Genvid interview: The emerging genre of massive interactive live events (MILEs)

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Genvid Technologies used its cloud technology to pioneer the massive interactive live events (MILEs) as a new genre in games. It’s a novel concept where spectators can join in the fun, changing the course of narrative events as they play out in a grand fashion.

And that potential was enough to lure some veterans of gaming. Andrew Schneider, former head of game startup Live Gamer, recently joined as president of Genvid Entertainment, a game publishing arm of Genvid Technologies. And Jerry Heinz joined as executive vice president of global publishing platforms for Genvid Entertainment.

Genvid Entertainment and Skybound Entertainment have announced The Walking Dead: Last Mile, a new interactive spectator game coming to Facebook/Meta. Pipeworks Studios will develop the game. That game is a follow-up to Pac-Man Community, a multiplayer game with user-generated content, on Facebook. And before that, Genvid launched Rival Peak, a MILE where the audience got to vote what happened with a dozen AI-based characters in a Survivor-like outdoor adventure game.

These MILEs are games where fans can participate in the part game, part interactive television show. I talked about how the concept of the MILE lured both Schneider and Heinz to join Genvid, which is led by CEO Jacob Navok.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Andrew Schneider is president of Genvid Entertainment.

GamesBeat: Tell us what’s happening.

Andrew Schneider: I’ve just joined Genvid. I’m very excited about the concept of bringing TV-like experiences together with the interactivity of video games. We’re setting up a global publishing team to help accommodate that. Certainly with Jerry Heinz coming in and his background, we’ll help build out the technical infrastructure around that as we also build out the rest of the team.

GamesBeat: What convinced you to join?

Schneider: As you know, I was in the game space for a while with Live Gamer. Doing direct to consumer streaming, it felt like all roads pointed to Genvid. Just the idea that there’s an ambitious vision for a new form of entertainment set forth by the company, purpose-built for a new kind of audience that’s grown up on games and expects interactivity. They’re comfortable with a lot of the concepts. That got me excited, and here I am.

Jerry Heinz: My background, what led to Genvid and why it’s so exciting for me–I’ve been in the cloud gaming industry for closer to 15 years at this point. Back when it was OnLive and Gaikai, taking triple-A games and trying to stream it to a cell phone. We were looking at Amazon and saying, “Hey, is there a case for GPUs in the cloud? Is that something customers would want?” We worked a lot with those guys and built our own streaming services.

The thing that always struck me was that it was a very elegant technical solution to a problem that no one had. No one wants to play Call of Duty on a cell phone. It’s an awful experience. But over the years I got into contact with the founders of Genvid. I always thought these guys got it right. They had something special here. For the first time, they were building something that was truly cloud-native, that used the cloud to create a whole new experience. The opportunity arose to come over here and help publish that content, to reach all the people, the millions of fans out there who it’ll resonate with. It was a no-brainer to make the jump.

Jerry Heinz is EVP of global game publishing at Genvid Entertainment.

GamesBeat: Why is the cloud essential to some of what Genvid’s doing with MILEs? I know there’s the spectator participation. What about that requires a cloud architecture as opposed to something that just happens on the client?

Heinz: Two things are chief among the reasons there. One is scalability and the other is concurrency. You can have a multiplayer game where the systems all peer together and keep in sync. You can run a small server to keep 16 or 32 people all in sync together. But we’re talking about one narrative, one story, one canon, and we want everybody to participate in it. When you’re talking about that, that sounds a lot more like–almost like a social network, where you have many millions of people all together, all sharing a singular state. That’s cloud scale. That’s something you can only do when the systems themselves horizontally scale out. Keeping that concurrent, the data storage, the persistence, all of that to make it feel like this is a narrative that we’re all enjoying together–

GamesBeat: Things have to happen simultaneously for everyone in real time.

Heinz: Right, for everybody.

GamesBeat: You can’t have one group of people out of sync with any other.

Heinz: Otherwise you’ve missed a key moment, potentially.

