Wingnut Interactive's first project will be to develop a series of new games based on Halo. Actually, "games" might not be the right term, since Jackson specifically said the projects would not subscribe to the traditional game paradigm.
So what does Jackson have in mind? After spending a night in the Catalan capital, the veteran filmmaker and gaming neophyte took part in a roundtable discussion with two of the most experienced--and successful--designers in the game business: Peter Molyneux, founder of Lionhead Entertainment (Fable, The Movies), and Dr. Greg Zeschuk, cofounder and president of BioWare Corp. (Jade Empire, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and the forthcoming Mass Effect).
The panel, titled "The Future of Storytelling," focused mainly on the increasing intermingling of film and game narrative techniques. Unsurprisingly, given the event's sponsor, much of the discussion focused on how the technology of the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live can help developers tell more realistic and emotionally resonant stories with games. It also offered a chance to see what Jackson, whose previous game experience was limited to a reportedly rocky semi-advisory gig on Electronic Arts' Lord of the Rings titles and a more harmonious supervisory position on Ubisoft's King Kong, has planned for his first solo project..
An edited transcript of the event, which was moderated by Bungie Studios' Frank "Frankie" O'Connor, is below.
Frank O'Connor: What kind of story can you tell in a game that you might not be able to tell in the format of a film?
Peter Jackson: Well, that's a very interesting question. I don't really know the answer to that because it's not really the way that I'm thinking so much. I just think that stories...often, depending on what the story is, there's something, there's a place that it can find itself, where it belongs. A story might make a great opera but a really bad film, and vice versa. Something might make a great TV miniseries but shouldn't be a film or should be a great film.
So, I don't think it's a case of trying to take a story and squeeze it and push it into something where it doesn't belong. What I'm interested in doing is looking at what the technologies are of Xbox 360, of [Xbox] Live, at the way that that universe of technology is being created. And at the moment, obviously, it's primarily used for playing games.
But what's interesting is the challenge of finding a method of conveying stories on that technology which will allow an interactive component, but they're not movies, and they're not games. So we're not going to force a round peg into a square hole. If a story should really be a film, then it will be a film and those decisions will be made as we just continue to conceive of the idea. I don't know whether I answered that question at all, actually.
Peter Molyneux: Well, I think stories and computer games have had problems. One of the problems is that for a long time stories and computer games have been for enthusiasts, for people that really want to sit through the goriest cutscenes that we've forced on players. Some of those can be ridiculously long. It's an excuse to go and make a cup of coffee.
That's the passion for me. I want to make the right story for the right people for the mass market so that everybody can enjoy that story. I think that's less about putting the controller down and sitting back and changing your heart rate from playing with adrenaline to being passively immersed in the story, to engaging people and making them part of the story. What that actually means is that we are having to experiment with stuff that we've never done before, stuff we've never even tried before. How can we motivate people to pay attention rather than force them to pay attention?
Greg Zeschuk: I would add that obviously, the biggest leap is one of interface. I think what you're saying is that the way we interact with the game is the challenge. Like for decades, we've all built games that are for that enthusiast audience, and the challenge is making it so easy that someone can pick it up and just instinctively know what to do with it. The experience of being the center of the story is really what we're about, and I think that's the amazing thing about the games and that's where in a lot of ways we think the future lies.
The technology is all about that supporting structure around the experiential aspect of being in a story. Rather than sitting back and watching it, you are it. And I think Peter knows firsthand all about the challenge of making the games where you control--you affect the world, you affect everything around you. we're just on the verge of a whole new generation of those games. It's so exciting that we can actually take that and take it to a new level and make players feel. There are times when we want people to cry when they're watching our games, and sometimes they already have. We'll try and do that more in the future--lots of crying in all future BioWare games! [Laughs.]
FO'C: So, we've had 20 years of the cutscene phenomenon. You play 10 minutes of frenetic gameplay, then there's an announcement that the princess is in another castle. How do we break out of that? And do we really want to break out of something that people are so used to?
