Tuesday, February 4, 2014.
At 3:30, I meet with Roger, who says if our game is still about robots next semester, he will fail all of us. No robots, no pirates, no space ships.
We have a narrative vs mechanics debate, as I tell him Corrinne says he’s wrong about the importance of narrative. This school, he says, focuses on mechanics first. Corrinne’s class is for people who want to make movies, he later teased, but the truth is there is a middle ground. Narrative can polish gameplay and gameplay can contribute to or distract from story elements. Story worlds are better than linear handholding, he says. On the other hand, it’s easier to pitch a cohesive narrative than a mechanic.
In Joe Bourrie’s class, we learn that he and half of EA Salt Lake have just been laid off. He’s not thrilled, but six years at EA has been good for him, and it’s time to move on. At least he has our class to teach while he makes other arrangements.
We show off our level redesigns for a classic or recent game. My group does games like Skyrim and Bioshock.
I choose to redesign the 1980’s box office success/video game flop E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. It is challenging trying to stay within Atari 2600 capabilities, but my design honors the film’s narrative better than the original game. Joe challenges me to make it fun in spite of console limitations. Jumping over the Moon on a bicycle with a joystick that only goes up down left right is a little awkward!
As poorly as the original game was received, I wonder if we would have ever had The Legend of Zelda if not for this game’s world design? Searching Google, it looks like there’s at least one other person who has tried to fix the game… E.T. is not really green, he notes, and provides code to turn him brown. E.T. also offered the first title screen in a home video game.
In Projects 1, we throw out the robot idea, at least for now. More on this later.
After lunch, we play test the undergraduate capstone projects in exchange for pizza from The Pie and rootbeer. I play Reflection and Origami Kami. Others play Rolly Poly Princess and a meteor game.
In Narrative, our big topic of discussion was The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell. I was amazed how closely both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings follow Campbell’s pattern. Corrine also mentioned The Wizard of Oz. From now on when I see Obiwan Kenobi I’ll see a grizzled old wise man, and the Death Star as the “belly of the whale.”
This week we are to write two pages on setting for a 10 page “gamebook” narrative due later this semester. Next week will be plot, then character. Many in class have never heard of game books aside from Choose Your Own Adventure, but I collected them as a kid. My favorite series was Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf, which recently became an app on Apple’s app store. An Assassin in Orlandes is also popular on iOS, but a gamebook is only as good as its writing. The Night Squid Apocalypse lost my attention in less than three pages.
Friday and Saturday.
I attend a film festival in Orem, Utah. No one talks about games, but one Italian film, Cripta, is about students who are taught through a devilish game with a little too cute graphics. Half of the audience walks out because they didn’t expect subtitles, but the facial expressions are amazingly expressive, something games could look to for inspiration. I wonder if Ashton Kutcher is part Italian.
I run into Garrett Batty, director of Utah hit film The Saratov Approach. He pitched me the film concept at last year’s festival, but is gentlemanly enough not to say “I told you so” today.
I also pick up some ideas about how to market games based on what is successful with films, though technically the game industry is bigger than all music, all television, and all movies combined, and movies might take lessons from games.
I really hope this program teaches our Cohort (not just me, I have some advantage) how to make profitable games, not just artistic games. To me, a game that millions of people want to play enough to pay for the privilege is the ultimate compliment. One could make a niche game about a transgender cartoon character that attracts the applause of a vocal 1% and try to build on that, but the real trick is to make a game that resonates with the gaming majority.
People who make games just to make a statement are quickly out of jobs. Profits, which represent a broad appeal, are important to those who want to be paid for and keep making games.
I’ve heard at least one person this week say we should wait until we work at a studio to make a profitable game, and I think that’s a flat out bad idea. Making a profit (at least showing one can make a profit, not just get attention in a contest) is a discipline that should start in school, if not before, and should be a lens used from the very start of game design. If not, what investor will back you, and who do you think studios work for? Investors. If we as Producers, Artists, and Engineers can pitch ideas that make studios look good, we may actually get our games made, get promoted, and win the gratitude of those who make our games, jobs, and industry possible, investors.
Arguably, the only person more important than investors in a project is the player, who also invests hard earned money to buy the finished product. Typically, a Producer is responsible for representing the player in a project while an Executive Producer represents the Investor, but aren’t we all responsible to some degree to both? Isn’t a (paid) game that is in the best interest of the player also in the best interest of the investor?
I might be unique in wanting to fill the role of a Producer (on time, on budget) and an Executive Producer (ROI), but I hope not, for the sake of the industry!