Schneider: If it’s just about passive consumption you can have those people spread across 50 servers or something. But if you want them to be involved in shaping the experience, they all have to be in the same virtual place.

Heinz: Exactly. How awful would it be if it’s a seminal moment and I want to participate in it, but oops, too bad, I’m 10 minutes behind everybody else? I want to be in the action.

GamesBeat: Who has solved this problem, and for what other purposes? I remember the Kingdoms of Camelot games on mobile, or Kabam’s Lord of the Rings game. Everyone would band together to go attack someone, and they would have to do it at the same time. You’d stack up the whole clan at a particular time and whoever showed up with more forces would win. Games like that had to solve this problem, because everything had to be in sync. But it wasn’t as massive a problem in that case.

Heinz: It’s step function scale. My canonical experience was with CCP Games and EVE Online. You’d have millions of gamer assets, these giant fleets to go after each other. Two things came out of that. One, you had the synchronization issues. If you talk to those guys, they were plugging holes left and right to keep their servers up. And they had the scalability challenges. There was also a spectator part of it, too. I couldn’t watch that. I had to be in the game and be around it. That was hard. For the community–sure, the EVE Online community were all logged in anyway. But when you look at beloved IP, which is where we’re going, the number of people who are interested in the content grows exponentially. That’s the step function. So you have the scalability concerns around viewership because of the franchises we’re accessing.

Players use phones to play Streamline's Bake n' x.
Players use phones to play Streamline’s Bake n’ x.

GamesBeat: The MILEs, do they multiply that simultaneous action in this exponential way? If people are voting on what’s going to happen with a character’s next move, like in Rival Peak, that has to be happening in real time. You have to capture the voting.

Heinz: You have to capture it in a meaningful way that feels like you’re part of the story. The other thing is, you have to have other interactions to engage people with the storyline, with the environment, when those things aren’t happening. It’s about community. It’s about building that engagement with the experience. What happens in all the off hours? How do I continue to engage? How is that a fun, enjoyable experience? Part of it’s the underlying concurrency. I have to be able to support a bunch of people in there. Then there’s this thread through with the storytelling. It’s engaging. It’s something I want to interact with.

GamesBeat: Andrew, how does this get to a new form of entertainment? This sense of spectators versus players?

Schneider: It’s a combination of narrative, long-form storytelling, plus interactivity. A player or a group of players or a community of players can actually affect the outcome of the story, especially when you think about the stakes being raised when we’re dealing with very well-known and, as Jerry mentioned, beloved franchises. The ability for that community group or person to have an impact, in canon, is pretty special. That’s where it comes together.

GamesBeat: What made you think that there’s a whole genre here, as opposed to just experiments?

Schneider: Rival Peak was a great test of the concept. I wasn’t there yet, but the company saw very strong metrics against it. It was an enjoyable experience. We see the trends heading toward this vision, just in terms of spectating, interacting with live streams, and wanting to participate with passionate groups of people who have a similar interest in stories, worlds, and characters together. Going that extra mile to actually be able to impact the entire experience.

Again, I think it comes back to–there was cloud distribution of games. There’s been cloud distribution of music and film and TV shows. This is the first attempt to leverage technology for a brand new storytelling medium, versus just trying to take what was already working and distribute it through new technology. That’s the exciting thing for us, and certainly for fans.

GamesBeat: Do you see a relationship between this and the metaverse as well? How do you flesh that out?

Heinz: We’re fond of saying MILEs are not metaverses.

GamesBeat: But if you put enough of them together, I suppose–

Heinz: They share a fair amount of technological underpinnings. There is no metaverse out there right now. There’s a bunch of things that are touching on what it might look like. The concepts that I mentioned earlier around scalability and concurrency, synchronization, persistence, those are obviously things that are shared with the metaverse. But it’s another step function. For us, it comes back to a story. It’s about a narrative. It’s about interactive experience. That’s really what it comes back to.

