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How the Games Industry Killed the Dragon Chris Crawford Went Out to Slay

Ludotronics

Ludotronics

Posts in this category are loosely related to thoughts, ideas, and methods from:

Ludotronics: A Comprehensive Game Design Methodology From First Ideas to Spectacular Pitches and Proposals

March, 2019. 576 pages, 100+ illustrations.

ludotronics.net (free web version)
DriveThruRPG (high-quality e-book)

In 2014, Luc Magitem stitched together and polished Chris Crawford’s famous GDC 1992 “Dragon Speech” video fragments and uploaded the clip on YouTube. And while this speech’s occasional—at the time certainly industry-conforming—erasures of non-male and non-white people certainly grate, from the always-implied male player to the “there are no people there” trope of the untouched wilderness “out there to the west,” it’s a fascinating games industry time capsule that’s worthwhile listening to. (Also, Chris Crawford is a giant figure in game development whom I respect deeply, and whom I quoted in Ludotronics probably more often than anyone else.)

Back in 1992, Crawford withdrew from commercial game development to try and slay the “Dragon,” a kind of Chimera with three body parts. Translated from Crawford’s speech, these body parts were the game content; how that content was marketed; and the playing experience that marketing promised. The Chimera’s head was the industry’s focus on depth (familiar games with increasing difficulty) instead on breadth (a wide range of themes with a wide range of artistic expressions). Its body was the industry’s marketing focus on “aficionados” (expert players) instead of “the crowd” (regular people). Its tail, finally, was what I like to blast—in Ludotronics and elsewhere—as the tyranny of “fun.”

Today, that Chimera seems to have been vanquished. The breadth of themes and the freedom of artistic expression in games rival that of any medium. Nowadays, virtually everybody plays games, so there exist as many games for regular people as for experts, if not more. And countless games now enthusiastically address the whole range of human emotions, not only those associated with “fun.” (Yet, while vanquished, the Chimera still haunts the industry, notably when it rose in undead form in 2014 under that unspeakable, toxic hashtag that shall not be named.)

But here’s the rub: it wasn’t Chris Crawford who vanquished the Chimera, or Dragon, and there’s a particular reason why we should be sad about this. The Dragon was vanquished through massive changes in the games industry—audiences changed, perceptions changed, tools changed, and distribution channels changed. All for the better, one can say. But the Dragon wasn’t vanquished through the means Chris Crawford set out to fight it with: a new breed of highly adaptive next-generation algorithms capable of creating stories and plot points and reacting with appropriate emotions on diverse player input. Because the sword Chris Crawford wielded was the Blade of Interactivity, which, after all these years and the monumental efforts he has put into procedural interactive storytelling systems like Erasmatron or Storytron, has barely left a scratch on the Dragon’s skin, vanquished or not. That horizon appears as far away from us today as it appeared twenty-five years ago.

Chris Crawford, GDC 1992

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