Chris Crawford's Games Sucked

On June 16, 2006, in Games, by peterb

Every so often I mean to write an article about how Chris Crawford doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s pretty impressive, in some ways: his book on game design, for example, is practically a manual on how to write a sucky game. And Crawford keeps inspiring me to write this article because every time he opens his mouth (or uncaps his pen) he says stupid things.

Lots of people have weighed in on the meat of Crawford’s latest musings on how the game industry is moribund and uncreative, and I’m not particularly interested in tackling them. Instead, I just want to say something that needs to be said:

Chris Crawford wrote games that weren’t any fun.

I think that Crawford gets a pass on this from so many commentators because he developed games in an era when there simply wasn’t as much competition. So anyone of a certain age who writes about games has played his games. Therefore, when people talk about 1985′s Balance of Power, they’re not actually talking about that game, but about their memory of playing the game as a 13 year old.

To take Balance of Power as an example: it wasn’t “innovative”; it was basically a rehash of Bruce Ketchledge’s 1984 game Geopolitique 1990, published by SSI. The main difference between the two games is that Crawford made some changes to suck all of the fun out of it. Specifically, in Ketchledge’s game, making too many significant mistakes could result in a war, which the player then had to resolve. In Crawford’s game, making a single mistake resulted in the game immediately ending with a snotty little lecture from the programmer ending with “We do not reward failure.”

What. A sanctimonious. Prick.

Who can point me to a single game that Crawford did that had any real influence beyond handwaving? We are talking, after all, about the man who developed Scram, a “nuclear plant simulator,” which has the distinction of being the first game to be so boring that it was literally more fun to go outside and watch grass grow. The only game Crawford has published that even deserves to be on the same page as the word “fun” would be his 1981 wargame Eastern Front. It’s a good game. But not enough to justify his reputation.

Some have pointed out — correctly — that Crawford need not have developed excellent games (or indeed, any games at all) to proffer opinions on the gaming industry. Certainly, none of us opining here at Tea Leaves have a resume that includes professionally published games, and that doesn’t stop us. But the argument is made, and made often in wanky, uncritical hagiographies, that Crawford’s opinion is important because of his “seminal” games and his “genius.” This is false. Crawford’s ouevre is average at best and mediocre at worst, and anyone familiar with the game developers writing and publishing games in the 1980s knows this to be true.

Crawford is good at something, but it isn’t game development. It is self promotion.

Additional Resources


25 Responses to “Chris Crawford's Games Sucked”

  1. Adam Rixey says:

    Has he even played any games in the past fifteen years? He’s ranting on about how there is not a single creative idea in the mainstream or independent game industry, and I have to call BS. Yeah, there are going to be the endless cycle of Madden updates and first-person games about shooting crates in a warehouse, but that’s like saying that all theater is dead because you went to the park and saw a public performance of Hamlet.

    Does he want creative characters and writing? Psychonauts.
    Creative graphical design and artistry? Psychonauts again. Okami. Or Killer 7, even though that game sucked.
    Creative control schemes? Nintendo DS and Wii.
    Creative weirdness? Katamari Damacy.
    Creative architecture? The whole Xbox Live Arcade experience and the way everything’s now integrated and my console writes a freakin’ blog.

    I’m also tired of the whole argument that something sucks simply by not being innovative. People don’t get pissed off when new car models rely on the same tired old mechanic of a steering wheel and gas/brake pedals, or books still have narrative structures and come on paper, or songs still have words that sometimes rhyme and are accompanied by music. Polish can be better than dissonance.

  2. Mark Gerrits says:

    I actually saw a talk by Crawford once in the Netherlands. It was the same old Crawford routine: ‘Games these days suck, only emotion makes for good games, only way to put emotion into a game is by using a convoluted dropdown menu system that I’ve been working on for years now.’ Just writing it down now, I can’t believe how much BS it all is. But the talk itself was one of the most entertaining ones I’ve ever witnessed. The guy was jumping around all over stage, imitating dinosaurs, etc. He’s got a lot of charisma.

