System-level Thinking Needed For Narrative Too

In the book, Changing the Game, by David Edery and Ethan Mollick, the authors give several examples where business failed to understand system dynamics.  Basically, retailers didn’t talk to wholesalers or salespeople didn’t communicate with upper management about the circumstances on the street.  So, when the salespeople had a sale to move a slow-moving widget, upper management only got the message that there was an increased demand in widgets.  Thinking they’re onto something big, upper management puts in more orders to buy the parts needed to make more widgets.  The factories churn out more widgets and the salespeople end up with a glut of a product that nobody really wanted in the first place.  As you can see, when businesses fail to have system-level thinking, they can find themselves in a self-defeating spiral.

Designing systems, of course, is a part of game design.  And game development itself also has systems and feedback loops.  For a while now, we, like other writers, have advocated including the writer early on in the development cycle.  This is so the story can go through iterations just like any other aspect of game development, but also because the narrative should not be confined to a vacuum.  It is, in fact, part of the system and should be integrated into the system.  If you don’t know your story, how can you give a really good reason as to why your player is fighting that enemy and why the world looks that way?  Or maybe the story is out of sync with the gameplay, thus making the game world illogical.

What do you think?  Do you have other examples of system breakdown or self-defeating cycles in game development?

This post brought to you by Writers Cabal, a game writing and design partnership.

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Published in: on April 7, 2009 at 7:01 am  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The second link appears to be broken.

  2. Brad-
    I assume you mean the second link below “Possibly related posts.” That’s automatically generated by WordPress. I’ve e-mailed them, but I don’t think it’ll make much difference.
    Thanks for noticing!

  3. Thanks Anne- I didn’t know it was auto generated. by the way I think this is a great topic. I think your correct in thinking the writer should be involved very early in development. If for nothing else than the addition of creative input. I guess the question is are the developers using writers to simply fill out dialog in a sort of paint by numbers scheme where they say purple and you get to pick out the shade or do they want help developing a story.

    I think it would be ideal if the developer would say I want this, this and this to happen somewhere in the story make it happen and tie it all together. But I assume most of them already have a story in their head and they just want you to fill in the details.

  4. Hello Brad, more often than not, freelance game writers are working on dialog and cut scenes. I think this comes from practicality from the producer’s viewpoint – that in order to deal with contractors, you need to give specific instructions and concrete deliverables. At one point in my career, I did have something of a retainer with a company to work on story and missions and dialog, but they found it hard to justify because there weren’t deliverables sent in on a regular schedule. On this blog, we have discussed before that maybe, a deliverable shouldn’t have to be papers, but could be a conference call or story meeting.

    A lot of people agree that if writers were brought in earlier, it would make a difference. But it’s equally important to recognize that you may need the writer throughout the dev cycle. Ken Rolston and Mark Nelson at GDC talked about how the story needed the change after the faction system was designed. It is simply because story can affect gameplay and gameplay can affect story that narrative should not be separated from all the other elements in game development – Sande

  5. It might work if the writers worked on a part time basis thoughout development and then stepped it up to full time when they were needed.

    If you had a relationship with a developer you could float a proposal where the writer would agree to consult with the developer on proposed projects for a consulting fee. The consultation fee might include a monthly update meeting on the project or even a number of seperate projects where the writer could absorb the progress of the project and provide cursory input.

    Once the project evolves to the point where a writer is needed full time the compensation could be escalated. This would save the developers money on projects that never get past the gee that would be cool stage. But still give the writer a better feel for the ip and how it is growing into a full blown game. The writers would probably have to offer their initial compensation at a very competitive rate until the value could be fully demonstrated to the developers.

    I can see a future where good consultants end up getting higher compensation as companies try to lock them up for the full development schedule.

  6. We have done something like that, in the form of monthly consulting cycles. – Sande

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