The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

May 1997

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 21 April 97 Copyright ©1997 alt.screenwriters
Terry: As we’ve talked about in previous columns, the interactive community has a lingo all its own…Deborah: So sooner or later, if you get hired on a new media project, someone is going to say to you: “We’d like you to take a look at the Design Document” or “We don’t yet have a Design Document” or “We’d like you to help develop the Design Document”.

Terry: …and you’re right to wonder what the hell a Design Document even is. Deborah: Something the government requires? Terry: Something the fashion industry uses?

Deborah: Because you, after all, write outlines and screenplays — not documents, and not designs.

Terry: First of all, it should be understood that the term Design Document can mean different things to different people. But we might think of a Design Document as a souped-up treatment.

Deborah: Except that it’s both more and less than a treatment.

Terry: Right. In a feature film treatment, for example, you might literally “beat out” every sequence in your movie. Plot and subplot are thoroughly discussed, 3-act structure, character arc, major setpieces, etc.

Deborah: A Design Document might not get so detailed on matters like character arc. But there’s so much MORE to cover.

Terry: Character descriptions and story summary would be included, same as in a feature treatment. But you need more than story summary: you need story PATH. Interactive stories almost always branch: you’re going to have to describe something that may resemble a rat’s nest and make it crystal clear.

Deborah: A flowchart is not at all out of place in a Design Document. Often it’s the best and most succinct way to paint the picture.

Terry: Even more important is description and diagrams of the interface. How will the audience (i.e., the player) interact with the entertainment you’re creating? Describing the same thing in a feature treatment is ridiculous, of course. There’s only one socially acceptable way to interact with a strip of film.

Deborah: But in Interactive, you have to describe what the player is seeing, and what tools the player will use to interact with the audio and visual: the mouse, the keyboard, for example. How often is interactivity needed? What type of interactivity — in other words, will it require reflexes or contemplation or random selection?

Terry: What are the media elements to be used? In a feature treatment, you’d say: “We’ll need film. And, uh, sound.” Duh. But in Interactive, this is a real question. Full Motion Video? Computer-generated graphics? Claymation? Audio? Audio in as well as audio out? Text onscreen, and how much? How many pixels need to be pushed to the screen in a given moment? Will the player interact with the music? With sprites?

Deborah: The questions are endless. The Design Document should answer them. We also need to deal with some ugly realities in the Doc: like a basic description of the target audience, and marketing strategies to find and grow that audience. Also, a rough budget and schedule.

Terry: Stuff that is normally in the Unit Production Manager’s bailiwick. But here the creative development team may need to figure these things out.

Deborah: Design Documents are different animals, to say the least.

Terry: And they’re definitely selling tools. Often it’s the Design Document that makes or breaks a project. The Design Document will garner the budget, get Marketing behind the title, and put a full team into place. So the Design Document has to have all these clunky elements we’ve just talked about —

Deborah: — it has to rock’n’roll. It has to cry out, “Make me! This is a smash hit in the making!” And it has to seduce the reader enough to get them so excited that the project gets made.

Terry: And if you get the assignment to write a Design Doc, and manage to write a successful one, you’re in even more hot water —

Deborah: — the interactive screenplay. Which we’ll talk about next time.

Written by tborst

April 21, 1997 at 10:02 pm

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