At some point while reading the following you’re going to think that what I’m really trying to do here is expand the market for my services. For the record, I’m not currently looking for work.
This essay is going to be a bit of a departure for me because I’ll be referencing (albeit anonymously) some people I’ve been contacted by or worked with. For most of you that won’t mean much, but there may be some readers who can connect the dots, so I want to make a few things clear. I have no reason to believe that the people I’m referencing are anything but decent, and they have never treated me less than professionally. If they owed me money they paid me, and they always took my calls. As a rule I don’t talk about my relationships with clients, but I need to make a craft point that springs directly from the business context of my work, so I’m going to bend that rule just a bit.
In January of this year I was asked to participate in high-level design meetings on a fascinating R&D project. Given the parameters of the project and my interest in emotional involvement it seemed a dream assignment, and I readily agreed to participate. The meetings were held in NYC, and were led by two people – one a biz-side producer, the other a design-side creative director. Although the premise was flawed, all the pieces were in place to do something truly exciting, and I had every reason to believe that we might truly raise the bar of emotional involvement in interactive works.
On the first day the biz person made it clear that he was there just to facilitate, and that it was up to the assembled, hand-picked talent to figure out how to tackle the theoretical problems that lay before us. Digging right in and working through the day we came to consensus about one of the basic parameters of the design, while also becoming familiar with each other as team members. Of particular relief to me was the fact that one of the other attendees also clearly recognized the project’s flawed premise, and demonstrated an excellent understanding of the theoretical framework within which we would necessarily have to design.
The second day opened with the creative director telling us that the basic parameter we’d locked down the day before had been summarily reversed. Leaving aside who actually made that decision, the net effect was that the team-building we’d begun the day before was destroyed, and the design autonomy we’d repeatedly been told we had was revealed to be a lie. Not surprisingly the meetings went downhill from there until the third day, during which I and the person I’d hit it off with explained in detail why the focus of the project was wrong, and why the design parameters would never bear fruit.
Clearly at an impasse, the remaining time on day three and all of day four was canceled and everybody headed home. Although I wasn’t particularly pleased to see such a great opportunity slip away, I had a clear conscience. I’d done my best to warn them off, and if they were determined to plow ahead there wasn’t anything I could do to stop them.
I withdrew from the project shortly afterward, convinced that I could not help in any way. It was doomed to fail and I had done my best to explain why, but the people running the show were determined to find that out for themselves. That they had a mandate to explore areas I was intensely interested in, but were not qualified to undertake that exploration, was very disappointing to me personally, but in the end it was their money.
Flash forward to mid-August, when an unexpected e-mail arrived from the peer I’d allied with in January. A developer himself, it turned out he’d been given control of the project after a number of false starts and failed iterations. I wasn’t surprised that the previous attempts had failed, but I was surprised and flattered when he asked if I wanted to come back aboard.
After talking a bit about the project and about how we needed to tackle it, he asked me to speak with the producer who would be managing the project. My first conversation went well, but my second conversation, which ostensibly hinged on money, did not. After the producer told me how much I should charge, based on his view that I would only be peripherally involved in key aspects of the project, he also made it clear that he intended to be intimately involved in assessing my performance, despite that fact that he had no understanding of the craft knowledge I would be applying. Although I had a great desire to work with the developer and a keen interest in the subject matter, I decided to pass on the project a second time.
Money Makes Right
As a former screenwriter and veteran of script wars in Hollywood, I know what it’s like to have a producer breathing down your neck who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The key difference between Hollywood and the interactive entertainment industry, however, is that movies are a mature medium, where interactivity is not. Yes, some interactive genres are mature, but the very fact that I was twice asked to work on a bleeding-edge product makes it clear that there is still much to learn, particularly as regards creating and sustaining emotional involvement.
In Hollywood, when you’re told to write garbage by a producer, knowing your craft can be a lifesaver. Regardless of the insanity of a given suggestion you can often use craft knowledge to protect the critical parts of a script – which is the design document for a movie. Although no one can be sure how any project will ultimately turn out, from a design point of view the fact that the film-making medium itself is no longer in flux is a major leg up when trying to negotiate creative problems.
