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News & Features Discussion  » General: Webb: When Beats Go Wrong

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  MikeB

MMORPG.com Community Manager

Joined: 5/27/09
Posts: 5470

 
OP  3/09/10 2:48:26 PM#1

MMORPG.com columnist Justin Webb writes this latest article on how the appropriate use of "beats" makes for a good story, and how MMOG developers just don't seem to get that, or care!

You see, I’ve always been interested in scriptwriting and how a movie narrative is constructed. Luckily, there are many many books on the subject, many geared at teaching the basics to budding screenwriters. The most famous is probably Syd Fields’ Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which is a superb stylish exploration of the three-act format, but which focuses (to me) a bit too much on the “art” of writing a script. I’m more interested in understanding the nuts ‘n’ bolts of the process, and at looking at screenwriting mechanically from the outside.

My favorite book on the subject is Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder. If you have any interest at all in story design, I urge you to check it out. Despite the attention-catching title, the basic premise of the book is that all movies essentially share the same three-act structure and that they all have the same fifteen story “beats”. (Blake’s “Beat Sheet” can be found here.) This isn’t a unique concept – many screenwriting books have trod this ground before. The book then gives a lot of really good advice about understanding what beats mean in the context of putting a script together.

Read Webb: When Beats Go Wrong.

Michael "MikeB" Bitton
Community Manager
Twitter: @eMikeB

  UnDfind

Novice Member

Joined: 9/29/04
Posts: 30

3/09/10 3:22:04 PM#2

You've identified one of the major problems I have with the current, quest-happy MMO models. If there is a story, it is usually interrupted by countless task-driven sub quests that serve to cheapen the overall experience.

There are some games who have used modern cinematic models, though. If you've ever completed a Final Fantasy XI expansion, you feel as though you've just watched all 3 (real) Star Wars movies for the first time. Every mission line matches the Hollywood Hero With a Thousand Faces model perfectly.

The problem I have with awesome quest story, though, is that it is usually not player-centric. In order to have dramatic tension and real emotional investment, NPCs are used as surrogates, and players help them out along the way. While a player's avatar may be the impetus behind the success of the actions (slaying the dragon, obtaining the sword, etc.), the plot's main character is the real hero.

I love games that provide a story, and everyone loves cinematic elements, but it is the game that makes a player feel that his/her character has saved the day that will have my vote, regardless of story. The trick is having story and making player characters a central element of it.

  Harabeck

Novice Member

Joined: 2/21/09
Posts: 623

3/09/10 3:35:05 PM#3

I always feel a little sad thinking about how structured things like stories have to be to appeal to us. I'm usually a very logic oriented person, but this is one thing I truly wish was a pure art.

Regardless of the methods however, you are absolutely correct. Quests need to have better stories to keep players entertained instead of just addicted.

  SnarlingWolf

Novice Member

Joined: 6/23/09
Posts: 2728

3/09/10 4:15:49 PM#4

I didn't mind that scene in Serenity at all, and in fact it didn't phase me or make me go huh in anyway.

 

Maybe I'm different but I hate predictable movies/tv shows. Which is why now a days I hate most movies and tv shows. It is completely unexciting to realize 10 minutes into a movie how the rest of it will play out and be correct. It just leaves a lackluster image in your head. I like to be surprised I like things to be different. I'm tired of everything going terribly wrong and then at the last moment all is saved, it gets old after the 100th time.

 

One movie that has always stuck in my head is Arlington Road, because the ending was terrifically different. They get you thinking the movie is going to play out the way all movies do, and for a time it follows the path. This gets you expecting one ending and then bam a much different ending.

 

Give me unique and non "beat" following anyday. Granted I know the staged always the same works for the masses and as such will always be the norm. But I will be the guy watching/buying/supporting different anytime I can (assuming it's done well, not just different for the sake of difference).

 

 

Now as far as MMOs go, I think we all agree there isn't much story these days. The quests have all been done before, every mechanic has been used, and as players we recognize that. So there will rarely be interesting story moments in MMOs. Also (as previous articles posted on this very site have shown) we known from metrics and data that players, although complaining about lack of story, are far more likely to complete the quests with little story. So what do you do then? Give the players the content they think they want? Or give them the content they've shown they want through their own actions?

  Thanosxp

Apprentice Member

Joined: 3/02/05
Posts: 172

3/09/10 4:45:48 PM#5

EXCELENT article. Man,i'll just read it for the third time now,and link it to some of my friends. Thanks for the good stuff! 

