Monthly Archives: November 2008

Forget Black Friday — get autographed game items online!

For those of you not in the US, Black Friday refers to the first day of the Christmas shopping season.  People line up for hours on the day after Thanksgiving to get cut-rate discounts on items to give to family, friends, or themselves(unless you’re me, in which case you spend the day learning about early ancient history on TV).  People who don’t have the stomach for grinding to get presents, however, instead elect to do their shopping online.  Fortunately for you, there’s still time to get autographed game items through the WIGI auction.  Some auctions end tonight, so click on this eBay link to get your bid in!

I’ve done a bit of investigating, and the current high-price leader is a Revolution Lincoln poster signed by Sid Meier — that’s at $76 and the bidding ends Saturday evening.  Coming up next is the bid for THE WITCHER, written, in part, by yours truly 😉 and signed by the dev team.  At $36 it’s a steal!  A bunch of hats, a messenger bag, and t-shirts for various games will be off the market by the end of the day today, Friday, so you better check out the eBay link before it’s too late!

So go bid, then come back and tell us what you won.  What’s on your Christmas list?

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Writers Cabal at the Narrative Design Exploratorium!

A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Stephen Dinehart for his blog, the Narrative Design Exploratorium.  In the interview, a part of his Game Writers in the Trenches series, I unveil the mysteries behind the Writers Cabal work process, discuss our recent session on Creating Passionate Games at SXSW Interactive Festival, and describe how Writers Cabal can help game developers all over the world tell compelling stories.

As I said in the interview, “Games can be powerful narrative experiences because the player participates in the fiction.  When the player-story entwines with the game-story, that’s what generates a unique and personal user experience.  How to accomplish that feat is what makes narrative design a challenging field.”

After 10 years in the industry and 12 published game credits, I look forward to making and playing more games.  With Writers Cabal and other like-minded colleagues championing the cause of narrative design, I’m sure we can look forward to great storytelling in games too!

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Autographed Video Game Merchandise in WIGI Celebrity Auction

For those of you attending VGXPO or the East Coast Games Summit, you’re in for a treat!  Women In Games International is kicking off a fabulous celebrity auction at the conference to raise money for the group’s non-profit activities.  On the block is a collection of over a hundred video games, books, and game-related items.  Bidding starts this Saturday November 22, 2008 and ends Sunday November 29, 2008. Don’t miss out on your chance to have one-of-a-kind merchandise!  If you’re not at the conference, don’t worry.  You can get in on the action by checking this eBay link or by doing a search for “2008 WIGI Auction.”

Autographed Witcher UK

Autographed Witcher UK

Writers Cabal is happy to donate to the cause.  You can bid on certificates for free copies of Ranch Rush, the book Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing, and a very special copy of The Witcher (UK) autographed by Writers Cabal and CDProjekt RED.  I received this copy from my co-nominees after the WGA Award Ceremony in New York City.

For detailed peeks at the other items (which include Gears of War, Bioshock, Mass Effect, Halo 3 to name a few), look at this photostream.

Happy bidding!

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Got a live one? Adding live actors to games

Voice actors offer a great deal to a game’s story and writing, and developers have successfully used actors to help block scenes as well.  But just because the industry gives a lot of love to computer animation doesn’t mean you can’t use actors for live action in games as well.  What do live action actors add both good and bad, and how do you navigate working with them?

Great actors can only improve upon great writing.  Actors can “write a sentence” with their eyes.  If well cast, they provide a degree of believability that is impossible with a bad actor.  When I worked in television, I was constantly amazed how a good actor can add sparkle to just about anything.

On one TV show I worked on, a bunch of characters had been kidnapped.  All the characters each said basically the same thing — they missed their families dearly.  I had gotten used to only half-listening to the performances, but when one actor, James Reynolds, came on and began to speak about being separated from his family, I couldn’t help but pay attention.  He was that good.  Ideally, including live action sequences will do the same — keep the player riveted to what might otherwise be just another cut scene.

In Red Alert 3, they elected to use actors in live action scenes.  And not just any actors.  They looked for big names.  One of the key reasons they did so was for marketing reasons.  Now, good marketing never hurts, but if serving marketing comes before the serving the story, it can hurt the player experience.

In a Gamasutra article articulating the approach to hiring RA3 actors, one commenter said that the female actors were cast more for their sex appeal than their appropriateness for the role.  It reminds me of a mock Batman script where a character is described as the “sexiest woman in the world” and she wears glasses because she is also the “smartest woman in the world.”  In both animation and live action, you must walk the line between believability and appealing to your target audience.

Even with big name actors, however, it turns out the live action scenes were still cheaper to produce than the same amount of time rendered cut scenes.  Are live action cut scenes the wave of the future?  I’d say no, unless the gameplay looks and feels as realistic as the live actors.

What’s your take on live action scenes in games?  Do you have any burning questions regarding working with or casting actors for live action?  Drop a comment!

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Steal from Fable II! Using actors and writers in games

Actors can offer up more than their voices in games.  Earlier this week we talked about how voice recording can improve a game’s story and the player’s experience.  But dialog alone doesn’t convey the story.  Fortunately, actors can also help deliver story by stepping in in the flesh so to speak, as they did in Fable II.  However, even if you don’t have actors, there’s still hope.  Read on!

Game developers have often used actors to capture movements such as walking and combat animations.  According to a recent Gamasutra interview, Fable II went a step further and used the actors to capture emotion and staging.  The actors played out the entire story script on stage, which allowed the designers to hear the words spoken and rewrite scenes, if needed.  They also videotaped the performances, so when it was time to implement the scene into the game, the scripters knew how to stage it.  This method assumes three things:

  1. The script itself was written in advance.
  2. The scripters, or whoever is implementing the story script into the game, are assumed not to understand how to implement it dramatically
  3. There was time (and money) not only to perform the scenes on a stage, but also time to revise and improve upon the script.

