Videogames

Jim Munroe interviews Sean Stewart and Elan Lee

Jim Munroe interviews Sean Stewart and Elan Lee from 42 Entertainment
Game Designers’ Conference in San Francisco, March 10, 2005
Transcribed by Phuong Nguyen

Sean:…and so when we were told that we had won this thing, I asked Elan is this a big deal or whatever? And he said yeah, it is a big deal. “You probably don’t know how strange it is that they would even recognized what we did as a game let alone gave us an award,” and he paused for a second and he said, “kind of like the Academy giving an Oscar for a skywriting demonstration.”

[laughter]

Jim: Great, great. And so do you have a background in videogames or have you done…?

Elan: Yes, I was the lead game designer for Microsoft for five years and…

Jim: So is this kind of like a homecoming, or what’s the feeling around that?

Elan: that’s a tough question. It feels…when I was in the
game industry, the mainstream game industry working for Microsoft, it
never felt I was in the exactly right place. Oddly, the other game
designers tried to break out of the box and tried to do something new
and innovative and exciting and it felt very constrained around
here…and so to approach it from a different angle and get in through
the back door and to be appreciated for that feels very nice.

Jim: What was sort of the breakthrough point for you to decide to do that?

Elan: I was still in the Microsoft when we made the Beast,
the AI campaign, and that did really well and it sort of started this
whole alternate reality gaming thing. Sean and I really worked hard on
that and when we finished, the only thing either of us wanted to do was
to make more of them because they were so cool and we had all these
people playing and it was really exciting. And the reason that one
worked was because only no one within Microsoft knew about it, only
four people in the whole company that knew about it.

Sean: A black op.

Elan: Seriously. It was very, very secret and very hidden.

Sean: Two people at Dreamworks, four people at Microsoft.
Outside the team, those were the only people who knew. Patty Kennedy
and Steven Spielberg at Dreamworks knew and four people at Microsoft
knew.

Jim: Was Microsoft tied in directly to AI ?

Elan: Microsoft had bought the games right from Warner
Brothers, so there was partnership that existed and they wanted to
build games centered around a movie. This was the first game of a
series of games that was going to come out, the other ones
unfortunately never made it out.

Sean: Did you come out of Schindler’s List thinking, “Gotta
play that game”? They had to find a way to make it meaningful to make
games out of that movie, you don’t come out of AI thinking, hey: first
person shooter! And so to extend that the in dubious taste Schindler’s
List analogy, you can’t really make a game out of that movie, but you
can make lots of video games out of the Second World War and you make
lots of video games inside that world. Our idea was to build a world so
that they could make games around that world. We didn’t make the other
games but we built the world.

Elan: For example I was getting emails from people two
offices down saying, “Did you hear about this weird AI thing? You’ve
got to try it,” and it was very indicative of no one knew hat this as,
no one knew where this thing was coming from, it was all very secret.
Which allowed us to do a lot of things that a Microsoft project could
not do: we didn’t have to attend meetings, we didn’t have to get
approval from 18 levels of managers, you know, we got to cut a lot of
corners… so when it was done and when it was successful, and when we
go back to do more, now all of suddenly everyone knew about it. Now all
of sudden: here’s your section of the building, and here’s your team,
and here’s your budget, and here’s your financial manager and here’s
your testing team and we were like, great, power and responsibility!
But half a year later — and almost no progress — we thought it was
just not an ideal environment for a game that is supposed down and
dirty and scrappy and at that point we sort of jumped ship and started
42 Entertainment and been building them ever since.

Jim: Ok, and now that this is on it’s way to becoming a
genre, alternate gaming genre, do you personally have as much
enthusiasm for it or is creating the new thing the driving force?

Sean: If you think about the history of the automobile, what
we did was take a carriage and stick a steam engine in it and make it
go, and that was really exciting — but we haven’t made 57 Thunderbirds
yet, you know what I’m saying? There’s a long way to go before you can
exhaust the possibilities of the can of worms that we opened up. I’ve
stopped to talk parenthetically to say, the guy’s whose idea it was to
do the the Beast, was a man named Jordan Weitzman — Elan’s boss at
Microsoft and the presiding genie of 42. I don’t know if you know any
of Jordan’s other games: Battle Tech (which was doing multiplayer
online games when people were using 300 baud modems), Mech Warrior,
Crimson Skies, many many many games…

Elan: Quite a name in the games business…

Sean: A whiz kid…..

