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Say You Want a Revolution?

Upstart no longer, the video game industry is storming the entertainment world

| From COMTalk | By Patrick L. Kennedy (COM’04)

Brett Milano (COM’82) was the writer for The Beatles: Rock Band. Courtesy of Harmonix Music Systems, Inc.

I was six years old when I discovered Pac-Man. It was 1982, and my Dad would take me to the G-Wizz arcade at Boston Bowl, where I’d quickly burn through a dollar in quarters and beg for another.

In the late ’80s, video games evolved, introducing better graphics and cinematic elements. (You weren’t a yellow dot in a maze; you were a denim-clad street fighter racing to the rescue of your kidnapped girlfriend.) Dad bought our first home computer, a Macintosh Plus, and before long I learned how to create my own elaborate games on a now-long-outmoded animation program called HyperCard.

As I got older, I gradually abandoned these pursuits. After I moved out, my parents tossed the old Mac Plus, along with the HyperCard games I’d labored on for hours. So much for my video game career.

Maybe I should have stuck with it. I wouldn’t be the only College of Communication grad to make money making games. Video games are posting blockbuster sales numbers—Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops grossed $360 million the day it was released, beating the opening weekend take for the smash-hit film Avatar—and the industry employs about 55,000 people nationwide, including writers, PR professionals, designers, licensing experts, entrepreneurs and recruiters.

“Even in just the past six years, the industry has grown tremendously,” says Gail Cayetano (CGS’02, COM’04), who began working for Activision not long after graduating from COM. “I was hired before the Wii and Xbox 360 came out, both of which have expanded the gaming audience tenfold since their release. New audiences are out there, including moms and young girls—a target market that was hard to capture before.” (The Entertainment Software Association reports that the gaming audience is now 40 percent female, and family entertainment is the fastest-growing segment in the market.)

“This once-stepchild to the TV and film world is now an equal sibling,” Cayetano adds.

And it isn’t only young alumni who have found work in the growing industry—or young people who are excited by it (a quarter of Americans over age 50 play video games). Brett Milano (’82) was the writer for the music game The Beatles: Rock Band and recalls, “The night before the release, an email from Paul McCartney went around the company, saying, ‘Waiting for the release tomorrow, lads!’ It was like, ‘Wow, we are doing this with the Beatles.’”

Indeed, McCartney (who personally approved all of Milano’s text) felt he was once again taking part in a cultural revolution, he told the New York Times. “I’ve seen enough things that should never have become art become art that this looks like a prime candidate to me if ever there was one,” he said. “Rock ‘n’ roll, or the Beatles, started as just sort of hillbilly music, just a passing phase, but now it’s revered as an art form because so much has been done in it. Same with comics, and I think same with video games.”

Let’s Do Athens

There’s a reason video games are now listed on imdb.com (the internet movie database), use a ratings system (e.g., “T” for “Teen”) and have spawned an Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. Today’s video games more closely resemble movies than ever before.

Real actors and stuntmen perform before motion-capture cameras while wearing specialized body suits as part of the animation process. Realistic, cinematic sequences of dialogue and action connect the stages of gameplay, moving the story forward and setting up each succeeding mission.

In the case of the 007 games, Judi Dench, John Cleese, Willem Dafoe, Heidi Klum, Joss Stone and Daniel Craig have starred, just as in the films. And Bruce Feirstein (COM’75) has written the scripts.

Feirstein, a writer and former ad man, wrote the screenplays for the James Bond films GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough, and co-wrote Everything or Nothing. And now he’s written Bond video games as well, including Everything or Nothing and From Russia With Love, starring Sean Connery. “Connery came in and did the speaking parts, and they did motion capture on his head,” Feirstein explains. “I got to meet Connery. He’s still the coolest man alive. . . . It was one of the few times I’ve been starstruck.”

Blood Stone image courtesy of Activision

Feirstein’s newest game is Blood Stone, a departure because it is an original story of his that is not tied to any existing James Bond movie.

This work “hasn’t at all replaced my screenwriting career or the stuff I do in journalism,” says Feirstein, a BU overseer and a member of the COM Dean’s Advisory Board. The author of bestselling humor books such as Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche is still writing for television and film and for publications such as Vanity Fair, for which he is a contributing editor.

Nevertheless, this sideline is an exciting and even educational one. “My experience has been that the gaming world is thinking about things in a way that the movie industry is not, namely the nature of narrative storytelling,” Feirstein says.

“For example, in Blood Stone, there comes a point when Bond discovers who the villain is. I had her saying, ‘From the beginning you knew too much.’ [The producer] came back and said, ‘No, no, you can’t do this, because it takes the player out of the experience.’ You can do that in a movie, where the audience at that point thinks, ‘Oh, Bond is so smart, he knew all along and I didn’t.’ But in the game, the player reacts by saying, ‘Did I miss something?’ So I changed the line to ‘When did you know?’ And he answers, ‘That’s not important. I want to know who you’re working for.’

