Conversations Between Writers (and other Creative People)

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Today I’m talking with Stephen Hood Co-founder of Storium. For those unfamiliar, Storium is a sort of role playing storytelling platform, part game, part fiction writing. If that sounds at all interesting to you I strongly recommend you check it out at https://storium.com/ and you can follow Stephen on Twitter.

Minerva Zimmerman: So you just got back from GDC what, a few days ago?

Stephen Hood: Yes, it wrapped-up on Friday. (Although for me, “back” just means a train ride to San Jose.)

MZ: I just returned from Rainforest Writers Retreat last night where I finished edits on a project. So while I’m not GDC tired, I’m still trying to remember what way “up” is 🙂 Was this your first GDC?

SH:  It was! I’ve loved games all my life and have considered going for years, but it never seemed to make sense because I wasn’t working in the industry. Now I am, or at least that’s the rumor…

MZ: I love Storium. I’m a little at a loss to describe it to people sometimes though. How did you describe it for the GDC crowd?

SH: It’s definitely a bit hard to classify, which has always been both our secret weapon and our curse. Generally, I tell people that “Storium turns creative writing into a multiplayer online game.” That’s usually enough to either catch their interest and set the gears turning, or send them into full-on glazed-over mode. And, you know, it’s really best for everyone that we get to that fork in the conversational road as quickly as possible, heh.

MZ: That’s true, either that interests you or it doesn’t. I admit I’m getting impatient for Storium to open up to general players because I have people I want to indoctrinate in a few on-going stories.

SH: I’m more than a little impatient for that, too! We’re working the code hamsters as quickly as OSHA will allow…

BTW, as an existing player you can invite anyone you like. You just start a game and invite them using their email address.

MZ: Ooo hmmm. I might have to do that. I have several stories that have stalled out that could probably be jumpstarted with new blood.

SH: Players can also now hand-off their characters to someone else, which is a great way to keep things moving if someone has lost interest or doesn’t have time to play…

MZ: It’s interesting because it’s a game, but it’s also a storytelling platform but with nearly instantaneous repercussions and feedback. So as someone who writes otherwise, it’s interesting to see when I do and don’t want to work on Storium scenes, because it is Fun Writing and not Work Writing.

SH: I’m glad you think of it as “fun writing!” That’s the goal, for sure. We’re using the context of gaming to lower people’s inhibitions, raise their confidence, and get them to write. Not to write something perfect, but just to write. Everything that happens in Storium is about helping people express themselves through play, and to keep doing it.

MZ: I used to have other writers that we’d do email Round Robin stories, where someone would start a story and then email it on to the next person who would continue it and pass it back. It was always an exercise in how much of a problem you could give the other person without actually killing the story. Sometimes Storium feels like that. Sometimes you are just feeding off the collaborative process and you’ll lose a whole day writing scenes.

SH: Ha, storytelling deathmatch! I get what you mean. The big question, though, is what is the goal: is it to pit your wits against another writer, or is it to actually tell the story? I think there’s a point where those become incompatible. In Storium we’re really trying to focus on the collaboration, on the story itself, and so we purposely don’t have a lot of competitive components to the game. Some folks don’t like that. They want mechanics that encourage competition. They even call it “PvP,” which I find fascinating and/or a little disturbing. “Your subplot has died. Resurrect, or return to the story graveyard?”

MZ: I think there’s a place for both, but yes, combative writing does become incompatible with telling a shared story. but not all disagreements about the story between writers are combative either. I know my best collaborations have been the ones where we rubbed up against each other and felt very passionately about our ideas. The ones where a collaborator and I always agreed were weaker, and often boring not only from the creation side of things but for the reader. I remember a collaborator and I signed things for each other after finishing a project and when we traded back we laughed. We’d written the exact same inscription, “Thank you for not agreeing with me.”

SH: Absolutely. Friction is important in so many things. Even outside of writing. Much of Storium evolved out of a good deal of friction within our team around design philosophy, goals, and so forth. It would have turned out much weaker without that conflict. I think it’s just a question of what you incentivize for players/writers. If the game itself is structured around competition, I fear that you end up incentivizing players to undercut each other. But the alternative shouldn’t be a conflict-free environment, for sure.

