The future of games: Original IP

Another day, another article about games based on movies. The licensed property seems to loom large in game development, while original IP (intellectual property) games often struggle to get made and sold. I’m going to go out on a limb to say that in the future, it’s not games based on licenses that will dominate, but original IP.

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Consider, for a moment, the curious case of Cartoon Network (CN). Once home to the TEEN TITANS series, Cartoon Network has since cancelled licensed series in favor of original series. According to one source, when DC’s comic DIAL H FOR HERO was pitched to CN, they rejected it. CN didn’t want to have to deal with another DC license. When the same concept was pitched as BEN 10, however, they went for it.* The lesson here is that Cartoon Network didn’t need the license to get the audience. They got it by following these three steps:

1. Bet on established creative talent. For the most part, CN isn’t making their executives come up with series concepts. BEN 10 was created by Man of Action, a group of comic book creators with a proven track record. Likewise in games, we already anticipate Will Wright’s SPORE, though incessant marketing hasn’t hurt either. In the future, working from the beginning with savvy, visionary writers who “get” games or designers will be smarter than licensing yet another movie, as long as you…

2. Create a distinct brand. You could never confuse Cartoon Network for Toon Disney. Likewise, even though they’re under the same umbrella, you would never confuse Pandemic for Bioware. Even though Bioware hasn’t done an MMO or science fiction, I believe, I know exactly what I’ll be getting from Bioware’s MASS EFFECT MMO because their writing, story-driven brand is so strong. A strong brand will help to:

3. Establish a built-in audience. CN, being a television channel, builds audience through programming strong lead-ins. TEEN TITANS helped build an audience and raise awareness for CN’s brand. Now that the job is done, CN can use past success to build new, original properties. The Internet has already provided the greatest opportunity for games to establish an audience through such casual game sites as PopCap.com and SOE leveraging its multiple MMOs.

If the game industry continues to leverage its audience, makes strides to establish company brands, and partners with established game-savvy creatives, the industry will be able to leave licenses behind. Or at least, stop relying on them like a crutch. What say you?

Question Mark Last week’s game dialog came from Minsc in Bioware’s BALDUR’S GATE. More Guess that Game Dialog to come!

* This may be an apocryphal story, so DC, please don’t sue Cartoon Network.

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Published in: on September 11, 2007 at 12:17 pm  Comments (2)  

AGDC 2007: Game writer panels galore

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In the interest of equal opportunity, we’d like to point out a few write-ups of writing panels that are occurring in Austin this week.  Did you think we forgot?  Oh, and don’t worry — we’re not turning into a news service, but we can make an exception this one time.

BioWare Charts Writing For Mass Effect
Bringing in writers from Day 1

The Medium is the Massage
The importance of working with talented writers who understand the medium

Five Things Game Writers Can Learn From Star Trek
He forgot to mention that just about all ills can be cured by a trip through the teleporter.

One writer’s impressions of AGDC
Best quote: “No One. Knows. Anything.”

Writing for Someone Else’s Game
A WGA writer or two talk about contract writing, but begs the question — why aren’t they taking ownership of the games they’re working on?  Unless you’re Will Wright, just about everyone is technically working on someone else’s game.  Maybe the title of the article is not in fact the title of the panel.  I sure hope so.

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Published in: on September 7, 2007 at 9:47 am  Comments (4)  

Voice-over: keeping the energy up in game dialog

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Before the actor finished mouthing the words, we were already laughing. I was in a voice-over session, listening to the lines we had written for the game come to life. In this instance, however, the line wasn’t supposed to be funny. The actor was supposed to say the word “leisurely,” and the director suggested he take a little more time with the word. Taking direction like a pro, the actor delivered the line again, low and deep: “leeeeeeeeeisurely.” If I had an mp3 of it, I would so share it with you. It immediately brought to mind a creepy man lurking in the bushes and we couldn’t stop laughing. I was reminded once again how much an actor can bring, usually on purpose, to the table.

Unlike in other media, game writers often need to write both spoken and text dialog well, sometimes for the same game. Fear not; this isn’t voice dialog 101. You should know by now to read dialog out loud before sending it off to your actor. I’m more interested in exploring how game writers, designers, and producers can bring voice-over dialog to the next level. May I suggest following the age-old rule: know your audience.

Now, I’m not talking about your gaming audience, although they should be ever-present in your mind. I’m referring instead to the actors themselves. Time and time again, the biggest problem with voice acting for games is the actor’s energy level. Unfortunately, the tendency for game dialog to be functional can bore actors. When we first started our Guess that Game Dialog feature, I joked with Sande how our first line should be “Unh!” The trick is to give the actors something they can sink their teeth into — something that stretches their abilities or makes it fun. Here are a few tips for writers, designers, and producers to get more energy in their voice-overs.

1. Warm up your actors before recording. The alternative just may be having to re-record the first few minutes.

2. For functional/instructional dialog, inject a second NPC. Is Bob the only person speaking during the tutorial? Add Sally and have them joke with or snipe at each other. This trick will allow you to set up the world story while also giving the actors a chance to do what they love: act.

3. If you have two NPCs in conversation, try to have actors record it together. Time/financial restraints don’t always make it possible, but when two actors work together, they often feed off each other’s energy. Or at least have someone else read the other NPC’s lines.

4. Give characters distinct personalities and catchphrases. Yes, that is our job, but it bears including in this list. If an actor has no one to work off of, a distinct character can still keep the energy up. Catchphrases: “Now I know what you’re thinking…” (Magnum, PI); Jack’s tendency to swear with actresses’ full names “Jennifer Jason Leigh, that’s hot!” (Will & Grace); “Fatality” (Mortal Kombat); plus one more, below, in Guess that game dialog

No matter how you get there, actor energy translates to a higher quality gaming experience for the player. That’s why you’re doing voice-overs in the first place, isn’t it?

Question Mark Guess that game dialog! Today’s line: “Go for the eyes, Boo! Go for the eyes!” Check back next week to find out where it’s from.

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Published in: on September 5, 2007 at 11:52 am  Comments (3)  

SCRUM, law, and game writers

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You can learn a lot from publisher-developer relationships. At least, so we hope in the case of SCRUM. Unlike the more traditional development model emphasizing set milestone deliverables, SCRUM specializes in iterative development with more adaptive milestones. An article about game law and SCRUM management focuses on contracts between publishers and developers. It seems to me these tricks would apply equally well in a contract between a SCRUM developer and an outsourced game writer.

According to attorney Tom Buscaglia, even without predetermined milestones in a SCRUM contract, payments still need to be made on a regular basis. Payments can be triggered a number of different ways. The publisher, or, as is most often the case for writers, the developer could trigger payment by acknowledgement or passive approval of the project’s progress. Alternatively, the developer could approve payment on completion of a milestone agreed upon each month. Both approaches allow for the flexibility that will keep the contract writer on track with the in-house team.

We explored the appeal of flexible deliverables way back in February. In one instance, the contract writer had to follow outdated deliverables while the inhouse writing team progressed each day beyond reach or in new directions. The SCRUM contract or flexible deliverables provide both contractor and developer the ability to change direction without constantly rewriting the contract. Ideally in the SCRUM situation increased communication between developer and writer would lead to stronger and better iterations as well.

Have you had any success with new or different writer contracts?

Question Mark Last week’s game dialog came from Kain in Blood Omen II. More Guess that Game Dialog to come!

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Published in: on September 4, 2007 at 8:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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