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Bruce Sterling
bruces@well.sf.ca.us

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 hatband.

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," presumably....

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 be resolved.

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 box!

"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 computer-assisted sex-objectification?

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 themselves!!

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! Cheap, too!

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, Prodigy....

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 print-legible screen.

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 it again.

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.

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