Sunday, May 17, 2020

Pitfall II: Scene 2: "Good Game Design"

What follows is not an accurate depiction of David Crane’s words, it’s an interpretive collage, quoting separate interviews. If the words are interesting, and you have the time, I recommend experiencing them in context. He and I are from different eras, and I’m definitely sure Crane wouldn’t agree with a lot of this essay (though I would hope he agrees with some of it), so I want to make it clear that I’m not using his words for that reason. I went through a lot of David Crane interviews to curate this. Those interviews were colored by a bit of Silicon Valley myth-making. The ways in which the arcade mentality will (rightfully) never leave the original game authors is interesting, but is a view that I have personally left behind. From various interviews, my impression of Crane is that of a humble and genuine person, and I’d say his reminiscing over the glory days was something hard earned.

This is neither a defense of Crane, nor a plea for recognition for game history that is dissipating from our eyes. This isn’t exactly about him, a successful man by all rights, that doesn’t need some blogger to prop him up. This is about authorship and reconnection.

I turn this space over to my interpretive pantomime of David Crane.


Each time I finish a game I look to the real world for inspiration. I was primed for the idea when I saw it, and the product flowed very easily from that point.

I stick to games that a normal person can pick up easily and enjoy 10 minutes away from that difficult spreadsheet. I stick to casual games and that [might’ve been] the secret to my longevity in this business.

There was no doubt during development that Pitfall! was going to open up a whole new genre of games: the genre that came to be known as platformers. With screen-to-screen gameplay, the next screen could be the start of a completely different environment. If rom allowed (which it didn't for many years) you could theoretically run from the jungle, to the city; and from the city, to a ship docked on the ocean, etc. I just had to make pitfall good enough to achieve that promise, and it would lead the way into the future.

A lot went wrong at Atari in 1979, in spite of the fact that they were making $100 million per year selling videogame cartridges. They made a classic mistake, one that is repeated over and over in every business. They didn’t follow rule number one: If you make your living on creative products, keep your creative talent happy. Four of Atari’s most successful game designers: Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller, Bob Whitehead and I tended to hang around together. One day we discovered that we four had created games that accounted for 60 per cent of Atari’s $100M in game cartridge sales for the previous year. We were making less than $30K salaries. When we asked Atari’s new president (Nolan was no longer there) for a piece of the action, we were told ‘You are no more important to the success of those products than the person on the assembly line who puts them together.’ We didn’t agree so we left to form our own game publishing company. We met up with Jim Levy and together created Activision.

Activision was founded on the principle that a video game was a creative product for which the author ought to be credited. Other companies at the time treated games as engineering projects, no different than the next electronic chip to come from the engineering department.

We wanted to create an environment where if a game player enjoyed the "writing style" of a particular game designer, he or she could look for the next game by that same author and not be disappointed.

[Credit] was a founding premise of the company. We started our own publishing house because we felt that people would like to know who authored their favourite game so that they could buy their next one. What was really fun was going into the game store the day our first four games shipped. The owner of the store was just unpacking the boxes and looking at our pictures as we entered the store. He did a classic double-take.

Think more "book author" than "pop star". The recognition we sought was that of the author of a creative work of fiction. Like most people, I have my favourite authors and I know that I will buy their next book on the strength of their last.

[The] real thrill is hearing directly from a game player that your work touched them in some way. Because there was a name and a face behind the game, players were able to let me know directly how much they enjoyed playing one of my games.

In the early days of Activision our primary focus was quality. We continued to work on a game until the whole group could say it’s as good as it’s going to get. Most times that meant a whole lot of rewriting and tweaking. And sometimes a game never reached that threshold and it was shelved.

I did not leave by choice. The new president [at the time], Bruce Davis, asked me to take a fraction of my salary, with the rest made up through an incentive bonus. I asked him to put the bonus in clear terms in writing and he couldn't. You might think we were at an impasse, but we weren't. He just slashed my salary without a compensating bonus. So I left. See, I learned something from my days at Atari when it comes to verbal promises.

There is no comparison [to Activision today]. The Activision of the Eighties was a research project. Every aspect of the business, from technology through marketing had to be invented. You could fill a textbook with the ideas pioneered by the over-achievers who flocked to work at Activision. And many of those ideas are still in use today.


There's a lot I wanted to say about labor as it relates to corporate game making, and so like, the hollowing out of Activision, as it compromised toward profit margins, is this genuine representative tragedy of what has been lost. As I consulted primary sources, I wanted someone with real stakes to represent those links, and to let them mostly establish themselves. My goal instead is to scale up the tragedy of Activision as a loss of appreciation for authorship and authored games in general.

