Do we need a game vernacular?

Over the summer, I had the pleasure of participating in the Gamer Confab on Michael Abbott’s blog, The Brainy Gamer.  Along with Justin Keverne, who writes Groping the Elephant, and Roger Travis from Living Epic blog, we discussed social games, game vernacular, Denis Dyack, Wizard 101, game pricing, auteurs, narrative design, and game genres on this episode of The Brainy Gamer podcast.

Posted by Sande for Writers Cabal.  We write games!

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Published in: on December 18, 2009 at 6:04 pm  Comments (1)  

Writing for Video Game Genres Book Review

If you haven’t yet picked up the IGDA Writers SIG book Writing for Video Game Genres and want to know the full scoop, check out this recent book review from Slashdot.

Here are some other editorial comments:

A must-have for the bookshelf of any game writer, no matter what genre they’re working in. It was equally fascinating and useful for me to read the chapters about genres I’m experienced in and the chapters about genres I’ve never worked in. –Steve Meretzky, VP of Game Design, You Plus

For those of us swimming in the murky waters of games storytelling and narrative design, Writing for Video Game Genres: From FPS to RPG is not only a life raft, it’s one with a treasure trove on top. Seldom do we erstwhile swimmers get this lucky. Read, learn, and build the rafts of the future. –Rhianna Pratchett, Writer and co-narrative designer on Heavenly Sword, Mirror’s Edge, and Overlord

The Writer’s SIG has assembled an impressive group of experts who deliver spot-on advice for tackling gaming’s many genres. I wish I had read this 20 years ago. –Bob Bates, Veteran game designer, writer

You can purchase Writing for Video Game Genres from the publisher, AK Peters, or on Amazon.

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

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Published in: on November 25, 2009 at 9:25 am  Comments (2)  

#1 mistake in game development

Gamasutra rather ingeniously decided to examine all its game postmortems over the past 3 years and actually look for common denominators. Thank goodness, since I wouldn’t have had the stamina to do it. Their study resulted in a list of 10 problems that repeatedly tripped up developers in making great games on time and on budget. What was problem number 1? You guessed it: content added too late.

We have repeatedly brought up the positive impact of bringing in writers early, and highlighted the importance of giving writers the chance to polish (problem #8).  You can say we’re biased.  I’m going to posit that Gamasutra isn’t.  Here’s a quote from Alyssa Finley, talking about the successful Bioshock:

“We had many drafts of the story over the course of development, but the final draft turned out to be an almost complete rewrite.”

“Competing demands for time and resources meant that, unfortunately, some of the important narrative details of the game weren’t created until the final rewrite, and therefore required quite a bit of work to retrofit into an existing game.”

If a successful game with strong developer and publisher backing is wishing it had more time to write, chances are every other story-driven game experiences this problem in spades.

The impact is obvious and pervasive: “Getting story and features right is difficult at the best of times, but when that content comes in just under the wire, not only does that content suffer, every element of the game that relies on that content suffers.”  Thanks, Gamasutra — we couldn’t have said it better ourselves!

Did you read the article?  What did you think of the other mistakes in game development?

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Published in: on April 28, 2009 at 8:40 am  Comments (4)  

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?

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

It’s Coming: Game Design Aspect of the Month

Here’s your chance to contribute to a new blog!

I’m seeking contributions for Game Design Aspect of the Month, a thought-child generated by the new IGDA Game Design SIG mailing list.  Each month, guest bloggers from the game industry analyze a game design issue, delve into past examples, highlight elegant solutions, or present new ways of handling or thinking about the issue.

I’ve already got a couple game designers lined up to participate, but I’m also interested in hearing from academics, programmers, artists, and writers, since it’s good for us game designers to listen to others’ perspectives.  I see Game Design Aspect of the Month as a way for the game design community to have a group-think — so it’s also okay to respond to a blog post with your own.  Plus, it’s always interesting to see the processes of other designers.

