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.

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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 "If you look at the film industry from the 1970s to now, you can see how wild creativity has been replaced by the numbers game, how story telling has become formulaic due to recycling of the same [filmic] language," he told the audience.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."

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