Michael Crichton. (interview) Betsy Staples.
He thinks that hacking is good, the home market is "soft to the point of squishy," and that the main function of home computers will soon be communication.
He is a celebrated novelist, movie director, and, most recently, software author.
He is Michael Crichton whose latest movie is "Runaway" with Tom Selleck and Jean Simmons and whose newest software package is an adventure game called Amazon from Trillium Software.
We spoke with him recently as he was putting the finishing touches on the movie.
A truly multifaceted person, Crichton has formal training in none of the areas in which he currently works. He paid his way through Harvard College by writing novels--six altogether, all under pseudonyms. One of them won an Edgar for best mystery of the year it was published.
In 1969, the year he graduated from Harvard Medical School, Crichton published Andromeda Strain, one of his best known novels. The following year he went to Los Angeles to watch the filming of "Andromeda Strain," and "I've been here ever since."
It wasn't too long thereafter that Crichton met his first microcomputer. It was actually a dedicated word processor--an Olivetti, which he still uses. When it comes to serious word processing, he says, "there's no contest between even the most sophisticated program for a PC and a dedicated machine."
So enthralled was he with the Olivetti, that a year or so later he bought an Apple II. "I had some vague idea about doing word processing at home on the Apple and at the office on the Olivetti . . . but I gave up."
Deeply involved in movie production by this time, Crichton hired a couple of programmers to attack what was to him one of the most onerous aspects of the business--financial modeling. "It has traditionally been a gruesome task to start with a script and come up with a budget. With this simulation, which runs on an IBM PC AT, we can do the whole thing in about a day."
As an example, he cited "Runaway." Using the simulation, "we came up with a budget for shooting it in Canada. But they (the studio) wanted to know how much it would cost to do it in Los Angeles. It took them nine mandays to prepare a budget for L.A. If they had asked us, we could have given them the figures in about a minute."
"Anyway," he says, "I had started to supervise the creation of a system to model a production, and to do that I felt that I really needed to know something about the problems of the programmers who were working on it. So I sat down with my Apple and taught myself Basic programming."
Although he does not consider himself an expert programmer or serious hacker, Crichton is in favor of hacking and the people who do it. He explains: "It's perfectly OK for a movie director to eat and sleep movies and to have no other interest in life--that's Stephen Spielberg. He's applauded for it; he's lionized. It's fine for a symphony conductor to have no other interest than music, or for a painter to live to paint. So why isn't it OK for a person who loves computers to be totally wrapped up in computers?
"I think the answer is that it is OK. I like hacking. I think the most boring thing in the world is to sit down with a bunch of flowcharts and think everything out before you start programming."
As he became more proficient in Basic, Crichton began to think about writing a game.
As readers of his books know, Crichton is a wonderful storyteller, and although he changed media in Amazon, his intention remained the same: "I wanted to tell a story," he explains.
"Amazon tends to make you want to do one episode after another. For example, you cannot get to the Lost City without crossing the river and climbing the volcano and dealing with the natives. It's like beads on a string. The episodes can be strung together in different orders.
"My interest is not in creating a puzzle space; my interest is in trying to tell a story in a new way."
To create this new kind of story, Crichton joined forces with programmer Stephen Warady and set to work on Amazon. The first problem he faced was deciding how his adventure story would relate to the adventure genre as a whole that had gone before.
In the name of novelty or innovation, he could have determined to ignore his predecessors and break new ground on every level. But, he says, "I was very hesitant to say that all the conventions of adventure playing were silly and I wasn't going to use them."
Instead, he decided to use established conventions where they made sense and incorporate new ones where they seemed appropriate in the story.
Some sections of the game Crichton programmed himself in Basic and had translated into machine language, because "I don't do that very well. But when I turn on the machine, it looks the same as what I wrote."
The things he wrote include the graphics routines for the main titles, modules that deal with turning the computer (in the game) on, and all the sound effects.
He worked closely with the programmer, turning over to him a flow-chart of all the text and a map of all the locations as well as the color graphics frames.
With the game finished, we asked, how did he select Trillium to market it? "They showed up. It was really funny. Just about the time the game was being completed and we were trying to decide what to do with it, Seth Godin of Trillium called and said he was starting a line of software."
When we questioned him about the wisdom of getting involved in the home entertainment software market at a time when "industry observers" are predicting its imminent demise, Crichton says "I've always said that the home market is soft to the point of being squishy." What he sees for the home entertainment market in the future--at a time when machines are widespread--is a kind of entertainment somewhere between movies and computer games--interactive fiction for the whole family. "But that won't happen this year."
What is the best reason for buying a computer this year? "My sense is that eventually everyone will have a machine for communication. The reason that you will have a computer in your house is the same reason that you have a telephone in your house. It's not an issue; almost no one says, 'Why do I have to have a phone?' You're an American so you have a phone in your home--and maybe even in your car."
"Right now, whenever somebody says to me 'I don't have any use for a computer,' I say, 'Right. You don't.' I'm tired of trying to talk them into it."
No one has had to talk Crichton into it. "I have many more computers than I have hands," he says. His current collection includes an IBM PC/AT, an HP Portable, a TRS-80 Model 100, a standard IBM PC, the original Apple II+, a Commodore 64, and the Olivetti word processor that started it all. For work travel, he prefers the Model 100.
To our travel-minded readers we recommend a trip to the Amazon. For those who can't wait until the next trip to the software store, we recommend the original Crichton program on page 126 of this issue.