New, Better, More and other lies about game sequels

“Compete in quality, not size.” The words of a wannabe? A lunatic? Or Mike Capps, president of Epic Games? Capps was talking about developing sequels as part of his talk in Leipzig. While he seems to be on the right track, his process didn’t always match his goal of quality.  What exactly is better when it comes to making game sequels?

New, Better, More
When developing GEARS OF WAR 2, Capps developed with the mantra: “New, Better, More.”  For him, that means more guns and better guns.  Ironically, this approach contradicts his goal of competing on a quality level.  We’ve often said that less is more when it comes to dialog, and its just the same with design.  The key with any creative endeavor is to approach everything with an editing eye.  Quantity has never equaled quality.  Writers Cabal reader Nick commented that “better” depends on the game; the same amount or fewer hours of gameplay could actually improve the quality of a game.

Design Cabal
When developing the sequel, Capps assembled a “design cabal.”  We commend him on the term as well as the approach.  The team focused on the vision for the game (it’s not just about the fun!), then brainstormed ideas.  Following the focus on quality, they recognized, for instance, that there was actually no story in their story for the original GEARS OF WAR, so they decided to add more plot.  If GoW2 has a great story, I will be thrilled, but we’re always wary of someone who’s looking to add “plot” instead of story.  We recently were approached to develop concepts for a game sequel.  The reason?  They wanted to get writers in the process earlier to avoid issues they had with the original.  Whenever gathering together a design cabal, consider a writers cabal as well, to tell the story using all the tools games offer.

Move to Switzerland
In the end, Capps likened developing games to an arms race, and suggested ultimately that to create the best sequels, you should move to proverbial Switzerland.  The best advice is to ignore everyone else and try to do your own thing.  You may just end up with the new, better, and “more” after all.  Just make sure you know what “better” means for your game.

Which game sequels do you think have actually improved on the original?  Or do you think they’re a lost cause?

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Published in: on August 28, 2008 at 1:19 pm  Comments (7)  
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Want some real comedy?

We’ve been talking about comedy in games (check out the series if you missed it), so it’s high time for an actual laugh. 

A random snafu produces hilarity.

Same video, with a set-up and explanation from the Soup.

Didja laugh? Got any other funny videos? Share for next time!

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Published in: on August 26, 2008 at 11:37 am  Comments (3)  
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Can there be morality in games?

Did you miss it?  Sande contributed to Edge Online last week and started quite a conversation in the comments.  If you haven’t checked it out, go to A Question of Morality and add your two cents.  Do you think morality should play a role in games?

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Published in: on August 21, 2008 at 11:48 am  Leave a Comment  
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Comic combat — can you make your combat funny?

If dying is easy, and comedy is hard… what is comedy about dying? You can put comedy into your game dialog, or through your design, but enough generalities. In honor of Damion Schubert, who wrote about putting comedy in games, today I’ll explore how to successfully integrate comedy into combat itself without resorting to dialog.

Combat animations
Combat animations if well done can add lots of opportunities for humor. Here are just a few examples.

  • Combat abilities — When specializing your character in an RPG or mastering moves in a fighting game, you often choose the path that will give you the most power. All else being equal, however, you may also choose on which you think is funniest. For example, in Virtua Fighter (I believe), I enjoyed playing Drunken Master because it was funny watching him weave in and out while he tried to fight.
  • Combat effects — You’ve just knocked your opponent into next week. Why not get some laughs out of it as well? I played a game where every time I defeated someone, I got a humorous line about how he died. I can’t think of any humorous effects in animation that I’ve seen of late, besides out-and-out turning people into sheep! Can you think of something?

Combat Systems
Animations alone do not make a good combat. The systems themselves can offer humor by repetition and unpredictability.

  • Unpredictability – In 2nd edition Dungeons & Dragons, I believe, there was a system called Wild Magic. If you used Wild Magic, or cast spells in a Wild Magic zone, you might have had to endure unpredictable consequences. You might accidentally cast a different spell, or you might suddenly summon, a la Hitchhiker’s Guide, a giant whale. Humor definitely ensued, although it could be frustrating for some players. Used judiciously, unpredictability in the game system can add humor to the game.
  • Repetition – Repetition is a comedy technique, and since combat is so oft-repeated, actions that seem regular at first might become humorous the 3rd or 5th time you do it. Unfortunately, this can backfire when you go on the 100th Kill Ten Rats quest. To avoid banality, take advantage of the repetition of an ability at lower levels, then have a more powerful, humorous version appear at higher levels as a “callback.”
  • Rarity – Rarity can combine with the above two techniques to create tension and comic release. For example, in the pen and paper game Rolemaster, if you critically hit someone or critically fumble, you must then refer to the critical hit charts. When we played D&D, we would still use the Rolemaster critical hit charts because they were funny. We were always holding out for the rare one, #69: “You hit the opponent in the groin area. All are stunned for two rounds in sympathy.” Loved that!

