Though filmmaker Gore Verbinski, of Pirates of the Caribbean fame, recognizes that movies are his primary area of expertise, Gamasutra was at the 2008 DICE Summit in Las Vegas to hear him address the audience about games -- and according to Verbinski, those two worlds are no longer so far apart.
"Recently it has been impossible for me to discuss film, the internet and gaming, without a serious confluence of ideas... we're engaging each other, and that's a exciting -- and a bit mad," he said.
For Verbinski, it took a seven-year gaming hiatus due to his workload to realize how far games have come. "You guys have broken through the membrane," he enthused. "You have made gaming cerebral as well as visceral."
Verbinksi believes gaming is akin to a blank canvas now, full of potential. "We are on the brink of an epiphany, a quantum leap, where new forms of narrative can be born," he said. And yet, Verbinski offered a grave warning:
"Here lie my first words of caution: Beware the path."
The Danger Of Success
Speaking from his experience in the blockbuster film industry, Verbinski knows that success can come at cost to creativity. "Success creates followers, the landscape narrows, and we began to follow along those paths at the expense of our explorer instinct," he said, urging the industry to take advantage of opportunity for innovation. "While the doors are wide open, this is the time for madness," he said.
Verbinski cautioned that a greenlight process can shift from being intuitive to "a numbers game." With time, he warned, " Now I see your path is becoming worn, the view is narrowing... it can quickly become a disappointment as stasis occurs."
He sees generic games flooding our market -- and the Pirates of the Caribbean games were a disappointment to him. "I watched as they created nothing out of value," he said. "With the Pirates of the Caribbean games, they killed something unique."
Verbinski chastised studios for "phoning it in," and for recycling the same formulas, using the FPS genre as an example. "Our audience wants us to surprise them -- they demand it of us," he said. "When they see something new, they will champion it because they discovered it... serving them leftovers will never succeed."
The Importance Of Instinct
He also recognizes that it's natural to champion innovation, but more difficult to achieve it. "The first ones out of the boat didn't have data, they had instinct," he pointed out.
And Verbinski also knows that sticking to the proven course and playing it safe is a natural tendency given the high risk inherent in creating games -- but in that environment, keeping to the familiar is actually counter-intuitive. Companies that don't innovate will suffer financially.
Said Verbinski, "Managing risk by producing something audiences have already seen always puts the studio behind the wave -- never the creator of it. n order to be fiscally responsible you must operate outside the data, you must have some madness."
In his own experience making films, Verbinski said he often hears his key creative personnel say, "They told me not to do this..." But who, Verbinski wonders, is they? "I want to make it clear there is no 'they,'" He stressed. "This is what creates a flavorless void around us, and removes the clever and awkward bits. It is time for the auteur in gaming... the creator must make the suits shit themselves."
For example, Verbinski recalled the anxiety with which studio executives initially reacted to Johnny Depp's performance in Pirates of the Caribbean, a characterization that would come to define the films. But even if it hadn't turned out to be a successful choice, Verbinski says he'd have rather taken the risk.
"I would rather see a passively flawed film time and time again," he said. "The business wants what it has seen but the audience wants what they can't imagine... we work for the audience."
The Talent Factor
The key, he stressed, lies in hiring talent. In a world where sex and violence sells, that talent will be the driver of change. "It is the casting of talent that remains the single most significant choice in the creative process," he said. "The animator is to me as important as the actor."
Verbinski said he heard it took the Guitar Hero team 9 years to convince people a plastic guitar was saleable. "But that's not what they were selling," he reminded. "They were selling the fact that we've all stood in front of a mirror with a tennis racket and rocked out. If you can find an auteur with good instinct, count the bodies when it's over."
"In my industry, instinct is nearing extinction," added Verbinski, passing the torch to the game industry. "I look to you as creators and storytellers to pick up the baton".
"This is not a debate between active and passive engagement," he added. "A novel requires active participation by imagination... a film used to do that, but now it just reminds people of that other film. Let's not do the same thing with games. You haven't even scratched the surface of what is possible."
Verbinski concluded with one more impassioned plea to the game industry to fight stagnation by refusing to play it safe. "The collision between gaming, film, internet and animation has just occurred and things are still mutating... this is the time for madness, for brilliance."