Monthly Archives: March 2008

Game writer horror stories

The recent flap over the merits of hiring game writers has been educational. I’ve learned that many, many people believe in the power of storytelling in games. I’ve learned about a few more game industry horror stories involving writers. I’ve also learned that there’s no way to talk about a game project without people figuring out exactly who you’re talking about ūüėČ

With that in mind, I thought I’d talk about a few writer horror stories I’ve heard recently without naming names and invite developers to add their own. I’ll go first!

  1. A game went into production with assets and levels already designed. It became excrutiatingly apparent it was disjointed, so they hired a writer to sort of knit it together. By that time, however, it was a bit of a lost cause. I don’t know if the game ever shipped.
  2. A major game developer was looking for a quality game writer, so they hired one based on reputation and referral, never having read a sample test. When the time came, it became apparent that the writer didn’t get the game genre at all, so the work had to be thrown out.
  3. A major game developer with a story in progress considered hiring a writer, but the writer quoted a price that was too high. Later, when the game company realized their story needed serious help, they returned to the same writer, who started the story over from scratch and charged even more for the rush job.

Has a writer hurt you or harmed your project? Have you done a little hurting yourself? Share your horror story — we promise not to track you down!

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Can there be story in MMOs? Come to ION to find out!

You hear it everywhere — you can’t do game story in MMOs.¬† The player story reigns supreme, so why bother with anything else?¬† But what if there were a way to combine game story with player story?¬† What if players could become even more engaged in your MMO?¬† What if you could attend a panel discussing this very topic?

You’re in luck!¬† Join us at the ION Game Conference 2008, May 13-15 in Seattle.¬† We will be wrestling with this topic:

Story vs. Story: Redefining narrative and player engagement in MMOs

Short  Summary:Narrative designers, a systems designer, and a community director debate the importance of player story versus game story in MMOs. This session explores ways to combine these elements in a way that is most compelling to the player and the player community.   
Long Summary:MMOs have earned success due in part to extensive, immersive game content and players’ ability to play their own story, both individually and as a community. As the number of MMOs grows, each will try to gain market share by offering a new and unique experience to the player. Many new MMOs strive to incorporate more narrative elements into the game world, trying to grow the reported 25% of MMO players who actually pay attention to story. Narrative designers, a systems designer and a community director will reveal the challenges, successes and failures of incorporating narrative into current and future MMOs. Issues such as Bartle’s player types, scope, and the role of casual players impact both player story and game narrative. This panel of veteran MMO developers will explore the gameplay elements most important in engaging different player types and developing player story, and brainstorm how these elements can effectively combine with narrative elements. Attendees will leave this panel presentation with a good understanding of current narrative and design issues in MMOs as well as practical solutions to bridging the gap between player story and game narrative.   

We will be joined by:

Katie Postma, Senior Community Manager, Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment
Sam Lewis, Senior Game Designer, Cartoon Network/Turner

Feel free to socially network with us on the ION Network for attendees.¬† In the meantime, which MMOs do you think have successfully integrated story and how?¬† Which haven’t?

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Good writers make better game designers

Poor, poor Adam Maxwell.¬† He’s a game designer who also¬†writes.¬† Adam bravely went forward to make a few statements on Gamasutra about the role of writers in the game industry.¬†¬†Unfortunately, he¬†tripped over his own words, causing anger and dismay for many.¬† One designer who¬†told me¬†he doesn’t care for game story e-mailed me after reading his article, saying, “That’s not what I meant!”¬†If you read¬†Adam’s missive closely, he’s really expressing frustration¬†with game writing as well as¬†demonstrating a misunderstanding of what good writers can do.¬† I’ll do my best to underline what he is really trying to say and what it means for any developer working with writers and writing.¬†

“Writers tend to make better designers.”
Thanks!¬†¬†That’s so sweet of you.¬† In the interest of full disclosure,¬†Writers Cabal offers game and content design services as well as game writing services.¬† We are that enviable hyphenate “writer/designers.”

“Being a writer doesn‚Äôt automatically make one a game designer.”¬†“The work of the writer is inherently linear ‚Äď the work of the designer is typically not.”
Translation: “I’m frustrated that so many game writers don’t get games or don’t get interactivity.”
Very true.¬† It’s important when hiring a writer to find one who gets the medium.¬† On top of that, do what you can to help the writer you hire “get” your game.¬† If you hire the right writer, you will hire someone who, as writer/designer, designs the story into the gameplay.¬† As writer, s/he will write a story that won’t hogtie the player by giving the player non-trivial choice.¬†

‚ÄúIs any of that [characters, emotion] necessary to make a good game? Sadly, the answer is no.‚ÄĚ
Translation: “While I’m frustrated that efforts to put in great story and characters have met with relatively¬†little success, that’s all writers have to offer.¬† Unfortunately, it seems like no one in the industry wants to make great games.”
Certainly, you can make a good computer game without writers, without composers, and without artists.  Let me point you to one right now:  I suspect the reason Adam has singled out writing is because he has tried to put in better story and character and met with little success.  Auto Assault anyone? 

