Celluloid to Silicon:
The creation of the world is a classic example of how engineering works. It very closely parallels the introduction of a new multi-user operating system.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and then he went on to create everything else in six days, and on the seventh day he met his milestone and took a breather. And that's when the trouble started.
First thing that went wrong was that the man he made got lonely. God hadn't counted on that, so he thought about it and he said "Tell you what I'll do! I'll whip you up a woman to keep you company." But did he go back to the drawing board and design her from scratch? No, he did not! He made her out of spare parts left over from the man! Of course, like all engineers, he couldn't resist a little tinkering. The resulting product lives longer, and isn't quite so hairy, and is less inclined to start wars over nothing... but 99% of the DNA is the same. Bugfix number one.
So the man and the woman are doing all right, when along comes one of the other users — and there's always one — who shows them how to get hold of the fruit password and get at the system files. Which they proceed to do, and they learn of good and evil, and then, like most users, they try to cover their tracks.
But God's not fooled, and he says, "Right! That's it! No more garden of Eden, no more food falling off the trees, no more playing Adventure, by the sweat of thy brow shalt thou earn thy bread, and in sorrow shalt thou eat of it, and from now on you're gonna have to write your own software." So he kicks them out of the Garden of Eden.
But does he design something else to put in its place? No! He comments it out! He puts cherubim with a flaming sword at the entrance so that it can't get executed, but he leaves it there. If we knew what cherubim were, we could probably find it. So that's bugfix number two.
So the world populates itself, and things go all right for a while, but after a time the users start to abuse the system. Does God redesign the security? Does he redesign the users, which is within his power? NO! Instead, he conjures up a whopping big flood, flushes all their accounts, and reboots! Bugfix number three — this one's an administrative fix.
Well, you'd have thought that would have solved the problem. After all, if you kill most of the users, you would expect the remaining ones to get the message. So, the world repopulates itself, and things run along all right for a while. But in time, the new crop of users got together, and they started building a tower up to heaven. Trying to reach God. Probably after the system files again. So God says, "That's enough of that! I'll fix you! I'll make you all use different languages. Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, FORTRAN, COBOL, Pascal, Forth, Ada, C++."
And the users are badly confused, and none of their languages are compatible, and they don't understand one another's data structures, and they abandon the tower project. Bugfix number four. That's one's an administrative fix too.
So you see, the world underwent four major revisions and we're not even out of Genesis yet! And what's more, two of the four were administrative fixes. Rather than going back to the source material and solving the problem, he comes up with kludges to solve it. Which goes to show you that God may be omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent... but he is definitely an engineer.
Now, of course I'm joking. And while I said "lazy" at first, I didn't mean it. The reason that engineers will do anything they can to avoid engineering is that people — usually non-programmers, like marketing and sales types, and executives — are always asking them when things are going to be finished, and they don't know. So they cut corners. The less engineering they have to do, the more accurate their estimates are. It's not a joke. This is the way engineers really behave, all the time.
And now we come back to the fundamental problem with software engineering: we never do anything twice. So we have to do engineering, all the time.
And that is also the fundamental reason why books and movies are more like each other than they are like computer games. That's why the Hollywood metaphor is a failure. Because books and movies don't require engineering. Oh, sure, many movies have problems that have to be solved a new way, especially if they have a lot of special effects. But it is possible to make a movie with no engineering at all. You can go out and make a great, brilliant movie with nothing but a good script, good actors, and a camcorder.
You cannot make any computer game without engineering. The engineering is the essence of the game. The engineering is the game. And that is the framework within which you have to work in this industry.
Now, I'm sure some of you are saying, "Wow, that sounds pretty bad. Isn't there some sort of workaround? Do we have to have all this engineering all the time? Maybe if we had special tools, a sort of generic game-building program, we could reduce some of the risk."
This reminds me of a small company not too far from here. This is a true story. This company has a huge marketing department — 30 or 40 people — and a tiny engineering department: it has, I'm not kidding, FOUR game programmers. And this game company's business is computer gaming on a special piece of hardware they make.
