i stole a few hours this afternoon to attend a panel at TIFF (the Toronto International Festival that has Films in it) on the convergence of film and video games. It was somewhat of a clash of the titans (except that it drew an audience, unlike Clash of the Titans).
Uh, yeah – the name’s Phil. Phil McKraken.
The panel, moderated by former IGDA big cheese Jason Della-Rocca, was a two-parter. The first-half lineup included:
- Ian Kelso, head of industry association interactiveontario, who snuck away from io’s IN10 convergence conference which was presently taking place uptown at the Carlu
- Mare Sheppard from Metanet, co-creator of N+ on XBLA
- Alexandre Parizeau, a senior producer at Ubi Soft
- Trevor Fencott, CEO of Bedlam Games
This first group was reasonably well-balanced. i was very thankful to see Mare on the panel representing indies, and Trevor, representing bigger-budget console game development. (i won’t say “triple-A”, because i worry the term is rather liberally applied in many circumstances). In one interesting exchange, Trevor drew a comparison between Bedlam and Metanet, calling both companies “indie”. i think Mare may have swallowed her gum at that point. Jason jumped in quickly to clarify that the “independent” label did indeed apply to companies like Metanet, Bedlam and the 400-employee strong A2M (Ass to Mouth) in Quebec, because regardless of size, none of these companies are owned and operated by a publisher. Contrastingly “indie” (and with that, Jason made air quotes) refers to an aesthetic or a cool, chic independent and off-the-grid philosophy of game-making.
The panelists sometimes struggled, but sometimes succeeded in defining the differences and similarities between films and games. One audience member asked whether games needed actors and script writers and production designers just like films did, and the unanimous answer was “yes”. i would have liked to have heard a more accurate “it depends” – it really depends on a game’s genre and its particular needs. Many Facebook games like Farmville involve writing, but no voice acting, and the discipline of writing game prompts is quite different from writing linear screenplay-style dialogues. A game like Bejeweled really has no writing to speak of, save for button labels and an instructions screen.
Our story begins in fairest Gemtopia …
I Was Asked to Be Nice, But …
Ian revealed his true stripes as more of a film guy than a game guy, which may be at the root of my growing dissatisfaction with interactiveontario’s offerings. i’m concerned that their conference content appeals almost exclusively to the convergence teevee crowd (a teevee company delivered the keynote at their recent kids’ interactive conference INPlay); video games and dyed-in-the-wool interactive shops are dramatically under-represented. As long as we’re throwing around air quotes, i’m wondering if i should start calling the association “interactive” ontario?
SORRY, FRIENDS … IF IT’S GOTTA BE SAID, THEN I GOTTA SAY IT.
One important game-vs-film distinction that Trevor brought up was that while films are about stories, games are about worlds. He used the examples of Knights of the Old Republic, which takes place in the Star Wars universe, and World of Warcraft, which is light on story but heavy on interaction with other players. i thought his point was very well-made, but it was immediately one particular panelist in the second shift:
- Jade Raymond, Managing Director of Ubi Soft Toronto
- Jon Landau, Producer of Titanic (the one with the boat) and Avatar (the one with the preaching)
- Jordan Mechner – Author, screenwriter and video game creator behind the Prince of Persia Franchise
Jon immediately jumped in to refute Trevor’s claim that games are all about worlds. He contended that games were rather all about stories. (Once more, i think the more honest reasoning is that different types of games rely on different degrees of storytelling – from lots, all the way down to none.) Jason delicately asked Jon whether or not he recognized that Avatar was also very reliant on its fictional world. Jon huffed “People didn’t go see Avatar fourteen times because of its world – they did so because of its story.” It’s at precisely that point that i think i swallowed Mare’s gum.
i asked the panel why they though that most movie-to-game adaptations stunk, and why most game-to-movie conversions were similarly horrible, invoking but not daring to name Uwe Boll in case he was in the audience and came over to punch the ever-loving shit out my my beautiful face. Jon nailed it here – it’s all about the time-to-market, and getting your game in development early enough. You can’t treat game development as solely another marketing/merchandising opportunity, like a T-shirt. He described how his production company and Ubi Soft were in lock-step development on the Avatar game, sharing set assets (which you’ll recall were mostly 3D models), and even going the opposite direction; the art team designed a vehicle that Ubi needed for the game, and Ubi’s resulting model made it into the movie. That’s obviously some great synergy, but i hope it’s obvious that it can’t happen with every movie.
