D.I.C.E. '08: <i>Pirates</i> director advocates 'madness'

Filmmaker Gore Verbinksi warns against "homogenization" during opening keynote speech to seventh annual game-development insider confab.

by

LAS VEGAS--As the last slivers of sunlight faded behind the starkly picturesque Red Rock national park, the D.I.C.E. Summit began in the nearby casino, which bears its name. Throughout the day, various members of the game development and publishing illuminati wandered into the Frank Lloyd Wright-esque building hosting this year's event, the seventh such conference thrown by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences.

After exchanging the obligatory greetings and grabbing the mandatory post-plane-flight drinks, many attendees wandered into the Red Rock Casino's Summerlin Ballroom to hear D.I.C.E.'s opening keynote speech. Unlike past years, the amassed audience was not there to see a prominent game developer, publisher, or executive kick off the event by holding forth about his or her accomplishments. They were there to listen to Gore Verbinski, a filmmaker with very little experience in the game industry.

Verbinski is most famous for directing the three Pirates of the Caribbean films, which have amassed more than $1 billion in theaters worldwide. The latest, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, had one of the biggest US box office openings of all time, grossing nearly $140 million dollars when it debuted in theaters during Memorial Day weekend last year.

Based on a Disneyland amusement park ride, the Pirates films initially earned praise for Johnny Depp's zany lead performance, which was nominated for an Oscar. However, they also took more than a few lumps from reviewers for being dramatically shaky, visually overwrought, and--by the time World's End bowed--unrepentantly commercial.

Ironically, Verbinski began his D.I.C.E. speech by leveling some of those same criticisms at the film industry as a whole. "If you look at the film industry from the 1970s to now, you can see how wild creativity has been replaced by the numbers game, how story telling has become formulaic due to recycling of the same [filmic] language," he told the audience.

Indeed, Verbinksi's keynote speech quickly turned into a warning to the game industry against creativity surrendering to commerce, or what he called the "the homogenization of voice." "Homogenization removes all the awkward bits for many players," he cautioned. "With too many voices and too many colors, everything becomes brown...The new requires singularity of voice, or financial ruin will follow."

Segueing into games, Verbinski wasted no time bashing games based on films--or, more specifically, games based on his own films. "How many films have slapped their logos on an inferior game because they had to make a shelf date," he asked rhetorically. "That is what we did with the Pirates of the Caribbean. When I made the films, I saw value come from nothing and then [with the games] nothing come out of value."

The majority of Verbinski's ire was directed at Pirates of the Caribbean Online, the film-inspired ad-supported massively multiplayer online game from Disney Online. Saying "film-based games are a way to have people step into a world that you, as a filmmaker, created for just two hours," he charged that the developers did not consult him when making the game, which constituted a "breach of contract."

But while Verbinski certainly made his displeasure with the Pirates games well-known, he used the majority of his keynote speech to warn the game industry not to fall into the sort of traps the Hollywood studio system sets for filmmakers. "In games, you are audience, god, narrator, and player," he said. "They are so full of potential, yet so infinite, they are empty at times. And an empty canvas is a dangerous investment."

After railing against the repetitiveness of the first-person shooter genre, Verbinski offered two ways that the game industry can avoid the stagnation that big-budget films are experiencing. The first is the cultivation of talented, visionary people.

"The casting of talent is the most significant choice one can make in the creative process," he declared. "It's like the star system. We use star power to get a script, which nobody wants to produce, made into a movie. By the same token, you get [BioShock designer] Ken Levine, and he draws more and more talented people together and makes a game that's entirely new."

However, Verbinski also cautioned against simply coddling big-name talent and not nurturing the lesser-known designers, programmers, and writers whose work is the lion's share of any game. "Talent is migratory," he said. "I won't work at a visual effects company if the talent is gone. I shake the hands of the nameless faces and forge a community, and through the community comes power."

But more than anything else, Verbinski urged game developers to embrace one thing--madness. "This is the moment right now, with all the doors open, right now is the time for madness," he proclaimed. "A good narrative is like a drug--it gives the player more excitement than they can generate themselves."

As example of inspired lunacy, he held up Harmonix, the developers of Rock Band and the original Guitar Hero games. "I understand it took the Guitar Hero guys nine years to convince executives they could sell a plastic guitar," said Verbinski. "But that wasn't what the Guitar Hero guys understood. They understood that, at one point, everyone has stood in front of a mirror with a tennis racket and just rocked out."

In conclusion, Verbinski defined "madness" thusly: "We have the obligation to make the suits s*** themselves. You must diverge from the path, you must make executives uncomfortable, because whether they realize it or not, that's what they're paying you for...The business wants what they have already seen, but the audience wants what they can't imagine. Our duty is to the audience."