Let me add that this is not a subversive argument about creative control, but an argument about creative responsibility. The scriptwriter’s job on a movie is to protect and advance the collaborative project at hand, despite advice from people who don’t know what they’re talking about, or who have a vested interest in only one aspect of the work. When forced to argue a point, at the very least a professional screenwriter can readily reference other mature works in the medium, or specific craft solutions that have proven successful in similar instances.
In the interactive entertainment industry designers do not have this comfort, particularly when emotional involvement or narrative effects are involved. When a designer is told to make a design change there will often be no way to design around the problem because the project itself is in uncharted territory. In such situations the designer has no craft road-map to help protect the project, and no reference works with which to defend other possible solutions. The larger problem, at least in my recent experience, is that producers know this, and are themselves using the immaturity of the medium to make inroads on design issues, regardless of how little craft knowledge they have themselves.
While all of this is particularly true on the bleeding edge, I think it holds across the entire spectrum of interactive works in which emotional involvement is a design objective. The majority of mainstream interactive entertainment these days, from budget titles to triple-A projects, attempts to integrate narrative and interactivity to one degree or another. The average designer may have some good ideas or half-proven methodologies to work from, but between an ever-shifting platform and an ever-greater demand for story from the marketplace there seems to be little solid ground on which to stand.
In the midst of this uncertainty the interactive producer (or manager, or biz guy – whoever dispenses the cash) has proportionately greater power than their Hollywood counterpart because they know designers are still guessing. In fact, because the medium itself is unformed, producers may be tempted to be more creative, not less, influencing projects at the craft level by championing pet theories or flawed approaches to design problems.
The tug of war between money and creativity is not new in commercial entertainment, and nothing here should be taken as advocating that the inmates be given the keys to the asylum. My concern is not that artists are having their creative visions strangled, it’s that the people least likely to help the industry mature creatively currently hold the most power. This is particularly true regarding interactive entertainment that aspires to create emotional involvement. Except for a few companies, little emphasis is placed on expanding the ways in which narrative and simulation can blend, the goal being to create emotional involvement in the context of interactivity on par with that found in movies or novels or theater.
To be sure, despite common tendencies and job descriptions, producers are not a monolithic force. The are not uniformly uninformed, and they are not secretly pushing a common power-grabbing agenda. Producers can be worth their weight in gold if they embrace their mission-critical responsibilities, and I’ve been lucky to work with a few that really stood out for facilitating rather than debilitating. In fact, producers didn’t create this problem, they’re simply reaping benefits from a constipated system that thwarts, rather than rewards, evolution.
While the emotive power of motion pictures grew in fits and starts in its infancy, it still grew. Movies got better and better at making us feel and care, and in the process honed the craft of telling stories on film to a razor’s edge. In the interactive entertainment industry all of the obvious solutions to making emotionally engaging products have apparently failed, leaving us battered and bruised at the foot of a wall that we can’t seem to get over, around, under or through. Making matters worse is the fact that we have managed to create a viable industry based on gaming and interactivity alone, which means money thrown at improving emotional involvement not only looks risky, but pointless. Because much of what remains to be tried requires mastery of craft, editorial sensibility and an understanding of theory that goes far beyond what the average producer understands, it’s almost impossible to make a convincing case that additional attempts should be made. Even with potential riches glimmering on the horizon it’s simply safer and more cost-effective to settle with what we have now.
Historically this should be the moment at which an independent movement rises up and shows the barnacle-encrusted mainstream the way. Unfortunately, the greatest obstacle to innovation in any medium is the technical difficulty of producing works that demonstrate an advance, and for interactive works that aspire to sustained emotional involvement that obstacle has become crushing. While it’s relatively easy to make pure games or sims, and it’s even easier to make simple movies or videos, all the inexpensive avenues of getting people to care emotionally about their interactive choices have, as noted, failed.