PM: I would say yes. When we sat down and started designing Fable 2, I said, "Right, we're not going to have any cutscenes at all." Of course, everybody went and said, "Well, this is ridiculous. How can we tell a story without cutscenes?"
What I wanted to say is firstly, what you are doing as a player in this game has to feature in the story. You have to change the story about what the player is doing because that is so exciting. It becomes more than my vision of what the story would be but more of what the player's vision is.
Secondly, you present somebody with a piece of story or piece of dialogue that you really want them to pay attention to. So, you've got to think of tricks and you've got to invent tricks to motivate them to want to look at that story. What that means is slightly modifying what people are told depending on what they've done and making sure it's set in the right place and they're not distracted. But, as I said, this is an experiment we're playing around with and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.
GZ: We're seeing that now at the beginning of this next generation. The experience is so cinematic already, why do you have to layer more artificial stuff on top of it? I think our approach has been to almost fold in the cutscenes. It's no longer I think that very traditional structure of games--start, stop, start, stop. You want the player to get into more of the flow. They just continually play and they're experiencing things, some of which are cutscenes, some of which are gameplay. But they're built in. There's not that jarring, "OK, turn off your action hands to get ready for the story," and then you go back to it. You want that to be part of the whole experience, the flow that the player feels.
PJ: Ultimately, obviously, you want the person to have the experience that they want to have. So, if somebody wants to play a game and is not interested in the story but they simply want the challenge of beating the machine, then that obviously should be available. I look on it like when you have your time that you want to be entertained you can pick up a book and sit down and read a book and that has a different demand on you than turning the TV on and seeing the TV.
At the moment, the gaming world is obviously aimed at the game player. And I think, in some instances, game players don't want a story they don't expect it and it's not what they're picking up their controller for. But what interests me is the crossover. What I think should happen is that there should be another option as well as games... it should be another form of entertainment that is something like watching a DVD or a movie or reading a book. It's like another alternative for people that are interested in a story and who want to engage the characters. ... So, I see that the broadening of it is a kind of interesting thing for me.
FO'C: So, we've had stories like The Iliad for over 1,000 years. We've had the way Shakespeare writes for centuries, and we've had movies for 100 years. How far down that path do you think we are defining standards for how stories are told in games, 20 years into the industry?
PJ: Well, I don't know. I'm not a game expert. These guys are, so I guess they should be talking, not me. I think that the primary emphasis on the systems that have been developed are obviously for games. But people have been developing more and more interesting ways in which games can be imaginative and engage you and involve you. But I think, as a storytelling system, it's probably [in its] very, very early days. It's like tiny baby steps right now.
GZ: At that point we're at, I think like I said earlier, we're still trying to tackle interface. It's that challenge of how do you touch the characters on the screen. One of the ways that we tried to do it was our dialogue interface [and aspects] are now emotionally driven. You make your choice and it accents that emotion, so every action is a surprise. For us, we still think it's so early in this. We've been in it I think 12 years now, and we've always focused on the story. ... But we still feel there's so much work to be done that we still don't serve the entire audience.
I think we're really at a transition point. Peter [Molyneux] noted that it's been a very enthusiast-driven culture. What we've done has been very much for the enthusiast. So, we're all enthusiasts as well. So, it's very hard for us to separate our tastes from what we build. But I think now, we all have the awareness of doing that. That's become more of a cultural phenomenon and Peter [Jackson] says, "Hey, it's time for us to all really push it. Now we're all ready. Now we can spend all this time and we're excited about tackling the story challenge at a whole new level."
PM: For me, I think there is something here that we haven't yet discovered, and we're just on the verge of discovering. What we can do is present a game and a story that [make] people feel like they are truly involved in and that it's less of a predescribed script which is being laid out. ... That's what we've been talking about...in our industry for a long time.
For years we've been talking about this and multiple branching storylines. That's not what excites me. What excites me is that some people can go into the game and want, and this is what we tried in Fable a little bit. Like, say, they want to be the epitome of a good guy. They want to be the most whitest white good guy. And some people can go to the same game and want to be the most unspeakably evil person, evil by anybody's standards.
