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Q&A: New AAA studio from 2K Games all about players' stories
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Q&A: New AAA studio from 2K Games all about players' stories

December 4, 2014 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

Today, 2K Games announced the formation of a new internal studio, Hangar 13, lead by Haden Blackman -- who's well known for his work at LucasArts on The Force Unleashed, for which he won a Writers' Guild of America award.

While Blackman was unable to talk specifics about the project that Hangar 13 has taken on, it's a story-driven triple-A game for next-gen consoles -- one that focuses on player stories as much or more than those created by the developers.

2K's willingness to invest in a big console game was instrumental to his joining the company, he told Gamasutra.

"The things that drew me here first and foremost were 2K's library, and that 2K makes the kind of games I want to play," he says. That pairs well, he says, with the publisher's commitment to high-quality, triple-A games: "It's always a conversation about the quality of the game here."

This brand new interview delves into how Blackman sees triple-A game narrative evolving, what he expects from games, and how he plans to steer the studio to create the sort of title that will push the boundaries of triple-A game development in its emphasis on delivering a player-driven story.

Can you tell me about the project, to frame the conversation?

Haden Blackman: Two things that kept coming up that were really important to me was, one, the fact that we could really advance and start pushing on the player-driven story. And when I say that, I don't necessarily mean the narrative, although that's one component of it.

What I mean is the story we tell each other about the game that we've played. The stories that we swap about how we've approached certain challenges in the game; how the world, or the characters, or the narrative might have evolved based on our decisions, the type of characters that we played, all those things.

"But for me, making the player a co-author in the experience is hugely important, and it's something that I wanted to explore more and more."

And there are obviously hundreds and hundreds of ways to deliver on that. But for me, making the player a co-author in the experience is hugely important, and it's something that I wanted to explore more and more, and I think we have that opportunity here.

The second thing about the studio -- in conversations with 2K that I expressed that I wanted to do and they were supportive of -- was developing proprietary tech. Throughout my career, I've worked on over 20 games. Of those, I think only one was not proprietary tech.

So that's my background, that's my experience, that's what I love -- to work on games that are built on proprietary tech, because it gives us the opportunity to build tech specifically to deliver on the game vision, and we're not spending time trying to shoehorn a design into existing tech, or a vision into existing tech, or trying to retrofit technology that already exists to fit the vision of the game that we want to create. So those are kind of the big things that we're pushing on here: the idea that every player's story is unique, and proprietary tech.

This is an extremely broad question, but they're going to be a bit broad, I think, because we can't talk about your project in a lot of specificity. What do you think of the state of storytelling in triple-A games? What do you think it's doing, or could do?

HB: I would answer this question almost the same way five years ago -- I think it's an incredibly vibrant and exciting time for storytelling in games. As long as you're looking at it not through the lens of telling a linear, cinematic narrative -- I think there's always going to be a place for that in games, and I think there will always be games that do that. But where I think things are most exciting are games that are, within a framework of a strong narrative -- that might even be linear -- creating opportunities for the player to add their own "plot points," for lack of a better term, to that.

So I look at something like [Shadow of] Mordor, right? Which I think did a great job with that -- giving you a linear narrative, for the most part, that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but there are all these opportunities within that to put your own stamp on that.

"I think it's a really exciting time, because people are taking those chances, and are taking those risks, and are trying to build more systemic storytelling into games."

And I think that the story most people will talk about is that story -- the story about the orcs that they vanquished, and who rose to power, and how they approached certain missions, and how often they branded orcs, and all that kind of stuff. From that standpoint, I think it's a really exciting time, because people are taking those chances, and are taking those risks, and are trying to build more systemic storytelling into games.

On the strictly "telling a linear narrative" side, obviously as technology advances, with better facial performances, we're better able to tell more compelling stories in some ways, and more emotional stories, which I think has been great. When I look at a game like The Last of Us, which was incredibly emotional on a lot of different levels, and I think a lot of that was based on the performance of their characters.

