The Secret of Eternal (Product) Life:
Lessons from J.R.R. Tolkien and John Madden
Ernest W. Adams
1997 Computer Game Developers' Conference
This is an approximate transcription of my lecture delivered at the 1997 Computer
Game Developers' Conference. Because a certain amount of the lecture was ad-libbed, this is not a verbatim document.
It may be more understandable if read aloud.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Ernest Adams, and this
is "The Secret of Eternal (Product) Life: Lessons from J.R.R. Tolkien and John Madden." Before I begin, I'd like to issue my usual disclaimers. First, what you are about to hear is not the opinion of my employers. It is entirely my own. Second, my lectures tend to take the form of sermons, and a sermon is a highly personal view. Finally, for those of you who don't get to church too often, the preacher does not take questions during the sermon. I'll be happy to talk to
This is a lecture on product longevity. But it's not going to be as boring as that sounds — those of you who are familiar with my lectures know that I like to speculate about a variety of things, and the so-called topic of the lecture is really just a hook to hang a lot of different ideas on. Also, I'm not talking about the shelf-life of individual SKU's, but about creating product lines that last.
This first part of the talk will be about John Madden Football, or as it's now known, Madden NFL Football. Madden is the best-selling sports video game of all time. It has been around since about 1988. It was first produced on the Apple II, and then later on the IBM PC, the Sega Genesis, the Super Nintendo, the 3DO Multiplayer, the Sony Playstation, the Sega Saturn, and more recently we've put it back on the PC again. Madden is an unusually long-lived product. There are only a few that have been around as long as it has — Ultima, perhaps, and Wizardry.
I have been working on it since 1993, so I've seen it for about half its product life.
To start with, I should point out that sports games in general have an unfair advantage. How many other industries can you name that have a whole section — not a few pages, but a whole section — of the newspaper devoted to them, in every newspaper across America, every day of the week? It's possible that there are several pages devoted to the aerospace industry every day in Seattle, but not all over the country. So there's an enormous amount of public interest in the sports industry already. You don't have to do anything to convince people that they should be interested in it.
In addition, the sports world consists of periodic events with changing data. Because the sports have "seasons" which occupy part of the year, there is always a period during which a great deal of attention is being paid to them. And the constantly changing data means that you always have something new to sell to your customer. The flight characteristics of the F-16 fighter plane don't change that much from year to year, and even if they do it's unlikely that the
public will know about it. However, the player roster of the San Francisco 49ers is different every year, and if we get it wrong you know we're going to hear about it.
But these things aside, I think there are additional reasons for Madden's success, and I'm going to go through them here. The first reason is the ever-elusive "fun factor."
John Madden Football hasn't always had the best graphics or the best sound of any football game on the market, and I think that's something that we would willingly admit. It does have an excellent and highly recognizable license in John Madden. And since the license is tied to a TV personality rather than a star player, he's less likely to be injured or to retire and to lose his appeal to the public. If you have a license tied to a star player, you run the risk that that player will leave the game suddenly and then you won't have the brand identity any more.
But even more than that, Madden has always concentrated on being easy to learn and easy to play. For example, we use context-sensitive behaviors rather than having a million buttons. We don't feel that the audience for fighting games, in which you are expected to be able to do all sorts of complex button sequences, overlaps that much with the audience for football games. Our buttons are context-sensitive: if you're about to be tackled and you need to hurdle over a man, the button will hurdle; if you need to jump, the button will jump; if you need to dive, the button will dive. This simplicity encourages rather than discourages the new player.
One of the consequences of this is that it's fairly easy, after a few months' practice, to beat the AI. We recognize that this is a problem, but on the whole, we would rather bring in new players than create a barrier to them. Also, Madden was always conceived of primarily as a multi-player game. Yes, of course we have a single-player mode, but the vast majority of real aficionados prefer to play against one another.
I realize that there are counterexamples: Indycar Racing, for example, is a true gearhead's product, and still it was very successful. Nevertheless, I think our approach is a good one.
The second reason for Madden's success has to do with a programmer disease that many of you may be familiar with. I'm sure most of you have heard of "creeping featurism," a phenomenon which occurs when a
program is never finished because the programmer always wants to add one more feature. We've tried to take creeping featurism and make a virtue of it.
In 1992, Madden had neither an NFL license nor an NFL Player's Association license, so it could have neither real team names nor real player names. In 1993, we got an NFL license, and could have real team names and logos. In 1994, we added a Player's Association license, and were able to use real player names. In 1995, we added old-time teams, so it was possible to play with the 1984 49ers, or the '52 Lions. In 1996, we added the ability to trade players from one team to another. And in 1997, we went over to a new platform. Naturally, we upgraded the game to take advantage of the features of the platform, but we cut back on the new features in order to give our programmers time to concentrate on learning the machine.