What we've got a chance of in stories is actually to pander to those people who want to be those things. Where the real challenge is what does that mean to the story? What does it mean to the characters? What does it mean to the person going in there and wanting to be that character? I think we haven't even begun to open that book up, and we haven't even begun to show their stories. I feel that in the next 10 years, which is an infinitely long time for the computer games industry, I think that we're going to be seeing some pretty amazing stuff, that totally unique, that it is impossible to see in a book and impossible to see in a film or even the storyteller, because it's truly interactive.
GZ: To have a story, you need a beginning, middle, and end. Then there are several variables.
PM: Absolutely. And that, the beginning, middle, and end--the whole lot should still exist, but how, how does it change?
GZ: Yeah. That's one of the funny anecdotes was we've all been doing in our role-playing games for a little while. The quality assurance testing folks say, "OK, well, I'm going to plot out all the [story] possibilities and test them. Well, see, there's 160,000 in this game. I can't test them any more." What you're talking about is like it's 160 million choices that you can make layered through this entire thing.
So, [if] the middle part of your story is so gigantic, how do the ends pull together? How do you actually start that? How do you end that? How does it all fit? That's that...like you said, we haven't seen how that really works yet. The technology is there. That's what's cool is the simulation of characters and entities in the world doing things that seem smart is finally attainable, and that'll actually help us fill up that middle part.
FO'C: Let's talk about story for a second. Xbox 360, Xbox Live, that infrastructure and that adoption rate and that installed base finally is going to give console-owners for the first time the chance to have episodic content. Do you think that delivering content episodes is going to be a way forward?
PM: Well, for a start, episodic content...has some problems. One of the big problems is for us to make episodes we're going to need the tools to make episodes. That's an enormous amount of work. But for me I don't only think about an episode as being another chapter of a story. The interesting thing is if you created a simulated world, and in that simulated world you set the story, then part of the episode could be another bit of the simulation.
For example, in Fable 2, we're in a crazy world and you can play through the story or you can involve yourself in living in the world. What if I were to say, "OK, we're going to introduce another little simulation bit. We're going to introduce another bit to the economy." That is an episode. It's not a story. It's a part of the simulation. I think that is quite exciting. So, when you think of is an episode, don't just think of as another section of the story. Think of actually episodes adding to and changing your game and your gaming experience. Did that make sense?
GZ: It did, actually. But for us, we kind of were doing this with Neverwinter Nights and the episodes that released after that. Like what Peter said, the whole issue of the challenge of actually building. We're all geared to make these big giant games that come in this big giant wad. It's a ton of work. We're actually not really structured that well on how to piece it out. It's not like a TV series where they have these sort of parallelized teams that are kind of working together through tight schedules to process it. We're used to making these big giant things, so probably the biggest challenge for us right off the bat is how to configure ourselves as a development studio to do [episodic content].
Second is what do you build?...With Mass Effect, we'd just keep throwing planets out there, more things to explore and in those we'll have something that spawns and hooks and simulates something new. There's a lot of stuff we can do, but the challenge is figuring out how to do it effectively. Are the fans going to stick with it? One of the interesting challenges in this business is that every month there's something new to play. I think this is why we love stories so much is that that grabs you and you want more. And that's maybe the only thing that's going to hold people through the long term of still wanting to go back to that game and play a little more when there are other, new games to play.
FO'C: So, players are used to a kind of rhythm for video games. ... The next time they get to see that story, it may be two or three years from now, [but] they'll get to see this story conclude or the next episode. Do you think that we can teach players to expect a more frequent rhythmic pattern to their fiction?
GZ: The big question is, can we deliver it? Maybe. ... I think anyone who's been on 360 knows how much fun it is to go into Marketplace and just mess around and download stuff. If you can just be on there and say, "Hey, my new episode is out."... I think there's a sort of self-discovery and exploration about going off there and finding these things to start with.
Players, if they're compelled, they always want more. People want a good experience, and if we can deliver that, I think we can train them. There's no reason why not. If I watch TV shows frequently, why shouldn't I just take the same approach to games? They're totally different, but the general process is similar for how you access them.
