Hooray for Hollywood

22 Aug

Back before my last studio, Junction Point, was acquired by Disney, I had a grand plan – a mission, really, that I wanted to explore. (I’m going to talk more about mission in a future blog post, but just go with me here.) My mission had two parts:

First, I wanted to take inspiration from television, rather than movies. That meant, episodic content, digitally delivered, with each episode standing alone but also being part of a larger, overarching “season” narrative. You know what I mean – think about pretty much any police procedural you’ve ever seen on television. A crime gets solved in each episode, but the relationships among the recurring characters carry over from episode to episode until by the end of the season, those character relationships have changed in ways that keep us watching season after season. In other words, there’s both completion and open-endedness built into each episode. (I call that approach “limited serial narrative” but that’s so grad school I’ll just leave it at that.)

This approach seemed – and still seems – like a great model for games. Frankly, I don’t understand why games haven’t adopted it. And I’m pretty sure I’m going to give it a shot some day and see how it works “in the wild” rather than just in my head.

But limited serial narrative isn’t what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the second part of the original Junction Point mission.

That second part was all about partnering with folks in Hollywood – film-makers and television producers – to create what I guess you’d have to call transmedia productions. (Man, do I hate that term, but I can’t think of one that applies better here, sadly.)

The relationship between Hollywood types and game developers is typically one where the Hollywood folks are in control. The game types are reduced to being an “employee of game company #27 making a game based on someone’s last flick.” I had very little interest in a licensor/licensee relationship. (Though there was one IP I would have loved to work with. And, no, I can’t say what that was.)

Bottom line: I wanted to collaborate with folks in LA to create new IP that were designed from the start to work in a variety of media. They’d make the movies and TV shows, my studio would make the games and the property would be co-owned by them and by Junction Point, sharing in the profits both ways.

In working to make that happen, my agents at the time, Seamus Blackley and Ophir Lupu (among others) hooked me up with some Really Big Name guys. Pretty cool, I must say. I had the privilege of meeting and working with them, not in a subservient role, but as a peer and  collaborator. I wish I could talk about this in more detail but the only announced project was a collaboration with John Woo on an IP called “Ninja Gold.” (On that one, we actually had game deals and movie deals, and we built a bunch of prototypes, but In That Way, deals have a tendency to fall apart and so did that project.)

Anyway, what I discovered working with movie/TV creators was that, by and large, they’re Just Like Us — smart, creative, out of do great stuff — and they’re held back by a lot of the same forces that affect many mainstream game developers — rising budgets, shrinking audiences, execs who don’t get it, etc.

I also discovered that some of them totally got that movies and games are different, some didn’t. Some were seduced by the superficial similarities — pictures on a screen, sound, camera, lighting, dialogue, etc. — and thought they “got it,” while some were intrigued by the differences and what they didn’t understand about our medium. (The latter were a lot more fun to work with, needless to say.)

In talking to these people, I discovered something interesting, myself, something I hadn’t thought about before, something that really brought home for me at least one of many important differences between movies/TV and games. (Many of those differences are obvious enough that I don’t need to go into them here, I hope. If I do, let me know and I’ll come back to this in a comment or future blog post.)

Almost ALL movie/TV makers, in my experience, thought in terms of moments. Cool, specific, unique moments. (And they were really, really good at coming up with those moments, let me tell you, even acting them out to show what they meant.)

But what do I mean by “moments”?

Movie guys have to fill just a couple of hours of screen time. We have to fill a lot more, even in a short game. And at least in part, because of that, we have to be about the repeated action, not necessarily, the uniquely memorable one. In a movie, if your hero does the same thing — even twice — you’re probably in territory where the audience is thinking about what a bad movie they’re watching, not about how cool the hero is.

In games, we have a completely different set of constraints. Designers talk about the “core loop” – the sequence of base level actions players repeat over and over during a game, with variations to keep things interesting as the game goes on. But all we do – all we do – is offer variations on the core, not radical changes. I mean, there’s a reason why it’s called a “loop,” right? Players run through the steps, then go back to the beginning over and over again.

Even the most astute Hollywood folks tend not to get this.

I remember sitting in a room, listening to one director say, “the hero should leap off a building, glide down using his coat as a glider thing, land in a superhero pose and in one smooth motion, come up flinging knives.” And, yes, he acted it out.

Sadly, though many games actually do take moments like that and repeat them ad infinitum, I had to tell this guy I didn’t think that was a great game idea. “Yeah, that’d be cool the first time the player does it,” I said. “But by the hundredth time, it’ll be boring, at best, and probably actively annoying.”

Or, to use a John Woo example (not one he and I talked about, to be clear!), in a movie, it’s great to see Chow Yun-Fat, two guns blazing, leap onto a restaurant cart and barrel across a room taking out bad guys… It’s great when guns go off and doves fly… In a movie. In a game, those things would get old, and a little silly, after the tenth iteration.