So another source of Madden's success has been adding new features year by year, always giving the player a new reason to buy the game.
The third reason, and in some respects the most important one, is that we have always placed content before technology. Now, I would define a technology-driven game as a game that has been created specifically to show off a new technology. A couple of examples come to mind: Doom,
which was created to show off raycasting, and Starfox, which was created to show off Nintendo's FX chip.
The problem with technology-driven games is that your technology will be copied within three months, and within three months after that it will be considered old news. Doom comes out and everyone is very impressed; Hexen, and others like it, come out a bit later and everyone says, "Oh yes, that's a Doom clone."
New technology with poor content will not get good reviews. For example, Critical Path used lots of motion video, but there wasn't much of a game there, and it didn't do very well.
Old technology with good content will get good reviews. Maxis turned out tile-based games for years, and most of them were pretty good games. Civilization did not contain any groundbreaking technology, but it was still a great game.
And most important, badly-implemented technology is the kiss of death. Some years ago, Electronic Arts shipped Earl Weaver Baseball version 1.5 for the Amiga. At the time, this was the best baseball simulation available. It generated baseball statistics that were far more realistic than any of its competitors'. Then they ported Weaver over to the PC, and they added a poorly-implemented 3D display engine to it. The game simply died in the marketplace — despite the fact that it still had an excellent baseball simulation underneath. It is better to implement old technology well than it is to implement new technology badly.
By contrast, Madden has always been content-driven. The original Madden was on the Apple II and the generic PC near the end of those products' life cycles. It moved over to the Sega Genesis, and all the time that it was there, its technology changed relatively little from year to year. It was the content that changed. When the PSX came along, we began to support it, and to take advantage of its new technology, but we didn't make the mistake we had with Earl Weaver and try for more than we knew how to do. We took our time and made sure we shipped a good product.
In summary: New technology does not make a game that lasts because new technology itself does not last. If you are specifically trying to make a game that lasts a long time in the marketplace, you should do the following things:
1. Burn developer cycles tuning your game, rather than adding too many new features at a time. Seek maximum fun, not maximum features.
Emphasize content and features over technology. Incorporate technology changes in later releases, but don't make it the raison d'etre of the whole product.
3. Don't go out after new technology until you need to and are ready to. Let the technology come to you. Software itself is not the reason for playing the game. The game is the reason for playing the game.
In the beginning, the world was inhabited only by animals, and there were no humans. And the tiger and the bear prayed together to God for wisdom and betterment of their status. And they prayed for many days.
In time the tiger became hungry, and he abandoned his prayers to hunt. But the bear continued to pray, and God heard her prayers. And he sent his son to earth to speak to her.
And the son of God said, "For your
steadfastness, you will be rewarded. Take of these herbs and eat, and go into this cave and sleep." And the bear ate the herbs and she went into the cave and slept. But she slept not for a night, but for a season – all through the winter.
And when she emerged, she was no longer a bear, but the first human woman. And the son of God had waited for her outside the cave.
And she did cohabit with the son of God, and their children became the human race.
This second part of the talk is the "Tolkien" part, and in this part I want to go a bit farther afield. That's why this lecture is subtitled, "Lessons from J.R.R. Tolkien and John Madden" (two men than whom it is difficult to imagine more different). [Laughter.]
I was inspired to give this talk because I'm not satisfied with the quality of the computer games that are out there. Much of our work feels like it's only about one inch deep. It doesn't feel like it's part of anything larger. When you get to the end of a computer game you don't feel like there's anything you haven't learned about it. And as a consequence, it doesn't last. And I started to ask myself why not.
Well, of course the first answer could be: because of the inexorable march of technology. Our work doesn't last because it's always being left behind by new technology. But as we have demonstrated with Madden, if you really want to create a long-term product line, this need not be an obstacle.
I think the real reason our products don't last is because of short-term thinking on our part. I don't think we put in the effort. I don't think we try
hard enough to create long-term products. We're not thinking past the next Christmas. So I began to think about what might be some of the important elements of long-term success, and I came up with a list, which, in my only concession to A/V aids, I'll show to you.
- Compelling activity or premise
- Excellent content (graphics, sound, acting, etc.)
- Solid, bug-free code
- Intuitive user interface
- Lots of well-placed marketing
- Great license or tie-in
You need a compelling activity, something that people really want to do; you need great content; you need good code, so that your game doesn't crash all the time and frustrate your users; you
need an intuitive user interface, one that's easy to learn and use; and you need plenty of well-placed marketing and good advertising and so on. And it helps, although it's not necessary, to have a great license or tie-in to other merchandise.
