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The Content-Producing Game (CPG) — The Movies at WRT: Writer Response Theory




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the_movies.gifWhat I bought was a game; what I found was an authorware-sim-game. “The Movies” by Lionhead Studios falls into the grey area between authorware and video game. Players of the game can use it to make and share content. What can we as electronic authors make of this new genre?

The Movies: Exemplary CPG

“The Movies” was brought to us by Peter Molyneux of Lionhead Studios (acquired by Microsoft in April 2006), the makers of “Black & White,” the entertaining and literal “god game, and “Fable” (over 2 million units solid). (Molyneux, who is the head in Lionhead, has been called the “inventor” of the “god” game.) Despite its sales, Fable seemed to fall short of expectations. Nonetheless, the lions have certainly found a new audience and potentially a new genre with the addition of a deliverable, distributable content. (“The Movies” was the highest selling IP over the most recent Christmas period). So here is the latest stab at interactive storytelling, a program that provides opportunities for generating stories interactively: what I will call a Content-Producing Game (CPG).

“The Movies” is a combinatoric writing tool that seems to reach for some of the goals Chris Crawford outlined in his latest book, Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling (2004) and even his recent podcast with Christy. It is “Interactive Storytelling Technology” or rather interactive technology for generating stories, although an entirely different way (that he, who declared that video games are dead, may no doubt find blasphemous). Crawford only has The Sims to analyze for his book. The Movies takes a tycoon game and mashes it with Machinima (see discussion by Andrew Stern and others on GTxA).Crucial to Crawford is the size of the grain that is combined. (See more in this classic post on GTxA). If in Cent Milles Milliards de Poems a combinatoric grain is an individual line of poetry, in “The Movies” the grain is an individual sequence of computer-animated footage. These short scenes can be customized in many ways, most notably changing the actors, set, and costumes.

As with so many games recently, there are many mini-games within “The Movies.” In the framing narrative, players manage their studio lots (ala Black & White and Starcraft): building sets, hiring actors, et cetera. Task your scriptwriters with writing a horror film and viola! Once the sequences have been combined, the player can further customize the film in the “Post Production” house or “The Movie Player” setting for the game. Here, the user can add soundtracks and subtitles, while even rearranging scenes. By customizing only the films the system generates seems a very Oulipo approach to the game. You provide the system with some input but then must accept its output.

You may also take a more hands-on approach. In a “custom scriptwriting house,” players can build their own films by choosing combinations of sets and sequences more freely. Genre guides suggest particular sequences of conflict and resolution, but these can be completely ignored (as I have in most of the Grammar Films–see below).

Typical sequences involve introductions, entrances, exits, examining items, confrontations, etc. Many of the sequences can be modified to suit a particular mood of the characters. These changes, along with changes to the outcome of a scene, determine the movement of the characters. Lip-syncing the sound offers more possibilities for building coherence. It is the very ability to add narrative through text (subtitles) and sound (dubbed voices) that moves this game out of the combinatoric puzzle.

Typical of systems with customizable presets, the system suggests its affordances will be limitless just about the time you hit the wall. I have had scenes of three people where the camera shifts to a third just when I need it to stay put. The problem with “The Movies” is that once you know how the system works, you cannot watch someone else’s movie without seeing their selections. Did they choose “Answers Phone” or “Monologue” or even “Slips on a Banana Peel?” This may be a sign of the grains being too big or not customizable enough.

Productive Players

There are many games that rely heavily on user production. Most MMORPGs fit this description. Second Life, where Christy lives part of her life, offers another poductive example. The IFMud offers another. And if we water down the idea enough, the entire internet becomes an example. Here is a case where the players become the producers of the game. Though our media studies friend will point out that players have always produced games by buying them and circulating them, rendering them relevant or at least significant in our cultures.

Some Notable Films: (see movies at the Movies megaplex here)

Though the combination of a story-generator, sequences of violent or sexual content, the ability to modify bodies (need I go on?) leads to a fairly large group of films that would have gone over well with the drumline of the high school marching band, there are many films with a bit more to offer. Here are just a few:

22 Short Films about Grammar

Mentioned briefly in our post on iBunk, “22 Short Films about Grammar” was inspired by “32 Films about Glenn Gould” and, more significantly, “22 Short Films about Springfield.” The films are designed as computer-produced teaching aids for the instruction of grammar, mostly at a college level (with the exception of “Pittsburgh Punctuation” and “Speech–part OF”). Occasionally they have additional versions with guest commentary (Jack Nicholson, Sean Connery). There is even one bootleg film (”Fragmental Frances–bootleg”), which was not entirely generated using “The Movies.”

