Monthly Archives: November 2007

Narrative Design and the Witcher

Working on the Witcher was a great experience, not the least of which was experiencing the story and capturing Sapkowski’s world. Even though the game was inspired by a linear medium, the game itself is a great example of how to offer branching narrative with non-trivial choice. Read on only if you’re willing to read spoilers of the game.

One of the major themes of the Witcher stories involves choosing “the lesser evil.” Indeed, Geralt earned the moniker “The Butcher of Blaviken” because he once chose the lesser evil and has never been able to live it down. As a result, the developers wanted to incorporate difficult moral choices with no clear answer into the game. For example, in the first act, you must decide how to deal with Abigail the witch. A bit rough around the edges, Abigail sells her magic and potions to the people in town. If you choose to save her, you have condoned her darker activities and alienated the village. If you choose to hang her, you have acted as a judge and jury of her and sided with equally guilty villagers. No matter what you choose, you will find yourself progressing in the game, but your choice will influence how you play Geralt and may have repercussions later in the game.

View one of the choices below: (click here for French version)

Unlike many other games with branching, the developers did not envision an “ideal path” for the player. In one game, Shadows of Destiny I believe it was called, I felt like I had to guess what the developers wanted me to do, and if I didn’t do it, I would get one of the lamer endings. In the Witcher, the developers don’t punish the player for not reading their minds. In fact, they much prefer the player struggle with each decision, because there is no right answer. It’s up to you to determine what the lesser evil is. You will fight the same Big Bad no matter what, but you may have had to step on different people along the way. You will have to face them in the end.

What are some other great examples of non-trivial choice in games? I’m always on the look-out for good ones!

Question Mark Guess that game dialog! Today’s line: “Sorry but your princess is in another castle.” Check back next week to see where it came from.

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Filed under Game Design, Games, Guess that game dialog!, Writing

Everybody wants to be a game designer…

Sometimes, it feels like everybody wants to be a game designer… and why wouldn’t they? From outside the industry, game designers have the ultimate cool jobs. However, when talking to these aspiring game designers, I often find they don’t have visions of Excel sheets and rulesets, but rather a romantic view of playing games all day, of writing stories in games, or of being the one in control. Unfortunately, a game designer isn’t the equivalent of a Hollywood director. In any case, it takes a director of strong character to handle the push/pull, to adopt the suggestions that fit the vision, and reject those that don’t.

Not all game designers have the clout to control the project from beginning to end. It’s not hard to find a development horror story where investors insisted a team make design changes to make the game more like another game, thereby consigning the game to interminable feature creep. It seems to me it’s far easier to make a game suck rather than to make it shine, and the more people involved in a constant tug of war of wills will only lead to a muddled mess.

Understandably, if you’re spending $X million dollars, you want the game to NOT suck. Perhaps that’s why it’s even more important for investors to trust their team and let the designers do their job. Surrendering the creative process is never easy but ultimately, the game profits from a more collaborative spirit.

Anyone disagree? Should producers and investors have tighter control over designers?

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Filed under Collaboration, Game Design

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, from wherever we are, to wherever you are…
Anne in Cancun
(Anne in Cancun)

Sande in France
(Sande in France)

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Filed under Writers Cabal

Giving feedback: Successful TV producer agrees

Last week we offered tips on giving and getting feedback in game writing. Maybe you missed those posts. Maybe you think we’re talking out our asses. Regardless, you should know that the most successful TV producer in Hollywood right now agrees with us.

Jonathan Littman works for Jerry Bruckheimer Productions as head of television. Jonathan is responsible (to blame?) for bringing CSI to life, which spawned many, many spinoffs, including the computer games. His responsibilities include finding and developing new talent and concepts. He then shepherds projects through the studio system, receiving feedback all along. Once in production, he gives notes and feedback to the show’s creators and writers. In essence, Jonathan both gives and receives feedback, and with his track record, he knows how it’s done.

Jonathan spoke at an event in LA last week. You’ll notice how his thoughts on feedback bear a chilling similarity to our own posts on the subject.

On giving feedback, Jonathan said:
“When you say, ‘It’s just not working for me. I don’t know,’ that’s when I hang up the phone.”

We wrote on Tuesday:
Feedback should be quite specific and relevant to the matter at hand.

On taking feedback, Jonathan said:
“There are two types of showrunners.” The first kind take notes verbatim, taking every suggestion. This usually ends in disaster. The second kind listen to the studios’ feedback and “listen to what they’re really saying.” If there’s a problem in dialog, they realize that it may very well be a fundamental character issue rather than simply a dialog change. These are the great showrunners.

