CATSCAN "Digital Dolphins in the Dance of Biz"
"It's the crystallization of a community!" the organizer exulted. He
was a skinny, manic, handwaving guy, with a glittering eye and a sly toothy
grin. He wore slacks, a zippered shirt of a color not found in nature, and a
two-foot-tall novelty cowboy-hat, of bright purple felt, with a polka-dot
The "community" in question were computer game designers,
swarming in a big roadside hotel in Silicon Valley, for four days in March
1991. There were close to four hundred of them. Time once again for
"Computer Game Developers' Conference." This was the Fifth Annual gig, and
the biggest one yet for "gaming professionals," and the best yet, maybe even
the richest yet -- but, according to what I heard over the wine and cheese, it
was somewhat less weird than the earlier ones. Almost dignified by
contrast, almost professional. Some side-effect of all that "crystallization,"
Five brief years ago, the very first such game-design conference had
been conjoined in Chris Crawford's living room, and with room to spare. Mr.
Crawford was the gentleman in the purple twenty-gallon hat.
I recognized the funny-hat syndrome. Made me feel right at home.
When I first met Damon Knight, at Clarion, this legendary SF critic, editor and
organizer had shown up with a big white bushel-basket beard, half-a-dozen
hollow plastic baseball bats, and great bounding bag full of rubber
superballs, which he proceeded to fling into the hallways and whack with
vim. Damon Knight, as a turbo-weirdo, a veritable ne plus ultra of cracked
genre loon, does not even have to try to pass for normal. And neither does
Chris Crawford. This is pretty much what genuine "power" and "influence"
look like, in a milieu of creative lunatics.
Chris Crawford is founder of the gaming conference, author of three
books and thirteen computer games, and the premier critic, theorist, and
analyst for THE JOURNAL OF COMPUTER GAME DESIGN: "The finest periodical
dedicated to computer game design -- the longest-running periodical
dedicated to computer game design -- the ONLY periodical dedicated to
computer game design!"
Computer gaming, like science fiction, has old roots; they even share a
common ancestor in H.G. Wells, a great player of simulation war-games.
But as a conscious profession, "computer game design" is only five years old.
Science fiction writing as a conscious profession dates back to Knight's
founding of the Milford Conference in 1956, followed, almost ten leisurely
years later, by his establishment of the SFWA. The metabolism of computer gaming is very swift. Science fiction writers are to computer game
designers as mosasaurs are to dolphins.
So, I had arrived in San Jose at the functional equivalent of a SFWA gig. A neatly desktop-published programme announced, on page one, "Our
Goals for the Conference: * to foster information exchange among
professionals in the computer game development industry, * to strengthen
the network of personal relationships in the computer game development
community, * to increase artistic and financial recognition for computer game developers, and * to enhance the quality of entertainment software."
Instantly recognizable SFWA committeespeak -- people trying hard to
sound like serious professionals. Let's hear those goals again, in actual
English: * to hang out and gossip; * to meet old friends again; * to try to
figure out some way to make more money and fame from obstreperous
publishers, crooked distributors, and other powerful sons-of-bitches; and,
(last and conspicuously least) * to kind of try and do a better job artistically.
Pretty much the same priorities as any Nebula gig.
The attendees were younger, different demographics than the SFWA,
but then their pursuit is younger, too. They looked a little different: still
mostly white guys, still mostly male, still mostly myopic, but much more of
that weird computer-person vibe: the fuzzy Herman Melville beards, the
middle-aged desk-spread that comes from punching deck sixty hours a
week, whilst swilling endless Mountain Dews and Jolt Colas, in open console-cowboy contempt of mere human flesh and its metabolic need for exercise
and nutrition... There were a few more bent engineers, more techies gone
seriously dingo, than you'd see at any SFWA gig. And a faint but definite
flavor of Hollywood: here and there, a few genuinely charismatic operators,
hustlers, guys in sharp designer suits, and career gals who jog, and send
faxes, and have carphones.