MZ: Do you think having a lack of defined incentive for players inside the greater Storium system outside each individual story is a feature or something that you struggle with? Or do you even agree that’s the case?

SH: Not sure I follow you?

MZ: So in a dungeon crawl, you’re collecting gold and loot. In Storium you’re telling a story through an individual character’s actions. However, outside of each individual story is there incentive for players within Storium?

SH: Ah, ok, I see. Yeah, I guess we don’t really think of it that way. I mean, you could certainly feel like you’re grinding XP in the form of words written, games completed, characters played, etc. That’s very real progress and personal incentive, in a certain sense. We don’t really play that up yet in the UI, but we’re thinking about it. And as you play you are certainly building some manner of reputation within the community — another thing that will be more important in the future. But frankly we spend more time right now thinking about how to help players have that first, successful, satisfying storytelling experience more than we worry about the longer-term grind. At least so far…

MZ: 🙂 I’m curious how you ended up creating Storium. I’m very glad you did, because I’m geographically distant from everyone I want to share such stories with and this allows me to do this. I’m just curious how your own path ended up here

SH: That right there was one of the original inspirations. I missed playing tabletop games with my old high school friends, who had scattered to the corners of the Earth, had families, lived in different timezones, etc. I missed the creative outlet and wanted to recapture it somehow. So I built a simple prototype and unleashed it on my friends. I knew there was no way we would be able to play at the same time, so it needed to be text-based and asynchronous. It needed to not depend on a certain order of taking turns, since that would enable any single player to hold up the whole thing. And I wanted it to have just enough of that tabletop feel to trigger the muscle memory without bogging us down in complex rules that would slow down play.

That prototype was fun but had a number of problems. I kept coming back to it, though. Kept working on it, evolving it. Over time I began to realize that what was really interesting here was the writing — the sheer creative freedom that it was making possible. And that the “rules,” such as they were, were really about making that writing possible, and fun. I started building a team of allies, people who would help me broaden my perspective by adding expertise to the mix in areas like game design, writing, engineering. Will Hindmarch was an early ally and advisor, and he had a huge impact on our thinking and on the design of Storium. Getting Will involved was a major turning point. Will totally got that Storium was sitting at the intersection of fiction and gaming, and what that could mean. I think he sits at that intersection, himself.

MZ: Storium really is quite flexible I think you could potentially do an actual collaboration through it if you set up the story right er, I mean a collaboration aimed for publication obviously every Storium is a collaboration and I like that you can invite people to follow a given Storium like a fictional serial

SH: Heh, I have a feeling that the first Storium novella or novel is not far away. It’s not clear yet how you would take a Storium story and publish it. What does that even look like? Is it a cross between a screenplay and a blog post? Or it could just be that the game serves as source material, and the author or authors adapt it to a more traditional form. Sort of like how Peter Adkison’s “The Devil Walks In Salem” is a film adapted from a Fiasco play session.

However it turns out, it’s going to be interesting…

MZ: I’m going to guess a mixture pulled together with pictures, you’d need to pull something from outside to draw things together and a visual element seems like a reasonable bet

SH: A key question for me is: do the cards have relevance to the finished story, or just as components of play? Like, once you extract the narrative from the context of Storium, do you need to know what cards inspired each scene and move, or does the written fiction capture it all. I’m honestly not sure what the answer is, and that’s exciting.

MZ: Or maybe it’s going to be a card game with stories. It’s hard to know.

So I am insanely curious

SH: Uh oh

MZ: This was your first GDC, what did you think? What surprised you about interacting with gaming developers and other professionals? How did people react to Storium?

SH: It was a fascinating experience. I’m of two minds. On the one hand, I had a fantastic time meeting other professionals. I gave one of the opening talks, as part of the Narrative Summit, and I was sort of stunned by the response. I’ve given a number of talks over the years but I’ve never had so many people show up for Q&A, or even track me down even days later. I wouldn’t claim it was because I was unusually awesome or anything; I think it was more a function of the people in attendance, and their interest level. These are people who love games, who love making games, who love thinking about games. They are hungry for ideas. Sadly, you don’t feel that as much in many other industry conferences. So that part was great.

