At the 2003 GDC, Warren Spector gave a talk entitled Sequels and Adaptations: Design Innovation in a Risk-Averse World. The gist of the speech was that working on a license doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t (or shouldn’t) innovate and create. Licenses are here to stay and may soon become the bread and butter of the industry (if they aren’t already), and developers need to deal with that.
After the GDC, Greg Costikyan posted a note on his blog about the lack of innovation in the industry. Reflecting on Warren’s speech, he said:
The writing is on the wall. And here we have my high-school buddy Warren Spector to confirm it: There in his keynote speech, telling us not to worry, just be happy. Drink the cool aid. Go to work for an in-house studio. Develop a licensed product. By God, Warren would be glad to do a Harry Potter game. What a lovely universe to work in. It’s the future. It’s the way things are. And it’s not so bad.
[You can read the full text of Greg’s rant, and Warren’s subsequent reply, here. Scroll down to A Specter is Haunting Gaming, then work your way back up.]
It seems to me they’re both right. The business reality is that more and more money is being thrown at developers for sequels and licensed titles. Content from other mediums is driving development of products in the interactive industry, because those more mature mediums are looking for ways to expand their hottest and most lucrative brands. The creative reality is that developers are taking on licenses in order to survive, which means they’re not innovating and growing the interactive industry itself. Which inevitably means we’re pushing back the day when mainstream audiences will embrace our medium for what it can uniquely do.
More recently, Jason Della Rocca, program director of the IGDA, posted a note on his blog about the relative success of licensed games versus non-licensed titles. Jason’s conclusion is that original games beat licensed games both in terms of critical quality and quantity of sales. While I hope Jason is right, and that publishers themselves will some day reach this same conclusion, I recently glimpsed another reason why licenses may ultimately turn out to be less attractive to our industry than they currently are.
My epiphany occurred while playing Enter the Matrix, the interactive game based on a license from the motion picture The Matrix Reloaded. After playing the game for a couple of hours, and watching my third-person, in-game persona shoot up the neighborhood, run on walls, and whoosh through the air in slow-motion “bullet time,” it hit me that most of what I was doing and seeing had been forced not by design decisions, but rather by the promise of the license itself. Unlike a ground-up interactive third-person title, Enter the Matrix began life encumbered by filmic conventions and film-related audience expectations, some of which were unrelated (or even antithetical) to a meaningful interactive experience.
(Whether the game as it stands is a success commercially or critically, or whether the developer could have made a better game facing the same constraints, is not at issue. What is of concern is that any developer working on any property licensed from passive mediums will necessarily face these same obstacles: obstacles that do not exist when developers work on original designs. Only products licensed from original interactive works, such as sequels and mission disks, avoid this problem.)
Consider for a moment the obligations presented by the bullet-time sequences in the Matrix films. Not only would any interactive product have to offer the player the same kind of eye candy, but legitimate implementation of the narrative idea behind the effect would involve allowing the player to elect when to slip into bullet time, as well as make that player choice meaningful within the context of the game. To the developer’s credit they accomplished both of these objectives in Enter the Matrix, but as I played I found myself wondering at what cost. How much of the budget and how much of the schedule had to be devoted to building a graphics engine capable of displaying on-demand bullet time? And how did that obligation change or preclude other features or elements of the original design?
Consider also that on-the-fly implementation of bullet time also limited the degree to which a roving or scripted third-person camera could be used to accentuate the graphics, or to emulate the filmic conventions of bullet time in the films. Is bullet time from a fixed perspective going to be as interesting and compelling as bullet time presented through cuts, wild camera angles and tight editing? Is any action sequence in any movie going to translate well under the same constraints?
And what about the loss inherent in translating filmed human beings expressing complex emotions (except for Keanu Reeves) into interactive products that are constrained by technological limitations in depicting virtual characters? How does an interactive developer get around that problem if the licensed material involves live actors? Even assuming photo-realistic avatars indistinguishable from filmed human beings, how can such avatars be employed in an interactive narrative context in anything remotely approximating the emotional power of a good movie, without ultimately turning the interactive product into a film itself? (Case in point: CGW’s review of Enter the Matrix specifically notes that the non-interactive sequences are actually the most entertaining part of the ‘game’.)
At its most basic, these problems are not about licenses at all, but about the differences between passive mediums and the interactive form. If we’ve learned anything over the past ten years it’s that many passive techniques don’t translate at all well into interactive works, which means that licenses from passive forms will inevitably exact a cost at the design stage. I believe this penalty is currently being vastly underestimated by developers.
(In a recent thread in the IGDA Writing Forum, I noted that there is almost no overlap between the ideas I have for original films, television shows, books and stage plays, versus the ideas I have for interactive works. Interactivity as a mechanism of audience entertainment is simply perpendicular to most passive mediums, and I don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future, if ever.)
So while Warren’s right – licenses don’t necessarily mean you won’t be able to be creative – there may still be a design downside to taking a license on, and particularly so if the license originates in another medium. Given that most licenses do come from passive mediums, and that the flow seems to be increasing, this would seem to be a significant problem.
The success or failure of licenses as a business model for interactive developers will ultimately turn on whether the cost paid on the design end is compensated for by the marketing tie-in that is any license’s raison d’être. If licensed products can’t leverage their brand against original interactive works over time, there will be little reason for the interactive industry to seek them out. And that may be the real silver lining in what could otherwise be a licensing Dark Age for our business: products based on licenses from passive mediums may simply be less fun and less interesting than original interactive works. (If this sounds far-fetched, apply the same theory to licenses going the other way, particularly from the interactive industry to film. Would you rather sink money into an original motion picture, or into a movie based on an interactive license?)
Years from now games like Enter the Matrix may simply be seen as testament to the difficulties of translating passive licenses into interactive products. At the same time, developers and publishers may begin to fund more original (and innovative) products as their first means of generating income, just as all other mainstream entertainment mediums do. If and when that happens, the interactive industry will have finally, convincingly demonstrated to itself that interactivity is unique, and that it is the most important thing we have to offer the entertainment consumer.
— Mark Barrett