Friday, September 27, 2013

IGDA Toronto 2013 Keynote

Remember how two weeks ago I attended that Getty Images event that was decidedly so-so? Well, last week I went to an event that was the polar opposite: a fantastic keynote run by the International Game Developers Association. The featured speaker was Neil Druckmann, Creative Director and writer from the game studio Naughty Dog

Edit: a video of the full session is now available on YouTube. To view it, click here.

Why is this event something I'm mentioning on a blog that focuses on L&D work? Because Naughty Dog and Neil Druckmann are responsible for creating one of the best examples of storytelling in video games thus far: The Last of Us. The emotional impact of this game, as well as its immersive storytelling, is something that I think people in our industry could learn a great deal from. We know that well-crafted stories help content stick and increase emotional engagement. That said, L&D departments don't always use storytelling as well as they could.

So, in the interest of learning more about writing great stories, I spent my whopping $5 to buy a ticket (yes, I still can't believe it was that cheap) and went to this event hoping to live tweet the whole thing and share it with all of you. That plan was quickly thwarted by the fact that the keynote was being held in the basement of the Royal Ontario Museum, which is possibly the only place in Toronto where you can't get a decent wi-fi connection OR a cellphone signal. Yup. No live tweeting for me. They also turned the room lights off for the presentation, keeping me from even taking notes (well, keeping me from taking notes if I cared about not distracting the audience with the bright glare of iPad screen... which I did, in fact, care about... because I'm not a jerk).

The event ended, I loved it, and I intended to blog about what I learned... and then The Verge beat me to it with this excellent article. Warning: do not click that link unless you've played the game or have no intention of ever playing the game, because it is chock full of spoilers.

For those of you who either want to dodge spoilers or just want a quick synopsis, here are the three key things I learned about storytelling from this event.

1) You may have to wade through a ton of lousy versions of your story before you get to the one that actually works

Druckmann didn't have the plot for The Last of Us spring fully formed from his head magically. The story was actually the result of years of playing with several core story elements in a number of different ways. His initial attempt at the story, a game idea he proposed back when he was a student, just didn't have that much depth. However, there was a nugget of a good concept in amongst that unsuccessful game proposal, which he clearly recognized since he spent years reworking the ideas over and over again throughout numerous (and drastically different) iterations. In a clear example of why it's important not to just give up if a story doesn't work right away, after many years of experimenting he finally hit on the combination that worked.

2) That said, sometimes you have to just let go of the parts of your story you can't manage to make work

In the midst of all this reworking, Druckmann had a number of ideas he got attached to that were actually holding his story back. He admitted that, while at the time he was rather enamored of these plot points, on looking back these story elements only got in the way of character building and innovative storytelling. Letting go of them was difficult, but necessary. 

The hard part of storytelling can often be differentiating the ideas that aren't working now but could work eventually from the ideas that aren't working now because they aren't ever going to work.

3) Your life experiences will change who you are as a storyteller

While The Last of Us was in development something happened that deeply affected Druckmann's perspective: he became a father for the first time. All of a sudden the story he was telling about a man who becomes a father-figure to a young girl became that much more connected to his real-life experience. This event made him think differently about what that kind of relationship was, as well as how to make video game characters (in particular, nuanced female characters) that his daughter could some day grow up to respect.

It's not to say that you have to experience an event in order to write about it well. It's more that the more you open yourself up to new experiences, the more of a pool of knowledge you'll have to draw from to craft creative and innovative stories that ring true to your audience.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Getty Images: Visual Trends and Innovations event

A few weeks ago I got a random email from Getty Images about an event they were holding in my area (you can check out the event info by clicking here). It was local and it was free so, despite never having been to a Getty Images event (and despite my suspicion that, like many free events, it would pretty much be one big commercial) I decided to go.

Here's a quick summary of the three sessions I went to:

Session 1: What's in your content? - Canadian content for Canadians, by Canadians
Speaker: Beau Lark, Hero Images

I'm not quite sure what the deal was with this title. Lark briefly touched on the idea of "Is there a particular Canadian aesthetic that's visible in Canadian-produced stock photos?" and then promptly dropped it minutes later.

