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Lessons from Hollywood

LandthattimeforgotIt's not a great secret that I have followed the writing of Michael Moorcock for many years, and that I learned a lot about writing from his advice and techniques. One of his literally hundreds of books is Letters from Hollywood which, logically enough, is a collection of letters Moorcock wrote to his friend JG Ballard while he was working in Hollywood. Moorcock's experiences became truly grim and depressing while working for a particularly tyrannical director (unnamed, although a friend has told me who it is most likely to have been) - an incident which makes Barton Fink seem not so far from real life. Moorcock's problem was that he wanted to tell good stories. But Hollywood's not about telling good stories, it's about telling popular stories, stories that many people will pay to come and see.

Moorcock's experience soured him to the Hollywood film industry. He says: "I admire all the good films that are made in spite of the system!" Surprisingly, Moorcock has decided to allow a film version of his Elric saga to be made, a fact which suggests to me that he is aware of his own mortality. Many sci fi and fantasy authors only allow their films to be made when they are in their twilight years and most, like Frank Herbert, do not live to see the theatrical release. (Moorcock, incidentally, already had one of his books turned into a film, although he is not overly fond of the results). Even when you don't like the Hollywood system, there's still a certain majesty to the big screen that is hard to resist.

The problem with Hollywood is that it's very good at what it does, which is make popular movies with the purpose of making money. Thankfully, part of making popular movies is occasionally trying new things, and another part of making profitable movies is capitalising all your niches - which includes avant garde art house weirdness (which does occasionally siphon funding out of the machine) and all sorts of interesting and rewarding films. I won't cite examples - I'm sure you can find your own.

Greg Costikyan and others have complained that Hollywood tie-in games hurt the games industry. They do. Because most of them aren't very good games, and high profile rubbish is bad for any industry. But they are an enormous help to the game industry in terms of keeping studios afloat. I reckon that at least half of game developers working today owe a debt of gratitude to Hollywood for providing funding that has seen them through tough times. I know my company would not have survived if we hadn't had some license adaptations to work on in the rough years.

One can argue that we shouldn't have to rely on money from Hollywood - sure, if the games industry was capable of running itself as a profitable business. But many developers (and several publishers!) have the business acumen of a block of cheese and at times its a wonder that the industry makes any money at all. In this regard, Hollywood has been very neighbourly, providing capital to keep us afloat at the cost of forcing us to supply some merchandising. It's really not that bad a deal.

That we are receiving financial support from Hollywood is reasonably good news for many people who work in the games industry. But as the expression goes, give a games company a fish and it will eat for a day, teach a games company to fish and it will eat for a lifetime. The games industry could learn a lot from the way Hollywood has identified the key profitable niches (genres in the case of films) and then invested variably in all these genres on a year to year basis, thus providing the audience with a wealth of choice - and meeting the entertainment needs of millions of cinema goers. Complaints that most of these films are utter tosh are fair but misguided. Worthwhile, interesting and inventive films are still made, and the fact that they are in the minority can hardly be considered a surprise - I challenge anyone to name a media where this is not the case.

What have we copied from Hollywood? Well, mostly their franchise ideas. That Lara Croft was inspired by the Indiana Jones movies is a debatable but inevitable criticism; that Halo owes a vast debt to Aliens seems unavoidable. And in that particular case, the story elements of the game are much cruder than the story elements of its inspiration - and Aliens is hardly the deepest story around.  We have a lot of nerve when we bitch at Hollywood when we haven't got our own house in order when it comes to stories, although the situation is certainly improving and game writing is starting to achieve proper recognition as a craft.

Hollywood is an ally to the games industry - a dangerous ally, but any powerful ally has this element. I do not believe that Hollywood has done anything to make the games industry a worse place, but the games industry has made itself a worse place by trying to copy Hollywood directly instead of understanding what works in the Hollywood model, and then adapting it to games. The narrative structures that work in a film are (in general terms) inappropriate to export to a game, the funding model for films is currently inappropriate for games - but it is the games industry itself which is making the mistakes, the film industry is largely an innocent bystander in our collective incompetence.

How many games are made which are basically agon plus fiero (competition with triumph over adversity)? 95% of our output is doing the same thing - targeting a relatively narrow demographic. That's not how Hollywood works - they find every viable demographic and exploit them fully. That's what commercial game development should be doing. (Don't worry - nothing that happens on the commercial front will take away indie games, as these are made by enthusiasts, just as indie films are made by enthusiasts - and a more stable games industry should mean more money to fund indie development - that's what happened in Hollywood eventually, although there's doubtless room for improvement).

Moorcock's line "I admire all the good films that are made in spite of the system!" applies equally well to games. I admire all the good games that are made in spite of the system! And our system is a mess compared to the Hollywood system. Hollywood is proficient at making popular movies for every corner of the audience with the goal of making money. We are terrible at making popular games for every corner of the audience with the goal of making money. And until we get good at this most basic economic challenge, the industry will be too unstable for us to comfortably support auteurship, expansive invention and advances in dynamic storytelling. Let's learn from Hollywood in a manner that doesn't equate to copying their ideas and rendering them more blandly. Let's learn to feed ourselves.


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Nice point about not blaming Hollywood for our failure to fully understand some of the lessons. Scapegoating is an unnecessary diversion of energy.

I don't know if I made that clear in my post, or not: that The Big Bad Wolf is a threat of our own creation. Like the dorky sidekick who follows the the cool kid around, trying to emulate his behavior with disastrous results, we're bound to hurt ourselves if we don't learn that we're special in our own way.