Discussion

100 comments
beedle
beedle

Well spoken from Verbinski. Even though I play FPS and in some respect it is stagnant, however quite entertaining. The audiences is what has always mattered. Always.

WardCleaver02
WardCleaver02

I disagree with the implication that the FPS has stagnated. I think the FPS genre is one of the most innovative genres in gaming, simply for the fact that the genre is so crowded. When developing a FPS, you, as a developer, really have to go out of your way to make your shooter stand out from other FPS.

X-RS
X-RS

tc117, look im really f#cking sick of all the fps shooters, especially socom/cod4. but it would have been better if he told the dumb@$$3$ to do research by visiti g game forums. personally id rather have you giving the speech. you play games. your "in" the now. you want original, and simply fun games. like another jsrf perhaps? or anything else. its just the fact that if the keep listening to people like verbinski (if they will, and how long will that take) theyll be behind on what consumers want. while he is trying to break it, hes building it. there has to be something new thats done. otherwise its another meaningless speech.

tc117
tc117

X-RS calls this a meaningless speech...though I often try to understand points of views that may be different from my own, I honestly can't justify one such as this. I've been a gamer since before I could read (and I developed those skills as well as anyone else mind you), and it is an unspoken truth here that Verbinski has chosen to bring to the developers' attention. The signs have always been around us, but this *movie* director has actually chosen to step in and tell a cautionary tale to the likes of those that offer us the empowerment to delve deep into true artistry and experience the brainchild of some of the most creative entertainers out there. If games went to commercialization just as movies did, then that definitely means something to you and me.

Skyblue69
Skyblue69

What's all the hype about Bioshock anyway? I played Bioshock ten years ago in the guise of System Shock 2 and the games' differences are negligible. I really did not enjoy Bioshock at all. I felt robbed as the game was essentially a rework of what was one of the greatest games of all time in a horrible 50's guise, I hated the era it was based in and I thought System Shock 2 surpassed it in every aspect bar the sound which was on par and the graphics which were obviously superior. How can you call it original? How can you give out kudo's for producing what is essentially the same game but years on in a slightly different setting? I was pumped when I first heard that some of the old SS2 crew were working on a spiritual successor to SS2 and that it was going to be a triple-A title but I, for one, was sorely dissappointed with the result. I just wish those clowns at EA would release the rights and/or get a creditable developer (ie 2k) to give me my last wish of another brilliant System Shock title. As for FPS titles being run-of-the-mill affairs? I can't remember having as much fun as I did playing HL: Episode 2, what a blast. COD4 was a blast too and the multiplayer just keeps you coming back for more. To be honest though, the last truly fresh and original FPS game I played goes back a few years to Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, another "something of value from nothing" title and also probably the best movie/game tie in I have ever "experienced" As for Verbinski, I wouldn't criticise his movies too much if you consider that they really did "come from nothing" and I understand what he is trying to say but hard facts and harder currency will never give way to imaginative concepts that no-one will back as they are deemed risky. This, my fellow gamers, is the way of the world and gaming is now a very very large business and if you think for one minute that there is a special, uncharted path that it will take, you are as deluded as Verbinski is. All we can ultimately hope for is more talent in the field and ultimately ... another System Shock 2 or Far Cry or Dune 2 or Gears of War revolution that actually is as groundbreaking as the originals were.

X-RS
X-RS

wow. another meanigless speech. its like the UN. really really sad.

Lisandro_v22
Lisandro_v22

Payler: You are right but I think that the reason is that he had a lot more freedom while he was doing the first movie and after the big success it was, Disney (the devil) forced him to do the the following 2 films totally comercial. Verbinski is a great director The Weather Man is one of my favorite movies

Canitbe
Canitbe

Also, while this has nothing to do with this article, I wanted to mention it anyway. Two games currently out now that are pretty innovative (yet have some flaws and bugs) which people should check out are Sins of a Solar Galaxy and Savage 2 Both completely buck the trend and I'm sure neither will be financially viable. That being said, they both are tons of fun and have been created by tiny teams(S2 was 11 people) compared to the huge staff of Bungie and the likes.

nate1222
nate1222

@DarkSaber2K and Canitbe I strongly agree with both of you. By the way, DarkSaber2K, I loved 'Indigo Prophecy'. I watched killer games like 'Psi-Ops' on PS2 and XBox go virtually unnoticed. And like many, I was p***ed. I do believe that within the next two years, game sales will cool off considerably. Simply because of value vs cost to consumer. I also believe that Nintendo is the only console maker who won't suffer greatly when this happens. Nintendo keeps manufacturing costs and development costs low enough to make a profit regardless. Developing a Wii title costs only 1/4 to 1/3 the cost of 360 or PS3. And yes, when Wiis are FINALLY available, I'll trade my 360 in toward a Wii.

nate1222
nate1222

As much as I love FPSs, they've been cookie cutter as Hell lately. Most of the stories are just knock-offs: "cybernetically-enhanced, genetically-enhanced super soldier takes on evil aliens". Bungie, I'm looking at y'all! And while I own a 360 now, I'm really jonesin' for a Wii.

