Engaging Audiences: Denis Dyack Deconstructs The Industry

In an extremely wide-ranging interview on the state of the art, Gamasutra steps back and chats to Silicon Knights' Denis Dyack (Eternal Darkness, Too Human) about the big themes of game development, interactive story, and exactly what our industry should and shouldn't be taking from Hollywood

Earlier this month at Austin GDC, Denis Dyack took a short break from breakneck development on Silicon Knights' latest epic Too Human to deliver a presentation in the writing track on 'Engagement Theory'. Defined by Dyack as "engagement is greater than, or equal to, story plus art, plus gameplay, plus technology, plus audio," the theory is a way at looking at game development in a "big picture" sense.

Shortly after the speech, Gamasutra and Game Developer's Brandon Sheffield was able to corner Dyack and talk, in an extremely wide-ranging conversation, about the big themes kicking around the conference floor -- and his unique perspectives on game development, story, and what our industry should and shouldn't be taking from Hollywood.

You were saying that there was no formula for making games, which is certainly true, but among others, Raph Koster has been breaking down grammar of games. It's kind of like structuralists and post-structuralists did with movies -- just breaking it down into base elements and segments of what games are. So, doing that, and then figuring out why things like MySpace and Club Penguin are kicking games' ass in terms of revenue and stuff...

It was really kind of an interesting thing, because the way he was talking about it, he's at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, where you give users this ability to create things, and you give them the ability to put themselves in. Not like in a virtual world, but they have a profile, and people know who they are, and that sort of thing. It's like anti-story, in a way. He freely admits that the stuff that's most viewed on those kind of websites is almost invariably the crappiest. The worst stuff is the most exciting to a lot of people.

Denis Dyack: I think breaking that stuff down definitely has its value, and in some ways -- the engagement theory that I talked about -- I tried to come up with a universal system where we can categorize some metrics and at least say, "Here's a direction to go in," but at the same time there's a school of thought in psychology that everything is story, and there's story in everything in our lives.

My identity is my story, and me telling you my story and how I feel. Your story in RTSes is real-time, and the story there is when you beat your friend and took over his base, or how you beat him in two minutes. I think with these kinds of creations, if you give people the tools, the stories are there. They're just being told in different ways.

Right. They're being told by the user, rather than by the game designer, director, or storywriter, which is very different. It doesn't allow the creators of the game to be the auteurs.

DD: That's a real interesting setup. I don't know if that's a bad idea or not. If you look at Norse mythology, as an example of a story, I would imagine that there was no singular author. In a sense, if the Norse mythologies were the religion of the time to justify living conditions and why people died and how society should be run, maybe these stories were generated the same way that this is. Maybe this is just as fine. I think it certainly has potential value.

It could be actually creating a new mythology.

DD: Maybe that's what it is. Maybe that's how the mythologies were born.

Technology mythology.

DD: Yeah.

It's entirely possible.

DD: It's an interesting thing, and I think it certainly has a lot of potential. I understand technology pretty intimately -- at least I think I do -- and a lot of fear of technology and what we're doing with it people feel that they're -- and you can be -- devalued. You've got to watch out for commodification, and make sure that humans aren't commoditized. But at the same time, if you understand the technology and understand how you can contribute to that and you can do it in a positive way, you shouldn't worry about whether there's a director or not or whether we have to tell the stories.

I don't know if that's necessary. I think that's why I do, and I enjoy doing it. I know that that's never probably going to replace the Silicon Knights games, so I'm okay with it. I think it might be really cool. I haven't tried it. I want to try it now. Now you've got me interested in it.

The way he was talking -- and he's very right about this -- was that games are always going to be a niche. Games, as we create them now, are not going to be as mass-market as something like YouTube can meet.

DD: I don't know about that.

As we're creating them right now.

DD: Oh, okay. Sure, sure.

He's saying that games can expand, and that's what he's trying to do, certainly. But the way we're creating games right now where it's a singular experience in some ways, even in like World of Warcraft. He showed a screenshot of it, with all the boxes and stats and things, and I look at that, and I've never played World of Warcraft, and I have no idea what could possibly be going on or what you can even do. It's interesting in a way, because you want to be able to create something that is of traditional value, in the manner of Lord of the Rings, as something that will live on in peoples' memories as this amazing, singular experience that a whole bunch of people have a similar feeling about this one experience. But all this other stuff is going in that other direction.