Schneider: It’s a story told in a different kind of way, which is the definition of MILEs. Massively Interactive Live Event. It’s ephemeral. You have to be there. The cloud enables that. It’s massively multiplayer, or multi-viewer as the case may be, or both. Those features feed into what people are considering the metaverse. But it’s very different in that we’re applying a narrative to these technologies, applying an experience to these technologies.

Rival Peak was a big hit for Genvid and Facebook.
Rival Peak was a big hit for Genvid and Facebook.

GamesBeat: Is there something different you’re doing on this side of the company, as opposed to what Jacob Navok is doing?

Schneider: We’re all on the same rocket ship, if you will. If you’re asking about a distinction between Genvid Technologies, as you knew and understood it for five years, versus Genvid Entertainment, yes, there is a distinction there. The company has obviously created some pretty impressive technology that it’s been out in the market with for some time. With my arrival, with Jerry’s arrival, with Jacob’s focus on building out a team on the entertainment side, it’s really about working with the brand and franchise holders to bring these new experiences to market, fitting in a publisher seat, as well as developing the core tech and working with development studios to bring it to life.

When we look at what Jerry’s building, where my recent experience has been, and where the technology is, you can imagine a world where any platform that supports clicking “play” on a stream can have a MILEs experience, whether it’s a game console, an app store, a website, or something else. It becomes this multiplatform experience through any connected device that enables high-fidelity graphics, streaming, what you would expect from a high-end console experience, on any device. But also with the rich interactivity we’ve been talking about. The narrative can be told in the way we’re orchestrating it all.

GamesBeat: When a big brand goes on Roblox, when they approach Roblox and Roblox basically says, “We’d love to have you here,” then they just hand them off to a third-party developer. Somebody who knows how to make the user-generated games that are popular on Roblox. Gamefam and those types of companies are the ones that execute with the brand. Is there a similar structure here, where you have Pipeworx and maybe others? Do you give this guidance to people who come in wanting to do MILEs and match them with developer talent?

Schneider: It’s more of a classic publishing model, where you might work in the development process with game developers, artists, writers–for instance, The Walking Dead: Last Mile. We’re partnered with Pipeworx, Skybound, and Terrible Posture Games. That’s a very high-quality brand, very recognizable, with a big, passionate community of fans. We’ve applied the MILEs treatment to it. We’re bringing it directly to consumers via Facebook Watch and Facebook Games, in the same way that consumers found Rival Peak.

We’re learning what it takes to build these. We’ll learn what it takes to optimize these. We’ll continue to work with intellectual property and franchise holders to execute on these visions. When you go to someone like a Skybound that owns a Walking Dead or a similar franchise, they’re very excited about the possibilities, but they’re also a little scared. You’re telling them that you will hand over a lot of control to the audience. That’s typically something they’re not accustomed to. At the same time, though, they find it intriguing.

If you work with them closely, they become more comfortable with it. The idea that the audience is going to help shape the history of that franchise becomes super appealing to them, as long as they don’t lose total control. They have some editorial oversight as to where the story is going to be taken by the audience. You can’t just run all the protagonists off the cliff on day one. They don’t want that. But the idea of giving some control to the audience is pretty universally appealing, I think.

GamesBeat: You have spectator participation in Rival Peak, but with Pac-Man Community, you have user-generated content. Actual levels are created by the audience. For MILEs, I guess you can have either of those, or a mix of both types of interaction?

Heinz: All of the above. That’s part of it. It’s a completely new genre. We get to invent and play with it. Really, it’s about finding the right type of interactivity to engage the community for the IP. With Pac-Man Community, it makes sense when you look at it. Of course I want to make my own maze. Of course I want to compete in tournaments around that. The same thing with Rival Peak, the concept of following these survivors around. I want to be able to help them or hinder them. It’s all that experimentation. How do we make the content super-relatable to the community? Because they want to get involved. How many times have you watched a movie and thought, “Wow, I wish I could be part of that”?

