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Tom-Abernathy-AGDC08.jpgTom Abernathy gave a stellar talk at the Austin Game
Developers Conference entitled “Galatea 3.0: Designing and Writing the Great
Game Characters of the Future”. His focus was on how the symbiosis between
writing and design can create richer experiences and help play designers
better do their job. His fundamental thesis: Good characters, and subsequently
story, make good design better. It is his belief that a tighter integration of
writing and design will create better experiences for future players.

Story is derived from characters. It emerges from the
internal desires of a character.

When a character acts to achieve an object of
desire, hence externalizing internal desires, those desires come in conflict
with the outer world. It is here in this conflict that story emerges. This is
truly a classical Aristotelian approach, emphasized by Tom’s references to the
Iliad and Casablanca.
It is also very reminiscent of Robert Mckee’s screenwriting techniques, which
too are derived from Aristotle’s Poetics.

Tom took it a step further and suggested that characters not
only make a story, they sell a franchise, creating hot intellectual property
(IP) and marketing hooks. It’s true, and as storytellers we must remind the
pockets and purses that our craft drives sales and deserves development
dollars. It is only through emphasizing the fiscal prudence of investing in
story that we can convince producers and investors that we deserve just as many
dollars as the art or play design pipelines. As too many of us are familiar
with the opposite and clearly see the detriment in product quality, and
subsequent sales, which results from a lack of investment in story development.

Bruce Sterling, legendary science fiction author, was unable to make it as our keynote speaker as scheduled.  He instead sent a graduate student of his from the future to address the conference, or so said an individual representing Bruce on stage, who looked remarkable like the man himself.  At almost 90, with the skin of a ten year old and the hair of a rocker, he was unable to make with his Segway from 2043. The good news is that in 2043 Austin is still weird, because as Bruce, or his representative said “they kept it that way.” According to Mr. Sterling’s representative, computers in 2043 are boring; they are really quite boring, in fact they are quite like towels, paper, and other normal things of mundane human existence. His General Electric Pocket Mediator, apparently a handkerchief, didn’t function as it should, since the cloud isn’t existent in our time, and I’d say the same for most of his aspiration filled techno-jargon.

Bruce’s representative spoke at length, rather poetically, about the incoherence of the future. His performance at first glance seemed to add little to the conference in the way of real substance.  The main hall was empty, and virtually silent, less the lonely laughter of a few forced giggles, as if to say “I get it”. Though I did enjoy his rather slanted take on a GDC keynote, it was a performance, and superficially contained little helpful substance for the world of today’s game makers.  If I were to take anything away, beyond a glimpse into living on the edge of keynote infamy, it would be:

1) Redefine video games for the future.
2) Don’t be a clog in modern video game publishing.
3) Explore other forms of interactive media.

Looking back it was quite refreshing, there were no product pitches, no self-comparisons to Walt Disney, he did not even try to wow the audience. Instead he was honest, humble, and insisted on ‘taking the piss’ out of all us self-righteous gamemakers. He threw off the rules, and that’s exactly what he called upon industry vanguards to do.

Andrew Walsh presented the session posed on the question
‘Are game writers witnessing the death of three act structure?  Mr. Walsh was alive, full of passionate
self-reflexive humor.  His talk was a great postmortem on how layered
interactive storytelling can further game experiences while maintaining their
classical roots.  Clearly defending the form forged by Aristotle, he went on
to explain how he used the form in Prince of Persia and how it lent to creating
a next-generation interactive story experience.

Andrew Walsh AGDC08

In creating his
installment in the Prince of Persia series he had set some clear markers for
successful storytelling:

  • A strong identifiable story.
  • A simple playing experience.
  • A deep
    story world.
  • Allow the player choice and control.
  • Making the characters feel alive.
  • Providing a next generation experience.

What is his conceptual tool?  “Ondemend storytelling”  Just
what is it?  Andrew went on to explain, “Ondemand storytelling is a story design that allows the player to
choose when to access the story and how much of it they want to
experience.”   It is a layer of
interactive depth that is available to the player at the designers discretion
to give the story hungry player additional content.  The Ondemand elements are
not required to forward gameplay, they exist to provide depth to the player, in
that they allow the player to customize their own experiences.  Anyone who has
played Gears of War will be familiar with such systems.  By holding a button (Y)
on a console controller a player can shift focus, shift control, to the game
makers, so they (writers/designers) may direct their focus to story points of

Chris Crawford AGDC08At this point Chris Crawford is a legend, since his beginnings as a game designer for Atari in the 1970’s he has been a proponent of dramatic games, ones which push the boundaries of the the medium to new heights.  In this 2008 Austin Game Developers Conference (AGDC) Session, Crawford focused on the creation of a new medium, one which focuses on interactive storytelling.  As creator of the Game Developers Conference (GDC) he was one of the first to speak at this years conference, over 20 years since he held the first GDC in his living room.