DD: I think it is, and I think there's room for it. I think it's great.

My big worry is that if that sort of thing takes off, the niche games such as they are -- which I enjoy -- would be of less value to society at large. But in some ways they would probably wind up being of greater value, because the focus would not be on them as a vehicle to advance the world.

DD: One of the things you keep in mind about technology is that it's accelerating, but so is our ability to learn the technology. There's some stuff on that I referenced in my last time, but there's studies and research that shows that people are catching on faster -- logarithmically, as well. The time it took for people to understand the Internet was ten times faster than it took them to understand typewriters. We're catching on too, so that when he says that he looks at World of Warcraft and this particular speaker says he doesn't understand the stats...

It's me who doesn't understand the stats.

DD: Oh, okay, I'm sorry. That shouldn't be intimidating, because once you play, you'll get it. Our children beyond this will learn that ten times faster, and who knows how it's going to go. From that perspective, I don't think that's a worry. Complexity itself is really going to find the medium where we can adapt and utilize it.

Right. Certainly it's something that people can adapt to, but the fact that it's a barrier toward wanting to... because you look at this thing, and it's like a wall. Everybody's been saying, "How do you get moms to play games when they can't figure out what any of the buttons do?" They just don't know, because they've never done it before. It seems to them like something that's completely beyond them and is going to stay that way.

DD: This really plays into my thoughts on Wii in many ways. If you look at the Wii -- which is really doing super well, and people are picking it up -- the question is not the adaptability of people moving towards that. It's not in question. It's very popular. It's very cool, and very hip. The real question is, "What's going to happen after two to three years from now?" when people look at the technology. People do learn.

They're going to adapt, and they're going to want something beyond Wii Sports. There's going to be some party games, but after awhile, as their sophistication grows, the real question with the Wii is, "Will that platform be able to compete against the more sophisticated technologies, like the PS3 and the 360?" Out of the gate, I think the Wii is doing a great job of introducing people. The real question with the Wii is whether it will hold on to those people until the end of the generation.

Is the Wii's popularity sustainable?

My guess for that was that the Wii would continue as it is, but Nintendo would see to it themselves to release the next level of console to those people, so that people who are like, "Well Xbox and Sony are still these weird things that I can't deal with... I remember that I like that Nintendo Wii!" That's my guess.

DD: You think so?

That's my guess. With the Wii, they're selling it at a profit out the gate. They don't need to have a five-year console cycle. They can release another console soon, and it's not the exact same thing, because as long as they could support two...

DD: Yeah, there's no question of being successful. The tricky thing about technology is that it's so unknown. Trying to predict who is going to win the console war right now is probably the hardest thing ever. If you go talk to a publisher about what horses they're backing, you'll maybe get a different answer every hour from the same publisher because things change so rapidly. It's really hard to call right now.

People are definitely hedging their bets.

One thing that you mentioned earlier was about scriptwriters and the human element of film creation that can be commoditized. I have a slight problem believing that's true, because while there is certainly people that you seek out and try to attach to a film or something like that, but at the same time, they are then allowed to lend their personal creative vision to that, and are given power within that. It's empowering as well.

DD: I guess if you look at my opinion -- and my understanding of the film industry -- the fact that everyone's contract and no one has a permanent job, that's not... some people do well in that. There's certainly some directors who became very successful. But I'd say the majority of the people in that industry do not like that model.

Interesting. My perspective is that the majority of people in this industry don't like the model that we use, because you've got a group of people always together, and there's like a "boy's club" insular mentality in certain ways. It's like once you're in the industry, you don't get booted out of it. You have to do really super bad to get kicked out of this industry.

DD: We're not big proponents of recruiting within the industry. We generally don't even look at it. Industry experience can be an asset, but it's necessarily an asset. However, if you look at Nintendo, those guys have been working together for 25 or 30 years. It seems to work for them.

Some people have made the point that I could make a great game with Ken Levine from BioShock and Cliffy B and Warren Spector. If I put those guys together, they would make this awesome game.

DD: Mm.

I know, I'm just saying.

DD: Yeah, I don't think they would, but I don't know.

No, I don't think they would either. I think they would just make something really terrible and then split up. But anyway, why shouldn't you be able to get the right talent for the right job?

