Stories: Films versus Games
April 19, 2007
Consider the following proposition: "In commercial terms, the cast is more important to a film than the story, since big name actors and actresses contribute considerably more to the money making potential of a movie than an interesting or original story. Conversely, in videogames, there is no cast of celebrities to attract interest, and hence the story can be a more effective draw, generating word of mouth and positive specialist press reviews, which lead to greater commercial prospects."
How valid is this hypothesis?
I think it's valid, but that it will be completely ignored by the large studios who would rather spend the money on Hollywood stars to provide voice talent...
Posted by: Corvus | April 19, 2007 at 03:21 PM
Iconic game characters have their own star power, and iconic imagery in general also has a certain 'star'-like appeal. This, essentially, is branding. Hollywood stars are their own brand, hence the pressure to typecast them - maintain the brand focus.
Stories are harder to brand, but it can be done - see (I cringe to make this my exemplar) Mills & Boon novels. However, you're talking about "interesting or original stor[ies]", and while it's debatable how 'interesting' works in the context of branding, 'original' is definitely not good branding material.
Posted by: zenBen | April 19, 2007 at 05:44 PM
I don't understand the proposition. When you say "hence the story can be a more effective draw", you're saying that it's more effective than what? What are you comparing it to? A cast of actors in a game, which as you point out yourself is a non-issue in most cases? Well, surely yes. Something which is an issue will be more effective than a non-issue. This seems like a pretty useless observation. Or are you saying that it's more effective a draw than the story in a movie? Because I don't see how you could jump to that conclusion, and I can't even agree with it, since with most types of games the potential buyers don't really care what the story is.
So either this proposition is so obviously true it's silly, or it's completely invalid, or else I just have no idea what you're talking about.
Posted by: Mory | April 19, 2007 at 07:03 PM
I'm betting on this proposition for Cuttlecandy. However, isn't it interesting that storytelling is the core power of film as a medium, yet a secondary marketing draw? Perhaps the same is true of gameplay?
Posted by: Patrick | April 19, 2007 at 08:14 PM
I agree with zenBen. Consider how many projects Mario has been attached to because "he puts people at ease" (Miyamoto)
ok rambling slightly off topic now...
Malcolm Gladwell might like to have a word with you on how important the story is to a movie...
Well, Hotel Dusk is a recent game that has "generated word of mouth and positive specialist press reviews" because of its brilliant story. Nintendo though gave it little marketing support because it didn't know which demographic to target for what is essentially an interactive novel!? Bear in mind that it's of the point-click adventure (sub)genre and that's the only place in gaming where I think story even hold an attraction. Drift over to action-adventure and you'll find that brand and game mechanics trump story every time. I didn't see anybody using story as an important metric when comparing Okami and Twilight Princess.
How many restrictions do game mechanics place on the story? Let's look at RPGs. How come a genre about role-playing has such a small number of roles available? I'm still looking for a console RPG game that breaks at least half the cliches on The Grand List. The genre demands that protagonists with a certain linear progression (even if you the 'freeform' types like GTA and Oblivion have a linear story underneath the sand). How do you tell a story like Babel, or Fellini's 81/2, with a game?
A reason why stories have little draw is that great videogames can just consist of mechanics with no other polish AND people know. See Pong and Tetris. Films too can be just images and sound without a story-Koyaanisqatsi is my fave example-but they are rare and do not predate films with stories. The other reason would be existence of only superficial differences in video game scripts which has led us to expect little of the story. So Halo 2 has a horrible ending? Meh, I only played multiplayer...
Posted by: Suyi | April 20, 2007 at 09:38 AM
Interesting comments! First, let me clarify the proposition. I tried to keep it as terse as possible, and may have edited out some clarity in the process. I believe if you add the words "than in films" after "a more effective draw", the ambiguity vanishes.
Mory dismisses this proposition on the grounds that:
"with most types of games the potential buyers don't really care what the story is."