The rest of the talk focused on how his company, Hero Images, produces stock images. It was interesting to find out how some of the imagery I use on a regular basis comes into existence. This company makes substantially better than average standard stock images, and it's clear that the additional thought, planning, and spontaneity that Lark discussed his company using is a large part of why this is the case.

We shoot people holding arrows, of course!

That said, it was hard not to feel like much of this presentation was more a subtle commercial for their stock images rather than a session with content I could do something with afterwards. Great... I now know what image themes Getty Images has asked their photography partners to create. That's interesting from a general curiosity perspective. However, it doesn't actually contribute much to helping me do my job better, which makes it less than an ideal topic for a workshop.

Snarkiness aside, this is a really good image.

I have to wonder if Hero Images and Getty got more out of the experience from the admittedly excellent audience questions that followed the session than the actual audience got from the talk?

Session 2: Trends in video - How our video is driving engagement
Speaker: Andrew Delaney, Getty Images

This one was at least decently-related to the session description. Delaney opened the session by talking about statistics that showed how video can increase customer engagement (and showed his sources at the end of the session! Speakers: remember to do this if you use statistics). At this point, though, it became clear that this session would be looking at videos through the lens of advertising/marketing. That's a valid lens, but one that only relates to my work indirectly. Not to say that us L&D folks don't have a lot to learn from marketing, but in this case it took a bit of heavy lifting to translate what was being said about video into something that would impact learning.

Long story short (too late), video generally increases people's interest in interacting with your content. Okay, sure. I'll buy that (as long the video content is good, at least). Then Delaney showed this slide the outlined the 5 types of videos he felt every site needed:

Good advice for people selling a product/service at least

Obviously this is coming from an "advertising a product or service" spin, but the gist of it could apply to other situations as well, I suspect. Depending on what you're doing, I think some of those video types matter more than others though. For instance, I develop leadership training right now. Out of all those options, I think #3 (expert video) would matter the most to my audience.

Delaney didn't spend a ton of time going into these 5 types of videos (Shame, really. I would have loved an entire session on how to make effective versions of each video type.), and instead shifted into sales mode. Once again, this is pretty much what I expected considering the event, and at the very least his sales slides were informative and attractive to boot.

It's a bad photo (with a person's head in the way) but you get the drift.

Getty Images basically has a huge library of videos. No surprise to me, but apparently a bit of a surprise to some people in the room. They currently seem to be trying to brand their particular images/videos as "authentic", which is probably a good business model considering the most common complaint about stock photos is their phoniness. They then showed off a few demo reels which were, as expected, pretty decent.

The session continued by very briefly exploring three innovations in stock video: Hyper-lapse photography, using flying drones to take shots at interesting angles, and the use of amateur YouTube style videos. Of all of these, I think it's the amateur videos that impact us most in L&D. I'm glad to see more acceptance for amateur video, since it's both easier to produce and fantastic for quickly capturing in-the-moment insights and reflections that in the past have been too difficult to capture with professional video shoots. That said, I think it's important to point out something that I mentioned on Twitter during this session: professionally created faux amateur videos practically reek of inauthenticity. You're better off having no video than a fake YouTube-style video that comes across as phony. There's something deeply off-putting about companies that try and appropriate something authentic. It has severe reputational risk, which is why I find it a bit curious that it's a direction Getty Images is taking. I'll be curious to see if they're able to strike a good balance between decent production values and authenticity. I'll also be curious to see how our industry manages this balance as well.

As much as I left this presentation feeling like I wasn't actually its intended audience, there were two good takeaways for me. 

First was the confirmation that Getty Images uses the analytics data from what people search for on their site (in particular, popular searches that result in little to no results) to drive the themes they ask their partners to create. During the break between the first and second sessions I chatted with a friend about this and we theorized this was likely the case. It was deeply amusing to have it confirmed under an hour later. It's always interesting to have a bit of a look underneath the hood of services I use regularly.

