Over the past thirty years or so, as computer and video games have become more mainstream, basic assumptions about the design of interactive entertainment have changed. In the early days, when the majority of the market was hardcore, designers aimed for more hours of play per title because longer games were in demand. (They often did so by rigging games with impossible battles and repetitive chores, but the demand for long games was real.)
Fifteen years ago or so the demands of the market began to change. Consumer research showed players in the aggregate preferring shorter and easier games. While hardcore gamers still existed, they now made up a much smaller percentage of a market that included casual gamers and people new to computer-driven entertainment. Presenting these customers with 100+ hours of hardcore (if not also tedious and unfair) gameplay made no sense, and ran the risk of alienating them from the industry.
Like mountaineers determined to cross another peak off their list, hardcore gamers tend to finish games no matter how grueling the experience. It’s a badge of honor and a way to differentiate themselves from the masses. Casual gamers, on the other hand, tend to explore interactive works like tourists, following their whims and interests for a few hours before heading back to the hotel for a nap. And according to a recent article on CNN’s Tech page, this sight-seeing approach is fast becoming the dominant response to interactive entertainment across all demographics:
“Just 10 years ago, I recall some standard that only 20% of gamers ever finish a game,” says John Lee, VP of marketing at Raptr and former executive at Capcom, THQ and Sega.
And it’s not just dull games that go unfinished. Critically acclaimed ones do, too. Take last year’s “Red Dead Redemption.” You might think Rockstar’s gritty Western would be played more than others, given the praise it enjoyed, but you’d be wrong.
Only 10% of avid gamers completed the final mission, according to Raptr, which tracks more than 23 million gaming sessions.
Let that sink in for a minute: Of every 10 people who started playing the consensus “Game of the Year,” only one of them finished it.
Computer and video games are not cheap to produce, and the best of breed — often called triple-A or ‘AAA’ titles — can be more expensive than big-budget films. Sinking previous development resources into a product most consumers will never fully experience might make sense if the expense was recouped through additional sales, but that’s a huge gamble in even the best scenario. Making the odds worse is the ugly fact that consumers are simply hard-pressed to find time to play and enjoy longer works.
The Old Boss
Whether targeting the hardcore single-player or muti-player online market, or following the herd to social games (the latest in a long line of industry crazes), the only thing that makes business sense is driving the greatest return for each development dollar. If 90% of the people who buy your title are not sticking around for the big finish, at some point you’re going to wonder why you’re paying for that big finish. (Try to imagine a similar situation in television, film or publishing — it’s absurd to even contemplate.)
This basic business reality is the same brick wall that curtailed the production of interactive titles containing lavish branching paths. Branching can induce a sense of interactivity in a narrative (meaning a feeling that one’s choices make a difference), but it requires the production of a great many assets for paths a player may never choose. While branching remains a viable theoretical means by which narrative interactivity can be implied and finessed, from a production standpoint it’s a budgetary black hole.
Scripted sequences often deny meaningful interactivity, but they make up for that loss in terms of excitement. By putting the player in a compelling narrative context (Save your partner!) and a controlled interactive environment (a rail-shooting sequence), designers get a reliable bang for their budget buck while ensuring that all players experience every in-game asset. It’s a design approach that’s hard to argue against, particularly because scripted sequences can be scaled to meet market demands.
The New Boss
As a storyteller, it’s impossible for me to conceive of a narrative that doesn’t conclude. Beginning, middle and end are inherent in any conception of an author-determined story, even if one allows for permutations like branching and multiple endings. To design interactive entertainment that includes a story is to do so along a well-worn path of techniques that necessarily leads to a conclusion. (Note that the same holds true for playing a game, where the point is to finish if not also to win. There are parallels between story and game, but like parallel lines the two never converge.)
It’s possible, of course, to design non-narrative and non-competitive interactive works. These might loosely be called interactive art, or interactive experiences depending on the intent of the creator, but they still demonstrate the uniqueness of the medium by having user choice determine outcomes. For a primitive example, click here, click on the ‘Start imagining’ button, then move, click or click-hold your mouse on the display area.