Hear hear! Its worthwhile to point out that not only does the game industry fail to provide popular entertianment for all niches and demographics, the game industry fails to produce anything but titles catering to a very specific demographic of males 12-25, and maybe 25-35, but thats stretching it.

Just now a commercial for Star Wars Battlefront popped across my TV. The slogan is "On Tuesday, You Fight Again"; enough said.

Frank Herbert did live to see the release and critical reaction to Dune. He died 2 years later. Perhaps you're thinking of P.K. Dick?

Herbert, who's background was in journalism, is a good example of Hollywood and the Writer. Herbert worked with Lynch and began by throwing out his preconceptions about how things SHOULD work. He said "I came to it as a journalist, someone who knew nothing, but wanted to learn everything." He learned about the process of translating a book into film, and very much liked the final product as a result. Though he thought the ending was a mistake. He writes about this in his collection of short stories, Eye.

Saying "Hollywood" the way you do implies there's only one way successful movies get made. One system. One place. That's not the case. There's no real system anymore. Hits and flops come from all across the financial spectrum.

The system doesn't distinguish between "good" and "popular," it tries everything. Furthermore, Moorcocks books are both. Elric is very popular in Fantasy circles and would be so in film, if translated correctly. Look at Sin City. Popular in comics, and good. Popular in film, and good. Well, pretty good. :)

Furthermore, Hollywood, such as it is, is very *bad* at making movies that make money. Movies are a complete crap shoot and usually lose money.

Greg Costikyan is a smart dude and will always be one of my heroes for stuff like..well Paranoia alone would do it. But so far his observations on the gaming biz have been very...lacking in practical application.

I think implying that Halo is an Aliens rip-off is a bit glib. Halo ripped off Aliens for the Marines, Ringworld for...the Halo, and Iain Bank's culture for everything else.

And even that obscures the fact that the original Halo had a lot of sophistication and depth in its storytelling. But, brilliantly, it was designed to be "a foot across, a mile deep." It was easy for the casual player to fire away and never notice or explore all the detail wherein a lot of story stuff lay. At the same time, those of us who had been with Bungie since Marathon, got a lot out of the story.

Matt: thank you for a thoughtful comment!

A few notes. Firstly, thank you for clearing up my misconception that Frank Herbert died before the 1984 Dune movie was released. This thought has been in my head for decades, and I'm genuinely surprised to discover I'm incorrect!

Secondly, you are correct that there is no one system that produces films, but I also suspect you know what I mean when I talk about "Hollywood": I mean movies created en masse by the Hollywood studio model. Obviously, there are other ways movies come into being, and financial success can come from surprising places.

You are correct that Hollywood movie making is a crap shoot, but forgot to note that this is true of all movie making - in fact, the Hollywood crap shoot is *more* successful than anything else with the possible exception of Bollywood. ;) The videogames industry is exactly the same for all but the biggest name studios. I might go so far as to say that all business is essentially a crap shoot, except perhaps money lending/usury.

On Manifesto games, I must necessarily remain silent for a few more weeks. :p

"I think implying that Halo is an Aliens rip-off is a bit glib. Halo ripped off Aliens for the Marines, Ringworld for...the Halo, and Iain Bank's culture for everything else."

I agree that its glib, but respectfully disagree that its an unfair claim. :) I don't think Halo necessarily rips-off Ringworld since ring worlds have a long and illustrious history (although I accept your insider view gives you anecdotal privilege to overrule me here!), and I don't see anything of the sophistication of Bank's culture in Halo anywhere, but here I might just be ignorant of the details. Either way, both these points are about setting, and only trivially relate to the story of the game.

What I do see in Halo is the themes and tropes of Aliens (which Cameron admits takes the usual wild west + space theme, and just adds a gloss of military hardware and content) regurgitated and reiterated with little variation and one new twist - adding another alien race as a foe before the Alien-analogues are plopped into the player's lap midway through the game.

Neither, alas, do I share your view that the Halo narrative had "sophistication and depth". What story was there was nicely presented, but it was as shallow and vacuous as most videogame stories - more interested in plot than character, a power-fantasy cipher as protagonist etc. - and left me underwhelmed.

Now to be fair, I've become a harsh critic of stories - I was a film critic for many years, and my generous spirit has been eroded by too much silver screen tosh. Halo at its best is on par with a Flash Gordon serial - now I love this sort of hokum, but I wouldn't hold it up as a paragon of sophistication.

There's room for debate on this, of course, as it's a subjective interpretation, and I don't doubt many people disagree with me.

I greatly respect Halo for many things - not least of which are its improvements to the standard FPS control scheme, outstanding audio design, astonishing visuals for the first quarter of the game and *finally* influencing the videogame industry back towards co-op play for the first time in twenty years. But alas, I cannot respect it for its story. :(

Lastly, I completely disagree that Moorcock's work is "popular" in the usual sense of the term - he has a dedicated fantasy fanbase, but nothing he has written has achieved genuine popularity. His prolific output is actually to compensate for his lack of popularity - his enormous volume of books is precisely how he has made enough money to live throughout his life.

I severely doubt that an Elric movie - no matter how it was rendered - would have what it takes to achieve popular appeal, although I would be utterly delighted to be wrong!

Thank you once again for your comment - although I have squandered my reply arguing with you, this is just my usual pernickety nature; I thought you raised some great points, and it was good to see this old chestnut of a post brought back from the past!

If you're interested in Moorcock, keep your eyes open for some discussion of the themes of his work later this year.

Thanks once again, and best wishes!

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