  3. Thomas says:

    You have to admit, he’s figured out the perfect way to stay relevant. There’s enough people out there on the Internet that a vocal few will be fooled by his routine, and then he just has to make sure to say something annoying every few months. I bet his book sales have gone doubled.

    So he’s selling two a year, but you see my point.

  4. Tim! says:

    Funny because what I was thinking was that he’s been remarkably successful at remaining irrelevant. 14 Years working on a new emotion engine, one that will blow the socks off of the whole game industry shebang and he gives us this:

  5. Doug says:

    I don’t know, upon first glance that shows a lot of promise in my mind. And notice, that it in no way relies on his ability to make a cool game. He leaves that to the rest of us.

  6. JP says:

    “Therefore, when people talk about 1985′s Balance of Power, they’re not actually talking about that game, but about their memory of playing the game as a 13 year old.”

    So do Richard Garriot’s games suck as well? Gunpei Yokoi? Raph Koster? Open question. If you’re just talking about posterity then there are very, very few designers whose careers spanned ~1980-1990 whose games still hold up today.

    I think a lot of Crawford’s games (most of which very few people have played, from the sound of it) fall into the same camp as Will Wright’s. Wright cares more about making a design that is expressive of a complex or unique or challenging idea, than about making something “fun”. Wright gets shit from people who don’t see why having a big sandbox, a bunch of knobs to twiddle, is inherently satisfying – where interaction takes on meaning simply because it’s a well-crafted system. “Where’s the game?”, they ask. And there’s not necessarily a satisfying answer.

    I tend to see designers like this as ahead of their time. People scoff at the idea now, but games will grow beyond “fun” just like music has grown beyond “has a beat you can dance to”.

    If that’s your definition of Suck, you are welcome to it. I missed the part where that means that Crawford doesn’t have any insightful, relevant things to say about game design that I and many other professional designers find useful.

    Where Crawford certainly *doesn’t* do himself any favors, though, is where he sticks his neck out to denounce modern games when it’s pretty clear that the last round of games he really sat down and played were, maybe, Half-Life and the Sims. He comes off as underinformed and dismissive, and dismissive is a terrible thing for a creative person to be.

    I’m curious, which games by Crawford have you played besides Balance of Power?

  7. Thomas says:

    “People scoff at the idea now, but games will grow beyond “fun” just like music has grown beyond “has a beat you can dance to”.”

    I’m sorry, but as a musician I’ve got to take exception to this.

    There is, in fact, a word for people who think music doesn’t need “a beat you can dance to,” or other such pedestrian concerns. The rest of us tend to call them wankers.

    Draw your own conclusions.

  8. James says:

    The Hollywood boardroom-producer culture has an “emotion engine,” too, which is why almost all sitcoms seem formulaic and predictable.

  9. daw says:

    You mention Raph Koster — actually I was going to say when I read this that Chris Crawford may be bad, but Raph Koster is terrible. His lazy, self-serving ‘theory’ of the multiplayer game — that, basically, designers don’t have to provide any content, the players will just entertain each other — was directly responsible for making Ultima Online the tedious Hobbesian cesspool that it was, as bored players with nothing else to do turned on one another. Unrepetant, he moved on to Star Wars Galaxies: same theory, flop. The guy singlehandedly got the whole MMORPG genre off in the wrong direction and it is only starting to recover.

  10. peterb says:


    My thesis is fairly simple.

    (1) Games should be fun.
    (2) Even when they were first published, most of Crawford’s games weren’t that much fun. You can’t say that about most of the early ’80s Ultima games. (You can say that they wouldn’t be viewed as fun today, mind you, but expectations have changed).
    (3) Therefore, I look with a jaundiced eye on any argument that I should respect Crawford’s arguments specifically because his super-fun games were so way rockin’ cool.

