Monthly Archives: April 2008

Writers Cabal First Anniversary pictures

At GDC this year, Writers Cabal celebrated our first anniversary/blogiversary.  We gathered at the Sugar Cafe in San Francisco to enjoy friends and food.

The cake wasn\'t a lie!

We had much cake — red velvet, in case you’re hungry. 

Thanks for everyone who came.  Hope to see the rest of you next year!

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Filed under GDC, Writers Cabal

Do games pass the Disney test?

You could learn a lot from Disney. I went to Disney Animation Studios last week to be brainwashed by Disney minions, and it worked. John Lasseter, the new studio head, has reinvigorated Disney with his business and creative sense. According to his minions, he insists every project coming out of Disney must have the following:

  1. Good story
  2. Good characters
  3. A believable world

You’d think these imperatives go without saying, but apparently not.  If Disney needs a reminder, then so do games. 

Out of all three, games have a definite edge over Hollywood when it comes to building a believable world. Not only do game writers tend to create extensive world bibles for certain game genres, the player can experience the world on his or her own terms.  What happens if you kill the mayor?  Oops — the militia turn hostile.  Is this shadowy figure well known?  You ask the milkmaid, and she says everyone’s seen him once.  Mix in game physics for added believability, and you get all this including the visual storytelling methods games share with Disney and its amazing friends!

Out of recent story games, which do you think pass the Disney test?  If game story can either be linear or nonlinear, and characters can be pre-set or player generated, do you think the test even applies to games? 

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Save the environment with game writers!

Happy Earth Day!  You may think game writing has nothing to do with the environment, and you’d be right.  Undaunted, I will now analyze whether you save the environment more by hiring a game writer in house versus outsourcing a writer, say, in another city.  I will use http://www.carbonfootprint.com/ to discern how many tonnes — yes, tonnes — of CO2 emissions occur in each case.

Remote emissions

I recently took a round trip flight from Los Angeles to Austin for a kick-off meeting.  How much did this flight emit?

  • .561 tonnes of CO2

The meeting got us all on the same page, and I went home and completed the writing assignment remotely.  How much did working remotely emit?

  • .779 tonnes of CO2 for house annually
  • 4.562 tonnes of CO2 for food, entertainment, etc. annually

However, chances are this CO2 would have been emitted no matter where I worked or lived! 

Onsite emissions

Now let’s pretend that instead of living in LA, I lived in Austin, worked on-site and commuted 10 miles to work every day in a car without taking the highway.  How much would that emit?

  • 1.826 tonnes of CO2 for car annually

Looks like outsourcing a writer is a clear winner compared to having one drive to work every day.  Even if a writer worked on-site for half the year, it wouldn’t catch up to the emissions of one flight.

But when I worked on staff at a game company, I didn’t drive to work.  I took the bus or carpooled.  So what if your on-site writer took the bus instead of drove?  How much would that emit?

  • .717 tonnes of CO2 annually 

Aha!  So if you hire a writer on-site for about two-thirds of a year or less, who also takes public transportation, you would thus be saving the environment! 

How’s your carbon footprint?

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Asking Questions, Receiving Answers

Being open to questions doesn’t begin and end with the game writer-developer relationship. When I go to game expos, I like to ask questions. Sure, I like to see the previews and sometimes, I’ll hop on and play a classic game like GALAGA. But usually, I go look at the new games being demo’ed and if there’s somebody nearby to bother, I’ll ask specific design questions, e.g. Why did they decide on this aspect of the design? Did they know about this factor? Asking questions is something that filters in and out of work, life, and play.

At conferences, as previously mentioned, we have a good time at parties and sessions. We always seem to find people willing to engage in scholarly discussions, whether at the AI dinner or at the hotel lobby. Industry parties are also a gold mine of shop talk. At the last event I attended, I asked an audio engineer about voice-over set-ups for an ensemble cast. I talked to a programmer about localization issues. He told me that at his studio, they design the interface for German as a default since it tends to have the longest words. As a rare treat, I met a game writer from a French game company. He told me that the sex quest with the dryad in the game, THE WITCHER, was tasteful and thought more games should incorporate mature themes.

While working, we ask questions, but we also like to receive questions from developers, especially ones of the clarifying sort. It’s part of the back and forth of production. Since changes to quests, back story, or other content may occur during production, we need the channels of communication to be open.

What’s the best answer to a game design question you’ve ever come across? What’s the best question?

