Monthly Archives: January 2009

The Witcher heads to XBox 360 and PS3

If you haven’t heard the news already, the Witcher is making its way onto consoles!  The Witcher: Rise of the White Wolf will feature a totally new engine, new artwork, and a new interface.  As you can see, it’s not an ordinary port.  It’s a whole new reconstruction of the Witcher for the XBox 360 and the PS3.  The only thing that remains the same is the story.

Electric Playground, a daily video game news show broadcast on G4 Canada, recently interviewed Sande about her experiences working on The Witcher.  You can see the interview here.

For new screenshots, check out the latest CDProjekt interview at IGN and see below for the trailer.

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How to avoid powerlessness and apathy in game design

We’ve been exploring the seven deadly sins of game writing and design.  Whenever players cease to care about the game or its outcome, they experience the despair or acedia of sloth.  Players will most likely despair when they don’t have any choice, when the player is actually powerless to affect the outcome.  Players may cease to care and give up, giving in to apathy and sloth.  Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way, and here are just a few ways to stop the feeling of powerlessness.

1. PCs have the same abilities whether the player controls them or not
If a character can’t climb walls during play, but he can during the cut scenes, players can feel frustrated and apathetic about the whole game.

It works in the opposite way as well.  Final Fantasy VII is one of the hallmarks of RPG games, and even made our list of essential RPGs from a writing standpoint. One woman told me this story, however. A little girl was enjoying the game when the scene came up where suddenly you could no longer control Cloud’s movements. You know what’s coming. When Aeris dies, the girl turned to her mother and said, “Why doesn’t she just use a Phoenix Down?” Indeed, by that time you could easily resurrect “dead” characters with a Phoenix Down, but you couldn’t save Aeris because the story demanded it.

2. Don’t tie players’ hands
Even in linear stories, options are nice for players. If a player can’t find the workaround you envisioned, s/he just might stop caring. On a larger scale, allowing players to choose an ending that is meaningful rather than forced upon them, like in THE WITCHER, can make them feel quite powerful, and may encourage replayability as well.

3. No deus ex machina
Players actions should actually decide the outcome of the game. The opposite, deus ex machina, means “God’s” actions lead to the outcome.

In games, God’s actions can be both positive or negative. In Final Fantasy V for Super Nintendo, players must stop the destruction of crystals. Every time you arrive to save a crystal, it is conveniently destroyed just as you get there. On the other hand, in Resident Evil 2, you can defeat the big boss when Ada miraculously hands you the keys to the kingdom by tossing you a missile launcher. Convenience in game design is still convenience and can leave the player feeling nerfed.  What’s the point of going after the crystal if it’s going to be destroyed anyway?  Why can’t the guy with the missile launcher defeat the big bad?

Eliminating powerlessness may be an admirable goal, but some players actually enjoy a bit of it in moderation if it deepens the story.  You will have to decide for yourself what experience you want the player to have and work from there.

Have you seen better examples of powerlessness in a game? Have their been times when you actually enjoyed a sense of powerlessness in a game story or design?

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Are you guilty of gluttony in game writing and design?

It has been said that there can be too much of a good thing, and game writing and game design is no exception. The sin of gluttony embodies this concept, but gluttony isn’t about quantity but excess. Continuing on our exploration of the Seven Deadly Sins, how does gluttony play a role in game writing and design?

Too much writing
Gluttony in game writing is far too obvious. The dialog trees go on too long. The cut scenes last forever. Even well-written games have fallen prey to the sin of gluttony. While Bioware games are a shining example of good story and writing in games, one blogger joked how you could learn the deep dark secrets of your plumber if Bioware were writing the interaction (if anyone can find that post, drop a link below!). Some have nicknamed Planescape: Torment, another example of great story, Planescape: the Novel. In game writing as in all things, moderation is key.

Too much “art”

Gluttony brings to mind rotund individuals shoveling food into their faces, but according to the History Channel series, gluttons come in all shapes and sizes. If you always eat fine foods, you could be a glutton as well. Medieval priests would claim you are in essence putting your experience of the food first before your relationship with God.

