Monthly Archives: May 2008

How to combat the villains of team writing

Know who those villains are?  Earlier this week I talked about two problems of collaborating in a writing team, in honor of our chapter in Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing.  Of course, these problems can appear anywhere and any time in game development.  Here’s what you can do to combat the two biggest villains: social loafing and production blocking.

You can attack social loafing on two fronts.  Social loafing occurs when team members don’t feel valued, so do what you can to make sure everyone’s contributions are heard and evaluated.  If you have someone on your team who’s really quiet and has trouble being heard, you may need to help him or her speak up outside of the group.  Social loafing also happens when people don’t feel the task is all that important.  Assign each person an important task key to your project’s completion.  You see this approach a lot in some game companies that use pods, or production groups that include a team member from each discipline — a writer, a designer, and a programmer.  Each member brings a unique and important point of view to the conversation, so you’ll see social loafing less often. 

In my earlier post, I told the story of how I ended up writing my junior high school play, and I raised the question as to whether I experienced social loafing.  The answer is no.  Everyone knew their contribution would be valued — and graded — we just didn’t get our act together.  You can just chalk that one up to bad management. 

To prevent production blocking, don’t spend all your time developing ideas in a group.  Allow people to develop ideas in advance of a group meeting, or after, if their ideas didn’t get a chance to be heard. You won’t necessarily have to use the ownership method of decision-making either.  People can bring their ideas together and decide on them through consensus, compromise, or even dictatorship, if that’s how you roll.

Sande and I have added asynchronous brainstorming and story-generating to our bag of tricks.  While we still brainstorm one-on-one, we have added a document where we can throw out ideas and add on to each other’s without blocking each other. 

Have you encountered any of these villains of team writing?  What have you done to overcome them?

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Filed under Collaboration, Writing

2 situations to avoid when writing in a team

You’ve already got the book — that’s Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing — and you’re anxious for more.  Whether you’re a game writer, or you’re a game developer, you’ll want to know two situations to avoid when game writers work as a team.  They’re so common, they even have names! 

Production blocking
Working as a group, throwing out and adding to each other’s ideas leads to some of the best results out there.  We’ve already talked about the different ways to run a team — ownership, compromise, and consensus — and the different drawbacks and benefits.  But when you gather in a group, production blocking can occur no matter how you organize the decision making. 

What is production blocking? Whenever someone is talking or you are moving forward on one idea, it prevents all the others from moving forward on their ideas. I have been in groups where, in an effort to avoid criticism during the brainstorming phase, we’ve drilled down on an idea that didn’t show much promise instead of gathering as many ideas as possible and focusing on the best ones.  

Social loafing
I love the name for this problem, and it’s more common than you think.  I’m reminded of a time in junior high when I was working in a team of three.  We were supposed to work on a script for a play together, but aside from some initial efforts researching together, we’d never sat down to write the script.  The day before it was due, I sat down and wrote the whole thing so we would get it in on time.  Were my teammates demonstrating social loafing? 

Social loafing occurs when people in a group don’t contribute as much as they normally would.  Social loafers don’t feel like their contributions will be valued or even recognized.  It also happens when people don’t feel their task is all that important.  A good example of social loafing was in an episode of Top Chef.  In a catering challenge, a caterer tried to get her point of view heard, but her teammates repeatedly dismissed her thoughts.  When the team lost, she expressed her anger loud and clear, surprising the judges.  How is it that she didn’t fight this hard when she was actually in the team?  The answer: it didn’t matter how loud she yelled, her opinion didn’t matter to them.  When she felt confident she would be heard, in front of the judges, that’s when she really spoke out. 

So how do you combat these two pernicious problems?  Were my friends in junior high social loafers?  All these answers and more in our next post! 

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Filed under Collaboration, Writing

Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing is live!