As a group, they're busily recapitulating arguments that SF had
decades ago. The number one ideological struggle of CGDC '91 -- an actual
panel debate, the best-attended and the liveliest -- concerned "depth of play
versus presentation." Which is more important -- the fun of a game, its
inherent qualities of play -- or, the grooviness of its graphics and sound, its
production values? This debate is the local evolutionary equivalent of
"Sense of Wonder" versus "Literary Excellence" and is just about as likely to
And then there's the ever-popular struggle over terminology and
definition. ("What Is Science Fiction?") What is a "computer-game?" Not
just "videogames" certainly -- that's kid stuff ("sci-fi"). Even "Computer Games" is starting to sound rather musty and declasse', especially as the
scope of our artistic effort is widening, so that games look less and less like
"games," and more and more like rock videos or digitized short films.
Maybe the industry would be better off if we forgot all about "games," and
suavely referred to our efforts as "computer entertainment" ("speculative fiction").
And then there are the slogans and the artistic rules-of-thumb.
"Simple, Hot, and Deep." A game should be "simple": easy to learn, without
excess moving parts and irrelevant furbelows to burden the player's
comprehension. It should be "hot" -- things should happen, the pace should
not lag, it should avoid dead spots, and maintain interest of all players at all
times. And it should be "deep" -- it should be able to absorb as much
strategic ingenuity as the player is willing to invest; there should be layer
after layer of subtlety; it should repay serious adult attention. "An hour to
learn, a lifetime to master."
And: "Throw the first one away." Game design is an iterative process.
Games should be hammered into shape, tested, hammered again, tested
again. The final product may bear as little relation to the original "idea" as
the average Hollywood film does to the shooting script. Good game-testers
can be as vital and useful as good editors in fiction; probably more so.
There are other issues of artistic expression. There is, for instance,
censorship, both external, and self-imposed. Young kids like computer
games; even quite sophisticated games end up in the hands of little kids, and
are designed accordingly. The game "Maniac Mansion" was pulled from the
shelves of the Toys-R-Us chain because (horror) it had the word "lust" on the
"Hidden Agenda" is a very innovative and highly politicized
simulation game, in which the player must take the role of President of a
small and turbulent Central American country, menaced by internal violence
and Cold War geopolitics. "Hidden Agenda" is universally admired, but had
a hard time finding a publisher.
There was an earnest panel on ethics in graphic violence. When a
villain is shot in a game, should the designer incorporate digitized blood and
guts in the scene? Some game designers feel quite disturbed about "the Nintendo War" in the gulf, in much the way that some SF writers felt, some
years back, about the advent of Reagan's "Star Wars." "Space exploration"
had seemed a noble thing, until the prospective advent of orbital x-ray laser fortresses. Was this what all our shiny rocket ships were supposed to be
about, in the end? Now game designers feel a similar sneaking guilt and a
similar sense of betrayal, suspecting that videogames have in fact cheapened
violence, and made inflicting death-by-computer seem a fine occupation for
American youth. It seems perfectly fine to kill "enemies" with cybernetic
air-strikes, as long as their blood doesn't actually splatter the VDT screen...
And then there's pornography, already present in the burgeoning CD-ROM market. If you're playing strip-poker with a virtual digitized Playboy-
model, is that harmless fun-for-guys stuff, with nobody exploited, nobody
hurt? Or is it some kind of (gulp) hideously oppressive dehumanized
And then, of course, there's business. Biz. Brass tacks. Your
average game designer makes rather more than your average SFWA
member. It's still not a living wage. The gamers have to work harder, they
have more specialized skills, they have less creative control, and the pace is
murderous. Sixty hour weeks are standard in the industry, and there's no
such thing as a "no-layoffs" policy in the software biz. Everybody wants to
hire a hard-working, technically talented enthusiast; having found such a
person, it is standard to put him on the "burnout track" and work him to
collapse in five years flat, leaving the staggering husk to limp away from
"entertainment" to try and find a straight job someplace, maintaining C code.