Adam seems to misunderstand the writer’s role.¬† The best writers don’t just throw¬†some story and dialog over the wall and go home.¬† Games create emotion — you can’t escape that.¬† The developer’s job is to identify what emotion the game should elicit, then use every tool at his/her disposal to get there.¬† If you want the player to feel heroic, you can design it in, draw it in, write it in, sing it in, or all of the above.¬† This is what great writer/narrative designers¬†can do: help you create this emotion across all disciplines.¬† After all, are you in this industry to make okay games, or to make great games?

“I would rather have another designer than a writer.”
Translation: “I would rather have a co-worker that has more than one skill.”
I agree, as do many developers.  People love artists who can program, designers who can build, and programmers who can use more than one language. 

“I met with our writer [. . .]¬†it was also a 3-4 hour event [. . .] During that time, I was not balancing weapons [etc. . . .]¬†which was what my job description actually called for.”¬†
Translation: “I don’t like managing writers, but I don’t actually want to write the script myself because I’d rather balance weapons.”
Remember the top five excuses for not hiring a writer?  If there had been no writer, poor Adam would not have had time to balance even one weapon, since he would have spent all his time getting the script ready.  Hiring a writer allows designers, programmers, producers to focus on what they do best.  Professional writers save time by working faster than someone for whom writing is not a main skill. 

Managing outsourced writers can be a challenge, which is why we keep this blog.  There are plenty of ways to streamline the process, including hiring the kind of narrative designer who interfaces with writers, much like an art outsourcing manager.

“What do you do with the writer when the story is done?”
Translation: I live in a fantasy world where games aren’t an iterative process.
Okay, now I’m just being mean ūüėČ
Translation: “I’m not a producer and don’t realize that this question plagues developers with regards to any employee, from writer and QA to core designers.”
This industry is inherently volatile — when a game project ends, not every company is equipped to keep everyone on staff.¬† Hiring writers on contract is a good option.¬† Hiring writer/designers on staff is another.¬† A good producer or product manager will decide what works best.

Now that I’ve translated Adam’s thoughts, I have to agree with him on many points.¬† Yes, a writer with a designer mentality who “gets” games is better than one who doesn’t.¬† Yes, it can be frustrating that more developers aren’t striving to create great games that appeal to all kinds of players.¬† Yes, finding the right staff and outsourcing partners for your game project can be challenging.¬† Fortunately, Adam and developers like him are not alone.¬† You have us!

Care to add your two cents on the article?

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An easy way to differentiate characters: the list

I’ve been busy traveling and being sick, but I have not come back empty-handed!¬† At the Game Developers Conference, one game writer volunteered a very useful way to differentiate character voices.¬† In most cases, I differentiate character voice by rhythm, sentence length, humor,¬†education, personality, etc.¬† What’s great about this new method is it makes it¬†easier to communicate and collaborate with another writer.

Ready?¬† Here it is.¬† For each character, make a list of vocabulary that only that character would say.¬† Because no one wants to make an exhaustive list for 70 characters, this list should be about 7-10 words long.¬†¬†There’s the obvious vocab — like “Cowabunga” for Michaelangelo in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.¬† I figure it could include¬†other expressions like “not cute” or “that place with the pots” (instead of kitchen).¬† On one show I worked on, we had an invisible list¬†of how each character addressed their grandmother: “Gram” for one person, “Gran” for another.¬†

What’s nice about the list is that each word could be representative of a personality trait.¬† Like “not cute” could indicate someone who’s generally very judgmental.¬† Or the “that place with the pots” person could be¬†a tragically clever and Blackadder-esque type of guy.¬† The real challenge might be to find vocab choices that weren’t just examples of traits you’ve already decided on.¬†

As a frequent collaborator, though, I can see how the list could come in handy.¬† You can split the characters down the middle and say, “You do the list for those characters, and I’ll do it for these, and we’ll see what we come up with.”

Okay, your turn.¬† Got any tactics you’ve use to differentiate characters?

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Game story motivates in casual console games

Who says game story is just for RPGs?¬† At the SxSW talk on¬†passionate games, we discussed how few casual games incorporate story.¬† I’d like to offer up a highly scientific comparison study of two casual (ish) console games: Guitar Hero III and Dance Dance Revolution.¬† Distinctive controllers and music¬†made them famous.¬† So why do I want to play one more than the other?¬† The answer: game story.

Story in the design 
GHIII: Players may choose an avatar to play, and then dress him/her in new clothes and new guitars.¬† I’ll be frank with you, boys and girls, I actually don’t care about that stuff.¬† I’ve had many a debate on whether this helps develop player story or not — I think it’s purely cosmetic and gives the illusion of choice, but still, some people enjoy it, and more power to them.¬†

DDR: Nil 

Game story
GHIII does a great of creating context and a story arc.¬†¬†It also, amazingly, creates dramatic tension.¬† At the end of my first 3-set concert, I had the option to do an encore.¬† I thought, “Why wouldn’t I want to do an encore?”¬† As soon as I agreed to the encore, a helicopter arrived and so did the police!¬† I thought, “Oh, no… I’m going to lose all my money or something!”¬† Instead, the police just came to jam to my fab music.¬† Relief.¬†

Before each 3-set, there’s an opening animated scene. Notably, there’s not one line of dialog, but many scenes are humorous and all are short. This fact is just another little reminder that writing is not just about dialog. The scenes create the tone for being a rockstar as well as give you a sense of your progress in your arc from garage band to superstar.