Well, all those marketing people kept coming up with good ideas for ways to coordinate their games with other public events. They'd say, "Hey, St. Swithin's day is in a couple of months! Hey, Engineering! Can we do a St. Swithin's day game?" And Engineering would say, "No way! Are you out of your mind?" and the marketing people would go away disappointed.
Well, one day this happened once too often, and they got upset about how slow it was to develop software. And they said, "Confound it! It's the darn engineering department that's the bottleneck in creating this software. If we could get rid of those engineers, and make the games ourselves, it would all go a lot faster. Maybe what we need is some sort of scripting language, some kind of universal game-building tool, that we in the marketing department could use to make any sort of game we wanted. Then we could write the engineering department out of the business plan."
Well... they're in luck. There IS a universal game scripting language. And it's name is "C" . Or FORTRAN or Pascal.
You see, there isn't any workaround. The easier a software tool is to use, the weaker it is. The more powerful and flexible it is, the harder it is to use... and the closer it is to being a programming language. I can name three text editors — ordinary text editors — that come with programming languages as part of the package, so that you can write your own text-editing features. The only universal game-scripting tool there is , is a programming language. You can't avoid it. If you're building computer software, there is no alternative to software engineering.
Now, at this point, I'm sure some of the composers and artists who've been in the industry a while are saying to themselves, "Oh, great, another gear-head going on and on about how important he is. You know, we're really tired of you programmers grabbing all the credit."
But the truth is that the artists and composers who've been in this industry a while are engineers themselves — even if they won't cop to it. By way of example, I'd like to introduce you to another artist: Leonardo da Vinci.
"Good morning, Mr. da Vinci. I've got a job for you. I want you to paint the Last Supper."
"No problem. I done it before. Tell me where you want it."
"Well, there are a couple of little restrictions I'm going to need you to work under. Now, for one thing, you can't use more than 60 colors of paint. Oh, you can let the wall show through from behind, so we'll pretend it's 61.
"Now, you're going to have to divide those 60 colors into four batches of 15 colors of paint each. And you're going to have to paint it all as a series of dots of color, in blocks 8 dots wide by 8 dots tall. And , in any one block, you can only choose colors from ONE of those batches of 15 colors. You got that? And the whole thing is going to be 40 blocks wide and 28 blocks high."
"What are you, nuts? I am artist! I no work under these conditions! I am also greatest engineer in the world. I invent submarine, flying machine! I understand anything, but I no paint Last Supper like this, is crazy!"
"Well... say it's a mosaic, then. You only have 60 colors of tile."
"What, mosaic only 320 by 224 tiles? Is stupid! Is too small. You cannot do Last Supper that small! It looka terrible. Listen, I'm a busy man. Flying machine not work so good, I gotta go invent parachute. You finda some other idiot for your stupid project."
"Mr. Da Vinci! Mr. Da Vinci? Oh, well..."
Now that sounds completely ridiculous, right? But I didn't make it up. Those are the very restrictions we impose on anyone who wants to do artwork for the Sega Genesis — the most popular game machine of all time. That's why you have to be half an engineer just to be an artist in this business.
Now, you're probably saying to yourself, "Oh, well, the Genesis, yeah. But I'm not gonna support the Genesis! I'm gonna support the 3DO, or the PSX, or the Jaguar. Trip Hawkins and Akio Morita and Jack Tramiel told me they could do anything. I'm not going to be subject to those limitations."
No, you're not. You're going to be subject to different ones. But they're gonna be there. And no matter what machine you're developing for, one of these days a software engineer is going to walk into your office and spout a stream of unintelligible technological gibberish like that, and you had better be able to deal with it. You also are going to have to be half an engineer yourself.
Engineering is the hub of the product, it's what binds the whole together into a functioning wheel. Remove the pictures and sound and you have a Teletype game, like we used to write, not very exciting, but the game is still there and still works. Remove the engineering and you have nothing — just a lot of scraps of artwork and snippets of sound.