Second, and this may be the best bit of content I learned at this event, I found out that Getty Images shares some of their image trends research via a site called The Curve. I suspect I'll be visiting this site often for ideas.

Session 3: Access to all areas - How the red carpet has evolved, a look at our archives and how photography has evolved with celebrity.
Speaker: Robert Ahern, Getty Images

I walked into this session having very little idea of what to expect. The full session description didn't really match the title, and all of it was rather vague (seriously... Getty could use a bit of help with their session and audience descriptions). What I got, thankfully, was the most interesting session of the day.

I wish I had gotten more photos of the images shown in this session. They were all stunning like this.

Ahern works in the Getty Images archives and, with a nod to the Toronto International Film Festival that was going on at the same time as this event, used his experience to weave together a fascinating retrospective on the history of celebrity photography. He began by discussing the early days of celebrity photography, in particular how Hollywood used high-end photography to create and frame the idea of what a Hollywood star actually was in the minds of the public. These highly staged photos eventually gave way to more casual images in the 50s and 60s. This change came about as photographers moved themselves out of the studio and into the actual lives of their subjects. When imbedded in a celebrity's entourage for a long period of time, they were able to capture intimate, real moments in that person's life, leading to stunning and authentic imagery (look, it's the "A" word again!). Of course, this trend towards photography of celebrity lives has moved to an extreme end with paparazzi photographers: people who capture the intimacy of a celebrity's life without the level of consent seen previously. It's amazing how the images from this type of photography manage to read as drastically more intrusive and off-putting when compared to their predecessors.

So it was a interesting session made all the better by the fact that Ahern was clearly passionate about the subject matter. That kind of excitement from a presenter is infectious. While I didn't learn a lot that directly relates to the work I do, I did at least get to see numerous examples of what high-end photography should be, which I suppose is helpful for inspiring me to strive to use the best images I can find/afford for my projects.

Final Thoughts

A lot of people have asked me if this event was worth my time. It's a hard question to answer. On one hand, the Getty Images research website is something I can see myself using on a regular basis and it's not something I was likely to find out about otherwise. I also just loved the final session, even if it won't directly impact my work. But were those two things worth taking almost a day's worth of my time? I'm not sure.

By the end of the session there were two questions I was surprised I still couldn't answer:

  1. What did Getty Images hope its audience would get out of this day?
  2. What did Getty Images themselves expect to gain from this experience?
I wonder if this lack of event direction is why I still feel a bit uncertain about what I should have gotten out of the day. I mean, if the event sponsor didn't seem to have a clear vision for what this event should have accomplished, then how could I?

The other question I've been asked is would I go to an event like this again? My answer: possibly. I like the idea of creative events to help shake up my mindset a bit, but clearly intention and execution don't always match as well as everyone would like. So yes, I'd attend an event like this again, but I'd be a lot pickier about which events specifically and would look for ones with a clear vision for what the event should accomplish.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Making a branched simulation: eGeeking style! (Part 1)

A bunch of people have asked me lately how I go about creating branched simulations. This is partially because I won't stop yammering on about them (I may be a smidge obsessed), and partially because I actually create the things start to finish on my own, which means I have reasonably decent insight into all steps of the process.

Anyway, because of this I thought I'd outline how I personally make branched simulations for work. This is not, by any means, the only way to make a branched simulation. It's just the process that I've found works well for me. Your own milage may vary.

Step 1: Find out what on Earth this branched simulation is trying to accomplish

Before you start getting all giddy about branching and tech tools that help you do it, it's best to step back and find out what the thing you're trying to create is supposed to actually help learners do. Doing this right away keeps you from developing a branched sim that technically functions well, but doesn't actually create the kind of change that your client/SME is looking for.

As well, this step helps you determine if a branched sim is really what's right for the learner. Too often you'll have SMEs who want to jump on the branched sim bandwagon because it's new and innovative, not because it's actually the best tool for what they want to accomplish. You may be put in the rough position of having to advocate for a different approach entirely, but you can't know if you need to do this unless you ask a bunch of questions about the project intent upfront.

