Shoe the president: when games write themselves

Time for a little fun.  The latest flash game web sensation, Sock and Awe, gives you the opportunity to throw shoes at the president.  It’s supposed to be fun and funny, not a big political statement.  Go look at it now real quick.  We’ll wait…

Finished?  You may play it and agree that there’s no dialog or story in it, but I’m here to tell you just the opposite.  It’s fun and funny because of the story.  It’s just not written into the game itself; it’s been written by journalists and politicians for nearly five years.

Far too often, developers and gamers alike assume that because there’s no dialog or Star Wars-like scroll at the beginning that there is no story.  Part of the job of narrative in games is to provide context and meaning to players’ actions.  However, players often already have knowledge that can help your game and narrative, like in licensed games.  If you play a Batman game, chances are you don’t need to learn his origin story or what Gotham City is all about.  You have been exposed to his exposition perhaps through reading comics, watching movies or TV, or going to certain Halloween parties over the course of your life.  When you plug in the Batman game, you pretty much know what story you’re in for.

In Sock and Awe, just like with many licensed games, the player comes to the table with the story and context in mind.  You’re aware, for example, that Bush is president, that he was visiting Iraq years after the “Shock and Awe” campaign put US troops there, and that a man threw shoes at him.  The developers chose the right design and the right art to tell the story that has been buzzing on the internet this week.  Now imagine how you would react to playing this game if you had just woken up today from a nap that had lasted:

Two weeks
You would play this game and find the game funny, but you wouldn’t be sure why you’re throwing shoes.

Six years
You think it’s a little odd that you are throwing anything.

Nine years
You are wondering why you’re throwing things at this random man (or, if you’re knowledgeable, at the Texas governor).

Let’s face it.  The game is basically a low-rent re-skin of Duck Hunt.  I’m even playing Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass right now and there are several mini-games of the same type in it.  It’s what you know about the story and background that makes Sock and Awe fun.  And adding in which countries have thrown the most shoes… well, that’s the icing!

Which games have you played that assumed you knew a lot about the world or backstory?

Posted by Anne for Writers Cabal, a game writing and design partnership.
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Published in: on December 18, 2008 at 2:42 pm  Comments (4)  

Digital Hollywood: can content help online games?

I’m attending Digital Hollywood today, a conference allegedly focusing on the intersection between Hollywood content and digital technology.  One panel particularly caught my attention, since we’ll be speaking next week at the ION Game Conference on a similar topic: “Innovation in Games, Game Networks and Social Gaming – Massive User Communities and Commerce.”  This panel brought to light how online communities and content can have an impact on each other, as well as pointing out a few more trends in the online space.

The online or social component of games is what makes them viral or “sticky.”  Gene Mauro of Bunchball discussed how the internet creates a new form of social status online.  People can invest in online communities and build equity online, the same way others might buy a BMW to gain status in the real world.  Chris Donahue, from a company that legitimately sells gold and other virtual goods online, noted that users ascribe value to his product, rather than it having any inherent value.  Of course, something like WoW gold has value in-game, but only if the user values the experience or status you get there. 

How does this tie in with story or content?  The developer behind NBC’s THE OFFICE virtual world/experience incorporates fans’ love of the show into an interactive, game-like experience.  Fans create video, mashups, and answer trivia to earn virtual bucks that buy merchandise.  Connection to the content reinforces the social status loop, which in turn reinforces the connection to the content.  While this example may seem like a fabulous reason to license existing properties, games have shown they can develop fans of original content as well. 

The biggest changes in MMOs especially will have an impact on community, story, and design.  While the subscription model of MMOs encourages and caters to the hard-core player, the free-to-play models work better for other types of players.  Would that mean fewer WoW-esque MMOs, both in terms of story and design?  Another trend online is the growth of asynchronous play, like with Scrabulous.  What impact will this have, if any, on MMOs, which historically encourage synchronous play?  What do you think?

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Published in: on May 8, 2008 at 12:18 pm  Comments (2)  

Writing the Witcher and Andrzej Sapkowski

You’re playing THE WITCHER and you want to know more — about the game, and about the original novels that inspired the game. You’re in luck. You’re about to get both. Here we attempt to answer those burning questions — and encourage you to ask a few more.