Sean: We’re really where the car or the movie industry was in
1903…there’s still like a guy playing an organ at the bottom and
people holding up placards saying, “Oh No!” It’s not like we did a
thing and now everyone knows how to do the thing and goes on to the
next thing because this thing is still very amorphous so… with I Love
Bees we changed a huge number of the core parameters of what an
alternative reality game can be and at first the people who played the
Bees would be like “what the hell is this?”

Jim: [laughs] That’s exciting!

Sean: We have given ourselves a niche that is both
exhilarating and a bit terrifying which is: we are the guys that are
doing something that has never been done before — and that’s actually
a tough pigeon hole to be in, because no one’s beta-tested it, the next
game we do we’ll probably use some of the ARG stuff but will again
almost certainly be something no one’s ever done before.

Elan: Yeah, I still get very excited about it rather than
thinking about new things while it is a genre in its infancy and still
a genre defined by innovation and defined by reinvention and the games
that are within this genre that are just knockoffs of what has been
before don’t tend to get as much recognition and don’t tend to do as
well as the games that embrace the genre and say, hey, you know this is
a reality game therefore we need to look at reality as whole and
combine all the different ways there are to communicate with people and
all the different ways to storytell.

Sean: Exactly. That’s a good point. These kind of games…now
I’m gonna sound evangelical….these kind of games….do you listen to
music much? If you listen to a Velvet Underground album from the late
’60s, leaving aside the individual tracks, there is a sound to that
record. There’s a sound to a mid-stage Bowie albums, there’s a sound to
the record. ARGs are the sound of the twenty-first century. They sound
like what today feels like. You’re sitting here with a mini- tape
recorder on one hand and a Blackberry on the other hand and you’ve got
a cell phone somewhere I’m guessing… you’re talking to us… you
emailed me yesterday… that’s life. And the key thing about an ARG is
the way it jumps off all those platforms. It’s a game that’s social and
comes at you across all the different ways that you connect to the
world around you.

Elan: The electronic sphere is what we’ve dubbed it.

Sean: So the ARG…a video game.. a classic video game…even a
really good video game is TV as a game…it’s a 1950s platform taken to
the furthest degree. ARGs are a 2001 platform that we’re just now
starting to build.

Jim: But the telephone, which Bees uses, isn’t a new form of communication…

Elan: Well, I think for any new platform there’s a gestation
period. It needs to be accepted, it needs to be modified, and it needs
to find a tone. Once the technology adapts itself to what the community
wants it to be then it becomes ripe for a gaming platform. It’s pretty
much only at that point that we can figure out how people are going to
be comfortable interacting with the technology or the communication
method and hijack it for our own purposes.

Sean: And Nokia for instance, do you know about the Nokia
game? So Nokia, where ever they’re from, Finland right? Finland
notoriously the country where no one likes to meet other face to face,
they talk on the cell phone all the time, so the Nokia game is a hugely
successful game, that is played entirely over phones. I was talking
once to Jordan Weisman, who I mentioned earlier, and he said “Did you
know that video games sales have been down in Japan for the first time
in history?” and I said, “Ahh, I wonder why that is.” And he said,
“They’re being out-competed by another entertainment platform,” and I
said “What?” and he said “Cell phones. Japanese teenagers have found
cell phones and the truth is no game is as interesting as another
teenager.”

Jim: That’s true.

Elan: And that’s part of the reason that ARGs are a hit because they are intensely social.

Jim: Right and also because they have a human brain, several
human brains behind it. And that’s the sort of thing that hits me…
you know, artificial intelligence is maybe not so important… maybe
when you have massively multiplayer games with people puppetmasters
behind them kind of like pulling the strings and rolling with the
punches and coming up with new things… Do you think at some point
it’ll move on to other players creating the content?

Elan: Yeah there’s a famous quote that Jordan says this all
the time: the very few cannot entertain the very many for very long.
Which is I think is very indicative of where this has to go. There is
only so long that we will be able to create enough content to satisfy
the appetite of these growing numbers of fans, even when the numbers
were quite low it’s very hard for us to you know… they burn through
everything… they eat up everything… they always want more… and so
like Sean was saying the most entertaining thing to another sixteen
year old is another sixteen year old. I think that sort of thing
applies to most audiences. The most interesting thing to a horde is
another horde and we keep being… are forced to acknowledge that and
find ways to integrate that into future game designs because that’s the
only way this will survive.

