The Narrative Design Exploratorium™
A publication dedicated to exploring interactive storytelling.
Today’s transmedia creator is Steve Danuser, Creative Director on the project code named “Copernicus” at independent developer 38 studios. According the company website “Steve is putting his talents for IP development, storytelling, game design, and community interaction to use on the company’s upcoming MMOG.” He joins us today to talk about his work and thoughts on the burgeoning craft of interactive narrative design for transmedia experiences.
Entertainment is on the verge of something new; no not 3D, but a new generation of transmedia story experiences. Story worlds that, in a calculated fashion, cross from media to media providing players new ways to experience and immerse themselves in an authored interactive world. In the past this was done solely for purposes of merchandising and franchise expansion, but in the present it’s being used to create fantastic story experiences. This new NDE series Creators of Transmedia™ sets out to explore what visionaries in the field are now creating, and what they believe tomorrow will bring.
Stephen Erin Dinehart: Steve thanks for taking the time to talk to the NDE, as newly appointed Creative Director of 38 Studios what does your role entail?
Steve Danuser: My job has two main areas of focus: overseeing development on our flagship IP and ensuring it is represented appropriately across all our products. The pillars of the IP are the MMOG and the RPG, but as we go forward my job will also involve other games and media. So my job is part game development, part storytelling, and part licensing overseer.
It’s an ideal situation for me because we have such a strong design department, led by Jason Roberts (Design Director) and Travis McGeathy (Lead Designer). With those two guys in charge, I know the gameplay is in perfect hands. I can focus totally on the story we’re trying to tell, enabling and encouraging our designers to build a memorable narrative experience.
SED: That sounds like a fantastic role! It’s my understanding that you bump heads with the Creator of Worlds, R.A. “Bob” Salvatore. How do your roles compliment each other?
SD: I work closely with Bob, and part of my job is being in tune with his philosophies and principles and being able to represent them to the team. He’s a master storyteller and has been a fan of MMOGs for a long time, so that part of the process is really easy. Someone with his level of success could have come into the company and demanded that we do things his way, but he’s been incredibly collaborative since day one. To be able to work with him on creating this IP has been an unbelievable honor and joy.
SED: How does having a fantasy heavyweight playing on your side help you do your job, and in that, what does Bob bring to the table?
SD: Bob knows how to create memorable characters and tell dramatic stories. He has an innate sense for what’s most important to the tale we’re telling, so when the design team runs ideas past him he has this uncanny ability to help us focus on the core of what we’re trying to get across. He makes us all better storytellers and has a genuine desire to see us grow. Because he keeps everyone mindful of the guiding principles of the IP, I can zero in on the details and help those come to life.
SED: From my understanding your new product code name Copernicus [here’s to hoping you re-center the universe with a paradigm shift] the studio is aiming at a transmedia approach. What do you think is to be
accomplished by extending the world into other media formats, that is, beyond the MMO?
SD: With visionaries like R. A.Salvatore and Todd McFarlane on board, we knew from the outset that we wanted to explore media like books, toys, and comics. But as we further developed the history and cultures of our world, we soon realized that we were building an IP that was rich and deep enough to give life to many distinct yet complimentary games and products that would fit together in a unified experience. So an element of my job is to keep watch over those ties between products–links that Bob refers to as “deep threads”–and ensure they all fit together into a consistent whole. Our belief is that by offering fans a variety of ways to engage with this IP, we will make all the experiences richer and more memorable.
SED: In a Gamasutra interview lat year with Brett Close he mentioned the IP being the nucleus of you project and the MMO being another peripheral product, in that, are you actively, should I say just as actively, directing content creation for other media formats at 38 Studios?
SD: Whether it’s our Maynard studio working on a project or a licensee creating an ancillary product, my job is to make sure the IP is represented properly. But more than that, I want to enable creative partners to come up with cool ideas that fit within our universe. For example, when 38 Studios acquired Big Huge Games, we brought aboard a team of people who hadn’t been around when we created the IP but who were going to be building a crucial component of it–an RPG set in a time period that was different from the MMOG. Bob and I both spent a lot of face-to-face time with the lead designers at BHG, talking through the IP and sharing our philosophies about storytelling. We let the BHG guys dig through our volumes of history and lore, and encouraged them to build off that to craft a great story they wanted to tell. It was a really gratifying process, especially seeing the excitement of Ken Rolston and Mark Nelson–two RPG development veterans–who couldn’t wait to bring our IP to a whole new audience.
SED: Are you involved in creating fiction for the other entry-points into the Copernicus IP?
SD: I’m involved with any story points that touch our IP. The Copernicus team built ten thousand years of history for our world, with a depth and detail such that you could take any major historical period and tell great stories within it. So while we’ve left enough room for anyone building a product within the IP to infuse it with new ideas and stories of their own, the guideposts of world history are there to act as a strong foundation from which to build.
The thing we’re doing differently than other games is that we know the details of the chronology of our IP universe–both forward and backward. We know not only where we’ve been, but where we’re going. There won’t be a bunch of retroactive continuity adjustments to the IP to squeeze in random ideas that somebody down the line thinks will be cool but which undermine what has gone before–that just won’t happen. We’ve spent several years
laying out a clear roadmap, and now we are focused on executing those plans in the most dynamic and entertaining way possible.
SED: What about creating a virtual world is most challenging for you?
SD:For an MMOG, you need to create a vast amount of content that often faces competing agendas: it must stand on its own and feel fresh and unique, yet it must blend together and feel like it belongs in the same world. It’s a very tough line to walk, but the challenge is great fun.
SED: Do you believe that video games are evolving as a medium? If so, in what direction do you see them moving?
