INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT DESIGN Volume 9, Number 4, April 1996
Interactive Entertainment Design
5251 Sierra Road
San Jose, CA 95132
published six times/year, $36 year, $50 outside US
(((We now conclude Mr Crawford's essay on the decline of
computer gaming, "Computer Games Are Dead.".)))
Howcum we're still kicking? It would be easy to
dismiss my apocalyptic preaching with the simple
observation that the industry is financially healthy. The
hairshirts who point with quavering fingers at our
iniquity, threatening hellfire and brimstone, may be at
least partially right about the iniquity, but so far we
seem to have been doing enough things right that the
hellfire and brimstone are on hold. So perhaps we should
ignore crazy hairshirts like Chris Crawford.
It's certainly true that the computer games industry
has successfully escaped damnation for quite some time
now. In many ways, the situation is similar to the stock
market, which just keeps rising and rising in blithe
disregard for the predictions of financial experts who
insist that it must come down sooner or later. The
financial papers talk about the Dow defying gravity, and
nobody seems to understand what's happening. The big
difference, of course, is that canny investors are
balancing their portfolios with greater diversification,
but the computer games industry just keeps believing in
There are three reasons for the apparent levitation
of the computer games industry. First is easy money.
Because so much money was made by the pioneers, there are
plenty of investors willing to pour money into the
business. Because everybody sees this as a growth
industry, investors are willing to lose money today in
order to get a solid market position for the future.
So the money pours into our industry, we build
million-dollar products that return ten cents on the
dollar for their development costs, and we just keep
reminding our investors of Myst and Doom. We think that
because we're gaining money, we're doing just fine, but in
fact much of that income is investment, not earnings.
Someday the easy money will dry up, and when it does, we
won't look so superhuman.
Another factor in our continuing success is the
supply of cheap labor. Any other industry would have to
pay its creative and technical people huge amounts of
money for their services, but in this business there are
always eager young talents willing to work for next to
nothing to get their big break. There are thousands of
people who are working on speculation, and their net
contribution to this industry can be valued in the
hundreds of millions of dollars.
This labor acts just like investment, so again the
impression is created of a wealthy and successful
industry, but in fact it's more like those financial
empires assembled by con men who borrow in long chains,
making themselves look rich on borrowed money. At some
point, a payment comes due that can't be met, and the
whole financial "empire" collapses.
So it is with our industry. At some point the
expectation of easy money will erode, causing some of the
opportunists investing their time to write off their
investment, depriving companies of valuable cheap labor,
further accelerating their decline, which in turn only
hastens the first process.
A third factor in our faux-success is the false basis
of most of our sales. Several years ago I pointed out
that we were riding on the backs of the hardware
manufacturers, who have performed economic miracles in
lowering the price of the personal computer while raising
its performance. The ever-improving price/performance
ratio of personal computers has enticed an ever-larger
segment of the public to take the plunge.
Of course, whenever you buy hardware, you might as
well get a few games. I believe that the ignorant games
purchases of initial computer buyers have been a major
component of our industry's financial success in the last
The best evidence in support of this belief is the
dramatic concentration of sales in a few hit titles.
Surely the phenomenal success of Myst cannot be due to any
overwhelming superiority of the title == we've all played
the game and we all know how good it is. Existing computer
owners did not rush out to buy Myst because it's the
greatest computer game to come along in years. Instead, it
established a solid reputation as a great pretty pictures
game, the one for first-time buyers to get in order to
show off the wonderful capabilities of their new machines.
If my hypothesis be correct, then as the deceleration
in sales of home computers expands, we should see a strong
decline in the sales of computer games. This issue will
make itself clear in a matter of a year or two. If in
fact we do see this strong decline, then we will know that
we've been living in a fool's paradise, and that the
financial success we have enjoyed has little to do with
the economic merits of our output.
You can't defy gravity forever. We've pulled off a
great levitation act for the last five years, but reality
will catch up with us and when it does, we'll hit the
ground all the harder for our failure to appreciate what's
If there were no other forces at work, we'd be facing
the same future that coin-op games and videogames are
But there are other forces at work, forces that
might save computer gaming: multimedia and the Internet. I
will not prognosticate on their separate futures; you've
seen more than enough hype on those two subjects already.
Instead, I want to focus on the how these two forces will
affect computer games.
Let's start with multimedia. What is most striking to
me about multimedia is the fact that it isn't gaming.
That is, multimedia is just another term for interactive
entertainment, but there's a clear connotation of
differentiation from gaming. We may not know what
multimedia really is, but we do know that it isn't gaming.