Other “Movies” of note:

  • Commander Future” (FirstInteraktivMovie): The first Interactive Movie , albeit interactive more in the sense of the movie “Clue” or “The Lady or the Tiger.” [This film has been removed by its creator, but you can read the description.]
  • An entire genre of “Brokeback Mountain” parodies
  • The French Democracy,” Alex Chan’s award-winning film about the 2005 riots in France.

Games as Writer Response Technology

Machinima took all games for creative production in a way that mod communities hadn’t yet. But what happens when you have to play a game in order to get more tools? As you play “The Movies,” you only gradually get access to various production technologies which improve film and sound quality (unless you use the cheat/hack). I found myself waiting around for a new person to show up at my studios so I could load one of my other characters. On another time, I had to watch my characters wander about the lot while I waited for a higher quality film stock to be invented.

Can you imagine the design equivalent?

What if Photoshop began with a rock and a stone and you had to wait millennia for the first quill to be used or writing to be developed? What if your word processor began with just one font and only released more fonts if you typed a certain number of documents. Or if your letters started to decay the longer you used the program without upgrading?

One argument for the “developmental” approach to CPGs is to encourage the players to master the preliminary activities first, a kind of compulsory tutorial (with a Sandbox level allowing players to skip many days of school). Another might be to offer some constraints. Obviously some ties to the chronological development of film as a medium was on the mind of the game makers.

Despite my frustration, I find the combination of creation time with mundane waiting around time and errand time to be remarkably life-like.

[Writer’s Respond Thus: What other games might fall into the category of CPGs?]



15 Responses to “The Content-Producing Game (CPG) -- The Movies”

  1. 1 Christy Dena

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    I cannot think of any examples right now but I like your bundling of a simulation of the creation process and the ability to create in one genre. The whole idea of waiting around, of having to live through things that you cannot do anything about in real life is quite weird to me. The digital media improves the ability to create (a machinima for example) but persists the real life experience of creating it. It slaps the process of remediation in the face because a new medium is meant to improve rather than replicate. Perhaps living with the simulated process of creation makes the efficently created object seem more real? Or makes the digitally versed but not celluloid versed director feel as if they earned their output. As if suffering for your art is the pervading logic rather than making the creation process more accessible…

  2. 2 Jeremy Douglass

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    I like this idea of the CPG - although it may cause confusion that PG doesn’t mean “-playing game”, causing people to think that the term stands for Content Playing Game (Creation Playing Game?)? A few reactions:

    How does the CPG overlap with or differ from the economic-based MMOG, like A Tale in the Desert or Second Life, with their crafting systems and their museums, art galleries, and other sites and opportunities for arts and entertainment creation? Is the CPG a specific or goal-directed case of the general crafting system?

    Is ‘Content’ the right word? I’m thinking particularly of Spore, and Will Wright’s description of the creatures and architectures that players mold during (single-player) play as ‘content’ that later circulates among games via central server. It strikes me that, from a video games perspective, this is a pretty good description of what content production is: you add claws to your three-legged eyeballoid, then paint it purple, then it (as ‘content’) turns up in someone else’s game. My sense was that in discussing The Movies, however, you were thinking more in terms of ‘content’ as the word is used by television networks. Does any experience-creation count, like authoring in Neverwinter Nights?

    How seriously should we take the game claims that something is a media object - or that it isn’t? What about the sim-rollercoaster and amusement park management genre - RollerCoaster Tycon, SimCoaster, NoLimits Rollercoaster, etc.? Is a sim that allows you to build amusements and then experience them a CPG, or is the dynamically generated movie of the rollercoaster ride different from the dynamically generated movie of the ‘film’?

  3. 3 Mark Marino

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    Jeremy,

    Good point on the PG. If you’ve got other suggestions for nomenclature, let me know.

    1) Your question about MMOGs is well received. Let’s see if we can nail down this distinction, although I think it might be better to treat it like a two-tone paint job and “blend” the two areas. Here are the two options as I see it (developed below):
    a) CPGs only speak to games that produce content that can be shared even without the game.
    b) CPGs speak to all games that provide opportunities of sharing portable content.

    The second seems possibly too broad. Wouldn’t every MMORPG be a CPG by that definition, since each person’s avatar (and actions) are shared.