John Woo’s a genius, and never even hinted that we should borrow those signature moments. I think he realized that such moments just don’t work in games (or, at least, I don’t think they work). Games are about finding sequences of actions that are as fun and exciting for players the hundredth, even thousandth, time they do something. The variety comes from changing circumstances, not a cascade of unique moments.

That’s our magic and our art. The ability to create compelling loops and changing circumstances that keep those loops fresh and interesting for 20 hours is what separates the great designers from the rest of us mere mortals. Recognize and act on this (and have a massive marketing budget) and you can rule the game world.

I’ll leave it at that, but I’d love to hear from you about examples of unique moments that did work when repeated over and over again. In other words, prove me wrong. (No cutscene moments, please.) And even more interesting to me, I’d love to hear about repeated actions that maintain players’ interest despite the repetition, and why they work. In other words, prove me right. Comment away.

Another Narrative Fallacy: It’s All About Choice

8 Aug

If there’s one thing that comes up in all discussions of game narrative, it’s the desirability of player choice.

Sometimes, if a game is built on a branching story structure, choices may be offered independent of game systems or mechanics. (See Telltale, Quantic Dream and others.)

Sometimes, in a game with a more open structure, choices may be expressed through a player’s interaction with simulation elements, systems and mechanics. (See Bethesda, Bioware and — finally… thankfully… – many more).

Happily, finally, everyone involved in games – especially narrative games – gets all that.

However, even with nearly everyone agreeing on the importance of choice as a defining characteristic of gameplay, there’s a trap waiting to ensnare the unwitting:

Simply put, games aren’t, and shouldn’t be, about choice.

To expand on that a bit, it’s important, I think, to get past two widely held beliefs:

First is the idea that choices are of paramount importance, in and of themselves, and by virtue of the nature of the medium.

Second is the idea that choice implies, even requires us to think in terms of, reward and punishment… better and worse… right and wrong… light and dark… good and evil.

I simply don’t get this kind of thinking. I don’t get the exclusive focus on choice. I don’t get the seeming obsession, in choice-driven games, with binary opposition.

Choice. Doesn’t. Matter.

Binary oppositions are boring.

Choices without consequences are meaningless. If they don’t lead to different outcomes – preferably radically different outcomes – what’s the point?

And games that encourage players to think in terms of right and wrong ultimately encourage players to, as I put it, “play the meter” – “Ooh, I’m evil and now I have horns and a bunch of demon tattoos!” or “Ooh, I’m good – see? I have angel wings and a halo.” It’s just ridiculous.

“But wait a minute,” you may be thinking. “Aren’t you one of the guys who’s been screaming about player choice for a couple of decades?”

No. I’m not. If you look closely at what I’ve been saying, choice isn’t the be all, end all. Not at all. And it isn’t the key to what some of us have been calling “shared authorship” all these years.

So what the hell have I been screaming about?

Here it is: The interesting aspect of player choice isn’t the choice itself. The interesting thing – the only interesting thing, really – is the revelation of consequences. Choice without consequence is a waste of time, effort and money.

But wait, you say. Doesn’t the word “consequence” imply punishment, which sends us right back to better/worse, good/evil, right/wrong? Doesn’t consequence require designers to impose a value judgment and maybe even provide a good/evil meter so players know where they stand?

Not at all.

One of the hard and fast rules I lay out for my teams is “Never judge the player.” Never. Players should never know what you think about a question or its answer. (See, this is where last week’s blog post about about questions comes in.) You’re not there to answer the questions your game asks players to consider. You’re most assuredly not there, I tell my designers, to say to players “this is right and that is wrong.” Designers exist to provide opportunities for players to test behaviors and then see the consequences of those behaviors. Given the chance, players will judge for themselves whether the benefits gained by making a particular choice were worth the cost of making it.

It may just be me, but in my experience, there are few, if any, questions or situations that lend themselves to clearly defined, universally agreed upon right or wrong answers or solutions. In most real world cases, there are only shades of gray. Even if you disagree (as extremists and believers of all stripes might) I’m comfortable saying that the most interesting situations are the ones where right and wrong are not readily apparent. I don’t understand why more game developers don’t acknowledge that and revel in our medium’s unique ability to reflect the wondrous, complex lack of clarity of the world in which we live.

FULL CIRCLE

Okay, so let me try to bring the two parts of this trip down narrative lane full circle. Let me close by saying this about questions, choices and the nature of game narrative:

A successful game narrative isn’t one that tells a great story (though that’s obviously desirable!).

A successful game narrative is one that asks questions.

A successful game narrative gives players the tools to answer those questions both locally (in the moment) and globally (in how the entire story plays out).

A successful game narrative is one that shows shows players the consequences of their local and global decisions, without judging players for making those decisions.

There are only shades of gray and, that being the case, all decisions have costs as well as benefits. There is no absolute right or absolute wrong. (And, yes, I’m a moral relativist at heart…) Even if you disagree, games that reflect that will get players thinking in ways no other medium can match.

