CCSF 2012 Day 11: Interview with Steve Grand

Written by Steve Grand

One of the most important people to Creatures is its original creator, Steve Grand. He was responsible for the beginning of our beloved series, and deserves a great deal of credit for all he has done! Before the CCSF 2012 began, members of the community were given an opportunity to send in questions to ask Steve. Thankfully, he took the time to answer every question with a good amount of details! Have a wonderful time reading through this interview with Steve on the 16th anniversary of the release of Creatures 1!

From Steve Grand: "Hi everybody! Happy CCSF! You have no idea how thrilled I am that people are still playing and talking about Creatures after all this time. It makes me feel really old, but it’s extremely heartwarming nonetheless! Thank you all for making the game a success."

- How does it feel to make one of the most successful artificial life games in existence?

Haha, that’s a very small category to be top of! The fact that Creatures is still close to the state of the art in scientific terms, more than a decade after it was written, is something to feel quite proud of, I guess, but at the time the whole thing was a rather surreal and stressful experience, from what I remember. I’d just been quietly tinkering away on much the same kinds of things I’d been working on since 1978 and nobody had shown the slightest bit of interest up to that point. Then suddenly... Pow! To be honest I didn’t really know how to deal with the “fame” side of things, because I’d never wanted to be a games programmer at all, never mind a successful one, And while some people would give their eye teeth to have someone make a TV documentary about them or whatever, I’m basically pretty shy and self-conscious. I kept thinking it was all a dreadful mistake and someone would find out eventually. The only times I remember being relaxed enough to feel a momentary sense of accomplishment were the day that I received my OBE from the Queen, and one other time when it suddenly hit me between the eyes that silly little uneducated me was standing chatting to a Nobel prizewinner on one side and an astronaut on the other, while casually sipping whisky with the royal family! But although it was all a bit unreal in that respect, Creatures gave me the chance to become friends with some truly amazing people who otherwise I would never have had the slightest hope of meeting. So when I’m very old and look back on my life, I think that will be the thing I remember most fondly.

- What is your favorite part of the Creatures universe?

Hmm. That’s tricky. I liked all of it. In my head I don’t so much see the world as it appeared in the game, but as it appeared in the model that was built to form the graphics. Although I built the first clay burrow myself, just to test out the feasibility of producing the graphics photographically (there was no such thing as 3D software in those days), I had nothing to do with creating the model itself, and so the first time I saw it I was amazed. It was like having your own giant doll’s house built! I still have the airship from it sitting on my bookshelf. I guess the coast in C1 probably appeals to me the most, because the idea of a journey was important in the original plotline, and the coast just beckons you to encourage your norns to travel (if you can ever get the stupid creatures in the boat). There are two reasons I love computers. One is that you can build living things in them and the other is that you can build places to explore. I’m a sucker for simulations – I particularly love flightsims but I also have a ship simulator, a train simulator and I even just bought a truck simulator. In all cases it’s the ability to travel through a virtual world that excites me. So I’d love to have been able to do more on the idea of a journey, with endless new places for you and your norns to discover, but computers were pretty limited in those days, so a little circular world was all we could manage.

- Do you still think of new ideas for the Creatures games?

Not so much for the game itself, but ever since I finished Creatures I’ve been working on a whole bunch of new ideas for how to build artificial lifeforms. Norns are complex beings by computer science standards but as you all know, they’re embarrassingly stupid. And they don’t really have thoughts, not in the sense that we do – no daydreams or plans or hopes for the future. So since the game was released I’ve been doing a lot of experimentation into the biology of consciousness and imagination. It’s been very hard, but I feel like I’m really onto something now. I tested out my early ideas using robots, but now I’m back in the virtual world again. I don’t think I’ve stopped thinking about these things for a single day since 1992! I’d love to spend time thinking up new ideas for the gameplay and the world, too, but to my mind everything revolves around the creatures and so although I do have a few ideas up my sleeve, I need to wait and see what the new creatures’ personalities are like before I decide what world they should live in.

- What was your favorite moment when developing Creatures?