Does this mean we should make sure there’s something flawed in the games we design, like medieval artists who put flaws in their work? Luckily or unluckily, we have yet to see a perfect game. Instead, we should strive to use all aspects of design in moderation — not too much emphasis on gameplay over story, nor too much emphasis on story over anything else. Furthermore, we need not drill down a theme or concept to its very core. We end up with games that are too serious or try too hard. At the end of the day, it is only a game.

Too much fun?
The goal is to make the game more fun, but some developers have approached design with the goal of making it more addictive.  Of course, studies have shown that compulsive gaming is not an addiction, but that hasn’t stopped some developers.  The drawback with this approach becomes apparent whenever you talk to people about playing games.  They reply: “Oh, I can’t play games.  I would get nothing accomplished!”  In this way, encouraging player gluttony could actually hurt sales.

On the other hand, I have worked on an MMO where we aimed to create gameplay experiences that could be accomplished in 15 minutes or half an hour.  This way, players could better weave gaming into a full life.  Which way do you think the wind is blowing — toward more addictive games, or games that can be played in moderation?

Clearly, gluttony has more than one face when it comes to games.  In what area do you think the game industry is stumbling the most?

Posted by Anne for Writers Cabal, a game writing and design partnership.
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Inaugurating game writers: A scramble for power or respect?

Happy Inauguration Day!  As the TV news waxes on about the shift in power, my thoughts shifted to power in game development.  Those of you who work in development may have witnessed power struggles between designers and programmers, or between producers and everyone else.  It could be that you, as a developer, aren’t concerned about whether story and writing is relevant in games or not.  Your concern may be with what writers really want — is it respect or power?

Many developers, writers and otherwise, believe that if developers respected writers more and gave them the same amount of time to work as other departments, then the quality would improve.  Therefore, respect for the craft must come before the craft can prove itself as a necessary component of game development.

On the other hand, bringing in writers early won’t make a great deal of difference if you don’t bring in the right writers or work with them effectively.  In this sense, respect must be earned, not given.  Fortunately, you have this blog to master some of these hurdles already.   Do you think respect comes first for writers, or that writers must first earn it?

What is the real price of bringing in writers early and integrating them more fully into the development process?  Some executive producers and creative directors prefer to create the story, and view writers as a potential enemy that could lampoon their stories.  In this sense, writers are seen as a threat to their power and their ability to effect their creative vision.

On the other hand, developers who bring on writers to improve their stories find they have the power of choice.  If you don’t like the writers’ work, you can ignore it.  If you like it, you are in a position to take the credit for bringing on good writers.  Writers are rarely in a position to usurp your position.  In this sense, writers can actually boost your power within the company.  How do you view writers’ power at your company?

“Narrative designers” like us seek to weave story and theme throughout every aspect of the game.  It may sound like we’re trying to take over your game!  But are we really after power?  Certainly, there may be a few writers out there who really want to be in control.  However, I would say the majority of narrative designers and writers want the same thing the artist and programmer want — an opportunity to perform at the height of our ability and use what we do best to improve the game for the player.  Power, respect, what-have-you are just means to this very important end.

Are you ready to inaugurate writers into your development team? What do you think the biggest stumbling block is to making a place for writers and narrative designers in games — lack of power and respect, or something else entirely?

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Featured in Written By!

Check out the Jan/Feb issue of Written By, the magazine of the WGA, for my interview!

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Where to find stories on story in games

With all the excitment of the new year, you may have missed some of these articles on writing in games.  Integrated storytelling, story structure, story and theme as a basis for game concepts, and the awesomeness of good characters have preoccupied the minds of developers in the past two months.  Check out the results:

Hey Game Developers, Learn How To Use Your Game Writers!
I do not think this link is what you think it means. A familiar refrain, this article summarizes a Develop article on incorporating writers into the development process. Of greater interest, however, are the comments at the end, which include players love of story and distaste for poorly delivered story. See, it’s not just us!  Add your two cents to the conversation there or here…

Analysis: Storyteller And Game Narrative
Emily Short explores whether letting your players in on story structure makes it more or less fun for them.

