Monthly Archives: September 2007

Dyack's concerns about game outsourcing

Never let it be said that we don’t hear all sides of the story. Silicon Knights’ Denis Dyack went on record against the concept of “free agency” and its identical cousin outsourcing. While I don’t begrudge him his point of view, I thought I’d play devil’s advocate.

Dyack aimed at the Hollywood model, saying “You become a utility, and your value becomes diminished significantly.” Actually, the opposite is true in Hollywood. Back in the days when studios signed actors and writers to deals, the studios called the shots. Since the free agency model, the power has shifted to the free agents, who now command large, sometimes astronomical, salaries. For the rank and file, quite a few unions formed to protect workers from long hours with low pay. Hmm… sound familiar? In fact, the real losers in the shift to free agency were the studio heads. I can’t help but notice Mr. Dyack founded the studio he now runs.

As for workers feeling like utility players, game professionals already have that experience. Many companies do in fact lay off employees when the project is done. Furthermore, how valuable do you feel being kept on at a company when there’s no work to be done? There’s little more demeaning than being relegated to busy work, or worrying that your job could be taken from you at any moment. As many workers in the 21st century have discovered, loyalty often only goes one-way.

Finally, Dyack points out that some Hollywood denizens do quite well with the free agency model, but he wagers the majority do not care for it. I have encountered quite a few in Hollywood who love free agency — working for six months, then taking six months off. Nice, right? Of course, there’s a bit of a chicken or egg situation. Do people in Hollywood like free agency because it’s great? Or do people who like free agency go to Hollywood?

Fortunately, the game industry doesn’t have to make the either-or choice, at least not yet. At the moment, we can continue to combine studios with a core staff with outsourcing. With balance, maybe we can get it right, where Hollywood got it wrong.

Which way do you think the game industry is headed?

Question Mark Guess that game dialog! Today’s line: “The humanoid will not escape!” Check back next week to find out where it’s from.

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Filed under Game Industry, Guess that game dialog!, Outsourcing

Outsourcing: the future of the game industry

Outsourcing has been on developers’ lips for the past several years.  In 2005, Amritt Ventures reported 78% of developers intended to increase outsourcing in the future.  By 2006, Screen Digest estimated that nearly 60% of developers outsourced production, with the percentage expected to rise to 90% by 2009.  Clearly, outsourcing is here to stay.  The challenge ahead is not so much whether there should be outsourcing, but how to go about it so that the drawbacks don’t outweigh the benefits.

What are these benefits?  Cost savings of not having to pay a full-time staff; the need for speed; flexibility of resources; and access to skills not available in-house, just to name a few.  In addition, skill specialization by both developer and outsourcer can lead to a higher value product overall. 

Despite years of outsourcing, the game industry still struggles with many of the drawbacks of outsourcing, often plagued by poor communication.   We explored five outsourcing mistakes as recently as last week.  Despite concerns about quality or finances, “the real costs of outsourcing are often below the line,” said Rick Gibson of Screen Digest.  “This is forcing the industry to undergo a fundamental shift towards stronger project management skills, which have been lacking in many organizations.”

The game industry has taken strides in learning the unique skills of managing outsourcing.  Art has lead the way, as nearly 81% of 2005 study respondents elected to outsource art.  GDC China 2007 focused heavily on art outsourcing.  But to what extent can the lessons learned in art be applied to outsourcing in other areas, such as music or writing and design?  And what lessons have we, as writers, learned that can improve outsourcing partnerships for artists, musicians, and producers alike?  We’ve only yet scratched the surface.

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Are your writers pigs or chickens?

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. 

A pig and a chicken are walking down a road. The Chicken looks at the pig and says “Hey, why don’t we open a restaurant?” The pig looks back at the chicken and says “Good idea, what do you want to call it?” The chicken thinks about it and says “Why don’t we call it ‘Ham and Eggs’?” “I don’t think so” says the pig, “I’d be committed but you’d only be involved.”

This story forms the basis of Scrum development, but it could easily be applied to any management style in game development.  While programmers always fall into the pig category, other branches of game development generally fall into the chicken category.  If the program doesn’t work, everyone else’s efforts go to waste.  Writers, however, have the opportunity to be either a pig or a chicken, depending on the project.

The chicken writer
The game writer who is involved in a game’s outcome often comes late to the scene.  A developer brings the writer on to polish the dialog of a story already written by a pig.  The writer may also add a few, subtle storylines as well, but at this point, the story-telling tools offered by art and design are off the table.  Chicken writers offer a great deal of value to games such as story-light FPS’s, fighting/sports games, and edutainment.  

The pig writer
The game writer who is committed to a game’s outcome arrives early in game development, sometimes even before programming has begun.  The game writer, aka narrative designer, works with the entire team to create a story and world that will motivate the player forward.  Without the necessary content from these writers, programmers would be working on a different game.  What is a role-playing game, after all, without a role to play?  Pig writers form an essential component of RPGs, story-driven FPS’s, and, often, MMOs.

