Crawford v. Games: The People’s Case for Siboot

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 6.48.17 PMRight now on Kickstarter, a nerdy little pitch is sweating it out against the clock, trying to raise money for an independent science-fiction game called Siboot. The creators are a small international team headed by a guy named Chris Crawford. They want $50k to finish developing their game, and with less than three days left as I write this, they need to raise another $34k fast, to make their goal and get funded.

I’m writing this last-minute plea because Crawford’s game Siboot is WAY more important than it might seem at first glance, and it really, REALLY deserves to be funded. This post is all about why. I hope you’ll hear me out, and consider making a pledge, yourself. It matters for reasons that may surprise you—one of which is GamerGate. (yes, I’m serious.)

Thanks, but I’m not into videogames *shrug*

Then you are exactly the target audience for this project. Because Siboot does something traditional videogames not only don’t do, but can’t do: give you access to characters who have real personalities, feel true emotions, and change their opinions and feelings as you interact with them. It’s a much more living, human experience than traditional games are.

Thanks, but I like videogames just the way they are.

Hmmm. If you think games are just perfect, frozen in time, and should never ever change—no new ideas or ways of playing, no changies, no erasies—then you’re right. Siboot isn’t for you. And I’ll go even farther. If you think GamerGate is all about ethics in journalism and you’re mad at Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu and Zoe Baird for trying to take away your naked babes and other (frankly) boring clichés, this is not your gig. You’ll hate Siboot, too.

But if you are tired of being handed the same old mannequin dressed up in different clothes, and you occasionally wonder if there’s something else out there—something new and different that takes a sharp turn offroad and heads out into uncharted territory, à la “Mad Max: Fury Road”—if you’re curious to see games that spark your imagination about what computer games could be, if only someone would risk breaking new ground, you should care about Crawford’s big idea.

First with the background.

Chris Crawford has been around since the early days of computer games. Though his name is not as well-known outside the games industry as guys like Will Wright, Shigeru Miyamoto, and Sid Meier, he is an industry heavyweight, with several commercial hits under his belt, from back in the late eighties.

He is widely regarded as the dean of computer games for his critical contributions and has published a number of important books on game design. He’s also a leading light in the younger field of interactive storytelling (which is different from interactive fiction). That massive convention they hold all over the place, Silicon Valley’s version of ComicCon, known as the Computer Game Developers’ Conference (CGDC), started as a get-together in his living room.

OK, so he’s pretty smart and used to be a big shot in games. So what?

Back in the late eighties and early nineties, computer games were a baby industry, with some early successes under their belt and an expanding number of people who were buying computers. A growing market, in other words, with a big upside but a lot of uncertainty. They had to figure out where to put their juice.

The people with the bucks made a crucial choice at that time, to take the basic designs that were popular with their existing customer base—shooters (Galaxian, Asteroids, Wolfenstein’s Castle), platform/level games (Donkey Kong, Lode Runner, Pac-Man), and puzzle (Tetris, Minesweeper) and strategy (Balance of Power, The Art of War, Sim City) games—and sink all their money into improving the graphics. That trend has continued ever since.

Pretty much everybody loves great graphics (including me)! But because graphics are so expensive to make, over the past twenty years or more, game companies have dug themselves into a very deep trench. A box canyon of sorts. It takes upwards of $10 million to make something that will satisfy players’ expectations with regard to the graphics, and this makes game company executives very nervous. Unwilling to try anything new or irritate the people they view as their core fan base—many of whom are the spiritual descendants of those eighties and early nineties gamers, the nerdy young men we always hear about, who are more interested in guns and cars and technology than they are in other stuff. Women, people of color, and others who have been there from the beginning, who may not fit those narrow demographics, but regardless of those little checkboxes, who want to do more innovative work, struggle hard to be seen and heard in the games industry—perhaps more so even than in other creative spaces.

There is an indie presence in computer games, where you see a great deal more variety in developers and innovation. But indie developers struggle to survive financially. Very little money is made available to them for experimentation; the cost of developing the big, flashy games sucks all the oxygen out of the room. Indies and their concepts rarely make the transition to the mainstream. Meanwhile, mainstream developers quickly get bored and frustrated, tired of doing the same things over and over. The slope from the margins of game development to the center is a cliff face.

As a consequence, the games industry is languishing, in a creative slump. They’re in a rut and need a reboot. Crawford’s technology might just be that reboot.

That’s a mighty big claim you’re making, there, Laura.

It is. And there is sound reasoning underpinning it. Read on.

Crawford’s Rule: “People, not things!”

If you’ve gotten this far, it’s time for full disclosure: I worked with Chris Crawford on his technology, intensively, on and off for more than six years over a twelve- or thirteen-year period. I’m intimately familiar with what the technology can do, better than almost anyone but Crawford. We cofounded a startup, Storytron, to commercialize it, back in 2007.