Apparently Chris’s first proposal for this talk “14 Conceptual Shifts…” was turned down, and most recently he was asked to speak and rewrote the talk to be “15 Conceptual Shifts“‘ When asked why he was turned down he quickly replied, “Because I’m an asshole.” Apparently Chris does not care for games, and as a result has made some sworn enemies. He seeks divergence from the game industry as interactive storytelling is to create a new form of entertainment; one beyond useless interactivity not driven by compelling human drama.  Storytron, Inc. is in fact his venture into creating this new industry. His company’s website proudly displays the copy “Play a Storyworld“.

He was/is a big shot, 14 hits, wrote the first book and journal on Game Design, about 16 years ago he walked away from it during the creation of the game Wing Commander.  He saw the industry falling down a dark path, away form drama and towards toys, puzzles, things which are antithetical to the dramatic potential for interactive storytelling.  Games are supposed to be about people, there is no real feelings, emotion and people. It’s taken him 16 years.

This should prove to be an exciting year for narrative design, and the Austin GDC is a great place to consolidate our efforts to create an open and honest forum for the betterment of our craft and each other. I managed to submit 5 proposals and am fortunate to have Sande Chen, associate and fellow Trojan, as a co-speaker on all but the Opposing fronts proposal. I had wanted to submit a panel lecture consisting of 5-7 Narrative Designers, but this years conference is only open to hour long a) 1-2 person lectures b) round tables.

My proposals:

  • Narrative Design in Company of Heroes Opposing Fronts
  • Narrative Designers’ Round table (1 session per day, for a total of 3)
  • Narrative Design: Creating dramatic structure in games

I hope we as an industry can create a forum for narrative design at the conference as it would be truly invaluable. I’ll be sure to post once I get news. My hopes are high despite my running record of 3 proposals to 1 speaker slot over the years!

One button to rule them all indeed, although Louis Castle’s GDC 2006 talk on
bringing the RTS genre to the console was at the end of the day on
Friday, the last day of the conference, it was packed.

proposition has me very excited. My first exposure to the RTS genre was
a console experience, playing Dune II on the Sega Genesis. Bringing it
back would be very powerful, but as Louis was apt to point out, it has
yet to be done right.

You cannot just port the PC experience
to a console, as Mr. Castle pointed out most simply, a mouse and
keyboard control schema just doesn’t translate to a console controller.
In order to be successful in reviving this genre on the console you
need to rethink the experience.

Having played the Pre-Alpha
build briefly, when Louis was so kind as to share it with our RTS class
@ USC, I have to say the controls work wonderfully, and the world feels
more rich then it ever did on a typical PC.

Although this was
the second time I sat through this presentation, I found it
invigorating, and I believe the rest of the audience did as well.

As simple quote from Tim Langdell “We are at a watershed moment w/ next-gen games.They will need pro-writing. Stories give meaning to game play.”

A very informative presentation by Matthew Bellow and David Collier,
which showcased some of the best things in the global Mobile market. I
had the pleasure of sitting with Scott Fisher, department chair, and witnessing some these fun innovations.

My favorites were:
1) Episodic RPGs
2) Mobile Social Software (MoSoSo)
3) Online communities
4) Casual games
5) Mobile/PC Cross Platform Games

One of the best was a Japanese service that searches the local area
for the most popular music downloads. This could be modified to create
a great tool to find local music scenes, when doing some exploration of
unknown territory!

Mitch Lasky of the former JAMDAT, now “The New” EA mobile, gave a great
talk about where we are and where we might be going. His first
appearance since the EA acquisition of JAMDAT, Mitch gave a vision for
the future of the mobile industry.

labeled the IP rush of the last year by mobile firms as leaving
everyone with a “Brand Hangover”. To many people grabbing overvalued
IP, and then struggling to work with it or resell it.

Within 6
years JAMDAT went from 0 to 684,000,000 in value. An amazing feat, but
leaves one asking why? Why did EA purchase JAMDAT for almost 5 times as
much as the Maxis purchase?

• 9 consecutive Quarters of GAPP Profitability
• Experience Mobile Management Team
• Mobile Market Dominance
• 17 more years of the Tetris License
• A portfolio of successful gaming IP

What’s in the works now that the marriage has been consummated?

• Doubling R&D spending for the next year
• Acting as a primary business unit within EA
• 58,000 SKUs in 12 months
• A Mandate to Innovate

believes that this new venture is just the thing the industry needs to
really develop the market. What can we look for in the near future for
the industry?

• Stable Business Models
• Friendly easy-to-use e-commerce
• Quality Control

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Author Stephen E. Dinehart is a producer, designer, writer, and artist. You can find out more about him on his self-titled website.

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