Behold its beautyIt’s out!  We contributed to the Game Writers SIG book, Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing and it’s now available for purchase.  Whether you’re a game writer or a game developer, you’ll find this book of interest as it covers collaborating with writers and working with writers on contract.  In fact, we think you’ll like it so well, we’re going to pass along to you the friends and family discount.  You’ll get 30% off, but it’s only good till May 31st, so get truckin’!

Order our book or anything else at and use the discount code Friends.  Anything else about collaborating with writers you’d like to know?  Stay tuned next week for more tips on working in a team!

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Filed under Outsourcing

Write backwards — or is it forwards?

I was speaking with Naren Shenkar (please, let me have spelled it right), the current Head Writer of the original CSI.  He told me that when breaking an episode, they always start with the real crime first, then work from there.  I’ve read elsewhere that LAW & ORDER may pull plot points and concepts from headlines — sometimes literally — and then build their story. 

So is starting with the crime writing forwards, or writing backwards?  To me, it feels like writing backwards, because the crime doesn’t appear till the end, and you usually see different permutations of it before you see the real thing.  Especially in WITHOUT A TRACE, you can argue that the “crime” is ongoing… the real crime is happening in every act. 

Eh, philosophical ramblings.  Whatever works, works.


Filed under TV, Writing

Game story vs. player story… And the winner is?

Last Thursday at the ION Game Conference, we gathered for the ultimate showdown… internal game story vs. emergent player story. The results may not be what you think. Sam Lewis, Lead Designer at Cartoon Network; Katie Postma, Community Manager at FireSky (STARGATE WORLDS), and Sande Chen of Writers Cabal debated the topic, with yours truly doing her level best to moderate. In attendance we had a number of game designers interested in expanding their ability to combine game story and player engagement. Here’s how it all went down.

Story vs. Story: Redefining Narrative and Player Engagement in MMOs

Internal game story or narrative in MMOs provides context and meaning for player actions, while the emergent story and social fun engages players and tends to make MMOs sticky. That said, many at ION talked about using a diversity of methods to engage players and keep them around. Can game story be far behind? We talked about internal game narrative, emergent story, and ways to combine them both.

Sam Lewis pointed out that the worst kinds of game stories get in the way of achievement. Few enjoy hearing about a character’s life story when they want to kill the big bad. It’s important when writing and designing to keep in mind all player types, and not force anyone down one particular path. For example, story-lovers tend to be explorers — you wouldn’t necessarily want to make your game all about exploring, story or otherwise. Of course, this ties back in with designing with diversity in mind.

Sande pointed out that you can make the game story important. If hearing a character’s back story isn’t important, it probably shouldn’t be there to begin with. However, you can create systems to make story important, like lore badges in-game, or through forum status out of game.

Katie added how even though STARGATE WORLDS would draw a lot of fans of the Stargate world and story, 60% of its players would not be familiar with this world. The designers would be attempting to tell story other ways, like through the names of debuffs, for example.

Overall, the design ideas for making the internal narrative more important and more relevant to players include:

  • Lore badges
  • Link story through gifts between players
  • Use of instances: The changes players can effect in instances as opposed to the persistent world make them ripe for story
  • Animations in the persistent world, though these would be reset for each player
  • See progression of story on website, perhaps through earning cash like on Club Penguin
  • Catch the disease bug. Have a story-related effect spread throughout the game

The stories people play
Katie recounted what players talk about when playing MMOs. Hard-core raiders will share how they got their exalted reputation. A roleplayer in her casual guild would give a play-by-play of what he was doing fully in character.

Sam pointed out emote systems worked well in creating player story. He brought up the cantina crawl in STAR WARS GALAXIES, where players could go from cantina to cantina and would put on performances in each one. The biggest problem Sam had with MMOs from both a story and gameplay perspective involved the low stakes — if player makes a mistake, well, it’s no big deal. However, in EVERQUEST, the corpse run became one of the most talked-about features, because if the players didn’t get to their corpses in time, they lost everything.

