Recently, Steven Spielberg announced that he’s partnering with 343 Industries to create a live-action television series for one of the most successful game properties in the world, Halo.
Could anyone have imagined 10 years ago that Steven Spielberg would make a long-form TV show based on a console game’s story world? Frankly, not many, especially after the collapse of Peter Jackson’s Halo feature film effort. While that among others proved fruitless, why should we be optimistic now?
Video games and television have more in common than they might seem, and I don’t just mean the technologies offered by the Xbox One. The iterative processes of developing a game, like any software, happen fast, are high intensity and require specific storytelling skills to accomplish well. Television also requires a nimble writing style and happens often at breakneck speeds to produce enough content to satisfy a network’s episode order.
Developing a game requires you to create a world that players will inhabit, creating their own experiences as characters. Television relies on a strong cast and a setting that challenges those characters to maintain the amount of storytelling opportunities that televised narratives require.
Characters are key to creating a compelling experience on television, whether they are crafted by seasoned writers, or committed players.
Of course, it also takes a game company with a clear sense of its story world beyond the gameplay and user experience to build a story capable of engaging an audience on a different narrative platform like television or film.
It’s undeniable that games are a force to be reckoned with in the entertainment industry and are much beloved by everyone from 6-year-old noobs to Steven Spielberg himself but…
Playing Games doesn’t make you an expert video game developer any more than watching TV shows qualify you as a world-class showrunner.
They’re different disciplines even when they both ultimately revolve around the same intellectual property. It is essential to understand those differences and be able to collaborate on the true throughline across the platforms: the story world.
Their production cycles are also wildly different, film and television start with the story and script, which video games tend to bring in writers at the end of the process, when the game is almost complete.
“I think a lot of people think, “Oh, writing is dialogue.” I would argue that the heavy lifting for story development in games happens in pre-production well before anyone starts building levels. I try to explain it by saying like whatever point you have a game designer brought in, that’s when you want to bring in a game writer as well.”
As game writer, Susan O’Connor’s recent interview states, there’s a lot of criticism of stories in games, not just because of their portrayal of women or violence.
The questions that remain for the Spielberg-Halo Series are still many:
• How much say will 343 Industries have in the TV Shows’ Storylines?
• What does the “partnership” between Spielberg and 343 entail in production?
• How closely will 343 be building the television series story with Spielberg?
• Will that be a good thing?
Why should we be optimistic about the Halo-Spielberg TV Series?
While many television creators and filmmakers are familiar with games, and many have been playing them their entire lives, there have also been a variety of case studies in what has and haven’t worked in video game – film collaboration. The maturation of storytelling in gaming has been led by I.P. owners that understand how to build a story world that includes games but is more than just replicating gameplay.
In the interest of full disclosure, I worked with Microsoft, Bungie and 343 Industries when they were being founded as the stewards of the Halo Story World with Starlight Runner Entertainment, but it’s been years since I worked with them directly.
In addition to landing big deals, 343 Industries has been steadily and consistently building the story world of Halo and its track record in games, novels, and animation have been considerately built to explore what is most powerful about each of those platform executions.
Since that time there have been some amazing stories explored across multiple platforms in the Halo Universe; Halo Reach, Halo Evolutions, Halo Legends to name a few. All of which expand on the ideas of the core console game story arcs that featured the iconic Master Chief and a growing cast of supporting characters.
The Halo Story World is lush with incident, theme and characters, it has a setting well suited to the expansion of narratives that can be portrayed on different platforms in ways that suit each platform’s unique strengths.
A webseries featuring a secondary character from Halo 4’s storyline sets the stage for the events of the game, while standing alone as a strong piece of Military Sci-Fi. The first few episodes are on YouTube, but the whole film can be viewed on Netflix, or On Demand on many carriers. The caliber of storytelling has come a long way, and watching Forward Unto Dawn, it becomes easier to imagine what a long-form story in this world could look like, even without a Speilberg at the helm.
Halo wasn’t the first announcement in recent weeks about a game to television story world worth noting. CCP recently announced that it is creating a comic book series with Dark Horse Comics and a television show of its epic massive-multiplayer game EVE Online.
EVE Online, while a fascinating ethnographic, economic and commercial case, is no stranger to expansion. Over the past months, CCP not only announced the new television series, but also launched the on-planet MMOG, Dust 514. Not just a companion to the space-faring Eve Online, Dust 514’s world is literally connected to the first game.
If you’re on a planetoid in Dust 514, and another player strafes that world from their ship in Eve Online, you are in the line of fire. Combine this with the robust economic system of player-created corporations overseen by CCP’s own Chief Economist, Eyjolfur Gudmundsson, and you get a story world that is literally being advanced by the players, rather than by the game’s producers. With this level of intricacy and complexity, how would Eve Online translate best to television?
Known for epic heists and legendary multiplayer space wars; CCP is literally building off the stories of player characters to create their television show. Not only do they have a wealth of highly notable stories to pull from, they have asked players to share their stories in EVE’s Master Chronology.
This is a type of storytelling that has been whispered about as fever dreams and wild beautiful imaginings by producers and creators for years, but only now are we seeing potentially viable business models to take audience experiences, and fan fiction into the realm of actual production.
Beyond that, we are seeing early examples of these techniques being monetized so that those committed fans, players and creators can actually profit from their work. While the reward, beyond legendary status, for Eve’s television series is yet untold, another group announced an exciting business model to develop the monetization of fan fiction and user-generated content: Amazon.
Kindle Worlds is a playground for fan fiction that allows aspiring authors to create within the story worlds of copyrighted intellectual properties, such as: The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl.
The best part is that everyone benefits from the purchase the I.P. Owner, the author and the fan that wants more story from that story world. Even though the financial cut for the fan fiction’s author is not as exciting as Vimeo’s On-Demand Model (90/10) or Valve’s User Generated Content Marketplace (75/25), but it is another step towards credibility for the model.
There have been many experiments in sharing profits and monetizing user-generated content and fan fiction, but none have been on this scale or this public in scope. Pottermore, Runes of Galledon, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s HitRECord, and The Mongoliad have all been pieces in this puzzle, how to bring audience creativity and copyright monetization together in harmony.
It seems like this puzzle is finally beginning to come together.
Successful productions are distinguishing themselves at their origin with story. Whether investing in high-profile talent to strengthen the characters and storylines of a FPS-based game, or opening their IP for the audience themselves to develop compelling stories, the way to transcend multiple media platforms successfully is to engage in transmedia practice.
Caitlin Burns is a Transmedia Producer with Starlight Runner Entertainment and has worked on properties ranging from Pirates of the Caribbean for The Walt Disney Company and James Cameron’s Avatar, to Halo for Microsoft and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for Nickelodeon. She is a Board Member of the Producer’s Guild of America’s New Media Council and an Advisor to the Tribeca Film Institute’s New Media Fund. Find her on Twitter: @Caitlin_Burns
Special thanks to Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment: @Jeff_Gomez for his editorial input into this piece.