More than 17,000 mazes have been created in Pac-Man Community.
More than 17,000 mazes have been created in Pac-Man Community.

Schneider: Expanding on that, Pac-Man is a 40-year-old arcade classic that doesn’t have much of a story. If you’re going to allow the audience to shape the story of Pac-Man, what would that be other than giving them the ability to build mazes? That’s the story of Pac-Man. Can you navigate the maze successfully? It’s not at the level of Walking Dead in terms of shaping the story, but in the confines of the Pac-Man brand it’s the extreme.

GamesBeat: It seems like this is still a difficult thing to pull off. It’s in its infancy. It sounds like quite a lot has to go into the design of these experiences.

Heinz: How do you make the interaction meaningful across millions of people, all engaged in it together? How do you make that meaningful such that they feel like they have part ownership in it? How is that fun? One thing we would play with back in the early days of game streaming–what does the 10,000 by 10,000 match look like? Game designers back in 2012 would sit around scratching their heads. The best they could come up with was a sandbox. I build my sand castle and someone comes along and knocks it over.

It’s very challenging to create this engaging content. You need extremely talented writers, super creative people, deep technical knowledge to make it all come together. That’s what we’ve got that’s special up here.

GamesBeat: With some of these it feels like the challenge is getting the audience to keep on coming back and doing these things, even if as an individual you’re not the actual player of the game, the agent in the story. It feels like you have to make a small role seem very significant.

Heinz: It’s an old question. How do you keep them engaged? When you watch a series over the course of the season, what keeps you coming back every week? The story has to be compelling. The content has to be compelling. I have to relate to it. And then there’s one step further beyond that, which is the interactivity. It’s great if people just watch. But we would love for people to engage and participate too. That’s part of the fun. That’s what makes a MILE unique. An additional level of creativity has to happen to keep you coming back and saying, “I want to play with this.”

GamesBeat: Are these some of these where you’ve designed them for players and spectators as well as creators and spectators? Streamers, influencers, are there MILEs that will be designed for them?

Heinz: We’re not trying to differentiate between audience members. We want everyone to have an amazing experience, regardless of who they are, what they’re using, how they access it, what device they have. The technology allows us to reach people that wouldn’t ordinarily get to have this kind of very high-fidelity experience. Again, that’s what’s special about the technology and what Genvid has built. We want everyone to engage.

Schneider: If we focus the MILE on one person, that streamer or influencer, then the conceit is gone. You’re saying that the wizard is behind this curtain and they’re pulling the levers. It has to be this democratic, communal contribution that’s taking place. If any one person ends up with the majority of control, it throws the whole thing off. It makes you as an individual contributor feel somehow less impactful or less influential. The idea is to create a shared story, to shape the story together. It has to be the entire collective, global audience that’s participating in the same story at the same time, and effectively one person may have slightly more influence than another depending on how it’s structured, but no one person is the king of that MILE or the dictator of that MILE. How long would you keep coming back if you knew I had 100 times as much say as you do?

GamesBeat: If there were something like a Choose Your Own Adventure, and the audience helps you choose, but you’re the player and you basically decide–the audience may tell you to do one thing, but you choose to do another thing. In that way it feels like there’s audience participation. It seems like there’s a variation of this. But I don’t know if that counts as a MILE, as you put it?

Schneider: I don’t think that would work in the sense that, again, it’s only those of us who are there when the decision-maker is making their decision, and it only really maps if the decision-maker takes our advice versus ignoring it. This is more like, the dungeon master is all of us together. There is no single person who can veto what the audience decides. If the audience collectively decides a certain decision should go a certain way, then no one on Genvid’s side is going to say, “No, that’s a bad decision, we won’t let them do that.” That’s the whole promise of this. As an audience member, you are going to shape this. You’re going to do it as it unfolds. No one and nothing can contradict or overrule that.

Rival Peak debuts on Facebook Watch on December 2 at 6 p.m. Pacific.
Rival Peak debuts on Facebook Watch on December 2 at 6 p.m. Pacific.

