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Expanding IP Through Design

A look at expanding IP into the game space.
A common theme in the design of licensed games is how to convert them directly into a gameplay experience.  This is sort of the wrong question to ask, as a direct conversion from one medium to another is, more than likely, destined for failure.  This is reflected in how these games are judged by critics and received by users.  The right way to approach conversion between mediums is to ask how you can use the strengths of video games to expand the intellectual property (IP), rather than simply to recreate it in a different form.

Games usually expand IPs that are derived from books, graphic novels (comics), and films.  The focus of this post is to understand how each of these formats convey their stories and how the strengths and weaknesses of these mediums should translate into your design.
  • Books offer a depth and control of narrative that none of the other mediums can replicate.  The author is able to control entirely what information the observer gets and the accepted longer format of the medium means that more information can be delivered.
  • Graphic novels introduce visual art into the story, but pay the price of being unable to control the narrative to the extent that a novel does.  The narrative that can be expressed in the art of a graphic novel is almost entirely subjective; the author and artist are not able to directly control what information the observer receives in the same way that a novel does.
  • Films lean even more towards the visual side of entertainment.  They gain more in accessibility because of their smaller time commitment, but also allow audio and visual techniques that are not possible in either books or comics.  The storyline in a movie is usually not able to be as deep or introspective in the same way as in comics or books because of time constraints and the same lack of control that comics have in comparison to books.
  • Games, for the most part, remove the time restriction that is applied to films, and add in the all important aspect of interactivity.  Games are unique among the other mediums because of gameplay.  They are unable to control the narrative as entirely as a novel, comic, or film, but allow the observer to have more control over how the story plays out.

The point of me going out of my way to define these forms of entertainment we all understand is to stress that these four narrative-driven entertainment mediums are starkly different in what they are able to deliver, how they are able to deliver it, and what the intention of their content is.  The result of these differences is that comparing them is largely meaningless and attempting to copy content from one medium to another is a losing proposition in terms of quality of the resulting product, unless done with the strengths of the target medium in mind.  Since interactivity is the largest departure from the norm, this is especially important when looking at game design, though it seems that often we take our cues from the film industry for this type of implementation.

When designing a game based on existing IP, there are a few important questions to be asked:
"What can the addition of gameplay bring to the equation?"  --  If you are having trouble coming up with an answer, then the IP may have to be approached from a different angle, as they did with the Watchmen game.
Watchmen is considered by many to be one of the most important works in comics.  It does things with the graphic novel medium that would be impossible anywhere else and uses the medium more effectively than most other comics that have been made.  Making a game out of the comic is something I would not even want to think about tackling; the story is too deliberately set up and paced for player interaction to add much of anything to it.  The makers of the game, rather than trying to shoehorn gameplay sections into the narrative of the Watchmen (which would have been a train wreck), chose to portray part of the story that is only alluded to in the comic and make a gaming experience out of that.  Night Owl and Rorschach spend about two frames of the comic discussing how they used to fight together against the gang problem.  The game takes this idea and turns it into a brawler starring the two characters.  Not only does this allow gameplay mechanics to fit believably into the setting of the Watchmen, but it also extends the experience by allowing us to see some of the back story only hinted at in the comic.  This is an extension of the IP, rather than a simple recreation.

"How does the game expand the narrative basis for the film/book/etc... in a meaningful way that is unique to the medium?"  --  If the answer is "it doesn't" then you are not taking full advantage of the opportunity that designing a licensed game provides.  Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is a good example of how this question is answered successfully within the design of the game.
Riddick Healing
The games based on the Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick are set in the Riddick universe and use the Riddick character, but explore alternate events, happening before either film.  
The narrative experience provided by the games (Escape from Butcher Bay specifically) is entirely different from that of the movie, putting you into Riddick's shoes, giving you his motivations, and walking you through his problem solving strategies for escaping from a maximum security prison.  A lot of additional information about the Riddick universe and Riddick himself can be gleaned from playing the game that would not be available to the user that watched only the movies.  Being stabbed with telescoping rods to heal yourself while a slightly creepy voice thanks you for your patronage certainly tells you something about the world that would not come across as well in film as it does in the game.  The Riddick universe is made richer for the existence of the games and the games themselves are not shackled by staying within the confines set out by the films.

Every entertainment medium has different strengths and weaknesses in terms of artistic expression and information delivery.  What our medium is capable of and how gameplay and interactivity can be leveraged to expand the experience of an IP is certainly something developers (and publishers) should be thinking about.  Designers have a responsibility to frame their designs based on what works in the games medium and what does not, rather than directly mimicking the source material.  Thinking of a way to add meaningful gameplay to the world you are entrusted with is the best way to make the game an experience that bolsters the greater narrative of the world, rather than detracting from it.  Obviously this works better for stories with rich universes to draw from, but regardless, jamming gameplay into an adaptation with little thought to how it benefits the presentation of the IP will result in a lesser version in a different medium, rather than something that expands the user experience in a meaningful way.  

This expansion is a great opportunity that should exploited, rather than ignored, as is often the case.

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