explore and understand complex scenarios. In 1981, he released Scram, an Atari 400/800 game simulating the operations of a nuclear power plant, as a reaction to the Three Mile Island accident. Where is the equivalent of that today? Where is the modern game that simulates the Fukushima disaster and pays tribute to the incredible heroism of the Fukushima 50?
Fun certainly has its place in games and simple fun is absolutely necessary to bring people to the lower rungs of the Crawford ladder but there must also be games higher up the ladder that say something profound and insightful about complex situations and ideas if gaming is to have greater relevance. And gaming needs to be more relevant to people’s lives if it is to achieve greater significance in the cultural landscape.
If Chris Crawford once despaired there was no room in the industry for games that were not fun, he will soon discover for himself if that remains true. Two decades after he memorably charged off on a quixotic quest to advance interactive storytelling “for truth … for beauty … for art”, Crawford will return to gaming with a new version of Balance of the Planet, his treatise on environmental issues, and it will be enlightening to see how this Crawford story plays out.
If the gaming world at large was not receptive of the original, what will it make of the new version? It’s impossible to imagine today’s mainstream audience will embrace it but perhaps those who tire of mainstream gaming might be more receptive. After all, if Dwarf Fortress was able to find a loyal audience willing to support its making and champion it so passionately even the New York Times took notice, it can be said gamers are slowly rediscovering not all games have to be simple fun.