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)  

How to make good music in game development

At this time of year, we each have our traditions. Some go shopping; some enjoy latkes; some get cranky. A few weeks ago, I partook of one of my traditions — singing in a choir. We sang this German piece, Der Stern von Bethlehem, from the early 20th century, high in drama. Standing perched on the steps overlooking the orchestra, I watched the floutist carry on the melody for a spell, then the clarinet effortless took over. No struggle, no argument, just a quick swap as one artist yeilded the piece to another one.  Why doesn’t it work this way all the time? 

In game development, we often come across a tug-of-war over what makes a game good and fun. Many designers and gamers will say that story doesn’t matter.  Others will say writers don’t have much of a place in game development, although more and more writers are being hired on staff.  Some developers will insist that certain genres can’t support a story, despite evidence to the contrary.  But to me, that’s a bit like saying that the flute holds no place in an orchestra, just because you can’t hear it when the horns are playing.

In an orchestra, each section or “department” works together to create a full experience for the audience.  Like the harpist who came out only for a cameo here and there, not every instrument will play every beat like the violins seem to, but each instrument adds to the variety and beauty of the piece.  

Just so, in game development, sometimes the art and lighting will underline the game’s theme, sometimes the gameplay, and yes, sometimes the writing.  The trick is not to hold any one instrument above the others, but to combine each together to create the best experience for the player.  

As we head into the new year, maybe we can all see ourselves less as members of this department or that, and more as instruments that only make good music when we work together.

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

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Published in: on December 23, 2008 at 12:51 pm  Comments (3)  

A Collaborative Spirit

In the past, we’ve written about collaboration and in particular, ownership, compromise, and consensus.  So, it may not be a surprise that our blog posts are also a collaboration.  As was mentioned in the recent Narrative Design Exploratorium interview, we review each other’s work and pass documents back and forth.  And we’re not alone.  This work process was mirrored in the recent push to create a Game Design Special Interest Group for the IGDA and was more fully described by Altug Isigan on the IGDA Game Design forum.

In such a situation, the question of authorship is tricky.  The document, even if it was started first by someone and finished by another, was written in collaboration.  The only understanding is that it – the document, blog post, game, etc. – was written by everyone involved.  That’s the magic of collaboration.  You get more than just the sum of all parts.

However, it’s come to our attention that some of our blog readers need clarification as to authorship.  So, for clarity’s sake, let’s state that:  Writers Cabal Blog is written by Writers Cabal.  It’s Anne’s blog and it’s Sande’s blog.

We understand, though, that when we write about personal experiences, people may want to know whose they are.  For those situations, we’ll have a “Posted By” to avoid confusion.

Remember, we’re having a dialog with you!   So don’t hesitate to give us feedback on the blog.

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

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Published in: on December 16, 2008 at 9:42 am  Comments (1)  

Acting up: How writers can get you better voice performances

Ever been enjoying a game when suddenly, the cut scene comes up and it just leaves a little something to be desired?  Either the voice recording is off, the acting doesn’t seem up to par, or the characters just kind of sit there in the virtual space without grabbing your attention.  You may find yourself clicking through in an effort to get back to the good stuff — the gameplay.  This post begins our series on the challenges and benefits of creating good writing and storing with actors.  Fortunately, writers and actors can conspire together to make voice recording and acting another fun part of the game.


I was speaking with another screenwriter at a party last night, and we were discussing the short films so many aspiring creatives in Hollywood produce.  These shorts start out well enough, perhaps with a nice montage of the location or pictures of the main characters, then cut to the first scene involving them.  But as soon as the actors open their mouths, we can tell the sound wasn’t recorded or mixed properly and we immediately brand it as amateur.

Unfortunately, quite a few games fall into this category as well — they go through the trouble of hiring voice actors, then they don’t quite put the effort into making the recording well done.

On the other hand, sometimes even with great recording, the actors may not have sufficient information about the script or scene to deliver the lines well.  For example, the simple line “So?”  That line could be delivered defiantly, like a petulant teenager; humorously, like a friend’s flip retort; curiously, like a probing detective; and so on.  Time and time again, actors have to come face to face with game scripts that look like spreadsheets that don’t give any context to the scene.  Fortunately, as you might have guessed, we have a few solutions:

1.  Insist on having your writers or narrative designers present during voice recording.  Writers and designers can help set the scene for the actor, but more importantly, they can make on-the-fly adjustments to the dialog if it’s not quite clicking.  Ideally, your writers will have already written the dialog to be spoken, but even then sometimes words don’t work in an actor’s mouth.

2.  Give the actors a script in screenplay format. Seeing how the scene plays out will help the actor get the point of the scene, and help him see how his or her lines relate to others’.  The entire script will also give the actor context with an idea of what has happened emotionally for the character before and what will happen next.  Often this information is relayed by the voice director during recording, but having it spelled out in screenplay format rather than dialog lists in Excel will help immeasurably.

3.  Write the scene descriptions and the expected vocal intonations of each line. If for whatever reason you don’t have the script in screenplay format, have your writer or designer include scene descriptions and how the actor should deliver the line.

This approach creates two drawbacks.  First of all, it can take a lot of time to include this information for each line, and as they say, time equals money.  Furthermore, telling the actor how to convey a line ties the actor’s creative hands.  If you are working with great actors, often time they add something to the scene or line that brings it to an even higher level.  If they don’t have a firm grasp of the scene, you prevent them from doing what they do best.

