GDC Europe 2010 kicked off in Cologne, Germany today, and with it came the opening keynote for the European game developers conference delivered by none other than videogame industry luminary, Warren Spector.
Spector would be best known for his work on Deus Ex, but his career extends much further back than that title from 2000, with a legendary list of games on his resume including Ultima Underworld, Thief and System Shock.
In the keynote, entitled “What Videogames Can Learn from Other Media…What We Can’t…And What We Shouldn’t,” Spector used to full effect his extensive experience in the game industry, a college degree in film, and his own personal love for movies, comic books, radio and storytelling to deliver an incredibly interesting talk
The keynote compared the evolution of other media to that of videogames, and Spector gave his thoughts on why it’s not necessarily a bad thing to borrow business and production methods from other media, while there are times when it may be detrimental to (and even stunt) the future success and evolution of the medium of videogames.
Over the years, and more and more, games have mirrored the film industry and in many ways tried to emulate that entertainment sector, borrowing everything from naming conventions, job descriptions (Producer, Director etc.) and production cycles (pre-production, production, post-production), to styles of experience delivery, storytelling techniques and even editing processes.
As Spector notes, this is natural for the growth and evolution of any fledgling medium. Film, after all, borrowed heavily from theatre before the pioneers of moving pictures discovered what was truly unique about film, and began experimenting with different systems and techniques for delivering stories and visuals, all while creating replicable and reliable methods for creating films, with a unique language that all film makers could use to easily communicate how they intended to create their films, how to analyze them, and thus improve upon their previous works in the future.
Spector says that it’s not a bad practice for media to borrow ideas for these methods of creation from other media, but at the same time one needs to be careful when selecting which methods and elements to borrow, while also searching for, and maximizing, what it is that makes their own medium unique.
This lead to a handy list of elements present in films, comic books, radio and even tabletop gaming, that Spector believes can and shouldn’t be used to evolve and grow the medium of videogames, starting with the way movies are edited.
Spector believes that games should not copy the methods used by the film industry to edit movies, which he says are made in a ‘dream logic’ manner, where sections of a movie are shot completely out of sequence, and key moments of movies are captured in a disjointed, unrelated way with regards to the rest of the events of the film, and then edited together to make sense to an audience.
For example, a train exploding in a movie would be carefully set up and detonated and filmed with no-one in any danger of being harmed. Editors would later make it seem as though the protagonists are in mortal danger with quick shots between the actors (filmed separately) and the train, seemingly in close proximity thanks to the magic of editing.
This method of experience delivery, according to Spector, destroys the illusion of control in videogames. Players of games should determine the experience, what the camera is looking at and how long it looks there. Players should be in control of the events that play out in front of them.
Pacing in films is another aspect that Spector reckons shouldn’t be translated into games, giving the example of the first act of a movie that sets up a ‘normal’ town, but only spirals into increasing creepiness the more you explore. The problem with this, Spector says, is that the average game player isn’t willing to play for an hour in a ‘normal’ setting before getting to the creepy or more interesting bits.
Game developers have “five seconds” to get to the point and capture the audience’s attention – something that movie-style pacing doesn’t allow. While movies can get away with a slower pace because they are delivered to a ‘captive audience,’ gamers will more than likely quit a boring game before giving it a chance.
Spector praises film, however, for its ‘economy of storytelling,’ as script writers have to pack in as much story and exposition into their dialogue as possible, in a very limited amount of time (an average of 90 pages). Comics, too, use ‘economy of storytelling’ as these writers also have very limited quantities of space to encapsulate as much of the dialogue, setting, events and action as they can into a few panels. Use of visuals, obviously, is also key with comic books, as a single wordless panel can convey a lot of the action, character emotion, location details and more ‒ just with a drawing.
Games can learn from film and comic books in these areas to drastically cut down on the amount of text and spoken exposition and deliver a streamlined, visual story to allow gamers to remain engaged and keep them playing.
Film’s method of characterisation in particular is another area that Spector feels should not be applied to games. In a movie, there are what Spector calls “magic moments” – events that occur, or special abilities that characters are able to use, that spice up the action on-screen and are singularly exciting to watch once, or even a handful of times. If these events or abilities were to be shown hundreds or even thousands of times in a movie, however, their special ‘wow’ factor would soon wear off, and the audience would become very bored.
