Back in 1993, a notable Atari game designer and developer named Chris Crawford left the games industry in outrage over its direction. He did it by giving a blistering lecture known as the Dragon Speech.
The original speech doesn't seem to be freely available online, but he did rewrite it into a more toned-down version in 1997. You can see where I found it here.
The Escapist magazine recently printed an interview with him where he describes the speech.
Crawford has recently reappeared in the news via a Slashdot link to a new company he has created with some apparently new AI and NPC technology for doing Interactive storytelling.
Anyway, the big deal about me linking to his speech is that basically every complaint being leveled against the games industry was being leveled by him way, way back in 1993 (at the very genesis of the meteoric rise of the Internet, incidentally).
He came up with his line of argument when trying to analyze why the design of a game he was immensely proud of failed miserably. What force was at work, he asked himself. The force of the aficianado or the hobbyist.
His explanation is really very clear and is something I've never really seen spelled out this way before.
Imagine a scale of difficulty, with easy games falling at the bottom of the scale and difficult games high on the scale. This scale also applies to individual gamers, with beginners falling low on the scale and experienced gamers high on the scale. Any game then lies somewhere on the scale, but it occupies a window on the scale, not a point, because it has a range of difficulties. Most games present a lesser challenge to the beginner and a greater challenge to the experienced player. This window divides the difficulty scale into three zones. Below the window is the frustration zone, where the game clobbers you. Inside the window is the fun zone, where the game challenges you. Above the window is the boredom zone, where the game offers no challenge.
What happens when you first sit down with a new game? In all probability, the game clobbers you. Your expertise level for the game falls below its minimum difficulty level. But you learn from the experience, you improve your technique, and you do better on your second attempt. After a few more tries you climb into the fun zone. Now you're having fun. You continue to improve and climb the ladder. After a while, you move into the boredom zone; the game no longer challenges you, so you set it aside.
What do you do next? Why, you get another game, but this time you get a game that offers a greater challenge. You want a game that challenges you at your level of expertise, which is now greater. So you climb the ladder.
This process of climbing the ladder yields something I call game literacy, and it applies separately to a variety of game genres. For example, I am very games literate when it comes to flight simulators, because I've been playing them for years. So when I got Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, I plugged it in, fired it up, and within five minutes I was shooting down P-51s. On the other hand, I'm not so literate with adventure games. Every year or so I dutifully buy the latest adventure game, plug it in, fire it up, and within five minutes I'm banging my head against a wall. I just can't figure these things out. I'm so illiterate with these games, I needed hints to finish Loom!
Thus, we have three populations of game players. The first group is the vast mass of game-illiterate players, people who play games rarely if at all. The second population consists of people climbing the ladder. The third group includes the games aficionados.
Now, if you are a retailer, or a distributor, or a publisher, or a developer, which of these three groups do you want to sell to? The answer has to be the third group, because they're so easy to sell to. They're connected. They all read the games magazines. They participate in all the electronic BBS's about games. They have a close circle of friends who play the games and discuss them. They hang around the computer stores talking up the newest, hottest games. You don't need to work hard or spend a lot of money to get them excited about your game. The best proof of the power of this group is the phenomenal success of Wolfenstein 3D. Here's a game with no formal marketing whatsoever. No ads, no SPIFs, no distribution deals &emdash; just a great game with plain old word of mouth. And they're selling a zillion of 'em! What better proof could we require that the aficionados dominate the marketplace?
Contrast this with the first group, the beginners. How can you sell to them? They don't read any of the magazines or subscribe to national BBSs. There's no way to reach them. The typical member of this group walks into a computer store perhaps once a year, to buy a new ribbon for his dot matrix printer. He gets lost and bumbles into the games section. "Garsh", says he, "I haven't played a game in years. I oughtta buy one. Here's one with a pretty box: Harpoon. I think I'll buy it. I'll bet it's about whales!" How do you sell to these people?
The aficionados have another big advantage over the beginners: they're easy to please because they tell you what they want. Designing for the beginners is a hit-or-miss effort, but designing for the aficionados is a formulaic process. They tell you in great detail exactly what they want. They fill out the feedback cards, they write long letters, they send you e-mail. All you have to do is compile their feedback from the last game and implement it in the next game.
The aficionados have one other important advantage over the other buying groups: they spend more money. For them, gaming is not idle entertainment, it is a serious hobby, and they spend money accordingly. That gives them marketing punch, and the industry responds to their demands.
For all these reasons, the aficionados have played an increasingly powerful role in our industry. Ten years ago, the computer game consumer was a shadowy figure, hard to pin down, and so games covered a wide range of interests and tastes. But the marketplace has matured, the aficionado has come to the fore, and the industry has narrowed its offerings to cater to his tastes.
The most important element that the aficionado wants is greater depth in his games. After all, he has spent hundreds, even thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of his time developing his expertise in a game genre. He wants games that allow him to build on his existing skills. He doesn't want to abandon his investment and start all over with a new genre. He wants to keep climbing the ladder, not start over with a new ladder. The aficionados have made this plain over the last few years. The games that they most appreciate (and buy) are extensions of previous designs, games that hew close to the genre while adding greater depth.
Herein lies the doom of my dream. I dreamed of a broad range of games encompassing the huge range of human emotional experience. To put it most succinctly: I dreamed of breadth, but aficionados crave depth. Breadth and depth are orthogonal. My dream lies at cross-purposes to the desires of the aficionados. It cannot be achieved in this marketplace. I no longer belong in the computer games industry. The time has come for me to move on.
He founded the GDC, earlier called the CGDC and documents how he was ousted from it in another essay called Games Are Dead.