A successful game narrative is one that engenders conversations not only about how each player solved a game problem, but also why. Most of the dialogue we hear around games is about optimal strategies or about how moving a cutscene was. How limited and dull that is.

What I want – and hope you want – is to hear players debating the rightness or wrongness of their decisions. I want to hear one player say, “How could you have stolen that?” and another player describing her thought process… I want to hear one player ask, “Why did you leave that guy alive after what he did?” and another make a case for Ghandi-like pacifism… I want to hear players who reach an endgame driven by their choices ask one another, “How could you think that solution was appropriate or right or ethical?”

“Appropriate,” “right” and “ethical” are magic words. Other media can make the claim that they deal with those concepts, too – and they do – but in those media, the words belong to authors while in games, those words can and should belong to players.

Wrap your mind around all this, and we’re on our way to realizing the potential of games as a unique narrative form. Clearly, we owe something to earlier narrative models, but we can and must build on their teachings, maybe even leave those teachings behind to create something more collaborative, more moving and more compelling than any other medium can be.

Embracing choice means we’re halfway there. What do you say we go the rest of the way?

A Narrative Fallacy: It’s All About Aristotle

1 Aug

Lots of people – even game developers who specialize in narrative games – fall into a couple of common traps when they think about games and stories, and about the roles of players and developers in the telling of those stories.

First is that any series of events, with setup, complication, resolution and denouement constitutes a narrative, in any medium, linear or interactive. By the letter of the law, I suppose that’s correct. But before you plot out your magnum opus, I’d contend that the characteristics I just listed, must be in support of something – something deeper, a meta-narrative. There has to be a subtext (or, to be just a tad judgmental, you’re just making crap and you can stop wasting my time and yours).

Put another way, before you start crafting your story, make sure you have something to say. You’d think this would be self-evident, but I’m not sure it is, given the quality of most game stories. Frankly, for me, the statement I want to make is of paramount importance. Actually, that isn’t quite true. If I wanted to make a statement, I’d write a novel or make a movie. What’s of true importance to me is the issue I want players to grapple with.

Here’s the key for me when I think about game narrative as opposed to traditional narrative forms:

Linear media answer questions; games ask them and allow players to answer them.

Note that the word “interactivity” is nowhere to be found in this formulation of the defining characteristic of game narrative. That word is overused, ill-defined and really kind of useless. Think back to the narrative games you’ve played and see if you can identify the questions they ask you to answer… see if the game empowered you to answer them yourself, as opposed to just divining the answer the developer predetermined for you. It’s an interesting exercise.

Let me give you some examples from two games I worked on.

For me, Deus Ex is “about” four interrelated questions:

  1. What happens when you take a guy who believes the world is black and white and throw him into a world that – like our own – is all shades of gray?
  2. What would the world – our world, the real world – be like if every conspiracy theory people believed to be true were, in fact, true?
  3. What’s the nature of humanity – at what point in the world of human augmentation do we stop being human and start being… something else?
  4. What’s the most desirable “end state” for the world? Are we better off in a technological dark age in which people have genuine free will? Are we better off in a world where an all-seeing AI can gift us with total connectivity and, one hopes, the empathy that arises from universal connection, at the cost of giving up our freedom? Or are we simply better off as we are today (IF conspiracies are real), ruled by a shadowy elite, not knowing it, and going about our daily lives none the wiser?

Two things to note:

First, answering these questions doesn’t involve defeating anything or solving anything puzzly or being told anything by an author. Yes, you play a character named J.C. Denton and, yes, there’s an overarching plot that allows these questions to bubble up so players can interact with them. Yes, that’s true, but those questions can only be answered by YOU, the player, not by a PC puppet. At the end of the day, the character you play is of secondary and, basically, irrelevant in narrative terms.

Second, I don’t really care whether anyone knows the game is “about” your personal answer to those four questions. No author wants his/her/their themes expressed obviously and unsubtly. Frankly, I doubt most of the Deus Ex team even know what the game was about for me. All that mattered – to me – was that the game allowed players to answer those questions through their choices during play.

Another example. Disney Epic Mickey asked a few questions, too. Frankly, it pains me that a lot of players didn’t see how similar in intent and philosophy Epic Mickey was to the other games I’ve worked on, but that’s another story… Anyway, Epic Mickey asked a completely different set of questions than Deus Ex:

  1. How important are family and friends to you?
  2. Is it better to be less powerful, but have friends who will help you do what you need to do; or is it better to be more individually powerful, but alone in the world?
  3. Is it better to do the easy thing to solve a local problem, when the fate of the entire world is in your hands; or is it better to do the hard thing in solving local problems, because the small things we do add up to far bigger things?
  4. Allen Varney, one of my longtime collaborators, who was critical to the early conceptualization of Epic Mickey reminded me about a fourth question: What happens when you remain rooted in the past, versus being willing to forgive past grievances and move on?