This statement is in error, as far as our research goes. With most types of game, story is a key factor (in the top 10 of 40 factors) - although, depending upon player, the elements of story that are important (1) setting (2) plot (3) characters, receive different weights. It is usually a secondary factor, to be sure, but it still shows up as a key influence in what people choose to play, and in some cases as a top factor. It certainly influences buying decisions, and this is the issue at task. It also influences people's decisions of their favourite games.
zenBen suggests that "iconic game characters have their own star power." True, but misleading. The number of iconic game characters with star power will fit on the fingers of one hand, and one cannot create such a character by design. I dismiss this as simply a facet of general brand power, and utterly unrelated to the brand power possessed by stars. People like to watch the big stars - in anything. It is a different kind of power to abstract brand power in my opinion.
I do agree that originality is often in negative tension with brand power, alas... But a brand that balances some originality with familiar elements can carve out its own niche, perhaps...?
Patrick suggests: "However, isn't it interesting that storytelling is the core power of film as a medium, yet a secondary marketing draw? Perhaps the same is true of gameplay?"
It rests on the ambiguous definition of gameplay, but it's an interesting point. The power of a game is its play, but in *marketing* games, the play is not a factor - because one can rarely *show* play (the Wii and DS are rare exceptions in this regard). Instead, setting and story factors are usually used to market games. Since marketing can be seen as storytelling, perhaps this says more about marketing than about games. :)
Corvus comments that the big studios waste money on big star voice actors. I don't disagree that this money is not necessarily a sound investment, but the fact they could get solid voice talent for less money doesn't change the fact that the expensive voice talent usually does a good job. ;)
Suyi goes off on a ramble worthy of this blog's tradition. :D A few points to follow up:
"...it's of the point-click adventure (sub)genre and that's the only place in gaming where I think story even hold an attraction."
Adventures and cRPGs seem to be the genres where story is most important. But elements of story are still important, even in action games. If Halo were, say, a Napoleonic wars FPS, with little or no change to its mechanics, its appeal would be muted.
I'd like to find out what Gladwell said; if only there was a transcript... I'm tired of being pointed to videos, alas, especially as my laptop doesn't have most videotools installed (in order to keep it running spritely). I need an autotranscription tool! :D
It's easy to point to a pure game like Tetris and say "games don't need story", but Tetris is the exception and not the rule, being one of the few masterpieces we have had thus far. Ever wondered why Japanese puzzle games have a lame story bolted on? It's because they sell better that way (in Japan).
Regarding the Grand List, I went through counting for Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition... I didn't realise it was so long, so I stopped at 30, but HK breaks 20 of the first 30. I'll bet you it breaks more than half. Some of the suggestions in this list aren't even a good idea. Number 29, the Indestructible Weapon Rule is eminently sensible - a game can break this, but at its peril.
"The other reason would be existence of only superficial differences in video game scripts which has led us to expect little of the story."
Does this not mean that a game that pushes further might get more attention for its story?
Thanks for the discussion everyone. Quite illuminating. :)
Posted by: Chris | April 20, 2007 at 03:06 PM
"But a brand that balances some originality with familiar elements can carve out its own niche, perhaps...?"
"Does this not mean that a game that pushes further might get more attention for its story?"
The first point strikes right to the heart of why branding exists at all. People derive more pleasure from novel but interpretable visual sensory input, as per Biederman and Vessel. If we allow ourselves to extrapolate from this finding, we can posit that story (which contains a great deal of information requiring interpretation by the brain) will have to be very familiar to a lot of people if it is to give an immediate positive affect to a lot of people. That is, the marketable elements need to be dead simple for mass appeal.
A pretty basic point, but there's science behind it! :D
So the second point seems quite uncommercial in that light.
Posted by: zenBen | April 20, 2007 at 05:11 PM
I think that you're overestimating the draw of big name actors. I remember reading somewhere that the correlation between big name actors and box office success was much, much, smaller than you would think. I think that only about 25% of a big name actors movies do that well... Just take a look at their filmography in IMDB.com
I think that cast may be more important than story in certain cases, but not in others. It depends a lot on what the story is and some other factors.
Here are a few "hypotheses"
(1) Cast is less important than story when the movie is a sequel.
(2) Cast is less important than story for CG movies.
(3) The more A-list stars, the less important the cast becomes.