It’s the same with games. Players don’t want to perform (and therefore see) a character’s special ability hundreds of times ‒ game developers need to mix it up and ensure that players are always engaged with whatever action they’re performing over a dozen hours, as opposed to two hours of a movie. In this way, “games are about actions,” and gamers must be able to enjoy the satisfaction of repeated actions, instead of a few ‘magic moments’ that wear thin.
Briefly, Spector also mentioned that games shouldn’t emulate tabletop RPGs (Dungeons and Dragons et al) in the way that there are ‘invisible die rolls’ going on behind-the-scenes of a videogame, as in early and even modern role-playing games. Spector believes developers should use technology, such as physics and artificial intelligence, to physically demonstrate the effects of these rolls rather than hide them from gamers.
Game developers must also get away from using ‘tried and tested’ story and characters seen in ‘male adolescent fantasies’ derived from film and the early days of tabletop RPGs. Too often, developers use themes seen in Star Wars (sci-fi), Alien/s (Space Marines) and Dungeons and Dragons (orcs, elves and sword-wielding supermen).
Spector does enjoy (as a designer of tabletop games previously in his career) the amount of player expression in tabletop RPGs ‒ this is what he’s been obsessed with his entire career in videogames, after all.
One medium that Spector explained could teach videogames a thing or two is radio ‒ especially old radio dramas and shows. The producers of such shows, decades ago, were able to effortlessly convey to listeners a sense of place and weight to actions and activities alluded to in an episode. Every sound in a radio show has purpose, providing the audience with a good idea of the events of a show with no visuals at all.
Games should (and some do) use sound more effectively in order to do what these radio shows are able to do: tell a story with sound effects and even music to bear the burden of the narrative, and take some of the weight away from the visuals, dialogue and text.
One last point that Spector talked on (at length, and with emotion) was the role of ‘oral storytelling’ and its application in games, which can be summarised by saying that the most engaging stories are related by the ‘Tale Teller’ and received by the ‘Tale Listener,’ and when a story is told in-person, the Teller feeds off of the reception of the Listener and may even adapt the story depending on their reaction ‒ there is a give and take with oral storytelling in a way that improves a given tale and makes it (even) more engaging to enrapture more audiences.
Games can learn from this. The game developer as the Tale Teller must pay attention to the game player’s (Tale Listener) reaction to the story and the game overall, which is what certain game companies are able to accomplish with online tracking of player behaviour. It’s the use of the data from this tracking that is important ‒ developers need to take this information and effectively improve upon a given game, let alone strive to improve their future games with feedback from players over time.
Spector closed his keynote at GDC Europe by saying that developers of games should focus on what makes the medium of videogames unique, while still studying other media to broaden their horizons and apply what they learn in order to search for the next breakthrough in games.
Spector also offered his thoughts on what makes videogames unique, namely that they have the power to transport players to another world and persona, the power to immerse people in those worlds and personas, the ability to make use of repeated actions (like Bungie’s 45 seconds of fun in Halo, extended from 30 seconds), and responsiveness to actions, or, essentially, interactivity.
Lastly, Spector left keynote audience members with the idea that ‘Player experience is first’ ‒ hopefully a concept that ddidn’t need to be explained to the developers that were in the room.
In all, a very intriguing talk with many salient, well articulated points concerning a topic that’s been on the lips of game developers for many years.
Bonus extra: During Spector’s keynote, he showed a slide while talking about iconic representation of characters. The slide depicted a very expressive picture of Mickey Mouse alongside a sullen picture of a character from John Woo’s Stranglehold, Inspector Tequila ‒ the very same slide Spector showed in a talk he gave before it was revealed that his studio, Junction Point, was working on Disney Epic Mickey and the now defunct John Woo game, Ninja Gold.
He tried to warn us!
It’s unclear whether or not there were any clues embedded in Spector’s GDC Europe 2010 keynote that may reveal his future projects. The code crackers are working on it.
He did mention Scrooge McDuck an awful lot…