How Casual Games are like American Idol

  1. There are vociferous judges. Sites like RealArcade, BigFishGames, Yahoo Games, and my own company iWin vet (audition) which games we think the audience will like. I’ll leave it to you to match which companies are the Randys, Paulas, or Simons of our industry.
  2. It’s Darwinistic. A fledgling game must immediately get to the top. If you miss the Top 10 list, you might as well have not competed.
  3. It’s all about what the people want. Ultimately, it’s pure democracy (albeit with multiple votes by hormone-laden Sanjaya-loving girls). The masses vote for the tolp games with each purchase. Money talks.
  4. It’s not about who is strictly the best. Because of the weekly elimation format of American Idol, two similar but equally talented gospel-based singers will fight for the same audience and one will eventually lose out — even if she is ultimately more talented than other contestants. Casual games rely on the the same timing and positioning. If two time management epics come out at the same time only one will earn everyone’s dollars and attention.
  5. It’s all about being accessible. Simon will cut you to pieces if you try to sing a song you may love but that nobody has ever heard of. Additionally, exceptionally talented singers with narrow appeal will sink like an unrolling stone. Likewise, most new or experimental mechanics in casual games crash and burn, no matter how polished or innovative the game may be.
  6. Cloning breeds accessibility. Archaeologists in bejeweled jungles, plucky young women starting menial businesses, or mysteries in cluttered old mansions. Enough said.
  7. Too much cloning fails at a certain point. As with Idol, the audience knows when they have a pure rip-off on their hands — no matter how slickly produced a game it is. Ultimately, a game needs soul and a spark of originally to win out.
  8. Everyone thinks they can do it. For every game published on the portals — even the ones that distribute a game a day — there are dozens that don’t make it. Maybe someone can create a site to showcase exceptionally bad games, which may be as funny to play as it is to watch as William Hung sing. Or not.
  9. Personality matters. Notice those little Roman Numerals on most site Top 10 lists? We’re even seeing some Vs now. Sequels of popular franchises all sell because the audience wants more of a proven good thing. Star power is huge and become self-fulfilling.
  10. Both are crown jewels of our pop culture. Casual games are no longer fringe. While they may not yet garner the audience of American Idol, more and more people are spending more and more of their leisure time with them. Now if only we can produce the game equivalent of Carrie Underwood.
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The Great Story – Great Game Tool

At Last Year’s Game Developer’s Conference, I dropped in at the Writer’s SIG roundtable, run by Richard Dansky. The discussion turned to the problem of writers having no time in a typical game production to dig deep with their plots or characters. Most game writers have to struggle to crank out dialog in the midst of constantly changing level design and playability concerns.

I tossed out a question I’d been struggling with for a while, a question I didn’t articulate very well (not a good idea in a room of writers):

Anyone who has ever worked on a novel or even a screenplay knows how long it takes to write something good, to get every sentence to be meaningful and spot on, to achieve super subtext… And that’s just to write something good. Let’s not talk about Great… yet.

So my question was: Given the intensive process of commercial gaming, can we game hacks ever achieve truly good writing?

There was a bit of stunned silence. I guess some of my compatriots felt that writing in games is plenty good already. Then someone said:

“That’s a solved problem. It’s been achieved on TV. You just need a team. Teams of writers work together all the time to create episodes on very tight schedules.”

Hmmm. So let’s talk TV.

Most TV, most people would agree, is light and mindless. Don’t get me wrong: It actually takes seriously good writing to be light and mindless. Look at Seinfeld.

But every so often there’s something on TV that glimmers beyond the LCD and can actually be called Great. Great TV is, at times, on par with Shakespeare, The Bible, and Dostoevsky. Great has many definitions, but I like to think of it this way: Good is doing something masterfully. Great is doing several things masterfully on several levels in unison.

Helped by Great Direction, Great Cinematography, and Great Acting, TV as a medium has, in my opinion, achieved some Great Stories that could live on forever as classics. Some examples:

  • NYPD Blue
  • Sopranos
  • The West Wing
  • Six Feet Under
  • The Wire

Now, if you don’t care much for the above TV shows or don’t think there’s much difference between these and other dramas such as the CSIs, Law & Order, soap operas, or even Lost and Heroes, then you might as well stop reading now — or stop living in my universe — because in my opinion while good stories do their part to make life a bit less boring and much more pleasurable, Great Stories actually make life meaningful.

From whence do these Great TV shows come?

If you read interviews by David Simon (comish of The Wire), David Chase (Sopranos mob boss), David Milch  (of NYPD Blue and Deadwood fame), etc. it becomes clear that each of these individuals are, like many people named David, control freaks. They are Show Runners — “a curious hybrid of starry-eyed artists and tough-as-nails operational managers.”