DDR gives you no sense of context or story arc. You “clear” stages, but to no particular end. My personal pet peeve, the dialog occasionally will say, “You’re no ordinary fellah!” which makes me mentally respond, “Yeah, maybe cuz I’m not a fellah!”

Before my brand new XBox 360 ate (yes, ate!!!) my GHIII disc, I had gotten to the point where I was doing a music video shoot.  I want to learn what comes next!  Would I want to play GHIII regardless?  Sure, playing guitar is fun, but so is dancing on a dancepad.  The evidence is in the fact that I would rather play GHIII right now than DDR. 

What does this mean¬†for story and game design?¬† Well, you could argue that I, as a game writer, am biased because I want to see story in games.¬† The truth is, I’m a certain player type: an achiever combined with¬†what could¬†be called an explorer or completionist.¬† I want to do well and get rewards, which includes all the content you can give me.¬† As we know in game design, the best designs work for different player types at the same time.¬† Therefore,¬†adding game story to a casual game services player types that might otherwise feel left out in the cold by certain casual games.

We had some recommendations for good casual games during our talk at SxSW.  Can you recommend any others?  Especially since my X-Box is evil and eats things, maybe something PC-based would be ideal!   

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SxSW postview – Every game tool tells the story

We came, we spoke, we won an X-Box 360, we went back home. Thus we conquered South by Southwest in Austin this past weekend. Our core conversation, “Creating Passionate Games: A Multidisciplinary Approach,” drew game developers and enthusiasts from multiple disciplines, which made for lively discussion. We discussed cinematics, music, sound, gameplay, linear vs. sandbox storytelling, voice acting, user interface, casual vs. hardcore, and the social aspects of gaming.

Cinematics and Editing
Taking advantage of good camera angles and editing, either in cut scenes or through other means, helps engage the player. Example: Silent Hill

Interactive Music
Attendees enjoyed music that helped set the mood, that might chance when you went into new locations, like underground. One attendee enjoyed music that let you know when the rebels were coming, like in Star Wars, and also made you feel victorious when the battle was won. Repitition of catchy musical themes also tied the player to the emotion or theme. Examples: Zelda, Morrowind

Sound/Voice Over
Sounds from off-screen stuck in players memory — like the off-screen sounds in Bioshock, which suggested that activities were going on beyond what the player could see. Good, well-acted voice over also encouraged players to actually listen to the game and music. Logically, developers can discourage players from turning off the sound to listen to personal soundtracks by putting in voice over.

Gameplay/Linear vs. sandbox stories
The gameplay in Portal added to the mad science universe of Portal. The story in this case served as motivation. In the case of a user-generated character, many attendees preferred freedom to solve problems their own way, thus preferring sandbox games to more linear games. A combination of both story and sandbox: Ultima

User Interface/Tutorial
Some players were taken out of the story during the tutorial, when the voice over actor might say “Press X to continue.” Many agreed that changes in gameplay or tutorials were best communicated visually. Ideally the User Interface would make sense within the story or context.

Casual vs. Hardcore games
Some hardcore games, like FPS, would explain the story or context of the game at the beginning, and then you’d never hear about the story again. Casual games tend to have less story, but there are exceptions, such as Chocolatier. Some attendees were frustrated having to kill difficult big bosses in hardcore games, which is less common in Japanese games, which tend to be a bit easier.

Social aspects
Part of what makes games sticky is their social aspects, whether they be single player or multiplayer. Games with stories naturally build social networks. Especially in cases when players develop the story, Jennifer Bullard of Aspyr said “stories build communities.” If you are able to do something different in a game, you earn bragging rights that you can bring to the community.

Overall, attendees offered a number of must-haves for a passionate game. One attendee suggested that the best games emphasize the psychology of the game context more than the design. Another preferred games with high replayability. Other suggestions included games that offer adequate rewards, fulfillment and achievement, openness and freedom, fantasy elements, and allow the player to know how the story ends with a satisfying finale.

Tall order? I’m game if you are! Did any part of the discussion spark an idea? Let us know if there’s anything you’d like to add to this dicussion.

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Creating Passionate Games today at SxSW 2008!

Today’s the day for our core conversation entitled Creating Passionate Games: A Muiltidisciplinary Approach. We will be leading the conversation at 3:30pm today, March 10th, in Ballroom E (Level 4) at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas. We would love to see you there at See us speak!SXSW Interactive.

Creating Passionate Games: A Multidisciplinary Approach

Who creates meaning in a game? Who’s responsible for the passion? Everyone! Artists, designers, and composers discuss techniques that incorporate narrative and meaning successfully.

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