Social humor
Especially in multi-player combat, the social group can amp the comedy. If a player’s avatar does something humorous during a critical fumble or when particularly pwned, fellow players will laugh, or at least go “Ouch!” in sympathy. I remember watching two people over LAN playing HEXEN, when one of them turned the other into a chicken. The “chicken” was trying to play it off as no big deal, but all his avatar could do was run away and cluck like a chicken the whole time!

Again, this post only scratches the surface of the opportunities for humor in games, especially combat. Have you come across any great examples of humor in games?

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Published in: on August 19, 2008 at 3:32 pm  Comments (13)  
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Got humor? Tips on putting comedy in games

Earlier this week I wrote about how to use dialog to bring comedy to games, but in general, dialog should be the last resort when creating a game. Today, comedy meets narrative design as I explore a few ways to put comedy in the game without saying a word.

It’s in the premise
Comedy is more than a punchline; the best comedy grows naturally from the situation. Take the movie “Blades of Glory” (no really, please). The movie, featuring two male pairs figure skaters, has such an odd premise, it can’t help but be a comedy. It naturally suggests comic moments — who gets to be the girl? How does the world react?

Now take a real game example: Katamari Damacy. Your mission is to roll up the world. Okay, that’s odd, and it begins to suggest comic moments. Do you pick up trash? What about living things? I don’t know about you, but I love it when you’re first able to roll up a cat (Reow!) and then finally people!

Maybe you don’t want an out-and-out comedy, however. Maybe you just want comic moments in an otherwise serious game. You can use the comic premise on a smaller level. Sande often suggests the “Quest for the Ham Sandwich.” It’s a stand-in for a quest that ultimately calls the player to complete a silly goal. Players often favor the funny or odd quests in WoW, for example, like the goblins in the Salt Flats. Even without formal questing, strange items with humorous uses can add to your game. While making an entire game about a ham sandwich may not be your speed, you can easily throw one of these quests in. Just don’t have it come out of left field.

Surprise!
Comedy also stems from surprise, or a twist that differs from your expectations. Surprise can play out in dialog, in surprisingly funny quests, items with funny uses, but also in the world around you. As in Katamari Damacy, rolling up the people is only half the fun. On top of that, they wiggle their arms once they’re in your ball. You constantly run into strange items that you happily roll up. How about putting surprise into an entire level. After fighting supervillains in a sewer, you must now find the ultimate gadget of destruction — in your little sister’s room!

Keep your promises
In all of these examples, the humor will entertain the player if and only if it has been set-up in advance. Imagine you’re playing Metal Gear Solid. You feel tough, gritty. You clear a level, and you step into a new area: Candy Cane land! The walls are made of gingerbread, the rafters hang with candy canes, and fun little dollops of icing abound. You might laugh, but most likely you would think, “What crack were the developers on?”

You make a contract with the player in the first few minutes or hours of gameplay. This contract usually involves the genre, but it also involves the tone. If Metal Gear Solid starts out hard-core, then turns out to be a giant Quest for a Ham Sandwich, the player will feel betrayed, not entertained. In general, you can start funny and become more serious, like we saw in the BUFFY series, but it’s a harder sell to start serious and end up funny. Do you agree?

A strong premise, a dose of surprise, and a good deal of set-up will help put comedy in your games, but again, this only scratches the surface of what games and comedy can do. So, in honor of Damion who started this thread, come back next week to see how to put comedy into arguably the most important system in many games: the combat system. Be there!

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Published in: on August 14, 2008 at 2:23 pm  Comments (4)  
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Humor Me: Comedy Dialog in Games

Got humor? Game developer published an article about humor in games this month that was unintentionally funny from a writer’s point of view. Damion Schubert, our bud over at Zen of Design, spends two pages waxing rhapsodic about the red-headed stepchild of game design: game dialog. While I did find it humorous that a combat designer for MMOs was schooling readers on how to write comedy, I can’t fault his goal. We’ve talked about the joy of comic relief on this blog before. This week I’ll be exploring how to put comedy in games, starting with, you guessed it, dialog.