“Over the past 100 years, the grammar and syntax of movies has changed,” Feirstein says. “A hundred years ago, if [in a movie] I said to you, ‘We have to go across the street,’ it required 10 shots—the two of us sitting in an office; we go to the door; we open the door; we go to the elevator; we go down the elevator; we walk out onto the street; we cut to opening the door across the street. A hundred years later, I look at you across a table and say, ‘We’re due in Mars tomorrow.’ Cut, we’re on Mars. And the audience 100 years ago couldn’t accept that.

“What gaming has done is change the syntax and grammar of movies,” Feirstein says. With games lasting tens of hours, things like the “third act reveal” don’t make sense, he points out. Rather, the game yields a much longer series of rewards and surprises, keeping the player immersed in the story until the conclusion. (That’s one reason game sales may have stayed so strong during the recession, the L.A. Times points out: A game may cost $40 more than a movie, but it provides many more hours’ worth of entertainment.)

Another major difference is that it’s a lot easier for creators to pull off exotic locales in a game. While concepting the opening of the updated GoldenEye game, Feirstein says, “In two minutes, we came up with, ‘Well, let’s do Greece. Let’s do Athens.’ And working on a movie, something like that takes weeks and weeks of decision-making. ‘Can we get the Greek government to approve it? Will they let us shoot in the Acropolis? Can we actually get the lights in there?’”

Feirstein has seen firsthand how reality can thwart a good movie idea. “When we were filming Tomorrow Never Dies, I had written a sequence in Saigon, in Ho Chi Minh City.” But then producers considered logistics—generators, lights, hundreds of people, catering, vehicles, permits, security, airspace clearance for helicopter shoots. “What you see in the movie is the tip of the iceberg.” The filmmakers ended up shooting partly in Bangkok, partly on a set they built north of London.

“But with a game, you turn around and say, ‘You know, I’d really rather do this sequence in Athens. And we’re gonna have a boat chase in the harbor, then we’re gonna have a truck chase up to the Acropolis, and then we’re gonna have 50 people having a dinner party at the Acropolis,’ and in 20 minutes, everybody says, ‘OK, fine, we can do that.’” Artists put together the sets based on their photo research, Feirstein says, “and someone may or may not go to Athens with a videocam just to shoot reference. And then you build it all out on the computer. The possibilities for what you can do are infinite.”

James Bond 007: Blood Stone was plotted by Bruce Feirstein. Courtesy of Activision

A License To License To Kill

There’s even more that goes on behind the scenes of a movie/game crossover than the motion-capture and animation sessions.

Peter Gould (COM’87) studied to become a screenwriter, but transitioned into graphic design, then blended the two skills working for a company that created interactive storybooks, popular on the children’s market in the ’90s. These were computer-animated products based on Disney and other kids’ movies. Through that experience Gould learned all aspects of licensing, and when the first Sony Playstation hit it big, Gould—by then his company’s VP for product development—approached Sony and got the first license to publish younger kids’ content on the console.

His career since has included a two-and-a-half year stint at Disney Interactive, where he licensed the Disney brand for games in the Dance Dance Revolution series, among other titles. “I was in charge of making sure that games were not only fun to play but also met with all the Disney brand rules.”

Making a game based on a film holds unique challenges, Gould says. “Video game and film production schedules don’t line up. A film production schedule’s like 12 months, really, soup to nuts, once it’s greenlighted. But a video game, to make a good one, is at minimum usually 18 to 24 months.”

Fortunately, there is a secondary window, he adds, when a film is released on DVD. That’s the point when, for example, Gould’s then-company TDK came out with the Shrek game. “We went to DreamWorks actually for something else, but I fell in love with this big green ogre.”

In adapting a film to a game, “What you try to do with a character is take his abilities in the movie and build them into the game mechanics,” Gould says. “You pick up on the personality cues and put them in your game so the characters are recognizable from the movie.” In Shrek’s case, that meant a fart stun. “He can stun his enemies by farting on them.”

Incidentally, Gould, a trained screenwriter who now works in the video game industry, surely must be the Peter Gould who wrote the screenplay for the little-remembered 1994 flick Double Dragon, based on the popular ’80s arcade game, right?

“No,” (our) Gould says, laughing. “But I’ve been confused for him on multiple occasions.”


The Cute One Approves

What about when the property a game maker wants to license is a band? Not just any band, but arguably the world’s biggest, ever?

The process by which Harmonix created The Beatles: Rock Band was tightly controlled by McCartney, Starr, and Lennon’s and Harrison’s widows—the stewards of the band’s legacy. The company, then based in Cambridge, Mass., employed meticulous musician-engineers to scour concert footage in order to accurately capture, for example, Ringo’s unique drumming style.