    I’ve played more than half of Crawford’s published work. I have not tried Patton Strikes Back, which at least one friend has recommended.

    I understand why you make the comparison between Wright and Crawford, since Crawford does everything he can to encourage the “misunderstood genius” trope. However, I don’t think it’s really a valid comparison. Here’s why. Yes, there are many people who think the Sims “sandbox” style games are boring. I happen to be one of them. As these people stand on the street, idly talking about how such games are boring, we are pushed, shoved, and then trampled underfoot by the millions upon millions of people rushing to buy, play, and enjoy those games. We are, in other words, proven wrong by reality. The closest thing Crawford had to a hit was, as observed, Balance of Power. It was one of the few Mac games out at the time, which might have something to do with its initial success. But I will assert that few people actually enjoyed playing the game. I have no proof for this, although the Wikipedia article on it opines “it was perhaps more admired than played.”

    You “missed the part where that means that Crawford doesn’t have any insightful, relevant things to say about game design that I and many other professional designers find useful” because that’s not what I said, as indicated by the paragraph beginning “Some have pointed out — correctly — that Crawford need not have developed excellent games (or indeed, any games at all) to proffer opinions on the gaming industry.”

    Thanks for your comments,

  11. Sisca says:

    I vaugely remember playing Balance of Power – the 1985 version – and my recollection is that it got maybe 5 hours of my time. It was boring and buggy and just not fun.

    Looking at the other games on that list I think I may have played most of them some, I definatly remember owning Patton vs. Rommel and Global Dilemma: Guns and Butter though nothing about their gameplay really stuck with me.

    The only game of his that I distinctly remember playing was Scram. At the time I was in the Navy, stationed aboard a nuclear powered ship and working on passing my Enlisted Surface Warfare Specilist boards, part of which required a basic understanding of how a nuclear plant worked. I hoped to use the game to make things clearer and help people that were having problems. Sadly, it turns out that it was, according to the engineering guys that looked at it, overly simplified, even to give a basic understanding, and in some instances down right wrong. Besides it sucked as a game.

    Now to compare with say Will Wright or Sid Meir.

    Raid on Bungling Bay was a great game and a large part of that was Wrights level design. Sim City is, for me, still an engaging and entertaining game even today. As has already been mentioned, even if The Sims isn’t your cup of tea you can’t argue with its success.

    I don’t want to even know how many hours I spent playing Sid Meir’s Silent Service or any of his early combat flight sims. Once again, the Civ series wasn’t my cup of tea but almost every other gamer I know loved it, including my wife who normally hates strategy games. Pirates was an amazing game in 1987 as the success of the 2004 remake showed. Gettysburg is still one of the premier wargames out there almost a decade later.

    The difference between these two and Crawford is that they not only made genre defining and changing games but they made games that were fun, and in most cases still are fun. After all, gaming is about having fun not about some game designer stroking their ego.

  12. JP says:

    “(3) Therefore, I look with a jaundiced eye on any argument that I should respect Crawford’s arguments specifically because his super-fun games were so way rockin’ cool.”

    I agree actually. I think the relative fun-ness of a given designer’s ludography isn’t the best indicator of whether or not the things they have to say about game design are worth listening to. Miyamoto, for example, is probably one of the best ever designers in terms of pure fun, but I haven’t really heard anything insightful out of him regarding his craft – granted, there’s the language barrier and all. But I can easily believe that he’s a doer, not a talker. Which the industry arguably needs more of than Crawford, whose ideas are sound while execution thereupon is rather thin on the ground.

    “You mention Raph Koster — actually I was going to say when I read this that Chris Crawford may be bad, but Raph Koster is terrible.”

    The crucial difference is that Raph seems to command a lot more mindshare among designers and the public, while Crawford is a hermit barking from the fringes. I think Koster is far more overrated than Crawford (who is often barely rated at all). Koster’s theories are either simplistic or broadly obvious. But he has the gift of gab and people seem to like him.