PM: We have an irresistible urge to release everything all at once, and it's unbelievable to me that this is the way it's going to have to work. If we really want episodic content, we're going to have to build a lot of stuff and then only release part of it, and no one has ever done that before. I think the games industry is quite unique here is that we build it and as soon as it's built, we release it. That is an irresistible urge to all people and [especially] marketing people. They'll say, "What, you've got 10 more levels? You can't keep it back--let's keep them in."
One thing is that we're going to have to think about a longer-term vision. And you're absolutely right, Greg. One of the problems is that we're asking people to say, "Right. I played this. I finished it. Now, I'm going to wait two years...to actually see what the next thing is." Then, when we introduce it to people in five years' time, quite often we say, "Right. We were here and now with this is the next day in the story." That's going to have to change.
PJ: I'm not obviously experienced in the gaming world, but so much of what I'm hearing is the sort of discussions that happen when you make films or TV. When a TV series is usually like a big epic 13-part miniseries, you've got to make all 13 episodes before the first one is screened. It's a risk, but normally in the big miniseries TV world, it usually pays off and people watch these things.
So, the thing that I'm thinking of when I'm sitting, just hearing all this, is that I think it's also important that nobody is sitting around trying to think of what the perfect entertainment experience is, because I think what is important is that there should be different types of experiences. There should be games with no stories. There should be games very heavily oriented on stories--episodic, long, short. I think it's important that it's just a piece of technology that delivers entertainment to people, and I think there should be many, many different forms of it available.
FO'C: Peter, when you film something, is everything planned at the start and do you stick to that plan? Or do you change when you shoot?
PJ: Well, it should be planned at the start, and you shouldn't change anything, but we always do. But that's just us because you're constantly thinking of ways to improve it. It's a very organic thing. And in a way, the film industry shouldn't be organic. The film industry is structured in such a way that there are large amounts of other people's money involved, obviously. So you write a screenplay and that gets debated and discussed and then at some point you actually have to sign the cover of the screenplay with a pen to say, "This is the film that we're spending your money on, and we're not going to change a word because this is what you want to pay for." And you actually sign that and, in theory, you go and you make that.
But the reality is that that's not what happens. It's not, I don't think, the smartest thing to do, and what we always do is just continually revise and revise and revise all the way through. In my case, it was The Lord of the Rings or Kong. That's what you're making, but we were rewriting scenes all the way through the shooting. It's changing consistently, and the studio has trust in that.
PM: The game industry is very similar. When I was an independent developer, then you had this really funny thing. You had to sign a contract, and it's talking about how much money you're going to get to make a game. You sign the contract normally when you've just got a piece of paper, which is about 10 pages long. Then, halfway through development, you kind of phone up your publisher and say, "After playing this and I'd like to put this game idea in. "You couldn't do that. You said that you were going to make this game."
[Luckily] the [game] industry is realizing that locking things down in stone is very hard, especially when we're talking about all this experimental stuff. You've got to actually experiment. [To Jackson] But it must be horrific if you're on set. Presumably, you can't go on set and say, "Actually, Kong needs to fight a giant snake now." You can't make those sorts of changes because that would mean someone from CG building a giant snake.
PJ: Well, yeah. There are two types of changes, basically. There's the ones that don't cost any extra money and the ones that do. Everyone's much more relaxed if it doesn't cost money. I think if we were to say, "Listen, we've got this idea that these 10 pages of the script are just junk, and we've written some fresh pages that we want to shoot. We're just half way through the shoot." The first question they're going to say is, "Does it have any budgetary implications?" And if you'd say "no" to that, then they really don't mind because at some point, they've surrendered trust to the filmmaker. But of course, if you turn around and say, "Well, yes, these new pages actually are going to cost another $5 million," that's when there is this active discussion about it.
FO'C: So you guys are talking about process. Well, I'll address this to Peter Jackson first. What are the processes from film making that you'd like to bring into the game making world? And what are the ones you'd like to leave behind?
