Published on: 09 January 2012 in Longform
John Dower and Martin Korda on video games
Reading time: 11 minutes and 52 seconds
Since first arriving in the 1970s, video game production has become an ever-more profitable industry, a fact recently underlined by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 hitting the billion dollar sales mark a day quicker than James Cameron’s Avatar managed.
Although not traditionally a world in which directors have operated, Directors UK member John Dower has become something of a pioneer through his work on XBOX Kinect project Milo & Kate, a highly original game in which the player interacts with and assists a 10-year old boy.
From there, John recently became involved with VideoGameConsulting.com, in a role that will see him offer his expertise to video games producers. Intrigued by this new project, Directors UK caught up with John and his partner at VGC, to find out more about the company and John's role within it, and how attitudes to directors are changing in the video game world.
Martin, can you tell me a little about what VideoGameConsulting does?
Martin Korda (pictured, right): VideoGameConsulting.com provides a variety of consultancy and scriptwriting services to video game developers and publishers. From a consultancy standpoint we work with companies to help identify their products’ strengths and weaknesses, while generally helping them improve and strengthen their product, whether it be in terms of the layout and flow of each level/mission, the quality, believability and challenge of the artificial intelligence, product differentiation, marketing strategies, story, character development and empathy etc. We work with developers and publishers in a variety of ways, often parachuting into projects at key junctures to offer feedback and an unbiased informed perspective on the product’s progress.
As well as advising games companies on how to improve their products, we also offer professional scriptwriting services. These range from the writing of an entire game script to brainstorming story ideas and character arcs with developers. In November 2011, we partnered with film, TV and video game director John Dower to further bolster this side of the business and add further expertise and experience to our portfolio.
Thanks to John’s eclectic skill set, we can now offer our clients story and character directing services. John’s talent has also further strengthened our story, narrative design and character development services, whereby we work closely with developers to help them create greater character empathy, more original stories and gripping drama.
John, how did you come to be involved with VGC?
John Dower: I met Martin when I worked at Lionhead Studios on their Xbox 360 Kinect project Milo & Kate. I had previously directed film and TV drama and was suddenly plunged into the world of interactivity, directing motion capture performance, animation and voice. A baptism of fire! Martin was a writer on the game. We worked closely and he taught me a lot about how games work and how to think more from the player’s perspective. When we finished working on the game, we both wanted to work together again and felt we had a lot to offer the gaming industry as it grapples with trying to make more engaging stories and characters.
Please both explain what your roles are at VGC. Can you talk us through an average day?
MK: One of the best parts of my job as Managing Director of VideoGameConsulting.com is the variety it brings. A typical day could consist of meeting with new or existing clients to discuss their consultancy and/or scriptwriting needs, evaluating a product either alone or in conjunction with several of our other evaluators then compiling detailed assessment reports based on our findings, meeting with design teams to discuss their products and identify areas of improvement, writing scripts, story treatments, character bios and dialogue for games, brainstorming story and character development ideas with developers, and rehearsing scenes with directors and actors.
JD: Every day is different, but the common thread is working with games developers to help add value to both character and story in games. This is true whether it is a so-called “triple A” (AAA) game - the equivalent to a blockbuster movie, an iPhone game or working on test scenes for something early on in development. My days are therefore spent in team meetings, working with games designers, writers and other creative leads and preparing motion capture shoots and voice sessions.
John, can you tell us the key differences between directing for video games and directing for film and television?
JD (pictured, left): You are encountering very different cultures, but as the technology and the ability to reproduce subtle performance improves in video games, so the need for outside directing expertise is growing.
Since story is only part of what developers do, there were many lessons for me to learn when I first started working in the games industry. In my first year, I kept being reminded “It’s a game, not a film!” Being immersed in the game design department really helped, but it was a while before I found my feet. I found my experiences from Television of having to be politically savvy and knowing when to compromise and when to be assertive very useful. My film making skills came in handy for creating three-dimensional characters, storyboarding, camera movement, character and maintaining a vision.
How about the similarities?
JD: I believe there are more similarities than differences. It’s still about trying to create a bond with the player. It’s still about trying to create characters and stories that resonate and create empathy in the player. It’s still about creating drama. I believe in convergence, not divergence.
How easy did you find the transition from more traditional media to video games?
JD: It’s been very provocative. The biggest conceptual shift that you have to make as a director is that in linear media, you generally are the storyteller and the viewer is passive while in games, the player is active. You can’t patronise the player by telling them an immovable story – they want to be a part of it. That is a tricky one to get your head around.
I suspect I would have found it easier if I had had more experience of games before I made the transition. Having been immersed in games for a while, it is much easier now. Directors who are already regular players of games will have an easier transition.
What advice would you give to other members thinking of moving into video games?
