Screenplay to Game Design Fundamentals
By: William H. Anderson
I was one of those people who had been following the hype and building excitement behind James Cameron’s movie the Avatar for a very long time! So of course I was naturally excited when I heard about the game in development based on the movie, while at the same time apprehensive about getting it. Mainly due to the long-standing history of movie tie-in games being a bomb!
So naturally when the game came out just prior to the release of the movie I felt compelled, foolishly so, to rush out and buy the game and give it a spin before the release of the movie. I heard like many others that James Cameron’s group had been actively involved in helping provide material for the game’s development along the way and it was going to give me a glimpse, hopefully into what was coming in the movie.
But like a lot of people found out, Avatar the videogame just like many games that had been anchored to a movie license in the past failed to deliver!
Now personally, I been responsible for working on game design projects that were based on movie scripts and ongoing movie productions in the past. So I really know a lot about the restraints and pressures that game developers are under when having to put one of these products out. That being said, I also know that game publishers often succumb to the pressures of following the coattails of the movie hype to sell their gaming product, and not focusing on the overall quality to carry it. This is a trend that I’ve seen for decades now and in the videogame development field, and it’s not a trend that is likely to change anytime soon. Unless, the movie studios and/or their directors put their foot down and decide that quality video games based on their property is more important than meeting a fixed movie released.
So until this trend changes, which is unlikely for some time, how as a game designer and moreover a game developer approach taking a movie screenplay and break it down into a videogame design that is successful, while working around these tight restraints?
First and foremost it comes down to educating the movie studio and/or director you’re working with on the principles behind a Passive Audience Experience and an Interactive Audience Experience. I know these terminologies may be foreign to some of my readers, but they are principles that I’ve taught to many game designers throughout the years.
A Passive Audience Experience is what I often like to refer to is taking a person on a motion base ride, whereby they are strapped into a seat and taken through an experience by movie studios and its directors. While an Interactive Audience Experience requires game developers and it’s designers to not only take a person through that ride, but also encourage them at key moments to participate in this direction and its outcome. This is where the biggest differences lie in working between the game development field and Hollywood. It is also an area where some of the biggest conflicts can occur in a working relationship between Hollywood studios and/or its directors and game development studios who are responsible for creating a gaming product based on their properties.
So first and foremost a game developer must ask themselves, after meeting with a movie studio’s representatives, movie’s director or the person who will be the game studios principal contact during development of this product and/or the screenplay writer or author, can they work with this contact person on interactive product based on this property, or not?
The question of not is the biggest of all for a lot of game studios, for the draw of the money and working on a Hollywood tie-in product is very attractive for a lot of game developers, but it can also become a major nightmare in so many different ways. Costing a game studio more money than they can make from the product, a huge hit to the morale of their employees who are responsible for developing this product, which in itself can lead to more costly ramifications for a game developer when talented employees decide to leave at the end of such productions. Not to say the reputational harm it often does to a game developer, when they produce such a flop, for the gaming public and the gaming press will rarely ever hear of all the politics that went on behind the scenes back-and-forth between a game developer and a Hollywood studio in just getting the game out the door. The only thing they really care about is that after paying a fairly decent sum of money for what is supposed to be the hottest next generation video game they had a rewarding experience or not! If not, then it is highly unlikely that that buyer will buy another Hollywood tie-in movie product from that game developer again, and it is highly likely that it will cast doubt in that buyer’s mind about any other future products coming from this game studio in the near future. This is a fate no game studio wants to face!
Okay, so let’s say the answer is yes! You’ve met with all the representatives who will be involved from the movie side of the product and you feel comfortable that they understand your position and you understand there’s in what needs be done to take the screenplay and hopefully some assets from the movie and turn it into a successful selling videogame. Where do you go from here?
Product identification comes into play when we sit down and talk with the movie studio and look at the strengths and weaknesses of the game developer that is responsible for turning this property into a successful selling videogame. It is important to identify the basic characteristics of the screenplay and identify what style of game or genre this screenplay would fit into, and then, importantly, pick the one genre of game style that fits best with the production capabilities of your game development studio. This is an area that can trip-up a lot of developers these days, for they don’t always play to their strengths, or worse, believe that they can quickly hire enough new people to fill that void. While this may work with the gaming property that is of their own creation, it is less likely to work with a Hollywood production mainly due to the time restraints that often come with them. When these type of properties come in the door, a game studio needs to be able to hit the ground running, and not gamble on their ability to bring in the talent needed to meet a style and genre of game that they’re not accustomed to doing. It’s better just to tailor the product towards the strength that your game studio already has. That’s not to say you may not have to staff-up in certain areas to improve your productivity in certain areas of your strengths, but try not to move too far out of your own comfort zone in developing this product, for it could come back to bite you!