The success of Fable II suggests that spending time on story and giving writers the same chance to test and iterate as much as other departments will improve the overall quality of the game.

Oh, but — you’re thinking — I can’t afford to hire actors and a big sound stage!  What can I do?  While you can argue there’s no good substitute for a live performance, writers with a cinematic or film background can provide input on proper staging and character emotion by including it in the script itself.  Furthermore, artists and level designers can work collaboratively with writers to create the emotion on characters’ faces and take advantage of the dramatic space.  Even in this scenario, giving writers and artists a chance to iterate on cinematics and dramatic moments will improve your outcome.

Next week we’ll figure out how to deal with the most rare and tragic adventure — live action actors in games!  In the meantime, what do you think of Fable II’s dramatic scenes?  Can you tell the difference between them and the usual game?

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Acting up: How writers can get you better voice performances

Ever been enjoying a game when suddenly, the cut scene comes up and it just leaves a little something to be desired?  Either the voice recording is off, the acting doesn’t seem up to par, or the characters just kind of sit there in the virtual space without grabbing your attention.  You may find yourself clicking through in an effort to get back to the good stuff — the gameplay.  This post begins our series on the challenges and benefits of creating good writing and storing with actors.  Fortunately, writers and actors can conspire together to make voice recording and acting another fun part of the game.

VOICE RECORDING

I was speaking with another screenwriter at a party last night, and we were discussing the short films so many aspiring creatives in Hollywood produce.  These shorts start out well enough, perhaps with a nice montage of the location or pictures of the main characters, then cut to the first scene involving them.  But as soon as the actors open their mouths, we can tell the sound wasn’t recorded or mixed properly and we immediately brand it as amateur.

Unfortunately, quite a few games fall into this category as well — they go through the trouble of hiring voice actors, then they don’t quite put the effort into making the recording well done.

On the other hand, sometimes even with great recording, the actors may not have sufficient information about the script or scene to deliver the lines well.  For example, the simple line “So?”  That line could be delivered defiantly, like a petulant teenager; humorously, like a friend’s flip retort; curiously, like a probing detective; and so on.  Time and time again, actors have to come face to face with game scripts that look like spreadsheets that don’t give any context to the scene.  Fortunately, as you might have guessed, we have a few solutions:

1.  Insist on having your writers or narrative designers present during voice recording.  Writers and designers can help set the scene for the actor, but more importantly, they can make on-the-fly adjustments to the dialog if it’s not quite clicking.  Ideally, your writers will have already written the dialog to be spoken, but even then sometimes words don’t work in an actor’s mouth.

2.  Give the actors a script in screenplay format. Seeing how the scene plays out will help the actor get the point of the scene, and help him see how his or her lines relate to others’.  The entire script will also give the actor context with an idea of what has happened emotionally for the character before and what will happen next.  Often this information is relayed by the voice director during recording, but having it spelled out in screenplay format rather than dialog lists in Excel will help immeasurably.

3.  Write the scene descriptions and the expected vocal intonations of each line. If for whatever reason you don’t have the script in screenplay format, have your writer or designer include scene descriptions and how the actor should deliver the line.

This approach creates two drawbacks.  First of all, it can take a lot of time to include this information for each line, and as they say, time equals money.  Furthermore, telling the actor how to convey a line ties the actor’s creative hands.  If you are working with great actors, often time they add something to the scene or line that brings it to an even higher level.  If they don’t have a firm grasp of the scene, you prevent them from doing what they do best.

4.  Give the script to the actor in advance. It can be an industry practice simply to hand the script to the actor on the day s/he starts recording.  With scripts that could be 400 plus pages, perhaps it’s a bit unrealistic to expect most actors to slog through them.  That said, if the actors have a chance to plan ahead and get a feel for their characters, they can make more informed character choices and give better performances.

Next we’ll explore using actors to create better cinematics, and then move on to filming live actors.  Which games do you think had the best and worst voice recording?  What do you think caused it?

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Game industry grows, but is it recession-proof?

The Game Developers Census released at the end of October showed the number of game developers working on staff in the game industry in North America.  Results show more developers work in the industry now than ever, leading to questions about who, exactly, is swelling those ranks and in what positions.  But is it recession-proof?

The census indicates that there are 13% more people employed in the industry than last year, with the highest increase in Canada.  If you live in the US and work in the game industry, there’s nearly a 50% chance you live in California.  This statistic describes the Writers Cabal to a tee — half of us lives in the Golden State. 

Where are the extra developers finding work?  According to the census, they’ve been added to next-gen games as well as to MMOs and virtual worlds.  Good news for writers, especially in the case of MMOs!  Developers may be getting the message that hiring specialized writers makes for better games.  Purely anecdotal evidence suggests more companies are hiring writers on staff.  Where do you think the additional developers are employed?

Yesterday, while my handyman was fixing one of my windows, we ended up talking about the entertainment industry.  He repeated the old standby that entertainment was recession-proof, because ten dollars for a movie was still affordable.  I replied that just because people were willing to buy doesn’t mean the company had a business plan that worked — some rely on independent funding or advertising, which are affected by the economy. 

The census suggested that the down economy hasn’t had an impact on the industry itself, but I think we’ll only know that when the next census comes around.  Brash Entertainment recently laid off some workers due to a “tough economy,” although the tough economy they could be referring to poor sales on their games over the last year. 

What do you think?  Do you think the game industry will escape entirely unscathed from the economy, or do you know of companies that have already had to adjust their financials?

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