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One of the first people to speak and write about game design from an almost literary perspective, he has created his share of classic computer games, including some of the original Atari 800 titles from Atari ("SCRAM," "Energy Czar"), Avalon Hill's "Legionnaire," and the seminal 8-bit wargame, "Eastern Front (1941)." Later, he moved to the Macintosh, creating "Balance of Power," "Patton vs. Rommel," and "Patton Strikes Back," among others. Chris is the founder of the Journal of Computer Game Design, the Computer Game Developers' Conference, and is the author of several books, including The Art of Computer Game Design.
What led up to the writing of your first computer game?
I bumped into a fellow at the University of Missouri, Columbia who was working on a computerized version of the Avalon Hill game "Blitzkrieg." I told him he was crazy. But the thought stuck in my mind, and the next year I started working on the problem myself. That was in 1976.
How did you get hired at Atari?
My wife got a job in Silicon Valley, and we were moving there. I was looking for some kind of job there, too. She saw an ad: "Programmers: design your own games." I answered the ad; it was a headhunter who, after interviewing me, decided to reject me. I protested that I already had done several computer games that I could show him, but he dismissed me because I didn't have three years of programming experience. I was crushed. My wife grabbed a telephone book in anger and flipped the yellow pages open to "computer games." The first listing was "Atari." We called their personnel office the next morning, got an interview, and I was hired. Turned out the job I got was the one the headhunter interviewed me for.
What sort of people were writing games at Atari at the time? What was the atmosphere like?
Almost all were programmers, very heavy technical types. The atmosphere was very much techie. The technical problems of getting anything to work in that environment were overwhelming—2K of ROM, 128 bytes of RAM, no screen buffering. You had seventy-seven machine cycles to draw the scan line on the fly. What a challenge that was!
You had four games published in 1981. How did you manage that?
They were the accumulated results of two years' work. "Energy Czar" was written from January to June 1980 and then sat inside Atari until January 1981. "Scram" was written from June to November 1980 and published in June 1981. "Tanktics" was written on the side during 1980 and published by Avalon Hill in 1981. "Eastern Front (1941)" was written January-August 1981 and published in September 1981.
"Eastern Front" was a state of the art wargame in its time. What deficiencies of contemporary games were you trying to overcome?
Two: poor user interface and poor artificial intelligence. I came up with slick solutions to both problems. The AI was particularly clever. All the user I/O was taken care of during vertical blank processing, a few thousand cycles every 60th of a second. The AI itself ran during the mainline processing, using a system of convergent approximations. Thus, the AI started off with a stupid move and then kept examining improvements on it. You could take as long as you wanted to plan your own move, but every second you took to plan your move, the computer got another million cycles to refine its own move.
Why was "Eastern Front" released through the Atari Program Exchange instead of the official Atari label?
Because the Atari marketing people thought that a wargame would never sell.
Was it your idea to sell the source code? That flew in the face of the heavy corporate secrecy of the time.
Yes, and since I owned the source code, it was my decision to make. Funny thing, though: even publishing the source code didn't do the trick. Lotsa people still had problems with the programming problems and nobody ever came up with anything as good as "Eastern Front (1941)" on the Atari.
Did the "Eastern Front" source code kit sell well?
The "Eastern Front" source code was the most expensive item in the APX catalog; I think it sold for $150. All I can remember about its sales figures is that they greatly exceeded our expectations. We concluded that a lot of people wanted to know how it was done.
What was the mood at Atari in the year prior to the big layoffs? Did you see it coming?
Nobody foresaw the collapse coming, not even me, and I was the Cassandra of the company. I still remember a manager's dinner held in early March 1984 at which a few hundred of us gathered, all congratulating ourselves on having survived the worst. Within three months almost every person in that room had lost his/her job.
Which of your post-Atari games are you the most satisfied with?
I don't know. "Balance of Power" was the big success, and there's much to be proud of in it, but "Trust & Betrayal" was a greater creative leap.
