State of Play
When I finished Detroit: Become Human in 2019, something washed over me which I can only describe as a sense of completion, of things coming to a full close. Like driving home from a road trip, or attending college graduation. It leaves you with a profound feeling that you know — as soon as it washes over you — will stay with you for a very long time.
Speaking of things coming to a full close, before I continue with this entry, I would like to invite you to visit Dunia Ella — a blogsite run by our team at B/NDL Studios about the secret sauce of our creative process at the firm. It's published entirely in Bahasa Indonesia.
OK. Back to video games. Shall we?
In the last 50 years, game designers and scholars on narrative studies have debated the inclusion of story in video games and whether it adds value or no value to the player.
Which comes first? Gameplay mechanics or storytelling? Do we first determine that we are creating a game in which a ball bounces across the computer screen, or do we first build the character of the ball itself as a lost toy searching for a new home as it bounces across the computer screen?
Regardless of the answer, we have come a long way since Pac-Man and Sonic the Hedgehog. The ambition to create a form of entertainment that puts its audience at the heart of a memorable experience has resulted in the collective drive to perfect the art and craft of immersive technology and storytelling.
The pairing — immersive technology and storytelling — is unique and necessary in creating the sort of entertainment which hopes to amplify the audience’s role in telling their own story.
Immersive technology transcends time and place, aiming to transport the audience to any controlled environment at the click of a button.
Immersive storytelling, on the other hand, transcends the boundaries of gameplay experience, aiming to emulate real-world consequences based on decisions made by the audience through the game’s protagonists.
The Ultimate Gameplay
Call of Duty (COD), one of the most successful game franchises, is known for the use of such pairing to elevate the player’s experience during in-game combat. Through immersive technology, it strategically places players in a detailed environment that mirrors specific battlefields. Through immersive storytelling, it deftly builds a sense of camaraderie and unbreakable friendships among in-game characters that mirrors real-life warzones — with the players, embodied by the protagonists, taking central leadership roles.
COD’s narrative strength has been hailed as groundbreaking and an important element in driving sales for the game publisher, Activision. In 2020 alone, the series generated no less than USD 3 billion in revenue.
Where Call of Duty falls short, other (often smaller) games have picked up with incredible speed and development in the last few years. More than just a strong narrative, recently published video games like The Last of Us, Cyberpunk 2077 and Life Is Strange have attempted the near-impossible feat of building a whole universe and population that mirrors the detailed existence of … well, life.
The story doesn’t just get you from one controlled situation to the next in order to achieve the game’s goals, it gives you room to explore your own individual journey within the carefully-crafted environment (open world).
Like the stories you generally find in books, stage plays and films — video games are moving toward a particular space in narrative strategy that aims to create meaning. Unlike the stories you find in books, however, recent video games allow you to decide your own journey by choosing actions which come with its own set of consequences (and ending).
In June 2020, when the second installment of The Last of Us was released, sales reached over USD 4 million in less than a week. While the gameplay received a lot of praise; its achievements lay in its story development. Because of this, the game was crowned The Ultimate Game of the Year at the 38th Golden Joystick Award.
Also, thanks to the pandemic, 2020 became the biggest year for video games with a global revenue of USD 179.7 billion — meanwhile, the global movie industry only broke USD 100 billion in revenue in 2019.
Ultimately, what these games offer is a meaningful and memorable experience. Imagine what it would be like for your organization or your brand to create a similar experience for your stakeholders. Imagine if your product gives that kind of experience to its users.
Let's go through a very short list of things to do which you can apply in your own company, or for your brands and products:
Determine the goal
In a video game, this is the purpose of the protagonist — whether it’s to save a princess, or save humanity, or other.
Let’s say you are in charge of toothpaste, a product which your company produces. Before you think about what sort of story you want to tell, or what kind of experience you want your customers to have — think about the goal of your product. Let’s say it’s to keep the customers’ teeth clean and shiny so they can become more confident about how they look in front of others. That’s a goal. Building your customers’ confidence. Note that the goal is not to make billions of dollars in profit.
Build a controlled universe
In a video game, this is the environment that the players get to interact with, including its population.
Let’s say you’re a young start-up executive in charge of a team of administrators. Their universe is the work environment they will occupy, whose goal is to promote effectivity, efficiency and accuracy in processing all kinds of administrative tasks. The team makes up the population. If the environment is an office space, this translates to how you arrange their desks and other areas, e.g. meeting rooms, break room, reading room, mail room, etc. If the environment is work ethic and task goals, this translates to how you wish to implement habits, reward excellence and deliver consequences. In building a controlled universe, you must calculate every aspect of how members of the population will interact with the environment and how it will affect them. For example, placing the break room far from the population’s work stations may affect their productivity. Or rewarding those who are delivering mediocre output may set the wrong standard for your team.
Create a journey
In a video game, this is where story meets gameplay mechanics. As a creator, you want players to experience the mechanics and purchase the game; but the players need a reason to even want to experience them — that’s where story comes in.
Let’s say you are the top brass at a three-star hotel with the vision of bringing a five-star experience to your guests. The goal: make the guests feel pampered and well-attended to. The challenge: they need a reason to stay at and return to your hotel. The easier solution is to add new services as part of the journey, e.g. the ultimate spa experience; or a fantastic dining experience that makes your guests feel like kings and queens at a royal gala. The more difficult, yet also more rewarding solution, is to overhaul your operations and build an end-to-end experience from the moment the guests come through the door, to the moment they leave. How will your staff greet them? What will you leave on their bed as a welcome token when your guests arrive in their room? How will you fold the napkins, package the toiletries, etc.? These details will help create the journey for your guests.
Storytelling is never a short-term investment, or a quick fix; it is a long-term investment that provides long-term gains.
An expensive advertisement will give your stakeholders a three-minute experience they will talk about for three days or three weeks; but an immersive story will put them in charge of the experience and drive the outcome. They won't stop talking about this.
Up next week: Storytelling and the food industry. As an illustration, MasterChef has been successful because it combines stories and food. Gordon Ramsay’s personal brand is all about storytelling. Starting or running a food business is always risky. Good flavors and quality alone aren’t enough to drive the kind of revenue you want to see. Plus, there’s the pandemic. But there is a something you can try. In late 2019, Innova Market insights published top ten trends that will drive the global food markets in the next few years — and coming at the top of that list is … yep, storytelling. IKEA is the perfect example of a furniture-cum-food business that relies on storytelling to keep the buzz going and the customer experience authentic. Tell you what, let me show you how you can incorporate storytelling into your food business, completely DIY, at little to no cost at all. Wait, whaaaat? Uh-hm.
Find out more next Monday, Jan. 18 at 9 a.m.
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Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer
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