DarkSaber2k
DarkSaber2k

"The madness is only really found in Bioshock." This makes me sad, since all Bioshock is is a watered-down, dumbed down for consoletards rehashing of System Shock 2. It's a shame most gamers these days seem afflicted with 'If I haven't seen it before it's new, original and innovative' syndrome.

Xeuton_Mojukai
Xeuton_Mojukai

"After railing against the repetitiveness of the first-person shooter genre..." Soooo true! I still can't understand what is so revolutionary about COD4 when Bioshock is the one that everyone agrees was a complete slap in the face to the norms of gaming, The Orange Box proved just how much 50 bucks can be worth in terms of excellent gameplay value, Super Mario Galaxy may well be the greatest platformer of all time, and Rock Band simply has brought a second revolution to the music game genre, both of which were spawned in the minds of the same developers. COD4... well, it was another COD, except it happened to be in modern times. It had a story based on reality... ok, whatever. It had pretty graphics... and the significance is? The story was surprising... wait, that's right, Bioshock's story is a revolution in game stories. COD4 was just another FPS, no matter how good it is. Even the Orange Box arguably didn't deserve its award for PC game of the year. The madness is only really found in Bioshock. The very aspect of the games that was so succinctly described in the pre-nominee speech for the main award. It integrated every one of those things, yet it didn't win? WTF?

Kaosk405
Kaosk405

I completely agree with aeverything that man said. Although, I do enjoy playing PotC online...

URError
URError

"After railing against the repetitiveness of the first-person shooter genre" Amen Brother

king_bobo
king_bobo

I agree with what he is saying, because of all the promises of next-gen gameplay when the PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 were released. Game developers should take more risks - move away from safe genres and create something that will either fly or die. If it dies, it will still be loved by some, and it flies it will keep going for a while...

Canitbe
Canitbe

[quote]Verbinski is saying what gamers have been thinking alot about lately. Kudos to him.[/quote] Well, if gamers in general have been thinking this, they sure havent been supporting the indi developers trying to think out of the box. I can name quite a few great indi games that have completely broken the mold (received excellent scores and reviews, too)and yet, they havent been financially successful. As a result, most of these small developers are forced to make cookie cutter games that the mass will gulp down, which in turn ends up clogging the market with more craptacular products. If you want to support developers and directors who think outside the box, then support them with what really matters, your cash. Not some random posts on forums saying how much you support them.

DarkSaber2k
DarkSaber2k

Payler, I agree with what you say, but I think your being a little harsh on Verbinski himself. He is basically saying that it was made clea to him 'If you want to continue being employed by us to make these films, you are going to have go in the direction we, the paymasters, want it taken. He is dead right in his view on the game industry, it's already happening (EAs endless yearly updated game franchises (A new button combo every time!) anyone?). At the end of the day, unless he comes up with the intellectual property himself, writes it himself, funds it himself etc etc, then he, along with any other director employed (That's right, these people are payed by other people to do this stuff, most of the time) are always going to be working within constraints placed on them by people who want to make the most money they can as easily as possible. Heck, the Great Video Game Crash of '83 was caused by this philosophy, which finally reached a head with (although by no mean was it limited to) the release of the E.T. game which was rushed out of the door to meet a dealine and look what happened! Like I said, it was not solely responsible, more the head of a boil that had been festering for a while. It's starting to happen again now. This applies equally to films and games, the only major differences being the interactivity of games vs movies (and even then games like Farenheit/Indigo Prophecy blur that division) and the fact that games don't need to rely on currently hot actors/actresses to draw in crowds. (Although recent stories have suggested that some developers seem to think hiring them to do voices is a good think, but it only is if the game itself is decent.) Both games and films produced outside of the established systems are at risk. Without the money big studios spend on hype, many otherwise excellent games/films are condemned to obscurity simply because no studio with the money to do so was prepared to back them as a winner, or because they ashamed/embarrased to be associated with something that dares to take risks and be different. Mainstream is the fast and easy route to money, but this is not the same as producing something that stands the test of time as a true classic.

