Veteran developer Ron Gilbert was the driving force behind perennial favorites Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, and other titles using the versatile SCUMM engine.
Currently shopping around a new project, Ron took some time to speak with Gamasutra on the ins and outs of storytelling, the struggle of small developers, and the state of the game industry today.
Gamasutra: so you're the driving force behind the SCUMM engine, Humongous Entertainment, Cavedog... are you rich yet?
Ron Gilbert: No, definitely not yet.
GS: Is it true that you've been working out of DoubleFine?
RG: I was working at Tim's office... I guess it was last summer, but not anymore.
GS: So you're working independently now?
RG: Yeah, I do work out my house.
GS: So, I've been talking to a lot of people about interactive storytelling lately. As a veteran of interactive storytelling, how do you feel the current industry is embracing or defying the concept of telling a story in a game?
RG: I think generally they're not doing a very good job of it. I think that story in games is really way down on the list of people's priorities. It seems like most games that claim to have story really have scenarios. It's the scenario of, you know “aliens try to take over the world and you have to shoot everybody to win.” That's not a story, that's a scenario. Most games are just scenarios. They have opening cut scenes which kind of set everything up and maybe there's some kind of intermittent cut scenes that happen in the middle, but real interactive storytelling is more about the flow. It's the flow of the game around the story or the story flowing around the game. There's such a rigid structure right now in gaming, and I don't think anybody is really exploring what that can mean. It's a little bit disappointing to me.
GS: Is there anyone in particular that you would single out as doing the right things?
RG: Honestly, I have not played anything in a long time that I thought was doing a particularly good job at telling a story.
GS: From the development side, how would you say crafting a story for a game is different than writing a traditional story? Is this disparity possibly one of the reasons why games are getting it wrong?
RG: You can go about it in a couple ways, and this leads to a lot of argument between developers. Some of them are on one side and some are on the other. I'm a very firm believer that a story is something that is told by an author and other people think that story has to be something that… these organic things that are created by the player. You know, “you can play Grand Theft Auto and you're making your own story.” And I don't necessarily agree with that. I think, you certainly can play Grand Theft Auto and come away from it with a story. But I think most of the time people play games they come away with a really bad, boring story.
You know, a good analogy is something like watching a baseball game. There are baseball games that are just amazing stories, you know, a duel between the pitcher and the batters and the way that the game ebbs and flows and you walk away from watching that baseball game, and you're going “wow, that was a great baseball game. The story worked and it had all the drama, everything was great.” But the fact is, 92% of all baseball games are pretty boring. And I think a lot of this kind of sandbox-style gameplay like Grand Theft Auto and others... I think that's what they're like, they're like baseball games. Yes, you do come away with this incredible story occasionally, but most of the time it's just boring, and I'm more of the belief that the correct way is to really sit down and tell a story.
It doesn't mean that the player can't modify the story and interact with the story or kind of push the story around, but you know, a story is a story. The reason stories are so important to us is that they are a description of the human condition, and it's important for us to have it put together by a person. When I go to a great movie, one of the reasons I'm going to pay money to see a great movie is because it has a great storyteller behind it, telling me his story. They know how to pace their story and they know all these great things about it and I'm going to have a good time.
And if I'm playing a game that is built around a story, (and it's not like games have to have story by any means,) but if I'm playing a game that is about the story, I have to know that story was crafted by somebody. I want to know that story means something. And I think one of the problems that a lot of developers get into is that… I think people don't have a really good understanding of how to pace an interactive story. So you get into these situations where you've got a series of events that make up the story, but they're not paced very well. Things don't flow correctly through them, and you see these weird kinds of jerky starts and stops in the drama. I think that's what can makes interactive storytelling really not appeal to a lot of people. If you kind of unravel it all, it's just bad storytelling.
GS: Is that something you think could be handled by developer? Or is it a trend in the gaming audience, that they're just not willing to accept this kind of game?
RG: No, I think this is definitely a developer issue. I think the developers are just not doing a good job at it. I think if they did a good job at it I think you'd find a lot more popularity in story games. But you look at story games and now they're just not very good, they're not paced very well and frankly, they're not that interesting of a story. So of course people are not interested in story games.
GS: Do you think there is validity to the statement that perhaps audiences want something that an interactive story can't deliver? Things like action, or fast-paced, frenetic gameplay?