You know what I think about this list? It's boring! Big deal! So what! Anybody who has been in this industry more than six months could think up that list in five seconds flat. You certainly didn't pay a minimum of $650 to come here and hear this! If you're a newcomer, fine, write it down. But if you've been around a while, you've probably already got this list engraved on your soul.
I want to talk about some more subtle issues. I want to talk about the things we need to do after we've done what's on the list. Now, understand: none of these issues are either necessary or sufficient conditions for long-term success. In fact, this lecture is going to be unusual in that just about every point I make will be contradicted by the point I make next. There will always be counterexamples. That's why I call these lessons, rather than rules or laws. Lessons are not absolute. Nevertheless, I believe they lead in the right direction.
Now the first thing I want to talk about is: Batman.
For those of you whose only experience of Batman is the 1960's-era television show, I most earnestly beg of you to forget it. And likewise the recent movies; I don't think they really capture the spirit of Batman either. I'm talking about the Batman of D.C. Comics.
To me, Batman is far more interesting than most other comic-book heroes, for
two reasons. First, Batman is not a super-hero. He doesn't have any super-powers. He didn't come from any exploding planets like Superman; he didn't inhale any weird gases like the Flash; he wasn't bitten by any radioactive spiders; he didn't find a talking lantern. Batman is a normal man, and he has to solve his problems within a normal man's limitations. Now it's true that he's a very smart, and very strong, and very rich, and, let's face it, very lucky man [laughter] but he can't whip out some super-power to get himself out of a jam. And I think that makes him interesting.
The second reason that I find Batman interesting has to do with his motivations. You see, most of the other comic-book heroes are motivated by a sort of na´ve do-gooderism. They say to themselves, "I am endowed with super-powers. What should I do? I know! I shall fight crime!"
Batman's motivations are entirely different. When Bruce Wayne was a boy, he was walking home with his parents from the movies one night when a man stepped out of an alley
and cold-bloodedly shot his parents to death, right in front of him. The memory of this event haunts him. He has nightmares. He can't sleep, so instead he puts on this outrageous uniform and prowls around at night looking for crimes to interfere with.
Soon after his parents were killed, Bruce Wayne swore to make war on all criminals. Now notice: he did not swear to fight crime; he did not swear to do good; he did not swear to seek justice; he swore to make
war — a much more morally ambiguous proposition. Batman is motivated by a search for vengeance, by the flames of his inner rage. And we could see the evidence of that rage in the early Batman comics.
Then in the 1950's the Comics Code Authority came along, and the tales of Batman were sanitized for several decades. His inner rage was suppressed, and his role in society was never questioned. He became just another boring super-hero.
But then in 1986, D.C. Comics made a bold and extraordinary move. They decided to publish a book which would really examine Batman's character, and examine the question of what it would be like to actually have this guy in your town. They brought out a book called The Dark Knight Returns, and I strongly commend it to your attention.
There's a scene in this book that I think perfectly
summarizes Batman's character. Batman is crouching behind his cape in the shadows at the foot of some stairs, and a thug with a gun is coming down the stairs behind him. We hear Batman's thoughts as voice-over narration, in an almost chillingly detached tone. He says, "There are seven working defenses from this position. Three of them disarm with minimal contact. Three of them kill. One — hurts." [Laughter.] And he whirls around and kicks the thug violently in the stomach.
Now observe: Batman had three opportunities to kill, and he took none of them; he had three opportunities to disarm with minimal contact, and he took none of them; he had one opportunity to inflict pain, and that is the one he chooses. This is the essence of Batman's character.
I don't think Batman does these things because he wants to. I think he does them because he has to. Batman is driven, he is compelled. He is
obsessed! Batman's violence is cathartic. It's orgasmic. It's almost masturbatory. It's the only thing that helps him get to sleep at night! [Laughter.]
In short, it's not about "fighting crime," it's about beating the hell out of people! And Bruce Wayne makes this morally palatable to himself by selecting victims that he's "pretty sure" deserve it. Why does Batman wear a mask? It's probably so that he won't be sued!
So in the book a fundamental question is raised: is Batman a heroic, public-spirited citizen? Or is he an out-of-control vigilante? I mean, let's face it, the guy runs around beating up people whom he thinks have done something wrong. He doesn't answer to anyone; he's judge, jury, and executioner. He's not bound by any Constitutional restrictions about privacy or probable cause. And to top it all off, he has the winking cooperation of the police! Can't get a search warrant or a wiretap? No problem! We'll get Batman to do it!
Is this somebody we really want running around loose?
There's another scene in here that I find very interesting. Commissioner Gordon is about to retire, and he's talking to the police captain who's about to take his place, Ellen Yindel. She considers Batman a vigilante, and has sworn to issue an arrest warrant for him as her first act in office.