Where game story and player story meet
Sam Lewis worked on STAR WARS GALAXIES, which, while brilliant in many ways, had some flaws. On the one hand, it didn’t capture the game story/world of Star Wars well enough for most players. On the other hand, because initially it was so hard to become a Jedi, it encouraged players to form entire guilds around helping characters become Jedis.

Katie pointed out that in WoW, most of her knowledge of lore came from another player. How, then, can we use the social systems that make MMOs great to tell the internal story, and vice versa? Check out these ideas that came up:

  • Before launch, put some story clues onto the website and community boards that will get everyone commenting and speculating
  • Allow user-generated content, such as tools to create missions in game
  • Use systems like the cantina bands and tie them into the story
  • Make it possible for players to be the first to discover something story/game-related, then give them public reward and recognition
  • Let players show their story through motion capture and share it with others

At the end, each person offered one tip developers can implement right now to combine player story and game story on their MMOs.

  • Let the worlds you build tell the story and create curiosity, rather than rely on dialog to convey it
  • Bring in writers early to integrate them into the design and story-building process
  • Make User-generated content available at launch and make sure your guild tools are robust at launch

Overall, this panel was chock full of good content — and I didn’t even get into the great question and answer period. I quickly discovered taking notes and moderating at the same time was a bit of a challenge, so if you were there, let me know if I missed anything key. What other ideas do you have for telling great game story, helping players tell their own stories, or helping players tell game story?

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Filed under Game Design, Games, Writers Cabal, Writing

Today at the ION Game Conference! Story vs. Story

It’s here at last! We will be participating and moderating the panel Story vs. Story: Redefining Narrative and Player Engagement in MMOs today at 3:30pm at the ION Game Conference.

Moderator: Anne Toole, The Writers Cabal
Panelist: Sande Chen, The Writers Cabal
Panelist: Sam Lewis, Cartoon Network
Panelist: Katie Postma, FireSky

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.

Date/Time: Thursday, 3:30 PM

See you there!

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Engaging players through story in MMOs – but which story?

It’s the first day of the ION Game Conference in Seattle, and already the fur is flying. Not really, but I just like saying that. We’ve already had a number of conversations about game narrative (internal narrative) and the emergent story. While some insist that MMO game story will never match its single-player counterparts, some think the future of MMOs requires game story to make those grinds meaningful. Can they both be right?

The internal narrative plays a key role in creating the context and meaning for player actions. We’ve already spoken at length on different ways to tell game story — if you missed it, check out the SxSW postview with some of the highlights. In an MMO, you can offload a lot of the storytelling to world building, level design, and ideally gameplay, just like you would for a single-player game. From a narrative perspective, the player character is the great unknown. You can write story for player type, you can write story for player class or race, but it is difficult to write story for a player character, especially if branching is not possible. Players chafe at too much direction in how their player character should act or feel. In an early level of the Vanguard MMO, one player class started as a soldier ordered to fight defenseless villagers. After you performed a few of these tasks, you were told you were starting to feel guilty. Innovative, but it can be off-putting for many players.

Players more readily connect to the emergent story in an MMO. Emergent story is often referred to as the choices the player makes during any type of game, but in an MMO it should be taken one step further. It’s also the choices other players make during the game; this unending variety of choices makes the genre appealing. Sure, you may have to save the maiden from the trolls as part of your quest, but your best friend in real life just took over another guild and now you have to decide which one to join. No one would be surprised if you felt more emotionally engaged when your friend was involved. Today Charles Manning of PLAYXPERT pointed out that MMOs are social networks and developers should integrate these systems earlier into the design process. It is through these formal and informal social networks that the emergent story is told, via guilds, forums, and more. But from Manning’s perspective, MMOs haven’t gone far enough.

If so much of what makes MMOs fun surrounds the social systems and stories, can the internal game story steal a page from the same book and use some of the same techniques? If internal narrative creates the context and meaning for your actions, can the social systems as well? What do you think? Our ION Game Conference panel at 3:30pm on Thursday addresses these very questions. Stay tuned…

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Filed under Game Design, Writing