Commentary

How Games Are Supporting Personalized Narratives

Online content, as it becomes increasingly interactive and tailored to the individual, faces a problem: How does it deliver an individual experience and still contribute to a cultural identity? 

We have a human need for joint attention.  When we see something cool, we point it out to a family member or friend.  When we see a movie we really like, we -- unprompted by the studio -- tell our friends to go see it, too.  We crave a shared cultural identity.

We also like personalization.  We want content that is tailored to our interests, and the "choose-your-own-adventure" type of storytelling resonates quite well with audiences.  We're especially seeing instances of the latter in gaming.  But this concept of personalization seemingly operates against the need for joint attention.  So how can the two needs both be satisfied?  Social frameworks seem to be key.

One issue involves the watercooler moment.  With a popular media title, two people can gather at the watercooler and relive key moments in the narrative together.  But what happens when my moment differs from yours?  BioWare's recent game "Dragon Age: Origins" took an interesting approach to this issue, by creating a "journal" of sorts for the story of each player's game.  This journal cataloged what decisions the player made in both story and gameplay, creating a unique profile which could be shared with other players.  In essence, the differences become content.  

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As social networks become increasingly built into the consoles and even the games, this concept is likely one we will see a lot of over the next year.  There's a lot of untapped potential here for our activities around interactive content to generate valuable "watercooler" content within our social networks.  The key will be striking the right balance between interesting content and spam.

Another issue that's cropped up is how to handle personalized narratives when there are multiple concurrent audience members.  BioWare's been tackling that problem as well with its upcoming MMO "Star Wars: The Old Republic." The game won't be released for a while, so only time will tell how this actually gets finalized, but two of the methods considered had merit.  One was the simple "have a vote and let the majority win" method. I remember a similar concept was used during an interactive video attraction at Disneyland a decade back.  Their other concept seems very interesting, and well fitted for situations when the audience is as small as two players.  In this approach audience members take turns sharing the decision-making power as choices are made.

These solutions are going to have interesting implications for marketers as more digital content goes interactive.  Social content "journals" could create additional inventory for advertising, or extend the value of product placement.  A concurrent decision-making framework will likely filter down to ad serving within such content. Hulu's already played a bit with consumer driven choice around ad serving formats.  Heck, sooner or later we'll probably even see personalized ad content.

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