    The general problem in game design today is that the people with the loudest voices have the least to say.

    “There is, in fact, a word for people who think music doesn’t need “a beat you can dance to,” or other such pedestrian concerns. The rest of us tend to call them wankers.”

    Okay, so all music must have “a beat you can dance to”? Is that honestly how you define quality? That’s a pretty sizeable chunk of human creative endeavor you’re writing off there.

  13. Walter says:

    Thomas said:

    “There is, in fact, a word for people who think music doesn’t need “a beat you can dance to,” or other such pedestrian concerns. The rest of us tend to call them wankers.”

    Actually, I don’t believe that “wanker” said he doesn’t think music needs “a beat you can dance to.” Only that it has grown beyond that, which doesn’t necessarily mean “grown beyond and excluded.” I know a lot of people who agree with JP’s sentiment (myself included), but I don’t know anyone who would suggest that games should never be fun (not even Crawford) or that no music should ever be dance-worthy. Fun and danceability are excellent things. That doesn’t mean that’s what all games or music should be about.

    If your suggestion is that *all* music should only be concernced with being dance-worthy, and nothing else, well, I’d be shocked to discover this was a majority position among musicians, or everyone else for that matter.

    As for whether or not all games should be fun, it’s honestly an open question what we mean by fun. At the very least, I’d argue that games should be engaging or even fun, but that fun doesn’t have to be their primary concern.

    When I bother to reflect on various games that have engrossed me, I’m surprised to discover how little time is spent actually having what I would consider fun (Steven Johnson makes the same point in his recent book). In games like Wing Commander: Privateer or Shadow of the Colossus, most of my time is actually spent feeling far from elated. Likewise, a master chess or go player spends most of his/her time absorbed in thought, and may not even feel all that *happy* after winning, yet still come away feeling that the game was a valuable experience.

    If we’re still tempted to call these experiences “fun”, that’s because the word has basically become a synonym for play (because of the high correlation between fun and play), which is different from what we mean when we describe a Mario game as “incredibly fun.”

  14. peterb says:

    For me “fun” doesn’t necessarily mean “happy” or “joyous.” I’d propose that what we really mean is what is captured by the word “diverting.”

    If you like, pretend that when I said “Crawford’s games are not fun,” I really said “Crawford’s games are painfully boring and unengaging.”

  15. Walter says:

    Diverting is a good word, but I’d caution against trying to find (or impose, in Raph Koster’s case) a single definition for fun. Similarly, “diverting” has usages which no one would think to equate with fun.

  16. Thomas says:

    All music features a rhythmic beat. Maybe you don’t dance quickly to it, maybe it’s not a club-like OOMPH-CHICK, but the rhythm is always there. Without it, all you have is noise. The ties to physical movement from music are pretty clearly shown through all history. Human creative endeavor can fuck off when it starts rejecting the crucial tenets of the form.

    Maybe what you MEANT to use as a metaphor was “all music doesn’t have to have an electric guitar,” since that would be closer to the idea of removing “fun” from a game. Perhaps you meant “all music does not need to follow a I-IV-V chord structure.” Or maybe you honestly think that anyone would want to listen to randomly chosen beeps for long periods of time.

    But for most people, just as with designing a game that isn’t somehow diverting, that’s wanking. Enjoy your noise.

  17. JP says:

    To repeat:

    “music has grown beyond ‘has a beat you can dance to’”

    Popular music has typically had very stringent standards regarding rhythm. Danceability – and yes, by that I mean “you can get up and move around to it, often in a social setting” – is important.

    At no point did I argue that music should not have a meter of some sort. It is a formal quality of all music. Calm down, Beethoven.

  18. Thomas says:

    Pop music is no stranger to odd time signatures. And you never mentioned a word about “popular music.”

    In order to make your statement, now you’ve had to define music up, and dance down. All I’m saying is that it’s a very bad metaphor. Pick another.

  19. JP says:

    “Odd time signature” doesn’t really imply danceable or non-danceable.