    Yet, Christy is creating content in Second Life that can be shared to those outside the game. This is more what I’m leaning towards.

    2) Content may not be the right word. Originally I liked “Output” (which lead to OOGs. Output is possibly to broad, since all games produce output, and OOGs was taken, as Christy pointed out). I also toyed with “product” (which sounded too consumer-oriented).

    Again, you’ve found a conceptual grey-area with “Neverwinter Nights” and numerous other games, no doubt. But as you describe it, I can’t help but think that “content” is just the word I’m looking for. The distinction here might be that the content is produced in a form that can be used outside of the game context.

    On the other hand, I can see reason to include the work of the generator games in this classification.

    3) Nice. Another grey area. As I’m thinking this through, I may stick with my answer to question 2 and emphasize output that can be experienced independent of the game, though I would like to hear some more counterarguments.

    A test case is Facade. It produces these scripts that others share. But, I’m not sure those scripts can truly circulate on their own.

    Singstar, Sony’s Karaeoke game might offer one example. After performing your version of a song, you can record it to a memory stick. If you share your memory stick, then the content becomes deliverable. [It’s not clear to me whether this will be a stand alone file or not.]

  4. 4 Mark Marino

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    Christy, I love this point:

    It slaps the process of remediation in the face because a new medium is meant to improve rather than replicate. Perhaps living with the simulated process of creation makes the efficently created object seem more real? Or makes the digitally versed but not celluloid versed director feel as if they earned their output. As if suffering for your art is the pervading logic rather than making the creation process more accessible…

    I like a combination of these possibilities: namely, the simulation of the process (and the obstacles to that process) replicate some kind of real-world resistance to our creation–but that this can be a productive resistance, a productive constraint.

    For example, “Spliceback Mountain” came about when the “Basic Scriptwriting Office” generated a western romance that I cast with two male leads. I didn’t know at the time what sequences would be used or how that choice would affect the film. Then, all that was left was to find the grammar lesson that might fit. I doubt I would have made that parody “from scratch.”

    So it’s adding some other variables to the process and some restrictions. Of course, it’s not literally Oulipo. Jeremy, you’ve been reading up on them, lately. What do you think of this?

  5. 5 Christy Dena

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    I really like escdotdots example too of the software that simulates the problems of real life creation: virtual crayons that wear down.

    Mark, it seems there are some possible paths to go with what you’ve identified here:

    1) To cluster all works that provide nothing except the means the create;

    2) To cluster all works tht provide the means to create alongside some producer-created content;

    3) To cluster all works that provide the means to create and a simulation of the process (good and bad) of creating;

    I think area two is too big and hard to define but 1 and 3 are interesting (to me). In particular, I’m really enamoured with the idea of simulations of how hard it is to create. This harks back to Jeremy’s notion of frustration too I think…

     

  6. 6 Mark Marino

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    I see what you mean, Christy.

    Since “The Movies” doesn’t really fit into category 1, that rules out that category.

    I still feel like we are more likely to find games that produce discrete, portable, stand-along content to be worth tracking. Again, I realize there are few more limits that need to be added here.

    I like your category 3, too. What would fall into Category 3? I like it. Lemonade stand? Madden 07 (see Jeremy’s recent comments about Fantasy Football)? All tycoon-sim games? Oregon Trail? (I’m thinking we might have to address the nature of the content (along the lines of Jeremy’s questions).

  7. 7 J. Bushnell

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    This seems like a good place to bring up the example of old-fashioned “construction set”-style software, such as Pinball Construction Set (1983) or Adventure Construction Set (1984).

    There are plenty of games today that contain “level editors” built into them, of course, but those are games first and foremost, with the level editor added as a sort of extra, whereas with construction sets the reverse is true: their reason for existence as software is the content-production dimension, and the games included with the package (demos, etc) are the extras. Although it’s complicated somewhat by the fact that the content these sets produce is playable games.

    Could construction sets, themselves, be said to be games? I’m leaning towards “no,” because I think a game has to have some degree of engineered difficulty or challenge, and the construction sets aim (I think) to make it as easy as possible to create using them. So that “simulation” element that Christy is drawing a bead on is actually the key to making The Movies a game and not authoring software. This is also why the analogy between The Movies and Photoshop seems so weird: because Photoshop isn’t trying to be a game and so doesn’t need to make itself deliberately difficult…

  8. 8 Mark Marino

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    Well, said, Jeremy. Pinball construction set and level editors are particularly relevant. I can remember “K.C. Munchkin” of the Odyssey system allowed me to make the level that trapped all the ghosts, allowing me to eat away until the system overheated.