She says, "I can't understand how you can support a vigilante."
And Gordon replies, "I'm sure you've heard old fossils like me talk about Pearl Harbor, Yindel. Fact is, we mostly lie about it. We make it sound like we all leaped to our feet and went after the Axis on the spot.
"Hell, we were scared. Rumors were flying. We thought the Japanese had taken California. We didn't even have an army. So there we were, lying in bed, pulling the sheets over our heads… And there was
Roosevelt, on the radio, strong and sure, taking that fear and turning it into a fighting spirit. Almost overnight, we had our army.
"A few years back I was reading a news magazine… a lot of people with a lot of evidence said that Roosevelt knew Pearl was going to be attacked… and that he let it happen.
"Wasn't proven. Things like that never are. I couldn't stop thinking about how horrible that
would be… and how Pearl was what got us off our duffs in time to stop the Axis.
"But a lot of innocent men died. But we won the war.
"Since then, presidents have come and gone, each one seeming smaller, weaker, the best of them like faint echoes of Roosevelt.
"It bounced back and forth in my head until I realized I couldn't judge it. It was too big. He was too big."
Captain Yindel says, "I don't see what this has to do with a vigilante."
And Commissioner Gordon says, "Maybe you will."
And I began thinking about that. Is that really right? Is it really true that some people's souls are simply too big, or their jobs or situations too complex, to render moral judgments about?
(I'm a philosophy major — this is the kind of thing I like to do in my spare time.) [Laughter.]
And I thought: No. That way leads tyranny. If we allowed that, then every two-bit dictator would be claiming that the end justified the means and that his soul was "too big" to permit moral judgment.
No, the reality is that we are all complex beings. It's not that there are some people about whom it is difficult to render moral judgments; it is that moral judgments are difficult to render, period — and the more that is at stake, the harder it is.
We are all as complex as Bruce Wayne. Not as troubled, perhaps, not as driven, but as complex. Even Mother Teresa! The media is fond of portraying Mother Teresa as washing the feet of lepers and other things like that. In reality, Mother Teresa is a very effective administrator, and you don't get to be a very effective administrator without being a hardass sometimes. Nobody is a saint. And it is that truth that makes for great
literature and great movies and great computer games.
Batman is interesting because he is morally ambiguous and because there is a mythic quality to his background and motivations. Wolverine is interesting because persons unknown gave him an adamantium skeleton without his consent, in a process that caused him great pain. (I also have a warm spot in my heart for Wolverine because he's only 5 foot 3, and I can identify with him.) [Laughter.] Superman is boring because he just showed up on Earth one day and did what his parents told him to do. Captain America is boring because he drank a weird potion and — ta-da! — he was Captain America.
Most mainstream comic books present a trivial, artificial morality with no subtlety or depth. The Dark Knight Returns was one of the first mainstream comic books to break that tradition. Computer games present the same morally simple world. In Sim City, if you tear down an old, poor residential neighborhood and rezone it commercial, you don't have people demonstrating outside your office and saying that you're in the back pocket
of big business. That's just not something you have to concern yourself with.
Another interesting example is Magic Carpet. Magic Carpet was one of the first games in which your actions had an effect on the world. If you shot a fireball into the ground, it left a burned patch. If you shot a meteor storm, it left a huge devastated area. You could cause cracks in the earth, and volcanoes, and you can start forest fires. In fact, the manual even suggests that starting forest fires is a good way to kill your enemies.
Now the object of Magic Carpet was to collect up "mana," which exists in living things. When you have enough mana, you win the game. And the funny thing is, when you win the game, this sepulchral voice intones, "Congratulations, Master Wizard. The world is restored to equilibrium."
Oh, yeah! You've slaughtered every living thing and the world is a burned-over mess, but hey, at least
it's restored to equilibrium! [Laughter.]
I'd like to see a version of Magic Carpet in which you got points deducted for environmental damage. I'm not suggesting that Magic Carpet "should have been" environmentally responsible. I think it's a great game just the way it is. But I would like to have the option to be rewarded for completing the level without burning off every tree on the planet.
The "game" context, winning and losing, what was described in an early Doonesbury cartoon as the "thrill-of-victory/agony-of-defeat dichotomy," defines what is morally good; what appropriate behavior is. That which leads to more points is the right thing to do. I think we need to re-examine the whole game metaphor and ask ourselves if giving points is really what we want. Or if perhaps we should give different kinds of points for different things. Remember the board game Careers?
At the beginning of the game, you chose how many points you wanted in three categories: Love, Money, and Fame. Then you played the game to try and reach your own goals. Why don't we do more games like that?
