Masters of Narrative Design™ 5: Scott Miller – The Narrative Design Exploratorium™

Masters of Narrative Design™ 5: Scott Miller

Scott MillerThis 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 Erin 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?

Max Payne Movie PosterScott 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.

SED: 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.

SED:  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
.  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.

Box Art for Wolfenstien 3D on the JaguarSED: What was your first venture into the video game industry?

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.

SED: 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.

This is an official concept for Prey 2
A screen shot from the Spirit Realm in PreySED:  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.

This is a Kingdom of Kroz screenshotSED:  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?

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.

SED: 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, merchandizing
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.

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.

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.

Box Art for 3D Realms and Remedy's title Max PayneBox Art for 3D Realms and Human Head Studios title PreySED:
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

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.

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.

SED: 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

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.

SED: 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
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 Exploratorium™ I’m
Stephen Erin Dinehart; see you in the storyverse!

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This page contains a single article by Stephen E. Dinehart published on August 25, 2008 5:00 PM.

Masters of Narrative Design™ 4: Louis Castle was the previous entry in this blog.

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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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