Payler
Payler

He certainly makes some good comments however he is being hypocritical. His first pirates film was good, however his second and third (especially) were rehashes. Clearly his first film idea was slightly mad and that worked well for him and audiences, but then he fell into giving the executives exactly what they wanted; not going mad at all and churning out the same film twice more to make huge profits. These last two films are nothing but sanitised fairly tails sold to the audiences who he says "want something they cant imagine" but then lap up Meet the Spartans. In many ways his last two films are highly comparable to the majority of first person shooters, in that they gave the audience more of what the executives know they want, not what they cant imagine. It is strange how almost all of his films are utterly devoid of true madness. If he wants to see madness he should go and look at Francois Bacon painting or listen to a late Scott Walker album. If he truly believes in giving the audience something they couldnt imagine then why was his last film shallow, predictable and repetitive. If he ever had the balls to stand up the executives, and truly believed in these things then perhaps his films would be more like Pans Labyrinth or Mulholland Drive and less like Pearl Harbour or Spider Man (3). You are not the one who should be preaching this stuff Verbinksi, yet paradoxically, you are dead right.

lionheartssj1
lionheartssj1

He makes some very good points, I hope certain people take notice.

nate1222
nate1222

Verbinski is saying what gamers have been thinking alot about lately. Kudos to him.

lamprey263
lamprey263

I'm glad someone out there is thinking outside the box

aragon245
aragon245

Gotta love Gore Verbanski.(Verbinski? Too lazy to check :) ) But man, seriously, we need HIM making these Pirates games.

thedarkoracle
thedarkoracle

*standing ovation* Bravissimo! Encore! Encore! :D

nobeaner
nobeaner

Great comment at the end. Even I felt a little empowered by it.

wytefang
wytefang

I loved his comments at the end there. Great stuff. Boy does some of what he warns against remind me of Console gaming right now. Wow. Spot on the money. Nintendo, we're looking at you. LOL

Djungelurban
Djungelurban

TOO MANY FPS GAMES! Finally someone other than me said it. The only way last year was significant in anyway was if you liked FPS games... If you don't it was instead an extremely average year (and if you've never wanted to become a rockstar it was a bit subpar)... I'm totally gonna forgive Gore for At World's End now...

frostyrox
frostyrox

Jeff Gerstmann of Gerstmann-gate fame will be making his first television appearance since his dismissal from GameSpot tonight at 8PM Eastern time on G4's newly revamped X-Play. Gerstman will be on hand to discuss the lack of innovation in Japanese gaming, a topic that was recently brought to light via a Gamasutra interview with Konami sound director Akira Yamaoka.

atst007
atst007

Um, I think that he is mad, but not the good way he is talking about. He likes to talk a lot of bs. Also, he shouldn't criticize the Pirates games since At World's End was a pile of s*** with NO story. The first one was great, the second one was okay, and the last was horrible. He is just an insane hypocrite.

Diernes
Diernes

He has some good points and his warnings ring true for me. Jsmoke03, how is that contridictory? There are plenty of games and game developers who have amazing talent but are pretty much ignored by the gaming populace. These are the companies that have fantastic games but field mediocre scores in reviews because they dont have dollars of the larger developers/publishers to Pay off the review sites and generate mass hype beast marketing. Its like saying, artists like Opeth dont thave any talent because they dont cater to what is accepable and marketable to the geneal populace, unlike something like Britney spears or the spice girls which is utter rubbish but sell millions of records

funkyeyk
funkyeyk

He's made a great point. Say what you will about Pirate's, but Verbinski also did The Weather Man, which was a great film.

hardscout
hardscout

Good read and I agree but sounds funny coming from him. Almost like " Hey I sold my soul to the devil, please don't do what I did " talk. Other than that, I hope the industry changes it's formulaic approaches.

jsmoke03
jsmoke03

nice, but i wonder how the gaming people took it. its a little contradictory. he said get talent, then say don't forget about the not so well known. i think there arent enough creative games because most creative games don't sell. creativity also has to appeal. its a hard thing that very few mediums can grasp and deliver...its the same with music, film, art...our culture is based on what me n my homies call "hype beast" syndrome. even obscure thinking is trendy. people these days are trendy,so they want trendy things, including games

eViL_kA
eViL_kA

"The business wants what they have already seen, but the audience wants what they can't imagine." Well put, imo. I especially liked the above quote and considering how much the Wii is in demand i think this statement has already been proven to be true. Once you start seeing more and more video game "re-makes" start to worry. It just shows a lack of imagination and creativity. It has happened in the movie and music industries and now they will be looking to cash in on video games anyway they can. That's why i'm glad the PS3 and Wii are region free. When things get boring here i know i can count on the Japanese devs for some good ORIGINAL games that i can import.