GamesBeat: I guess what I’m looking for, then, is a definition of the genre. What’s a MILE and what doesn’t count?

Schneider: I think we’re pretty consistent about that. A MILE is a Massively Interactive Live Event where all spectators have the ability to have some agency, but no spectator has all the agency. It’s democratically divided agency across all of the spectators.

Pac-Man Community is a bit of a wild card. Part of it is a MILE, but not all the elements of Pac-Man Community are really MILE-like. There is a MILE mode in Pac-Man Community, the watch mode, where anyone who’s viewing can buff Pac-Man or the ghosts. But the co-op mode, which is the mode in which up to four players can collaboratively work to evade the ghosts and complete the maze, isn’t subject to influence by anyone else watching. That’s separate and distinct.

GamesBeat: In Rival Peak’s design that’s fine, because all the players are AI. What I’m asking is, if those players were human, then what could be different about that game?

Schneider: I can answer that in a simple way, which is to say, we don’t have any MILEs in the pipeline in which you as a player or you as a view have full agency in that MILE. We’ve learned things from Pac-Man community that we’re applying to The Walking Dead: Last Mile, including some of the user-generated content that we’ve discussed very vaguely in the past. You’ll have the ability, in The Walking Dead: Last Mile, to create a character and drop it into that world. We haven’t provided additional details as to how that will work, but that’s something we learned from Pac-Man Community and the user-generated content that came out of that. We can do that, so why not? But it doesn’t mean that if you drop a character in there, suddenly you’re in charge of the world or you have total autonomy. It’s a sort of halfway point. We’re giving you some presence in the world, but not total control over the world or the ability to drive the story in that world by yourself.

We can’t wait for this to be available. It’s going to make things a lot simpler in terms of explaining the experience. Right now it’s kind of opaque. As we were just mentioning, there are lots of directions this can go, but the learning from Rival Peak is what you’ll see directly applied into The Walking Dead: Last Mile. It’s about the Venn diagram of TV show and video game coming together. As we go we’ll continue to improve. We’ll learn from the audience as much as entertain them, we hope, and incorporate that into future MILEs.

We have a pipeline of MILEs in development. The Walking Dead: Last Mile is the next generation after Rival Peak, which will inform things going forward. Applying that rigorous test-and-learn methodology to services, development, and optimization is certainly top of mind here. Not only for Jerry and I, but for the game designers and the scriptwriters and the character designers and everyone else. That’s the beauty of doing something that hasn’t been seen in the world before. You put it out there and learn as much as you can. You continue to iterate and optimize and make it even better.

Pac-Man Community is available in beta form on Facebook Gaming.
Pac-Man Community is available in beta form on Facebook Gaming.

GamesBeat: Was there something in the past that this reminded you of, or is this something that you’d never seen before?

Schneider: Bandersnatch has come up in the past as a comparable. That’s a version of Choose Your Own Adventure, where there are predetermined outcomes. In a MILE a lot more is up to the audience to define, which makes it, in my experience, more like Dungeons and Dragons, where you have this framework, but the spontaneous and the delightful can happen at any time. It’s more of a two-way dialogue, which I love. It leverages the medium for what it’s great at, which is the rich interactivity.

It has elements of user-generated content, too. Two-way storytelling. It does remind me of a lot of different things. But it’s put together in a very unique way.

Heinz: Again, Bandersnatch is the canonical example we’ve seen recently. The other one, obviously, which gets mentioned along with Rival Peak is the Hunger Games. I was trying to explain this concept to people five years ago, and that came up a lot with the audience participation. Not the content itself, but the story in Squid Game is another one it kind of pulls from. But I like the D&D analogy, and role-playing in general. On user-generated content, I get to create my own character when we play D&D together and customize it to represent me. But I also get to be in that world, the world that’s being created. The dungeon master and all the other players around me create it. That’s exciting.

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