Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Uncle Computer, Tell Me A Story

This is why we can’t have nice things

‘Content is king’, that’s what they say. They don’t say ‘good content is king’ because that would be silly. If good content were king, then the Venn diagram of ‘things that are good’ and ‘things that sell a lot’ would be a circle. It’s not. We wouldn’t bother with different words for excellent and profitable, unless they were different things. In business terms, I’d rather have a shitty product and a great salesman then a great product and a shitty salesman. So what they should say is ‘Content that is good enough, is king.‘

Hiatus going to hiate.

If I like something, then I probably want more of it. This is how the TV channel Dave works, and it works very well. All of Top Gear, all of QI, that’s about it. This is also how piratebay works, because that means I can watch all of a thing in one go instead of being drip-fed it at the rate the advertisers and broadcasters have agreed on without ever even asking me once, the bastards. If, however, it costs a lot of time and money to make that thing that I like, then there’s going to be a disappointingly small amount of it for me to consume. Production is expensive.

The basic maths behind the delivery of digital media is that cost trends towards zero. This means that we end up with the position that media publishers are charging for something that costs nothing - a digital file. Making that file in the first place was of course massively expensive, but copying it? That costs nothing. And yet you, as a consumer, still get charged for it. Distribution is cheap.

The internet’s ability to distribute digital files for close to no cost has already been hugely disruptive and will continue to rework the way that commerce in relation to these files is handled. So what would happen if you could also trend the cost of production towards zero?

I think you’re ok, no matter what anyone says

There are three entities capable of producing content. The first is professionals, the second is amateurs and the third is machines. We are used to professional content, that’s how pretty much everything on TV , the games we buy at retail, newspapers, magazines and books were made. It’s usually quite good, but it’s expensive. A lot of what we see on the internet is amateur content; YouTube videos, blogs, comics, comment threads, all that lovely crowd sourced stuff that hippies get so excited about. It’s cheap, but an awful lot of it is rubbish.

Fly you fools!
Because you’re clever, you’ve realised that I’m saving machine generated content for last because that’s the one I’m excited about. Well done you, you are completely right. See machines that produce content, once you’ve built them, make new content essentially for free. They trend the cost of production towards zero. And that is an astonishing thought.

Computer games have toyed about a bit with procedurally, automatically generated content for about ever. It’s never really worked very well. Puzzle games already sort of do this - you can pretty much play Tetris or Triple Town forever. But they don’t generate stories or objects or landscapes or characters, at least not in the traditional sense.

One day, they will. Computer generated content has to be juuust good enough and it will immediately find a place where quantity is what users want.

If at first you don’t succeed, complete this line yourself

There’s a fantastic snippet from a talk given by Kurt Vonnegut where he plots out some basic stories as graphs, showing how stories can be broken down into arcs where things get worse and arcs where things get better. He invites his audience to put these ideas into a computer. I’m not sure if anyone did.

Here, Dan Harmon, the writer of Community, discusses an algorithmic approach to writing stories, and it’s great. A chap called Dan Benmergui made a lovely little storytelling toy called, well, Storyteller, which lets you move people around and as you do so, the three panel story changes. 

Are you Thor about this?
Stories have a shape, a shape that humans instinctively understand. This has been known for some time. And if that's true - and it seems it is - then it must be possible to get computers to make stories that humans find satisfying. The clues are all there. As yet, the case has not been cracked. If you can teach a computer to tell a story, you have a genuinely disruptive piece of technology. Not only would such a thing be able to trend production costs towards zero, if you have a machine capable of making content, of in some way telling stories itself, then you can make completely new kinds of experience. And that is the most exciting part of all.

If the story is told by a computer, it can be altered on the fly by the computer. These things have happened, so finish the story from here. If that's true, then you have genuinely interactive stories. Like an Uncle adapting his bed-time story to the whims and suggestions of his nieces and nephews, the story can go any way you want, change to suit the desires of the user, turn on a dime and still reach a satisfying conclusion. Is it a story? Is it a game? Who cares?

Ahh, the future. Makes you feel all warm inside, no?


  1. At first I was afraid, I was petrified...I'm not certain how having a story generator would reduce production costs? The creation of the story itself is a relatively slight amount of the production in terms of cost. You can already generate your own content with things like this:

    It's not great, but with a decent script you can make some fun stuff. I would love to see a more advanced and expressive version of this for sure. It would still be just another tool for the amateur though, rather than a separate thing.

    Big movies and TV would still cost because you need people and things and time. Even if you did everything digitally, it's still people and time. All the best CGI stuff tends toward performance, be it Pixar or Planet of the Apes.

    The potential for something like this in games does get me excited though. Imagining something like Skyrim where every NPC reacted to what you did in the world along their own individual narrative path would be a hell of a thing.

    Like, instead of some binary reaction to you, each time you interacted with them they would move a step along Harmon's story circle for instance. That would be amazing.

  2. That final vision is pretty much what I'm talking about. It makes economic sense to do some stuff automatically if you can do the end-to-end product. A Hollywood movie generated algorithmically si a fair way off yet.

    But game quests or simpler forms of entertainment might be the first steps along a path that might get there eventually.

    And the really exciting application is in interactive stuff. So to tell a particular story, as a film does, but to tell you 'a' story, and your actions just get scooped up into that story. So whatever you do, a way through Harmon's circle can be found. That's what excites me. Game/film hybrids.