Nobody’s going to break new ground in their garage in a way that will be convincing to the money people in our industry: they’re going to have to do it using full teams, ample budgets and mature technology, either as a dedicated R&D project or, preferably, as part of a mainstream commercial work. The considerable anticipation surrounding Half-life 2 exists not simply because it should be entertaining, but also because we all hope it will move our craft knowledge ahead as the original game did.
Throwing money down an R&D hole only to see what might grow out of it is an option few developers can afford. Yet even during the development of a commercial product there is little economic reason to encourage innovation. Several large interactive publishers have managed to replicate the Hollywood-studio model of development, sustaining themselves on diversified products created with existing craft knowledge. If they expect to profit from innovation at all it’s on the tech side, where new graphics capabilities drive new versions of the same essential game designs. For example, the latest issue of CGW noted in passing that Madden NFL is now in its 14th year. With franchises like that sustaining you, what’s the motivation to innovate?
This timidity is already impacting the industry in the form of the licensing problem I addressed earlier. The current preference for licenses is not simply the result of a cold economic calculation, it’s a self-perpetuating artifact of failed innovation itself. If publishers can sustain their business model by producing franchised and licensed products, what motivation is there to do anything else?
Cheating a Slow Death
There are two ways I think we can get out of this situation: the inevitable way and the smart way. The inevitable way involves doing business as usual until, by chance, things change. The flaw with this plan is that there is no guarantee that every change will be for the better, meaning we may take one step back for every two intermittent steps forward. The strength of this plan is that it doesn’t require any conviction, vision or effort.
My personal opinion is that nothing is likely to change in our industry until the few remaining bankable designers fall by the wayside, either due to bad luck, bad management or combat fatigue. When that happens the entire industry will be controlled by bean counters determined to milk every last dollar out of each franchise and license until it dies, at which point there will be nowhere to hide. Inevitably producers will then take a chance on new ideas, if only to give themselves a marketing edge against the competition. But because they still won’t know anything about creating emotional involvement in interactive entertainment they’ll almost certainly fail again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The smart way to deal with this problem is to recognize the opportunity afforded by this moment in time. The creative authority of the designer is giving way to the economic power of the producer, and nobody really believes that’s a good thing. The fact remains, however, that most of the emotional involvement that was attempted in the past was engineered by people fundamentally unqualified for that task. To be sure there were some great talents developed and discovered in the process, and I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know and learn from some of these people. But throughout the industry such talents have been rare. By and large the people holding the title of designer have turned out to know little or nothing about storytelling, little or nothing about creating emotional involvement, and little or nothing about combining narrative elements with interactivity.
The truth is, it’s seldom if ever that a qualified writer-designer is brought in at the beginning of a project to make sure these goals are protected from the moment of conception, as they should be. Instead, a bunch of people who don’t have any professional standing as storytellers or dialogue writers or scenarists usually kick in a bunch of neat ideas, all of which shockingly add up to less than the sum of the parts when they appear in the final release.
This might be excusable if no one had ever shown how successful a product can be if a writer is brought in early, but that actually has been demonstrated. The very same Half-life that raised the bar for emotional involvement in a shooter was developed with a professional writer on staff throughout the development of the final version. Yet how many of the teams who set out to rip off everything good about Half-life brought in a professional writer themselves? The fact that a writer was on staff at Valve may be the single greatest difference between the development of Half-life and almost any shooter before or since, but most development and publishing companies have paid little or no attention to that fact.
If that’s not convincing, consider how few creative writers are employed in our industry in a creative capacity. Look at the job listings on Gamasutra, or anywhere else, and you’ll see no demand for storytellers, despite all the storytelling being attempted. [Note: in 2009, six years after I wrote those words, nothing has changed. — MB] Writers that are brought in are as often as not celebrities, on hand more for their marketing muscle than for their design savvy. When storytellers do get hired it’s usually on the back end to patch in dialogue, after somebody else who knew nothing about emotional involvement waltzed obliviously past a hundred opportunities to create compelling effects.