Yes, computer games use CD-ROMs and sound boards and full
motion video, just like multimedia products, but we still
know that computer games are distinct from multimedia.
This distinction implies divergence, and divergence
means that multimedia won't save computer gaming. I think
that multimedia represents a society-wide rejection of
computer games. After all, if everybody thought that
computer games represent the path to the future, then what
need would there be for an alternative path utilizing the
same means? The rapid growth of multimedia represents a
broad desire for something other than computer games,
something different. Therefore, the progress of
multimedia represents not the salvation of computer games,
but its bane.
The Internet is a different story. This is not an
alternative using the same technology, but something quite
new. What is exciting about the Internet is that its
culture is as yet undefined. Initially a research
culture, later a more broadly academic culture, now it is
moving out into larger circles of society, and along the
way its culture is changing. Because it is so ill-
defined, the starry-eyed optimists among us see whatever
they wish to see in the Internet. At some point, though,
the Internet will crawl into focus; it will not be all
things to all people.
I don't know what this focal point will be, but let's
explore two simplistic alternatives based on a single
polarity: let's assume that either the Internet culture
will embrace the techie-nerd culture that dominates
computer gaming, or it will reject it. Again, this is a
simple polarity, but it clarifies our reasoning. Because
if the Internet settles down to an on-line manifestation
of the techie-nerd universe, then its entertainment will
be a clone of the existing techie-nerd world of computer
games == in which case computer gaming will not be changed
by the Internet.
On the other hand, if the Internet becomes populist,
mainstream rather than techie-nerd, then conventional
computer games will fail on the Internet just as surely as
they have failed to penetrate society at large, and the
computer gamers will retreat into their own little
hobbyist enclave the same way they've done with standalone
Either way, we come to the same conclusion: the
Internet is not going to change the nature of computer
gaming. A dying man can change hospitals, but it won't
change the outcome.
Some will point to the multi-player aspect of the
Internet and argue that this is the revolutionary
socializing factor that will change the face of gaming.
Until now games have been solitary experiences, attracting
asocial nerds and repelling the more socially adept. The
Internet will change all that, they say, attracting a new
type of player, thereby enabling a whole galaxy of new
There is merit in this argument, but I think it must
take a back seat to the larger cultural issues surrounding
the use of the Internet. I really don't think that large
numbers of people will make their decision to participate
in the Internet solely on the basis of the games available
there. Ultimately, the Internet will develop a culture,
and this overarching culture will dictate the style of
games that will be commercially viable.
In other words, the availability of fine multi-player
games will not attract large numbers of "normal" people to
join an otherwise "techie-nerd" culture. If, by my
previous argument, the Internet instead becomes a medium
for "normal" people, then the multi-player interactive
entertainment available will be differentiated from
computer gaming, and again we will see the divergence
between computer gaming and Internet interactive
entertainment in exactly the same manner that multimedia
has differentiated itself from computer gaming.
What I am saying here is that technology doesn't
change people; people change technology. It took nearly a
decade for computer games to establish their target
market, but that marketplace is now clearly defined, and
it's the people == the customers == who dictate the shape
of computer gaming. New technologies will not change the
Computer gaming has failed to establish itself as a
mass market medium. Instead, the field has become a hobby,
and hobbies tend to be insular and resistant to change.
I am not suggesting that computer games will drop off
the face of the earth. Indeed, they will surely persist
with the same durability demonstrated by, say, model
railroading, amateur photography, and woodworking. But
this generation has dropped the torch in its scramble for
quick gain, and has lost its shot at creating a living
medium with a bright future.
Instead, we have created a hobby, a good and fine
thing, to be sure, but nothing approaching the potential
that we optimistically contemplated back in the early 80s.
As for me, well, I don't give up so easily. I have
picked up the torch, brushed it off, and resumed trudging
up the now-lonely path, even as the rest of the parade
gaily marches down to hell. There are plenty of other
people standing around hopefully, potential torchbearers
all, each bringing some special talent to the picture. I
don't know whether it will emerge from the multimedia
people, or the Internet people, or from some other
direction, but I do know that we need to start all over
and build a new creative community, one dedicated to the
construction of a mass medium rather than the exploitation
of a technology.
I approach this task with optimism and excitement.
Over the last year or two, as I have opened my eyes to
people outside the traditional computer gaming community,
I have discovered a wide array of talented people,
bursting with energy and enthusiasm. They're out there,
ready to make a revolution.
Chris Crawford interview