We wrote on Friday:
¨While many who give feedback will give reasons for the note, their reason may not always be the right one.¨
¨Take the note, not the suggestion.¨

The similarities are eerie. Now the big question is, are you ready to use these suggestions for good games and not for evil?

Question Mark Last week’s line of game dialog came from TOEJAM & EARL 3: Mission To Earth. Did you guess it right? More Guess that Game Dialog to come this week!

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Filed under Collaboration, Guess that game dialog!, Outsourcing, Writing

4 tips on taking feedback in game writing

You’ve mastered giving feedback, but did you know that getting feedback is another skill?  Even if you’re a non-writing game developer, learning these tips for handling feedback may well help you understand the game writer’s perspective.  While restraining yourself from throttling the person criticising you may seem like a great skill, the subtle art of getting feedback leaves both parties better off and without need for a sedative.   

1.  Ask questions.   While many who give feedback will give reasons for the note, their reason may not always be the right one.  For example, a developer may say, “I don’t like the word this character uses.”  You may dutifully change the word, but the real issue at hand may involve a misconception about the character or the style of language required for the world.  Better to find this out earlier rather than later.  This idea leads into…

2.  Take the note, not the suggestion.  Often, feedback will come in the form of a suggestion: “Have this character yell at the player here.”  If you delve a little bit deeper, you may realize that the concern is not the yelling per se, but the lack of drama in the scene.  You may then change the scene to add more drama without any yelling.  As long as you address the note underneath the suggestion, you may ignore the suggestion with relative confidence.

3.  Prioritize the notes.  For a number of reasons, you may not be able to incorporate all the notes you are given.  You may be getting feedback from a number of people, or you may be pressed for time.  Identify your priorities through speaking with your colleagues or leadership, then take care of the key issues first.  Ideally, you shouldn’t bother with typos, for example, when your story needs a major overhaul.  However, for production reasons, you may indeed need to fix those typos for a demo or testing before getting to story issues. 

4.  Don’t take every note.  Even if you have the time and ability to fix everything that was red-flagged, you may decide not to execute every suggestion.  This scenario requires caution, a lot of diplomacy and an honest evaluation of where you stand.  Taking the wrong note may harm your work, and as the person hired for your expertise, you are responsible for keeping the story or writing on course.  By the same token, you may not be in the position to make such decisions.  Tread carefully. 

4.5.  Cool off.  Not everyone will be driven to distraction by feedback, but on occasion it happens.  If you find yourself feeling quite defensive, take time to cool off and appreciate the feedback for what it is — an honest effort to improve the game.  Never forget that you work in a collaborative medium, and feedback is one of its joys. 

Next week:  What successful Hollywood denizen agrees with the Writers Cabal?  If you answered, “who doesn’t?”, great answer, but we have someone in mind. 

Question Mark Guess that game dialog! Today’s line: “My mommy says that you’re my daddy and you owe us some money.” Check back next week to see where it came from.

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Filed under Collaboration, Guess that game dialog!, Writing

How not to give game writing feedback

Yesterday, you learned how to give feedback on game writing.  You may have noticed it’s not all that different to giving feedback to any creative.  However, one major pitfall still lurks, and if you don’t know what it is, you could be heading into disaster. 

WARNING!  While the feedback sandwich works, never use it in isolation.  If you only give positive feedback moments before tearing into your writers’ work, they, like Pavlov’s salivating dogs, will already be steeling themselves whenever they hear “I like how you…”  Worse still, writers familiar with the feedback sandwich may think you’re manufacturing positive feedback to follow the formula and ignore it completely.  An unappreciated writer is a writer looking for work, so keep this in mind.

As in a marriage, so in the workplace:  Try to give positive feedback five times for each time you must use the feedback sandwich to serve up criticism. 

Next up — getting feedback in game writing.  Even if you’re not a writer, you’ll want to know how writers can best navigate the feedback you give them.  In the meantime, anyone care to give some feedback on this post?

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Filed under Collaboration, Outsourcing, Writing

WGA Strike action photo

Was picketing in front of Fox yesterday and took this fine action photo:
WGA Strike action photo
Not bad composition for a cell phone, eh?

The guy in the middle talked about how his first year in LA he gained like 40 pounds because he would eat a loaf of fresh French bread every morning.  He called it his “delicious year.”  Everyone expects to lose quite a few pounds from all the walking.

Oddly enough, the walking wasn’t as tiring as the talking.  While I feel physically tired afterwards, I get over it.  It’s the talking to people for 4 hours straight that is particularly draining.  Says the introvert 😉

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Filed under Film, Media, New Media, TV