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Reflections on Junction Point's original mission. First, episodics. Second, collaboration with Hollywood. And some thoughts about one way (among many) games and movies differ.

Warren Spector, Blogger

August 24, 2015

11 Min Read

Back before my last studio, Junction Point, was acquired by Disney, I had a grand plan – a mission, really, that I wanted to explore. (I’m going to talk more about mission in a future blog post, but just go with me here.) My mission had two parts:

First, I wanted to take inspiration from television, rather than movies. That meant, episodic content, digitally delivered, with each episode standing alone but also being part of a larger, overarching “season” narrative. You know what I mean – think about pretty much any police procedural you’ve ever seen on television. A crime gets solved in each episode, but the relationships among the recurring characters carry over from episode to episode until by the end of the season, those character relationships have changed in ways that keep us watching season after season. In other words, there’s both completion and open-endedness built into each episode. (I call that approach “limited serial narrative” but that’s so grad school I’ll just leave it at that.)

This approach seemed – and still seems – like a great model for games. Frankly, I don’t understand why games haven’t adopted it. And I’m pretty sure I’m going to give it a shot some day and see how it works “in the wild” rather than just in my head.

But limited serial narrative isn’t what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the second part of the original Junction Point mission.

That second part was all about partnering with folks in Hollywood – film-makers and television producers – to create what I guess you’d have to call transmedia productions. (Man, do I hate that term, but I can’t think of one that applies better here, sadly.)

The relationship between Hollywood types and game developers is typically one where the Hollywood folks are in control. The game types are reduced to being an “employee of game company #27 making a game based on someone’s last flick.” I had very little interest in a licensor/licensee relationship. (Though there was one IP I would have loved to work with. And, no, I can’t say what that was.)

Bottom line: I wanted to collaborate with folks in LA to create new IP that were designed from the start to work in a variety of media. They’d make the movies and TV shows, my studio would make the games and the property would be co-owned by them and by Junction Point, sharing in the profits both ways.

In working to make that happen, my agents at the time, Seamus Blackley and Ophir Lupu (among others) hooked me up with some Really Big Name guys. Pretty cool, I must say. I had the privilege of meeting and working with them, not in a subservient role, but as a peer and  collaborator. I wish I could talk about this in more detail but the only announced project was a collaboration with John Woo on an IP called “Ninja Gold.” (On that one, we actually had game deals and movie deals, and we built a bunch of prototypes, but In That Way, deals have a tendency to fall apart and so did that project.)

Anyway, what I discovered working with movie/TV creators was that, by and large, they’re Just Like Us — smart, creative, out of do great stuff — and they’re held back by a lot of the same forces that affect many mainstream game developers — rising budgets, shrinking audiences, execs who don’t get it, etc.

I also discovered that some of them totally got that movies and games are different, some didn’t. Some were seduced by the superficial similarities — pictures on a screen, sound, camera, lighting, dialogue, etc. — and thought they “got it,” while some were intrigued by the differences and what they didn’t understand about our medium. (The latter were a lot more fun to work with, needless to say.)

In talking to these people, I discovered something interesting, myself, something I hadn’t thought about before, something that really brought home for me at least one of many important differences between movies/TV and games. (Many of those differences are obvious enough that I don’t need to go into them here, I hope. If I do, let me know and I’ll come back to this in a comment or future blog post.)

Almost ALL movie/TV makers, in my experience, thought in terms of moments. Cool, specific, unique moments. (And they were really, really good at coming up with those moments, let me tell you, even acting them out to show what they meant.)

But what do I mean by “moments”?

Movie guys have to fill just a couple of hours of screen time. We have to fill a lot more, even in a short game. And at least in part, because of that, we have to be about the repeated action, not necessarily, the uniquely memorable one. In a movie, if your hero does the same thing — even twice — you’re probably in territory where the audience is thinking about what a bad movie they’re watching, not about how cool the hero is.

In games, we have a completely different set of constraints. Designers talk about the “core loop” – the sequence of base level actions players repeat over and over during a game, with variations to keep things interesting as the game goes on. But all we do – all we do – is offer variations on the core, not radical changes. I mean, there’s a reason why it’s called a “loop,” right? Players run through the steps, then go back to the beginning over and over again.

Even the most astute Hollywood folks tend not to get this.

I remember sitting in a room, listening to one director say, “the hero should leap off a building, glide down using his coat as a glider thing, land in a superhero pose and in one smooth motion, come up flinging knives.” And, yes, he acted it out.

Sadly, though many games actually do take moments like that and repeat them ad infinitum, I had to tell this guy I didn’t think that was a great game idea. “Yeah, that’d be cool the first time the player does it,” I said. “But by the hundredth time, it’ll be boring, at best, and probably actively annoying.”

Or, to use a John Woo example (not one he and I talked about, to be clear!), in a movie, it’s great to see Chow Yun-Fat, two guns blazing, leap onto a restaurant cart and barrel across a room taking out bad guys… It’s great when guns go off and doves fly… In a movie. In a game, those things would get old, and a little silly, after the tenth iteration.

John Woo’s a genius, and never even hinted that we should borrow those signature moments. I think he realized that such moments just don’t work in games (or, at least, I don’t think they work). Games are about finding sequences of actions that are as fun and exciting for players the hundredth, even thousandth, time they do something. The variety comes from changing circumstances, not a cascade of unique moments.

That’s our magic and our art. The ability to create compelling loops and changing circumstances that keep those loops fresh and interesting for 20 hours is what separates the great designers from the rest of us mere mortals. Recognize and act on this (and have a massive marketing budget) and you can rule the game world.

I’ll leave it at that, but I’d love to hear from you about examples of unique moments that did work when repeated over and over again. In other words, prove me wrong. (No cutscene moments, please.) And even more interesting to me, I’d love to hear about repeated actions that maintain players’ interest despite the repetition, and why they work. In other words, prove me right. Comment away.

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