GCDC: Lionhead's Backer On Designing Drama
At this year's GCDC developer conference in Leipzig, Germany, Lionhead Studios staging designer Georg Backer built on Peter Molyneux's talk at last year's event by revisiting the theme of drama in games, adding his own concept of how to build player motivation with proper staging.
Defining drama, Backer listed several specific traits: characters, emotions, motivations, conflicts, plot, character journey, and delivery language. Rather than a stark comparison between drama and gameplay -- with the former being "non-interactive" and the latter being interactive, Backer says we've come to be able to define gameplay as "emotional, motivational, dramatic and immersive."
Backer highlighted the differences between story-experiencing and storytelling, noting that video games deliver a story experience, while movies, TV and books tell a story. "In games, the telling happens afterwards, by the user," Backer noted.
"Every quest, level, character, sound effect, asset, music, game mechanic and technology has to be designed in line with the emotional motivation that wants to be delivered," Backer said, elaborating on the concept of staging and highlighting use of existing emotion delivery languages from other medias to immerse the player. "The player needs to feel that what he does makes sense to him," Backer explained.
He also said that a story or a "motivational vision" for a game helps game development. "You know what you want; now you just have to make it happen," he added.
"Film has to have hundred years to develop its emotional language," Backer said. "We have to pick up the best language tools they have and adopt that into our games... convince the player to do something without really telling him what to do."
Backer's definition of game staging means ensuring that each individual component of a game delivers and advances the emotional motivation, and he gave a practical example of Lionhead's approach.
"When designing quests and scripts, we try to ensure that they advance emotional motivation and the story experience," he explained. "We use all the different game components and technologies to support this; we act out and stage our quests and our scripts and film [ourselves] doing so." Backer says this technique can be useful for everyone involved in development, from the writer and scripter to the level designer, artist and animator. He added that Lionhead works with people in all entertainment industries, including film and television, to work on delivering drama, characterization, motivation and emotionally evocative material.
Backer further explained a staging designer's job; one role, as he describes, is "ensuring that each individual component of a game delivers and advances the emotional motivation, ensuring that this happens in line with the vision of the game, and of course, the vision of its designers," and handling these areas, "not only during the production/implementation of a game but also during the game itself."
"We want you to feel emotions during the game. We want you to feel what to do," he said. "We want you to see and feel if you have progressed in the game. So, you as a developer have to ask yourself, 'what do you as a developer want to deliver to the player at the end?'"
Backer identified a four-phase staging process, showing footage on Fable 2's combat system to demonstrate each step: Phase one is defining goals, phase 2 is research (Backer advises repeating the second phase twice), phase 3 is prototyping, and phase 4 is implementation.
"Delivering games that immerse people are key for making video games mass market," Backer concluded. "With investment in drama, emotion and story-experiencing, we will be able to make games that are as interesting, as a choice of entertainment, to the mass market as movies, TV and books are. We are just scratching the surface."