In the mainstream interactive industry such products can become incredibly complex. As a genre they are often referred to as sandbox games — akin to a sandbox where you create, play and build using sand and various tools. LEGO building blocks are a sandbox game in real life — or at least they were in my youth, before you could buy things like this. (Another disheartening proof of the 90-9-1 rule.)
In mainstream computer and video games there is often an intentional blending of all of these aspects: a full narrative, a game that can be won or lost, mini-games that can be played and replayed, and sandbox elements that can be endlessly explored. Because attention spans have shortened, the goal of driving interactive interest now emphasizes shorter games with quicker resolutions (either in serialized form or through short levels or missions, or some combination thereof), as well as titles that allow for more open-ended and unstructured sandbox play.
In this context, then, how can a narrative of any depth be created in a modern interactive work? And if reliable data suggests customers won’t hang around for the ending, what’s the point in having a beginning? Or in presenting anything more than a Flintstones backdrop for narrative context?
The Interactive Boss
From my point of view as a storyteller this evolution of customer preferences does not come as a surprise. What was originally a quest to see how stories could genuinely be made interactive quickly devolved into the nailing and stapling of storylines onto gaming structures. Because of the inherent impossibility of creating truly interactive plots and characters, there’s no evidence that there will ever be any breakthroughs on that front
The power of storytelling comes from techniques and effects that are entirely controlled by an author. That’s why they work. Ceding choice to a user weakens that control and disrupts the normal functioning of stories as processes. The only way to justify that breakage is to gain as much or more emotional involvement from interactivity as is lost on the narrative end. Otherwise it’s a waste of time even at a theoretical level, to say nothing of the cost of development.
And that’s exactly what the mass-market (non-hardcore) gaming market is saying: trying to create long, set-piece titles is a waste of time. While there will always be people who appreciate big games and epic quests (I count myself among them), the demand now is for smaller experiences, and that flies in the face of traditional interactive storytelling no matter how you define it.
Trying to merge authorially controlled fiction with real interactivity, even in a development supercollider fueled by unlimited finds, is never going to work. It was never going to work in the past and it won’t work now, so there’s no reason to lament the loss or keep flailing away at that objective. What’s needed instead — and I’ve been saying this for a long time — is a way to see narrative elements as building blocks themselves.
The Emotional Boss
The goal in designing interactive stories is the same as the goal for non-interactive stories: to create and sustain emotional involvement for the audience, but with the additional requirement of also supporting interactive choice. Nothing about the goal of creating emotional involvement necessarily demands a narrative structure, or even characters and a plot. What it does demand is that interactive choices be emotionally meaningful to the user. (There are plenty of mature mediums that excel at emotional involvement. If interactive entertainment can’t compete on that basis, people who want that kind of a connection are going to look elsewhere — as they clearly are.)
To see how non-narrative elements can still drive emotional responses, consider the example linked to above, and how the color palette of a game/app might change depending on your score or the choices you’ve made. We know there are basic associations with color that generally hold, and that variations in hue, tone and shade can prompt different emotional responses. These associations are not unlike associations with major and minor keys, with camera point of view, with weather and so on.
All of these elements contain emotional power, and all of them can be controlled with algorithms, responding to or expressing state changes initiated by the user. Even if an avatar is mute, how compelling would exploration be if every aspect of interaction was responsive to player choice in some elemental, emotional way? What’s the greatest extent to which an interactive design organized on such principles could generate emotional involvement?
I don’t know. And that’s really the point. Nobody knows because the possibilities haven’t been fully explored.
As contrary as it may seem, I welcome the deconstruction of long, set-piece driven narratives in the interactive industry. There will always be ways in which authorship can intensify or provide meaningful context for a interactive experience, but we already know how to do that. (Even authored sequences can profit from a more elemental approach.)
The goal for interactive entertainment that aspires to more than gameplay — always — is emotional involvement. It doesn’t matter how we accomplish that goal, but if the feedback we’re getting says we’re not being successful, then we’d be blithering idiots to keep doing the same thing.
Market demand for long, static narratives is diminishing, while shorter experiences are in favor. There has never been a better time to explore the capacity of interactivity itself to drive emotional involvement.
— Mark Barrett