  Sovrath

Elite Member

Joined: 1/06/05
Posts: 17627

3/09/10 5:28:50 PM#6
Originally posted by Harabeck

I always feel a little sad thinking about how structured things like stories have to be to appeal to us. I'm usually a very logic oriented person, but this is one thing I truly wish was a pure art.

Regardless of the methods however, you are absolutely correct. Quests need to have better stories to keep players entertained instead of just addicted.


 

There is actually art to it.

you see, the thing is, all movies, music and art have form. However, most people who do not follow form get a mess.

So one wouuld say that if one followed the mold then one would get a great movie, story, etc. But it's not that easy.

If it were then every movie coming out would be a great movie.

So there is art in trying to recreate great stories within a form. But wait, it gets better! those who truly have talent, those who can truly master their art can actually break that mold and do it with style.

Example: mozart. Yes, yes, we all can't be mozart. But regardless, he is a perfect example of breaking form. You see, as he got older his symphonies started deviating a little from standard form. He would go to places where the audiences would expect him to go elsewhere. He was able to manipulate standard form so that he could still have a well formed piece but would also have surprises for the audience.

I can't say that the aformentioned death of Wash was disrupting to me in the form way but I didn't like it because I didn't want him to die. Also, I felt more should have been made with the death of book.

In any case one can mess with standard form and still come out on top. However, doing it well will depend on one's talent.

Until then, sticking with standard form and learning from each piece of work one creates is the best option out there.

This was actually a good article and one that surprised me in finding it on a game site.

  hfztt

Elite Member

Joined: 5/31/05
Posts: 703

3/09/10 5:34:02 PM#7

I just have to go "Huh?" over your Serenity analysis.

Josh plays the deaths just right. What you see as of the beat is actually real talent at work. What Josh does best is giving you the unexpected. Buffy is one big proof of that.

Hitting the beats is about keeping people in the comfort zone. Not great storytelling. Great storytelling is about bringing people enough OUT of the comfort zone for them to get involved emotinally, without loosing them completely. People are in the comfort zone as long as they feel tehy know how things are going to play out. Avatar is one big proof how succesfull a film 100% in the comfort zone can be, but also how storywise utter unexiting that is.

The in Serenity the first death is played early to get the "expected" death out of the way. (Come one everybody knew someone was going to die in this, so that death is still well within the viewer comfort zone.) The viewer feels safe now. The second death is unserimonious and brutal and done to one of the most likeable characters. "Wtf!?!? But... But... Hey! You cant do that!" Now the viewer has to change mindset. Ok, next comfort zone: "Everyone is going to die!" Which is what gives the whole resulution of the film its emotinal punch. Had he played it differently the whole movie would have fallen flat.

What you see as bad beats, I see as perfect timing.

  Comnitus

Novice Member

Joined: 6/03/09
Posts: 2509

Revenge is a dish best served with mayonnaise and those little cheesy things on sticks.

3/09/10 5:36:19 PM#8

Interesting article. The quests that give me a feeling of adventure or "good beats", as you call them, are RuneScape's well-written quests/quest-lines and LotRO's book quests. RuneScape is different because you don't kill 10 rats, you actually do something meaningful and there are plot twists. LotRO is different because while you may be killing 10 rats, you're doing so for a purpose that makes sense and is presented to you through well-written, enjoyable to read quest text/cutscenes.

  Texalor

Novice Member

Joined: 2/24/09
Posts: 1

3/09/10 7:16:51 PM#9

If you want proof as to the importance of "beats" try watching any of the movies of the late 60"s through the 80's.  It may be hard to find many movies because everyone was so busy being "different" that most of the movies were trash.  Check out most of the movies from that period that we remember, odds are they followed the pattern.

 

Being different just for the sake of being different makes for a poor movie....or maybe I am just so old that my memory is failing.

 

Tex

  wootin

Novice Member

Joined: 10/04/08
Posts: 260

3/09/10 7:56:53 PM#10

Nice breakdown! I'm not sure about the whole beats thing, but I'll go for anything that improves the quality of time spent in an MMO.

  NightCloak

Novice Member

Joined: 11/06/07
Posts: 456

3/09/10 10:33:04 PM#11

I wasn't a fan of Wash being killed. It bothered me mostly because the reapers have aimhax ;)

 

Actually I just didn't like him being killed. The setup for the end could have been done differently and had that same emotional punch.