I think we need to rid ourselves of simplistic moralities and create challenges for our players in which judgments are not easy. Comics which conform to the Comics Code Authority guidelines do not continue to sell for months and
months. The Dark Knight Returns was published in 1986 and it's still in print. Moral ambiguity and mythic themes are the source of great, lasting legends.
In the beginning the Universe was filled with undifferentiated matter, and all was Χαοσ, which is Chaos. But in time the matter formed patterns, and became ordered, which is Cosmos.
And of Cosmos was made Gaea, the Earth Mother. And Gaea labored and she brought forth Uranus, first of the Titans. And Gaea mated with Uranus and gave birth to the rest of the Titans, and to Cronus, last of all. But Uranus was despotic, and Gaea encouraged the Titans to overthrow their father. And at last Cronus unmanned his father and cast his genitals into the sea, and Cronus took his place on the throne of the World.
Now Cronus married Rhea, and
their children were the gods. But Cronus feared that his children would do to him what he had done to his father, and so when each of his children were born, he ate them.
Finally Rhea tricked Cronus, and when he was ready to eat Zeus, she gave him a stone to eat instead. And when Zeus grew up he overthrew Cronus, and he forced him to disgorge the children he had eaten. And Zeus and his brother and sister gods defeated the Titans, the Elder Gods, and established the
realm of the Olympians, who are the Younger Gods.
But when Cronus threw the genitals of his father Uranus into the sea, they impregnated Gaea, the Earth Mother, and she brought forth all the living things upon the land and in the sea.
Now I'm going to turn to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. And I'll start by admitting that I am a
Tolkien fan. I realize that this is tantamount to admitting that I attend Star Trek conventions, or play Dungeons & Dragons [laughter] — neither of which I do! — so I'll amend that by adding that I'm a Tolkien fan who has his eyes open. I know that Tolkien's work is not great literature. He's not in the same league as D. H. Lawrence, or Virginia Woolfe, or Jorge Luis Borges. And his characters are pretty two-dimensional, and his themes are not exactly very deep. Oh, good versus evil, there's a new idea. [Laughter.]
Now, you may say, how can Tolkien be so successful without the moral complexity I have just been arguing for? But again I remind you that these ideas are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for success; they're only ideas. That's why I call them lessons. These aren't laws or rules. If you expected to come in here and get a laundry list of rules to follow, and that following them would guarantee you long-term success, you're going to be disappointed. These are
lessons, not laws, and there will always be counterexamples.
In any case, I believe that moral complexity is a hallmark of many, but not all, great works, and I believe that in our genre it has been too long neglected. But at this point I'm now interested in what we can learn from Tolkien.
So. While I'm a fan, I acknowledge the limitations of his work. Nevertheless, the average fantasy novel hits the shelves and lasts a few weeks or months,
while Tolkien continues to sell year after year after year, and my question is, why?
Well, I think there are a number of things that Tolkien did right, things that we can learn from. And the first thing I want to talk about is how he handled sequels.
If we read Tolkien's works in the order in which they were published: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, we notice some interesting
things. Each work is completely self-contained. At the end, all the characters have been dealt with, all the plot lines are tied up. But The Hobbit contains some intriguing references that are never explained. There's a mention that the Elvenking was descended from those long-ago elves who never went to the land of Faerie in the West. We never find out anything more about this: why they didn't go, what about the ones who did, what the land of Faerie in the West was anyway. Similarly, the wizard Gandalf leaves the expedition at one point to go help the White Council, whoever they are, try to drive the Necromancer, whoever he is, out of his fortress of Dol Goldur, wherever that is. Later on, we learn that they were successful — but we never find out anything more about it. And it doesn't matter. It's not essential to the story. The Hobbit contains references to a wider world and a more ancient time than are actually part of the story, and that piques our interest.
If we then go on and read The Lord of the Rings, we find that it answers these questions. We learn a bit more about the elves, and we find out exactly who the Necromancer is and what he's all about. But The Lord of the Rings contains its own intriguing references, to such things as the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, the Drowning of N˙menor, and some people called the Valar. Again, we have hints of a wider world and a more ancient time. The story is wrapped up at the end, and we don't need this information, but it arouses our curiosity.
Finally, if we read The Silmarillion, all our questions are answered. The Silmarillion is the complete cosmology, theology, history and geography of Tolkien's universe, and all its ancient legends and literature as well.
Another good example of this is Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy. Again, each book in the trilogy is self-contained, but each contains references to
other things that we'd like to learn more about.
For contrast, let's look at the way sequels are handled in Star Wars. When we see Darth Vader regain control of his careening TIE bomber and sail it off into the galaxy at the end of Star Wars, George Lucas might just as well have put up a big sign in red letters on the screen, reading "Sequel coming! Sequel coming!" He hasn't finished the story. We haven't learned the fate of one
of the major characters. In order to find that out, you have to see the next movie.
