LAS VEGAS--Last night, the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences held its 11th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards during the D.I.C.E. Summit at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas. Unsurprising to near all of the 7 million-plus gamers who own it, Activision and Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare walked away with top honors at the event, grabbing overall game of the year, console game of the year, action game of the year, and outstanding achievement in online gameplay.
While Infinity Ward spent its fair share of the awards ceremony hoisting its four-pack of trophies, the developer shared the spotlight with a number of other studios throughout the course of the evening. Three other big winners for the night were 2K Boston, Harmonix, and BioWare, garnering a combined total of eight accolades. 2K Boston's BioShock won for outstanding achievement in sound design, original music composition, story development, and art direction, while Rock Band took home outstanding innovation in gaming, outstanding achievement in soundtrack, and family game of the year and Mass Effect nabbing role-playing game of the year.
Three of the major players from those studios joined GameSpot's own Ricardo Torres in a session today to discuss the role of narrative in games. On the hot seat were Ken Levine, founder and creative director of 2K Boston--nee Irrational Games; Greg LoPiccolo, vice president of product development at Harmonix; and Dr. Ray Muzyka, chairman, CEO, and founder of BioWare.
Sitting three abreast, Levine began the session by noting the apt seating placement, with he in the middle and LoPiccolo and Muzkya flanking him on the left and right, respectively. The significance here was that Mass Effect, BioShock, and Rock Band each have narratives that coincided with the seating order, in that Mass Effect was the most grandiose while Rock Band had the most subtle. The difference in the three games, he noted, was embodied by the different ways in which each approaches its narrative.
Agreeing, Muzyka noted the evolution of what narrative encompasses. As he sees it, a game like Bethesda Softworks' The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is the most free-form, emergent narrative, where players in a way define their own narrative by the paths they choose to travel. BioWare, he feels, is in the middle of the narrative spectrum, where players still have a wide variety of choices, but an overlaying linear storyline still drives the game. The tightest form of narrative is found in games like BioShock and Call of Duty 4, said Muzyka. While these games still offer some freeplay with choice, they are far more directed and linear.
Muzyka then expounded on the way in which narrative emerges. Far more than just a storyline, narrative can be expressed in a number of different ways, according to Muzkya. The BioWare cofounder sees narrative emerging from multiplayer interaction, communities outside of the game, and pacing within the game. The narrative can often be a very personal experience as well, he noted, with players customizing their progression and characters, effectively having their identity embodied in the game's avatar.
Picking up on this concept, Levine says this broader scope of narrative can be seen in a game like Civilization, which has no spoken dialogue. He says the narrative emerges from the player's interaction with the game, giving the example of the story that emerges from the player's internal conflict over having to feud with the Scots, who keep retaking a territory. The narrative in this sense becomes very personal and very powerful, he said.
After self-deprecating remarks, LoPiccolo chimed in, saying that Rock Band's narrative is designed to capture the emotion of playing in an actual band with others. Harmonix's goal was to create a bond between players, and the developer attempted to do this with the role-playing game elements of traveling the country, playing gigs.
The conversation then shifted to paring down the narrative to fit into the game. Levine noted that the original design documents were out of control, with the game initially supposed to take place from 1946 to modern day. People couldn't keep 50 years off events in their heads, he said, so it became a matter of taking five characters and turning them into one, or taking a bunch of notions or ideas and either combining them or dropping them outright. His focus shifted from throwing in everything to limiting and really selling the ideas that they wanted to focus on, rather than telling 50 million stories. He wanted people to listen to the audio dialogues without having to use Cliff Notes or have a pen by their side.
BioWare didn't have as much of a problem with this, Muzkya commented, saying that the development cycle is a very collaborative process and people tend to easily agree on what should stay and what should go. He did say that BioWare's games often resemble an iceberg, where players only see 10 percent of the actual work done in the game. The dedicated writing team at BioWare often spends six months to one year building a body of knowledge and creating the universe that the game emerges from. The hard part then becomes where to fit all of this content in, whether that be in the game itself or through a prequel novel or a sequel. However, he noted the importance of the 90 percent of the work that isn't often seen, because it is what lays the foundation for the story.
When asked whether more RPG aspects are planned for the Rock Band series, the Harmonix VP said that the company worries about incorporating too many, since the game is, at its heart, a performance simulator. Riffing on this concept, Muzyka claims that all games are RPGs because players are able to do things that they can't do in real life easily. Adding to this, Levine said games are about a core fantasy, whether they give the player a chance to be an interstellar space hero or a rock star. However, the core fantasy was a problem with BioShock. "Who wants to be a tool in an objectivist failed Utopia?" he joked.
Returning to the idea of chipping away the narrative to get at the final product of the game, Torres queried the trio on how much of the paring down is influenced by marketing the game. According to Muzkya, there are three parties that need to be accommodated in that equation. First, the employees who are making the game have to stay true to themselves to maintain their level of passion to create a great product. Second, the customer needs to be catered to, in the sense of providing a product that people want to buy. Lastly, there is the business end of making a profit and appeasing shareholders.
Agreeing with Muzkya, LoPiccolo says that constraint is a good thing, since making a game about anything can be paralyzing. Constraint adds focus, he claims, and it takes a long time to figure that out. Likewise, Levine said that he takes his fiduciary responsibilities quite seriously. He says that if someone hands him $20 million to make a game, he feels a responsibility to make their money back. He conceded that such financial-mindedness can lead to design choices that may rub some players the wrong way.