As "professionalism" spreads its pinstriped tentacles, the pioneers and
the lone wolves are going to the wall. There is "consolidation" in the
industry, that same sinister development that has led written SF deeper and
deeper into the toils of gigantic multinational publishing cartels and
malignant bookstore chains. "Software chains" have sprung up: Babbage's,
Electronics Boutique, Walden Software, Soft Warehouse, Egghead. The big
game publishers are getting bigger, the modes of publishing and distribution
are calcifying and walling-out the individual entrepreneur.
"Sequelism" is incredibly common; computer gaming builds off
established hits even more shamelessly than SF's nine-part trilogy-trilogies.
And "games" in general are becoming more elaborate: larger teams of
specialized workers tackling pixel animation, soundtrack, box design; more
and more man-hours invested into the product, by companies that now look
less like young Walt Disney drawing in a tabletop in Kansas, and much more
like old Walt Disney smoking dollar cigars in Hollywood. It's harder and
harder for a single creative individual, coming from outside, to impose his
vision on the medium.
Some regard this development as a healthy step up the ladder to the
Real Money: Lucasfilm Games, for instance, naturally wants to be more like
its parent Lucasfilm, and the same goes for Walt Disney Computer.
But others suspect that computer-gaming may suffer artistically (and
eventually financially) by trying to do too much for too many. Betty Boop
cartoons were simple and cheap, but were tremendously popular at the time
of their creation, and are still cherished today. Fleischer Studios came a
cropper when they tried to go for full-animation feature films, releasing
bloated, overproduced bombs like GULLIVER that tried and failed to appeal
to a mass audience.
And then there is The Beast Men Call 'Prodigy.' Prodigy is a national
computer network that has already absorbed nine hundred million dollars of
start-up money from IBM and Sears. Prodigy is, in short, a Major Player. In
the world of computer gaming, $900,000,000 is the functional equivalent of
nuclear superpower status. And Prodigy is interested in serious big-time
"computer entertainment." Prodigy must win major big-time participation
by straight people, by computer illiterates. To survive, it must win an
entirely new and unprecedently large popular audience.
And Prodigy was at the gaming conference to get the word out.
Prodigy subscribers play twelve thousand games of "Chief Executive Officer"
every day! What Prodigy wants is, well, the patronage of Normal People.
Nothing offensive, nothing too wacky, nothing too weird. They want to be
the Disney Channel of Cyberspace. They want entirely new kinds of
computer games. Games that look and smell like primetime TV, basically. A
crisply dressed Prodigy representative strongly urged game-designers
present to "lose the Halloween costumes." Forget "the space stuff" and "the
knights in armor." Prodigy wants games normal folks will play, something
that reflects general American experience. Something like... hmmm... "a high school popularity contest."
The audience seemed stunned. Scarcely a human being among them,
of either sex, could have ever won a high school popularity contest. If they'd
ever been "popular," they would never have spent so much time in front of
computers. They would have been out playing halfback, or getting laid, or
doing other cool high-school things -- doing anything but learning how to program. Not only were they stunned, but they rather resented the
suggestion; the notion that, after years of trying to be Frank Frazetta, they
were suddenly to become Norman Rockwell. I heard sullen mutterings later
about "Ozzie and Harriet Prodigy droids."
And yet -- this may well be The Future for "computer
entertainment." Why the hell does prime-time TV look as bad and stupid as
it does? There are very good reasons for this; it's not any kind of accident.
And Prodigy understands those reasons as well or better than any wacko
gamedesigner in a big purple hat.
Bleak as this future prospect may seem, there was no lack of
optimism, the usual ecstatic vaporware common to any business meeting of
"computer people." Computer game designers have their faces turned
resolutely to the future; they have little in the way of "classics." Their grails
are all to come, on the vast resistless wings of technological advance. At the
moment, "interactive characters" in games, characters that behave
realistically, without scripts, and challenge or befriend the player, are
primitive and scarcely workable constructs. But wait till we get Artificial Intelligence! Then we'll build characters who can carry out dramas all by
And games are becoming fatter and more elaborate; so much so that
the standard money-making target machine, the cheap IBM-PC clone with
the 16-bit 8088 chip running at five megahertz, is almost unable to hold
them. Origin's state-of-the-art "Wing Commander" game can take up half a
hard disk. But bigger machines are coming soon. Faster, with much better
graphics. Digital sound as good as stereos, and screens better than TV!