Again, players may not realize it, but they’re answering these questions with every step they take and through every interaction with the gameworld, the characters and the developer-generated situations they find themselves in.

Yes, even a cartoon mouse can be the vehicle for asking big questions…

Next time (pretty soon, I suspect, ’cause I’m on a roll and feeling frisky), I’ll talk about another narrative trap game developers fall into – that games are all about choice.

Telltale May Not Makes Games, But They Do Make Magic

25 Jul

There’s something that’s been on my mind for a while (since GDC, for sure, and long before that, truth be told). What prompted me to share my thoughts now was an email I got the other day from an Australian journalist — Patrick Stafford — about something that happened at GDC 2015. Here’s the portion of his email that led me to this post:

“At GDC, I was at a panel about Telltale’s games – a bunch of their writers were speaking. At one point, Kevin Bruner asked the audience something along the lines of, ‘does anyone here think that what we make shouldn’t be called games?’ I looked around, and I believe I saw you raise your hand.”

Truth be told, the guy was right. I did raise my hand in answer to Kevin’s question, and I have to own up to the fact that I was expressing a sincerely held belief. I’ve often said Telltale makes things that are game-like, but not exactly games. I think of them as some sort of interactive experience (obviously), but does that mean “game?” I don’t think so.

Now, before people get their shorts in a knot about this, let me say a couple of things:

First, the definition of “game” is so broad (and ill-defined… and debated…), Telltale’s work can clearly be said to fall under that umbrella, if you want to put it there. And if you do want to put The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Tales from the Borderlands, Game of Thrones and others in the “game” category (or, to cite a non-Telltale example, David Cage’s Heavy Rain), go ahead. I’m not religious about this. Labels, at the end of the day, aren’t all that important, you know? Understanding how something works is important, but labels, not so much.

Second, I love Telltale’s work. The fact that I think of The Walking Dead et al as wonderful experiences but not wonderful games may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one for me.

So, circling back to Patrick’s email, I figured I owed him a response and, at the same time, thought this was a good opportunity to think through – for myself – my feelings about Telltale’s work. So let’s tiptoe through the minefield.

When I think of games – narrative games — I think of several things: plot (of course), but also challenges, goals and solutions. I think of character progression. Unlike, say, David Cage, I think of systems and mechanics – I think a lot about that. I think of players having some impact on the narrative or, at least, how that narrative plays out minute-to-minute (given each player’s unique skills and the choices each makes in overcoming developer-created problems).

That last one is the most important to me, personally, something to bear in mind here. Nothing else (literally nothing) is more important to me. Your mileage may vary.

I’m absolutely not saying that all games should or must empower players, giving them ownership of the narrative at the minute-to-minute level. However, if you accept that idea, even simple choices can make a difference. You don’t have to go full-on Mass Effect or, if you’ll indulge me, Deus Ex. It’s fine to empower players in small and/or conventional ways:

  • Which weapon do I use to defeat an enemy? A perfectly reasonable, if minor experience differentiator.
  • Do I go up here before going down there? Again, giving players even this amount of freedom is a small win.
  • Do I wait for a long straight piece to fill in a narrow gap or do I drop the L-shaped piece that’s already on the screen? Even Tetris tells a player-recounted story, of a sort.

You can probably think of dozens, hundreds, thousands more of these small differentiating elements, from games that most people wouldn’t think are particularly player-empowering. The ones I’ve listed, and the others you can think of, may be the lamest choices imaginable (though I’m not saying they are). Lame or not, each of these player-driven decisions significantly differentiates one player’s experience from another.

(As a note, the test of whether a choice has made a meaningful difference is whether two players, discussing their experience, describe a unique moment, even if the outcome of a choice is the same for both of them.)

For me, differentiated experience is a defining characteristic of games – maybe the defining characteristic.

By contrast, Telltale’s work, though incorporating a kind of player-empowerment, limits player options in significant ways.
Let’s go back to the list of things I think of when I think about game narrative – challenges, goals, solutions, mechanics/systems and character progression.

If you’ve experienced any of Telltale’s work you’re probably way ahead of me, but here’s my take:

Games like The Walking Dead certainly offer story, challenges, goals and solutions. Isn’t that enough to call them games and put all this seemingly nit-picky labeling behind us? Obviously, I don’t think so or I’d just stop right here and say “Oops. Never mind.” So what is it about Telltale’s work that makes it hard for me to say they’re games?

For starters, they basically have no mechanics (or when they do introduce simple mechanics — shooting while backing up stairs and such — they seem out of place and unnecessary). There’s no character progression to speak of. And there’s no real player control of the minute-to-minute. That last point is key.

Everything Telltale offers is pre-planned — even the game-like qualities they do incorporate. The challenges, the goals the solutions, everything is determined and constrained by the designers through a script that I’m pretty certain utilizes a traditional branching tree structure. (True confession time: I don’t have any inside information about how things work under the hood at Telltale, but I’d love it if someone who did know would chime in and tell me!)