I think it was probably the moment when Michael, our CEO, suddenly “got it”. Creatures was a follow-on from the previous game I’d written, called Rome AD92. Rome had been published by Maxis in the States, and so when they wanted to work with us again, Creatures was the idea we put forward. So as far as Michael was concerned, this was just another adventure game in a line of adventure games. It was just another business deal and that was that. In fact his first verdict on all my hard work was “the scrolling really sucks”. But then one of my first norns did something strange and Michael asked me, “why did it do that?” I answered “I don’t know” and Michael said “what do you mean you don’t know?” I think he felt a programmer really ought to know why their code was doing whatever it was doing. But when I explained that the Norn hadn’t done that thing because I’d programmed it to, but because the creature itself chose to do it, Michael’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped. Suddenly he got the point of what I was doing. From that moment on he was sold on the idea and worked hard to make it commercially possible. He took it out of the schedule and told me I had all the time I needed.

- Did you ever anticipate how successful Creatures would be, or how prominent it would still be over a decade after its release?

Heavens, no! If somebody had told me then that some of the kids who were going to play my game would one day grow up, have kids of their own and then introduce them to the very same game, I’d have sent for the men in white coats to take them away! If I’d had any idea that people’s entire careers might be influenced by playing Creatures and they’d end up becoming doctors or programmers or biologists in part because of something I’d made, or that one day I’d be standing up in front of scientists from, say, the Human Genome Project, to tell them about the genetics of a video game, I’d just have laughed. I guess I can claim some of the credit for sparking people’s interest, but in large part the longevity of the game is a testament to you guys and all the work you put into developing the community.

- What inspired the appearance of Norns?

They were a sore point, actually. My original Norns looked something like chickens, because I wanted them to be perky, curious and something of an “ugly duckling,” but nobody else in the company shared my feelings on that, so we explored all sorts of ideas. A lot of them came from Mark Rafter, our art director, but Mark’s tastes were about as unconventional as mine, so most of his suggestions were considered a bit delicate and “girly” (although I liked them). Back in those days, the idea that macho video games might ever be girly was a pretty dangerous one! At one point we had a group of people from Disney come in to make suggestions, if I remember right, and that was probably when the big eyes and general furriness started to take hold. My original proposal for the game was entitled “Small Furry Creatures” after a phrase in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (funnily enough I didn’t know Douglas Adams until much later and I’m not sure if I ever did actually tell him that I stole his title), and in that proposal I described them as being rather like Ewoks, which perhaps isn’t too far from how they ended up. So there were various different concepts floating around and everybody had their own opinion on the subject. There was a lot of argument and I don’t really remember why they ended up looking the way they did.

- Were Grendels designed to be evil monsters, or were they more along the lines of misunderstood cousins of Norns?

I can’t remember much about where Grendels came from either. I’d always had it in mind to produce several species, and thanks to one of my earliest design documents I’d gone off on a Scandinavian mythology kick, which is where the name Norn came from. They were named after the Nornir, the three old women who sat beside three wells, under the great World Tree Yggdrasil, to weave men’s fates. Coincidentally, I believe there is an echo of those three wells and the tree in the coat of arms for the tiny city of Wells, where I grew up, so it was kind of an homage. So, given the context I guess I thought of the Grendel from the Beowulf epic as being another potentially useful name and that in turn suggested something pretty nasty. A big inspiration for the game in the first place was a novel called The Planiverse, by A.K.Dewdney, which was about a computer simulation that had somehow got connected up with a real two-dimensional universe. The main character was called Yndrd, and he went on a journey, during which he came across various nasty creatures. I guess I had that in mind when thinking of a second species, but I honestly can’t remember my thought processes any more. I expect I intended them to be somewhat nasty, but I do tend to assume that people who are nasty are really just misunderstood, so I think the answer might be a bit of both! The Shee, incidentally, were named after the Side (where the “d” is really an old letter called eth, and is hardly pronounced). These were people from ancient Irish sagas, sometimes thought to be the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age people who built the megalithic tombs in Ireland. As you can see I like mythology, but it was a bit of an eclectic mixture!

