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A high-tech pain in the neck

Welcome to Silicon Valley’s version of “development hell,” where unlike the Hollywood development system — with its predictable pitch meetings, story conferences, talent deals and uniform 120-page scripts — there is no generally accepted process for producing the interactive, multimedia games being churned out.

And if you think it’s simple putting together high-tech games, consider:

  • The script for “Road Scholar,” an interactive, multimedia game produced by Media Vision, weighed in at more than 1,000 pages, keeping blurry-eyed executives of that company up many a night.

  • “Shock Wave,” Electronic Arts’ science-fiction title about an alien invasion, is in development and will probably tip the scales at more than 500 pages.

  • Then there’s Rocket Science Games’ “Loadstar,” a sci-fi title about space truckers, now in production; its “design document” was also more than 500 pages.

In short, interactive scripts still have no standard form or length, stories have no single ending and scenes can’t be written before technical problems are worked out — but technical directors can’t design scenes that haven’t been written. It’s no wonder Hollywood creative types are scratching their heads about how to break into the biz.

“Because it’s fairly new, nobody knows exactly how to do this,” says Rocket Science Games president and CEO Steve Blank.

That’s an understatement. Never mind the myriad questions about how to market and deliver games and other interactive products; showbiz would like a simple answer to the question: How the hell do you create them?

For one thing, most producers, developers and writers of games agree that from the very early stages, interactive projects are more of a team effort than film development, in which a screenwriter will typically be hired on a project and go off for several months alone to churn out screenplay pages.

“There’s no job that can avoid the technical side of developing a game,” says Doug Barnett, who designed the hit game “Return to Zork.””Each area is dependent on everybody else.”

And with many games now being developed for the CD-ROM platform, which can hold more information and data, a lot more material is now being written for each game.

Typically, there might be as much as 25 minutes of a movie that’s integrated into the rest of the computer-generated graphics, all of which needs dialogue. In addition, there’s more dialogue needed for other parts of the game, not to mention the hundreds of pages of programming needed for each project. All of this could be done by different writers and designers of the game and rolled into one giant design document, the interactive game equivalent of a film script.

“A design document will usually have a lot of elements,” said Crystal Dynamics president and CEO Strauss Zelnick, formerly president/chief operating officer at 20thCentury Fox. “It might have elements of a script, elements of a novel, computer elements, mathematical elements and even financial elements. All of these areas are just as important. We don’t just operate from scripts. The execution is terribly important.”

One person who can speak from experience about the difference between creating a film script and designing a multimedia game is Michael Backes, who was co-screenwriter of Fox’s “Rising Sun” and who, as co-founder of Rocket Science Games, has created multimedia programs.

“Up to now, the environment has been more important than the narrative,” Backes said. “There’s no equivalent to that in the movie world. The development process is much more intense in the game world at the beginning.”

And unlike Hollywood, where the high-concept, million-dollar idea is king, Silicon Valley places more value on other elements.

“It usually starts with a place and characters,” said Rocket Science Games executive VP Peter Barrett, who notes that a game player’s actions can take interactive stories in several directions.

“To some degree, the story is driven by the user,” Backes said. “An author’s opinion about the choices made in the game is less important; what is more important is making sure that the environment is rich enough.”

“If a writer pitches an idea to a studio, they will ask him who is going to develop this, and we ask the same question,” says Zelnick. “We want to know who is going to make this into a videogame.”

Technical talent

“We’re very interested in the script, but we are equally interested in technical talent who can ensure that this can be delivered,” said Media Vision general manager Allan Thygesen. “If they don’t have somebody, we have to find somebody. There’s a scarcity of ideas but an equal scarcity of organizations that can deliver a project.”

Because of this, the business remains extremely entrepreneurial, requiring game creators and developers to do much of the work on a project. That’s different from Hollywood, where well-established institutions can provide a script, sets, locations, costumes, effects and other elements necessary to produce a film.

“My advice to writers is they need to associate themselves with a team of producers,” Zelnick said.

And what happens once a writer does come up with a viable idea? Typically, once a pitch is approved, it is turned into a treatment, which usually outlines the game elements in addition to production values and production costs. From there, the project goes to the script stage, with numerous people involved.

Thygesen said 14 people worked on the development of the 1,100-page script for Media Vision’s “Road Scholar.”

But much like the movie studios, the game companies increasingly see development as a way to weed out projects that shouldn’t go into production.

(Andy Marx can be reached by computer on PAGE and CompuServe. His CompuServe number is 70324,3424.)

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