(4) Cast is more important when the story is new/different/unusual/non-standard.
(5) Cast is less important than story when the director is A-list.
As for videogames, characters/story are a well-known and important draw. Mario games are the "classic" example... However, in games it seems that well-established "brands" are more important.. Metroid, Final Fantasy, Resident Evil, Pokemon, Halo, Metal Gear, GTA, etc. all do well based on brand recognition recognition that I would equate to "story" in this case. The brand "sells" a particular theme and aesthetic, coupled with a certain style of gameplay.
Posted by: Jose Zagal | April 23, 2007 at 02:41 PM
zenBen: fascinating to see this attempt to tie it into psychology... Unfortunately, your link doesn't seem to work. :(
Jose: you are almost certainly correct in pointing to the fact that it is only the A-list stars who have the main draw, but even a minor actor still affects people's decision to attend a film. Consider the inexplicable career of Rob Schneider. ;)
In the case of sequels, the brand is established, and presumably carries its own weight. I have no idea how to assess story versus cast in this instance...
In the case of CG films, story is probably more important than cast. (Setting at the very least).
The more A-list stars the less cast matters? This seems counter intuitive!
In the case of original stories, the cast could be more important? This is an interesting idea.
Cast is less important when the director is A-list? I don't know... A list directors tend to have their pick of actors, and I still think that more people are affected by "actor loyalty" than "director loyalty". (I predict this would be a 75-25 split if you ran the study).
And you are absolutely correct that brand is more important than story in games... This is well established. Games are a media exception in that the commercial prospects of a sequel (well handled and marketed) are greater than the first instance. Conversely, in films it is expected to only be about a two thirds "recapture" of audience. Hence the cutting of budget and the cranking out of sequels in Hollywood...
Anyway, must fly. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!
Posted by: Chris | April 23, 2007 at 03:06 PM
Chris: The more A-list stars the less cast matters? This seems counter intuitive!
Well, the more A-list stars in a movie, the greater the chance that said star plays a minor role and thus has less of an effect on the movie. I guess there's probably an "ideal" number, probably not more than 3, where A-list stars really matter...assuming the film is marketed on the image of those stars. (Al Pacino and Christopher Walken acted in "Gigli", but they weren't the "stars").
Chris: Cast is less important when the director is A-list? I don't know... A list directors tend to have their pick of actors, and I still think that more people are affected by "actor loyalty" than "director loyalty".
I guess it would depend on the director. :-)
There are probably more A-list actors than directors, so that would probably skew things as well. There is also the studio factor... I'm sure there are people who'll watch any Pixar, Disney, Ghibli, etc. movie no questions asked.
Chris: In the case of original stories, the cast could be more important? This is an interesting idea.
My thoughts on this are basically that for generating interest of any media, the user/audience/listener/player needs to have something known/recognizable from which to create some sense of expectation regarding what the experience will be like. It's about whether or not the prospective audience can understand what the experience should be like, and then, based on said expectations, decide whether or not they want to have the experience.
So, if a movie's story is highly original, they will probably rely more strongly on the actors and directors in order to figure out what the movie is like.
It's interesting to see movies where the expectations are twisted around... often, these are fiascos (action star attempts romantic comedy), but sometimes the "twist" is what makes the movie particularly interesting (Tom Hanks as gangster in Road to Perdition) (Al Pacino is gangster in Analyze This, but it's a comedy!), etc.
Posted by: Jose Zagal | April 23, 2007 at 05:35 PM
I think that interactivity makes a big difference between movies and games. I really enjoy when I see in a movie that for example Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt does interesting/unbelievable things, however in games it's me who is the main character. The personality of the main character can be disprupting if it doesn't match mine.
On the other hand, the first wave of customers (hardcore) are obviously ignorant of the story beforehand. They will decide based on the genre and the previous works of the game designer / developer studio. After they start to play they might evangelize the game based on their first impression. It's still not really about the story, just the system, the graphics, the absence of bugs and so on.
The story comes to the picture after a while. Its real sell value will be mostly shown in the sequels.
But of course, all of this is only my opinion.
Posted by: VagabondX | May 03, 2007 at 04:06 PM