On the other hand, as I looked at the sessions and the expo floor, I didn’t really see a place where Storium obviously fit in. Let’s just say our polygon count is too low. What we’re doing is sort of alien to most of the people and companies in attendance. That doesn’t phase me at all; rather, it’s motivating and exciting. But it did make the week slightly surreal. Happily, whenever I had the chance to explain Storium to people, the responses were almost universally positive. People got that it was different from everything around them, which was fun.

MZ: I think that’s a feature and a strength of Storium, but yeah, it must have been a little surreal sometimes. like “I’m just a little toy tugboat I shouldn’t be on the big ocean!”

SH: After the third or fourth pitch for 3D rendering farms or visual asset management systems, I started proactively telling people, “sorry, my game is about words.” Heh.

MZ: HA! That’s better than I did in ’98 I just started telling people we were using a version of Direct X that didn’t exist yet, because I was kind of a jerk

SH: DirectZ!

MZ: I think DirectX 4 had just been announced and I was saying we were using a beta of 5

SH: You are history’s greatest monster.

MZ: I was only saying this when I wanted to shut someone down who was bugging me… but yeah, kind of a jerk. I had the added bonus of being a young woman, so it worked better for me than it would have for other people. It just short circuited about 4 lines of thought in whoever was trying to impress me with their “technical specs” But personally, I don’t think high tech is necessarily the future of games. I mean it will always be a place where high tech gets some testing… but as for the core of gaming I think will be more about experience

SH: A lot of my GDC talk was about questioning our reliance on simulation in our video games. It’s what we put most of the computing power into. And yet the more we do that, the less flexibility we have as storytellers. I don’t see that going away, but I do hope we see more games in the future that rely on it less.

MZ: There’s already been some pushback on very high-tech games that are basically on a rail and more of a movie experience than a player experience.

They’re still neat. But are they really “games”?

SH: Hey, I still love Rebel Assault.

I think there’s a place for just about everything in this world. But we need more variety than we’re getting these days from the major studios, IMO.

MZ: Yes, exactly. Maybe a better way for labeling products so people can find the things that they love, but not less of anything. I feel conflicted about saying “labeling” though I hate labels, and don’t really like using them… but I think a lot of anger and disappointment is caused by people going into something thinking it is one thing and finding it is something they know they already dislike.

SH: I hear you. It’s an old problem, and not just in games. I used to work on del.icio.us, so I’m partial to community tagging as a possible solution. But even that has downsides.

MZ: But then there’s the argument about shouldn’t you be challenging people? Shouldn’t you make them take a bite of pancakes even if they say they hate them? I’m not sure there’s a solution… but I think the discussion is important. Is there anything on your mind either out of GDC or anything else you want to talk about?

SH: I was pretty pleased to see that the GG crowd seemed to find little purchase at GDC. Quite the contrary, in fact. I got the sense that most people who are actually in the industry find the whole thing abhorrent.

MZ: Yeah, I have to say that’s been largely true for as long as I’ve known any designers and others working professionally in the industry. It isn’t the makers of games who are purposefully creating that kind of culture.

SH: I’m not sure they’re entirely excused from it. The games we choose to make have an impact on the audience. But yeah, I don’t think it’s game makers who are at the heart of this particular movement. (Although I’m sure there are individuals who are, sadly.)

MZ: Yeah, I don’t excuse them entirely. I think some things that weren’t thought about absolutely helped create it, I just don’t think anyone went “HEY YOU KNOW WHAT WOULD BE GREAT?!”

SH: Heh, indeed.

MZ: it’s more the, “Well, we didn’t mean for that to happen and it really isn’t our FAULT” stuff that has to change. We should probably wrap this up. Any last thoughts?

SH: I don’t think so? This was a lot of fun. Thanks for the great questions and conversation. It’s nice to make your acquaintance. thanks for interviewing me!

MZ: I like to say Conversation, because I don’t claim Journalistic integrity 🙂

SH: heh fair enough

MZ: I’m biased but I want to share cool conversations with creative people

SH: that’s a worthy goal, thanks for including me in that definition

MZ: Hey, I’ve used Storium and I know how much creativity it takes to make something that works that well

SH: thanks for saying so, and thanks for playing!

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