The reason we’re all here: Andrzej Sapkowski
Andrzej Sapkowski introduced Geralt, the witcher, in a series of short stories and novels. While these novels are best-sellers in Europe, they have yet to jump the pond (as of October 2007). THE LAST WISH, the original collection of short stories featuring Geralt, has been translated into English since we began work on THE WITCHER. However, I ended up reading the book in French, because it was the only version available at the time that I could understand. To supplement the material we had received from CDProjekt and Atari, I wrote an extended synopsis of the book, which we used as inspiration in writing the English script. The book and writing are fabulous — we highly recommend it.

If you want information about what happened in the first or subsequent books, you have a number of options. First of all, feel free to ask us and we’ll do our best to answer. You can also hear about what happened in the stories and novels by asking certain NPCs in-game. You can also buy the English translation of THE LAST WISH. If you want a preview of Sapkowski’s writing before buying, you can also read an English translation of Sapkowski’s short story based on Arthurian Legend.

Writing THE WITCHER game
Now, it’s no secret that the English version of THE WITCHER has been edited down. As writers, we accept that when we hand over the script, there’s always the possibility it will get changed. (Just to clarify, we were not the translators, but the writers working on the English adaptation.) Although every detail was not able to be retained, ideally the cuts were conducted in a fashion so as to keep the spirit of the original meaning. As far as we know, these cuts happened for production reasons only. The cuts were not done for reasons of censorship. As with most production- related reasons, you would not have the game in hand had these cuts not occurred. Moreover, we think CDProjekt has done a phenomenal job.

We also understand that some of the cuts have caused some confusion. If you have any questions about an in-game dialog, we’ll do our best to find the original line and tell you its meaning. We only ask for patience in return. So ask away!

Question Mark Guess that game dialog becomes What’s your favorite line? Today’s line: “A witcher! Quick, hide your women!” What’s your favorite line?

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Published in: on November 5, 2007 at 5:39 pm  Comments (13)  

The verdict is in! Game reviews of The Witcher

We are thrilled to finally see the release of THE WITCHER in the U.S. What a stunning debut for CD Projekt RED!

Mostly, we are grateful to have been given this opportunity to participate in the development of a groundbreaking RPG. It’s always been obvious to us that this game was a labor of love for the developers, who brought these best-selling novels to life for the world audience. Thank you, CD Projekt RED, and thank you, Atari. We hope the reviews continue to be as laudatory as the ones we’ve seen so far. Everyone who worked late nights on this project deserves it.

X6 (Norway) – 6/6
(“The Witcher is perhaps the most open and non-linear RPG I’ve ever played, when it comes to the story. And the fact that your choices have big consequences makes it truly exciting. “)

Joystick review (France) 9/10 + Megastar award
(” “Forget everything you know about RPG’s. Intense and deep…The Witcher is the new reference for RPG’s”)

PC Jeux review (France) 90% + ‘Hit PC Jeux’ award

Games Extreme (UK) – 9/10
(“This is one game that I can truly say deserves to be the best PC RPG of the year, even though 2007 is almost over, if not that then the best PC RPG period. “)

Games Radar (UK) – 9/10
(“Most noteworthy are the cutscenes, which have been storyboarded and edited with real cinematic flair and, together with the voiceovers and script, make The Witcher one of the best examples of interactive fiction we’ve enjoyed.”)

IGN (US) – 8.5/10 + IGN Editors’ Choice Award
(“The Witcher really is a good game and one that PC RPG fans will surely enjoy. It combines some entertaining and fast-paced combat with a well realized world and pretty decent story that branches and can end in three different fashions.”)

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Published in: on October 31, 2007 at 5:40 pm  Comments (6)  

The future of games: Original IP

Another day, another article about games based on movies. The licensed property seems to loom large in game development, while original IP (intellectual property) games often struggle to get made and sold. I’m going to go out on a limb to say that in the future, it’s not games based on licenses that will dominate, but original IP.

Vote for our SXSW panels, including COULD YOUR FILM BE A GAME? It takes less than three minutes. Click here to vote for passionate games!

