Video: The value of taking a narrative approach to level design

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Since time immemorial (or at least the 20th century) games have been designed so that players move through levels while overcoming challenges.

But if you’re making a game that’s mainly aimed at telling a great story, rather than challenging the player’s skills, how do you design levels to best support that narrative? At GDC 2017, game designer Jolie Menzel shared some advice on the issue, drawing on her experience making narrative-focused games at Ubisoft and, before that, Telltale Games.

In addition to practical tips, Menzel argues that level designers of all stripes should familiarize themselves with storytelling techniques and how they can be utilized to evoke a desired feeling from the player. Using those techniques well can help your virtual worlds evoke a variety of feelings in your players, and that’s key to making your game a memorable experience.

It was a great talk that was both informative and concise, so don’t sleep on your opportunity to now watch it for free over on the official GDC YouTube channel!

In addition to this presentation, the GDC Vault and its new YouTube channel offers numerous other free videos, audio recordings, and slides from many of the recent Game Developers Conference events, and the service offers even more members-only content for GDC Vault subscribers.

Those who purchased All Access passes to recent events like GDC, GDC Europe, and GDC Next already have full access to GDC Vault, and interested parties can apply for the individual subscription via a GDC Vault subscription page. Group subscriptions are also available: game-related schools and development studios who sign up for GDC Vault Studio Subscriptions can receive access for their entire office or company by contacting staff via the GDC Vault group subscription page. Finally, current subscribers with access issues can contact GDC Vault technical support.

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DreamWorks Animation is further expanding its How to Train Your Dragonfranchise into games that teach kids about science and technology, while its VFX and gaming divisions find new applications for immersive technology.

What do dragons have to do with STEM?

Two years ago, DreamWorks Animation and Jumpstart, a children’s educational gaming company, rolled out an evolving series of science-themed mobile multiplayer online games, School of Dragons, based on theHow to Train Your Dragon film franchise. The MMO has drawn some 16 million players, aged 8-13.

This month, Jumpstart introduces a new School of Dragons 20-game expansion pack, Call of the Death Song, featuring new adventures of the Viking/dragon posse incorporating storylines from DreamWorks’ new TV series Dragons: Race to the Edge, which premiered on Netflix last month. The games involve learning-based journeys to new landscapes that surreptitiously integrate earth science, engineering, physics, and chemistry.



“Dragons aren’t mythological; they’re biological—so the science is all around them,” says Taylor Lord, Jumpstart’s community manager, making reference to the games’ creative gateway into science, which increases in complexity as players learn. “We teach kids to learn by scientific method, to teach them to teach themselves.”

How the Vikings live, how they build, what they grow, the different landscapes they visit, and the way the dragons fly all apply to lessons about engineering, physics, integrated ecosystems and species coexistence. The games require players to use science to solve problems to complete quests. For example, Alchemy Adventure has kids mixing elements from the periodic table to desired flame colors and explosions. Another, The Lab, teaches players the scientific method by solving problems by having them gather information, form a hypothesis, and test it out.


A scene from The Lab gamePhoto: courtesy of Jumpstart


“One of the things we learned with 8-13 year olds is you’ve got to keep them engaged,” says Jim Czulewicz, Jumpstart’s chief revenue officer. “The kill-and-drill styles of the old educational products just don’t work. No kid wants to come home from school and do more schoolwork. But if you can fly a dragon and learn scientific principles without even knowing you’re learning, it’s a winner.”


(L-R) Jumpstart’s Taylor Lord and Jim Czulewicz, with School of Dragonsproducer David Jaloza.Photo: Susan Karlin


School of Dragons is Jumpstart’s second DreamWorks venture in their three-year partnership, after their successful Madagascareducation games. It’s available on 10 platforms, and provides weekly content updates and a seamless experience between mobile and desktop apps. The games incorporate guidance from teacher panels, an in-house science curriculum designer, and the players themselves.

“These are the most vocal fans I’ve ever heard in my life,” laughs Czulewicz. “They tell us exactly what they want to see, when we’re wrong with the color of a dragon, and catch mistakes. It’s very refreshing and a little unnerving, but it proves the brand is continuing to grow.”


DreamLab’s Brad Herman assists kids on Dragon Flight VR game, which has been used for promotions, but is not on the market.Photo: Susan Karlin


While Dragon games train the next generation of STEM students, DreamWorks’ current crop of technologists are testing other digital boundaries.

Gaming division DreamLabs combines DreamWorks storytelling with innovative technologies to create interactive fan experiences.