DD: Oh, you should. I think from the perspective of a business model, it would be great if you didn't have to carry staff and look after them, and if you could just bring people on when you needed them and let them go when you didn't. I think for the talent itself, though, that's a commoditization. You become a utility, and your value becomes diminished significantly. At Silicon Knights, we don't hire part-time people. We don't outsource. It's all to protect the talent, which we are. I look at these models in Hollywood, and I think it's kind of broken in many ways. There's a lot of people who are struggling.

I think Hollywood has some really good things about it. There's a lot of things to learn, but there's a lot of things that you want to avoid as well. That's one of them: the commoditization of talent. One of the ultimate commoditizations of a human being is slavery. You can get even further than that, and you don't want to go there. It's whatever we can do to watch out for that. When I saw this, I referenced it in the scripts. I saw the screenplays, and I was like, "This is really homogeneous. They've got all this rules about interior, exterior, outdoor, light time, and night time."

I thought at first it was really terrible, but then after reading about 25 of them, I'm like, "Okay, I get it. I get now that after they submit this the director changes it. He puts it where he wants it." But what that does is say to the writer, "Okay, you're valuable, but you're not that valuable." It puts trust with everyone in their place. But that's my opinion of it. Maybe it's being sort of ignorant, I don't know.

Silcon Knights' upcoming mythological action title Too Human

That's sort of the opposite perspective that some people have. When you take a specific person, you could consider that you're giving them value, because you're saying, "I need you to do this, because you are the one who can do this for me." Some other people would find that floating around from project to project gives you a lot of freedom, and gives you the ability to work on different things instead of being like, "I have to do this one thing. I have to make textures in four years this exact way."

DD: That's a commoditization, too.

Yeah. There's certainly both sides on either way there.

DD: When you think about commoditization in technology, there's really... this is a reference from Ursula Franklin in The Real World of Technology -- she describes methodologies in two ways. One is prescriptive -- that's where you have a process where you say, "Okay, we're going to do this, this, this, and this." It works really well for people who don't know what they're doing and they're learning it for the first time. A prescriptive model has very hard set rules. Prescriptive models were used during the industrial age, for manufacturing. The other approach is the holistic model. The holistic model is learning from peoples' experience where they have knowledge and understanding, and they have a set of rules, but they use their experience to overcome unforseen circumstances, and they adapt well. The holistic models are generally, in my opinion, much better.

From a perspective of making sure that the talent behind what's being created really has an opportunity to get their own creativity in there, and they can use their experience to overcome challenges, whereas with the prescriptive model, it would be like, "I can't do that. It's a rule," whatever that may be, whatever that rule is. In those different ways of doing things, the prescriptive model is unfortunately becoming very dominant in society. People automatically want rules, and they automatically fall into... it's just like when technology is introduced. [It] suddenly becomes this awesome thing that's going to change your life for the better. This is back into the technology talk, but when I talked about commoditization of technology, when the sewing machine was introduced, it was introduced and marketed as something that was going to free women from sewing.

It was going to change their lives so that they could sew five minutes a day, and do more sewing than they could otherwise. After awhile, they became mass-marketed and commoditized, and then someone figured out, "Hey, I can make these sweatshops where people can be sewing all the time," and suddenly, this really good thing became this really bad thing. Technology is always that way. In the film industry, I do see that as a negative, and I really wish we could, when we look at all these things... we can't always ask -- and I think that's one of the central themes in Too Human -- just because you can doesn't mean you should. Every time we figure out we can something, should we do it?

If we're going to start splicing our genes and decide whether we have males or females, or whether our son is going to be blonde or brunette, or if he's going to be very muscular or intelligent -- should we do that? Is that the right thing? What is that going to do 100,000 years from now, when our genetic code is completely controlled by us? Is there something in the random generation of DNA that helps us survive? Are we going to be extinct? We need to think about these things. These are the kinds of things with technology that I think that we have. That's why I brought that up. It wasn't necessarily to make the point that it's bad, but I think there's definitely some bad things in Hollywood that we need to avoid.

That's actually the same thing that they're tackling in BioShock. Rather transparently, but it's the same deal.

DD: Yeah. That's a good game so far -- I'm about halfway through.

To the rules point, one could argue that there are too few rules in game development. We don't have a best practices bible that all the people in the craft have figured out. "Yeah, I see what you're doing and I've made this screw-up before." When we run post-mortems in Game Developer magazine, the "what went wrong" section is carbon copy, almost every time. It's like, "We didn't plan it well enough. We were reluctant to cut certain features. We had to crunch too much. The publisher wasn't responsive enough at certain times, or we weren't responsive enough." It's the same old stuff, and it seems like as good as we sometimes do with conferences like this and sharing of information, we still are all repeating each others' mistakes without even realizing it.