Consider, for a moment, the curious case of Cartoon Network (CN). Once home to the TEEN TITANS series, Cartoon Network has since cancelled licensed series in favor of original series. According to one source, when DC’s comic DIAL H FOR HERO was pitched to CN, they rejected it. CN didn’t want to have to deal with another DC license. When the same concept was pitched as BEN 10, however, they went for it.* The lesson here is that Cartoon Network didn’t need the license to get the audience. They got it by following these three steps:

1. Bet on established creative talent. For the most part, CN isn’t making their executives come up with series concepts. BEN 10 was created by Man of Action, a group of comic book creators with a proven track record. Likewise in games, we already anticipate Will Wright’s SPORE, though incessant marketing hasn’t hurt either. In the future, working from the beginning with savvy, visionary writers who “get” games or designers will be smarter than licensing yet another movie, as long as you…

2. Create a distinct brand. You could never confuse Cartoon Network for Toon Disney. Likewise, even though they’re under the same umbrella, you would never confuse Pandemic for Bioware. Even though Bioware hasn’t done an MMO or science fiction, I believe, I know exactly what I’ll be getting from Bioware’s MASS EFFECT MMO because their writing, story-driven brand is so strong. A strong brand will help to:

3. Establish a built-in audience. CN, being a television channel, builds audience through programming strong lead-ins. TEEN TITANS helped build an audience and raise awareness for CN’s brand. Now that the job is done, CN can use past success to build new, original properties. The Internet has already provided the greatest opportunity for games to establish an audience through such casual game sites as PopCap.com and SOE leveraging its multiple MMOs.

If the game industry continues to leverage its audience, makes strides to establish company brands, and partners with established game-savvy creatives, the industry will be able to leave licenses behind. Or at least, stop relying on them like a crutch. What say you?

Question Mark Last week’s game dialog came from Minsc in Bioware’s BALDUR’S GATE. More Guess that Game Dialog to come!

* This may be an apocryphal story, so DC, please don’t sue Cartoon Network.

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Published in: on September 11, 2007 at 12:17 pm  Comments (2)  

Want Passionate Games? Vote for our 2008 SXSW Interactive sessions!

We’re thrilled to propose two sessions for next year’s 2008 South by Southwest Interactive Festival. Please visit the 2008 SXSW Interactive Panel Picker and vote for us if you’d like to attend these sessions next year.

Here’s our descriptions and takeaways:

CREATING PASSIONATE GAMES: A MULTIDISCIPLINARY APPROACH

Description:How do you incorporate passion into your games? Learn several techniques to heighten dramatic moments through gameplay, art direction, and narrative. We’ll help you articulate your passion and translate it into a game experience that is both fun and memorable for the player.

Takeaways:

  • Attendees will learn how to instill storytelling within game design decisions.
  • Attendees will learn how to use cinematographic techniques in producing cut scenes and in-game art.
  • Attendees will learn how writing techniques can capture the vision behind the game.

COULD YOUR FILM BE A GAME?

Description: Join two veterans of the game industry as they give you tips on navigating the game industry. Topics include major players in the industry, how a game gets made, the uses of games, and whether making a game is right for your project.

Takeaways:

  • Attendees will learn what components are needed to make a game.
  • Attendees will learn about game genres and their characteristics.
  • Attendees will learn about major players in the game industry.

Question Mark Guess that game dialog! Today’s line: “True power serves–it does not enslave.

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Essential RPGs: A list in progress

We’ve got a list of the essential RPGs making the rounds, from Rampant and Scorpia (check out those comments). We wanted to create a list of essential RPGs based on story/writing as well as gameplay, building from Rampant’s original list. Of course, we haven’t played everything, so… what are we missing?

#1 – Fallout
Nuff said.

#2 – Ultima IV and VII
IV and VII seem to be the big winners of the series. Ultima VII’s story ensured great sales despite few innovations in gameplay.

#3 – Final Fantasy VII and VI (aka III)
The gold standard for linear storytelling that gets you into the characters. Of course, we tend to see this kind of story often in the FF series, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.

#4 – Baldur’s Gate I/II
Included perhaps the first opportunity for romance quests with branching options. If you got the hack, you could even have a gay romance. I’m just sayin’.