“Anywhere there’s a digital touchpoint with our consumers, we want to create new and cutting edge things for them to see, hear, and try,” says DreamLab founder Brad Herman. Herman focuses on development, while Shiraz Akmal, DreamLab’s head of business and product development, migrates those ideas to market.


In the now-available DreamWorks Color, an app turns a coloring book page into a 3-D iPad image.Photos: Susan Karlin

DreamWorks Color is an available app that turns a 2D dragon that kids color themselves into a 3-D image on their iPads. Dragon Flight is an Oculus Rift virtual reality experience that gives plays the sensation of flying a dragon, complete with cold air blowers for a feeling of wind, and animated flourishes like sea mist stirring up when your dragon skims the water surface.


A swarm scene from the TV series required some computational gymnastics.Photo: courtesy of DreamWorks Animation


Over on the series side, animators have been getting their own STEM education of sorts, as they’re challenged to find creative ways around TV animation computing limits to better visualize the scripts.


VFX Supervisor David JonesPhoto: Susan Karlin

“There were certain technological limits to what we could do on a TV series,” says David Jones, Race to the Edge’s VFX supervisor. Take, for example, a gaggle of dragons. “The software crashed if we loaded more than 10 (fully animated) characters, maybe 11. But they really wanted to do something with a flock.”

So, instead of a swarm of animated characters, Jones’ team saved them as a series of 3-D still images of each character flapping its wings, then created a collection of particles, and told the computer to replace each with an image from the cycle of the 3-D wing flaps. “So we didn’t have to load 7,000 rigged (fully animated) characters, but pre-generated shapes of a dragon flapping its wings,” says Jones. “We only loaded the rigs of anyone doing something specific for the shot.”


(L-R) Race to the Edge writers Will Morey, John Tellegen, Jack Thomas, FM DeMarco, and Brook ChalmersPhoto: Susan Karlin

That’s when the trouble started. “Once we could do flocks, the writers said, `So what else can’t you do?'” laughs Jones. “`Well, water interaction is terrible for us.’ They said,`That’s funny, because we’ve written this scene about a tidal wave!’ So it became a running joke that anything we couldn’t do they started writing scripts about. On the bright side, the episodes are never boring for us.

“I came from live action where the rules are different,” adds Jones, who worked on Black Hawk Down and Minority Report. “Because I didn’t know the limitations [of animation], I didn’t really know to say `no’ to people, so we always ended up figuring out a way to do it. But I applied things I’d learned in live action to fire, smoke, and water that’s not the way you traditionally do it in CG cartoons. And it gives the show an interesting feel—like a little twinge of realty.”

[Photo: courtesy of DreamWorks Animation]


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“It dawned on me that here was this company with an amazing product and brilliant franchise and it was committing to movies two, three, and four. And yet they didn’t know who went to see the first Avatar. No idea. And it kind of struck me that some of the greatest entertainment properties of our time aren’t directly connected to their audience.”

As senior vice president of mobile, Stalbow’s job was to migrate properties like The Simpsons (and Avatar) to apps and mobile games, and so he knew firsthand how mobile games offered a much more connected relationship with fans and players. Not only were companies like Fox able to access data about what sorts of people were playing the games and what aspects engaged them, as a content creator they could offer updates and other bits of entertainment that could keep fans engaged on an ongoing basis, not just for a few, finite hours.



Something else Stalbow saw at Fox was how mobile wasn’t just a distribution platform but a powerful marketing tool. When Fox produced the animated film Rio, Stalbow and his team partnered with Rovio, the Finnish company behind the phenomenally successful game Angry Birds, for a cross-promotional mobile game called Angry Birds Rio. When Rio came out, Fox conducted exit polls at theaters, asking people how they’d heard about the movie. “We asked people, had you seen the Super Bowl promotion for Rio? Had you seen the McDonald’s promotion? Had you seen the latest trailer? And had you downloaded and played Angry Birds Rio?,” says Stalbow.

“And basically it was off-the-charts-high: Angry Birds Rio was the most successful piece of marketing for the Rio movie, based on those polls. I think that was a moment where everyone realized, ‘Okay, this isn’t just a great content consumption platform, it’s a great marketing platform as well’.”

Stalbow ended up leaving Fox to work for Rovio, and if his Fox experience was an education in the integration of mobile and traditional media, then Rovio proved to be an education in how to make great games. Now he’s taking both lessons and improving on them as he embarks on his own gaming venture. Seriously, the mobile gaming company he founded last year with Petri Järvilehto, the former EVP of games at Rovio, is trying to build entertainment franchises that have games at their core. Or, as Stalbow puts it: “We’re trying to do Hollywood backwards.”