SD:Video games have gone through a lot of growing pains over the years. As they’ve become more sophisticated, games went from being a child’s pastime to these deep experiences that compete for time against movies and television. As a result of this vast metamorphosis, games have faced an identity crisis. Should games play like movies? Should they strive for realism? Should they focus on clever gimmicks? Does the future lie on expensive consoles or cheap handhelds?
I think that, bit by bit, we’re getting to a point where games are finding a unique voice that is as legitimate as any other art form. While there will continue to be many formats and styles of games, developers will hopefully get better and better at designing to the unique strengths of the medium rather than trying to emulate other forms of entertainment.
SED:Gamasutra recently published a feature I wrote called Dramatic play,from what I can see from the outside it seems 38 studios is trying to create more dramatic depth in Copernicus, would you say that’s true?
SD: Absolutely. Delivering story through play is the cornerstone of everything we do.
SED: How are you accomplishing that?
SD: Part of it is ingraining a philosophy of storytelling into our studio culture. During one of our development milestones, I was part of a crew of people defining many of the specific tools and techniques we were going to use in telling this massive story we’d developed. We started by asking ourselves a question: How are we going to get our story across to the player?
In presenting our work to the team, I offered a very simple answer: The game is the story. By that I meant that every system, every feature, every piece of art, and every bit of game content would be included because it served this story. If it didn’t accomplish that goal, it wouldn’t be part of Copernicus. I concluded the speech by reminding the entire team that they are storytellers. Because I truly believe that if everyone on the team approaches their work with that mindset–everyone from the QA tester to the quest designer to the systems engineer–then the storytelling will be infused into every aspect of playing your game. Do that, and you deliver something that is truly extraordinary.
SED: Having the creative capacity for both story and game do you see the two as diametrically opposed?
SD: On the contrary, the two sides absolutely have to work as a single whole in order for the game to reach its full potential.
SED: Can you describe the relation between game play and story?
SD: Gameplay is the means by which we tell our story. While there are certainly times when you need to deliver exposition to the player to help them understand the details of what’s going on, everything crucial
to the story experience should be apparent based on the things players do in the game. All the threats and pressures facing your world should come through clearly in the act of playing the game.
SED: How do you see the games of tomorrow bridging that gap?
SD: I think it will be an evolution of the techniques we use today, not a vast revolution. We just have to get better at telling stories within the experience of play instead of falling back on traditional narrative
styles. Not that things like dialogue and cinematics will go away–it’s just that we should use them to augment our storytelling, not be the focus of it.
SED: You worked on EverQuest II, and I’m sure you learned a wealth of lessons. Are there any you can share which are helping build a better MMO today?
SD: More is not better! When I first started building content for the game, I thought I
could blow players away with my eloquent writing style. What I learned is that, while writing skills are important, a broader sense of storytelling is even more crucial. Nobody needs an NPC with a hundred bubbles of dialogue. Excess like that is a matter of personal vanity; designers need to learn to strip that vanity away and focus on the
SED: Another big name on your project is Todd Mcfarlane, as Creative Director how much do you interface with Todd?
SD: Todd has a lot of hands-on time with the artists, including weekly video conferences and periodic visits to the studio. He is a master at conveying narrative visually, which is a perfect fit with our goals for
telling story. With Todd it’s not that he’s trying to make the Copernicus art style mirror his, it’s that he brings an expertise at telling stories to our artists and the entire team. My job is to make sure Todd understands the story we want to tell, and he gives the artists ideas on how to convey that story in a visceral, interactive way.
SED: With such heavy players on your team, how to prevent the creative process for being trickle-down, that is, how do you keep the little guy involved?
SD: Both Bob and Todd are extremely collaborative people, so they are open to ideas from everyone on the team. They don’t dictate to us, but rather listen to our ideas and help us shape them to become even better. Every team member can walk up to those guys and talk to them openly, which is a fantastic opportunity most people in our industry don’t get. Bob and Todd are like mentors to the whole studio, and they’ve taught us all so much.
SED: Does Copernicus, in any media format, have a street date you can speak of?
SD: I can’t talk about any part of it, because everything is so connected. We have an elaborate schedule that surrounds each of our flagship titles–the MMOG and the RPG–with companion products which help bring the IP to life. So to give away one thing would be to give away too much. Suffice it to say that we have a plan, and we’re sticking to it!
SED: That’s fantastic it sounds like you are creating a real media spectrum for the players to immerse themselves in. What do you see as the future for this form of interactive transmedia storytelling?
SD: I hope to see stories transcend borders. I want players to connect to the games they love anytime, anyplace, in a myriad of different ways. I want game makers to provide experiences that are so rich and rewarding that people talk about them around water coolers. I want games that engage the hearts and minds of those who play them, leaving lasting impressions that help us expand the collective consciousness.
That’s a rather flowery way of saying I want fun games that tell great stories across all kinds of media. Give me worlds filled with memorable experiences and fun. At the end of the day, that’s the goal all of us are striving to achieve.
Steve and his team at 38 Studios are prime examples of the players moving into the new space of transmedia entertainment. While the outside world not be privy to the details, 38 Studios and the newly acquired Big Huge Games, now 38 Studios Maynard, are setting themselves up to lead the market in an exciting new direction, one which breaks from the subscription to one media format. By creating a spectrum of media sources they are developing a story world unlike ever before, one which will immerse the players in the ultimate form of decentralized authorship — transmedial play and the drama that it surely induces for the player. For the Narrative Design Exploratorium, I’m Stephen Erin Dinehart, thanks for stopping by. Remember, through play great stories happen!!
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