This is an ongoing NDE series featuring interviews with Masters of Narrative Design™. While a seemingly new term, the design of story experiences is nothing new. As game developers are increasingly looking to create meaningful virtual narrative experiences, looking at the lessons learned by these masters becomes increasingly valuable. Today’s master is engineer, game creator and producer Scott Miller. As an early innovator in game development and marketing methodologies, Scott now has his focus on pioneering the future of games, storytelling, and cross-media entertainment experiences. I’m hoping to see what we can learn from his wealth of experience.
Stephen E. Dinehart: Scott, thank you for taking the time to interview with the NDE. Your approach to game development and marketing seems to be a symbiotic approach whereby the gameplay, system design, and story are interwoven to create a more rich experience for the player. What drives you to create such concinnity within these game elements?
Scott Miller: The key is that I want to be involved with games that embrace good storytelling methods, as well as deliver a unique, fulfilling gameplay experience. And of course I’m not referring to puzzle or arcade oriented games, but games like Max Payne, Bioshock, Half-Life 2, Assassins Creed, GTA4 and Call of Duty 4, that all represent a higher bar in terms of narrative delivery and impact. These are the games pointing the way to our industry’s future. And they all deliver both on the story and gameplay fronts.
Your most recent venture is with The Radar Group, can you explain what you do there?
SM: Radar Group is a new model for the industry, focused on original properties designed to be successful in both the game industry and linear entertainment, such as the film industry. Max Payne is our first film [See video clip to right], due out Oct. 17th, plus we have several games in progress.
Why is original IP important to video games?
SM: Several reasons. Including these two: It builds much more value within the game industry, and especially for independent studios (assuming they are owners or co-owners). This value can be leveraged to create even more entirely original games. For example, 3D Realms co-created Max Payne with a start-up indie studio, Remedy Entertainment. This net result is that Remedy because a successful financially independent studio capable of created more original games, such as their current game-in-progress, Alan Wake.
The second reason is that licensed properties, in most cases, lack elements that make for compelling gameplay. This is why, of the 10’s of 1000’s of films, novels and TV shows, less than a dozen have made a meaningful impact in the game industry. The rare few that have been successful all have elements that translate into unique gameplay, such as Spider-Man (web-slinging), Star Wars (force powers, light saber dueling), and James Bond (gadgets). Star Trek, by comparison, doesn’t appear to have elements that translate into unique and compelling gameplay. This is why most Star Trek games are doomed–they simply have nothing to offer, gameplay-wise, that we can’t get from other games set in space. I recently presented this view to a former executive of Activision, one of the guys who was originally involved with
Activision’s long-term signing of the Star Trek brand. He fully agreed that, in hindsight, Star Trek doesn’t have the unique ingredients to make great games.
What was your first venture into the video game industry?
SM: I founded Apogee in 1987, the company that pioneered both online distribution of games, game demos, and episodic gaming. Until Apogee came along, no one was making meaningful money selling games online, and through the release of demos and selling episodes, we not only grew ourselves, but led the way for both Id and Epic. In 1994 we renamed the company to 3D Realms as a way to grow with the industry. The games we’re best known for are Wolfenstein 3D, Max Payne, Duke Nukem, and Prey – all games in which we played a huge role. Most people don’t realize, too, that Descent was originally a 3D Realms game, until we
sold the rights to Interplay.
Having had a hand in creating some of the first and most memorable First-Person Shooter (FPS) titles to date, what were your early influences, and what keeps you pushing the game-type forward?
SM: Apogee helped form Id Software in 1990 and we worked with them through the release of Wolfenstein 3D. I spent a lot of time with the founders of Id, and seeing a lot of what they were prototyping. Id had created a very basic 3D engine and I pushed them to develop Wolfenstein 3D for Apogee to release as shareware. A year later it was Parking Lot Upgrade day for everyone at Id! Those were very interesting times back then, because everyone knew while the game was in development that something special was going to come of it.