And then there's CD-ROM. Software, recorded on a shiny compact
disk, instead of bloated floppies and clunking hard disks. You can put
fifteen hundred (1500!) Nintendo cartridge games onto one compact disk --
and it costs only a dollar to make! Holy Cow!
The industry is tough and hardened now. It survived the Great Crash of 1984, which had once seemed the end of everything. It's crewed by
hardy veterans. And just look at that history! Why, twenty years ago there
was nothing here at all; now computer entertainment's worth millions! Kids
with computers don't do anything much with them at all, except play games
-- and their parents would admit the same thing, if they told the truth. And
in the future -- huge games, involving thousands of people, on vast modem-
linked networks! Of course, those networks may look much like, well,
But even without networks, the next generation of PCs will be a thing
of dazzlement. Of course, most everything written for the old PC's, and for
Macs and Amigas and such, will be unceremoniously junked, along with the
old PC's themselves. Thousands of games... thousands of man-hours of labor
and design... erased from human memory, a kind of cultural apocalypse...
Everything simply gone, flung out in huge beige plastic heaps like junked cars. Dead tech.
But perhaps "cultural apocalypse" is overstating matters. Who cares if
people throw away a bunch of obsolete computers? After all, they're
obsolete. So what if you lose all the software, too? After all, it's just
outdated software. They're just games. It's not like they're real art.
And there's the sting.
A sting one should remember, and mull upon, when one hears of
proposals to digitize the novel. The Sony reader, for instance. A little hand-held jobby, much like its kissing cousin the Nintendo Game Boy, but with a
Truck down to the local Walden Software, and you buy the local
sword-and-planet trilogy right on a disk! Probably has a game tie-in, too:
read the book; play the game!
And why stop there? After all, you've got all this digital processing-
power going to waste.... Have it be an illustrated book! Illustrated with
animated sequences! And wait -- this book has a soundtrack! What genius!
Now even the stupidest kid in the block is gonna want to learn to read. It's a
techical fix for the problem of withering literature!
And think -- you could put a hundred SF books on a compact disk for
a buck! If they're public domain books.... Still, if there's enough money in it,
you can probably change the old-fashioned literary copyright laws in your
favor. Failing that, do it in Taiwan or Thailand or Hong Kong, where software piracy is already deeply embedded in the structure of business. (Hong Kong
pirates can steal a computer game, crack the software protection, and
photocopy the rules and counters, and sell it all back to the US in a ziplock
baggie, in a week flat. Someday soon books will be treated like this!)
Digital Books for the Information Age -- books that aspire to the
exalted condition of software! In the, well, "cultural logic of postmodern capitalism," all our art wants to be digital now. First, so you can have it.
Replicate it. Reproduce it, without loss of fidelity. And, second -- and this is
the hidden agenda -- so you can throw it away. And never have to look at
How long will the first generation of "reading-machines" last? As long
as the now utterly moribund Atari 400 game machine? Possibly. Probably
not. If you write a "book" for any game machine -- if you write a book that
is software -- you had better be prepared to live as game software people
live, and think as game software people think, and survive as game
software people survive.
And they're pretty smart people really. Good fun to hang out with.
Those who work for companies are being pitilessly worked to death. Those
who work for themselves are working themselves to death, and, without
exception, they all have six or seven different ways of eking out a living in
the crannies of silicon culture. Those who own successful companies, and
those who write major hits, are millionaires. This doesn't slow down their
workaholic drive though; it only means they get bigger and nicer toys.
They're very bright, unbelievably hard-working, very put-upon; fast
on their feet, enamored of gambling... and with a sadly short artistic
lifespan. And they're different. Very different. Digital dolphins in their
dance of biz -- not like us print-era mosasaurs.
Want a look at what it would be like? Read THE JOURNAL OF
COMPUTER GAME DESIGN (5251 Sierra Road, San Jose, CA 95132 -- $30/six
issues per year). It's worth a good long look. It repays close attention.
And don't say I didn't warn you.
See Bruce Sterling's Acceptable use policy