What's special about the design of "Trust & Betrayal?"
"Trust & Betrayal" was special because it went off in a completely new direction in game design. It was chock full of innovations. For example, it was in "Trust & Betrayal" that I first used the concept of the sentence structure, both as an interface element and as a central data structure. I cannot tell you how important sentence structures are to advanced game design. Other designers are just now beginning to catch onto the significance of this concept, which I first used eight years ago in "Trust & Betrayal." It was the first game with strong personality modeling, the first game built around emotional character interaction. It advanced some of my concepts of non-transitive combat relationships. In about a year, I'll be able to fill in even more on its significance.
What was the public reaction to "Trust & Betrayal"?
The public didn't know what to think of "Trust & Betrayal." It only sold about five thousand copies, so it was definitely a failure. It just didn't fit into any of the standard design genres.
You do the programming for all of your game designs. Is this simply because you enjoy it or would the results suffer otherwise?
I certainly don't enjoy programming; I'm a designer first and foremost. But I am close to my designs and the stuff I do would strike most programmers as impossible, so rather than fighting with programmers, I just do it myself. I've had enough cases where the programmer couldn't even get a port of my working code running on another machine.
Has the disappearance of "lone wolf" developers had any effect on the industry?
It has reduced the amount of wild and crazy design going on. Nowadays, with budgets so high, people are very conservative, sticking to the tried and true designs. We get less creativity.
What's your current development system?
A Power Mac 8500, 120 MHz, 16MB RAM, a 21" monitor and a 15" monitor, and Metrowerks C++. Learning C++ turned out to be a much easier task than I had feared. All the horror stories are greatly overstated.
Have the advances in hardware or computer languages made your job any easier?
The advances in hardware and languages have indeed made my job easier, but there are costs as well as benefits. In general, I can get more done more quickly these days, but I'm expected to get more done to stay in the race with other people. Still, in terms of overall productivity, life is certainly better now than ten years ago. I remember waiting ten minutes for a compile. Nowadays it takes a few seconds.
What's your opinion of the increasing technical nature of gaming? I've heard people put down "Doom" for not being fully three dimensional.
It just drives gaming deeper and deeper into its own little rut. I think that gaming is losing touch with the real world. Someday there will be something very big involving computers and entertainment, but it won't be called "games," and it won't be anything like the current crop of games.
In all your years in the game industry, what's the most preposterous thing you've seen or heard?
Hard question; there have been so many. There was an interface that hooked a games machine up to an exercycle, the idea being to give people a chance to play an interesting game as they were exercising. Most of the game ideas involved pedaling harder to escape from something chasing you. The idea got pretty far, until somebody asked, "What happens if a customer keels over from a heart attack?" Scratch that idea. Then there was the doodad that attached to your head and picked up brain electrical activity. The idea was to play a game by controlling the machine with your thoughts. They actually built it and tried it out. Problem was, people would get so excited in a game, they'd scrunch their facial muscles all over trying to control their players on the screen. Gave 'em gigantic headaches. Scratch that idea. Then there have been the numerous ideas to put electrical shock devices into machines to make the game seem more realistic when the player suffered pain. Aside from the cruelty of the idea, and the simple fact that no sane person would ever pay money for such a device, there's the fact that it denies the very purpose of a game: to experience dangerous things safely.
Game design has been casually called an "art" at least since the early 1980s. Has it ever lived up to this term?
Never. The references to games as art are vainglorious posturing on the part of small minds with large egos. Perhaps someday we will have a game, or at least interactive entertainment, that qualifies as art, but I have yet to meet anybody who has the wherewithal to do it. My guess is that the best we can do is pave the way for future generations to make true interactive art.
What games of the last ten years have impressed you?
"Hidden Agenda," "SimCity," "Doom," and "Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe." A sadly short list. Either I'm too critical or the games industry is losing its edge.