    The metaphor says exactly what I intended. If there is only a single quality you use to judge a piece’s overall worth, that leads to an impoverished view of what is possible in the medium. Popular media typically do this because they’re in business, and business seeks to minimize risk, where taking a very quantitative, formula-driven view of art is a reasonably viable strategy.

    Challenging, lasting work is judged by a range of qualities. It provides the grist for future innovations and, eventually, mass culture.

    Either you define “fun” more broadly as “involving” and concede that there are other success metrics, or you prefer a future in which the medium does not grow beyond its current very marginal stature.

  20. Doug says:

    I’m reminded of a Fry and Laurie sketch where the interviewee is using metaphor after metaphor and the interviewer tries to keep up and finally says in an exasperated tone “Now we’ve moved on to chess.”

    I never did like metaphors. They more often seem to be used as smoke and mirrors than as tools to make a situation clearer.

  21. Walter says:

    “I never did like metaphors. They more often seem to be used as smoke and mirrors…”

    Interesting. :)

  22. Andy P says:

    Having read much of what Crawford has written, and listened to his painfully uninformed and, frankly, insulting rant at the GDC, I have come to an inescapable conclusion: the man is an imbecile.

    I don’t even know why his thoughts or opinions are rewarded with column inches, much less something as profound as attention. He hasn’t made any good games, he hasn’t sold any games, he hasn’t got any justification for saying that “games are dead” beyond the fact that EA games sell (what?), he hasn’t got any solutions to what he has decided is the problem beyond “interactive storytelling” which has been demonstrated time and again over the last 25 years to be a dead end, and his own arguments and claims are internally inconsistent.

    Ignore him. Please.

  23. garyh says:

    I’ve been to two of Chris Crawford’s talks in the past few years, and while everyone I know pretty much disagrees with him, he does tend to get people talking.

    My favorite part was the last one (at the nw games festival) where he was talking about how he used to say that games would never go anywhere without “people”/emotion, and then saying “well, I was wrong”. He says he gives the presentations to recruit new people, and lots of people took his pamphlets, so apparently some people are buying into his ideas.

    Still though, his storytron sounds like the worst features of adventure games set in a virtual/simulated world. Rules provide structure for games, and what he talks of doing would create an insanely complex ruleset that would take forever to figure out. Duplicating the real world for a single user so a computer can understand it requires such a complex user ruleset that I don’t see how it could be done. He says his storytron technology will eventually involve everyone in gaming, but the mass market has shown through casual games that it prefers simplicity, not complexity.

    I think it’s more likely that games like Facade will surpass him. I suppose you could say Facade already has but the game is more of an interesting novelty than a fun experience.

  24. Wladyka says:

    I’m a bit embaressed to admit this, but the first I really heard of Chris Crawford was reading the interview with him on Gamasutra. I’d heard his name before, but never connected it with anything important. I was taken aback by his comments and decided to have a look at what he’d done and where he was coming from. Needless to say, I was a little disappointed. Nothing to really point to and show what games ought to be doing. As others here have already pointed out, they weren’t “fun.”

    I think the thing that bothered me about what he said was his lack of substance. It’s true that a lot of people comment on the state of the industry without having made actual games (fun or otherwise), but these people generally point to things that have been done as examples of a thing done right, or done wrong and they then expound upon what it should have done.

    Chris Crawford points a finger at the industry and cries foul without actually pointing to something that could be done differently. He seems to think he was on the right track 15 years ago, but what did his games do? How did they change or re-direct? What did they contribute? He made some intricate Wargames, and my question to him is: So what?

    Perhaps an inelegant question, but really, why do we take this guy’s opinion seriously?

  25. Veritas says:

    Chris Crawford is quite the lackluster game academic (perhaps he should have stayed a physics academic?) and it’s nice to know that others aren’t convinced by his egocentric rhetoric either.

    You just won yourself a new regular viewer.