 

Personally I would've wanted a season 2 of Firefly over Serenity. But I wont complain :)

 

As for the beats thing... Some quests are great. That is true. But I found many quests in WoW to have excellent stories. I mean a LOT. Sure there are 100's of cut and paste quests, but there are so many great quests sprinkled throughout the whole game. I don't know how many have beats, but the use of beats flows better when the story is the focus.

 

MMOs really its the setting thats the focus. The stories are only given a fraction of the attention as other aspects of the game. MMOs have a unique issue of having the social element added that frequently causes the story to be in the way of the objective.

Movies, books and even single-player games the story is the objective. In the MMO, with social elements, the story isn't the objective but merely a part of polish. The objective is the loot or the next level. Its the carrot on the stick or the territory your opposing faction owns. The MMO objective is the end of the story, not the story.

The Linkin quest  was revealed to me because of the loot at the end. Nobody mentioned the story when I heard or read about it. It was all about the ending.

  User Deleted
3/10/10 2:03:45 AM#12

You knew someone would say this but  " I march to the beat of a different drummer"... i don't have a problem with "kill ten rats"

However, your article was very good and educatin'... I think that if many, if not most of the stories in games  used that beat thing you are talking about, stories could be better... What can it hurt?

  ghstwolf

Novice Member

Joined: 3/21/08
Posts: 386

3/10/10 2:32:25 AM#13

IMO the form simply cannot work in an MMO.

Sure you can use some of the beats, but there are several issues.  The biggest one IMO is that 11 and 12 are nearly impossible to adequately perform under current designs.  Face it, the suspension of disbelief  required for "all is lost" is virtually impossible in a static world, especially one where failure really isn't an option.  Without that 12 is impossible as well, which makes 13 a hollow victory (now where's my friggin reward).

The problem is, getting away from static worlds makes it hard for some players to be an epic hero.  Leaving largely mundane only the mundane tasks that assumably we don't really want.  Likewise we all hate failure, if the princess dies (or whatever) and we can never reset that...  whine whine bitch.  The "game" part of these games is a bad vehicle for the beats style of story telling.

  sacredfool

Advanced Member

Joined: 5/04/07
Posts: 743

3/10/10 3:29:03 AM#14

ghstwolf, i would totally disagree. A lot can be done. For example, a simple escort quest, can be changed so that the person you escort does actually die.  Yes, you fail, but the consequences of the death set you onto a new quest. Obviously, would not be as surprising if you are doing the quest for the 10th alt, but it would create the "all is lost" feeling.

As for the beats, I agree. MMOs first need to master the beats and create such a form, and then only when mastered, they can experiment.

SF


Originally posted by nethaniah

Seriously Farmville? Yeah I think it's great. In a World where half our population is dying of hunger the more fortunate half is spending their time harvesting food that doesn't exist.


  Dawngreeter

Novice Member

Joined: 11/04/07
Posts: 60

3/10/10 6:50:17 AM#15

Exaltation of formulaic narrative as something inherently good truly inspires wailing and gnashing of teeth. Here's what you're saying: There's this one story, right. And we goddamn like it. We want to be told this one story over and over again. We reject this horrid idea of innovative storytelling. Or, really, storytelling at all. We are so used to seeing our one and only story that we have no idea how to handle any form of narrative which requires that we pay attention to what's going on.

 

With all due respect - this is why we can't have nice things.

 

And by the way, the most awkward moment of Serenity is the part where Mal suggests River hasn't earned her place on the ship. She has, at least twice before.

  trnd7

Novice Member

Joined: 12/18/07
Posts: 8

3/10/10 9:30:33 AM#16

 Well-written article (how many beats did you use for it? ;) You should try the Guild Wars MMO if you haven't done so already. You may dislike the kind of stories GW tells, but they're all mostly well-written following traditional story structures. Add the cut scenes and it feels like a proper interactive movie.

  maplestone

Novice Member

Joined: 12/10/08
Posts: 3109

3/10/10 9:39:08 AM#17

Strange ... I tend to point to the death of Wash as an example of a movie getting things right.

The problem with most movies these days is that they are so transparently interchangeable that it becomes annoying. Don't get me wrong, I eat up the beats, I like the little subconscious ego boost of "oh, I successfully forsaw this".  But in the end, that means I'm just watching a rerun of the same story and pretending it's different.  It's junk food for the brain.