RG: I think there are certain types of games that certain people play for certain reasons. There are definitely times when I sit down in the game and I just want to blow stuff up. I don't really care about the story. Give me a good pretext, give me a big gun and let me blow things up, that's what I'm interested in. There are other times when I'm way more interested in the story, and I think that's one of the times… I think you could do a really good story game, you know, have a really good adventure type game. I think you could appeal to a much broader audience. I think there are a lot of people out there who are just not willing to play games that involve a lot of twitching and a lot of action. But if there was more of a slower-paced game like an adventure game, or a kind of light role-playing game, I think these people would be a lot more interested and I think one of the things that would really attract these people who are not hardcore gamers are really engaging stories. I think that's what adventure games had, and I think that's what they did to attract a different audience, a different type of person, then you're getting playing games today.
GS: When you personally create a character or a storyline, what kind of elements do you take into account? What would you say is the number one thing you need to have in creating an engaging story?
RG: All stories have to have conflict. Without conflict, there's no drama. And the conflict doesn't necessarily have to be violent conflict. When you're building a really good story, I think what you're looking for is “what's the conflict here?” And hopefully you're not just dropping in some stereotype of some “evil wizard taking over the land.” But you can have the conflict be just a little more intricate or a little more sophisticated, and the question with the lead characters is “what is their role in that conflict?” The character should be different at the end of the story than they were at the beginning of the story. And that transformation should matter somehow to the conflict that's going on and so the things I think about are: “what is the conflict, who is this character and what is the transformation they're going to go through throughout the course of the story?”
GS: When you take into account the early success back in the day of adventure games, do you think that could be recaptured in today's industry? Do you feel that the industry is ready to accept an adventure game with a character-driven story if someone could produce a good one?
RG: I think it could, but, you know, it's not going to be successful on the Xbox 360. I think there could be a very good market for adventure games on the PC, or maybe handheld machines like the Nintendo DS or the PSP. Certainly on the PC. I think you've got to figure out how you're selling them to people. I don't think you can necessarily put them on the shelves at CompUSA or EB. I think there's probably a pretty good market for that stuff through online distribution. And then those are the areas where you might be able to capture an audience with a storytelling style. I think if you can build the games for a reasonable amount of money, yes, I think there's a good market there.
GS: In that vein, do you personally have any new projects you're working on? You mentioned in some other interviews that you had a new project in the works.
RG: I do have a kind of very story-heavy, story-based kind of RPG game that I'm currently designing, but I'm still looking for a publisher willing to publish it. So I continue to work on it until I find somebody, but there's a lot of what you talk about here, you know, very heavily story-based, a lot of sensibilities of adventure games mixed with some of the action fun RPG elements.
GS: What are some of the hardships you face as someone with an idea shopping around a story? The things that you imagine would be faced by independent developers or anyone who wants to get their word out.
RG: It's actually kind of frightening, you know. You sit down with a publisher and the minute you mention anything like an adventure game or something story-based or adventure-game-like in any way, the meeting's basically over. So the publishers do have a huge resistance to this. And I think a lot of it is that they cannot point to anything like this that is successful in the market today. So it's very difficult for them to put anything behind it. It's a very difficult process.
GS: So would you say it's a self-perpetuating cycle? Like at some point the adventure game died off and now, no one wants to pick it up because they can't do a comparison and say “this will sell well,” because there's nothing like on the market?
RG: They really can't. There are very few good adventure games out there. You know, though, Europe is a little different. There are actually a fair number of adventure games out in Europe that do relatively well, given that market. So I think there is still some interest in Europe with adventure games, but they're made very, very cheaply, so they don't have to sell a lot of units to break even. Publishers today, if you look at any of the mainstream publishers, they get so fixated on these very large budgets. It's kind of amazing. For instance, the budget for my game is actually quite modest compared to most, and that's actually a red flag for them. If you don't come in wanting to spend $10 or $15 million, it's like they don't take you seriously at some level, and I think that's a real problem. I think games just cost way too much money to make and I think it's really preventing a lot of experimentation from going on.
GS: I've actually spoken to other people who share a similar sentiment; that the games industry moved incredibly fast in terms of budget when compared to other industries like the motion picture industry.
