Monthly Archives: December 2008

Writers Cabal's 2008 Year in Review

We had an amazing year in 2008 and we hope you did too!  We started the year out with a Writers Guild nomination for THE WITCHER, spoke at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival and the ION Game Conference, and somehow we managed to continually write and consult on a number of projects, both big and small, including WIZARD 101.  We reconnected with friends during travels and made new friends as well.

Here are some highlights from our year:

1.  Writers Guild nomination

Anne was in L.A. while Sande was in Paris.   Anne generally doesn’t answer the phone when working, so it was a good thing she did on that fateful Friday.  It was the WGA calling to say we had been nominated for the first ever WGA Award in Videogame Writing!  Excitedly, Anne relayed the news to Sande via Skype.

Artur Ganszyniec, Sebastian Stepien, Sande Chen, Anne Toole

Artur Ganszyniec, Sebastian Stepien, Writers Cabal

We attended both WGA ceremonies in NYC and in L.A.  We spent the NYC ceremony trying to find our Polish co-nominees on THE WITCHER. While they had spoken to Sande on the phone and may have seen her on videocam via Skype, we had nothing to go by.  But as you can see, we did find them.

2.  Travels

It seems like every month, we were traveling.  Ah, the life of the itinerant writer!  While Anne did speak at a Writers Guild Foundation seminar and other events in Los Angeles and Sande spoke at IGDA NYC’s Pecha Kucha night, we were world trekkers this year, making our appearances at game conferences around the U.S. and internationally.

We were in Taiwan for Chinese New Year and then went straight to GDC in S.F. to celebrate our First AnniversarySXSW soon followed, where we presented our session, Creating Passionate Games: A Multidisciplinary Approach. While in Austin, Sande attended EIEIO and Anne (lucky her) won a XBox 360 and GUITAR HERO at a SXSW party.  Then it was off to Seattle for the ION Game Conference (now called the LOGIN Conference) for our session, Story vs. Story: Redefining Narrative and Player Engagement in MMOs.  Additionally, Anne attended the San Diego Comic Con.

Sande captured at VGXPO

Sande captured at VGXPO

In September, Anne flew to Finland to present at the first ever Nokia Open Labs Workshop.  That same day, Sande flew to S.F. and ended up stranded there due to Hurricane Ike.  Rather than return to her home in coastal TX, she flew directly to Austin for AGDC, hoping to contact her neighbors in the disaster zone.  Despite a lost cell phone and the lack of electricity, gas, and food at home, Sande pulled through and flew to NY for the NY Games Conference the following week.  Sande rounded out the year by attending VGXPO in Philadelphia.

3.  Publications

In 2008, we contributed the chapter, “Writing in a Team” to the IGDA Writers SIG-produced book, Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing. We also contributed a chapter to the 3rd book, so stay tuned in 2009!

This post brought to you by Writers Cabal, a game writing and design partnership.

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Your turn! What's your game year in review?

Game developers love those post-mortems, and we’re no exception.  As the new year approaches, we compile a year in review so we can assess what went well, what went crazy, and everything in between.  We post our efforts on New Year’s Eve, highlighting some of our best blog posts and successes as the second year of the Writers Cabal comes to a close.  This year, we don’t want to do it alone, and if you lend a hand, there just might be a little something in it for you (hint, hint).

Now’s your chance to review us.  What’s your favorite blog post or series?  What did you think was missing?  What could we add more of?  What are our greatest successes this year, in your opinion?  Drop us a comment and let us know what you think!  You can even post anonymously.

But a blog is not just about us — it’s a two-way street.  We want to know what your year in games has been like.  Ship a game?  Mastered a challenging program?  Tell us!  Share with us your successes in game development, even if it’s just getting home before 10pm one night.  Which games did you love, or love to hate?  Anne is playing Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for DS while Sande is queueing up Robocalypse for DS and playing Fallout 3, Prince of Persia, Resistance 2, among others.  What’s in your console or PC right now?

Toot your own horn, and let’s bring in the new year right!  We can’t wait to hear from you!

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Happy Holidays from Writers Cabal!


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How to make good music in game development

At this time of year, we each have our traditions. Some go shopping; some enjoy latkes; some get cranky. A few weeks ago, I partook of one of my traditions — singing in a choir. We sang this German piece, Der Stern von Bethlehem, from the early 20th century, high in drama. Standing perched on the steps overlooking the orchestra, I watched the floutist carry on the melody for a spell, then the clarinet effortless took over. No struggle, no argument, just a quick swap as one artist yeilded the piece to another one.  Why doesn’t it work this way all the time? 

In game development, we often come across a tug-of-war over what makes a game good and fun. Many designers and gamers will say that story doesn’t matter.  Others will say writers don’t have much of a place in game development, although more and more writers are being hired on staff.  Some developers will insist that certain genres can’t support a story, despite evidence to the contrary.  But to me, that’s a bit like saying that the flute holds no place in an orchestra, just because you can’t hear it when the horns are playing.

In an orchestra, each section or “department” works together to create a full experience for the audience.  Like the harpist who came out only for a cameo here and there, not every instrument will play every beat like the violins seem to, but each instrument adds to the variety and beauty of the piece.  

Just so, in game development, sometimes the art and lighting will underline the game’s theme, sometimes the gameplay, and yes, sometimes the writing.  The trick is not to hold any one instrument above the others, but to combine each together to create the best experience for the player.  

As we head into the new year, maybe we can all see ourselves less as members of this department or that, and more as instruments that only make good music when we work together.

Posted by Anne for Writers Cabal, a game writing and design partnership.