Which do you want your writers to be?  Pigs or chickens?

“It’s like ham and eggs.  The chicken is involved.  The pig is committed.” – Martina Navrotilova

Question Mark Last week’s game dialog was spoken by a troll from CITY OF HEROES for PC.  More Guess that Game Dialog to come!

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Game developers: Since you're voting…

Since you’re busy voting for the Writers Cabal’s South by Southwest panels (Voting ends tomorrow at 11:59pm CST. Click here to vote now!), we thought you’d like an oldie but goodie: Steve Ballmer’s “Developer’s” rant. Warning: may frighten you.

Vote and enjoy!

Question Mark Guess that game dialog! Today’s line: “Don’t run away, you’ll just die tired.” Check back next week to find out where it’s from.

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Filed under Amusing diversions, Game Industry, GDC, Guess that game dialog!, History of Games, Writers Cabal

Shape our interactive future! Vote for SxSW 2008's game panels!

Have you done it yet?  The clock is ticking down.  A mere few days are all that remain before your freedom to choose is taken from you.  Voting for South by Southwest Interactive 2008 (SxSW) ends at 11:59 PM this Friday, September 21, 2007.  Thanks to everyone who’s already voted for our two panels, CREATING PASSIONATE GAMES and COULD YOUR FILM BE A GAME?  If you haven’t yet, now’s your chance.  Click here to vote for our panels now.

In case you want to help shape the future of games but don’t have a lot of time, Gamedev features the top ten picks for SxSW Interactive 2008, written by none other than Sande.  We’d like to add one more panel recommendation: John Biehler’s Developers are from Mars and Business is from Venus panel explores collaboration, something near and dear to our hearts.

Want to learn more about our panels?  Read on, then vote!


Description:How do you incorporate passion into your games? Learn several techniques to heighten dramatic moments through gameplay, art direction, and narrative. We’ll help you articulate your passion and translate it into a game experience that is both fun and memorable for the player.


  • Attendees will learn how to instill storytelling within game design decisions.
  • Attendees will learn how to use cinematographic techniques in producing cut scenes and in-game art.
  • Attendees will learn how writing techniques can capture the vision behind the game.


Description: Join two veterans of the game industry as they give you tips on navigating the game industry. Topics include major players in the industry, how a game gets made, the uses of games, and whether making a game is right for your project.


  • Attendees will learn what components are needed to make a game.
  • Attendees will learn about game genres and their characteristics.
  • Attendees will learn about major players in the game industry.

If you want to learn all this and more, then vote for our panels!  Remember, you only have until September 21st!

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5 obvious mistakes in game outsourcing, part 2

Last week, we began exploring five obvious mistakes in game outsourcing, according to an article in Game Developer. How do these mistakes map to outsourcing writing? If you missed the first two, click here. Now for the grand finale!

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3. Changing scope in the middle of the project

I found this point rather surprising, because in my experience, the scope of a game is often up in the air until it ships. Features get added and removed up until the very end. While excessive changes and rewrites do add to the budget, writing is among the most flexible tools you have at your disposal. Reducing story scope could be as easy as editing a transition and hitting the delete key. If the writing content is already hard-coded, that’s another story.

4. Failing to keep dependent files together to send to outsourcers

It’s always a good idea to give the latest build to your writers. Ideally, you will be bringing in your writers early, however, so the only files you’ll need to keep together are the design documents on which you and your writers are collaborating.

5. Failing to let your outsourcer know about hardware and software limitations

While the specifics of the hardware and software generally don’t impact writers’ work, you need to keep your writers up to date on programming and design limitations. We were informed on one project that the programmers and animators wished to avoid lip syncing dialog as much as possible. Fortunately, we found out early enough so that we could adjust the animated scenes accordingly.

While these mistakes are a good starting point, the question remains how obvious are they? Do you see any outsourcing mistakes that were not on the list?

Question Mark Last week’s game dialog came from PRINCE OF PERSIA for PS2. More Guess that Game Dialog to come!

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The tone meeting

I attended an event yesterday where I had the opportunity to speak with a TV director.  Since I’ve worked on a ton of shows, you wouldn’t think this was anything special for me, but I’ve actually had very few opportunities to speak with directors, especially those that work closely with their writers. 

Question: We’re working on a show together.  How can I the writer make you the director feel like part of the process while still getting my ideas across.

Answer: By telling the story from the inside out.  Say that the episode is about loss, then drill down from there.  The director appreciates this method, because then it’s really clear where to go from there.  An example of an outside in approach would be to point out how on page 3, there’s a comma, and you really want the actor to pause there. 

Now, this method could be helpful in communicating your vision to anyone, but note it doesn’t mean you have to write from the inside out, unless that’s your style. 