This concept of authorship is a bridge between past, present, and future in videogames. After playing a range of original Activision games, I was impressed by their raw intention. They’re purposefully made, defying the stereotype that early game design was by people who didn't know any better, and convey a bite-sized, accessible mixture of texture and emotion. There is no doubt they are a product of self-respecting, strenuous authorship. Though 2600 games are somewhat similar in their form (it is inarguable that technology shaped their biases and approaches) these originals are still as stunning as games that win Ludum Dares, or similarly inspired sorts of experimental arcade-y games that proliferate on And so I wondered, why did these ancient (in game years) 2600 games feel so similar to modern game making approaches?

This was a genuine shock because the conventional wisdom I was baptized in on forums and retro game communities were obstinate that 2600 games were… not any good. I accepted this without playing any 2600 games. As the narrative goes, the console was too primitive, and, at that time, developers really didn’t know what they were doing, resulting in awful games that are best thought of as historical curiosities; some stepping stones toward whatever retro golden age, and so then further toward the advancements we have today. Ironically, as I’ve been cursed to live on the internet longer and longer, I’ve seen this same narrative repurposed to smear the NES, which was vehemently considered the superior console with the best game library some 15 years ago, and could probably see this line of reasoning dreamed up for pretty much any year in games older than 5. People are really invested in this idea that game design has gotten better over time and that it’s self-evident that prior developers had undeveloped ideas of good game design. I think if you read almost any interview from game makers of their time, this mythical lack of foresight or direction is nonexistent.

When it comes to charting a coherent videogame history, authorship is a simple concept that I find ties us all together. The desire to create with whatever tools we have, to share something with our fellows, is a powerful commonality that transcends artistic mediums and approaches. Whether from self-love, or love for each other, or dissidently any mixture of negative emotions, the need to process the unspoken, and so on, those desires are what binds and compels artistic pursuit. I need to emphasize that all of the beloved retro games came from solo devs, partners, or small teams! The majority of games that have been made, and are being released in the present, have been authored or co-authored, and this is a contrast to the recent commercial proliferation of corporate made art.

Present day, games that are authored are marginalized in favor of videogames that are directed within corporate access. Authored games are squinted at and mistrusted. The majority of players end up playing a slim minority of games made. People’d sooner pay $60 for assured reaffirmation from a sequel, than be assed to take a bet on something that's free, and usually only asks for an hour or less of your time. That "hardcore" videogame subculture sprang out of Silicon Valley-esque attraction to new-tech-for-the-sake-of-it and can be understood as a mass culture mirror of SV-ethos. Progress at any cost! (Labor, materials, the warming of the planet, the inability to define progress, these are thoughts to be buried deep into the void of fun). Innovation over all! (What is “innovation” besides the backing of capital?) While gamers tacitly follow alongside the technosphere's reality warping by their uncritical acceptance of planned obsolescence, labor exploitation, and being completely at the whims of investors, they don't exactly realize or acknowledge what it is they’re supporting. If you try to persuade a gamer of any of this, they will completely deny it, because they are convinced of their own freedom to buy and play only "good games."

Simultaneously, and I believe not yet in contradiction to our technocratic subculture, I think we’re hitting a point and time where lots of people are realizing (to some extent) that technological progress is a hamster wheel. I’m not being generous. The barriers toward VR access/appeal, and the obviously slimming difference between what the major consoles iterations can achieve, have been disillusioning. Nintendo has a runaway success on very medium-tiered, cellphone-like technology (again). Digital stores and subscriptions are filled with older games, rather than curating newer selections, and the retail "product cycle" of targeting and marketing only new releases husk of what it was, being replaced by chaotic free-for-all digital storefronts, and videogames that are whole markets and platforms unto themselves (GAMES AS SERVICE (I'm playing fgo as I write this)). People are finding out that Super Metroid and Super Mario Bros. 3 are still good (oblivious that the profile of these games are magnified by Nintendo’s cultural monopoly). These are good and bad developments, though notably just forecast the future for corporate made videogames.

These futures reign ahead because AAA-tentpoles aren’t enough anymore. Progress and innovation at all costs is simply not what it used to be (and if you’ve noticed, “progress and innovation” hasn’t exactly been the goal of big budget games for decades now). The companies that can afford to have alternative revenue streams are chipping away at them, even if they’re as absurd as an EA-games-only monthly subscription. The customer loyalty and manipulation that stems from being able to bask in history-making achievements (or rather, esoteric technological achievements) is approaching non-competitive when compared to the staggering, statistical might of manipulating base psychological desires directly. No narratives of progress that need to be learned, no special inclinations toward technology needed! I make this point in all of my generalist essays, the simple fact that F2P has outpaced, and probably at this point, replaced the videogame containers we grew up with, for different reasons, so I’ll try not to belabor it.