To cut to the heart of the matter, the one obvious solution to our dilemma that we haven’t tried industry-wide is to actually employ people who are qualified to accomplish what we want to accomplish. Designers haven’t wanted to do this because it means giving up complete creative control, and producers haven’t wanted to do it because it means spending money they never had to spend before. But now that designers are getting squeezed by the money people because as a group they haven’t licked this problem, and the money people are getting squeezed by more and more emphasis on the bottom line, it seems to me that those prior excuses no longer apply. To break out of this downward spiral a radical change is going to have to take place in the development of interactive entertainment, and I believe producers are going to have to lead the way.
The 5% Solution
I don’t think we’ll ever beat ego out of our industry, nor do I think we should. Particularly on bleeding-edge titles I believe one person needs to have a strong vision and the leadership skills to see that vision through. My challenge is not to the those working on the cutting edge, but rather to the professional producer grinding out mid-range products. I’m talking here to the professional interactive entertainment manager who’s seen ’em come and seen ’em go, and whose last shred of ego involvement ended when they realized that making computer games wasn’t worth the ulcer they were developing.
What I propose is for producers of mid-range games with narrative intent to take 5% of their total development budget and spend it on the front end trying to get the storytelling or narrative elements right. Ideally they should find a writer-designer who understands interactivity, but at the very least they should have a professional storyteller involved from the get-go, helping frame the narrative context of the game or simulation. If the project runs over budget as a result of paying for the narrative elements, the producer should simply cut features or levels to stay on track.
The goal here is to destroy the notion that the storytelling aspects of our products can be done on the back end, or by amateurs. We tried it: it doesn’t work. Sure, some of the storytellers hired to work on these mid-range products will also fail, but at least we’ll be increasing the number and sincerity of the attempts we’re making, thereby increasing the pace at which successes occur. Those successes will then be added to the craft knowledge of other writer-designers, accelerating the rate of accrual for techniques that create emotional involvement in an interactive context. This in turn will make writer-designers better able to protect projects from meddling influences, while providing a pipeline through which reliable, proven techniques can migrate up the food chain to more expensive projects.
Whatever you personally think of storytelling as a skill set, or of narrative elements in games, the debate about whether games will contain such elements has been over for more than a decade. Players have clearly stated that they enjoy a narrative context with their interaction, but as an industry we have yet to show respect for that demand. We’ve tried a lot of technical solutions and thrown an embarrassing amount of money at the problem, but amazingly we’ve yet to try the most obvious solution: putting that task in the hands of people who are qualified to do it.
A Final Irony
A few years ago a man named Austin Grossman convinced the IGDA to open a Forum on its web site devoted to writing issues. Austin had been a writer on Deus Ex, and believed passionately that writers needed a place to talk shop and share experiences. Although conversation came and went in the forum, over the next two years it became obvious that the people posting there were kicking around ideas that simply didn’t get discussed by other trades in other forums.
Probably the greatest accomplishment of the Writers Forum was advocating for a separate Game Developers Choice award for writing. The central argument made for giving writers a separate award, as opposed to leaving writing covered under the Game Design category, was that no writer would ever win an award for writing in a category dominated by game designers. Ironically, although that argument proved compelling, a few months after the first writing award was handed out the Writers Forum was summarily merged with the Game Design Forum on the IGDA boards.
The result of this merging is that the issues that used to be discussed in the Writers Forum are now no longer discussed, and the people who discussed them no longer post to the new combined forum. No one gets exposed to new ways of thinking about creating emotional involvement, and a whole spectrum of writer-designer issues have again become invisible to the greater game development community.
In the interactive entertainment industry we talk a good game, pretending we want to play in the big leagues of mainstream entertainment, but we don’t back it up. While we can keep shutting the issue of emotional involvement down if we want to, I believe the time has come to tackle it head on, and I’m asking the producers in our business to do so. At worst we’ll end up making more middle-of-the-road products that die a lonely death on store shelves, which seems to be what we’re making anyway. At best we’ll advance our craft, increase our market share, and make a lot of money.
— Mark Barrett