Sean: In both of the games we’ve done we’ve tried to
encourage players to create peripheral content and to become engaged
with one another on that basis, in the long run I mean one of the next
things you’re going to see… sooner or later an ARG is going to have
to develop a combat model, and by combat model, I don’t necessarily
mean that people have to fight but I mean an interaction that has
meaning in the game that can take place between two players in the game
w/o us monitoring and responding. That combat model might be, “Hey
baby, wanna go on a date?” “Hey sailor, no way,” you know? Some kind of
interaction that can happen… this is the basis of the World of
Warcraft, or Everquest, right? In that case, the creators have dialed
down the greater importance of their story but have just created a big
place where you can go and hang with their buddies. ARGs have been much
more story-focused with us pushing much more of the content but I think
that if you wanted it going for a long time, you can eventually either
go on the model we built that is short and intense or if you want to
build a community that stays long for a long time, you’re going to have
to see the story-making power increasing. The longer you want it to go,
the more of the story-making power you’re going to have to feed the
players.

Jim: Right, the difficulty I see in that kind of thing is the
question of authority. People are used to having the “real”
puppetmasters and probably there will be the kind of tension where “Oh,
this sounds like this was created by someone my age, I don’t like it as
much or I don’t think it’s legitimate.” On the other hand you have
something like punk rock where 16 year old kids play to 16 year old
kids and you know, that became something, it’s acceptable, you don’t
have to be older, or… you know…

Sean: Right, but how many of those records do you play now? [laughs]

Jim: Well, whether or now it makes good art is debatable, but it certainly makes a community.

Sean: Bill Gibson has this line…I was at this conference
once ten years ago.. and they had Gibson on the panel, and it was about
the future of interactive fiction and he was there because it was in
Vancouver and they kind of had to have him as you know the Guru of the
Future. But his comment, after the other four panelists had talked
about the glory of hypertext and where it was going to go in the
future, was “Well, you know I’m a professional writer, what I do for a
living is put words in a certain order and I kind of hope they stay
that way.” You know? The theory is that, those of us who are
professionals, are at least a little better at making narrative shapes
that contain energy and hold energy. How to balance those things, I
don’t know. But I’m very excited to find out.

Elan: When you open the door to player-created content, to me
you can pull it off as long you’re very clear with the audience if you
set their expectation accordingly. If they’re able to very clearly
understand what was created by a puppetmaster and what was created by
another player and then understand that the reward for solving or
beating content created by another player is going to be at this level,
but the reward for solving something by a puppetmaster is going to
change the game way up here. As long as you can provide that experience
and make it very clear in so that they understand what challenges can
they accept and what they want to bypass and what’s at stake then all
of a sudden you’ve got a very interesting world when they can make
their own choices and take the game where they want to take it.

Sean: hmm, that’s nicely put.

Jim: Yeah, yeah, a hierarchical system of choices at some point.

Sean: Imagine you built an ARG of the war of the roses.

Jim: Ok.

Sean: You’re all villagers somewhere in Lancaster. You figure
out what you’re going to do with the village, you figure out what
you’re doing with the town, over here we’re going to be Yorks and
Lancasters. And you know Richard the Second will come through
recruiting and Henry the fourth will come through recruiting and our
armies will pass and the fate of the nation will depend on those
engagements and what you do and we’ll be watching that. What happens in
your village you know your political trials, struggles, hangings, or
witch hunts or whatever matters to you because you’re part of the
society and those are rule sets that will allow you to figure out what
happens. But we still control the higher stakes of the environment and
that’s a nice model.

Jim: My main question, or my last question is this uh.. I
heard about AI through a another friend or whatnot, and I Love Bees is
a similar kind of thing. I’m very sensitive, I’m almost allergic to
hype, so anything that like, having interviewed you Sean in the past, I
know you know it’s not just advertising. The marketing element of it is
certainly…I mean…you know…

Sean: It’s a turn off, absolutely…

Jim: Yeah, so is there anything…like what…is there
anything…like the engine of commerce is a really powerful thing to
attach your wagon to…and it’s like fantastic you know…and I believe
you can kind of pull it off and do really great stuff and you guys
have…but yeah the question is, what are the levels of tension or like
the points wher e you go, oh this is where…this is where suddenly I
see the tension point where I’ve been wrapped up in making story up
until now and now I see, okay this is the difficulty, where are the
challenges in that kind of creative marketing and what not? And if you
want, I’m curious for my own thing, so obviously, for stuff that you
want off the record…I mean obviously, I would love to use it…but
I’m just fascinated…

Elan: We hate marketing, too. Honestly, I mean.