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Shoe the president: when games write themselves

Time for a little fun.  The latest flash game web sensation, Sock and Awe, gives you the opportunity to throw shoes at the president.  It’s supposed to be fun and funny, not a big political statement.  Go look at it now real quick.  We’ll wait…

Finished?  You may play it and agree that there’s no dialog or story in it, but I’m here to tell you just the opposite.  It’s fun and funny because of the story.  It’s just not written into the game itself; it’s been written by journalists and politicians for nearly five years.

Far too often, developers and gamers alike assume that because there’s no dialog or Star Wars-like scroll at the beginning that there is no story.  Part of the job of narrative in games is to provide context and meaning to players’ actions.  However, players often already have knowledge that can help your game and narrative, like in licensed games.  If you play a Batman game, chances are you don’t need to learn his origin story or what Gotham City is all about.  You have been exposed to his exposition perhaps through reading comics, watching movies or TV, or going to certain Halloween parties over the course of your life.  When you plug in the Batman game, you pretty much know what story you’re in for.

In Sock and Awe, just like with many licensed games, the player comes to the table with the story and context in mind.  You’re aware, for example, that Bush is president, that he was visiting Iraq years after the “Shock and Awe” campaign put US troops there, and that a man threw shoes at him.  The developers chose the right design and the right art to tell the story that has been buzzing on the internet this week.  Now imagine how you would react to playing this game if you had just woken up today from a nap that had lasted:

Two weeks
You would play this game and find the game funny, but you wouldn’t be sure why you’re throwing shoes.

Six years
You think it’s a little odd that you are throwing anything.

Nine years
You are wondering why you’re throwing things at this random man (or, if you’re knowledgeable, at the Texas governor).

Let’s face it.  The game is basically a low-rent re-skin of Duck Hunt.  I’m even playing Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass right now and there are several mini-games of the same type in it.  It’s what you know about the story and background that makes Sock and Awe fun.  And adding in which countries have thrown the most shoes… well, that’s the icing!

Which games have you played that assumed you knew a lot about the world or backstory?

Posted by Anne for Writers Cabal, a game writing and design partnership.
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A Collaborative Spirit

In the past, we’ve written about collaboration and in particular, ownership, compromise, and consensus.  So, it may not be a surprise that our blog posts are also a collaboration.  As was mentioned in the recent Narrative Design Exploratorium interview, we review each other’s work and pass documents back and forth.  And we’re not alone.  This work process was mirrored in the recent push to create a Game Design Special Interest Group for the IGDA and was more fully described by Altug Isigan on the IGDA Game Design forum.

In such a situation, the question of authorship is tricky.  The document, even if it was started first by someone and finished by another, was written in collaboration.  The only understanding is that it – the document, blog post, game, etc. – was written by everyone involved.  That’s the magic of collaboration.  You get more than just the sum of all parts.

However, it’s come to our attention that some of our blog readers need clarification as to authorship.  So, for clarity’s sake, let’s state that:  Writers Cabal Blog is written by Writers Cabal.  It’s Anne’s blog and it’s Sande’s blog.

We understand, though, that when we write about personal experiences, people may want to know whose they are.  For those situations, we’ll have a “Posted By” to avoid confusion.

Remember, we’re having a dialog with you!   So don’t hesitate to give us feedback on the blog.

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Are companies the enemy of narrative design?

When our latest exploration of narrative design on Gamasutra, “Towards More Meaningful Games: A Multidisciplinary Approach”, went live, one reader commented, “So in one word, ‘holism.’  [. . .]  I’d have thought this mentality was so obviously sensible as to be accepted wisdom. Though when I consider some recent games I’ve played I can see that it clearly isn’t.”  If the multidisciplinary approach is so sensible, why isn’t it commonplace?  Is narrative design or holism just too hard to do?  Or is it something in this industry’s makeup that makes it extra challenging?  Based on a recent reading of The Seven Cultures of Capitalism, by Charles Hampden-Turner and Alfons Trompenaars, the answer might surprise you.

Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars explore different approaches to capitalism in seven different countries.  They posit that in the US, which pioneered many innovations in capitalism, created the assembly-line mentality.  The production process is broken down into the most minute steps, and farmed out to workers who repeat the same step over and over.  The reason for this, they claim, was because the US was a nation of immigrants, and many could not talk to each other.  Instead of expecting workers to collaborate, managers assumed they would not be able to.  This practice, the authors claim, influences the US economy and countries with similar practices even today, where our jobs are kept separate and planned out by managers who are not in the thick of it.

This “mechanism” thinking breaks down everything into parts.  Countries who don’t follow this mode instead look at the whole of the organization as if it were an organism.  “Organism” thinking “generates higher levels of meaning, purpose, and direction which transcend its parts.”  In short, it’s the holism narrative design seeks to create.

Certainly game development is a long way from the assembly-line mentality, right?  Many developers can move effortlessly between different jobs — producer, programmer, artist — thought usually not all at one time.  One-man bands have created created some pretty great titles.  At Epicenter Studios, boasting 20 whole developers on staff, Chief Creative Officer Bryan Jury says:

“Since we’re small enough, everyone often ends up wearing multiple hats. This means I’ve got art and tech adding significantly to the design, for example. We made sure to hire people who are comfortable in that environment.

And through that semi-organic layout, things do tend to happen more naturally. The lead artist and lead designer might be talking about some upcoming event they need to create, and an animator overhears that conversation and offers up a much better solution. That kind of stuff happens on a near daily basis, and I love it.  I do think if/when we get bigger, this type of layout will have to be revised. But for the size we’re at now, it really seems to be working well.”

As games get bigger, the companies that make them get bigger as well.  PODS, which team together one person from each department, might be a step in the right direction.  However, if they are not involved in the bigger picture, such as the overarching narrative, they may also fall victim to the mechanism mentality, making PODS just one more cog in the machine.

What’s your take on Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars’ view of mechanism vs. organism?  Do you think it applies to the game industry, or just certain companies?

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