Monday, March 06, 2006

Chris Crawford on Game Design by Chris Crawford

Chris Crawford's book isn't very good.

I try to balance out my appetites for fiction with the occasional how-to book on something dealing with my profession. Software design and Project Management books tend to be okay. Game Design books tend to suck. This one is an example of the latter camp.

Weighing in at around 500 pages and published by the king of this type of book, New Riders Press, this is another book designed to be sold to wannabe game designers, and people like myself who are always wondering if the old timers really have some secret knowledge the rest of us don’t. Crawford is a self-proclaimed Old Fart, having gotten his start in the late seventies, then spending time at Atari thereafter. He claims to have started the modern GDC (though I've heard the same claim from a few other old timers.) He has not shipped a product in almost fifteen years, and has very few commercial successes. This may not discount his ideas on Game Design, but as the industry has changed, it's no longer clear that the same rules or pattern apply; at least if they do, it's not in so direct a fashion. To be more explicit, just because Eastern Front 1941, published in 1981 may have been a "breakthrough", does not mean that there are many lessons to be learned from it now, twenty-five years later.

Crawford comes across as an arrogant grand-dame of computer gaming, tossing around broad generalities and flavoring them with inaccuricies. For example, "Wizardry, a straight copy of Moria was… since it's impossible to play Moria you'll now have to play Wizardry." Now, I realize this is a fine point of geekish nitpicking, but Crawford is just plain wrong on several points here. First, Wizardry is not a copy of Moria, the two are quite different. Second, Wizardry was quite noteable for other reasons, and thirdly, it's quite possible to play Moria now. I have a copy on my laptop.

There are plenty of these types of ridiculous generalities thrown about in the book: "There's no mystery why social reasoning is so weak in computer games: most game designers are socially incompetent geeks." Hmmm… Well, aside from playing to a silly stereotype, Crawford is sidestepping the more interesting problem here (how to I take something that is at heart an isolating experience due to the nature of the hardware and turn it into a social experience?), and ignoring mountains of great work done in this area by everyone from academic MUD designers to the superb work being done by the thousands of people now building MMORPGs.

Finally, the mechanics of writing are just plain weak here. The style is lecturing and cantankerous, sentences periodically lack a subject, and so on. The basic writer's toolkit that one expects people to bring to the table is missing here, or was ignored in favor of pithy "truths" and weak analysis. (For example, the extended mediation on "drugs" and video games, concluding with the advice to not own stock in a video game company once people realize how similarly to "drugs" they affect brain activity. WTF?) Also irritating is the "Random Sour Observations" chapter, just because Crawford uses it as another chance for self-aggrandizing put-downs of the work of various projects and designs. While he may be correct to skewer some of these old, dead mistakes, an analysis of some of the more interesting experimental successes of the recent past might have been more useful.

Anyway, I'm sorry that I spent time on this book, and I hope that would be game designers out there pass on this one in favor of something more useful.


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