Now this isn't a problem with Star Wars, because Star Wars is interesting anyway, and we don't mind going to see the next movie. But with less compelling material, it can start to anger your audience. A good example of this is Philip JosÚ Farmer's Riverworld series. I gave up on it because it was just going on and on and I started to wonder if he was ever going to explain what the hell was going on. Another good example was the TV show Twin Peaks. [Laughter.] I started to wonder if David Lynch was secretly laughing at is. "Ha, ha! I can get these suckers to keep tuning in week after week to watch incomprehensible surrealist nonsense!"
This isn't that big a deal with TV, which is free, or with books or movies, where you only have to pay another $5.95 to see the next book or movie. It's another matter entirely with computer games, where you have to pay $59.50 — ten times as much — to buy the next game. If I get to the end of a computer game and I find out that I have to go buy another game, I feel ripped off. I expect my computer game to end the story.
So my first lesson from Tolkien is: make them want to come back. Don't make them have to come back. You cannot create product longevity simply by stringing your audience along.
My second lesson from Tolkien has to do not with the order in which Tolkien's works were published, but the order in which they were written. I mentioned that they were published in the order: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. But The Silmarillion was actually written first. I told you that it contained the complete cosmology, theology, history and geography of Tolkien's universe. Well, when he took it to the publishers, they said, "Hmmm. A set of legends, from a nonexistent place, containing no sex, very little dialog, and all written in a quasi-biblical language. Oh, yeah, that's just going to fly off the shelves." [Laughter.]
So Tolkien went on to write The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, and The Silmarillion was published last. But one of the consequences of this was that Tolkien's work is incredibly self-consistent. It just hangs together. You get a clear feeling that it's all part of one whole, because he created his universe first.
By contrast, let's look at the world of Star Trek. The world of Star Trek does not feel consistent to me. I can't tell how the Federation works, or who's in charge at Starfleet Command; I can't even tell if they have money or not! [Laughter and applause.] The world just doesn't feel unified. And of course the reason is that the Star Trek universe was accreted over time. They were putting out a television series, and the show was being developed under pressure, and they just didn't have the time to work out the details.
And of course the classic example, to the point that it's become a standing joke, is Kirk and the Prime Directive. [Laughter.] The Prime Directive states that the Federation shall not interfere with the development of primitive cultures. But Captain Kirk always seems to be breaking the Prime Directive — sometimes with a flimsy excuse, sometimes with no excuse at all. They talk about the Prime Directive as if it's absolutely fundamental, but then they seem to break it all the time, and as a result, I don't get a sense that it's really one of the Federation's moral imperatives.
Now, I approve of Roddenberry's instincts here. America was in the middle of the Vietnam War, and he wanted to make a comment about imperialism at a time when such things were simply not discussed on prime-time television. It was a gutsy move. But they didn't really think through the consequences for all their later shows, and as a result, they painted themselves into a corner.
A recent example of a world that was created ahead of time is the world of Babylon 5. You can tell that Straczynski has got it all figured out, and consequently I think that Babylon 5 is a better show than Star Trek is.
(God help us if we start arguing about that issue in here. However, I'm the one with the microphone [laughter] and that's my opinion.)
So my second lesson from Tolkien is: if you are planning and intending to create a product with a long life, create your world ahead of time. Sometimes you don't have that option, as with Star Trek. But I would suggest that if you don't do it before the first release of the product, at least try to do it before you release the first sequel. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to create a complete world.
For the third lesson, I want to talk about my own experience of reading Tolkien's books. I read The Hobbit, and that made me want to read The Lord of the Rings, and I read it, and it made me want to read The Silmarillion, and so I read it, and when I came to the end of it, I figured, "That's all there is." But then I was intrigued by Richard Wagner's Ring cycle of operas, which also seemed to be about dwarves and dragons and a magic ring that ruled the world, and so I
read about it.
But I found out that the Ring cycle was (loosely) based on Old Norse, and Germanic, and Icelandic legends, and so I started to get interested in them. And that got me involved in Anglo-Saxon poetry and things like Beowulf. And I was reading along one day, when all of a sudden, this word leapt off the page: orc.
Now I had just assumed that this was a nonsense word made up by Tolkien for his
race of evil, underground-dwelling creatures, because many if not most fantasy writers seem to make up nonsense words whenever they want a word for a new concept. But it turns out that "orc" is the Anglo-Saxon word for "demon."
Then I found "Beorn." Beorn is the name of a man in The Hobbit who can turn himself into a bear at night. But it turns out to be the Anglo-Saxon word for "bear." And then I learned that the names of all the dwarves are taken right out of the ancient sagas.