“If Hollywood starts with the TV show or the movie as the engine driver of its IP and then builds businesses around that,” then Stalbow and his cofounding partner want to “build a game and then start building it out backwards,” Stalbow says.

The theory is that unlike TV shows or movies, games allow a company like Seriously to directly engage with and understand its audiences. This relationship can then be built upon and expanded through other media and products, whether it be a movie or plush toys. Seriously, which is based in Santa Monica and Helsinki, also invests heavily in game development, thinking about things like character development, narrative, and even music in a way that is more akin to the way a movie production company or studio would than a gaming company. Indeed, Stalbow says his goal is to create games that “kind of feel like a Pixar movie.



The company’s first attempt at this is Best Fiends, a puzzle game that pits a band of feisty forest creatures against menacing slugs who thwart their journey to Mount Boom. Since launching last October, Best Fiends, which is available on iOS and Android, has been downloaded over 14 million times and has had up to 1.3 million daily plays. Although it’s not a top 100 game in the U.S. (it performs better overseas), those numbers gave Seriously validation that the game was clicking, and so as a first step toward building out the Best Fiends platform, Seriously is launching a limited edition of collectible slugs at Comic-Con this year (the toys were made in partnership with the company Kidrobot). Later in the year, Best Fiends will also be available as plush toys, and animated shorts related to the game will start appearing on the app.

All of this “is a great way for us to start thinking about how our brand starts evolving outside the game,” says Stalbow. “We want to launch things that add overall value to the IP.”

But perhaps what most sets Seriously apart from other gaming companies is its creative approach—i.e., the way in which it tries to create Pixar-like entertainment with a “subversive yet sweet sensibility,” Stalbow says. While most game companies are most focussed on producing the most wildly addictive games on the planet and racking up the most downloads, Seriously wants to make games that best lend themselves to longer-form content—while also, of course, still trying to be wildly addictive. Although an Angry Birds feature film is slated to come out next year, it has taken several years to develop. Seriously is setting itself up to move much quicker. To this end, it drew on its Hollywood connections to create Best Fiends. Heitor Peirera, who composed the music for the Despicable Me movies, wrote the music for Best Fiends—which was recorded in Europe with a 68-piece orchestra and featured in the cinematic trailer that Seriously released before the game’s launch. And Dan Romanelli, who established the consumer products division at Warner Bros., is an investor and advisor. (Upfront Ventures and Sunstone Capital are other investors.)



“Lots of other mobile games studios told me, ‘Don’t invest in the music. No one will listen. They turn the music off,'” Stalbow says. “We went the opposite way and got a great composer on board. We spend our time caring about the animation, the polish, the way the characters look at you in the game. We’re just trying to establish a relationship between characters and audience. So all of this is set up to be something that could go bigger.”

The company also spent time developing the Best Fiends narrative and backstory: When a meteor struck Mount Boom, suddenly the otherwise harmless slugs became terrors who gobbled up everything in their path. The Best Fiends, meanwhile, were left behind when their families were eaten by the slugs. (Revenge motive? Check.) Each creature has also been given its own defining characteristics and personality, as opposed to just being a collection of cute, interchangeable creatures: Nog, the wheat weevil, is a “bug of action” with bad allergies. Lapoleon is a power-seeking roach.

Stalbow admits that his biggest challenge is scale. As a “scrappy startup” with 30 employees, he’s competing not just with major gaming companies like Rovio, but Hollywood studios “who have a lot of money to make big bets.” In contrast, Best Fiends cost just a million dollars to make when it launched.

But Stalbow thinks that by making calculated moves and evolving in a step-by-step fashion, he can compete. He’s also drawing on A-list talent, not just from Hollywood, but Helsinki, where Seriously’s games are built (marketing and business development are in L.A.). The company has hired employees from Rovio, Supercell, NaturalMotion, and Remedy, among other top, Finnish gaming companies.



Interestingly, even Stalbow’s end goal zags from the Hollywood way of doing things. Should Best Fiends ever make it to the movie stage, he says he’s not interested in a “big Hollywood movie opening.” Instead, he’d like to “open the movie in the app. Why not? To millions of people who can buy the product straight away, whether with Apple Pay or connect to pay? I’d rather focus on the in-game experience and keep it all there. That’s gonna be the bigger and bigger opportunity.”

He pauses.

“For Hollywood, too.”