Character
In his article, Damion points out the appeal of cheesy one-liners, which act to make the game more fun while humanizing the character. Character is the key word. Comedy has to grow from the character’s personality, or it will seem odd, inappropriate, or, well, cheesy. I know people who hate LAW & ORDER, because over a dead body, Lenny will always crack a pithy one-liner. A character who always has the perfect comeback will actually seem less human than the one who seems humorously at a loss on occasion (although some players don’t want to play relatable characters).

Bad example (from Civilization IV): “I’ve studied on killin’ you.” Out of context, it seems kind of funny, but when you realize it’s the French leader saying it, you’re left wondering… what?

Good example (from Blackadder TV series — love it!): “Hunger and poverty stalk the land like some… great big stalking thing!”

Comedy, or just bad writing?
Damion also pointed out how “hanging a lampshade” or “hanging a lantern” on an issue can be quite humorous. Rather than trying to hide a clunky plot point, “hang a lantern” on it by pointing it out in dialog. First of all, you’ll see this technique used just as often in drama. In one season finale of SMALLVILLE, I believe Clark’s father was missing, and Chloe wanted to talk to Clark about their relationship. Obviously, this was the least appropriate time to do so, but the writers wanted to address the Chloe/Clark storyline for the season finale. So they hung a lantern on it: Chloe says, “I know this isn’t the best time, but I really have to say this…”

Second of all, if it’s bad writing or too ludicrous a premise, no amount of hanging the lantern can save it. Now you know I love STARGATE SG1, but in the episode where they did, indeed, face a dragon, they had characters say, “Please don’t tell me that’s a dragon.” Unfortunately, the viewers were thinking the same thing, and that was their last season.

You can also get past an iffy premise by using distraction/misdirection and social proof, both to comedic or dramatic effect. A better idea is to write a solid story and premise, so you won’t have to resort to these techniques at all. Or get someone to write it for you!

The myth of the one-liner
Damion quotes quite a few humorous lines, including Bruce Willis’ character from Die Hard: “Yippee-kay-aye, mother–.” Yet at its simplest, comedy usually requires a set-up and a twist, or punchline. When looking at 10-200 hour games, the effort to put comedy in can be overwhelming. If you’re not careful, you may rewrite a set-up, but keep the punchline in, making it fall flat for the player. To put comedy into your dialog, you’ll need to look a little bit deeper than the one-liner.

I can only scratch the surface of how to write comedy dialog in one article. But saying comedy is all about dialog is like saying narrative designers just write text. Dialog can solve some problems, add flavor, and show character, but it’s not a panacea. Thursday I’ll explore how to put comedy in games without saying hardly a word, and then I’ll focus on comedy in combat! Subscribe for more — otherwise, see you soon!

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Published in: on August 12, 2008 at 12:11 pm  Comments (4)  
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Game writers speak again!

Just in case you didn’t get a chance to see me at the Women in Animation panel last month, I will be speaking again in LA on Saturday, this time for the Scriptwriters Network.  The panel focuses on writing for games, natch.  If you’ll be there, come by and say hi afterwards!

Panelists include:
Anne Toole
Haris Orkin
Jim Piechocki
Micah Wright, WGA
Terrence Myers, AIAS

When: Saturday, August 9, 2008

This event will take place in the Charlie Chaplin Theater at Raleigh Studios, 5300 Melrose Avenue (between Bronson and Van Ness).  Doors open at 1:00pm, with the speakers to begin at 1:30pm.  Non-member admission is $15.00 ($10 for members of WGA, Women in Film, FIND, FIN, ScreenplayLab, or Jeff Gund’s Info List).  Parking is available for $5.00 on the lot, or metered on the streets.  Please enter through the Van Ness Avenue gate.

FREE DRAWING FOR MOVIE MAGIC SCREENWRITER SOFTWARE!

FREE DRAWING FOR A FREE SUBSCRIPTION TO CREATIVE SCREENWRITING MAGAZINE!


See you there!

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Published in: on August 7, 2008 at 10:20 am  Leave a Comment  

Freelance game designers get a long vacation

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed with the quantity of projects on my plate at the moment, but apparently as a game designer, I only have to wait four months until I get a long vacation.  Of course, they don’t mention that a long vacation will involve looking for the next gig…

From Great Careers with Long Vacations:

“Freelance Game Designer

As many a game designer will tell you, game development companies only produce a few titles a year. A production may take four months to complete, with work piling up at burn-out levels as the game advances deep into the production schedule. That’s why companies find it advantageous to hire designers on a freelance basis. Do the job and you’ll be asked back again when another idea hits the table. That means plenty of time between gigs to relax at the beach. ”

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Published in: on August 5, 2008 at 11:25 am  Leave a Comment