And with a shock, I realized — bear in mind that I was young — that he hadn't made up all this stuff at all! Tolkien's work is based on a huge body of earlier material. All this stuff that I thought he had invented from scratch, I found out that he had only borrowed. Tolkien's works are not works of pure imagination. I mentioned this briefly last year, in my lecture "In Praise of Sex and Violence," but I want to go into it in more depth now.
Now, as creative people, I think we would prefer to create works of pure imagination, that we want to create works which express our own creativity and ideas. Imagine you're an art student. Which would you rather do? They plunk down a vase of irises in front of you and say, "I want you paint this as if Vincent Van Gogh painted it." Wouldn't you rather paint it in your own style? Imagine being told, "I want you to compose a concerto, but I
want you to make it sound as if Mozart composed it." Suppose you were told, "I want to create a computer game, but I want people to think that Chris Crawford created it." [Laughter.] Wouldn't you rather create in your own style?
Works of pure imagination seem somehow more "honest," more "personal." If a friend of yours shows you painting and says, "I painted this myself," aren't you going to be more impressed than if he says, "I painted a copy of someone else's
painting?" We give more credit and attention to a work that is purely someone's own than one which is a copy, or even in the style of, another artist. And what was one of the slogans of the Sixties? Do your own thing! One of the nastiest things you can say about someone's work is that it is "derivative."
And yet… as I thought about this, I began to wonder if that's really appropriate. Works of pure imagination are easy to do rapidly, but they're not easy to do
well. A work of pure imagination requires no study of existing work, no knowledge of culture history. When creating a work of pure imagination, you don't have to know anything; you can just put down what's in your own head.
I believe this is why much of modern art, like abstract expressionism, leaves people cold. It has no cultural roots, no frame of reference. It doesn't reach out and touch the viewer's soul. Most works of pure imagination
that are done rapidly are only about one inch deep. And that applies to all computer games, which are made in one to two years. By contrast, Tolkien's works are not works of pure imagination, but it still took most of a lifetime to create the level of depth that he has!
A work of pure imagination is like a column standing by itself. It has no support other than its own inner strength. It is easy to knock down. A work of derived
imagination is more like the block at the top of a pyramid. Of course the top is what everyone wants to see, the place where everyone wants to go. But once you've climbed up there and looked at that block on the top, you begin to realize that it is resting on an enormous foundation. And then you start to wonder if there is anything… inside.
Too many computer games are works of pure imagination. But they're all done in one or two years. They're all one inch
deep. They don't reach out and touch anyone's soul.
As Isaac Newton said, "If I have seen farther, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants." My third lesson from Tolkien is: Borrow! Steal! Rip off! Plagiarize! We need to stop trying to make it all up ourselves. We need to learn to draw on other resources. We need to acknowledge that we are not giants.
In the beginning there was nothing but endless space and Tawa, the sun spirit. And Tawa took of his own essence and made the First World. But the people of the First World were all insects, who lived in caves and fought among themselves. And Tawa was displeased, and he sent the Spider Grandmother to them, and she led them up to the Second World.
When they arrived at the Second World the people were transformed into dogs and
wolves and bears. And still they fought among themselves, and did not understand the meaning of life. And Tawa again sent the Spider Grandmother, and she led them up to the Third World. And when they arrived at the Third World they were transformed into human beings. And Spider Grandmother taught them to plant corn and to weave and to make pots, and she bade them to be virtuous.
But the Third World was cold, and the corn did not grow well, and the pots could not
be fired. Then came Hummingbird bearing the bow-drill, a gift from Masauwu, the Lord of Fire. And Hummingbird told them that there was an Upper World above the sky.
So the people began to cook their meat and to make fired pottery. But they became lazy, and began to gamble and to turn their faces away from virtue. And Spider Grandmother came for a final time, and she led the people up the inside of a bamboo pole to the Fourth World, the Upper World beneath the open sky,
which is our world, near to the San Francisco Peaks where the kachinas live.
Now there is much work to be done in the Fourth World. But at the bottom of every kiva, where we gather for our rituals, there is the sipapu, the sacred hole which leads down to the Third World below, and is the reminder of our journeys with the Spider Grandmother.
Not far from
Oxford University there is a pub called the "Eagle and Child," better known to its familiars as the "Bird and Baby." And there's a small room in the back of the pub, where Tolkien and some of his academic and literary friends like C. S. Lewis used to gather and read aloud their recent works to each other. They called themselves the Inklings.
But there was always one man — I don't know who it was, but I'm know it wasn't C. S.
Lewis — who, whenever Tolkien used to pull out his manuscript, would put his hands over his face and say, "Oh, God, not more elves!" [Laughter.]
Well, I know how he feels. [Laughter.]