#5 – Pool of Radiance (Gold Box Series)
This game wins point for being true to its IP, and I believe it was the first great D&D translation. I also loved Curse of the Azure Bonds.

#6 – Chrono Trigger
Per Rampant: “Strong, memorable characters, a twisted time-travelling plot, and low-tech but high-quality graphics made for a game that is perhaps the best example of the ‘jRPG’ subgenre to date – even twelve years later.”

#7 – Starflight I/II
As the last remnant of old earth, you encounter “multiple alien civilizations, space exploration of a galactic sector, planetary exploration, mineral recovery and bio-sampling, interesting aliens, tactical ship-to-ship combat, and many RPG story threads on only two 5.25″ floppy disks.” Is this an essential RPG? Who knows, but players swear by it!

#8 – Suikoden 2
Fantasy series that took characters to the next level with over 100 unique characters to recruit from.

#9 – Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines
Per Rampant: “If your evaluation of RPGs is based upon how well it immerses you into its world, then this game deserves to be in the top ten of anyone’s list.” The story did deliver the Masquerade pretty well, though they fell into the virgin/whore dichotomy with the love interest that always drives me nuts.

#10 – Deus Ex
An FPS with a chewy RPG center.

#11 – City of Heroes/Villains
Okay, maybe good writing/storytelling doesn’t jump to mind when you think of an MMORPG, but CoX has a lot to recommend it. Destroyed cityscapes immediately put you in the story without you having to read text, you habitually feel like a hero when someone thanks you, and getting a cape at level 20 is more a rite of passage than an opportunity for new gear. And, if you can actually get around to reading the text (which is a bit wordy, I can’t lie), there’s good stuff in there!

#12 – The Witcher (coming soon)
Fantasy RPG with meaningful branching narrative. Just thought we’d mention it 🙂

Question Mark Last week’s game dialog came from Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. More Guess that Game Dialog to come this week!

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Published in: on August 14, 2007 at 11:13 am  Comments (13)  

Comic con: games and comics and geeks, oh my!

I survived an event so massive, it bears but one name: Comic-con.  If you haven’t been to the San Diego comic-con before, over the past several years it has become much more than a place for comics.  It has become a gathering for all the popular media, as well as a one-stop shop for intellectual property.  It should then come as no surprise that the game industry has descended in force, not just to market to players, but also to share best practices and to hunt for IP.

The con started off with a panel led by developers from Telltale Games and Hothead Games.  Although the panel ostensibly focused on the episodic business model, one other theme emerged: capturing the spirit of the IP by designing a good story.  Both companies work closely with their IP-holders, Steve Purcell (Sam & Max) and Gabe and Tycho (Penny Arcade).  All agreed the goal behind their games was to tell a good story.  In the case of Hothead, Gabe and Tycho do all the writing for the game.  That said, because Penny Arcade’s strip format is “anti-continuity,” Hothead brought in a narrative designer to ensure a fun and larger story would emerge.  As for Telltale, their designers design the story as well as write it.  In the future, they plan to focus on organizing the entire season, that is, designing a season arc.  With a second season of Sam & Max on the way and Penny Arcade soon to launch, they may well be on to something. 

Even though Hollywood and games have taken over parts of comic-con, geeks of all stripes will still find a home.  In addition to gaming goodies, I attended a brief history of manga lecture by Jason Thompson; learned that just about everyone is going to be publishing comics online; realized that the paranormal romance genre owes more to Laurell K. Hamilton than Joss Whedon; watched TV pilots; wondered at a live action version of Ben 10 for Cartoon Network; was regaled on more than one occasion with the wonders of the new Flash Gordon series; and set my eyes on many projects that could well be next year’s hot IPs.  Of course, not all of it was fun and games.  I have to live forever with this picture:

Anne waxing on and on to Jordan

That’s Anne discussing something high-falutin’ no doubt with Jordan Mechner.  Please note: Hopefully Anne only looks that way when under the influence of rooftop parties.

After four and a half days of walking the aisles, attending panels, crashing parties, and losing my voice, I managed to return home armed with knowledge and swag.  If you attended the event, what did you come home with?

Question Mark Guess that game dialog! Today’s line: “I have nothing to sell, but I’m shouting nonetheless!

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