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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Published in: on November 20, 2008 at 2:58 pm  Comments (3)  
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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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Published in: on November 18, 2008 at 1:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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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Published in: on November 7, 2008 at 11:09 am  Comments (4)  
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Writers Cabal hits the A list!

This past weekend, I spoke at a day-long event about writing, story, and trends in the game industry.   I heard Dave Ellis, WGA Award winner for Dead Head Fred talk about how he was able to fight to keep a game story in one piece.  I wish more designers were willing to fight for quality in that way.  I also learned a lot about “fringe” game opportunities, such as a game crowds of people can play while waiting in line at Disney World. If you’ve been there and played it, let me know!

But enough about the panel, let’s get to the fame part.  In preparation for the event, a reporter from NBC came to interview the panelists, and we ended up in the nightly news.  Check out the video and see if you can pick me out (hint: I’m the only woman they interviewed):

Video Games To Incorporate A-List Storytellers

What do you think?  Did I represent our industry well?

Since the interview, one girl who went to high school with me for one year tracked me down on Facebook and wanted to make sure I was the same person she remembered.  Now I can die happy ;)

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Published in: on October 21, 2008 at 12:51 pm  Comments (3)  
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Is game outsourcing the new Hollywood model?

The rise of game outsourcing and the debate about unions all balance on issues of quality of life for developers and the time we need to develop games.  Check out the latest articles on outsourcing and see where you stand on the debate.

Not Everyone Feels The Crunch

Several companies have taken steps to avoid crunch altogether, pointing out it’s a management issue more than a time issue and emphasizing a culture of getting work done rather than play.  Would outsourcing save crunch companies?  No — bad management can happen anywhere — even when outsourcing.

Babel’s Leinfellner, Williams Talk The Rise Of Outsourcing

This article explores the idea that outsourcing will allow quality episodic content in games, just like Hollywood’s outsourcing has.  However, an anonymous comment points out that outsourcing helps with scale, but it doesn’t necessarily yield skilled help.

Monkey Island‘s Gilbert: Industry Must Unionize To Move Forward

Another vote for the Hollywood model.  Gilbert thinks you won’t be able to grab freelancers floating around with nothing in between jobs, although he doesn’t address the trend of outsourcing companies that support their talent in between gigs.  Of course, not all outsourcers work that way – such as writers (present company excepted) and composers.  The biggest issue with unions — they don’t make it any easier to get jobs.

Ultizen’s Lan Haiwen Discusses the Latest Gaming Industry Developments

But wait, everyone’s doing it!  Ultizen develops its own games, but also provides outsourcing work.  Will this trend mean no need for unions?

An Examination of Outsourcing: The Developer Angle

Developers turn to outsourcing so they won’t have to fire 75 people after every game project is finished. However, the debate about outsourcing, offshoring, and unions continues on unabated in the comments section of this article.

The Hidden Costs of Offshore Outsourcing

So what about offshoring?  Think sending work to India or China is cheaper?  This article plays on the idea that you may end up spending just as much whether domestic or offshore.  However, if you’re outsourcing writing to India, well, good luck with that.

An Examination of Outsourcing Part 2: The Contractor Angle

Maybe, outsourcing ultimately is about quality of life for the developers on staff.  “Developers who outsource are doing it to get more on the screen, to spend money appropriately to make the game the best they can possibly make it, and to take some of the pressure off of their core team’s functionality.”

Ease Of Development Rules, Outsourcing On Rise

Love it or hate it; it’s here to stay.  Forty percent of game developers will outsource in 2009.  Maybe it’s time for you to consider outsourcing your writing.

What’s your take on game outsourcing?  Does it improve the quality of life of developers?  Or is it a way to reap profits?

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Published in: on October 9, 2008 at 11:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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The ABCs of Metacritic

We as an industry spend a lot of time worrying about Metacritic scores.  If you don’t believe me, check out Keith Boesky’s critique of Metacritic love and statistics on how high scores mean high sales.  If you are concerned about your next game’s Metacritic score, read on to learn the ABCs of how a game writer can help you reach your goals.  No, not that type of game writer!  A game writer or narrative designer can help you earn the highest reviews.

A is for Add writers early

While people have different points of view on what Metacritic actually measures, ideally Metacritic measures game quality.  Some of the best games of the past several years have included great story and writing.  As 1Up recently wrote, “while not every well-written game becomes commercially successful, quality writing has increasingly become part of that elusive formula for blockbuster magic.”  If you want a chance at higher Metacritic ratings, the first step is simple: add writers early.

B is for Break it down

Several months ago, I spoke on a panel with Lance Powell of Electronic Arts.  He described their technique for getting high Metacritic scores.  First, they would go through the game design and rate each sequence or level A, B, or C.  An “A” equals what would earn a 90 or above through Metacritic, “B” 80 and above, etc.  Now in theory anyone on your development team can spot the A, B, C moments, but writers brought in early can best make sure the best story moments coincide with the A moments.  Better yet, they can write the A moments.