Topic suggestions are also welcome, but I want questions along with the suggestions to direct the discussion because often times, the topics are very broad.

If you’re interested in participating, e-mail me directly because the launch is imminent!

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

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Published in: on February 26, 2009 at 9:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

How to keep the fun by reining envy in

As we discovered last week, a little envy can make a game more fun… or at least motivate players to keeping on keeping on. But envy wouldn’t be considered one of the seven deadly sins if it really were all fun and games. The dark side of envy can definitely ruin it for everyone, and game design is just one way to rein it in.

What’s so bad about envy?  If the envy of knowledge increases wisdom, doesn’t that make more fun?  Unfortunately, not everyone who becomes envious can or actually does improve.  The best way to get a great lawn, as they say, is not to work really hard on your lawn, but to pour gasoline on everyone else’s.  The apotheosis of envy means the “envier” destroys the object of his or her envy.  Here are just a few approaches to moderating player envy so the game can continue to be fun.

Combatting NPC envy

The biggest cause of negative envy in games is impotence.  If the player cannot hope to become better than the object of envy, there’s only two choices — destroy it or stop playing.  Particularly in single-player games, avoid cut scenes and other moments where NPCs have abilities that players can never hope to attain. Unless, of course, the players can then kill them and release their envious feelings. Makes you wonder how many times you’ve killed the big bad and actually wanted him dead due to envy?

Combatting player envy

How about envy among players?  You may not like the answer, but it’s an oldy but goody: game balance.  In the instance of Cain and Abel, both Cain and Abel made a sacrifice to God, but God preferred Abel’s sacrifice.  Cain became envious and killed his brother.  Just so, in games, two players might make the same effort, but one is rewarded more than the other because of the arbitrary nature of the game design.

Some insist that if everyone has equal access to the resources of the game if they put in the time, the game is inherently balanced.  If some players are better than others, some are just better than others.  This argument doesn’t take into account that different players have different interests and talents and don’t take kindly to being marginalized.  Designing for multiple Bartle types in MMOs, for example, will help balance the game add different arenas for players to compete and succeed.  However, if you are designing a simple game intended for only one type, there are still different strategies to design for within that type.  Balancing a game allows a diversity of player types to succeed without too much envy.

Giving players their own tools against envy

Envy to some is only a sin if it encourages the one who envies to steal or take something from the other.  Flagging or unflagging players to prevent PvP prevents this aspect of envy to come out.  But the tools to combat envy don’t stop there.  In some cases, players can choose which toon titles are visible to other players.  So a player who earned a badge for being the best explorer ever could actually hide this accomplishment in favor of something more amusing and less likely to cause envy and enmity.

What more do you think can be done to prevent player envy?  What games do you think particularly let envy run wild?

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

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Published in: on February 10, 2009 at 3:24 pm  Comments (1)  

Ain’t envy fun? The sin of envy in game design

Have you ever seen phat loot someone else had in game, then worked your butt off to get it? Then you’ve seen the power of envy in game design. Inspired by the History Channel series, today we’re continuing our exploration of the seven deadly sins of game design and writing with envy. Though a sin in the Christian tradition, envy can play a positive role in your game design and story.

Envy did not exist on the original list of deadly sins, probably because it was drafted by a monk sworn to poverty. While the list is technically not in the Bible, “thou shalt not covet” suggests this sin is older than the list itself, and one we are most uncomfortable talking about.  Envy rears its ugly head wherever there are possessions and, by extension, special abilities that ascribe status. Envy is insatiable, which is good news for game developers seeking to take advantage of this sin.

But how do you create envy?  Wishing you had something someone else has is a great motivator and arguably what makes games work. Here are just a few ways to create envy in your game, which will spur your players on.

1. Competition
Competition breeds envy. You won’t be able to avoid it. If you have a higher score than I do, I just might be envious.  Game designers take advantage of this by heaping on the competition with games within games in both single and multi-player.  MMOs take the cake with competition, adding a number of levels to compete on — level, PvP rank, badges, guild rank, etc.  Social games add game-wide score charts, while PvP and duels allows players to express their envy mano e mano.