Now that you’ve gone through the process of Product Identification, and you’re fairly comfortable with the type of product or genre for this gaming product and everyone has signed off on it, then comes the time for the Screenplay Breakdown. This is called the pie-in-the-sky phase of game development, where ideas fly wildly. It can also be one of the most enjoyable times to brainstorming in what is going to make this gaming product totally unique. It also gives you the time to outline and define what you are going to call your killer-apps for this product.
Just for a point of reference, for those of you who are not that familiar with videogame design and development. The killer-apps of the game design are those few features that really define some of the most enjoyable and fun features of the videogame product.
While there many game play features that will define your overall gaming product and experience, it’s the killer-apps that the magazines and game players in general will be focused on the most in deciding if playing this game was worthwhile for them or not!
Now how do we define killer-apps in relationships to a movie screenplay? This is where close consultation with the movie studios representative on this project can really become extremely valuable. You need to talk with them and find out from their movie production standpoint, what elements in the screenplay are they going to devote the most money and time to in the movie. This can often give you a good starting point for defining your killer-apps. Taking a step back and looking at Avatar the screenplay, which has a whole smorgasbord of different elements that could make for great game play, the only trick is in deciding which ones to focus on the most, to best satisfy the game’s target audience for this genre of product.
In this effort you should define a limited number, based on your production capabilities and timeline for release, elements of game play that you will devote a good amount of resources on developing and refining to a high level of polish for this product. In the sake of Avatar, because combat via human weapons, native weapons and air combat was an integral part of the screenplay, along with elements of character building, these would have to have been the areas of greatest focus during the game’s development. But also one of the problems that can occur, which did happen with Avatar the videogame, was the split focus between the human race and those of the natives. This is not a good position to find yourself in, from a game design standpoint, for your going to have to split your game play narrative down two different paths, while at the same time doing it successfully. Just so the player feel satisfied that no matter which path he or she takes, the human path or the native path, that each feel very satisfying. This was demonstrated much better in the latest Aliens VS Predator videogame, where the game developer had this problem times three! The design of that product had to take the player down the human route, the alien route and the predator route and yet have them feel satisfying and still have them tie into one global storyline. While it is true, that any time you have to split the narrative of the videogame down more than one paths like this, it’s going to be a shorter storyline for each, but in the end not any more so than that of the movie having to do the same thing. But a good rule of thumb, is just to focus more so on those storylines that lend themselves to the strongest elements of game play, while at the same time not deviating too much from the structure of the story behind it. There’s no magic formula for this, for each screenplay is different, so it’s just going to fall on your best judgment!
As we talked about under Product Identification, playing to your strengths as a game developer is key to a successful production, no matter if it’s based on a Hollywood screenplay or a totally original game concept of your own creation. It’s important to stop, take a breath, and evaluate the resources you currently have at hand, the hiring climate of the industry at the time and your internal human resources, tools and game engine technologies.
Just like a general preparing for war, walks the troops, evaluates his equipment, checks his supplies and determines the best way and fastest way to move his troops and equipment to the areas needed, so the producers and game designers of a product need to do the same.
Understanding your studio’s capabilities on all of these fronts will help you better define how to approach putting your final game design together behind this movies screenplay. Doing it any differently would be like planning a trip across country without knowing the state of the car you’ll be driving, how much gas is in the tank or even a roadmap of where you intend to go!
There is one book that should be in every game developer’s library and mandatory reading for any videogame producer or designer, that is the Art of War by Sun Tzu.
Once you’ve had a proper and thorough evaluation of your company’s resources that will be devoted to the development of this project, and the timeline necessary to meet, you can then sit down to plan out your game design based on the screenplay.
Now, you should know, as most of us who have had to work on these type of projects in the past have learned the hard way, these screenplays are not set in stone! They often change throughout the whole movie production cycle, and if you’re lucky not too much so to throw your game production off track. But these type of delays should be totally buffered in to any schedule that is produced for this project. Any game development schedule that has been based totally and completely on just the screenplay, as is, without the assumption that things will change, at least 25%+ throughout the course of the movies production is going to run into trouble! Just like with the videogame production, there a lot of creative people involved in the creation of the movie, and along the way things will change, I’ve never known and not to! So there needs to be some clear understanding between the movie production company that your studio is working with and buffered into your schedule a contingency for these changes. A game studio needs to have fixed in their contract a certain number of delays that are acceptable and those that are not during the course of the development of one of these type of products. This can be one of the darker shadows of doing a screenplay game, and can often lead to the cancellation of a game production if those delays in the game’s development, caused by the screenplay rewrites, jeopardize the videogame coming out at the release date of the movie.