C is for Cut

Once rated, EA would go through and cut the C’s and judiciously cut the B’s, making sure there were as many A moments as possible.  How horrible would it be if you cut a C moment only to find that it was an integral part of your game story?  A game writer can help prevent such a scenario.  On the other hand, if you have inadvertently cut a major story moment, a writer brought in late should be able to salvage your story.  Game writers, unfortunately, are quite familiar with taking existing game pieces and making lemonade.

When looking to up the quality of your game and earn high Metacritic scores, Add writers early, Break down your game, then Cut whatever doesn’t earn you a high score.  There you have the ABCs of mastering Metacritic with a game writer in your corner.

So what’s your take on Metacritic?  Do you think it reflects quality, or do you think it reflects what’s popular?  Or do you think they’re one and the same?

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Published in: on October 7, 2008 at 11:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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The myth of the game writing vacuum

You won’t believe this.  I was trolling the web the other day and came across a statement supposed to promote game writing, which essentially said: “You can develop the story and dialog independently of the rest of development.”  While they added the caveat that there would be iteration, of course, they proposed that game writing could be so much better because it could occur in a vacuum.  After I stopped laughing, I realized I was facing two assumptions — 1) that we can write without too much concern for other departments and 2) that writing is actually better when it does.  Let’s test these assumptions in each stage of development.

In the Beginning
When we are brought in early in a project, a lot depends on what we write, and we depend a lot on any constraints from the company in terms of design and scope.  If you write something up without taking those into account, it just doesn’t ring as true.  Furthermore, some games just can’t start production until the game story is complete and thoroughly vetted by everyone making the game.  Survey says?  The assumptions are wrong on both counts when bringing in a writer early.

In the Middle
Occasionally we are brought into a project while it is in mid-stride.  Sometimes there’s just the game design document and demo, but usually the game is in production.  That means we’re sometimes dealing with concepts that are set in stone or hard-coded, while other ideas are open to discussion.

Should we work in a vacuum?  Definitely not — the game concepts are constantly going through changes, sometimes on a daily basis.  This state of flux demonstrates why writers often work on staff rather than remotely, though good communication can make it work wherever the writers are.

Sometimes developers are too busy to communicate and much prefer the plug-n-play writer.  In these vacuum-like cases ;), unless the writers are poor, the game doesn’t suffer from poor writing so much as suffer from missed opportunities.  Outsourced writers as well as outsourced artists can come up with ideas that will benefit the entire game.  If there’s not time to field these ideas, you miss the chance to improve.

The verdict?  Avoid letting your writers write in a vacuum, but if you must, consider what you might be missing.

The finale
Game writers have historically been brought in at the very end of development.  Some developers may tack in writing at the end, like a texture on a wall.  The “story,” such as it is, is already set, and the game is in the last legs of production.  You can change very little at this point.  The myth of the writing working happily in a vacuum probably stems from this very situation.

Can the writer work with little input from the other departments at this stage?  Yes, with reservations.  Like working with artists, you will need to clarify your parameters on such issues such as length and style.

Does writers working in isolation improve the writing?  It doesn’t hurt it at this point — chances are your writer has played the game and knows what to do.  Richard Dansky suggests that what’s missing in this equation is time for writers to reiterate and improve upon their work, just as the designers, artists, and programmers do.  The earlier the writing begins, the more chance writers have to perfect it.  You’re certainly more likely to get higher quality than the writing you throw in moments before you ship.

So can writers work independently of game production?  Certainly they can, and sometimes do.  Depending on the quality of your writer, you’ll get okay writing, or even good writing.  But if you incorporate your writers early and ensure communication between them and your entire production, well… that means great writing!

Agree or disagree?  What else do you think will improve game writing?

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Published in: on October 2, 2008 at 1:51 pm  Comments (5)  
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Which type of game writer are you looking for? Part 2

The problem with titles or credits in the game industry, is there are so many titles to describe the same type of work.  The problem with game writing is the same title can describe different types of work!  Check out the continuation of our look at game writers (Part 1 here), with the artistic goodness of our friend Chris Avellone.

Game Writer

Very into dialog and story and may get cranky if you say s/he is a designer. Despite that, may also design
Known for: Good dialog, story and a sort of nationalistic pride in the writing profession and all things written

Game Writer

Terribly confusing moniker for game journalist or game reviewer, leading to consternation in conversations involving game writers of all types
Known for: Writing reviews, feeling guilty about taking swag from PR people, and questioning the quality of games journalism regularly

Writer/Designer

Someone who writes story as well as designs aspects of the game. Considers him/herself the salt of the Earth, but probably looks down on mere writers (just kidding. mostly)
Known for: Putting first whichever word will more likely get him/her the job

Unfortunately, you can’t easily tell different types of writers apart, leading to confusion at parties:

"No, not that kind of game writer!"

But on the job, the best writers work in a team.


Which type of writers works best for you?

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Published in: on September 30, 2008 at 12:57 pm  Comments (1)  
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