Big Names Should Work On Small Games

A new piece of DLC is coming for Dragon Age II called Mark of the Assassin. But I’m done with Dragon Age II. I played it, enjoyed it despite some flaws, beat it, and plan to go back to it eventually (i.e. sometime before Dragon Age III). However, this coming DLC has piqued my interest due in no part to its content, but rather to its creator.

Felicia Day, mostly known for her web series The Guild, wrote the story for Mark of the Assassin, and she voices a character, who also looks like her, and moves like her since she did the motion-capture work as well. In fact, based on preview coverage, it’s impossible to talk about Mark of the Assassin without also talking about Felicia Day. This DLC is being promoted as her creation, and she’s even showing it off to press herself, which strikes me as a great way to bring creative talent from other mediums into gaming. Or at least a better way than past attempts.

There was a lot of hubbub when EA partnered with Steven Spielberg for multiple games. We know of two games that came out of that partnership: The quirky Boom Blox for the Wii and the never released project codenamed “LNMO” which was meant to be a big budget, emotionally engaging action game (there’s a great recap of its history here). More recently, THQ partnered with Guillermo del Toro for Insane, a trilogy of Lovecraftian horror games.

For an industry as risk averse as gaming is, these publishers are taking pretty big risks with these properties and people, especially THQ since horror isn’t particularly mainstream. It does make a kind of sense: if you hire a big name for a project, it should be a big project, right? But having that big name helm such a project puts a lot of pressure on someone unfamiliar with the medium. Del Toro has admitted that’s he’s learning about games as he makes his game:

We’ve been working for a year. We have two or three more years to go. It’s huge. I’m learning a lot. I’m going in with a really, really modest ‘I’m learning’ approach. I’m a huge gamer but going into constructing it, you have to be respectful of the medium. I’m learning a lot. (Russ Frushtick, “Guillermo del Toro Gives inSANE Update, Describes Sandbox-Style Game”, MTV Multiplayer Blog, 15 August 2011)

This seems like a flawed strategy from the start.

However, bringing on such filmmakers (from as niche a one as Day might be to as mainstream a luminary as Spielberg) to work on downloadable content would turn out better for all involved. Working within the rules of an already established franchise would give these industry newcomers more guidance, while the small size of most DLC projects still allows them to take some creative risks. Because you still want them to take risks; that’s really the entire point of hiring someone from outside the gaming industry — to bring in someone who can offer a new perspective on things. For example, Mark of the Assassin will have stealth sections, and I guarantee you that such a thing would never have happened in a major Dragon Age release. On a more cynical note, bringing in an outsider to guide such creative risks gives the developer and publisher some cover if it all goes to hell: If Mark of the Assassin turns out to be a complete mess, I’m sure Felicia Day will take most of the blame for it, not Bioware.

Such an approach also works well for games because many games are more about the world than the story. Plot doesn’t matter if we enjoy playing in a particular world. In fact, nearly every AAA game is more about the world than the story, making it all the easier to sell books and comics that expand the fiction. Blatant cross promotion aside, since so much work is put into establishing a world and not so much a single narrative or specific tone, this allows games to tell side stories very easily.

I find it telling that of the two projects Spielberg worked on with EA, it was the more modest Boom Blox that succeeded while “LMNO” failed. Boom Blox represents every positive that this business strategy has to offer. Many games for Wii were made with the idea that all you had to do was replace a button with a gesture and the game would work fine, but gesturing is not the same thing as pushing a button; it’s slower, so the controls only end up feeling awkward. Spielberg, not being hampered by ideas of traditional design, came up with an idea for a game that simply can’t work on a traditional controller. (Now, I may be giving him too much credit for the game here, but I distinctly remember reading that Boom Blox was “the first idea that jumped into my head.”). This is exactly what the Kinect needs to prevent it from following the same sales trajectory as the Wii.

Granted, this is very much not the case with Mark of the Assassin. That’s a gamer’s game from a gamer, and it’s probably not going to revolutionize anything. But it’s also a modest bit of content that gives a creative person a chance to play around within an established world. It looks to be (at least a little) different, and that’s a good thing. I’m glad to see Bioware willing to experiment with their franchises. And from a marketing standpoint, it’s already working on me: I could not have cared less about the Legacy DLC, but I love The Guild and I’m excited to see what Day brings to Dragon Age.