We are inundated with games about elves and dwarves and orcs and dragons. God Almighty, if I see one more game about elves and dwarves and orcs and dragons, I'm going to scream!
Now, those of you who are descended from Anglo-Saxon or Germanic stock may object: "Hey, that's my cultural heritage; why shouldn't I use that? Why should Tolkien be the only one who gets to sit on the top of that pyramid?"
And I would reply, of course you're free to put another elf-dwarf-dragon title out there. Fine. But what the hell are you going to do to differentiate yourself from all the other elf-dwarf-dragon titles? Find something else! Choose a different culture. Look around a little. Learn something about a culture other than your own!
I'm not arguing for multiculturalism for its own sake, or because it's right or socially responsible or politically correct. I mean, God knows we're not in the business of trying to broaden anyone's mind in this industry! [Laughter.]
No, I'm arguing for multiculturalism out of pure self-interest! The market is saturated with elves and dwarves! Why not be different? Look at Magic Carpet! Aladdin! Prince of Persia! All hit games, all drawn from a culture that Americans regard with hostility and suspicion. It can be done!
Just recently I've gotten addicted to a new game from Maxis called Marble Drop. It's a puzzle game in which you have to figure out where a marble is going to go through a complicated mechanism. But the background of the screen is inspired by the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. I really appreciate that little touch. Now it's true that he's another dead white male, [laughter] and there are people who would argue that we shouldn't even use him. But at least he isn't a dwarf!
I have here two great science fiction novels. Both of these are winners of both the Hugo and the Nebula awards. One of them is Dune, by Frank Herbert. It is based heavily on the culture of the Bedouin Arabs. The other is Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny. It's based heavily on Hindu mythology.
Now, both of these are masterworks of imagination, and they're still in print. But would they have won those
awards, would they still be in print, if they had been about elves and dwarves? I very much doubt it.
So. You're going to make a game based on another culture. What do you do? How do you find this material?
Well, the answer is in your wallets. You've been sitting still for a while, so get out your wallets and your purses. There's something in your wallet that will help you make better, longer-lived computer games.
Get them out and look through them. We're not looking for the money, though that obviously helps; nor the credit cards, nor the CGDA membership card, which of course you all have…. No, we're looking for something that you can get for free. We are looking… for your library card. How many people in the audience have a library card? Hold them up!
Hmmm. Not very many. Well, those of you who have them can give yourselves a pat on
the back. But as for the rest of you, that is pathetic! How in the hell do you think you can work in a creative medium if you don't have access to a library?
One of the very first things George Lucas did with his Star Wars money was to build a big, beautiful library and stock it with wonderful books. He knew that a company dedicated to making creative works would need a good library.
It's not all on the Web, you know. [Laughter.] The Web is wonderful, don't get me wrong, but it is far from complete and it's very badly organized. The Web is all right for reference, but it's a terrible teaching tool. You cannot really learn anything systematically from the Web – and I believe that if you're going to do the research necessary to create a product based on an unfamiliar culture, you do need to learn systematically.
The second thing you need to do is to use that card. You do not make brilliant, wonderful, long-lived products by keeping your nose so close to the grindstone that your work is out of focus. You have to take time off to study, to learn, to think. You need to take off half a day a week — so, in this industry, about six hours. [Laughter.] Tell your boss that during that time the video's not going to get compressed, the design and the music and the ad copy and the code are not going to get written. You need to go down to the library and sit in a comfortable chair and learn about something that interests you.
If you're doing a football game, go read about Knute Rockne and Vince Lombardi and the development of modern pass coverage assignments.
If you're doing a flight simulator go read Jane's Defence Weekly and All the World's Aircraft.
If, God help us, you're doing an elves-and-dwarves game, [laughter] go read the Icelandic Sagas, or at least something other than Tolkien.
In the course of this lecture I have read to you four of the world's great creation myths. I would guess that most of you had only heard one of two of them when you came in here. There are, at a rough estimate, 160 living religions in the world. And that doesn't even count the dead ones, like the Egyptian religion. A religion is a mythos, a psychological and linguistic and philosophical and cultural structure which by definition attracts and holds people's souls. There are 160 sources of myth, of legend, of stories that have touched people deeply. I have told you about four. It's all there for the taking.
So I set you a creative challenge. When you leave here, go back to your work and look for its mythic foundations. And if you don't find any, then start digging. Go down to the library and do some learning.
And for you hardheaded materialists out there, I would point out to you that Oral Roberts and Reverend Moon and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh have already demonstrated clearly that when you have someone's soul, their money
will soon follow. [Laughter.]
You want to make a product that lasts? Then find a way to touch your player's soul. Stop thinking of him or her as a customer. Start thinking of him… as a convert.
Here endeth the lesson.