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Filed under Game Design, Games, Localization, Writers Cabal, Writing

Fielding writer questions saves money

Got your attention? As US tax time heads into the final stretch, I know I’ve been thinking about the money I spent — all of it wisely, I assure you — in the last year. At the same time, we’ve started working with a new game developer where we agreed from the outset, due to time and money constraints, to only go as far as a first revision. How could we get it right nearly the first time if we weren’t familiar with their likes and dislikes? Simple — we asked lots of questions! But how can you make sure your game writers ask the ones that save time and money? Try these tips:

1. Be available — Our client e-mailed us to ask if we had any questions. If we didn’t ask any questions, they called to ask us for questions. We even had personal mobile numbers — which was helpful when we were trying to make a 10pm deadline.

2. Be thoughtful — No need to rush to answer. If you need to think about it, do so. I asked the client a question. Without an immediate answer, he hung up so he could think about it. When he called me back a half hour later, he had a reasoned, articulate answer.

3. Be cool — There’s such a thing as being too available — give your writer space to get the job done. Saying, “Call or e-mail” if you have any questions should be sufficient. If you’ve shown you’ll keep the door open, the writer will walk through it.

With all of these in place, I had no problem pre-approving script ideas before I set them on page by asking specific questions. Whether you want to save money or just want a better first draft, you can follow these steps to get the script good faster. Have any questions?

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Game writers offer 4-hour work week!

To hire or not to hire a game writer, that is the question.  I’ve been researching productivity recently and came across Timothy Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5.  Apparently it was quite the thing in tech circles last year.  We’ve often said that hiring a writer, whether on contract or not, frees you up to focus on your strengths.  We’ve never said you’d get a 4-hour work week out of it.  Maybe we should start.

One of the key components of the 4-Hour Work Week means you automate as much of your work as possible.  For Ferriss, that means he outsources just about everything, so much so that I half-expect unions to be denouncing him over breakfast every morning.  He allegedly hired someone in Asia to troll the internet looking for hotties to date.  You may have already spotted the real flaw in the automated system: Ferriss may have the 4-hour work week, but no one working for him does.  Still, some people swear by his methods and some have actually seen their families at the end of the day once they’ve instituted his suggestions. 

You already know this industry strives for work/life balance.  I’d like to offer up a suggestion: hire a game writer.  It doesn’t mean you give up control, it just means fewer inane conversations about whether the villagers would worship squid monsters and a decrease in the likelihood you’ll be writing lines like “Uh!”  “Huh!”  “Look out!” at ten at night.  Leave that to us — Lord knows we’ve been working that late all week.  Maybe you’ll end up traveling the world with the time you save, or maybe you’ll finally get together with your raid group.  It’s up to you. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to make another developer’s week that much shorter.

What would you do if you had more free time during the work week?

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Filed under Game Industry, Outsourcing

Got cross-discipline? Why you need it in game development

Only a week or so ago, we had a designer/writer say you don’t need specialist writers.  But the fact of the matter is, everyone is somewhat specialized — few indeed can say they program, model, produce, and write.  And if you know anyone, send them our way 😉  To make a good game, we don’t need to roll up every talent into one person.  We do, however, need to find a way to get the various disciplines working together.  I’ve rounded up a few links on how game developers have been doing just that.

Inside Game Design: Media Molecule
Kareem Ettouney loves the small core team of different disciplines.  He sites other larger companies following the same model.  I’ve worked in a small core team of different types of designers and a programmer on staff — and I loved it!

Getting Coders and Artists to Communicate 
Chock full of great tips for building communication between any two disciplines — whether it be in person or e-mail.  These producers advocate getting out of the way of communication, especially if you’re a control freak, which none of our readers are 😉  Producers should create the opportunity to create, then reward it when it works.  These suggestions dovetail nicely with helping a writer “get it.”

Why Your Game Studio Should Practice ‘Shared Design’
Instead of putting experts from different disciplines, Crystal Dynamics’ Arnab Basu suggests putting your designers across different areas.  Put junior and senior together, let them get their hands on every project coming out of the gate.  This process includes interfacing with external teams, especially in “stunt” design — bringing someone on for a short period on a specific challenge.  Seems like you could use a writer in there who could flexibly move between projects.  I’m just sayin’.

The Secrets Of Portal‘s Huge Success
You know this panel had to show up somewhere.  Kim Swift saw the importance of cross-discipline here, saying there’s a story story and gameplay story.  We like to say they’re ideally the same, but we’ll give them a pass. Working these stories together created a game that was better than the sum of its parts, which is the result of any good cross-disciplinary work.

Sharing the Design
You can still share the design, even if you’re not playing well with others.  This article shows how the old ownership model can still play in in cross-disciplinary design.  Split the work based on strengths, develop a common vocabulary — especially with outsourcers, then keep coming back together to communicate.  A good model for a designer working with a writer whether on staff or on contract.

Found any other great cross-discipline success stories out there? 

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Filed under Collaboration, Game Design, Outsourcing, Writing