Last week, Paradox-owned White Wolf announced a partnership with interactive audio drama producer Earplay to produce an "interactive audio experience" set in White Wolf's World of Darkness universe.
Earplay's work is intriguing because the company has basically set itself up as a purveyor of playable audio drama, and this project is especially notable for game devs because it's being created by veteran game makers Dave Grossman (The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle) and Richard Dansky (The Division, Trials of the Blood Dragon.)
Both of them have stretched beyond game development to become published authors; now they seem to be charting relatively unexplored territory by trying to adapt the format of classic choose-your-own-adventure game books to work with modern voice-recognition technology via Amazon's Alexa service and Earplay's own mobile app.
This is the sort of work Grossman said he wanted to explore when he joined Earplay back in 2014, when it was coming off a Kickstarter for its interactive audio drama Codename Cygnus and still known as Reactive Studios. In a brief email exchange with Gamasutra, Earplay chief Jon Myers explained that the name change was part of an effort to clarify the company's mission: to create interactive stories you play with your voice.
"As Dave joined we were working on technology so we could release a library of interactive audio stories and collaborate with many others on many titles. We were referring internally to the app, the tech, our stories, and even our new storytelling medium as Earplay," wrote Myers. 'It was really confusing to explain ourselves to others. “This is the company Reactive and that’s Earplay.' While in the MassChallenge accelerator program it became clear it was all just one thing."
Later in the same exchange Myers, Dansky and Grossman opened up a bit about Earplay's work in audio game design. It's intriguing stuff if you're at all interested in the challenges of writing interactive experiences, so we've gone ahead and republished excerpts of that exchange below.
So how did you wind up partnering with Paradox/White Wolf?
Myers: We’ve been working on several partnerships for quite some time, but this is the first we’re announcing like this because it will be the first project we release. Our partnership with Onyx Path is also public, because Earplay titles were stretch goals in the Scion 2nd edition and Pugmire Kickstarters. We hope to release Pugmire early in the new year.
Our Executive Producer Eddy Webb is the glue behind these initial connections. He, Richard Thomas, and Martin Ericsson were at White Wolf/CCP. Richard, the White Wolf Creative Director, formed Onyx Path, Martin became Lead Storyteller of White Wolf under Paradox, and Eddy joined us while developing Pugmire. Incidentally, he was a backer of Codename Cygnus, which is how we met.
Eddy made introductions and as we discussed our plans the mutual ambitions aligned. We all sensed there was a huge connection between digital stories you play with your voice and fans who have been playing roles and speaking their way through gameplay for decades. This was finalized, and our intuition was proven right, when we took our teaser experience (The Orpheus Device) to Grand Masquerade in New Orleans at the beginning of September.
Also, the Bourbon Milk Punch at the Astor Crowne Plaza in NOLA is a hell of a drink. It may share some of the blame.
What is it about interactive audio dramas that you find exciting, or intriguing to work on? Is this an area you think other game devs should be exploring?
Dave Grossman: I’ve always found interactive entertainment, be it games or experimental theater or improv or what have you, fascinating. Treating the audience as participants rather than passive observers has all sorts of implications. Assumptions you have to drop about timing, or the sequence of events, basic tools that authors in traditional media rely on. Accompanied by wild opportunities for audience investment that you don’t have in more passive media.
But that’s all stuff I’ve been involved with for a long time, and probably most of the readers of Gamasutra have, too. What’s new for me with Earplay is the audio medium, and this I like for its essentially unfettered potential to portray things. When you’re not bound by the necessity of having to figure out how to show something visually, paradoxically you can go farther afield, to exotic worlds, or into a character’s inner monologue, the world of ideas, anything you can talk about is accessible.
The imagination of the audience becomes a powerful ally, and you can do an amazing amount of stuff with words, music, sound effects, and simple tone of voice. And yes, I think it’s not well-trodden territory, and other devs should come and explore it with us.
Richard Dansky: It’s a really interesting challenge in terms of creating the player experience through the narrative structure. Getting to stretch new and different creative muscles is something I’m always looking to do, and this project certainly affords that opportunity. Plus, I get the chance to fanboy all over Dave at regular intervals, which is fun.
Myers: We’re working with other game devs already, and I look forward to announcing those and many more in the future.
What are the hardest aspects of designing/producing something like this, and what lessons have you learned about overcoming them?
Grossman: A surprisingly tricky thing is to create an audio user interface which has to share space with all of your other audio, feel distinct enough that the audience isn’t confused about when and how they interact with the piece, but also blend in well enough not to jar them out of the experience.
We’ve done a fair amount of thinking and noodling around with different narrative perspectives, audio processing, and even accented speech to get it to work smoothly. Also, voice recognition is more of a voodoo kind of thing than an exact science. It requires that certain sacrifices be made in its name.
I feel like White Wolf's World of Darkness is a bit less prominent in the game industry nowadays, since the last video game (Bloodlines) was a fair bit ago and the tabletop games have never quite had the widespread name recognition of something like D&D. What challenges do you anticipate in aiming to release a seemingly niche experience (interactive audio drama) tied to a relatively niche game universe?
Myers: Our mission is to nurture the Earplay medium of interactive audio stories you play with your voice. It’s who we are, and we are niche because we’re early. To grow, I want to serve fans who are tightly connected and who most appreciate what we’re doing and that’s the World of Darkness live action role players.
We want to connect to them directly and bring them along on our journey because this isn’t a single project for us in which we’re licensing a property for a mobile, social, or console game to lower our marketing or cost per install. It’s the beginning of a huge change for interactive stories that begins with the introduction of the voice as the primary human-computer input.
Whether or not we’re too early is another question, but I think it’s pretty telling that as of a few months ago Amazon had Echo devices in 3 million homes, and that Google spent more time during its October 4th presentation on its assistant and Google Home than on Daydream. The Amazon Dot just began shipping for only $50, so it’s not a stretch to estimate that by 2017 there will be many, many more interactive audio devices in homes than VR headsets.
Regarding Dungeons and Dragons, I think those fans will want to play stories with their voice just as much as any tabletop or live action role playing property fan would. Maybe we’ll convert the D&D fanbase into World of Darkness fans. That sounds like a good challenge.
Grossman: I would be hard pressed to describe the World of Darkness as “niche” compared to some of the IP I’ve worked with. The size, tenacity, and addressability of its fan base are a few of the things that made us want to work with White Wolf in the first place. Also, it’s a fantastic stage designed for the telling of rich stories about human beings, which is exactly what we aim to do. And these stories will be for everyone - no WoD experience required. Who doesn’t like a good ghost story?
As for us, I suppose an earplay is a niche thing - so far. But only because it’s new. Once upon a time an audiobook was a weird idea.
Dansky: I left White Wolf almost two decades ago and I still get emails and PMs every week from fans of the World of Darkness. It clearly struck a chord with a lot of people, and it continues to do so to this day. And I’m happy to get another chance to create something for those fans.
Fair enough! If you had to give fellow game devs a single piece of writing advice, what would it be? Why?
Grossman: Don’t forget you’re in the entertainment business. And consider hiring a pro just like you would for programming or art. Whoops, that’s two, isn’t it? Nuts. I used to be good at math.
Dansky: Remember that it’s not your story you’re creating, it’s the player’s. Everything we do is to help create their experience, which means getting out of the center of the narrative and leaving the player-shaped hole there instead.