If my experience of Telltale’s work has led me to the correct conclusion, you can’t really go where you want to go when you want to go there and I don’t think there’s ever the possibility of a player discovering a freeform, player-driven solution to a problem.

What that tells me is that Telltale is less interested in empowering players and, like a novelist or film-maker, more interested in the story they want to tell. It tells me they’re not much interested in the player’s impact on the minute-to-minute unfolding of the experience. Nothing wrong with that, though it’s not a choice I’d likely make as a developer. What Telltale clearly does care about is character interaction and dialogue choices that give the illusion that players have a role in directing the narrative. And they clearly value choices that feel meaningful (even when they’re really not). Man, does Telltale get choices.

Paradoxically, these player-limiting characteristics and the focus on linear story elements are, I think, where the Telltale magic happens.

Magic? You bet. The magic is that the choices Telltale offers say little or nothing about the characters’ feelings about a situation… and they’re not about allowing players to min-max or optimize or save-and-reload until they find the “best” solution to the puzzle or problem. Do you know how rare these characteristics are in games?

Pretty rare. The magic of Telltale’s choices – the magic of their work, overall, is that I, at least, and I suspect many of you reading this, forget the character you’re playing. The choices Telltale asks you to make as you wend your way through their artfully crafted stories reveal something about the player’s feelings about right and wrong. Telltale forces you to, within script constraints, think about what would be the best thing to do in a given situation if you encountered that situation in the real world 9or a zombie-infested one…). “Game space” is subordinate to “real space” and character development is subordinate to players’ realizations about themselves.

Despite featuring strong, well-developed characters, Telltale’s scripts force players to think for themselves and about themselves. That’s awesome and, if I may say, what I’ve always tried to do in the games I’ve worked on. I’ll let others decide how successful I’ve been. Clearly, Telltale’s approach is working.

Telltale succeeds at this not because their mechanics are great or their puzzles are challenging or their worlds are open-ended. They succeed because their scripts are flat-out better than other people’s, and even more important, those scripts pose ethical dilemmas that are more subtle and problematic than anything anyone else in the game business has on offer.

Is there more to the magic than talented writers and an interest in ethics? I think there is. Again, I have no inside information, but I think there’s a structural thing going on that’s pretty old-school but still very effective: I’ve already mentioned the branching tree structure. Telltale’s work takes that to a whole new level.

Without meaning to disparage anything or anyone in any way, I often describe the Telltale (or David Cage) approach as jamming several movie scripts together. And, then, refining those scripts so they intertwine with one another to give the illusion of player choice, rather than the reality of it.

That has some interesting side effects that make it hard for me to apply the word “game”:

No matter how convincing the illusion is, I’m pretty sure no one at Telltale has ever been or will ever be surprised by any choice any player makes. Millions of players can play, but because writers and designers carefully craft every choice ahead of time, the possible outcomes all exist, in some metaphysical sense, in “script-space,” regardless of which choices you select.

And no player will ever surprise themselves as they play because they really have very little freedom, if any, to leave the tracks laid by the intertwined scripts. Players will be surprised by the choices and consequences afforded them by the talented, creative people whose scripts they’re experiencing, but nothing can happen unless a writer/designer implemented it in the first place. Being surprised by something – largely a result of interactions between tools/interactions with in-gameworld elements – requires giving players control at a level Telltale simply won’t allow.

That means that the only difference between my experience and yours in a Telltale game is that I chose one script and you chose another. You saw a slightly different scene than I did but, ultimately, your script and my script will converge again, maybe even in the very next scene. In reality, we’re both experiencing a single story, just a well-disguised one. We can compare our choices with other people’s choices – something Telltale exploits in an exceptionally elegant and compelling manner — and the results seem player-driven because branching done in a sophisticated manner works that way. But that comparison of my pre-planned choices versus your preplanned choices is all players can do. They can’t really make a difference. It’s cool that you made the same choices as 42% of players, but that doesn’t add up to a game-defining, player-driven narrative in my book.

That it works at all is part magic trick and part something else (which I’ll get to in a moment – remember the words “familiarity” and “comfort”). And, just to restate in a slightly different way something I said earlier: I don’t believe Telltale’s magic tricks make their work “less than” or “worse than” other interactive narratives or works more irrefutably classified as games – far from it. Magic is cool – cool enough that The Walking Dead was my favorite interactive experience of 2012 and Telltale’s more recent work is compelling as well.

Going one step further, I’m so inspired by Telltale’s work that I actually thought about trying to make a game in that style. I’m sure it’s a lot harder than it looks, but I suspect it would be like writing a choose-your-own-adventure book (with pretty pictures). I wrote some pick-a-path stuff back in my tabletop days and had a lot of fun with it so, yeah, I’ve thought about exercising that muscle again…

Anyway, let me give you a sort of a bottom line (“sort of” because I’m not really done yet – this is just an illusion of closure…).