Idea Origins
This article explores different ways games are conceived. Oddly enough, it discusses theme with story, but doesn’t use the more literary definition of theme, which usually is some comment on mankind. Instead, theme is just the story or setting which pervades the game. What’s your take on it?

The GLaDOS Effect — Can Antagonists Rule The World?
Is this article about how much fun it is to play a villain, or is it about how a well-written and engaging character, villain or protagonist, can carry a game? You decide.

What’s your take on these articles?  See you next week for more sin!

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The three signs of sloth in game design

Good news! If you were slothful, you wouldn’t be reading this, at least according to last week’s definition of sloth. According to the History Channel’s documentary on sloth, however, lack of productivity is not what this sin is all about. Instead, it’s a merging of two sins: Tristessa and Acedia, and their role in game writing and design is a bit trickier.

What are tristessa and acedia? Tristessa means sadness or, in today’s terms, depression, while acedia means apathy. Taken together, these two sins lead to a spiritual apathy, where if others suffer, you don’t care enough to do anything about it. The apotheosis of this sin is despair. According to the church, if you’re despairing, you are inherently turning away from God and the “Good News.”

Now enough religion, which sins actually lead to sloth in game design?

1.  Unclear goals
Years ago when I was hiring game writers, one writer’s sample particularly jumped out at me. Her story and action were good, until she had the player arrive in a new locale and wander around for awhile. I asked her why she didn’t have a clear goal at this point in her story. Her reply? To her, wandering around aimlessly in games happened frequently.

If player goals are too esoteric, whether that be because of a poorly constructed story, insufficient content, or just bad game design, you’re coming dangerously close to sloth. Obviously, the writer above was new to games, but if your player is despairing of ever figuring out what to do next, they may just give in to despair and sloth — and watch TV instead.

2.  Poor writing and delivery
Good game writing doesn’t distract the player from focusing on the fun of the game. Great game writing can motivate the player and adds to the fun of the game. Unfortunately, that means bad game writing can actually demotivate the player.

Have you ever been playing a game and felt like you were being sent on meaningless tasks? Then you’ve felt the caress of sloth. MMOs, unfortunately, often suffer from this sin. If you read reviews of certain quests, like those in WoW, however, players will actually praise quests that offer you the chance to care about the characters and a reason to be involved. Clearly, many players want to care, but because of developer apathy, can’t.

Great writing won’t stop the sin of sloth if it isn’t delivered to the player well. City of Heroes/Villains has some great quests, but I have personally been bogged down by the blocks of text in some of the quests. Ironically, my own “productivity” sloth led to “apathy” sloth in that I just gave up and stopped caring. To keep players caring using the writing and the story, incorporate the writing in every aspect of the game through narrative design.

3.  Powerless players
Powerlessness is the worst aspect of sloth in game design.  If players wanted to feel led by the nose, they’d be watching Ocean’s Twelve.  People play games to feel important.  If the player despairs of ever being able to influence the course of the game, then s/he will stop caring and stop playing.

Powerlessness can creep into your game in many ways, such as through tying the players’ hands, allowing deus ex machina endings, and allowing only trivial choice. Clearly, combating this harbinger of apathy would require another post.

Is despair ever good?
In most good stories, the main character reaches a point where all hope is lost, and where s/he could legitimately despair of ever finding a way out.  It is then that the character’s… “character” is tested and s/he digs deep and pushes onward to the final goal.  Despair is a necessary part of the story, allowing the character to reject the sin of apathy and sloth and rise again.

Sophisticated players will never truly feel this despair, because of the story structure.  Or will they?  From games like Ocarina to Shadows of the Colossus, failure is part of the story and therefore part of the game.  Does this lead to despair, or hope for games in general?  What do you think?

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