- What made you decide on the Creatures design in general?

There’s a sense in which I didn’t so much design it as discover it, I think. Sometimes people say that the job of a sculptor is to carve away the bits that aren’t needed, to reveal the sculpture that was inside the wood or stone all along, and I had that sense with Creatures. Things just kind of fell into place. I’ll answer about the look-and-feel in another question, but from the point of view of the science and technology behind it, Creatures was just a step in a long sequence of events. When I first discovered computers I was training to be a teacher, and so my interest in how children’s minds develop led me naturally into artificial intelligence. I read all the books on the subject in the college library and decided everybody was doing it all wrong (in the way that 19 year-olds tend to do!) There wasn’t enough notice being taken of biology. It was all hard-nosed mathematics and not nearly emergent and self-organized enough. So I started experimenting with very simple artificial plants that could evolve through natural selection, and strange neural networks that had a lot more in common with biological ones than any others that existed at the time. This was just a hobby, but at the same time I started a small business writing educational software. It was very important to me that children should not be taught things – they should be helped to discover them for themselves. So as part of this philosophy I started writing an unusual kind of adventure game. The games had no plot – they just consisted of some people, a place and a time, and the children would hold a conversation with one of the people in the virtual world, asking them to travel around, interact with objects and describe what they could see. The programs were extremely open-ended – there was nothing you had to do, only things you could decide for yourself to do and learn about. You can probably see how that desire for open-endedness found its way into Creatures! But so did some of the technology, too. Conventional adventure games are very structured and controlled, but to create a world in which children could do more or less anything they wanted, I had to develop some unique ideas (based on watching how a fly washed its face, as it happens, but that’s too long a story!) So Creatures grew out of several years of experiments in writing software from the bottom up, instead of the more conventional top down. There are some pretty interesting ideas underlying Creatures, and I guess they must have worked well enough!

- What is your general opinion on the third party content that has been created for the Creatures series? Are you pleased by what's been developed or do you feel user created content is detrimental to the game(s)?

Detrimental? Definitely not! I think it’s truly amazing what people have done! I had absolutely no idea that people would take the idea and run with it like that. The fact that people could add stuff to the game at all was actually something of an accident. When I started writing it the game was for MS-DOS, but about that time, Windows 3.1 became a feasible platform for writing games, and then Windows 95 went into beta. Windows had a technology called DDE, which was later replaced by OLE Automation, and I decided to use this new API to make it possible for me to write the difficult biology and game code in C++, while most of the user interface – what eventually became the genetics kit, etc. – could be written in Visual BASIC, as separate little applications. VB was much quicker for producing rich user interfaces, so it seemed like a good idea, and OLE allowed one program to interact with another in just the right way. When people realized Creatures was going to be a major title instead of the fairly average game they’d originally anticipated, Toby decided to get other programmers to rebuild all of my little VB kits in C++ anyway, so all the work I’d put in to open up the API turned out to have been a waste of time. But it was there, and some of you guys figured out how to use it! And of course biology is very much a construction set by its own nature, so that also made it a very open-ended system. If I’d had any idea that people would go to such lengths to write add-ons for the game I’d have put more effort into making it easier and more powerful, but originally the API and the building-block nature of the code was just for my own benefit. If it hadn’t been for that, you wouldn’t have been able to extend the game, but, more importantly, if you guys hadn’t extended the game it would never have lasted for a decade. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who has written COBs and tools and manipulated the genome. That’s what made it all such a success.

- What gave you the idea to make Creatures the way it is?

In terms of look and feel and the storyline, it all began with the geology. I reasoned that rocks make landscapes, landscapes make history, and history makes for self-consistent reasons why the world is the way it is. So I started with the plan to make the game a side-scroller (it was either that or top-down, and I felt the latter would have left people too unconnected with their creatures). This meant the world was effectively forced to be a disk, and this in turn had consequences for the structure of the planet, how the weather worked and suchlike. Very little of this actually made it into the game but the important thing when you’re creating a new universe is to make it self-consistent, so it was a valuable process to go through. One consequence of living on a disk, for instance, is that you’re likely to form a strong psychological distinction between east and west (just like we do with “sunwise” being good and “widdershins” being bad, but even more so when there is no north or south), and this would have an influence on the creatures’ mythology. It also suggested the idea of a journey as a rite of passage, and so on. Like I say, I didn’t manage to get all of this into the game but it did help inform the way things should look and fit together. So it all started with the rocks. It’s interesting to look at human society and see how powerfully that has depended on geology, too.