If you need to put a label on what Telltale does, here’s my answer: No, they’re not making games. They are, as I hinted earlier, making “experiences” (my preferred, if imprecise term). To be more concrete, and at risk of being mocked for resurrecting a term long thought dead, let’s say Telltale is the place that finally cracked the “interactive movie” code.

Terminology aside (and my embarrassment at using it), for those of you who’ve been sleeping under a rock for the last 25 years, the true interactive movie has been the holy grail for a lot of developers and, now we know, the experience of choice for a lot of players. And Telltale’s better at it than anyone else.

I know there’s no great insight in trotting out the hoary old chestnut: “interactive movie.” (I fully expect a fair amount of grief about even typing those words from the deeper thinkers among you.) But I think an accurate hoary old chestnut is better than lumping Telltale’s work in with clearly categorizable narrative games that function in fundamentally different ways and offer players fundamentally different kinds of experiences.

One final semi-relevant thought (and now I really am wrapping up): A large part of Telltale’s success probably stems from the familiarity normal people – i.e., non-gamers – have with existing media like movies and television. People get movies and TV and, therefore, have a high level of comfort with a work that looks like a movie or TV show and feels like a movie or TV show – but one that can be redirected in simple, safe yet still compelling ways by the viewer. A lot of developers – I’ll include myself here – would be well-served by focusing a little more on familiarity and the comfort of our audience. Going to them rather than insisting they come to us makes a lot of sense, something Telltale gets (and I do not…).

So does Telltale make “games” or “experiences” or “interactive movies?” Honestly, despite having just spent pages making some sort of case, I really don’t much care what you call them. Call them poodles for all I care. As long as Telltale keeps doing what they do as well as they do it, I’ll be a happy guy.

BTW, I was going to end this post with something along the lines of “If you want to comment on this, I’m eager to engage in a dialogue about Telltale, games and narrative. However, I beg you to refrain from using the terms ‘narratology’ or ‘ludology.’ Those words make my skin crawl. I’ll probably ignore any comments that go there.” I was going to do that, but thought it might be too obnoxious, so I didn’t. Well, now that I think about it, I just did end my post with that comment (foolishly, no doubt). First mine, triggered, I guess. Have at me.

I’m done now. Got to go play some Game of Thrones

DSGA year one recap, part 5

6 Jul

We had a focus. We had a staff. We had students. So how’d the first year go?

The short version of the story is it went really well. Things weren’t perfect of course – on day one of the first year I told our 20 participants they were part of the DSGA Beta 1.0 and part of their job would be to help us make Beta 2.0 better. They did a terrific job of that, letting us know through their words and actions where we were succeeding and where we were falling short. Let’s just say they weren’t shy!

On the plus side, our plan to split each day into morning lectures and afternoon lab worked pretty much as planned.

In the morning, we lectured, laying out the concepts of leadership and management. We covered the mundane (what the heck is leadership and how does it differ from management?… how do you brainstorm?… how do you create a compelling resume; how do you interview; and how do you network effectively to enhance the odds of getting a job?… even how to run a meeting so everyone isn’t driven mad!).

We covered, well, whatever the opposite of mundane is (how to conceptualize, flesh out and pitch a concept… how to deal with interpersonal conflict… how to communicate across disciplines… how to turn a bunch of individuals of varying skill levels and diverse backgrounds into a great team with shared goals… how to set up the conditions in which positive studio cultures form… what bumps, challenges and changing expectations you should expect to encounter as you advance in your career…).

And in between, we covered the nuts and bolts of project management (strengths and weaknesses of various team structures… strengths and weaknesses of various project management methodologies… how to work with QA… how to deal with requests from executives who can be, let’s be honest, random at times… how to parse a P&L…)

Obviously, we tried to provide tools for taking the conceptual aspects of these leadership and management issues so they could be applied in the practical environment of actual game development, as experienced in the lab.

The lab itself worked pretty well, too.

For sure, those of us who’d been through building start-ups felt right at home. We had too many people in too little space. We had people with varying levels of knowledge of the their disciplines as well as the softer skills necessary to make a game together. We had people feeling each other out to determine who would be buddies and who wouldn’t. We had people complaining about chairs and where they had to sit. Like I said – it was just like a start-up studio.

But there were some differences as well. Because of our lecture schedule, we didn’t start lab time – actual game development – until after lunch (1-ish), and though the participants all felt they were working hard, their experience didn’t exactly reflect the reality of game development, where hours tend to be long and expectations high. Let me be clear – several of our students put in a lot of time and worked as hard as I would expect any professional to work. But there was a definite tendency for the lab to empty out around 5 p.m. except for our stalwarts. The staff expectation was that the whole team would be in there longer, working until tasks were completed rather than to a time limit. Next year, we’re going to make sure our dedicated few don’t get left alone “after hours!”