One of the most unique story features of the critically acclaimed FPS, Prey, is Native American themes and characters, what drove the creative decision to incorporate these elements?
SM: In designing the storyverse for Prey, we tried to embrace an existing mythology that would be both interesting and allow us to take liberties in coming up with unique gameplay features. In the game industry, the only Native American character in gaming is Turok, but in the games themselves it didn’t appear that there was any reason for the character to be Native American. So, in Prey, we wanted to rectify that, and we allowed the main character to tap into is mythological powers, so to speak.
It’s all about coming up with unique settings, characters and gameplay hooks, and I think for the most part we succeeded with Prey, and we’ll do even better with the sequel.
I found it very compelling. That being said, I’ve heard rumblings from some critics that the representation of Native Americans in Prey was not warmly accepted. Is there a drive in the Prey sequel to portray more authentic Native American culture?
SM: We’ll do the best we can, and we’ll definitely do better in the next game. We ended up making the lead character in Prey too reluctant. In the next game, he’ll be a much more capable take-charge character. And, the theme of the game will be quite relevant, too, but I cannot go into details.
SED: Understandably, damned NDA, let’s switch to something fully disclosed. Your work in game development began as a one-man-band, you designed and implemented everything from the top on down, can you explain the process behind your first hit Kingdom of Kroz?
SM: Kroz (which is the name of my Warcraft character) is Zork spelled backward. Zork was Infocom’s original text adventure game, and an early influence. So was a game called Rogue, simple text-based graphics game in which an adventurer explores deep into dangerous dungeons. So, my love of these two games merged the concepts and Kroz was the result. The key breakthrough I had with Kroz was dividing the game into episodes and only releasing the first one freely on the Net. The second two had to be purchased directly from me, and in that first year alone I had just over $100,000 in orders. I knew I had stumbled onto something big.
There has been a lot of talk, and movement, in the industry towards the episodic business model for games, which you pioneered as the “Apgoee Model”. How has this approach worked for you over the past 20 years?
SM: While we haven’t been involved with episodic gaming since the mid-90’s, it’s still a viable model, as proven in the casual games market, which is exploding. We’ve shifted to the triple-A game model, which hasn’t used episodic releases with any success that I’ve seen. The downloadable model of triple-A games, though, I believe will be wide spread for the next generation of consoles. I hope so, at least!
Radar Group seeks to focus on innovation, something sought after desperately by publishers and developers alike. Like any industry, big money tends to take smaller and smaller risks, which leaves many would-be innovators out in the cold. How is Radar Group trying to embrace and empower innovation within the industry?
SM: One of the big ideas behind Radar is to give experienced, independent studios, trapped in a work-for-hire rut, a chance to make their dream game. When teams get a chance to make their dream game, you can be sure their excitement level triples, as does their creative energy. And, the bonus is that these independent studios will have co-ownership in the game, so they’ll benefit not only from the success of their game, but also other sources, such as films, novels, music, you-name-it. When a studio is a co-owner of a project, it changes everything for them. They are invested, passionate, and driven to do their best. We’ve seen this over and over and over from studios like Valve, Id, Epic, Gearbox, Remedy and so many more.
The Radar Group focuses on leveraging “cross-media IP value into films, TV shows novels and toys.” On your blog, you refer to “storyverse”, or story universe, as “the possibility space for stories”, can you explain that concept more in-depth and how it relates to the next generation of video games?
SM: Radar has studied some of the best known cross-media properties as a way to understand what makes them so cross-media friendly. Some of these properties include Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Spider-Man and Harry Potter, which all have tremendous cross-media success as novels, comics, films, merchandising and games. The key thing they all have in common is a rich story universe, or what Radar calls a “storyverse.” To have a rich storyverse, you need a vast playground of story possibilities, deep with characters, and with a great variety and richness of settings.
