Disclaimer: The organizers of Power of Play paid my way to Seattle, where I moderated a talk. Our coverage remains objective.
Elan Lee wants to remake entertainment by blending the interactivity of games and the passive viewing experience of TV. And he’ll get that chance by creating new interactive shows on Microsoft’s Xbox Live online entertainment platform on the Xbox One video game console.
If his past work is any guide, Xbox One consumers are in for one heck of a ride. Lee has been part of teams that have been doing some mind-bending work on alternate-reality games for the better more than a decade.
He was part of the team at 42 Entertainment that created the ilovebees.com campaign, which used tricks like making 50,000 pay phones ring at the same time (in the real world) to engage fans and warn them about the coming invasion of Earth at the beginning of the Halo 2 video game. At eDoc Laundry, his team embedded codes in T-shirts that could unlock episodes of web-based video mystery. And at Fourth Wall Studios, he created cool marketing campaigns like embedding the Sadie’s Story secret journey inside the Halo 3: ODST video game and made an alternate-reality game for the release of the Nine Inch Nails album Year Zero.
Lee is the new creative director at Microsoft’s Xbox Entertainment Studios in Los Angeles. He returned to Microsoft last year and reports to former CBS executive Nancy Tellem. We caught up with him at the Power of Play event in Seattle, where he gave a keynote speech.
GamesBeat: You gave a talk about the interesting combination of TV and games on the Xbox One platform. What were some of your broader thoughts on how to approach that?
Elan Lee: The basic problem before us, or the job description as I see it, is that Microsoft is going to build an interactive TV studio. We’re in the process of building that. It’s exciting, because right now, all these people have incredible hardware plugged into their televisions. They have controllers in their hands. They have synchronization software for their phones. They have gesture and voice recognition, all this stuff that makes you feel like you’re part of a deeper narrative. All of this was developed for video games, which are all about deeper narrative.
The next big challenge is, how do you apply that same mentality, that same suite of hardware, and those same learnings to television, and make television more immersive? How do you make the narratives more compelling? If you want to live in the same world as the characters you love, let’s enable that.
GamesBeat: What do you think about some of the interactive TV shows that have been tried before? What has been shown to work or not work?
Lee: The biggest thing that’s been tried before that I think has no future is this notion of choose-your-own-adventure. When we were kids, we all read those books. We all talked about them. But today, when you think about your favorite TV shows, your favorite characters, they go through this unbelievable conflict and at the end they come out victorious. Or, in the version you watched, I guess they didn’t come out victorious? Suddenly there’s ambiguity about how that story ended.
For me, personally, that’s a terrible experience. I want to be in the hands of a master storyteller. I want them to tell me the saga of this character that I get to live with across three seasons, who I care about deeply. I want to know the answer to the story. I don’t want one of 10 endings. If every ending is equally valid, suddenly none of them are important. That’s a real problem.
GamesBeat: Some of the fan reaction to the endings of big video games recently has generated an enormous amount of buzz or discussion. It seems that maybe the debate isn’t settled yet. BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us, Mass Effect 3 — all of these had very controversial endings. It seemed like a lot of people wanted to change the endings to suit their own preferences.
Lee: It’s an important point. There’s a fundamental difference between playing a game and watching TV. A game is your story. You talk about a game like you are the character. You’re taking over their body and controlling them and moving them through a narrative. I would argue that it’s okay for my story to be different from your story, even though we played the same game. That’s compelling. It’s something we can talk about. Each of us chose different paths because this is my story and that’s your story. It’s better if they’re not the same.
TV, I would argue, is in a different category. TV is third-person. TV is his story or her story. You sit back and get this god’s eye view of that story. If, suddenly, that story has multiple endings, it’s not his story anymore. It’s his story version one, or his story alternate version two. It’s not nearly as good a story that way, not as much of a narrative I care about.