Another big difference between real world development and the DSGA was our commitment to giving everyone a chance to lead the team of 20. To accomplish that, we put into practice a plan involving a rotating leadership structure. Every three weeks a different pair of participants would take on the roles of Producer and Game Director (Creative Lead), and those new leads could (if they made their case to the staff) actually change the team structure during their tenure. In practice, this didn’t happen often, but it did happen. Though roles and team structures do change in the real world, they rarely change that often or that regularly, and participants had a hard time maintaining the kind of consistency you look for, both on the management and creative sides of game development. We have some ideas about how to address the artificiality of that approach in year two, without compromising on the idea that everyone will get a chance to lead the team of 20.

Finally, as far as the class/lab split went, we didn’t always see people putting into practice in lab the lessons learned in class. There were communication, skill level and creative clashes exactly like you’d expect in the real world. But where we expected everyone to go right from concept to practice to address those challenges more effectively than untrained (or experientially trained) leaders might, some of the participants had trouble with that. To be clear, many of them were able to use the tools we gave them to lead our diverse team members effectively, but others of them foundered when putting things into practice. This coming year, we’re going to use a lot more exercises and roleplaying to ensure that more of our participants are successful in bridging that concept/practice gap, to their benefit and to the benefit of team and project.

At the end of the day, despite some hiccups, I think it’s safe to say that all 20 participants left with an understanding of how hard the jobs of project leadership and management are. They learned how hard it is to keep a team motivated during an extended development cycle. They learned what it means to be an effective team member and a leader regardless of title and position on a team. All wins…

And here’s one of the most amazing things to me: Despite hiccups, despite radical (though not unrealistic) creative changes along the way and some team restructurings implemented by different leadership duos, the end result was a complete, playable game – The Calm Before (which you can check out here: http://thecalmbeforegame.com/). I told everyone at UT that a completed game wasn’t the product they should expect at the end of the program – the students and what they learned would be the product – but a good, fun, replayable game DID come out of it. (It actually had some of the multi-solution/multi-path stuff I love so much in games.)

So, that’s the high level on class and lab. There were two other aspects of the program that I thought worked really, really well – mentoring and guest visits.

Taking that first one first, the staff met with participants one-on-one on a regular basis, discussing the unique challenges each of them experienced, as a team member and as a lead. The personal and professional growth I saw in our participants as a result of these one-on-ones was inspiring. Of all the things we did, I think these sessions may have been the most valuable.

And then there were guest lectures. We had over 30 industry folks come in to talk about their experiences as game development leaders, as entrepreneurs, as business experts, as discipline leads, and as industry pundits. I’ve been making games for over 30 years and I learned a TON from these folks. Each guest stuck around for an informal lunch, where students could ask questions, engage in conversations and just hang out with people most game developers never even get to meet in their entire careers. I mean, we had the Creative Director from Harmonix come by… founders of Bioware, Bethesda and Certain Affinity… the co-creator of Words with Friends… the President of the Entertainment Software Association… legends like Richard Garriott… industry analysts like Michael Pachter… experts in analytics, HR, game law, contracts, games as a service and even more. The varied viewpoints were critical to what we were trying to accomplish at the DSGA – “there’s no one right way” was one of our mantras – and our students were able to make some amazing connections.

Oh, yeah, and when the program came to an end, many of our students made effective use of the tools we taught, the career fair we organized and the networking opportunities they had and got some really good jobs – at Telltale, Gearbox, Turbine, Disney, 2K and elsewhere.

So that’s it. The first DSGA year is behind us and we’re rocketing toward year two. There’s more information available at http://moody.utexas.edu/gaming-academy and you can always check my blog posts from December 2013 through April of 2014 – https://warrenspector.wordpress.com/2013/12/. If you already know you want to join us you can apply at http://moody.utexas.edu/gaming-academy/apply. But act quickly – the application deadline is just a week away and the class is already filling up!

And with that, maybe I can now get back to blogging about things other than the DSGA!

DSGA year one recap, part 4

29 Jun

Now that my little foray into the messy world of VR is sort of almost please let it be over, it’s time to get back to the DSGA recap. A lot happened in our first year and I still want to talk about it.

When last we spoke, I described how the DSGA found its focus and how we found our staff. Our next challenge was finding students – a program without students doesn’t make much sense, obviously.

We knew what we wanted:

  • People right out of school who wanted to continue their education (without digging themselves a deeper hole of student debt) and who wanted to learn things they hadn’t learned in undergraduate or graduate programs.
  • People from industry – mainstream or indie, we didn’t care either way – who realized they needed to become better team members and team leaders if they were going to achieve the success they desired without spending a lifetime acquiring the necessary skills.
  • People who were so damn good and with such obvious leadership potential that we had no choice but to admit them. I mean, I didn’t want to be the guy who turned down the next Richard Garriott or Chris Roberts just because they lacked an appropriate degree!

But regardless of where these folks came from, we wanted only people who aspired to and had the potential to grow into leaders – official, titled leaders or people with the ability to lead from any position on a team.

Where the heck do you find such people?

