This week I’ve been fortunate enough to be an invited speaker at the Game Developers Conference Online here in Austin. While my own presentation is about Social Media Legal Landmines tomorrow, I’ve also had the chance to see a few other speakers the first two days. One panel had a great story that, combined with another story I’d seen about the upcoming Les Miserables movie, I thought made for some interesting social media lessons.
Plus I wanted to see if I could fulfill a dream by combining Star Wars and Les Mis into a single blog post successfully. Let’s find out.
The GDC panel that sparked this thought was titled Behind the Curtain: Using MMO Game Systems to Tell Bioware Stories. Which, no offense to the great presentation given by Damion Schubert, was a horrible title. A better title would have been “How Bioware Tried To Tell the Greatest Star Wars Story Ever Played Inside an MMO.” Because this panel was a story about conflict–about how Bioware, one of the most successful video game studios at telling compelling stories, took one of the most valuable modern mythos and tried to translate it into the biggest chunk of the videogame economy, Massively Multiplayer Online games.
I say tried rather than succeeded or failed because the jury is still out on Bioware’s effort (Star Wars: The Old Republic). While the game has gained outstanding reviews for its story elements, it’s also clear that they haven’t attracted as many monthly subscriptions as they would like and are currently shifting towards a free to play model. I don’t pretend to know what’s going wrong with the game but I think the panel hinted at some of the conflict.
The first half of the presentation by Mr. Schubert talked about Bioware’s focus on telling stories. He spoke of how 99% of people who apply to be Bioware writers fail the admission test and the 1% then go through rigorous training. He mentioned that the game had three full-time writers as the first employees, even before the tools were in place to design the content. The story matters to Bioware and that carries all the way through producing the final content. In this case there were hundreds of actors voicing thousands of characters with hundreds of thousands of dialogue lines. Those lines were recorded in 17 sound studios and they even came up with ways of making sure everyone was pronouncing the Star Wars terms the same way.
As Bioware was developing the game they came up with two categories of content: Gold Content and Silver Content. Gold Content were the premiere quests and scenes that would define your journey as one of eight different character types, from a smuggler (Han Solo) to a Jedi (Luke Skywalker) to a soldier (the Stormtrooper that hit his head in the original movie) and more. And because Gold Content was going to be the ultimate experience in the game, it was getting the best treatment. Voiceovers, intricate encounters, complex interactions. That meant Bioware needed to start on this content years before other parts of the game were created.
That’s a huge leap of faith–the single strongest element in your game, the ultimate elements of the best story, are being locked before other elements are created. In any complex development process, from creating a television commercial to a training program to a giant videogame, things are going to change. And if your best material is done first that means you’ll have to change it the most often or with the most effort.
Compare that to the story in the following video about the upcoming Les Miserables movie (I’ll summarize below if you don’t have the few minutes to watch):
In case it isn’t obvious by now, I’m both a Star Wars geek and a musical theater geek. What I found fascinating in this video is talking about the process of making a movie musical. The normal process is to record the songs months before you film the movie which requires you to make a number of choices early on. Choices that cannot be taken back easily as the actors then lip synch when filming the movie. Les Miserables is trying a different approach: having the actors sing as part of filming the movie and then coming back to fill in the music with an orchestra. That’s an interesting approach that could make it more like a stage musical than some of the other inferior movie musicals we’ve seen over the past years. (Like all geeks, I reserve the right to be snobbish about my professed area of geekness.)
So what does this have to do with social media? How about this.
Your social media strengths should drive your choices, not the other way around. We all know social media is about content and interactions. You may be strong at one or the other or both, but there will be plenty of components to your social media activities in which you aren’t strong. Your strengths should dictate the choices you make, not be a slave to the weaker elements. The Les Miserables movie knows that the movie will succeed or fail based on the songs so they tried to make the performances of them as integrated into the movie and powerful as possible and changed the normal filmmaking process around that. Bioware tried to give attention to their strength by locking it early but that was before they’d figured out how to completely integrate it. They came up with some clever hacks at changing the content later, but that may have weakened their strongest element. So you should try to let your social media strengths shine as much as possible. Because your weak points will only get you into trouble.
When you can’t adapt you create risk. Bioware locked their Gold Content early, which led to some creative methods when they needed to change that content later. For example, if you play The Old Republic, any time you’re receiving a mission and a voiceover actor is suddenly interrupted by a subtitled alien/droid, that’s Bioware performing “surgery” on the mission later in the process. The risk Bioware faced is weakening their content, but in social media we’ve seen examples of not taking recent developments into account (like scheduling a tweet about a concert that was cancelled when a stage collapsed and killed somebody) or trying to apply old rules to new media (like various cease and desists sent to web sites). Your important elements need to be integrated, not completed and forgotten, or else you create risk with bad content, promotions, or contests.
There you go, Star Wars and Les Miserables in one blog post. My dream is fulfilled. Now go dream your own dream.