And engineering is awkward, and unpredictable, and slow, and it is unavoidable. That's the warning in this sermon. There is no metaphor, Hollywood or otherwise. Engineering isn't a metaphor for what we do: it is what we do. And if you're going to come into this industry, you're going to have to learn to deal with that.
Now I want to talk about something else.
I know what I'm going to say isn't going to make me any friends. But I believe it to be true, and I believe it to be important.
The interactive entertainment industry is suffering from a grave shortage of creative talent.
You'll notice that I didn't say "imagination." I said "talent." We have imagination in plenty. What we're lacking are the skills to turn that imagination into something that an adult would buy.
We make a lot of noise about storytelling in this industry. But just look at the things we are pleased to call "stories." Our plots are as thin as tissue paper; our characters are two-dimensional at best; our acting, when there is any, is atrocious; our so-called stories are utterly without meaning, moral, or message.
Now, there are several reasons for this. It isn't just lack of talent. For one thing, the industry at it stands, is completely driven by technological change. We are so busy keeping up with the pace of technological change that it's very difficult to pay attention to anything else. We're so busy trying to get the new hardware to work that we don't have time for talent.
There's also the relentless demand of the Christmas retail season. That throws another monkey wrench into the gears; if a product doesn't make Christmas, it's lost most of its retail selling opportunity. If you can't build it between this Christmas and next Christmas, you might as well not build it at all, because the following Christmas, it's going to be technologically out of date!
We keep our noses so close to the grindstone all the time, that we lose sight of how we appear to normal consumers. And the magazine reviewers are no help; all they ever review is computer games, and they come to accept it as normal too.
Here's a good example of what I mean. Chris Crawford, the founder of this conference, is one of the interactive entertainment industry's most vociferous, not to say obstinate, advocates of improving the literary quality of what we produce.
Well, eventually, a product came around that met his standards. It's called "The Madness of Roland." It's a hypertext CD-ROM, and this is what he says about it:
"Roach can write English that soars. His verbal imagery drips with passion and ripples with power."
Now, just for grins, let's see what the New York Review of Books says about it:
"The story concept is infantile, the writing dreadful, the hypertext structure naive, and a 'novel' is what it is not."
That shows you just how vast the gulf is between what we expect of ourselves, and what others expect of us.
That's where you come in. You people in Hollywood have been telling great stories for years. We desperately need your talent at plotting, pacing, characterization. You know how to build suspense just by choosing the right camera angles. You know how to elicit good performances from actors. You know how to write dialog that sounds natural. You are coming into an industry that is crying out for the talents that you have and we lack.
BUT... as much as we need you, we're also afraid of you.
We're afraid of you, or I'm afraid of you anyway, for three reasons.
One, your huge media conglomerates are buying up our little software development companies, and we're afraid that our wonderful, wild, and woolly culture is going to be submerged beneath acres and acres of oxford cloth and power neckties. And we'll become just another boring, regimented part of the American workplace.
I don't know what to do about that. I don't think anything can be done about that, besides posting a sign outside my cubicle that says DFWMIFV, which stands for "Don't fool with me, I'm fully vested." Screw us over, and we'll vote with our feet.
The second reason I'm afraid of you can be seen by turning on the television.
I bragged on Hollywood a lot a minute ago — all its various talents and skills that we so badly need — but the they're not all that much in evidence when you take a look at American television. American TV is not as good as American movies; it's not even as good as British TV. But I don't think that's Hollywood's fault. I think it's because of something much more sinister, and that is that advertising corrupts.
If you're in television, you already know about that. You handed over your creativity a long time ago, and now it's in shackles in a basement below Madison Avenue, and it's being made to serve those masters. Like it or not, your primary job is to sell soap.
If you're not in television, I can give you a simple example from the print media.
Ms. magazine, as I'm sure you know, is the only newsmagazine in the country devoted primarily to news about women. And it used to have advertising in it. It was available on every newstand, and it was cheap.