In light of this replacement, and so a resulting shift of profitable priorities, what constitutes progress is getting fuzzy. Super Mario Odyssey is a good example of this (it's also the only one I can come up with because I'm becoming more and more disconnected from the game zeitgeist). By any metric you throw at it, it’s a conservative, by-the-numbers game that plays exactly how you’d expect it to. Its graphics are, you know, amazing, because amazing is the par, but they aren’t on the bleeding edge of anything. There’s no way to imagine Super Mario Odyssey looking like the Apple II Prince of Persia, so a sense of technological progress is still embedded into what an acceptable Super Mario Odyssey game would look like. Is the game “innovative”? Fuck no. Controlling the protagonist through awkward and egregiously pointless transformation has been the dream since Battletoads, Wario Land II, or Banjo-Kazooie, and likely uncountable other mascot-driven psychosis machines. Odyssey just has more because Nintendo dumped more money into its development. Is Super Mario Odyssey expensive? Hell yes. Obsessively over-detailed to the point of sickness, and I can’t tell if the sickness is from overstimulation, or some base rejection of people throwing away their lives crunching over a fucking Mario game.

This game got fucking lauded for being expensive. It was claimed as being highly innovative, at least in the context of Mario games, which I assure you is a pointless fucking context. Even if I were to pick at and prod what innovation means, I would be assured by someone that, if nothing else, this game is Mario gameplay at its best, with some bullshit explanation about it being the most polished or most iterative or the best feeling. Because it just is. It is buttery smooth and responsive...

What if I don’t want that? What if I’m fucking sick of condescending game mechanics that are willed exactly where I want them to be! Games that only lightly push back, and never go against my expectations, so I can feel both comfortable and accomplished. Game making that can only produce games that are afraid of their audience, that try to pacify before thought breaks through sensation.

Well, with this tantrum I’d rub up against what is our most (at least now it is) enduring faux-narrative of progress: the fact that game design gets better over time. With the growing loss of our games-as-technological-progress narrative, this one is our fallback. A technology of ideas! The technology of ideas has lasted concurrently with "technology make game good." Wolfenstein 3D invented the concept of first person shooters, and Doom really honed that early concept, perfecting it, but it wasn’t until the Half-Life series that first person shooters really came into their own as immersive experiences. I have seen that narrative enough times that I’m just as familiar with it, or maybe more familiar with it, than my own life experience. It’s just one of those permanent synapses up in my brain now. And, besides being hugely inaccurate on its own terms of a videogame historical-materialist artistic legacy, it’s complete bullshit.

There’s absolutely nothing indicative in that narrative about how the games play or what makes them improvements on each other, except the fact that the feature list of each game gets larger. People have really poor language for describing how game design gets “better," and it's the same between genre lineages like those, and new Mario games. Here’s the secret why! It doesn’t fucking get better or worse in a linear line. Each context a single game occurs in is way more unique than is currently and generically given credit. That games are authorial constructs has yet to penetrate the pink membrane of gaming. Yes, large formal similarities between Doom and Half-Life tie them together. They are 3D games with first person perspectives that require the protagonist to shoot at times. But there’s so much less in their emotional textures, or in their aesthetic arguments, that’s comparable. In just a basic refutation, they come from almost entirely different perspectives on how to make a game! (Dream horror clusterfuck vs. persistent and consistent world).

Here's my own cheesy analogy for this. The Divine Comedy and Frankenstein are both collections of prose bound together in the shape of a narrative. We can conclude that Frankenstein improved on the prose techniques introduced by Dante to make reading more legible and possible, but it wasn’t until the Foundation series that—
You get the point, hopefully. Draw comparisons and conclusions like this about videogames at your own embarrassment.

To clarify a fracture point, I’m well aware that id Software and tons of other developer habitats, from basements to small companies, were really cognizant of being the world first at implementing game tech at scale. This stemmed from more of a gold rush-type Silicon Valley attitude than anything. Yet few people remember Alpha Waves or Alone in the Dark except as these sort of technology-of-ideas-curiosities. Fewer still can advocate for those games on their own merits. So...

Who the fuck cares who’s first! Who the fuck cares who’s better! I don’t want impassioned canons about conquering each other. I want to care. I want to dream inward toward people I’ve yet to become. I want to feel your beating heart embroidered over barely working computer detritus. I want to feel something real and to never feel ashamed that I can.

Unless those “firsts” or "polished good game design" get serious market penetration, they don’t really matter. If any of this game making stuff matters at a soul level then we need to get over this bullshit market-first thinking. We need to get over damaging, impossible ideas of artistic progress. Because these concepts are soul killers. They’re antithetical to the present day continuation of authorship and authored games, authorship that is the lifeblood of communities that I treasure and find joy and solace in.


links to david crane interviews