Now here’s the catch, to be a successful game, a storyverse also needs elements that will work as compelling gameplay. I go back to Star Trek, which is a vast storyverse, except that it lacks inherently compelling gameplay elements that would make for a unique gameplay. That’s why practically all Star Trek games are awkward space shooters using these huge ships, or they become a first-person shooter with an Away Team. But, in either case, these games do not provide gameplay elements we haven’t seen in other games. Star Wars is a much stronger cross-media property because its storyverse includes unique gameplay elements, such as force powers and the light saber. Without these inherent gameplay elements, Star Wars would be in the same boat as Star Trek, and not be a great property for game industry exploitation.
So, the a key facet to Radar’s approach is to create a storyverse than not only supports a vast realm of linear story possibilities, but also has uniquely interesting elements that support interactive gaming. I very much doubt, for example, that when Hollywood creates a movie script, or when an author writes a novel, they are thinking in terms of interesting interactive gameplay features. And this is why the vast majority of films and novels are ill-suited to the games industry. And likewise, most games being developed are not being created with linear-friendly elements, and that’s why most game-to-film attempts have been flops. They are simply lacking a strong enough storyverse to make the leap.
In talks about quality gamestory IP, two of your titles, Max Payne, and Prey, consistently come up as some of the best game driven storytelling to date. What do you think makes these titles so powerful as narrative experiences?
SM: In large part because narrative depth and delivery was a key pillar of these IPs from the start. Each of our IPs has a list of attributes that we call, Pillars of the IP. These are the essential ingredients that must be part of any game, film, comic or novel. For example, two essential pillars of the James Bond IP is that any Bond story, regardless of medium, must have gadgets and women. So, we focus on nailing down 4-6 essential pillars for each of our IPs, and this list must include at least one pillar that addresses the interactive market. So, the Max Payne IP, the gameplay pillar was bullet-time. And of course this was a huge feature in the game [see video clip below], and it will also be in the film.
If you look at the Doom film, as a counter-example, you’ll see that they left out some of the essential pillars they established in the games, such as demons from hell, and boss fights against incredible boss creatures. In fact, because the film didn’t have several of the game’s essential pillars, it’s hard for many fans to even think of the film as a real Doom movie. And now, even Id is publicly saying they want to take a second shot at doing the movie right.
That’s interesting; perhaps with partnerships, like the one between Radar and Depth maintaining those pillars across media types will be more consistent. How does Radar‘s relationship with Depth Entertainment help create better storyverse?
SM: Depth is a Hollywood-based company, partnered with Radar. Depth is run by experienced Producers, and lead by Scott Faye, who’s lead Producer on the Max Payne film. Depth brings a lot of talent to the table, to help shape and create the storyverse for each of our projects, and to put the right people in place to get the film project off the ground.
There’s always been a fear within the game industry that trying to work with Hollywood is a sure path to disaster, because the two entertainment industries are oil and water. Yet, so far, our experience has been nothing but super beneficial. I think the tide has turned within Hollywood because most of the execs we’re talking to now have grown up as gamers. And this includes the writers, too. So, by working with the right people, it’s been productive beyond our initial hopes.
What is your future vision for the games industry, and how will quality storyverses become increasingly important to players?
SM: As a maturing industry, our stories and narratives will only improve, and become better integrated within the game, rather than on top of the game like a coat of paint. The Half-Life series is one of the better examples of what I’m referring to, because in their games the story is in large part embedded within the world, rather than force fed to players as immersion-breaking cut-scenes. This is the future.
Without eating any more of your time I think we’ll end it there. I feel like we could talk for weeks on this subject, and look forward to hearing more from you in the future. Thank you for your time Scott.
The Radar Group is certainly positioning itself to be one of the big players in the interactive entertainment experiences of tomorrow. With incredible talent, like Scott, and partnerships with Hollywood movers and shakers, I know we will all be seeing and hearing more from them in the future. As is indicated from the interviews in the NDE’s Masters of Narrative Design series™, big players in the industry are all moving to create deeper interactive entertainment experiences, and I for one am ready to play and create in this exciting new age. For The Narrative Design Explorer™ I’m Stephen E. Dinehart; see you in the storyverse!