DD: I think that's true. When I did the talk in 1996, the point was that we don't have an Aristotle's Poetics for the gaming industry, and that's when I tried to create that universal theorem -- the engagement theory -- that would try to help. So I agree with that. But the other thing, unfortunately, is there's no metrics so far for what makes a game fun. No one can define that.

We're trying to be proactive at SK. What we're doing actually with the local universities is we started something called the Interactive Arts & Sciences. We're working with Brock University in creating a program where it takes the arts and sciences together to help create disciplines of gameplay ludology and other things. So people are coming up with a very strong foundation for the future, so we can actually create some of these metrics and standard principles -- not necessarily rules -- for which we can base our things on.

So kind of like video game critical studies?

DD: Yeah, it's a video game degree. Rather than call it "video game"..."interactive media."

It feels like we, as an industry, don't have the time to step back and really think about it, because we're always pushing forward to finish the thing that we're working on. It's really hard to take a larger view.

DD: Research and development in our industry is almost nonexistent because of crunch time. Whenever I hear about someone trying to create the world's greatest AI, it's all marketing. It's never real. I didn't talk about this in the talk, but our second game, Fantasy Empires had a learning neural network and an agent that would try to learn from what you were doing. It was part of my master's thesis. We did a lot of tests on it. It actually adapted, it helped people, and it actually was a great test case. We put it in Fantasy Empires, and it was a little bullet point on the back for marketing and no one noticed. No one cared.

It's all about the entertainment value, and I strongly believe in that too. It's disappointing sometimes. It's really interesting to see the one talk -- the one before mine -- where the guy started talking about flOw. He's like, "Someone beat me to it!" And I'm like, "Man, flOw's been around for 25 years." That's what I was talking about -- nobody's talking to each other. He brings up a game, and just because it's called flOw, it's like people have been talking about flOw in our industry for... I remember I did a talk on it in 1996, so that's 11 years ago. And that was at GDC, after Legacy of Kain.

The fact that we have these people that are speaking in the industry who don't necessarily know the stuff -- that's one of the problems. We have to communicate more, and we have to try to get out there. I like these conferences for that, and I did like that he tried to put forth theories on stuff, even if it's not necessarily everything I believe in, but we've really got to get away from. So the things that I'm worried about at GDC is, "How awesome is your game?" "Oh, it's so awesome, and here's my new gameplay demonstration and what we're going to do." To me, the marketing is winning out over the industry development.

It's all about Blast Processing.

DD: Yeah, exactly.

Actually, a friend of mine knows the guy who invented that.

DD: Blast Processing, from Sega?

Yeah. I really wanted to interview that guy, but he doesn't want to be known. He's afraid people will villainize him.

DD: I wouldn't. People are too worried about negative press. Negative press needs to be avoided, but at the end of the day, Silicon Knights is really going to prove the point that any press is good press, because we certainly have a lot of it.

Well, you have to realize that many of these people who are judging you do not have any degrees in what they're doing. They don't have any training. They have basic English ability. They really don't have any critical thinking training or skill, and it's basically like the Armageddon crowd telling you whether your game is cool, but that is the crowd that you have to make a game for.

DD: I'm totally fine with that, once the game's out. I look at the Love Boat Story -- I call it The Love Boat, but it's really Titanic. That movie was so criticized before it came out, and when it came out, it totally redeemed itself. That's where I think and hope we're going to be. But the one thing that I wanted to mention about marketing that I think is really true is this one thing Don Daglow said at Leipzig in his talk. I liked his talk, but the thing that really stuck with me -- and he later abandoned it -- but his definition of a next-gen game was how much marketing money was put behind it. I think it's totally true, because what does "next-gen" mean anymore?

Another thing that I wanted to talk about was the film/game crossover. A lot of people do talk about it, and hire scriptwriters and things like that. But it seems like we have the capacity in games for our own type of language, and our own way of perceiving things, to the degree that we really don't need them.

DD: I don't think we do. I think we can certainly learn. We've hired screenwriters at Silicon Knights, but they have to learn how to write for games, which is a totally different medium. If someone says, "I'm going to hire a scriptwriter to help with your game," my response is, "We already have them, and they'll do a better job because they understand the medium." Understanding the medium is key. Can screenwriters learn a new craft and work on video games? Absolutely, and talent is talent. But people who just write scripts for movies are not going to know how to write for video games, that's for sure.