It’s not uncommon for a publisher to drop a videogame in production if they feel it is not going to meet the street date for the motion picture. This is often due to the game publishers not wanting to pick up the extra advertising cost that would be incurred if this game does not follow on the press coattails of the release of the movie.
Approaching a Screenplay Game Design
Okay, now that we’ve covered the basics and you’ve had the opportunity to do a breakdown of the screenplay, and evaluate what your development capabilities are, we can now dive into breaking the screenplay down into your production game design.
Now assuming that the screenplay is based primarily on an action movie, or at least mostly so, for it’s unlikely that you would be doing a videogame based on a movie drama or some type of romantic comedy, we can dive into the elements that make it up.
You should have a list of killer-apps that you have defined from your earlier evaluation of the screenplay and now comes the time to fill in all of the other basic elements that will define your product and how it will play.
One of the nicest things about working with a movie screenplay, as it’s adapted to a videogame design, is that you are ready have a structure. Now you just need to go through that screenplay in a more micro sense and start taking out elements that will fill in the rest of the game. This can be anything from the type of characters that are outlined in the screenplay, to their weaponry, to the types of environments that they may be found in. In general there is a lot of information contained in the screenplay that you can gain inspiration from when constructing your final game design document. But one of the most important places to start is with the story flow, for it’s key and adapting a movie screenplay into a videogame product.
Now in adapting a screenplay story to a game design story there may be a lot of back and forth between your game development studio, its designers and writers for the motion picture. Most screenplays will have to be abbreviated, sometimes greatly so, to get them to integrate well into a videogame product. This is a step that can’t be glossed over at the start of development for will establish the structure for your product, and it’s an area of great interest to the movie company. In the end it’s their story and they have to be comfortable with the abbreviated interpretation that the videogame will contain.
Because the movie screenplay is taking a person on a ride through a story, there will be many areas contained throughout that are there as linking one story sequence into another, and really are not suitable to force game play into. These are the areas right at the start that you will need to identify, determine if they can be removed, and if they are an integral part of telling the story, can they be done through a cinematic, background dialogue or in some other way to keep the original story intact.
One of the things that I like to do when I get a new screenplay and it needs to be adapted to a videogame, is grab me a red, yellow, and green highlighter and go through the screenplay page by page. I then quickly go through it and highlight and green the areas of the screenplay that lend themselves to the best part of making a great videogame. Those areas of the screenplay that cannot be adapted, for any number of reasons, would be highlighted in red, while those that are questionable and might or might not be able to be used are highlighted in yellow.
Once this is done, you will have to sit down with the screenplay that you just edited with your highlighters and do a quick flowchart of the story elements that you would like to keep in your upcoming game play design, to show how they all link together. This is an important step for you will still have to keep the structure of the original screenplay story together, while at the same time abbreviating it down to something that can be used for your videogame production. This will become the skeleton for which you add the skin of game play around when you finalize your game play design for this product.
At this point you want to get the movie studio’s people involved, to evaluate your abbreviation of the screenplay and its adaptation to this upcoming videogame product. It is important for them to understand that, while you have to make these edits to adapt their storyline to this product, you are still following in the spirit of the original screenplay. This will also give them the opportunity to evaluate your changes and talk to the screenplay writers to find out if there’s any objections to the edits that you have made. Nine times out of ten they will come back with some suggestions or changes of their own that they feel would make a more proper abbreviation of their storyline, for most of the time they will want to have some back-and-forth over the final direction of the in game story. Just make sure not to get too bogged down in this process, which can often happen, and while I advise game developers to work out these details before even going into production. It is also a good initial step in evaluating a working relationship between a movie studio and a game development studio, just to see if a good creative partnership is going to work out or not, before too much time or money is invested in this development.
Once the movie studio’s representatives have signed off on the new story adaptation for this videogame product, you are free to start moving forward with adding your game play around it in the final game design. The actual screenplay that has been provided by the movie studio should outlined a number of sub-elements that your designers can adapt into game play elements, and the list of killer-apps that you have already defined. All of this should fill in the rest of your product design. Just make sure to pace out your game play elements, including your killer apps, in such a way that the player never finds themselves in the position of searching for fun, or what we like to call these type of products, a Find the Fun Game!
Now there is much more I can say about working with a movie screenplay, in adapting it into a videogame product, but this article is just meant to touch on the basics of approaching these type of productions. If you found this article useful and would like me to expand on it further in future blogs than please feel free to email me with your feedback and comments!