But over time, it began to go downhill. It began printing more and more fluff, and less and less of the solid news that we expect of it. It got to where it was indistinguishable from, say, Redbook. Nothing wrong with Redbook — but you don't buy Ms. to read Redbook.
And then one day, it mysteriously vanished, and was no longer available.
This is what had happened. There is a great and pernicious evil in the magazine industry called "complementary copy." You see, advertisers insist that their ads run next to stories that will help them sell their products. And as a result, the editors were forced to run more and more stories about makeup, and hairstyles, and fashion, and diets.
This was supposed to be a newsmagazine! And the day came when the editors could no longer stomach the garbage they were ordered to print by their advertisers. And rather that submit to it a minute longer, they closed their doors. Because they were sick and tired of being corrupted by advertising.
And then Ms. reappeared, a few months later. And it was great again! And had no advertising. And it was hard to find, and it cost a lot. And poor folks, who frankly were the people who got the most benefit from it, could no longer afford it.
Advertising corrupts. And the Madison Avenue creeps who keep your creativity in fetters in television, want to do the same thing to us.
You know what'll happen if we start taking advertising. We'll like the money. And we'll use the money, and we'll get used to the money, and we'll begin to rely on the money, and need the money. And eventually, we'll be completely addicted to the money, and unable to function without it. And when that day comes, our game design decisions will be subordinated to the question of how much breakfast cereal they will sell! Some pinstriped creep in Battle Creek, Michigan is going to be telling you what to do! Is that what we want? Is that why we went bankrupt, lost homes and sometimes families, sweated blood, burnt the midnight oil, and built this industry back up from the nothing it was after the crash of '83? I submit to you that it is not.
Advertising corrupts! Let's keep it out of interactive entertainment!
(In case you hadn't noticed, this is the "exhortation to right behavior" part of the sermon.)
The third thing I'm afraid of requires me to tell you a story.
This is a legend of the Romans, from the time before they were an empire, when there were just a tiny tribe, scratching out a living on the banks of the Tiber. It comes down to us from the poet Juvenal.
There came a time when, for one reason or another there were too few Roman women. They died in childbirth, or married out of the tribe, or whatever. So the Roman men, who always headed straight for a solution to any problem even if it lay through a brick wall, decided to kidnap some women from a neighboring tribe, the Sabines. They spied on the Sabines, to see where the Sabine women went to get water. And when the saw that they were unarmed and unguarded, they ambushed them, and carried a number of the Sabine women off to Rome.
The Sabines were of course furious, but they were a weaker tribe than the Romans, and there was nothing they could do. And so the days turned into weeks, and the weeks months, and the months years, and the Sabine women, with no hope of rescue, married into the Romans, and many of them had children.
But in the meantime, the Sabines slowly built an army, and prepared to avenge the kidnapping of their sisters and daughters. And after several years, the Sabine men marched off to do battle with the Romans, and reclaim their people.
The Romans got wind of it, and mounted an army of their own men, and marched out to meet the Sabines on the battlefield. The two armies caught sight of each other, and formed their battle lines, and approached each other.
And they drew closer. And closer. And closer. And at the last instant, this happened:
The Sabine women burst onto the battlefield between the opposing lines, holding up their children and shouting, "O my father and my brother! O my husband and my son! Must you slaughter one another for our sakes? Look! These are your grandchildren!"
And the two lines stopped. And they stared, dumbfounded. And then they put down their arms, and there was no battle. Because they realized that they were no longer two tribes, but one, united by their love for the Sabine women.
Now, from a feminist point of view, that's certainly not a very uplifting story. But it does speak to one of the basic human themes: the power of family affection to transcend nationalism and xenophobia.
And if you think that that story has no relevance today, just look at Israel. Why do we spend so much time and energy and money worrying about Israel that we don't spend worrying about Mali, say? Because we have family there, and we care about those people.
