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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Top 10 best and 5 worst titles for games

Looking for a list of the top ten games? Keep looking! Today we’re judging games on a different criteria: their title. Following up on last week’s post on how to title your game, here’s a list of the top 10 titles for games followed by the 5 worst titles.


10. Dead Space & Left 4 Dead (tie)
Regarding Left 4 Dead, “A perfect concise description of the game and the experience of playing it. I love their B-movie in-game posters too.” – Michael Abbott, the Brainy Gamer

9. Rocky’s Boots
A serious game with a sneakily entertaining title

8. Resident Evil
It sounds serious, important, and menacing all at once.

7. Peggle
“Peggle is adorable so I wanted to play it.” – Tamir Nadav, Vigil

6. Day of the Tentacle
“It sounds funny while evoking an old-fashioned, kind of 50s horror movie feel.” – Tracy Seamster, The Agency (SOE)

5. Master of Magic (aka MoM)
“When you win the game you see a little cutscene with your wizard saying ‘Having conquered the worlds of both Arcanus and Myrror I am truly the one and only Master of Magic!’ So that’s neat. ;)” – John Evans

4. Fallout
Evocative and a favorite title of Zeb Cook, Stray Bullet Studio

3. Civilization
“It is a simple title that very much sums up what the game is all about. If they had gone more complex, it would have sounded weaker.” – Bruce Harlick, NCSoft NC

2. Psychonauts
“Because it’s frikkin’ cool (psychic nauts!). Say it though… /phyyycchoooonnaauuutttsss/! What other name lets you have so much fun saying it?” – Andrew Armstrong

1. A Mind Forever Voyaging
“A Mind Forever Voyaging just has a wonderful wistful quality to it. In a way, it captures the essence of the gamer — a mind forever voyaging. It’s also a Wordsworth reference.” – Tess Snider


5. Tabula Rasa
Literally means “blank slate,” so not inspiring. That said, it is also a favorite title for some.

4. American McGee’s Alice
No one likes a show off 😉

3. Irritating Stick

2. Infinite Undiscovery

1. Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3
“Bloody stupid name!” – Jake Simpson, Linden Labs alum

Honorable Mention:
Dead Unity, which never shipped

What’s your take on the list?  Did your favorite make it or not?

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How to title your game

What’s in a name? As game writers, we are often called upon to title and name all sorts of things — quests, items, design docs ;).  When it comes to the game title, however, marketing and executives play a huge hand in finalizing the name, and sometimes you can tell.  I’ve uncovered a few trends in game titles that work and others… well, not so much.

Funny titles
The most memorable game titles have a bit of the funny in them.  How could you forget a game called Space Bunnies Must Die or Destroy All Humans?  Simple is better; Aqua Teen Hunger Force Zombie Ninja Pro-Am passes funny to reach “Enough already!”

Unfortunately, funny titles generally only work for funny games.  If they had named Halo ZOMG When Will They Stop Sending Me Into These Effed Up Situations? instead, something tells me it would not have sold quite so well.

Punny titles
Fortunately, games with a more serious tone can get away with a bit of humor when there’s a pun in the title.  King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human stands as a great example of a pun in an otherwise dramatic title.  Max Payne, a game with a dark and serious tone, offers a tip of the hat to the hardcore gamer with promises of, well, causing max pain.

Literal titles
Funny and punny titles often work if they have a bit of the literal in them.  Literal titles do the best job of telling the players exactly what they’re in for.  You will never find yourself asking what the game is about.  Great examples include Command & Conquer, SimCity, and the like.  Literal titles don’t have to be that on the nose: Warcraft underlines the point of the game without spelling it out too much.  World of Warcraft is similarly clear — it’s set in the virtual world of Warcraft, roger that!

The importance with literal titles is that they should, in fact, be literal.  Sims Carnival sounds like it should be a literal title, but no, it is neither Sims, nor a carnival.  Another literal title that had a bit too dull of a name?  Adventure.

Evocative titles
Evocative titles bring to mind the mood, spirit, or setting of the game.  Fallout, Defcon, and Eternal Darkness fall into this category and evoke the urgency and darkness of these games and sometimes quite literally the situation.  I personally like Burning Crusade which is both evocative and literal within the game’s fiction.

Unfortunately, attempts at evocative titles often yield the worst results.  Beyond the Beyond and Infinite Undiscovery are prime examples.  What exactly is infinite undiscovery?  Sounds like a quest for missing socks.  One game that never shipped was at one point called Dead Unity.  Take home message?  If you’re having trouble coming up with a name, avoid the evocative title!

Following genre conventions
Occasionally game titles hit the mark by following the conventions of their literary genre, such as science fiction, fantasy, etc.  Day of the Tentacle as well as Sins of the Solar Empire both bring to mind 50’s sci fi and horror movies.  Wrath of the Lich King hearkens back to Return of the Jedi or The Wrath of Khan.  Unfortunately, the sci fi genre conventions and sequel hell can lead to terribly long titles such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II The Sith Lords.

BA: aka the Best Acronyms
Unlike media such as television, games are usually developed with the hardcore fans in mind.  That means eventually every title will become an acronym to economize typing or speaking, and unfortunately not every title will benefit from the abbreviation.  Days of our Lives becomes DOOL, which makes it seem like a really cool demon.  A lot of DS games took advantage of this with titles such as Dawn of Sorrow and Deadly Silence. Sometimes acronyms get the benefits of a funny title: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed becomes STFU and Masters of Orion becomes MoO.

Try to shovel your title into a cool-sounding acronym, however, and it will just end up seeming lame.  The best acronym ever?  WoW for World of Warcraft, but note how the title is quite literal and grew organically from the game.

Next week I’ll post a top 10 list of best and worse game titles, so comment now with your favorite and least favorite game titles.  And, don’t be shy, share your own best and worst titles for games you’ve developed or conceived.

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Three case studies on story in MMOs

MMOs are becoming more story-driven.  This is an assertion backed by anecdotal evidence from developers, personal experience writing for MMOs such as WIZARD 101, as well as recent MMO expansions.  While that’s all fine and good, does story have an impact on the sales of MMOs?  Or does it just mean that to get in the MMO space today you better have a big story to back it up? I’ll be personally investigating the following three MMOs, but I would love your feedback!

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King
Now the fastest selling PC game in history, Lich King brings more zone story to the table, as opposed to single character story.  Unfortunately, I can’t speak with authority on whether this is true or not.  Why?  Because I am still at 68% download on patch # umpteen for my WoW.  However, I will bravely go forward and investigate further once it finishes.  Have you played Lich King?  Do you find a greater emphasis on story, or do you feel it is more of the same?

For two years it’s been the most successful free-to-play MMORPG according to the Guinness Book of World Records.  What’s more, it’s the top video game search term of the year, even beating out Lindsay Lohan in the great search race.  I will bravely run around this free world as soon as WoW gets past 69% download.  In the meantime, what’s your take on the story in RuneScape, or is its main claim to fame “fun and free?”

Tabula Rasa
As you must have heard by now, Tabula Rasa is closing its doors very shortly.  While it took many years to make, it boasted at most 30,000 subscribers.  Before going down for good, however, Tabula Rasa will also be free to play starting in January 10th, at which time I will sneak in and take a look around since I forgot to do so during their beta.  What’s your take on why Tabula Rasa didn’t make it?

I will be exploring these three games for story and fun in the coming weeks and months.  That doesn’t mean you can’t weigh in — you can even post anonymously.  Does the story in these games help, hurt, or have no effect?

Of course, if you care to join me in my adventures, feel free to drop me a line at anne (at)

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