E3 Conference Report: Creatives stress the human element

Toby Gard, Tim Schafer, others talk about the nature of the really great game; hint: It's not the graphics.

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As the E3 show floor opened its doors Wednesday morning, a mix of industry and movie talent gathered to discuss the issues of character and story in game design in an E3 Conference Program panel moderated by Ian Davis, CEO of Mad Doc Software.

Called "Developing Better Characters, Better Stories," the panel featured Crystal Dynamics game designer Toby Gard, Bungie cinematics director and writer Joe Staten, movie scriptwriter and director John Milius, and game designer and Double Fine CEO Tim Schafer, creator of classic games like Grim Fandango and Full Throttle.

The panel focused on using story and character to develop a framework in which developers could use narrative for their games. Each participant brought his own experience to the issue, using specific examples from projects he had worked on.

Gard provided some insight into his attitude toward game design. "The world that you're interested in telling a story comes first, and then you fit a character inside it," an approach he used to create Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider world, trying to design something that would be similar to Indiana Jones. The panelists generally agreed that the world and characters were crucially intertwined in the development process.

Giving an alternate view, Milius provided his own unique perspective on the game industry, having come from the movie industry after writing screenplays for movies like Apocalypse Now and Conan the Barbarian. His suggestion to designers was "to find something you're interested in. Things that relate to human experience, sometimes extraordinary human experiences. That's usually the basis of story."

Discussion then turned to the continuing struggle in the industry to balance story and gameplay.

"There's surprisingly too little interest in story. It's always about gameplay and experience first," complained Gard, who feels that story often takes a backseat to action sequences, since designers sometimes think that story causes the pace to slow down. "Games were a lot slower 10 years ago."

In fact, as many of the panelists argued, slowing the story down often sets the mood of the game, providing key insights into the characters involved. Staten explained how Halo achieved this effect by not having continuous action sequences. Instead there were parts where the player did absolutely nothing, giving the player time to look at the scenery instead of worrying about always fighting.

Schafer provided his own explanation, arguing that players are still interested in story. "If there was more skill going into writing the character, I think people will see that it's not that they don't want story; it's that they don't want bad story."

Staten echoed that explanation for cutscenes. "Cutscenes are great. I think people like them, if you do it well."

The panelists then concluded by discussing the limitations that technology imposed on story and character development. Schafer pointed out that while artificial intelligence could always improve, writing and acting had to play an equal role in order for games to improve.

One way developers could improve their characters is by using alternate tools. One interesting tool that Schafer demonstrated for character development was using Friendster, the social networking Web site, to set up relationships between different characters in his game Psychonauts. Each character in the game has a separate account, complete with interests, pictures, and defined relationships to other people in the game.

That example was just one of the ways this panel of experts said they approached the act of making sure a game's content was stellar--maybe even better than the graphics.

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