In my years in the games biz I’ve been fortunate to enjoy most of the projects I’ve worked on. I’ve also enjoyed watching people have fun playing games I helped create, as I have enjoyed attending and speaking at conferences and evangelizing for the cause of emotional involvement in interactive works. All of that pales into nothingness, however, when compared with the peers I’ve come to know as good friends.
In working with and getting to know some very talented people, I’ve also learned that nothing motivates me to excel more than collaborating with people I respect and admire. It is a kind of peer pressure that I view as entirely positive, and I hope in your own professional life you get to experience the magnitude of satisfaction that comes from measuring up to the standards of respected peers. I know people give lip service to the idea that no amount of money or authority can compensate for such joys, but in my case – as demonstrated in the previous essay here – it’s actually true.
So today I want to take a moment to introduce you to two friends I’ve worked with on multiple projects, and grown to have a great deal of respect for. I also consider them important to the long-term health of our industry, which is another reason I think you should know who they are.
Many of you know Lee from the lectures and talks he’s given at the GDC and other conferences over the past decade, and you know he knows his stuff. For those of you who don’t know him or his work, you can take a tour of his site.
Quite coincidentally, while I was working on a post about design basics a few months back, Lee sent me the first in a (now completed) series of articles he was writing concerning storytelling in MMORPG’s. What interested me about Lee’s point of view was that it mirrored my own: we’re simply not getting it done. We can talk about possibilities ad nauseum, but the bottom line is that as an industry we’ve made precious few gains over the past five years, and our inability to grow and compete with mainstream narrative entertainments is having a negative effect on our industry, and limiting our potential.
As Lee continued cranking out his essays I found his line of thinking in agreement with another essay I was working on, which made the case that it was time producers started hiring professional storytellers to actually do the storytelling in their games. Now, the usual caution on this point is that writers who don’t understand interactivity and game design can do more harm that good, and I agree with that. The problem is, designers have historically used that concern as leverage for doing the storytelling themselves, even if they’re not qualified.
My response to all this is that I started out as a storyteller and learned the interactive ropes, so I think others can too. I also believe storytellers will be able to learn about design issues and how they impact storytelling more quickly than designers will be able to learn how to do first-rate storytelling, and I think that argument has already proven out in film. Good screenwriters know the movie-making craft and process, but at their core they are good writers. And being a good writer involves some skills that are mighty hard to teach.
Okay, so what does this have to do with Lee? Well, here was Lee writing a series of solid articles about failed storytelling in MMORPG’s (specifically Star Wars Galaxies), and that suddenly hit me as patently absurd. There probably isn’t anybody on the face of the earth more qualified to tackle the issue of storytelling in MMORPG’s than Lee Sheldon, so what’s he doing on the outside looking in at failed implementations? But there’s more to the story.
See, before Lee was a gaming dude, he was a Hollywood dude, and his background even includes taking the lead on a soap opera or two. While that probably sounds a little old-school, can you think of another storytelling medium in which the demand for ongoing content is even remotely comparable? Soap operas, like MMORPG’s, are designed from the ground up to never end. They’re built to keep people coming back again and again, which is an awfully good thing to know how to do if you’re trying to run, say, a subscription-based entertainment service.
I have no doubt that at some point in the future a producer is going to think to themselves, “Gee, this online game thing is kind of like a soap opera, so maybe we should talk to some Hollywood people who know that territory….” The problem, of course, is that the people they talk to won’t know anything about games, which means the resulting effort – however noble and sincere – will probably fail.
So, if you’re putting together an MMORPG, and you want to deliver story, your first and biggest mistake will be not hiring Lee Sheldon. Sure, you can hire other people, but they’re not going to know what Lee knows about story, and they’re not going to be able to deliver the storytelling he can deliver. Which means instead of having customers who say, “Wow!”, you’re going to have customers who say, “You suck!”
And that’s why you should get to know Lee.
Over the past eight years or so, if there’s anybody I’ve spent a lot of time talking design theory and practice with, it’s Jurie. Dutch by birth, Jurie has worked in Germany, France and now Austria, in a variety of capacities that almost always underestimated his capabilities and talents. Did I mention he speaks four languages fluently, not including C++ or Python? That’s the kind of smarts he’s got, and we’re not even talking interactive yet.
About a year ago Jurie joined RockStar, but soon after that he dropped out of sight. For a while I thought maybe he died, but it turned out he was the project manager on the XBox port of GTA3: Vice City. (This should be a warning to those of you thinking romantic thoughts about the games biz. Instead, think 2 a.m. phone calls about bug fixes.) After a little R&R, a transfusion, and some illumination from sources other than an electron beam, Jurie is not only back in the swing of things, he’s posting to his blog faster than I can comment. [Note: Jurie’s output has now exceeded even the pace of blogging, and he can be found on Twitter here. — MB]
While his posts are eclectic, he’s not a dilettante. Jurie knows a lot of the heavyweights in the business on both sides of the pond, he knows the core design issues we’re wrestling with, and many of his musings are concerned with the basic problems that our business is facing. Tag along for a few days and you’ll see what I mean.
— Mark Barrett