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Earlier this month at Austin GDC, Denis Dyack took a short break from breakneck development on Silicon Knights' latest epic Too Human to deliver a presentation in the writing track on 'Engagement Theory'. Defined by Dyack as "engagement is greater than, or equal to, story plus art, plus gameplay, plus technology, plus audio," the theory is a way at looking at game development in a "big picture" sense.
Shortly after the speech, Gamasutra and Game Developer's Brandon Sheffield was able to corner Dyack and talk, in an extremely wide-ranging conversation, about the big themes kicking around the conference floor -- and his unique perspectives on game development, story, and what our industry should and shouldn't be taking from Hollywood.
You were saying that there was no formula for making games, which is certainly true, but among others, Raph Koster has been breaking down grammar of games. It's kind of like structuralists and post-structuralists did with movies -- just breaking it down into base elements and segments of what games are. So, doing that, and then figuring out why things like MySpace and Club Penguin are kicking games' ass in terms of revenue and stuff...
It was really kind of an interesting thing, because the way he was talking about it, he's at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, where you give users this ability to create things, and you give them the ability to put themselves in. Not like in a virtual world, but they have a profile, and people know who they are, and that sort of thing. It's like anti-story, in a way. He freely admits that the stuff that's most viewed on those kind of websites is almost invariably the crappiest. The worst stuff is the most exciting to a lot of people.
Denis Dyack: I think breaking that stuff down definitely has its value, and in some ways -- the engagement theory that I talked about -- I tried to come up with a universal system where we can categorize some metrics and at least say, "Here's a direction to go in," but at the same time there's a school of thought in psychology that everything is story, and there's story in everything in our lives.
My identity is my story, and me telling you my story and how I feel. Your story in RTSes is real-time, and the story there is when you beat your friend and took over his base, or how you beat him in two minutes. I think with these kinds of creations, if you give people the tools, the stories are there. They're just being told in different ways.
Right. They're being told by the user, rather than by the game designer, director, or storywriter, which is very different. It doesn't allow the creators of the game to be the auteurs.
DD: That's a real interesting setup. I don't know if that's a bad idea or not. If you look at Norse mythology, as an example of a story, I would imagine that there was no singular author. In a sense, if the Norse mythologies were the religion of the time to justify living conditions and why people died and how society should be run, maybe these stories were generated the same way that this is. Maybe this is just as fine. I think it certainly has potential value.
It could be actually creating a new mythology.
DD: Maybe that's what it is. Maybe that's how the mythologies were born.
It's entirely possible.
DD: It's an interesting thing, and I think it certainly has a lot of potential. I understand technology pretty intimately -- at least I think I do -- and a lot of fear of technology and what we're doing with it people feel that they're -- and you can be -- devalued. You've got to watch out for commodification, and make sure that humans aren't commoditized. But at the same time, if you understand the technology and understand how you can contribute to that and you can do it in a positive way, you shouldn't worry about whether there's a director or not or whether we have to tell the stories.
I don't know if that's necessary. I think that's why I do, and I enjoy doing it. I know that that's never probably going to replace the Silicon Knights games, so I'm okay with it. I think it might be really cool. I haven't tried it. I want to try it now. Now you've got me interested in it.
The way he was talking -- and he's very right about this -- was that games are always going to be a niche. Games, as we create them now, are not going to be as mass-market as something like YouTube can meet.
DD: I don't know about that.
As we're creating them right now.
DD: Oh, okay. Sure, sure.
He's saying that games can expand, and that's what he's trying to do, certainly. But the way we're creating games right now where it's a singular experience in some ways, even in like World of Warcraft. He showed a screenshot of it, with all the boxes and stats and things, and I look at that, and I've never played World of Warcraft, and I have no idea what could possibly be going on or what you can even do. It's interesting in a way, because you want to be able to create something that is of traditional value, in the manner of Lord of the Rings, as something that will live on in peoples' memories as this amazing, singular experience that a whole bunch of people have a similar feeling about this one experience. But all this other stuff is going in that other direction.
DD: I think it is, and I think there's room for it. I think it's great.
My big worry is that if that sort of thing takes off, the niche games such as they are -- which I enjoy -- would be of less value to society at large. But in some ways they would probably wind up being of greater value, because the focus would not be on them as a vehicle to advance the world.
DD: One of the things you keep in mind about technology is that it's accelerating, but so is our ability to learn the technology. There's some stuff on id.com that I referenced in my last time, but there's studies and research that shows that people are catching on faster -- logarithmically, as well. The time it took for people to understand the Internet was ten times faster than it took them to understand typewriters. We're catching on too, so that when he says that he looks at World of Warcraft and this particular speaker says he doesn't understand the stats...
It's me who doesn't understand the stats.
DD: Oh, okay, I'm sorry. That shouldn't be intimidating, because once you play, you'll get it. Our children beyond this will learn that ten times faster, and who knows how it's going to go. From that perspective, I don't think that's a worry. Complexity itself is really going to find the medium where we can adapt and utilize it.
Right. Certainly it's something that people can adapt to, but the fact that it's a barrier toward wanting to... because you look at this thing, and it's like a wall. Everybody's been saying, "How do you get moms to play games when they can't figure out what any of the buttons do?" They just don't know, because they've never done it before. It seems to them like something that's completely beyond them and is going to stay that way.
DD: This really plays into my thoughts on Wii in many ways. If you look at the Wii -- which is really doing super well, and people are picking it up -- the question is not the adaptability of people moving towards that. It's not in question. It's very popular. It's very cool, and very hip. The real question is, "What's going to happen after two to three years from now?" when people look at the technology. People do learn.
They're going to adapt, and they're going to want something beyond Wii Sports. There's going to be some party games, but after awhile, as their sophistication grows, the real question with the Wii is, "Will that platform be able to compete against the more sophisticated technologies, like the PS3 and the 360?" Out of the gate, I think the Wii is doing a great job of introducing people. The real question with the Wii is whether it will hold on to those people until the end of the generation.
My guess for that was that the Wii would continue as it is, but Nintendo would see to it themselves to release the next level of console to those people, so that people who are like, "Well Xbox and Sony are still these weird things that I can't deal with... I remember that I like that Nintendo Wii!" That's my guess.
DD: You think so?
That's my guess. With the Wii, they're selling it at a profit out the gate. They don't need to have a five-year console cycle. They can release another console soon, and it's not the exact same thing, because as long as they could support two...
DD: Yeah, there's no question of being successful. The tricky thing about technology is that it's so unknown. Trying to predict who is going to win the console war right now is probably the hardest thing ever. If you go talk to a publisher about what horses they're backing, you'll maybe get a different answer every hour from the same publisher because things change so rapidly. It's really hard to call right now.
People are definitely hedging their bets.