4.  Give the script to the actor in advance. It can be an industry practice simply to hand the script to the actor on the day s/he starts recording.  With scripts that could be 400 plus pages, perhaps it’s a bit unrealistic to expect most actors to slog through them.  That said, if the actors have a chance to plan ahead and get a feel for their characters, they can make more informed character choices and give better performances.

Next we’ll explore using actors to create better cinematics, and then move on to filming live actors.  Which games do you think had the best and worst voice recording?  What do you think caused it?

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Published in: on November 11, 2008 at 2:20 pm  Comments (1)  
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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)  

Why virtual collaboration is not for you

[ Warning:  Sarcasm Alert ] Friends, gamers, countrymen.  I come to bury virtual collaboration, not to praise it.  Outsourcing, virtual collaboration, remote workers — the buzzwords of the game industry these days.  But it’s not for everyone, and here’s a few reasons why it’s not for you.

1.  Outsourcing only works for art

Certainly, we have seen many companies outsourcing art both near and far, but the benefits end there.  In fact, most best practices on outsourcing come only from art.  No one has actually applied them in other arenas, such as in this article on writing.

2.  Your company culture will get hosed

You are all about getting together and playing ping-pong after work with your co-workers.  If people don’t show up at work, all that jolly team spirit will disappear.  Sure, building remote systems into your company culture, such as playing games, meeting virtually, and having fun mailing lists, do work, but not for you.

3.  Remote workers don’t actually work as much as in-house workers

When your artist is sitting at his desk, you know he’s working and not surfing MySpace.  When your designer is at the office until 10pm, you know it’s because she’s been grinding on that design doc, and not spending half the day goofing off.  On the other hand, as soon as they go home, who knows what they’re up to.  And evaluating results rather than hours worked as many suggest in this article is really not the best plan for you.

Clearly, if you need to see your workers working, only believe art outsourcing has been successful, and believe your company culture will dissolve if workers only come in once a week or year, then virtual collaboration is not for you.  However, maybe, just maybe, with a bit of a designer’s mentality, you can create an environment that makes it both fun and productive to work remotely.  But that’s up to you.

What are some other great reasons why virtual collaboration is not for you?  Comment with your answer!

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Published in: on July 31, 2008 at 12:14 pm  Comments (4)  

Written Well AND Delivered Well

As a colleague pointed out to me at a recent IGDA meeting, game dialog can be written well but not delivered well.  Even if the dialog is out-of-this-world, poor voice-acting, engine limitations, or mismatched animation can hamper the performance.  Many game developers do send the writer to the voiceover session, but how many think it’s important for the writer to interact with the programmers and artists?

Nowadays, game development is a collaborative process.  Large games need teams of specialized workers. As we discussed in our SXSW Interactive session, story design shouldn’t be separated from the other disciplines.  Story can go beyond ‘just the words.’  Instead, a dedicated narrative designer working with programmers, artists, and sound designers will know how to convey story in an interactive experience.  To do this well, a narrative designer should be considered part of a multidisciplinary team.

For more on this topic, please read the article on Gamasutra“Towards More Meaningful Games: A Multidisciplinary Approach.”

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Published in: on July 22, 2008 at 6:21 am  Comments (5)  

Top 5 misconceptions about hiring a game writing team

So you want to hire a game writer.  Congrats!  Whether adding to your staff or outsourcing your game writing, you’re not alone.  Apparently, most companies that hire writers, just hire one.  But have you considered a team of writers?  Before making your decision, read on to see if you’re struggling with any of these misconceptions about hiring a game writing team.

1.  Won’t two people cost more than one?

Quantity of work and the time you need it done in set the price for game writing more than the number of people doing it.  You could pay one person for two months to get a project done, or a team of two one month to get it done.  Either way, the costs are the same.   

2.  Can’t one person deliver the same as a writing team?

The above example assumes that all else is equal.  But not all things are equal.  You also pay your game writer(s) for quality, which as we all well know varies greatly in the game industry.  With an extra person looking over the writing before submitting it, you get higher quality work from a game writing team than a solo game writer.  You’re getting greater value by hiring a team.

3.  Won’t two writers just disagree a lot?

Yes, thank goodness!  It’s in these disagreements that the writing actually gets better.  Sande and I have worked together long enough that we can discuss an issue until we reach consensus.  This week we were working on a game pitch, and, based on our assessment of what the client wants, we decided to go with the classic 3-act structure.  We spent quite a few minutes discussing “midpoints,” of all things.  In the end, our conversation yielded a stronger, more organic story than if we’d just agreed to get along.  On the other hand, some clients — and maybe you’d be one of them — want a plurality of options before they decide to move forward, so our different perspectives come in handy.  

4.  A writing team can’t work individually.

I confess I don’t quite understand this misconception in game writing, but I’ll dispell it anyway.  While Sande and I collaborate on just about everything, with large projects we often split the work.  In the event that one of us is ill or occupied, the other one steps up and works alone.   

5.  I need my writer to come into the office, and it would be too hard to bring in a team.

Good for you!  It’s always a brilliant idea to bring your writer in to work, see the builds, and eat lunch 😉  That said, we have had cases where the client only had one of us come to the office at a time.  Since Sande and I are accustomed to virtual collaboration, we can easily communicate any information we learn to each other. 

So, let me have it.  What else is nagging you about hiring a writing team?  Send me an e-mail at anne (at), or drop a comment to this post!

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Published in: on July 10, 2008 at 12:53 pm  Leave a Comment