LOGGER13
LOGGER13

I just pooped a little after reading this article. I really hope that game develops/executives take what he had to say to heart.

iamjct212
iamjct212

Nice article and very important. The game industry is getting major attention from Wall St. and it is important to protect creative voice.

Link_86
Link_86

He does have a point. If you look at the horror movie genre, all that it is rehashes of old movies now in days. I don't know if that new movie Eyes or what ever is a rehash, but that's what alot of genres are coming too. Lost Odyssey for the 360 was made by the guy who originally did the first few Final Fantasy games. It's the same thing after over 20 years people. Nothing new from it. We need new, and why do we need new? Simple, if it's old, we don't want it.

AirDog80
AirDog80 moderator

Wow, I respect Gore Verbinksi for likening the young 30 year old game industry to the 100+ year old film industry. I know between the X360 and the PS3 the ability to visually tell narratives is near photorealistic. That means you can make people feel more from their games as they get more attached to "well" flushed out characters and storylines. The game industry is also suffering from a lack of good writers. Nothing pulls a gamer out of storytelling faster then canned dialogue and stale plots. Game developers often use their gameplay as a crutch for bad narrative. Writers are the folks that understand storytelling and game designers are foolish to think they can make it up as they go. If you think back on the games that you will always remember, Zelda Ocarina, it’s because you had a catharsis, an emotional release at the end. The Legend of Spyro: The Eternal Night (WII), had Gary Oldman and Elijah Wood reading flat dialogue for eight hours of gameplay. Believe you me, the money should have gone into story and game mechanics. Finally the "star system," is a dangerous model to flirt with. Studios invented stars, as we know them, in the early 1900s to be workers on salary. They realized popular and reoccurring actors could sell movies. It didn't take long for the stars to gain so much popularity that we developed the insane celebrity culture we have today. Do you want stars telling game developers how to do their jobs? Do you really want to end up paying $20 million for talent in a videogame?

Ek-Andy
Ek-Andy

Whether or not you think this guy is a bad director, from my perspective he sums up well what i fear most will hapen to games. With companies like EA and activision canabilising all the indie developers, there is a serious threat that we will no longer see creative, and original games. Instead we will just see re-iterations of the same games over and over again, becuase all the creative talent is either gone or locked away. In a sense its allready starting to happen. If you look at most of the games that have scored well on this website recently you will probably notice that not very many are completely new orignal games.

Muzykmann
Muzykmann

ClassicPlayer: "This game is going to be a bummer, I can asure you that." So, uh... I take it you didn't actually read the article, huh?

TreyoftheDead
TreyoftheDead

I find it very sad that people are bashing the mans very valid opinion just because he's directed crappy movies. The film industry is currently a creative wasteland and if game developers aren't careful the game industry will follow suit very quickly. Are you guys really so brainwashed? He's trying to save the game industry from falling into the same slump Hollywood is currently trudging through. We should be raising our voices in support of his message, not in damnation of it.

Kingjames11
Kingjames11

I agree with Verbinski's words but he himself is no creative genius. He made 3 pirate movies based on a theme park ride. He works for Disney, owner of the most forumlaic, manufactured properties of ALL TIME. Where's the "madness" in that?

ClassicPlayer
ClassicPlayer

This game is going to be a bummer, I can asure you that. After all, it's DISNEY were talking about here, not any other company.

galduke
galduke

A lot of people will agree here, but it's likely all talk. And as for the whole "Our duty is to the audience" thing, the only audience the suits have are the shareholders, and they are the one's who want profit the most. If you really want to put your money where your mouth is, try investing thousands of dollars/yen/euros/whatever of your own money and honestly say that you'd rather go with something that MIGHT be fun, but if unsuccessful could lead to your financial ruin.

TinyIota
TinyIota

Past transgressions aside, his message should be taken to heart: it's a *warning* to the game industry to not follow the path that the film industry is mired in. Right now, games are out-competing movies for entertainment dollars, and there has been a lot of buzz recently regarding collaboration with people and companies who have made their mark in film. As a result, it will be all too easy for "corporate film culture" to migrate to the gaming industry. Specifically, I'm referring to the tall organizational structures -- the layers and layers of executives, censors, lawyers, and pollsters -- which dilute and otherwise muck-up the content of a work. It all boils down to control and, to executives, that means money. If you're in a tall org, then pushing product out the door on schedule is paramount, whether it's ready or not. (A major problem in the software industry as a whole.) Game studios need to stay squat and agile, and put the power in the hands of their talent. Yes, that also means assuming some of the financial risk. But such orgs tend to produce superior products.