Storytelling for spin-offs

GDC Online 2010: Reps from THQ, 38 Studios, Blizzard, and more on guiding game stories that extend into multiple media and keeping the tie-ins from tanking.

Who was there: 38 Studios creative director Steve Danuser, Blizzard Entertainment senior story developer James Waugh, THQ executive vice president of core games Danny Bilson, and Smoking Gun Interactive creative director John Johnson.

THQ is diving headfirst into the trans-media approach with Red Faction.

What they talked about: Bilson started the session by talking about the upcoming Red Faction: Origins TV pilot set to air on the SyFy Channel alongside the March 2011 launch of Red Faction: Armageddon. He emphasized the need to have absolute verisimilitude in trans-media efforts because any cracks in the cannon cause everything to break down for fans. In fact, Bilson said he's about to send his script notes back to the screenwriter for Red Faction: Origins, and he's most concerned with liberties the writer took with the names of the factions and the way terraforming in the Red Faction universe works.

Johnson said trans-media efforts were one of the driving motivators for the founders of Smoking Gun. Even when taking the company's efforts into printed comics, the company still wants to make things as interactive possible. So instead of just taking place in the game universe as the game, the comic can unlock things within the game.

Waugh said he looks at Blizzard as an intellectual property incubator and said the expansions of Blizzard properties into new media have challenged the creators to think in deeper terms about how their universes work.

Danuser is working on the massively multiplayer online game codenamed Copernicus and the recently announced Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which are being built to support trans-media efforts like books, TV shows, and so on. He talked about the approach 38 Studios takes to trans-media storytelling, saying there has to be something more to it than simply putting out a comic book or Web site to exploit the properties.

"The pieces of media really need to fit into each other to tell a bigger story…By consuming each of these individual pieces, you should be able to see how they really fit together."

Danuser said each book or movie needs to be true to its own medium and stand alone perfectly well but also inform readings of its counterparts. Johnson agreed, adding it's about creating a pervasive experience by understanding the different media types one's audience is engaged with.

Waugh talked about the negative stigma attached to licensed products and emphasized that the trans-media philosophy works only if you care as much about the spin-off material as the players do for the game.

"We will never novelize a game," Waugh said. "We'll never replicate something you've already experienced. That's not trans-media; that's just a waste of time."

Bilson said trans-media was a way to make the games more important. The most primary thing with any entertainment product is to make people care about it, Bilson said. Since THQ partners with other companies to get its properties turned into TV shows and movies, it doesn't have a ton of its own money at stake. Still, THQ has more at stake in the game than SyFy has in the TV film, so it has some added leverage when it comes to creative control.

Bilson acknowledged THQ's recently reported (but technically unannounced) deal with Guillermo del Toro and how when the pair get together, they just ask, "What would be cool?" They never ask, "What would make money?" Bilson stressed that would be the wrong way to go about making a trans-media effort.

Danuser said there's a sort of pact between the developers and the fan base. If the fans are going to buy in and care about a world, it's a violation of trust to allow shoddy cash-ins.

Waugh said that trust is even more sacred now, thanks to Wikia culture. Even if only two people read a cruddy cash-in novel, that novel will wind up preserved in the online canon and become just as baked into the mythos as the most meticulously created content.

Bilson said it was also necessary to let people finish the game at their own speed. Games need to tune the experience to the abilities of the players because players have to get to the big twist or the cliffhanger ending if they are to care about the story's extension into a different medium or even a direct sequel. When THQ green lights an original IP, Bilson said the company is looking to build a world, not just one story. The publisher needs an idea to be able to support a series of games.

At 38 Studios, the team has been building a backstory that lives within the whole and informs it, Danuser said. So when 38 Studios acquired Big Huge Games a year and a half ago, the Kingdoms of Amalur team was given the freedom to take the rough ideas that were already part of the world and flesh them out into the game they're making right now. It also helped give the team guidance on what the tone of the universe was and what would fit well in that context. As R.A. Salvatore told Danuser, "You have to have the smell of the world."

Bilson talked about a novel for the upcoming Korean invasion shooter Homefront, saying it's about a biker gang roaming the Southwest. After reading through an early draft of the novel, Bilson spotted a place to tie the novel back into the game, making a random gang into the biker gang from the book by dropping a few motorcycles around the environment.