I don't think there's a better time to be developing games, especially if you're interested in the art of storytelling, especially because you have so much to work with. But again, the thing as a storyteller that's exciting to me, is relinquishing some of that authorship, and saying that we're going to author part of the story but the player's going to author part of it as well.

Now, that's really interesting to me, because I've seen a lot of people discuss this topic. But one thing I don't see specifically addressed is the quite different nature of an authored story versus one that comes out of player actions. I think there are probably ways to get those close -- in terms of things like how you present information to the player. I was wondering what your thoughts on that are.

"The distinction between where the developer's narrative and their authorship begins and ends blurs with the players."

HB: I honestly think that it is blurring -- in some of the games that are doing this well. The distinction between where the developer's narrative and their authorship begins and ends blurs with the players.

If you look at something like Dragon Age Inquisition -- yes, I can sit down, and any one person I talk to, we have a lot of choices that we made in common. But even within that, there's nuance. And especially if you've played the two previous Dragon Ages, and you're bringing that data over, there's going to be a lot of choices that make that experience your own. So I look at a company like BioWare that's already advancing in this direction, which is really exciting and cool.

For us, we want to do it in different ways than other companies out there, and we want to try and do it at every level. The thing we talk about a lot with the team is trying to hit it on every tier. I want people to be able to sit down and talk about a very specific piece of content in the game. Let's use, for a hypothetical, a mission, for example, or a quest -- to say, "How did you approach that mission?" and be able to swap stories and have every person that describes how they approached that mission describe it in a different way. That's the aspirational goal.

And then you go to the minute-to-minute, so if that's moment-to-moment combat, it's how I approached combat? So minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, and then over the course of the life of the game, all those things should add up to some meaningful differences in your experience -- that go beyond just branching stories, for example.

There are some obvious answers to this, but I'm curious: How is proprietary tech going to help you achieve this goal?

HB: I think it does on every level. We need to make sure that we're investing in tools that our designers can use to create and iterate on content quickly. And it's not so much the volume, it's the quality, and making sure it's the right content for what we're building.

Making sure that we have the tools to build immersive worlds. Because if you don't believe in the world, you're not going to care about your impact on it, or what happens to it, or with it, over time. There's obviously investments we can make in A.I. to make the world more believable as well.

But I think maybe the area of greatest impact is in tying in game systems with game system design. So making sure that we are building smart under-the-hood systems that are not based on heavily scripted or heavily authored content, but they're more pulling on different components, or parts. I know I'm being very vague and general. Making sure that you have a lot of different levers that the player can pull, maybe even inadvertently, to change their experience, if that makes any sense.

It does, and it leads me to a question I'm very curious about. One of the impediments to player stories in games is that, in many popular games, the only interaction the player can have with the world that is meaningful and rich is through violence of some sort. How do you see that, and what kind of expressions can a player have in a world, to help shape a story?

"I think that trying to find more and more ways to interact with the world is a noble cause."

HB: Again, I don't want to shy away from action, and I think that's always going to be a big part of gaming, and certainly for me, the games that I enjoy playing have a high degree of action in them. So that will always be part of it. I think that trying to find more and more ways to interact with the world is a noble cause, for lack of a better term, for game developers, and it's definitely something we're interested in exploring here, and we've been discussing it.

I think there are examples out there of people who are doing it. But so far, we've really kind of just scratched the surface. And there are a lot of reasons for that. One is, there's a certain gratification that comes from playing action games, and I don't want to lose that -- a certain thrill from playing games with a high degree of action, and as I said, those are games that I enjoy playing. 

And also, it's just hard. It's really difficult challenge to make somebody care for a character that they might want to romance, for example. And some teams are doing that, and doing that well.

I think there are a lot of other opportunities, too, to pull on other emotions. In the past, it's really easy to get people worked up and dislike a character in a game, or dislike an enemy. How do you get them to like a character? That's harder and people have been working on that.

I think we want to continue to explore that, and that's certainly something we're looking at here. How do you get people to feel sadness? How do you get people to feel loss, in a game? Is that something you should pursue? We're asking those questions right now, because of the nature of some of the stuff we're working on.

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