Great shows may credit several writers, and may have sizable writing teams brainstorming to flesh out a script, and may release in an episodic format. But they always have one authorial voice. One unbroken tone that leads to a cohesive vision. In most cases, the Show Runner has already done a hell of a lot of work plotting out the entire season or even series. This puts a lot of weight in one headspace. But it allows for characters and situations to have a novelistic level of detail that makes them, well, Great.

So, back to games. Clearly having one head honcho is charge is one piece of the puzzle to Greatness. Few would argue that what Great Games we have are the result of a lone Show Runner (or very small, very tight-knit team). Of course, giving one person, especially a writer, this responsibility would require a monumental process change in most game development studios.

But fine, we can dream. We can each imagine, one day, having a budget of millions and a staff of talented programmers, artists, level designers, and sub-writers at our command who for some reason are willing to put up with our bullshit.

But then there’s the larger question of what to do next. How can an interactive activity reach Story Greatness?

Clearly, we’ll need tools. Many smart people have experimented with many tools to help string together relatively believable and emotionally-charged characters and situations. Some examples:

– Will Wright’s The Sims or Spore or even Glenn Abrett’s Supple. These games are awe inspiring — they have fantastic AI, great humor, and awesome insight into the human mechanism. But for all of Greatness there, there none of the arcs or terrain of Great Story.

– The famous Façade experiment of Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas. It’s the crystallization of a Great Moment, but I don’t think this could hold out through the ups and downs of a whole tale.

– Chris Crawford’s Storytron (summed up in Different Approaches in the Quest for Interactive Storytelling) plays with verbs and objects to achieve some psychological complexity. Clever, but so far no example I’ve seen is actually even a remote pleasure to play.

– Omar Khudari’s The Act (which, granted, I haven’t played) sounds very cool as well: It uses a knob to dial the main character between extremes of emotions. So a scene can progress and you can choose to either jump the pretty girl or retreat the corner shyly. The story progresses based on which side of the emotional fence you keep falling. But does this mechanism support the breadth and depth that a good story needs?

The problem isn’t: How Can We Create Believable Characters? Because complex characters alone do not a good story make.

The problem isn’t: How Can We Create Emergent Yet Interesting Situations? Because dramatic situations alone do not a good story make.

The solution is not to take away the joy or be anti-commercial. All Great Stories are thoroughly enjoyable (if not fun). And since many people consider them essential to their culture, they sell like sonsabitches.

And the solution isn’t to take away the Action. The more we talk about artsy-fartsy notions of Story Greatness, the more we risk taking away what makes games games. They are not meant to be dramatic or comedic meditations, but interactive works of action. So says an unattributed EA exec in an excellent Atlantic Monthly article about narrative in games: 

“Blowing shit up is fundamental, because verbs are what make video games work.”

Hate to say it, but he’s right — at least the part about verbs is.

So the problem reduces to: How Can We Achieve Great Story within an Interactive, Commercial Construct so Utterly Reliant on Action?

Ugh. Ugly looking question. But more or less accurate.

Questions like these were chewed, digested, regurgitated, then chewed again in “The Watery Pachinko Machine of Doom” during last year’s Project Horseshoe — a discussion I was lucky enough to participate in. The core assumption of the workgroup, which I unwillingly subscribed to since I could find no logical argument around it, is that,

“The story that is generated through gameplay is the player’s personal story that has been mediated by the game systems… Story is the tail of what we do as designers, where the mediated experience is the dog.”

But I was and am uncomfortable with that notion. A few of us brought up the question of how authorial voice fits in. The group concluded that games are best at promoting a different type of author. As Danc summed up in the group’s report,

“In games, the voice of the designer becomes less about having a unique narrative style than it is about using various types of game systems in a distinctive fashion.”

Well, as much as I agree with that conclusion and appreciate the masterful use of Great Game systems… I still resist the idea that games can never have their own Jesus, Gatsby, Lolita, or Tony Soprano. In fact, the Horseshoe group used Reality Television as the closest other-media analog to what it was trying to achieve. Reality TV is not without its sociological brilliance. But it is consumable — not immortal like a Great Story.

The closest example I’ve found to achieving real literary depth and cohesion in games is Javier Maldonado’s Masq. At first Masq seems like a Choose Your Own Adventure game, but slowly you realize that the choices are almost always relevant. The choices you make in the game are spot on with the choices you would actually make in life, and the outcome of your actions are not always predictable. It’s more a “Your Own Adventure Chooses You” game.

Masq is told in graphic novel style, and involves a lot of reading. But what if the same techniques could be applied more interactively and graphically — so that the player can make relevant story choices at any given juncture using more modern game mechanics?

I’m working with Javier now on a tool to help codify his method of story design and create more depth in shorter and shorter periods of time. I’ll let you know what we come up with. But I have a nagging suspicion that we as an entire industry are missing a dead-on obvious technique that will unlock Story Greatness from our midst.

What is it?