- What are your favorite breeds in the games and why?

I don’t really know much about them, because by the time the game came out I was sucked into a media frenzy, followed by promotion to company director and all the challenges that this entailed. I lost contact with the game very quickly and the most I could do in terms of watching how the breeding efforts were going was to grab a few Norns off the Web now and again to use as examples when giving talks. But my heart would definitely have been with the underdogs; the Norns with the most embarrassingly quirky behavior. I don’t think I’m alone in that, either. People talk about Norns evolving but really they DE-volved, because the weird ones with serious problems were much more interesting than the normal ones and so people were more likely to share and breed the freaks than the well-adapted ones. I think that’s great, actually, and I loved the way people did feral runs and studied the mutations and suchlike. I remember seeing a full-blown “scientific” paper about a genetic disease, written by a couple of German guys, I think. I hope someone thanked them, because all that stuff was and is fantastic.

- If there was one thing you could change about Creatures, what would it be?

Oh, that’s easy. All of it. In some ways I’m fairly proud of the way I did things but mostly all I see are the mistakes, the compromises and the shortcuts. If I’m forced to narrow it down to one thing that I’d change then I’d say the brains. I had to make a working commercial product and that meant I had to play relatively safe when it came to the AI in order to be reasonably sure it would work (to the extent that it ever did work!). Norn brains are quite innovative in a number of ways (most of which I don’t suppose most people even know about) but they’re not like our brains in ways I regret. In particular the fact that they react to things instead of thinking about them or anticipating them. Ever since C1 I’ve been trying to develop better brains and now I think I have a really good theory, which I’m building into my new game. But boy is it complex! C1 was a very high-risk project but still much tamer than I would have liked. This time I don’t have an employer or milestones, so I can take even bigger risks. It’s pretty scary, actually, but I feel I have to do it. I’ve been driven by these questions since I was a child. I’ve kind of messed up my life in most respects, thanks to my little obsession, but even so, it’s something I just have to do.

- Do you still play Creatures today?

Um, I don’t think I’ve EVER played Creatures, not really. I never had the chance. During development, every time I got something working I’d have to move straight on to the next problem on my list. And after it was released there were too many other things to worry about. I suppose the closest I’ve come to playing it is when I’ve given talks to the public or other scientists and used the game to illustrate one point or another. To me, Creatures was just a step in a long story. I don’t mean to sound dismissive of it; I just mean that as soon as I’d got it working well enough to burn onto CD I lost the ability to develop it any further and had to move on (and anyway it was out of my hands – I had very little to do with C2 and C3). I didn’t stop playing with artificial life in general; I just had to work with other kinds of creature instead. So not long after I left Cyberlife I built Lucy, my scruffy little orang-utan robot, and played with her. Then came Lucy 2 and Grace, although in both cases the projects ended before I’d got beyond the hardware stage. Now I’m working on Grandroids. So I’ve spent a decade playing with the descendants of Norns, just not the Norns themselves!

- If Norns, Grendels and Ettins were real, would you keep them as pets in real life?

Wouldn’t it be great if they could just climb out of the screen into our world? I started to get a sense of how that might feel with Lucy the Robot. She would really freak me out sometimes. But ironically I’m not much of a pet lover at all. I used to keep tropical fish because they were soothing, and as a child we had cats, rabbits and birds, but I was never really very interested in them for some reason. I think life in the abstract interests me more than individual creatures, and to be honest I sometimes prefer people in the abstract too! So if Norns were pets then I’d probably be the type who would forget to feed them. I don’t know how you guys manage to have enough patience with them but I’m glad for their sakes that it was you who looked after them and not me.