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5 obvious mistakes in game outsourcing, part 1

September’s issue of Game Developer finishes off with an article entitled “Successful Outsourcing.” Chock full of outsourcing goodness, it’s a great read for anyone who outsources content of any kind. The article’s writer, David Lee, even pulls out five rules to follow in outsourcing that are so obvious, a developer could forget them.

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Let’s see if these mistakes map to writing:

1. Failing to map project estimates to realistic internal speed tests.

An internal speed test on, say, quest design would be relatively easy for a developer to establish. However, for games that have no on-staff writer/designers and have no concept of story development, time estimates can be wildly off-base. In this case, be prepared to work with a writer experienced enough to give you a realistic speed test.

2. Failing to budget for delays. Projects often take longer than you expect.

Realize that even with a reliable contractor, internal delays can impact your outsourcing budget as well. On one project, while we turned our material in on time, the project itself took much longer than originally contracted. We had to wait longer and longer to get the greenlight to continue our work, and the delays added to the budget.

Ready to find out all 5 obvious mistakes in outsourcing? Stay tuned for the remaining three!

Question Mark Guess that game dialog! Today’s line: “Most people think time is like a river that flows swift and sure in one direction. But I have seen the face of time, and I can tell you–they are wrong.” Check back next week to find out where it’s from.

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Where are the real game writers?

Does this sound familiar?  At a presentation on the state of game writing at AGDC 2007, Austin Grossman concluded that “Game writers feel like people in other media are the real writers.”  While many writers may indeed feel this way, they’re not alone.  At one game company, I was one of three writers on staff.   One day, a level designer introduced me to a fresh-faced recruit by saying, “This is Anne.  She’s a real writer.”  I laughed, taken aback that he would say such a thing, and said, “As opposed to those fake writers in the other room?” 

Yes, we at the Writers Cabal do have credits and experience in television and film.  Does that make us real writers?  We’ve learned to master story like programmers do C++.  We know that the Hero’s Journey is not a catch-all solution.  We’ve studied character development, motivation, and dialog at the feet of established Hollywood creators.  Does that make us real writers?  Or does that make us merely suspect as game writers?

Yes, we at the Writers Cabal have written award-winning games.  Does that make us real writers?  We’ve designed content around gameplay, rewritten due to reductions in scope, and devised endless ways to say, “Good job, <playername>!”  We’ve argued both sides of the player-as-player vs. player-as-character debate.  We know the merits and drawbacks of linear vs. branching storylines.  Does that make us real writers?

The answer is no.  We’re much more than that.  Because not all writers “get” games, but we do.  We are real game writers.  With our choice of media, we choose games, because we want the player to have fun and maybe learn something; we want to motivate the player to find out what happens next; and most of all, we want to kick ass and create compelling games.  Who’s with us?

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The future of games: Original IP

Another day, another article about games based on movies. The licensed property seems to loom large in game development, while original IP (intellectual property) games often struggle to get made and sold. I’m going to go out on a limb to say that in the future, it’s not games based on licenses that will dominate, but original IP.

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Consider, for a moment, the curious case of Cartoon Network (CN). Once home to the TEEN TITANS series, Cartoon Network has since cancelled licensed series in favor of original series. According to one source, when DC’s comic DIAL H FOR HERO was pitched to CN, they rejected it. CN didn’t want to have to deal with another DC license. When the same concept was pitched as BEN 10, however, they went for it.* The lesson here is that Cartoon Network didn’t need the license to get the audience. They got it by following these three steps:

1. Bet on established creative talent. For the most part, CN isn’t making their executives come up with series concepts. BEN 10 was created by Man of Action, a group of comic book creators with a proven track record. Likewise in games, we already anticipate Will Wright’s SPORE, though incessant marketing hasn’t hurt either. In the future, working from the beginning with savvy, visionary writers who “get” games or designers will be smarter than licensing yet another movie, as long as you…

2. Create a distinct brand. You could never confuse Cartoon Network for Toon Disney. Likewise, even though they’re under the same umbrella, you would never confuse Pandemic for Bioware. Even though Bioware hasn’t done an MMO or science fiction, I believe, I know exactly what I’ll be getting from Bioware’s MASS EFFECT MMO because their writing, story-driven brand is so strong. A strong brand will help to:

3. Establish a built-in audience. CN, being a television channel, builds audience through programming strong lead-ins. TEEN TITANS helped build an audience and raise awareness for CN’s brand. Now that the job is done, CN can use past success to build new, original properties. The Internet has already provided the greatest opportunity for games to establish an audience through such casual game sites as and SOE leveraging its multiple MMOs.

If the game industry continues to leverage its audience, makes strides to establish company brands, and partners with established game-savvy creatives, the industry will be able to leave licenses behind. Or at least, stop relying on them like a crutch. What say you?

Question Mark Last week’s game dialog came from Minsc in Bioware’s BALDUR’S GATE. More Guess that Game Dialog to come!

* This may be an apocryphal story, so DC, please don’t sue Cartoon Network.

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Filed under Game Industry, Guess that game dialog!, Licensing, Prediction