RG: I think they're basically just tripping over themselves. They blew up too fast, and now they don't really know how to deal with the creative aspect of it. Look at the movie business. Sure, there are movies that cost $10, $20, maybe $30 million to make, but there are also a lot of movies that cost a million to $2 million to make. So I think what you have in the movie business is this... the movie industry has a system and a pipeline for independent film that can not cost as much money and the movie studios know how to market that stuff. The movie studios understand that they're not going to make, you know, $400 million off an independent film, but that's OK with them because they only spent $1 million to fund it and the games industry does not understand that. If you go to any of these publishers, they're like baseball players that only want to hit home runs. They're not interested in hitting singles or hitting doubles. Everything has to be a home run or they're not interested, and I think the industry is a little more sophisticated than that. If you're willing to spend a little money to make a little more money, you can do that in the movie industry and the games industry is not willing to do that. I think that's a huge detriment to the whole industry.
GS: Now, is this a trend that you see a reversing at any time? Is there anything that could be done, in your opinion?
RG: I think a couple of things could happen. If a low-cost game came out that actually did incredibly well, I think that would cause a lot of people to turn their heads. I think some kind of collapse of the whole console business would cause that to happen. You get all these next-gen consoles and games cost more and the whole industry just kind of collapses. Then I think there could be an interesting rebirth there, when people are sort of forced to do cheaper games. I don't know if that's necessarily going to happen, though.
I mean again, if you look at the movie business. There's a lot of interesting things that happened in the 1960s in terms of the independent film coming out. Movies like Easy Rider showed up that cost virtually nothing to make and just did huge, huge box office numbers that kind of got the movie industry to look at that stuff a little differently than they had before. So I think if somebody does make a small independent game that actually does really well… you know, the big publishers, they're looking to make more money. It's hard for them to look at it as an interesting art form like designers and developers do.
GS: Not asking you to toot your own horn, but do you think that could be you? Do you think what you've got cooking right now could be something that could breathe new life into the adventure game industry?
RG: Yeah, I do, it was really kind of my goal as I set out. I thought about the design and I said, “here's a game that's got an interesting art style that I can produce relatively cheaply and relatively quickly, but it's got a lot of really good elements that people like with the action stuff in a strong story.” That's really why I went out and did this whole thing. I thought “here's something that could be made relatively cheaply compared to everything else. It's not going to sell like Halo, but that doesn't matter, given how much it costs, or at least it shouldn't.”
GS: Now, with your pedigree, if you're having this much trouble picking up a publisher, do you think that could be seen as disheartening to independent game makers or people who are just entering the industry? Let's say they're saying “somebody who created these quite frankly legendary games is having trouble, how am I going to do it?” What would you say to someone like that?
RG: I don't know that that should discourage anybody. I think the advantage that I have is that I can call a publisher, and I get my phone calls returned. But that's really about the only advantage I have. Publishers are looking for these kind of big high-profile, high-budget games, and it doesn't matter who you are, if you're not bringing them one of those they're really not going to be that interested. So I think it is kind of disheartening, but I don't think people should be worried.
GS: Have you been keeping up with the recent goings-on at Humongous entertainment?
RG: No, I really don't follow what goes on with them anymore.
GS: What happened with them? Why, in short, are you working out of your house?
RG: Well, I'm working out of my house because I'm working on my own projects. While I've got this game in development, and I'm shopping it around to publishers, there is no real point in, you know, setting up an office and hiring people. I just don't think it's time for that yet.
GS: Have you been keeping up with the continued success of SCUMM in terms of the ScummVM emulator being ported to handhelds and so on? It's on the DS, it's on the PSP, people have it on their Palm pilots, and they're playing Maniac Mansion, the old Monkey Island games, whatever they can get the fit on there. Is that inspiring? Does that give you some hope for the future of adventure gaming?
RG: What it tells me is what I really believe: that there's a market out there. People continually talk about the old adventure games, not just Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion, but the Sierra stuff and all that. People write emulators. I get a lot of email from people who have played Monkey Island and they were not playing this game when it was first released. Some of them weren't even alive when the game was first released, but they find it and they play it and they really like it. And I think, to me, that says there is a market out there for this stuff. It's figuring out how to get into it, figuring out how to make it inexpensively enough. You're not going to make a successful adventure game for $10 million. But you can certainly make successful one for one or $2 million. So that's kind of trying to convince the publishers that “look, there's all these people out there who are just obsessed with this stuff, and if you can crack the image right and the scope and the pacing right, there is a good market out there for this.”
