Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Virtual Worlds Expo: Narrative in Virtual Worlds

First up: Eric Rice of Slackstreet Entertainment: The video game industry has narrative figured out -- $350 million in sales in one week of Halo. Second Life is too big -- the narrative there is, what do the people of Earth do every day? Gaming is a top down narrative, virtual worlds are wide open -- would love to have the middle ground. His biggest concern -- How does story scale? How do you tell it across franchises?

Mike Monello, of Campfire (who was also one of the creators of The Blair Witch Project): We stumbled on to [collaborative narrative] by throwing a bunch of material we had used to make the movie online. People came and started engaging in the story, and started extending the story...we were not concerned about intellectual property, we were focused on the movie, and people were extending the story in ways that were not in the movie. We ran with it. By the time we sold the movie, that community was there.

People will engage for the sheer entertainment value of it....publishers don't give you a prize for reading a book, and you don't get a prize for watching a movie. Stories are how we engage in the world, and at the end of the day that's what we're all doing with our avatars. Sometimes it intersects with who you are and what you are doing and sometimes it goes way off.

Panel moderator Chris Carella of Electric Sheep quoted Richard Bartle, "godfather of virtual worlds" -- virtual worlds are about place, not story. He put that question to the panel.

Mike: They're both. I just moved to NY, and to me, NY is a big story. I came from Orlando, where everything is new and fabricated to give you a story. The difference is it's a distributed story, a personal story but not singular like someone making a movie or writing a book.

Eric: What is YouTube used for? To collect media, copyrighted content, or put up videos of people in their underwear singing...there's so much experience-driven. So many virtual worlds I am in, I only hang out with about 5 people.

Someone from the audience: Virtual worlds are a thing, as textured as life itself.

Examples of narrative environment in vitual worlds: Virtual MTV, Virtual Laguna Beach, Gaia Online, Saijo City, Motorati, CSI:NY, I Am Legend

CSI:NY is trans-media storytelling (Anthony Zuiker, creator of CSI:NY, gave the conference keynote this morning, talking about CSI:NY's cross-media storytelling project that will sart with the Oct. 24 issue of CSI:NY).

Mike: Virtual worlds are less about the story that you yourself are telling and more about the stage you are building for people to tell the story and extend the story. Example: Motorati, which gave people land and told them they could build anything they wanted, as long as their story was somehow about cars. When people start telling stories they become invested.

Eric: Gaming is work, and virtual worlds are social. If you golf in real life, I'm probably not hanging with you in virtual worlds. In that way virtual worlds are also anti-social. Do you trust your peers to build something as awesome as Halo?

Audience: Virtual worlds provide the oportunity to explore what is interactive fiction. Games are straight narrative, while virtual worlds are interactive

Mike: When you are designing a narrative for these worlds you have to trust the audience to take you to places you can't anticipate. If you do something that's really interesting and attractive to a lot of people and give them avenues to push and change and adjust, they will. 99% of the time where they push you is better than where you'd go by yourself.

Eric: Success means attracting people to participate. I got one story from American Apparel, but dozens of stories from Motorati. I like to put out what I call an FDK -- a fiction development kit -- which is a story fragment that you can let people run with. Yet I hate being virtual sometimes....can't we just get a bunch of us in a room sometime and look each other in the eye?

Mike: We allowed derivative works of Blair Witch, but we didn't allow anyone to put the real film online. This was part of the success of Blair Witch. Why would you penalize your fans, your customers, by not allowing them to participate by making derivative versions?

Chris -- Everyone should read Henry Jenkins' work on fan cultures.

Mike: Our campaigns are often trojan horses....the client is getting layer A but there's layer B for people, which you can't directly sell. When you don't have layer B it feels hollow, like it's just marketing...

How important is the narrative vs the functionality vs who's there? Do you weigh one over the other?

Mike -- We will use the narrative to attract the people we want....we'll start with who the client wants to attract, then we write a narrative that we believe wil appeal to those people, and leave it open-ended so those people will come in and change the direction so you get to the end game a different way.

Research and strategy -- a lot of people in advertising are frustrated movie makers, and they want to tell stories. To me it's if you want to make a movie, go make one....these campaigns are, someone had an idea for a story and a brand name and they sold them on it....and that's just wrong. The strategy has to come first. Brands should be wary. You have to start with what's the problem that you're trying to solve.

Ars Technica is a site that talks a lot about technology and narrative. They say we need more narrative in games, though gamers are a tough crowd who often say, who cares? I just want to shoot you. So it depends on the genre -- for first-person shooters, the narrative doesn't matter so much.

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