Step 2: Mine your SME for character and story ideas

Let's say you've done your assessment and you all agree that a branched sim is the right choice. Now what you need to do is get as many stories as you can about the issue you're designing the project for. 

For instance, I've recently been developing several branched sims that are designed to help managers practice having more productive career conversations with their employees. Here are just some of the questions I asked my SME:
  • What are the most common ways managers mess up when they're having these conversations?
  • What kind of coaching do managers need to change their behaviour?
  • What are the subtle errors managers typically make during these conversations?
  • What are the subtle errors employees typically make during these conversations?
  • What best practices do we want to model for both managers and employees?
  • What employee types do managers have a particularly hard time having successful career conversations with?
  • What are managers currently doing well already?
  • What are some real life examples of unsuccessful career conversations?
  • What are some real life examples of successful career conversations?
Does that seem like a lot of questions? Well, too bad because it's just the start. You're going to be asking a LOT more as this project goes on. This first wave is just to narrow down the core theme or themes for your sim(s).

Step 3: Write a short summary of your sim plot (1 per sim)

It really doesn't need to be any longer than this
Okay, you've gotten enough data to craft the core story for your sim. Actually, technically you've gotten enough information to do more than that, but I find that this is a good place to refine the story you've decided on and get your SME (and any other stakeholders) on board before you get into the time intensive stuff. 

At this point I'll write a very short (often just 2 or 3 paragraphs) summary of the best path of the sim. I also include a few details of how the sim can derail if the user picks some of the worst options. Then I give this to my SME to make sure it rings true to them. If you can, get them to officially sign off on the plot. You don't want to make major story revisions later on in the process (when it's MUCH harder to do) because the SME didn't 100% love the initial sim story concept, so check with them early to avoid a massive headache later.

Step 4: Write a biography/summary for every character/situation that will be in your sim

It's not pretty, but it gets the job done
In a sim you're either going to be creating one or more characters that have to act consistently or writing situations that have to play out logically throughout a large number of decisions. That's why it's good, before you write a single word of your sim script, to clearly establish who these characters are and/or how these situations function.

Because a branched sim shows so many different variants of how a situation can play out, it's easy to accidentally write your characters/situations inconsistently if you don't do this pre-planning first (in particular if you happen to be writing a sim on subtle things like soft skills). The last thing you want is for users to be confused and distracted because, for instance, your character is shy in certain branches and more pushy in others.

To keep this from happening, you need to give yourself the character/situation equivalent of a style guide. For characters, this is where you establish the core motivations, habits, and behaviours that define who your character is. For situations, this is the time to clearly establish the rules of what can and can't happen under a number of common circumstances. Once you have this settled, then it's much easier to write your sim consistently.

Going back to my example of career conversation simulations, here are a few of the details that I thought about when designing the employee characters for it:
  • What's their background at the company?
  • Do they know how they want their career to grow?
  • Do they have any expectations of how their career should progress?
  • Are these expectations realistic/advisable?
  • Are they direct or indirect communicators?
  • Are they easily influenced by what their manager says (perhaps to a fault)?
  • Is there anything the manager can do that will make them particularly upset?
  • What can the manager do to make them feel supported?
  • Are they comfortable sticking up for their own interests?
  • If their manager makes a suggestion they don't like, how do they react?
  • Are there incorrect assumptions their manager has made about them?
  • What are their bad habits?
  • What are their most positive habits?
  • What makes them stand out?
Once you've figured out these details, pull them together in a character/situation summary sheet. Refer to this document on a regular basis while writing so you can keep all your details consistent. 

I'd also recommend that you share this document with your SMEs when they review your script. This information will help them quickly understand choices you've made in the script that may, to someone less familiar with the storyline, initially seem odd, or even incorrect.

So that's the planning stages of sim creation. In the second part of this series, I'll get into the actual details of writing your sim script and developing the final product. Until then, feel free to add any questions or tips you have about branched sims in the comments section.