    But perhaps these games and construction sets exist on a spectrum (Games–tools).

    There are game-like elements to many construction sets. Or specifically, there are many simulations in any construction set, and here I think it’s relevant that the game that surrounds The Movies is not Tetris or even GTA, it’s a sim.

    I guess, the border I’m seeking, regarding Photoshop, is the border between the tool and the simulation.

    To what extent are GUIs game-like (again I risk watering down the idea a bit too much here)? Photoshop is not a game (scoring, characters, etc.),but it does have a magnifying glass, a hand, an eye-dropper, and a magic wand. (Sorry, I don’t mean to stretch too far here). So maybe they aren’t game-like, but they are simulations (in the way of remediations).

    Is Photoshop Sim PhotoLab? (Even the name implies a connection with the space of the “shop”.) Photoshop simulates the experience of cutting and pasting, masking, et cetera. It also simulates certain film-processing techniques (e.g. burn, difference).

    Where does it stop the simulation of photographic editing? It doesn’t simulate trying to save money to pay for film, not having the right tools, or making mistakes when developing. It also doesn’t simulate taking pictures using a Holga.

    Now of course, it would be absurd for Photoshop to do any of these things unless…
    What it’s allowing you to do is make something with a few extra real-world-inspired constraints folded in. From a creativity standpoint, I find this idea rather compelling as constraints (not just in the material affordances) can produce quite interesting results. Don’t you think?

    Again, I return to Christy’s reference to Frustration (see Jeremy’s article).

    Thoughts?

  9. 9 J. Bushnell

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    I can imagine a Photoshop hack or add-on that added constraints and challenges to Photoshop, thus making it into a sim-game. That would be hilarious.

    It doesn’t simulate trying to save money to pay for film

    Indeed! Scarcity may be an important concept to think when attempting to draw the boundary between a tool and a sim. In Steven Shaviro’s review of Julian Dibbell’s new book on the economics of MMORPGs, he writes: “[W]hy is there scarcity in Ultima Online? The answer is, that it is programmed in. … People enjoy scarcity, enjoy the experience of struggling to overcome constraints. Online games in which anything was possible haven’t done very well. But lots of people will pay to be stimulated by the challenges of scarcity in games.”

  10. 10 Christy Dena

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    Maybe the term should be CSG: Creation-Simulation Game?

  11. 11 J Bushnell

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    Maybe the term should be CSG: Creation-Simulation Game?

    This makes sense in the context of this discussion, but I think if it were released more widely people would [maybe] just confuse it with sims more generally? Someone could say that Sim City simulates the “creation” of a city, even though that city is not “content” in the sense that we are using it in this thread.

    I think you were right earlier when you said that the important part is that these programs both allow a user to create things, and simulate the hardships involved in that kind of creation. Unfortunately that makes only for unweildy acronyms like CPCSGs [Content-Producing Creation-Simulating Games]? Maybe better is to condense Mark’s original description–”authorware-sim game”–into just “authoring games,” which doesn’t sound too bad to me..?

  12. 12 Mark Marino

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    Ah, I like the sound of Authoring Games.

    Consider this article by Noah and David Durand which also uses the term “authoring games.” Does “Cardplay” meet our criteria? The final text is not portable. Hmm, Jeremy might have some insights here.

    So do we need a discrete end product?

    I keep coming back to Authoring-Sim-Game, Authorware-Sim-Game, or Authoring Games.

    More thoughts?

  13. 13 Jeremy B

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    Cardplay confounds the waters a little bit, because it is both an authoring program (of sorts) and a game, but it doesn’t sound that the game’s challenges are simulation-oriented. The game doesn’t encourage the player to think of her- or himself as participating in a simulation of writing, but it does fuse game elements with authoring elements.

    This leads me to think that we should stick with “authoring games” as a broad category clustering “works that provide the means to create but with the introduction of game-like obstacles,” and then “authoring sim games” as a sub-category clustering “works that provide the means to create, with the inclusion of game-like obstacles, specifically obstacles which simulate those encountered in the process of creating.”

    ?

  1. 1 i don’t know » Blog Archive » Mark Marino—The Content-Producing Game
  2. 2 Machinima in Europe (10/12-10/14) at WRT: Writer Response Theory

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