Looking forward, Waugh said people are hungrier than ever for content, and he just wants to see Blizzard give fans the experiences they want and deserve. Bilson said he'd like to see great original fiction. He said he's seen tons of space marine and epic fantasy stuff, and now, he wants to see the next generation bring us worlds we've never been, fresh characters, and fresh stories. Danuser pointed to the proliferation of ways people connect to one another through mobile devices as holding promise for the future of trans-media efforts.

Quote: "It's not adaptation, or the stuff starts to break down."--Bilson, on insisting that film and book tie-ins play by the same rules and use the same universe as their source material games.

Takeaway: The era of phoning in multimedia adaptations is over. Developers wanting to take advantage of their brands and do right by their fans need to treat their comic, book, TV, or movie as seriously as they do their games.

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Discussion

15 comments
Dualmask
Dualmask

Yes, down with shoddy movie tie-ins, bad attempts at cartoons/comics about video game universes and junk like that. The running joke is getting old. If video games are going to be appreciated as art, then the trans-media stuff that is spawned by them must be given the equivalent level of care in development as the original games themselves. No more movies by Uwe Boll. No more books that only have the title in common with what they claim to be adapted from. Pay attention to what the original creators did and use that, not your own attempt to make it "better" or "more accessible".

Revla
Revla

Best article on the subject in awhile. Thanks for the good read.

New-Vegas-Fan
New-Vegas-Fan

@danielkennedy91 i agree it seems a little back to front to me

Trogeton
Trogeton

the comments are so thin.. I'm surprised there arent several pages of comments yet considering WoW

johnchandos
johnchandos

I am happy to read people are finally coming to grasp the importance of the source material. This is a positive thing. They are realizing that basing a whole franchise on just a game-play mechanic is a bad business idea, as it gets them stuck in a niche without offering any advantages when they want to diversify. WoW would have not been such a great success, if Warcraft 3 did not bridge the gap between RTS and RPG with supplemental information about the game world. Reliance on a game universe means, for developers, they can explore new mechanics and genres while still having the brand name of game world working for them.

AncientDozer
AncientDozer

Blizzard talking about story telling is painful. They haven't any respect for their own material. They just retcon it whenever they want to add new stuff. I mean, they did it to Orcs and Draenei on a whim for new races and expansions.

danielkennedy91
danielkennedy91

its ok to have a book based in the game universe but a book based on a game is not good

Richardthe3rd
Richardthe3rd

@Barighm Totally agree. It's getting to the point where developers are focusing harder on supplemental features than they are on actual design elements that make the game good.

Karrde13
Karrde13

I think what he meant by novelise a book is retell an existing story. They'd write books in the Warcraft/Starcraft universes but not write Warcraft III: The Novel. The whole point of the article is about expanding into other forms of entertainment but doing so with fresh material that fans will enjoy. Not retelling something they've already experienced, nor pumping out a bunch of rubbish that fans will dislike.

green_dominator
green_dominator

"We will never novelize a game" it's funny to use that as a phrase because games have been novelized. Halo: The Fall Of Reach, Starcraft books, Warcraft, WOW Even Fable III is getting a book. I heard that Elder Scrolls is also getting a book unless it's been published already..... We will never novelize a game indeed......

Barighm
Barighm

All this stuff about story in games...these guys keep talking about how they're such big experts on the subject, and yet time and again you do little more than shoot a bunch of stuff while some forgettable story guides you through the game and gives you a semi-justifiable reason to shoot more stuff. Some people can do it right, but more often or not, they don't and I wonder what the heck they were talking about in all these presentations of stories in games.

Diebye
Diebye

"We will never novelize a game," Waugh said. "We'll never replicate something you've already experienced. That's not trans-media; that's just a waste of time." Thats funny after hearing Kotick spouting his nonsense about repackaging the Starcraft 2 cutscenes and reselling them for $20-30 and how that was a great idea because they already have the customer's credit cards...

JorundJ
JorundJ

@MERGATROYDER I 100% agree. Especially about the destructible environments! I had endless fun with that.

MERGATROYDER
MERGATROYDER

Red Faction should have stayed a first person title. I hated the switch to third person. I understand it was changed for cinematic value, but I could care less. I enjoyed the first title for years with friends even with crappy visuals. The first title still can't be touched for destructible environments and it's about a decade old.