PJ: What you do when you're a filmmaker and you want to make movies and you want to try to make as many movies as you can, is you're always thinking of story ideas, and they're either original ideas or they're books that you've read that you want to adapt or a film that you want to do a remake of. You're just constantly thinking about it. And you get to a point that you get so excited about it and you imagine it in your mind so incredibly clearly that you want to see it. That's what happens to me. I get to a point that I've been thinking about an idea for a story for so long that now I just want to see it all and I want someone to make it.
But what I'm interested in is the concept that, "Do we just have to make movies in the way that they've been made for 100 years? Is it just going to be the same thing?" For me, I'm getting a little bored with films now, with going to the movies. I can't figure out whether it's because I'm getting old and boring, which I hope the hell I'm not, or whether it's the films. But I just remember a few years ago being a lot more excited about movies that were coming up and wanting to be there on the first day. Now I find myself too often thinking, "Oh, I'll catch that on DVD when it comes out."
And at the same time, I'm looking forward to the release of games and because I do play games. And the reality is that now I think I'm more aware and more excited about games that are being released in the next two or three months than I am about films. It's sort of interesting. So, I'm just aware of the shift and I'm aware that there's this form of entertainment out there that has actually got me a little bit more excited in the way that movies used to, that they don't so much anymore. That's sort of sparked awareness in me that there is definitely a shift in the entertainment options that are out there in the world now. If I can see it and I can feel it, then obviously other people are feeling it. And...I can't even remember what your question was! [Laughs]
FO'C: I was asking you which processes from the movie industry you'd like to bring into games.
PJ: Oh, well, the story processes, the way that we would create a film story... I would begin with on a gaming idea, or interactive idea exactly the same way. You sit down and you think of your story and you think of the narrative and you think of the structure. We work in a very structured way. We get a piece of paper and we actually write down a shape of a story. We write down turning points, "do this" or "do that" things where characters experience and change.
So usually, [with] our films, what we try and do in films is to end up writing six or seven storylines for different characters and different aspects of an action story or motion story. ... Whoever the characters are, and you end up blending several different storylines together in a way that's constantly shifting and evolving.
And then what I would then do in a film, if it's the sort of films we've done in recent times, I then get designs and artwork done. ... Fortunately we've got a great team who work with us down in New Zealand [at Weta Digital, the workshop currently working on Halo]. I would get upwards of 50 or 100 beautiful color pictures drawn up of different moments in the film: mood, atmosphere, characters, and so the storyline is evolving and then that's feeding into the visual kind of look of the piece.
And I would see if I was approaching an interactive, I think that kind of a process would almost be the same. And almost, you get to a point where it could be a movie or it could be interactive. I mean that's sort of the stage.
PM: I would love to know and to experience all the cheats that you do. You do cheat horribly with lighting and characters. ... Well, we do too, but there's but I always have these arguments with the team about reality. There was this one discussion I was having the other day. We were talking about how I wanted to get this emotion from the player and [I suggested] that maybe we should allow the player to see through that character's eyes. "But you can't do that; [it's not real]," someone said. And I said, "Well Hollywood does that all the time, and suddenly it's a flashback." You don't really see flashbacks like that [in games].
[To Jackson] Your ability to cheat and your ability to get to the core of what you want, you want to get people engaged in the character, engaged in the story. And you do horribly cheating things with lighting and the story and the mood which we have are only beginning to learn.
PJ: But I think that it all comes down to the fact that's it so important for everybody, everybody not to get buttoned down in finding the one perfect effect. Alfred Hitchcock made Rope where he made an entire film in one particular shot. ... It's like an hour and a half without a single [setup change], the camera just runs around continually. He was a guy experimenting with a form of storytelling that no one had ever done before and no one's hardly ever done it since. I think it's been done once or twice.
But normally you go to a movie, and the filmmaker's choosing the angles, constantly shifting people's points of view. But Hitchcock abandoned those tricks completely and just had this camera roaming around. And it was interesting from a storytelling [perspective]. Imagine every type of film that you've seen, of all the different directors that have brought their ideas to it. I think it's so important and the interactive world--there's never going to be a set way that a game or an interactive thing has to be done. So the variety end is so important. The imagination should just go wild.