2. Elite goods or abilities
When you create elite loot or skills that can be seen by other players, it will lead to envy and the inevitable question, “Where/how did you get that?” The cape in City of Heroes, which you can only get at level 20, is a great example of envy for lower level players.

However, don’t think single player games can write off envy altogether. Players may see an NPC with a skill or ability and be spurred by envy to continue. In Final Fantasy VII, you are teamed up early with Sephiroth, who pwns your opponent while you swing at it with a “dink.” Envy of this ability is both a motivator and foreshadowing of what you will have to become to defeat him.

3. Customization
Building games and virtual worlds, like Sims and Second Life, can be particularly prone to envy, because someone can always build a bigger, prettier house.  Envy based on customizing is one part elite good envy and another part envy of another player’s ability or talent.  Even in City of Heroes, where everyone has equal access to the costume customizer (say that five times fast), envy is created with impromptu costume competitions.

Whether against other players or against the computer, envy can improve the fun for everyone. “The envy of scholars increases wisdom” goes an old saying. Just so, the envy of players increases fun, if done right.  Next, we’ll be exploring the dark side of envy and when you might want to moderate this deadly sin in your game.

In the meantime, can you think of games where your envy of an NPC prompted you to learn more about him/her?  How about times when you envied a player in a multi-player game?

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Published in: on February 3, 2009 at 2:53 pm  Comments (2)  
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How to avoid powerlessness and apathy in game design

We’ve been exploring the seven deadly sins of game writing and design.  Whenever players cease to care about the game or its outcome, they experience the despair or acedia of sloth.  Players will most likely despair when they don’t have any choice, when the player is actually powerless to affect the outcome.  Players may cease to care and give up, giving in to apathy and sloth.  Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way, and here are just a few ways to stop the feeling of powerlessness.

1. PCs have the same abilities whether the player controls them or not
If a character can’t climb walls during play, but he can during the cut scenes, players can feel frustrated and apathetic about the whole game.

It works in the opposite way as well.  Final Fantasy VII is one of the hallmarks of RPG games, and even made our list of essential RPGs from a writing standpoint. One woman told me this story, however. A little girl was enjoying the game when the scene came up where suddenly you could no longer control Cloud’s movements. You know what’s coming. When Aeris dies, the girl turned to her mother and said, “Why doesn’t she just use a Phoenix Down?” Indeed, by that time you could easily resurrect “dead” characters with a Phoenix Down, but you couldn’t save Aeris because the story demanded it.

2. Don’t tie players’ hands
Even in linear stories, options are nice for players. If a player can’t find the workaround you envisioned, s/he just might stop caring. On a larger scale, allowing players to choose an ending that is meaningful rather than forced upon them, like in THE WITCHER, can make them feel quite powerful, and may encourage replayability as well.

3. No deus ex machina
Players actions should actually decide the outcome of the game. The opposite, deus ex machina, means “God’s” actions lead to the outcome.

In games, God’s actions can be both positive or negative. In Final Fantasy V for Super Nintendo, players must stop the destruction of crystals. Every time you arrive to save a crystal, it is conveniently destroyed just as you get there. On the other hand, in Resident Evil 2, you can defeat the big boss when Ada miraculously hands you the keys to the kingdom by tossing you a missile launcher. Convenience in game design is still convenience and can leave the player feeling nerfed.  What’s the point of going after the crystal if it’s going to be destroyed anyway?  Why can’t the guy with the missile launcher defeat the big bad?

Eliminating powerlessness may be an admirable goal, but some players actually enjoy a bit of it in moderation if it deepens the story.  You will have to decide for yourself what experience you want the player to have and work from there.

Have you seen better examples of powerlessness in a game? Have their been times when you actually enjoyed a sense of powerlessness in a game story or design?

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Published in: on January 27, 2009 at 5:40 pm  Comments (7)  
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