Milano was every bit as thorough as he researched, wrote and edited all text in the game, which sold nearly three million copies in four months. A music critic and columnist for Boston’s Phoenix and Herald and author of The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007), Milano wasn’t a gamer before he joined Harmonix, but he was no tech naïf; he had worked for several websites since the very early days of the Internet. “I hosted the first, last and only online chat ever done by Tiny Tim,” Milano recalls with a laugh. “He didn’t have a computer, and I think he had never seen one.”

Milano’s first job at Harmonix was as website editor. “I wrote a lot, particularly since they were adding new downloadable content every week.”

When word went around the company that Harmonix would be producing the Beatles game, Milano recalls, “At that point it was known I was one of the bigger music heads in the company, and that I was a little bit older than a lot of people there, and that I was a Beatles fan.”

As head writer, he scripted storyboards for the connecting scenes, but most of his energy went into the screens that detailed the history of the band. “There’s a couple of tokens for each song—this is the first time the Beatles did this; ‘Eight Days a Week’ is the first hit song that begins with a fade-in. . . all these little factoids about Beatles history were scattered throughout the game.

“It’s funny, because with something like the Beatles, who are so much in the public consciousness, you wouldn’t think there’d be any doubt about what they did when, but there still is. There’s disagreement between the different sources. For example, the song ‘Boys’ is in the game, and we wanted to say that this was a song that Ringo played in the Cavern with his previous band before he joined the Beatles—which is something that everybody thinks to be true, and yet we could find no actual documentation that this had ever happened, so we couldn’t use that. Whereas things like the first time they played under the name the Beatles—that’s documented in two or three sources, so we could use that.

“In the end Paul McCartney read over all the text and approved it,” Milano relates. “By the time it got to him, we wanted to make things as accurate as we could. . . Harmonix was more painstaking than any print medium I’d ever written for. You know, if I said the Beatles were ‘really good,’ I had to find a source to corroborate that.

“I did find out that Paul McCartney read over that copy I had written, and he said, ‘Oh, I get it—this is gonna be like the new anthology, this is gonna be the source for the info.’” That was a gratifying moment for the writer.

Milano was thrilled to play a role in a game that helped bring the Beatles’ music to a new generation. When Harmonix premiered the game in a booth at a music festival in San Francisco, he says, “Kids were playing it all day. Just to see kids who were 11 playing ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and singing the harmonies—that really made me happy.” ■

Making Magic

Former Roseanne writer Mark Rosewater (COM’89) heads the design of Magic: The Gathering. Image courtesy of Wizards of the Coast, Inc.

A game needn’t be of the video variety for a writer to create one. Mark Rosewater (COM’89) is a former television writer—he spent some time on the staff of Roseanne—who is now the head designer for Magic: The Gathering, a trading card strategy game that six million people worldwide play using either decks of printed cards or virtual decks online. Some even gather in cities the world over to play in poker-style tournaments for cash prizes of up to $40,000. There’s also a version of Magic for the Xbox Live called Duels of the Planeswalkers, which is one of the most popular real-time online video games. Rosewater oversees all of it. But when he started at Wizards of the Coast, the game’s maker, Magic was strictly in the (paper) cards.

In 1993, after leaving Roseanne, Rosewater began freelance writing for Duelist magazine, a publication of Wizards, then a new company. Within two years, he was working for them full-time. Now as head designer, Rosewater invents the characters, spells and lands that make up each new batch of collectible Magic cards. (And they’re up to around 12,000 cards by now.)

Though the theme is wizardry, Rosewater says, “Magic is a little more accessible than Dungeons & Dragons in that it doesn’t require the time commitment of a role-playing game.”

Still, Rosewater is pleased to note that in TV shows, Magic is gaining on D&D as “the go-to ‘geek’ game,” when his former colleagues, the writers, mean to convey that trait about a character. “If they want to say someone is ‘geeky,’ for the longest time, he would play Dungeons & Dragons. Now they’re using Magic. It’s definitely starting to get more awareness in pop culture.”

Rosewater counts himself fortunate to be where he is now. “I’d always planned to write for television—that’s why I went to COM in the first place. Then when my life took a detour I thought, ‘Well, OK, I’m making games; I guess my training won’t be applicable anymore.’ But the opposite has been true.” He has served as Duelist editor-in-chief and produced videos on pro tours, he says. Furthermore, “A lot of communication training just boils down to learning how to explain things to people. So for starters, I write a weekly column on our official website called ‘Making Magic.’ I’m close to writing my 500th column. I’ve written over two million words on Magic.” Even in game production meetings, he says, “many times I’ve had to say, ‘OK, guys, let me explain to you Communication 101 here.’”

Add to that Rosewater’s knack for puzzles and, most of all, his innate creativity, and it’s clear why for years he’s been ably turning out set after set of the cards that Magic fans love. “Essentially I have my dream job,” he says. “I have that perfect level of celebrity where when I go to events, people want my autograph and to take their picture with me—but when I go to the grocery store, nobody’s bugging me.”

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