It's a critical difference between the business of storytelling (give people what they want) and the art of storytelling (give people something truthful).

If a story is going to be any good, it has to challenge me.  Not twists that deliberately mess up the audience, but set up a problem and show a solution.  I *despise* fate.  I hate story arcs that have every come down to a roll of the dice and the hero wins.  If you set up a nexus point where everything comes down to a roll of the dice, then I think the script-writer should get out the dice, roll them and live with the results.  It's one of the things I love about pencil and paper RPGs - a roll of the dice can change the course of an entire campaign.  The death of Wash felt like a pure RPG moment - the dice were rolled and even though they were winning the fight, a critical hit was scored and course of events changed.

Aside: storytellers should watch "The Orchid Thief", a movie about the trouble the author has trying to create the screenplay he is writing - weird self-referential spiral aide, the ending is a fascinating analysis of how you destroy any value a story has by trying to make it conform to the beats.

  Kridina

Novice Member

Joined: 3/17/08
Posts: 10

If it isn't fun, why do it?

3/10/10 9:59:40 AM#18

First, I have to say...i just really enjoyed this article..and every comment..whether all agreed or not...all were well written..and mature in my opinion.

 

I happen to be one of those who watch movies..play games..read books..to take a break from my hectic real life..and boy..it's hectic! lol

 

So..I like my beats (As you called them) all in order..I like my happy endings..I like my books good..and my games well made...and to leave the movie theater nodding my head and thinking..finally..it was worth buying that ticket...

 

and I like thinking...I clicked a link in my mail box and was motivated to actually read the entire comment thread AND reply TOO

 

WOW

 

good job folks..lets keep up the good thought exchange :)

  Kyleran

Bitter Vet™

Joined: 9/13/06
Posts: 19524

Fools find no pleasure in understanding, but delight in airing their own opinions. Pvbs 18:2, NIV

3/10/10 10:13:52 AM#19

Was a good article, I never heard of the beat concept before and this really opened some insight as to why these days (after over 35 years of movie watching) I find most every one of them very predictable and shall I say, boring?

In fact, I think I prefer the quirky movie that shakes up this model a bit (not tosses it away) because I frequently find myself enjoying movies that 1/2 the people in the theater are stating out loud how bad it was.

But back to games.  No doubt MMO's would certainly benefit if their epic quest lines followed the beat process more, and they would improve the overall quality considerably. (besides, I wouldn't be bored of it in games since I haven't seen much of it in them)

 

Arrogant, Condescending, Dismissive, Elitist, "Meany", you speak as if these are bad things?
"People can do with their money what they want. But... that doesn't make it smart" - COORS
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  Senadina

Hard Core Member

Joined: 4/16/06
Posts: 895

3/10/10 11:53:06 AM#20
Originally posted by SnarlingWolf

I didn't mind that scene in Serenity at all, and in fact it didn't phase me or make me go huh in anyway.

 

Maybe I'm different but I hate predictable movies/tv shows. Which is why now a days I hate most movies and tv shows. It is completely unexciting to realize 10 minutes into a movie how the rest of it will play out and be correct. It just leaves a lackluster image in your head. I like to be surprised I like things to be different. I'm tired of everything going terribly wrong and then at the last moment all is saved, it gets old after the 100th time.

 

One movie that has always stuck in my head is Arlington Road, because the ending was terrifically different. They get you thinking the movie is going to play out the way all movies do, and for a time it follows the path. This gets you expecting one ending and then bam a much different ending.

 

Give me unique and non "beat" following anyday. Granted I know the staged always the same works for the masses and as such will always be the norm. But I will be the guy watching/buying/supporting different anytime I can (assuming it's done well, not just different for the sake of difference).

 

 

Now as far as MMOs go, I think we all agree there isn't much story these days. The quests have all been done before, every mechanic has been used, and as players we recognize that. So there will rarely be interesting story moments in MMOs. Also (as previous articles posted on this very site have shown) we known from metrics and data that players, although complaining about lack of story, are far more likely to complete the quests with little story. So what do you do then? Give the players the content they think they want? Or give them the content they've shown they want through their own actions?


 

This is how I felt about "Avatar". I am the only person I know who hated it, I actually walked out. It was "Pocahontas"  with some blue eye candy. I was not going to sit there for another 90 minutes when I knew everything that was going to happen. It makes me despair for humanity that so many people loved this dreck.

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