GS: I guess that's something I still don't understand about the games industry. How do you think these companies can ignore this large number of fans clamoring for something and telling them in no uncertain terms that we will buy a game if you make it in this style we love. “We will buy whatever it is because we love this kind of game” and it's still not happening?
RG: Well, if you pay too much attention to your fans it's really easy to kind of ruin your idea, but that's a little bit different than paying attention to the market and what you're talking about is really paying attention to the market. There are people out there who want to play these games, and they don't care what game it is. They just want to play the style of game and I think that's kind of paying attention to the market and understanding that there's a market out there.
GS: And publishers just aren't doing that?
RG: It's mostly publishers, yes. There's lots of developers out there who would love to be doing this kind of stuff, or more of it, if there were deals out there that would help fund it. The publishers need a multi-tiered approach to games where they have a portfolio of the big blockbusters, then the kind of medium games, and then they have a couple of smaller games. A company like Electronic Arts makes billions of dollars every year. Why can't they set aside, you know, $5 million a year to fund a couple of small projects? I don't see why they can do that. They wouldn't even be noticed. And I think if a company like EA created a little studio whose job it was to fund smaller games for alternate markets, I think they could do pretty well there and I think it would really benefit them, because it would allow them to find new developers and new talent and test it out on smaller things, which is a lot of what the movie studios do. You know, these smaller labels… like when Miramax started out, it was to fund the smaller independent films. And Miramax is owned by Disney: huge, huge company, but Miramax had their focus, which was small independent films. They were separate from the whole Disney infrastructure, and if EA just had a separate label, and they gave them 5 or $10 million a year to develop new talent in new ideas and fund this stuff, I think it could be a big win for them.
GS: How important do you think the idea of a name is to a publisher? Something like “we're EA, we don't do that kind of thing” or “we're Midway, we put out Mortal Kombat, we're not going to put out Monkey Island 6” or something like that?
RG: And that's exactly why a company like Disney created a separate studio like Miramax. They had that exact same issue for them. It was a little different because they were known for their wholesome family entertainment. So you know, they don't want to come out with Pulp Fiction under the Disney label, but Pulp Fiction under the Miramax label is just fine. That's why if I was running Electronic Arts, I would create another label that wasn't Electronic Arts, that wasn't that name. It was some other name, but it woud be funded by EA and have the same resources behind it that Electronic Arts has, the production resources and the marketing resources. But yeah, it is a different brand because people do really respond to brands. You wouldn't want to lump everything under EA.
GS: Isn't that actually what happened with Cavedog branching out from Humongous? Because you didn't want it to be “from the publisher of Pajama Sam comes Total Annihilation?”
RG: Very much so, and that's exactly why we did Cavedog. It was essentially the same group of people and we were in the same building, but it was a different brand. So we could kind of focus on a very different type of game. We weren't crossing messages and branding issues in any so that is why we did it.
GS: If a game company were to do something like that, if they were to support an independent studio or have a label for something like that, do you think you would see people from the old days from Sierra or from the old LucasArts days sort of coming out of the woodwork with ideas? Do you know that you're not alone here with having an adventure game you like to see published?
RG: Yes, possibly. I think you wouldn't do very well to come out with an adventure game that was exactly like the structure of Monkey Island. I think things have changed and they have evolved and people do have different sensibilities and things. I think as long as people are willing to evolve with the market in some sense. I think that could be an interesting resurgence of people. There certainly are some people back then who had a certain talent for a certain type of game. And you just don't see them or that type of game anymore.
GS: And what would you say the next evolution will be? Where would you take something like a Maniac Mansion or a Monkey Island in order to bring it into the mainstream, assuming all these other financial issues were in place?
RG: The thing I'm trying to do with the game right now is kind of meld it with an RPG. So what you've got is the kind of large world exploration that you have in an RPG that you don't really have with an adventure game. You've got the action, some light combat, you know, Diablo-style combat going on with it, but it is also infused with really good adventure-game-style puzzles and adventure-style sensibilities to the storytelling. So what you can do there is take those puzzles and that storytelling that really appeal to people on a certain level, but you can fuse it with the kind of action and mindless play mixed in. I think you can really broaden that audience, and really get to the people who are buying and playing games today.