Sean: The reason we get gigs as a marketing company is people
say, we need to market to people who hate marketing. And because we
hate marketing I guess we’re in this…I guess the word is “quisling.”

Elan: You say you’re marketing-allergic, but I mean we’re
marketing-phobic, maybe even beyond that. When we approach a project
the intent is to always…we need our audience…there’s no doubt in
anyone’s mind when they look at this…this is a promotion for Halo 2.
“I saw the clue in the trailer, this is a promotion for Halo 2.” At
some point, every audience member for our games needs to make a
decision to momentarily dismiss it… momentarily take a leap of faith
or suspension of disbelief and say, “I’m going to forget about that
part for just a second and see what this thing is.” And our goal, our
job, if we do it right, is to make that comfortable and inviting so
that they are very anxious to get to that point and when they get to
that point they have no problem when they get to that point, “I saw in
the Halo trailer but whatever… what’s going on in this world?” And
the delicate nature of these projects is that once that trust is
established, so step one is establish that trust so that they are
willing to do it, and step two is to maintain that trust: don’t do
anything that will make them feel dirty for playing, is going to make
them feel marketed to, is going make them feel like we’re forcing
anything on them…

Sean: You never have to buy a product, you were never
encouraged to buy a product, there was never a sell, all of it in
fact…and we tell this up front to the client, what we will do if you
have an interesting world we’ll tell an interesting story and we’ll let
people engage in that and that’s cool but we are never going to put up
an ad that says, “buy an Xbox!” you know?

Elan: And it’s never going to say Microsoft, and it’s never going to say Bungie.

Sean:And right, because of the two big projects we’ve done,
and the marketing thing, and there’s second answer to your question
that I will get down to in a minute, when you are dealing with IP,
intellectual property, for a really successful game or a Steven
Spielberg movie, there’s actually one thing that works in our favour is
that we don’t want to use any of their characters — and they don’t
want us to either. I mean, that’s the beauty of it, in fact they don’t
want their IP infringed on so in AI, in our game that we did, our game
takes place four years after the film, and there’s one character in our
game who’s 45 or 50 who was 10 in the movie and it’s the only character
overlap in the movie. Similarly, you never see, I don’t know if you’ve
ever played Halo, but you never see the Master Chief, there’s no
battles in outer space in our game. I mean there’s about is about six
very ordinary people following their lives six months leading up to
when the game occurs. Usually the licensees are also happy for us to
stay away from their core characters, constraints, and situations which
makes a nice match.
The second answer to your question is, lots of people in the ARG
community are really interested in finding another way, another model.
There’s a game starting this month called Perplex City, which is
attempting to go with a different revenue model. And we are watching
with eager interest. The trouble is, the way we’ve done it, ARGs are
not cheap to make.
I would venture to say, on what little I know of Michelangelo, that if
they were a lot of gigs not painting madonnas, he would of painted a
lot more not madonnas. But the people with the money to pay you to
paint tended to have some things they wanted you to put on the ceiling.
And you don’t have to love it, but…

Jim: But those are some of the constraints to work with…

Sean: Those are some of the constraints that we’re under…we
don’t have to shoot people in our games but we have another kind of
constraint. We are actually working on two different ideas that are not
marketing revenue models and we’ll see.

Elan: One of the other roadblocks when we approach something
like this… the conflict that arises is….we understand all too
clearly the trust that arises between the puppetmasters and the players
and the conflict that is created between that…and the people who are
paying the bills want very much for their names to be all on everything
and there’s this constant clash, and what we kind of realize there is
that…what we try to tell all our clients when we start any project,
we will try to convert a large number of people from a push model to a
pull model. What a push model is what very standard advertising is…
you’re sitting around and things are just being forced at you… and
you reject most of them…every once in a while you’re interested in
one…but you’re bombarded… and it’s information, information and you
ignore most of it. And we’re going to try and translate that into a
pull model and kind of excite people about a property and a world so
that they go out and they pull the things towards them. So that they
are going to go, you don’t need to put your commercial on primetime
eight o’clock on NBC, go put it on a cable channel at 4am and we
guarantee that not only fans will stay up to watch it, they’ll record
it, they’ll analyse every frame of it and they’ll put it on the
internet and dissect each and every one of them.

Sean: You hire us to market it to people who can’t be
marketed to, so here’s the deal, we’re not going to market to them. But
hold that thought….