I’m no longer with the company and am not benefiting financially from this endorsement, nor will I benefit if the game is a hit. I haven’t been involved in Storytronics for several years. I’m speaking up because I believe in what he is doing and think his big idea of putting people first in computer games has huge potential.

Crawford once half-jokingly granted me paternity rights to his creative baby, Storytronics, and I proudly claim it. Siboot is Crawford’s creation, but the underlying Storytron technology has a lot of my DNA, too, right down in its bones. (OK, now I’m having this twisted image of a gender-swapped Mad Max/ Imperator Furiosa team-up, with me as Max and him as Furiosa, racing across the desert in a war rig…. Heh.)

Crawford’s own “war rig” is Storytronics: the technology he has spent the last twenty years building, after he left the games industry and struck out on his own in the early nineties, fed up with the narrow constraints imposed on game developers. (You can watch his “Dragon Speech” here, by the way, in which he “resigns” from the industry. It’s an hour long, and is a thing of beauty—well worth your time.)

All computer games have a software engine at their center, which sets up and runs the rules on how the characters and objects respond to your choices. The engine at the heart of Siboot has very different rules than traditional games do, and this creates a radically different experience for the player. Unlike nearly every computer game in existence, your primary interactions in a Storytron-based game are with characters and their emotions in a virtual social space. Not objects and their traits in a virtual physical space.

But all games have characters and emotions!

Not like this, they don’t.

You really just have to experience it for yourself. My talking about Siboot can’t do it justice, because it’s so different from what you’re used to with games. We don’t have a good frame of reference for describing what it’s like. But think the baby Holodeck—only focus not on how the Holodeck looks, but rather how it feels.

The characters you interact with using Crawford’s technology feel real, in a way you haven’t felt before.

I know this is true, because I’ve experienced it for myself. I have both created and played with earlier prototypes. (Yes, the Storytron “war rig” has been built and fully tested, across multiple generations. Siboot is Crawford’s first commercial run with it—he’s taking the tech out for a spin.) The way the characters acted, and made their own decisions, and were obviously sizing me up as we interacted—it made my hair stand on end.

This is what makes Siboot, and Crawford’s plans to commercialize the engine that drives it, so disruptive and exciting.

How can one indie game really be so important?

I mentioned that fork in the road for the games industry, over twenty years ago. What Crawford believes, and I believe, is that they missed a big opportunity back then, by sinking all their money into graphics instead of investing in more stuff like character interaction and human emotion. Now we have a chance to revisit that decision. To start fresh with a new paradigm—one that elevates people over things. We have a chance to create a new kind of player experience that will have broader appeal.

And Siboot is just the beginning. If it’s a commercial success, as I believe it will be, if it’s funded; it will be only the first of many more character-based games built using Storytronic technology. Crawford intends to open-source the underlying technologies for other developers’ use, in addition to his own further efforts to commercialize this new approach.

But seriously now, what does this really have to do with GamerGate?

The problem many women have with traditional computer games is that games, especially first-person shooters—if they even have women in them—often objectify them. They’re merely present as eye candy, fridgification for hero motivation, damsels-in-distress useful only for rescuing, or offered up as relationship/ sex cookies as the male hero’s reward after completing a difficult battle.

It’s a lot easier to objectify female characters in games when they actually are objects, and not characters with real feelings, who can tell you you’re full of shit when you do shitty things. Storytronic characters—of every stripe—have a much easier time getting uppity. I’m just saying.

Mind you, I’m not saying that Siboot is a feminist game. That’s my schtick, not Crawford’s (though like me, he is very excited about new types of game design and technology that make women and their concerns more central to games and game development). Nor am I claiming that more games built with Crawford’s Storytronics will bring about a feminist techno-topia (though a woman can dream!).

The Storytron engine can be used for any kind of interactive entertainment that involves character interaction and human emotion, including reflections on fatherhood, brothers, war, and other concerns typically associated with men. It’s up to the person who creates a game with the Storytron engine, as to who the characters are and what the core conflicts are about. But either way, people and character interaction will always be central. Not guns, collectible objects, puzzles, and so on. This is built into the technology’s essence. And it’s a tectonic shift.

Hmmm…the “baby Holodeck,” eh?

Come on, admit it; you’re at least a little curious about whether what I’m saying could possibly be true.

Dream big. Buy a piece of the game and see for yourself. Help Crawford transform the games industry into a more human-centered enterprise and get in on the ground floor with a nifty social-intelligence-strategy game, while you’re at it.

Seriously, it’s a good deal for you, and it’s a big deal for the advancement of games.

I’m in! Where do I sign up?

Yay! Good decision! Go here and make a pledge. You’ll be kickstarting something cool—a game that will be a kick to play, and a technology that could make a real difference.

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