It wasn’t rocket science: We spread the word through personal connections the staff had built up over seventy years of game development experience. We asked our Development Council of industry notables to contact their contacts. I went on the road, speaking at a variety of colleges and universities offering game development courses and degrees. We took out ads on Gamasutra. We got booths at conferences to pass out fliers, get email addresses and press the flesh. We built a website and a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. I blogged up a storm. In fact, if you want more information about the program plan, check out the series of blog posts I posted last year (see below for more info) – most of that information’s still valid and useful if you’re thinking about applying.

Out of all that effort, we got a ton of applications, complete with resumes, statements of purpose, portfolios and descriptions of work done on teams and in solo efforts. We played a bunch of submitted games. We argued amongst ourselves and, ultimately, came up with a list of people we wanted to talk to.

We did a bunch of phone screens – 60 or so of them – approaching the process much as we would have if we’d been hiring for a real game team, with the added twist of sussing out leadership aspirations and potential. We looked for people who would be a good team fit, or a challenging fit, or people we thought we could help grow in ways that would further their careers.

Finally, we made offers. Astonishingly, we had a nearly 100% acceptance rate – we made an offer; the offer was accepted. In all cases save one. Frankly, we were pleased but shocked.

We ended up with three people who’d been running their own studios but wanted to learn how to build a sustainable, growing business. We had six who came to us with industry experience at studios large and small. We had nine with educational backgrounds and two who, well, let’s say they fell into the “other” category. We had people with no college degree and others with Masters degrees. We had writers, level builders, UX/UI folks, 3D artists, 2D artists, modelers and coders. And, without going into detail, we ended up with a more diverse set of people than I’ve had at most of the studios I’ve run – and we didn’t try for that; we simply brought in the best people we could and the diversity issue became something of a non-problem.

Anyway, by the end of summer, we had our people. Classes were scheduled to start on August 27th and before that day arrived, we had to figure out how to mold all these people – people used to being in charge – into a functioning development team! We’ll come back to how we did that, and how the first year really went in the next post.

In the meantime, there’s still time to apply for next year’s class. The DSGA is looking for candidates for the 2015-2016 school year. More information about the Academy is available at http://moody.utexas.edu/gaming-academy. Even more information can be found in some of my earlier blog posts from last year, starting in December 2013 and continuing until April of 2014 – https://warrenspector.wordpress.com/2013/12/. And if you’re already sold, to apply go to http://moody.utexas.edu/gaming-academy/apply.

One last (I hope) word about VR

27 Jun

I got an email this morning from a friend who’s working in VR. His comments made it clear that I hadn’t been particularly clear in some of my statements and, certainly, not in my motivation for making them.

So here’s one (last?) set of observations/clarifications on VR and then, if you folks will let me, I’m going to sit back, watch what happens and let history take its course:

1. As an individual, I find VR cool, interesting and compelling. I’m not anti-VR. The content is coming, I have no doubt – I know too many super-smart, super-creative people working to create the unique content that will make the VR experience desirable if not irresistible.

2. As a developer, speaking strictly personally, I’m not much interested in making VR games. That could change, but right now I’m interested in other things. That isn’t to say other developers should follow my lead. I’m just a guy whose head is in a different space these days. (Mostly a mobile space, if you want to know…)

3. As a friend, I hope I’m wrong about VR’s long-term commercial future in the game space. I have lots of friends working on VR projects and I genuinely, truly, unreservedly want their hard work in the VR space to bring them satisfaction and success.

4. As a consumer, I’m torn. I’ll probably buy some sort of VR gear when I can because I’m affluent enough and enough of a geek to be intrigued by new tech, cool content and potential new futures. The question is, am I anti-social enough not to worry too much about isolation from the world or how I look to anyone observing me wearing a goofy headset? Probably, but I’m still wrestling with that.

5. As an investor (not that I am one!) I’d be pushing VR developers to explain how they’re going to overcome non-technical challenges for which I, personally, see no answers. There seems to be an attitude in the press and among fans, at least, of “If you build it they will come.” I suspect that same attitude prevails among VR hardware and software developers, but I don’t know – either because I haven’t paid close enough attention or because they’re just not talking. “If you build it they will come” works really well in movies but not so well in real life. This is the heart of what I’ve been saying about VR and despite trying to be as provocative as I can be without getting downright offensive, I still haven’t heard anyone address the ergonomic and user challenges VR faces – all anyone wants to talk about is content. Maybe there are answers to the non-content questions, maybe not, but I’d love to see people in and out of the field at least try to address them.

So that’s it. To summarize: I’m a VR fan but not a true-believer. I believe VR will be a game-changer (as it were) in many aspects of our future lives but not necessarily in gaming. I want to see VR succeed as a gaming device, but see potential roadblocks being ignored. I see history working against this new tech, but hope smart people can write a new kind of history.

In closing, I’ll just say that if anyone working on VR stuff wants to show off their work I’m always up for demos. Despite appearances, I’m not the enemy and I am interested in what you’re doing. Like I said, I think VR is challenged, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t damn cool…

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