- When will Grandroids be available?

Ask me again in another year! ;-) I honestly don’t know. The whole thing is a balancing act between the need to produce something before the money finally runs out, and the drive to follow my destiny, as it were. When I started my Kickstarter project I was pretty desperate – for complicated reasons I won’t go into I’d exhausted pretty much all my own resources, so I hoped to throw something together in the space of about a year that could use some of the ideas I’d had since Creatures and yet wasn’t so ambitious that it required massive levels of innovation. But when I managed to raise more money than I’d expected, and especially when I found out what a lovely, patient and encouraging bunch of people my 600 backers are, I confess I got sucked into attempting something far more ambitious than any sane person would dare to undertake! I could just have used ordinary keyframe animation instead of physics, tarted up technology I already understood instead of inventing everything again from scratch, and focused on making something commercial and entertaining. Creatures 4, basically. But writing C1 set me on a lifelong quest to understand some really important things about where consciousness comes from and what it really means to be alive, and I do think I have something quite interesting and unique to say on the subject, so I got a bit carried away! I have a really exciting theory but putting it into practice is very demanding. Anyone can write a book about their theory of the brain or whatever but when you try to explain something to a computer every tiny detail really matters, and sometimes the devil is in the detail. So I’m working every hour I can but it’s taking a lot longer than I’d originally planned. It’s sort of like when you urgently need to go to the bathroom but you’re watching a really good thing on TV that you’ll miss if you leave now, so you have to catch the moment just right! In my case I’m torn between doing what I feel driven to do, and being able to keep a roof over my head. Sooner or later the latter will overtake the former in importance and shortly after that you’ll have a new game! :-)

- What do you think of Creatures 4?

It’s hard to say, because I haven’t really paid much attention. I’ve been kinda busy! I admit to feeling a bit hurt or sheepish or disappointed or something vaguely depressing about people still making money out of something I created all that time ago, when I’ve really struggled to do my research on a shoestring budget in the meantime. But that’s my stupid fault for being naive. I do wish Fishing Cactus well – they seem like nice people, although I’ve not had any direct contact with them. I think they’re being fairly honest about what it is they’re doing – it’s a game, using existing technology, and I’m sure it will be a lot of fun. For me, though, it’s not about the entertainment; it’s about earnestly trying to create life and trying to make things you can genuinely care for and about. Maybe Fishing Cactus can bring some of that to a new generation of people by updating something that certainly seemed to catch people’s imagination at the time. Meanwhile, for those who are more interested in the hardcore end of artificial life, where looks aren’t as important as underlying substance, I’m working on something new and possibly even startling. There’s plenty of room for all of us, I think! With Creatures I was able to make something for which the question “Are they really alive?” was respectable enough even for scientists and philosophers to ask, not just the rest of us, and I guess C4 will continue to make people ask similar questions for a while longer. With Grandroids I would like people to feel no less justified in asking themselves, “Are they conscious? Do they know they exist?” If Norns are alive then they certainly aren’t very alive by biological standards, and if my new creatures are conscious then they certainly aren’t very conscious, but in both cases they’re at least an honest attempt and not fake. I reckon if I can continue to make people feel it’s legitimate to cry because their creature is sick, or be genuinely delighted when it figures something out for itself that makes it happy, then my work is done!

A huge thank you to Steve Grand for replying to me and taking the time and effort to be a part of the CCSF 2012! He's always been a part of Creatures, but hopefully both new and old fans know more about the mind behind the Creatures series now. Make sure to keep an eye out for more news about Steve's latest project, Grandroids! If we enjoyed Creatures this much, Grandroids should prove to be an even more advanced form of artificial life!


Ghosthande said...

Wow, thanks very much Steve for the awesome interview! This is really cool.

SpringRain said...

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions so thoroughly and honestly. This is an incredible addition to the CCSF! It's very interesting to hear your thoughts and opinions. I can hardly wait to see what Grandroids is like.

lilliumbird said...

i've seen some images and footage from grandroids and it is going to be veeeery different but in a amazing way :D

Anonymous said...

what an incredible mind!

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