Now let's take a look at this painting. This is one of the art treasures of the western world. It's by Jacques Louis David, court painter to Napoleon, and it hangs in the Louvre. The canvas is huge — about 15 feet tall and 20 feet wide — and when I was there, although I walked past a lot of paintings in a few seconds, I stopped and looked at this one for about 45 minutes.
Look at all the detail here! Look at this woman in the center, coming through the lines with such energy, she seems about ready to step out of the canvas. She's dressed in white — that's the color of moral superiority to the western mind. Look at this woman, stepping up on a plinth, right into the line of fire, showing her baby and shouting to her Sabine relatives. In the background, you can see soldiers holding up their swords by the blades, and holding up their helmets: "I am disarmed, I will not fight." Here's an old cavalryman putting away his saber. You can tell he's putting it away, because he's looking down at his scabbard. You don't have to do that to take your sword out. And look at this woman: I think she's my favorite. Ducking through with her arms over her head; you can see the fear on her face. But she's there, risking death for the sake of peace.
And look at these men on either side. What a curious ambiguity of force we have here! On the one hand, they seem cocked back, like a drawn bow, ready to hurl violence upon one another. Or are they pushed back, by the force of these women's moral passion? Recoiling in horror at the realization that to continue this battle, they are going to have to kill their mothers and daughters and sisters and wives.
This is a great painting. There's a reason it's hanging in the Louvre.
But you can't show it on TV.
Look! Here's a woman's breast! Look! A man's scrotum is just visible over here! Look, here's a man's buttocks. What will the public think?!
Not too long ago, the MPAA rating board rated a trailer for the movie Six Degrees of Separation as unacceptable because it contained a nude scene... the creation of Adam, from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
So long, Michelangelo! You're down the tubes, gone, banished from the silver screen. The MPAA rating board says looking at a penis causes brain aneurysms.
Hasta la vista, Renoir! That young lady's vulva just blew Network Standards and Practices' tiny little mind.
And as for Rodin! And Canova! Not only nudity but sex! Oh dear, oh dear, I feel my family values going.
Of course... these things are right out there in the Louvre, for any French school child with the price of admission to see. And amazingly enough, they don't have a warning sign on the door; I've been there, and I checked.
The motion picture rating system in America is a joke. And it is a bad joke.
Does an R-rating keep teenagers out of the movies? Of course it doesn't. In fact, I can't count the number of movies I've seen that include a completely gratuitous shot of someone's breasts — anyone's will do — in order to guarantee the movie an R rating, because R rated movies sell better. And what's the primary audience for movies? Young people. You see, the ratings system also corrupts.
And it's had two more effects. It's laid a grid down over the film industry — a set of artificial values to which they must conform. And what a hideous set of values they are! I believe it was Roger Ebert who said that it is now more acceptable to show someone's breast being sliced off than it is to show someone's breast being caressed. And that is a damning indictment of a very sick state of affairs.
Secondly, it provides a cop-out for the people who make such movies. "It must be all right! The MPAA ratings board said so."
The single letter-grade rating system is moronic. Consider two people. One has diabetes, and has to avoid sugar. The other has high blood pressure, and has to avoid sodium. They walk into a grocery store and pick up a box that says, "This food rated X." All they've learned is that one of them is gonna die. That's not very helpful!
Now, there's no doubt that we're going to have to do something. Congress is breathing down our necks, and there are starting to be some pretty rancid titles out there. But the single letter-grade rating system is not the answer.
Advertising and the single-letter rating system are chains that bind your creativity. They distort your work and they corrupt your culture.
When you join us, bring with you all that is good about Hollywood, and leave behind the bad. Leave behind the chains.
Go out there and design those computer games, educational software, multimedia. Learn what engineers are, and how they work. And do it with all the talent, all the energy, all the brilliance that you know is within you, and for which Hollywood is justly famous. But don't do it governed by some artificial set of values imposed on you by someone else. Design those products according to what you know is true, and right, and good, and beautiful. Guided by your own conscience, and in freedom.
Here endeth the lesson.