Xbox's next-generation of storytelling

Christopher Dring
Xbox's next-generation of storytelling

Emmy award-winning storyteller Elan Lee was hired by Microsoft this summer to help shape the future of storytelling.

What exactly does that mean? MCV attempts to find out, to mixed success…

You recently did a talk entitled ‘My mother has no idea what I do for a living.’ Why is that a problem?

Aside from the obvious total lack of ability to impress my mother with anything I do, it’s actually a small indicator of a larger problem, which is to say we have got this new form of emerging media, emerging art, emerging storytelling and it is really hard to explain in bite-sized pieces to the world.

Throughout history there have been very few times that a new form of storytelling has been invented – the western theatre, the motion picture camera and the printing press. All of these big things changed the way we are able to tell stories, because suddenly we had this incredibly powerful and robust tool to convey a new kind of emotion and a new kind of emergence to an audience.

We are so lucky to be alive right now, because there is a new one. We don’t even have a name for it yet. Once we have figured out how to use it properly the name will soon follow. It is significant, important and everyone is tinkering around with how we might use it to tell stories.

I feel like being able to explain to my mother what I do for a living is a really good indicator for storytellers to acknowledge when we have actually arrived. Her eyes will widen and she will say: ‘Oh. I get it now.’ That is why it is really important for me to eventually get there, but it is also important to acknowledge that I am not currently there.

You seem to be talking about ‘cross-media’ storytelling here, which lots of companies have been toying with. When do we get past the experimentation stage?

If you look at our predecessors – the motion picture camera was invented, released out into a wide market and do you know how long it took to tell the first story using it? 85 years of tinkering. There was 60 years between the printing press and when the first novel was released. It takes a huge amount of trial and error – wild experimentation for people to figure out how to use these things.

That is where we are with this new thing, right in the middle. We are very much still in the experimental stage, but also very ripe for someone to step forward and say: ‘Here is something that is way better than anything that has come before it.’

Is that one of the philosophies behind Xbox One?

So I am going to make a distinction between Xbox One and Xbox Entertainment. The Xbox 360 and Xbox One are both going to be playing major parts in Microsoft’s storytelling narrative over the next few years. It is really both of them together that will make up Xbox Entertainment. Using that network, that hardware, the install base and the connectivity between other devices – that entire ecosystem is what I am personally really excited about for use in storytelling.

"I often joke that Microsoft didn’t hire me because
I have a lot of success in this field – they hired me
because I have failed more than anyone else out
there. It is very important that we learn from our
mistakes and we try anything and everything,
because that is the only way we can find out what
works and what doesn’t."

Elan Lee - Chief Design Officer, Xbox Entertainment


There was disagreement on how good Quantic Dream’s PS3 game Beyond was, which attempted to balance storytelling and gameplay. It received mixed reviews. Is the industry still far away from getting any of it right do you think?

As long as there is debate, then we are doing something right. If anyone can definitively say what is right or what is wrong, that is probably an experiment you want to throw away and go elsewhere. You want the debate. Like watching a good movie, you want tonnes of conversation and interesting debate around the merits and faults of that film. It’s the same thing here. People are going to be releasing all kinds of interesting projects. Our studio is going to be putting forth some incredible things onto the scene that are unlike anything you have ever seen before. However, there will be debate. I want there to be a debate. That is a big indicator of a healthy art form and a provocative form of storytelling.

Any examples of what you’re working on?

We will be announcing things over the next few months. I can’t speak for the individual properties or the actual licences we are paying for. But I can talk a little bit about the technology that will be used to enhance those stories. When you look at the Xbox ecosystem, it is very interesting one. It is almost like Microsoft has been slowly building the software, the hardware and networks to enable the most profound and interesting storytelling platform in history. You have over 80m people with these boxes connected to high definition televisions in their living rooms. That is a massive install base and they all have controllers in their hands. They have connectivity to second screens via SmartGlass. Through Kinect we have voice recognition and gesture support. Through the internet, you have access to Xbox Live networks and external social networks. That entire system is ready and primed to tell amazing stories, using the systems and tools already in your living room.

How do you justify these experiments to your paymasters?

Microsoft recruited me because I was raised in the experimental world of start-ups. You are not raising money around a concept because you know you have it exactly right, you know you have the seed of something really powerful, and it’s only through tinkering and experimenting with that seed, do you extract the real value.

I often joke that Microsoft didn’t hire me because I have a lot of success in this field – they hired me because I have failed more than anyone else out there. It is very important that we learn from our mistakes and we try anything and everything, because that is the only way we can find out what works and what doesn’t.

I look at your list of awards, including an Emmy, and you don’t seem to be much of a failure.