Jim: but also, you’re discussing cultural products, it’s not soda pop…

Sean: It would be really hard to make the soda pop ARG…
although…

Elan: some of our clients are presenting some really interesting
challenges… and we are forced more and more into start thinking about
“how could you build an ARG that has no story and no roles and no
characters, you know?”…how do you build one around that? but it’s
really fun to think about.

Sean: I’m always always extremely suspicious of this whenever
someone else uses this but I’m going to do it anyway. You know the guy
who’s making $150,000 and wearing a three-piece who says, “But yeah,
I’m subverting the machine from within”? Ok, so we’re going to argue
that we’re that guy. One of the things that you could look at it is
that “I’m Joe Consumer, and I grew up in the era of MTV and TiVo, so
you’re fucked. If you want me to pay attention to your message you
gotta make it worth my time, because I’m no longer required to sit
through your commercials.” If you have a commercial message, we are on
the leading edge of making it work the consumer’s while to pay any
attention to, so if you’d like, we are the consumer advocacy group that
says: these people are smart people and they don’t want to listen to
you if you want them to listen to you you have to give them something
of value, just restating your message doesn’t cut it anymore. This is a
relationship where you have to give them what they want, not just for
their money but even for their attention. So it’s the same impulse in
some senses that makes people make “funny” commercials because there is
a value equation here where the consumer no longer has to support it.

Jim: But it’s a much harder sell, in that you’re going to
bringing them through a whole range of emotion. Not just like, “Oh
that’s hilarious, I have good feelings now associated with Coca-Cola
now,” you know…it’s like…you know that’s sad… of course there’s a
group of people who very hungry for it and looking for something… but
promotion and advertising is huge part of our culture.

Sean: there’s a funny open niche… on one side you have a
lot of marketers who want to reach an audience but that audience
doesn’t want to hear them. Over in the game world, there aren’t many
games, no one’s building many games that are giving you what art gives
which is the chance to laugh, to feel nostalgic, or to fall in love, or
those sort of things. We make movies that do that, we write books that
do that, we’re not very good at making games that do that. But games
are social and interactive, so they ought to be able to carry that kind
of emotional load and now, not speaking even remotely as someone who
works for a company that has to get clients to build things. You know
me in my other life…I’m a novelist. So scoring for me is getting an
emotional response and some shared sense of “Omigod, you wake up in the
middle of life and this is what’s it like,” and that’s sad, and that’s
funny, and I don’t know what it is but that’s awfully like life and
that for me is scoring. In the context of an ARG, I want to build a
game that does what a novel or a movie will do, so there is this kind
of empty slot on the board between company-with-product and
game-without-emotion that will meet an intersection point.

Jim: Do you want to talk about some of the differences between the two projects, AI and Bees?

Elan: The differences between the two kind of indicates where
we have to go. AI was all about what you know — because there are
puzzles and you had to have a lot of knowledge or know people who had a
lot of knowledge in order to solve them. I Love Bees was all about
where you are, because it’s a geographically-based game, you have to go
out and be near a phone and go and answer it. It was a transition we
made very consciously to lower the barrier to entry, to really lower
that bar as low as possible because we want them to qualify to play
simply based on the location where they live and who they might know in
a location that was previously inaccessible. And I think it’s kind of
interesting that we have identified those two models and used them very
effectively I think and now sort of, what comes next? The two big
candidates are who you are and what you have, and I’m not exactly sure
how to describe without violating all these kinds of NDAs about where
those lead, but there’s this interesting trend about how to bring them
into these games, things to identify about them and reward them, simply
for living. Simply for having a cell phone, simply for living in a
certain location. Systematically going through all of a person’s
attributes and saying “We’re going to make that the game today, so your
first name’s John, so all the Johns…you know…”

Sean: the big difference, and to expand on what Elan was saying,
it was so much more physical. You couldn’t play it with just your
brain, from the head up. You had to go out, you had to do it in the
real world, you had to meet people in the real world, you had to
communicate with other human beings in real time in the real world, and
that physicality was very nice, one of the reason we loved doing the
pay phones I just made you the pitch that this is the first art form
that is borne out of the 21st century. There’s something very beautiful
about playing it on a technology that’s going to be obsolete in two
years. Pay phones are being phased out really really fast as part of
our landscape, there’s something really nice and very physical about
that.

Jim: I’d like to think of that’s native to the age, it’s
appropriate, wherein other things are trying to jam an old form into a
new time, it’s like, what is the shape of this age and it’s like we’ll
create something to fill that.

Elan: That’s really well said.

Sean: It’s not possibly as exciting as how many pixels you can get on a screen but I happen to like that stuff.

Categories: Videogames

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