It does seem, to the contrary point of what I was saying, that people don't pay enough attention to the other industries and what they can learn from them. The extent that it often goes to is, "Well, we need a triple-A story, so we're going to hire any random Hollywood hack we can find who's slumming in the game industry."

DD: It's funny. I often get caught in these debates. I'm a big proponent of learning from other mediums, and at the same time, I think I've tried to say that we're not the same, but people interpret that as, "Denis wants to make interactive movies," and people really attack that. What I've tried to say many times is that there's a lot different. We're interactive. They're not. Linear, non-linear: huge differences.

But the things that are similar, the historical trends we can look at and say, "This is what happened there. Maybe it's going to happen here or we'll follow a similar trend." That's where the gold is. The gold and all the nuggets are, "What can we learn, and what can these guys contribute to our industry?" I would love to see the industries merge, and for them to write both linear and non-linear is a totally different thing altogether. If people become versed in those kinds of tools, I think that would be fantastic.

There's a lot of interesting stuff with the fact that maybe we're just about getting out of it, but we're still in that first era of filmmaking. The first films ever screened were of a train pulling into a station, and people ran screaming from the theaters because they thought it was a real train, even though it wasn't real. After that, it was like, "What was the most shocking thing you can do?" like electrocuting an elephant or something like that. And we're still in there. It's in the graphics and the spectacle, and it's got to be big and loud.

DD: I totally agree. I think we're starting to get out of there. Cinema used to be called the cinema of attraction. People would go into movies, and there wasn't even a beginning and an end -- it would just sit there and play, and people would just go in. There's early films of firefighters rescuing people from burning buildings. I think we're getting to the point now where... I was talking to someone earlier today, and they were talking about reviewing video games. I think he was in the press, and he was like, "I love this game. It was fantastic."

We were talking about the new Resident Evil -- Resident Evil 4. He was like, "The story sucked, and I just thought I had to take a point away because the story was bad. I got hammered for it, and everybody was like, 'This game is awesome, blah blah blah,'" Take engagement theory -- one foundation, that would be a great way to rate games. How's the content? Is the story good? Give that a number. How's the art? Is that good? How's the gameplay? Is that good? How's the technology? How's the audio? You take all those things and rate things, because when you start getting...

Well, that's what they do, but it's almost kind of a false thing, because it's arbitrary and subjective. It's like, "Compared to what? Compared to whose feelings?" It's pretty rough.

DD: But very few people take story and content and look at it, right?

It's true, but speaking of "the media is the message." Resident Evil 4 is my favorite game since 2000.

DD: Well, I guess that's last-generation now. That was a great game. The story wasn't very strong.

Capcom's Resident Evil 4 -- short on story?

The story wasn't very strong at all, but I didn't care. And I love story. I'm a writer, and it's a thing that I care very deeply about, but...

DD: I think that illustrates the point of the medium being the message, and the medium overpowered the message or the story, or they didn't focus on it. Maybe their messages are in the way that the game played.

It's true, but how much better could it have been with a strong story?

DD: Oh, can you imagine that with a strong story? And that's why I still really like engagement theory, because I haven't found anything that really throws it out and says, "That breaks it." Resident Evil was able to overpower it. Can you imagine how much better that game would be? Say that the pinky was the story -- that one thing, if they had made an awesome story on top of the graphics and the gameplay, it just would've been fantastic.

I think that's always the aim. I think people are always trying to do it, but they just can't.

DD: Trying to make an awesome story, you mean?

Well, no, trying to make every element of their game as good as can be, but they just can't do it, because they don't have the skill or the knowledge. I think right now as an industry -- to make a film analogy -- we're at the D.W. Griffith phase, where we're learning editing -- rudimentary editing -- but we're not dealing with subjects in the best ways that we could.

DD: I agree. I think we're trying, and I think that the camera system that I talked about and doing these basic things... the interesting thing is, they've developed this whole language of film that we can use now, but we have to learn to adopt it in non-linear ways. It's very interesting to see. And then we've got everyone coming at other things like psychological experiments on flOw. The breakdown of flOw that I saw today wasn't the one I would've chosen, but it was certainly interesting. You've got all these information things coming in, and I think the difference between the film industry and our industry is that the change is going to be much more rapid. When we hit something, it's going to go "Boom!"

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