While it is true that I have done products that have won awards, I don’t feel I have yet found the formulae that announces the arrival of this new form of storytelling to the world. I started in video games and then I did alternate reality games, which were wildly successful but I don’t think anyone looked at them as being the next evolution in storytelling.

They were really interesting projects that entertained millions, but they were a stepping stone on the path. I then tinkered around with interactive television and that’s where we won that Emmy, but again I don’t feel we have fully arrived at the next big thing in storytelling. It’s all interesting small things. The next big thing is coming – we know audiences want to engage deeper in stories, we know a more immersive story is more of a learning story, we know that when rabid fans talk about their favourite TV shows or video games, they want to be able to dive deeper and step closer to those worlds.

What has inspired you?

The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. It’s before my time, but reading about it and that notion of buying the album, loving the inspiring music, being aware there is an imbedded story in here somewhere and if I get excited about that story, I can dig deeper, I can discuss with fans. This is before the internet, so people relied on group gatherings to try to figure out what was going on. It was so exciting to see that even back then a story can be deeper than just the bits that are presented to you. A true storyteller can find out a way of making those extra bits accessible and let you dive in.

The second one was a movie called The Game starring Michael Douglas. It is a creepy story about a game that took over his life. Although that was a very extreme version, I left that movie thinking – because I’m insane – ‘I want to do that, too. That looks like an incredibly fun thing to do.’ I became fascinated with this notion of being able to control the boundaries of the fiction I am participating in. 

It doesn’t just have to end on the edges of my TV screen, or the borders of the movie theatre screen. What if I could control the amount of fiction I pulled into my life at any time. Every time I see another experiment that moves us closer to that, giving the audience control of where the boundary is between fiction and reality, that is what really gets me going and inspires me to build more and more elaborate projects.

How do you make money out of this? The work you’ve done before with Augmented Reality Games were more marketing vehicles.

There’s a very famous quote that every time a new technology is invented, the earliest adopters are marketing and porn. And then other areas then follow. I wasn’t about to go the porn route, so every time I found a new technology it was very easy to make money off of it by marketing other people’s products. It was a good revenue source; I could build a big teams that way and create company after company. That was a really fertile experimentation ground for me.

"When Microsoft called me up and offered me
this new job, the way it was phrased was very
interesting. They said: 'We want to start building
original IP. We want the Xbox to have its own
stories, we want it to be a destination
for entertainment'.

Elan Lee - Chief Design Officer, Xbox Entertainment


Now, what is exciting about Microsoft is that it has already proven out the business model. They know how to make money selling Xboxs, they know how to make money through Xbox Live subscriptions. And now it just wants to increase the value proposition of that service, of that hardware, of that software. And they look at my skillset and my team’s skillset as an exciting way to enhance that, and offer an additional reason to go and buy an Xbox and get an Xbox Live subscription. We can establish that Xbox entertainment ecosystem as the premier source for the next generation of entertainment.

It is all pretty vague though at this point.

I have to tow this very careful line and open up and tell you everything. But I am a new Microsoft employee and it would be a terrible shame to spill the beans and get fired after just two months. So please bear with me.

What did Xbox have to say to get you back on-board?

I was at Microsoft about 15 years ago, I was a lead game designer on the original Xbox team. I was right out of college and it was one of the most exciting periods of my life. It was a very small team, it was six people total at the time. It was a case of ‘build a game console and see what happens.’ It was wonderful and obviously very successful.

When I left, I left because I wanted to try some very experimental storytelling, the Xbox seemed to be in very good hands, so I thought: “I am going to go off and try the start-up scene.” And I had more fun than I could possible imagine and so stayed there for 15 years. But when Microsoft called me up and offered me this new job, the way it was phrased was very interesting. They said: 'We want to start building original IP. We want the Xbox to have its own stories, we want it to be a destination for entertainment'.

But the last thing we want is that source of entertainment to feel like it’s not taking good advantage of what Microsoft has already built, and even worse than that is for it to feellike it is following in the footsteps of other subscription-based entertainment services – Netflix etc. If we could find a clever way to use the hardware, software and networks, the things we have spent the last several years building up and launching and getting people to install.

If we can activiate that system as a cohesive entity, then suddenly it looks like the premium entertainment destination, and everyone else has to struggle to catch-up with us because we have worked so hard and invested so much in building those tools.” And I said that was so exciting and so smart. And then they said: “Great, except we don’t really know what that means. So can you come on-board or figure it out for us.” And that sounds about as exciting a task as I could possibly imagine. So I decided to take a break from the start-up world and return to my roots.

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Tags: Xbox One , Xbox , Next-gen , next generation , Elan Lee , storytelling

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