Dice 2008: Gore Verbinski Keynote

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You might wonder what the director of the popular Pirates of the Caribbean could possibly have to say about games. Turns out, he has quite a lot to say about them, and not all of it is good.

Verbinski honored this year’s DICE Summit with an opening day keynote. The subject: how the game industry can avoid turning into the movie industry.

“Beware The Path,” he said, likening the current state of games to the state of film, circa the 1970s, when Hollywood was ruled by auteurs who slowly, over the next decade, lost control of their art to the financiers pulling the strings, and films began to all look alike. “The Path is now a hard cement conduit, hard to influence. … Already, how many games have you seen that looked too similar?”

He suggested designers should look to themselves for inspiration, and not be afraid to make radical decisions, not be afraid to rattle a few cages, saying game designers have “an obligation to make ‘the suits’ shit themselves.”

He then told the assembled gamerati the story of how hard and how long he defended Johnny Depp’s bizarre characterization of the pirate Jack Sparrow, which the studio executives – at first – reacted to in horror. “‘Is he drunk,'” Verbinski recalled them asking. “‘Is he gay?'” The director ignored their screeching, stood up for his and Depp’s artistic decisions and, in the end, were proven right.

“I fought tooth and nail for my opinion,” he said, “because I don’t want there to be too many of them. …The trick is to not ask for permission. … You are willing something into being. You do not ask for permission.”

It’s tempting to dismiss Verbinski’s words as heckling from an outsider, but as a long-time gamer, and the creator of a series of films that spawned disproportionally terrible games, Vernbinski may be uniquely qualified to point out that the game industry needs a sharp stick in the rear.

“I am a gamer,” Verbninski told the packed house, “but I am primarily a filmmaker and a storyteller. … We are influencing each other and it is exciting and dangerous and a bit mad. … I would argue that this moment right now – with the doors wide open – this is the time for madness.”

Then talk turned to the terrible games themselves, including the almost universally panned MMO created by Disney, based on the Pirates of the Carribbean franchise, but about which they failed to consult him – even ignoring his unsolicited advice.

“We created value out of nothing,” he said, “then watched as they created nothing out of value.”

He called it a bizarre business strategy “not to consult the people who created the audience to begin with.” Later likening the failure of Disney’s games division to incorporate his ideas to “a breach of contract.”

But the bitter recriminations lasted only a moment. On the whole, the speech was a rousing call to arms, and the mood in the hall was lively as the meaning of his words sank in.

“Too many voices are responsible for the erosion of a point of view,” he said, explaining how he goes about building a successful team, ensuring that it’s not just ILM he’s working with on special effects, for instance, but the specific artists and producers whose work he admires who get assigned to his projects. He says all too often “the name above the door” gets all the credit, while the individual artists responsible for the genius of creation are overlooked or move on.

“It is the casting of talent that remains the single most important part of the process,” he said. “When I work with virtuosos … the result is extraordinary. Yet to most executives, these people remain invisible.”

During the Q and A that followed, Verbinski was asked to give examples of some of the games he thought were derivative, or stale. He diplomatically refused, explaining he’d just recently, upon completing the third Pirates film, purchased “all three game systems.” Apologizing if he’d offended anyone by suggesting there were only three.

“There are also PCs,” replied a member of the audience.

To which Verbinski replied: “I own a Mac.”

The questions were few, as most of the attendees were either anxious to get to the party portion of the evening, or too dazed by the suggestion that individual artists – not publishers or developers – have the real power of creation. It’s a heady concept, and a dangerous way of thinking. But good things come to those willing to take risks, according to Verbinski. And it’s hard to argue with the man responsible for one of the highest-grossing movie trilogies of all time.

“You have to be willing to fail,” he said. “The money comes if the passion is there. … In this world, the most fiscally responsible thing to do is create your own path.”

And then he exited, not along the provided path, but through the scenery.

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