Jon obviously subscribes to the George Lucas vision of future filmmaking, where actors roam around vast green screen sound stages wearing ping pong ball unitards and reacting to crudely-crafted Muppet heads on sticks where digital characters will eventually materialize. i doubt we’ll reach a point where most movies are made that way, which i thought was the biggest disservice the panel did to the discussion. Avatar is an extraordinary film, Ubi Soft is an extraordinary company, and their partnership is far outside the norm of over 99% of bread-and-butter film-to-game licensing deals. It might have been more beneficial to the audience to hear about more commonplace arrangements, but of course, commonplace doesn’t put bums in seats when it comes to festival content.
Shoot My Dinner with Andre on a sound stage? Inconthievable!
Through a Lens Darkly
On the subject of 3D (the 1960’s drive-in gimmick, not the computer-generated imagery), Jon foresaw a future where every home had a 3D teevee. He called Microsoft Windows a poor man’s 3D experience, due to all the flat layering of windows and icons. That was an interesting take, i thought. He said that Joe Average consumer usually can’t tell the difference between HD and SD – if he has a giant teevee, he automatically assumes it’s HD. Jon said that glasses were the biggest barrier to 3D gaining consumer acceptance, and wants to see the tech integrated into standard prescription glasses and sunglasses. People wear glasses to the beach, he said, and that’s not a barrier to them visiting. Jon expects the technology to make strides in one-man “personal” 3D (a la the upcoming Nintendo 3DS handheld) until they can sort out the glasses issue.
i thought to myself that the difference between the beach and 3D teevee is that glasses aren’t required for a visit to the beach. If i don’t wear my sunglasses, i don’t end up getting a headache and barfing all over my sand castle.
Wow! Those beach features just … POP right out at you, don’t they Bruno? (with deference to Dr. Tongue)
Jade affirmed that Ubi is very much a supporter of 3D tech. She spared the audience the technical discussion of the problems of developing 3D games (apparently, you forfeit half of your processing power because you’re rendering two separate images at once), and instead made the more pop-cultural comment that she hopes this technology leads to the development of the Star Trek holodeck – controller-free and totally immersive.
Tears for Fears
When the panelists began talking about emotional engagement in games, Jon rather audaciously wondered whether we could make a game that could make players cry. Jason swooped in diplomatically (but defensively) and offered up a number of examples of games that already had made people cry. His examples were Ico and certain Final Fantasy games. i reject the inference that tears are the truest indicator of emotional engagement. Why don’t laughter, fear, exhilaration, excitement, hatred and envy also rank? Games have successfully invoked all of those emotions and then some.
Superman 64 made many gamers cry. Does that count?
Jordan gets my award for Smartest Guy in the Room. He clearly understands games, and has undoubtedly had more experience in film than most of his video game colleagues. He said that there was a distinctive (but hard to articulate) difference between crying while watching a movie, and crying while playing a game. There’s a peculiar pleasure in crying during a movie. You’re crying because of the events unfolding on the screen, and you’re powerless to change those events. Those things are happening to other people, and you have no control. In a game that makes you cry, you do have control. It’s a distinctly different peculiar pleasure. Jordan couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but it’s an interesting point he was trying to make.
Let’s Get Ready to Humble
The crowd was comprised of mostly film people. i noticed a difference in these folks, for whom this was perhaps their first window into the two similar-but-different worlds of film and games, which set them apart from the convergence teevee crowd that i fall in with at many local conferences and events. The difference (dare i say it? Oh yes, i dare) was humility. The people asking questions were freely and graciously admitting that they did not know very much about games, and seemed to be genuinely interested in learning more. Convergence teevee people tend to project a more haughty, we-know-what’s-best-for-our-industry attitude, which i worry is preventing a lot of great and innovative ideas from seeing the light of day. Teevee people would do well to acknowledge and to lean more heavily on the expertise of interactive studios. The projects during which i’ve enjoyed the most creative freedom have had noticeably better results.
There exists a cultural barrier between teevee and interactive, at least in Toronto, that i desperately hope does not develop between film and interactive. i see events like today’s panel as a refreshing, mutually-beneficial approach to respectfully pairing these two similar-but-different industries.