JD: Play games! Take them seriously. Be open-minded and respectful. Convergence between linear and interactive media is a reality. Go to conferences and conventions and meet with developers. Get to know the technology. Check out motion capture, animation and voice recording studios. Think realistically and politically like a TV director and be visionary like a film director. A flexible & creative collaborator is what is needed.
How prominent are directors in the video games industry at present?
MK: At the moment, they’re still quite rare, but the tide is turning. As video game technology has improved and the physical believability of game characters has become more convincing, we’ve seen an increased emphasis on storytelling, character development and drama, something that wasn’t possible a few years ago when hardware restrictions prevented characters from conveying convincing facial emotions or movements. This in turn has led to developers slowly realising the benefits of employing the skills of professional TV/film/theatre actors and directors.
With motion capturing becoming an increasingly utilised technology by games developers and with character facial detail becoming ever more lifelike with each passing year, the need for experienced actors and directors is likely to continue to rise over the coming years.
However, the games industry has not traditionally used directors. In the past (and even in many cases today) characters were/are often ‘directed’ by animators who would take a writer’s scripts, turn them into scenes, animate the characters, define camera angles etc. This is one of the reasons why so many scenes in games fail to achieve the same dramatic and cinematic impact as their film/TV counterparts.
The games industry still has a long way to go in regards to their understanding of and collaboration with directors and writers, but things are getting better: 10-15 years ago many game scripts weren’t even written by writers, just members of the development team who fancied having a go at writing a story and dialogue.
JD: Not enough. Games have been successful without directors for a long time. Often animators or games designers are used as directors. Some companies are suspicious of having highly paid directors who will come in and tell them what to do and who expect to be involved in gameplay design etc., even if they don’t have experience. We need to work with games developers, contributing our expertise, not expecting to always lead.
Do you see attitudes towards directors changing in the industry? Are they becoming more accepted?
MK: The change is happening, but slowly. One of the key challenges faced is finding a common language between game developers and TV/movie directors. Creating a game and creating a movie are two very different processes, but there are enough similarities between the two to allow for effective convergence. For decades, story and characters were seen as very much secondary to gameplay. Thankfully, that attitude is gradually changing. Helping directors and developers understand where each side is coming from and offering advice for how they can better work together are two of the areas John and I can help with.
JD: Slowly. I believe things will look very different in a decade or so, when the industries have become more symbiotic.
Do the constant increases in scale and ambition of video games mean the director is becoming a far more necessary role? I’m thinking of games such as Skyrim and Arkham City...
MK: Absolutely. When we see the next generation of consoles coming through that are powerful enough to allow developers to create even bigger, more lifelike worlds and realistic characters, I believe that a director’s role within the game development process will become even more important. The video game market has only just started to realise the staggering possibilities for character and story development it possesses. As these begin to be increasingly explored, the role of experienced directors – especially directors who understand the processes and requirements of game design - will become ever more important.
JD: Yes. Opportunities are opening up. However, often instead of a screen director, a theatre director (Uncharted series) or an actor (Andy Serkis – Enslaved) will be used to direct the actors. I believe that film and TV directors have much to offer games in terms of camera direction, pacing, editing, use of sound and music etc. As games become increasingly cinematic, games developers are likely to become more open to involving screen directors. It is important that we prove what value we can add and how much we are willing to collaborate.
John, how long might a director expect to be involved on a video game project?
JD: It really varies. Anything from a few days to a few years! Directing voices on a game can take months. Motion capture shoots can last weeks and be spread over long periods. A game can take years to make, so involvement can be protracted.
Martin, what insight and advantage does bringing someone like John into video games give to you?
MK: I’ve worked on many game projects both with and without a director. Undoubtedly those that did use a director enjoyed a far superior end product. Extracting moving performances from actors is a specialised skill and experienced Directors add considerable value and knowledge of how to get them. The same techniques used in TV and film to create emotion and empathy can be every bit as effective within a video game, in some cases even more so, as game characters possess the ability to make a far more direct and personal connection with the player through interactivity.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects you have planned?
MK: I am working with a several leading developers and publishers as a consultant on a number of AAA products, though NDAs prevent me from naming them directly. I am also currently working as the lead writer on the Xbox 360 Kinect game Fable: The Journey.
JD: Apart from my ongoing consultancy work with Martin, I have a couple of game projects in the pipeline in 2012. I am currently directing a series of short films with up and coming young actors, which both in terms of subject matter and genre are very challenging. I also have several projects in development, with my psychological drama - complete with a monster in the woods - feature film Behemoth, set in Tennessee, looking like the most likely to make significant movement in the coming year.
I am talking to two companies about directing animated shorts this year as well as working on an exciting web-based interactive video idea.