Wednesday, 30 July 2014

How to Work With a Writer (Or a Guide to Why Your Writer is Sulking)

So the day's finally come. Your studio has been politely informed by the publisher that all successful games have a story written by a dedicated writer now and (perhaps using these tips) you've found yourself one. What now?

Not all jobs start out like this, but it's still common enough for a writer to wind up in a room full of people who have never worked with a writer before, who had no hand in hiring them, and really would quite like to get on with making their game now. I hear you. A writer's job is to understand the project's particular requirements and to support the team (some more from that perspective here).

This being said, there are also some good practices for teams engaging a writer that will make everyone's lives a lot easier. These are, of course, ideals, and subjective ones at that - not every project will be able to support all of them.

This is the guide to how to get the most out of your writer, or how to work out why they're sulking.

Know what scale of narrative your team can support, and be clear about it
Writing is not intrinsically valuable, in the context of game development. Some games are simply better without it, others are better with only a little of it. A small amount of good writing is better than a lot of bad writing. Know what you can support, and make this known to your writer at the outset so they can consider it and plan accordingly.

If you want your game to be 3D and story-driven, both you and your writer are going to have to work a lot harder to implement the narrative than if it's to be 2D and abstract. For the story to work well you need someone at the top who is overseeing every element of the experience - level design, object placement, visuals, voice work, the lot. This is your narrative designer. Now, that person might also be your writer, but they might just as well be your creative director or team lead. What matters is that someone is in that role, because otherwise you're going to end up with a bunch of disjointed elements, an incoherent narrative and a writer in a sulk.

Be aware that story is a two way enterprise
Story is rarely something that can just be bolted on at the last minute to good effect. As much as your writer should come onboard and work towards the framework you have, some give and take will make for a more cohesive product. Yes, your writer could bend over backwards to shape the story to your every specification - but absolute rigidity here due to schedule or budget or whatever is just going to close off fruitful avenues.

Of course, sometimes budget or schedule does force the issue. That's fine, it happens - but in those cases it's extra important that you be clear with your writer from the get go what those restrictions are so they can do their best within them (or flat out turn you down if it's completely bonkers). No one wants a sulking writer.

The more fluid the story development, the better
It's an unfortunate fact that often enough good stories are developed in a quite different order to how many studios order their internal development. In level design, for instance, altering the layout of one level needn't have repercussions for the layout of other areas. You can happily design the big budget levels and art assets , sign off on them, then rehash the intro. 

In story, rehashing one scene can have radical impacts on others. In fact, redrafting is central to producing a strong story. This is the reason that the fear of god will come over your writer when you start talking about building the pivotal scene for your vertical slice, before you finish planning the main plot arch. Any section of the story that's locked down early is like a tetris piece that doesn't dissolve. You can work around it, but that high score will be much further away. For these reasons you'll get the best narrative results when you schedule development in a way that leaves story-sensitive elements as open as possible, for as long as possible. Obviously there is a balance here.

You may also want to ensure that your writer is available throughout development, so that when you make changes to the game design on the fly they can make appropriate updates to the story. Sure, you could just book your writer for two months at the start of the project to write the script and knock it off the list, but this will scare them no end. Things will change during development which will put their writing out of context, and their reputation will depend on whether or not you pick up the phone to have them correct it. Some of the work I'm most proud of has been at the end of a project, where I'm entrenched with a team doing crunch time, keeping pace with their design changes, and developing creative solutions on the fly.

Writers want to collaborate with you, not be used as a service.

Give your writer some space to write
On most of my projects I have had teams who gave me a brief and told me to ask if I needed anything. This is great because it gives me the freedom to experiment with what works, and to spend the time where I think it's needed. On some projects I have been more directly managed, and which works best is really dependent on the nature of the job. On FTL, for instance, where I'm just producing independent text events to populate particular sectors of space, I don't need space to plan or redraft because for once the kinda work I'm doing is well-suited to a factory-line approach. 

On projects where the role is more involved - a full narrative design role - it could be quite restrictive to have someone else decide what you're working on today. Sometimes designing a character will give you ideas for a dialogue scene that you just have to write while it's fresh. Sometimes you won't really know who the characters are until after you've finished the plot. Sometimes you'll just write something bad in order to get to something good. Provided your writer has a good idea of the scope of the project and the writing budget they can use some freedom to best deploy their skill set. You don't need to sit on them to make sure you hit your production deadlines, you just have to be clear with them what you need and when - and a good writer will deliver it.

Header image is from Hitbox Team's narrative design write up, which is itself a wonderful primer for how to make those big, story-driven games we talked about earlier.

You can read more about how to work with writers, including recommended rates, at the Writers' Guild of Great Britain.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Appearance: The E3

Hello all. I will be attending E3 next week, Mon-Fri. I'll be showing off the new projects I've been working on with Croteam and nDreams for the very first time.

If you're there, I'll be largely entrenched at the Devolver/Croteam RV outside the main event. I don't know yet if this caravan (for that is what an RV really is once you remove the American glamour) is an advantage or not - will it be more chilled out? fewer booth babes? less like attending some kinda cross between an arcade and a strip joint? I've never been to E3, so who the hell knows.

We'll also have a second Croteam stand somewhere indoors which is walk-up and play, details on that as they emerge, and the nDreams team will have their own section where they're demoing the VR project privately.

If you're there do spin by or drop me a note in advance. If you're not, eyes on the internet for some major reveals in the coming week!

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Are Management Sims a '90s Thing?

















I had a hankering for a management game the other day, so I hit the Steam tags list and what do you know: there is no such thing as the management genre any more. Evil Genius - you thought that was a management game, didn't you? Wrong - it's now a 'base builder simulator' with 'realtime pause'. Prison Architect? That's a 'sandbox' 'prison sim'.

Has the management game rebranded itself in the past decade? Certainly as a genre its hayday seemed to come in the late 90s, but like the adventure genre it's enjoying a contemporary comeback. Perhaps games like Tropico 5 (it's a 'dictator sim') are trying to distance themselves from the free-to-play model that rose from the ashes of the great  management sim crash of the noughties?

Still craving that management vibe I picked up and played the whole way through Tropico 4 to find out. It really is a classic management game, and that crystalised a few thoughts for me.

The first is that Tropico, like the Theme Hospitals and Rollercoaster Tycoons of the 90s, has little endgame. In Tropico, the core game is the first half hour or so of any level. It's when you're struggling to make ends meet, having to find creative solutions. But then the economy starts ticking over, you go into profit, and beating the level becomes a matter of hitting fast forward and waiting until you have the cash to buy whatever it is you need to beat the mission.

To some degree this is to miss the point of a game like Tropico. Here I am, sitting back in front of a vast autonomous city that I have built from scratch, with the sun setting over the harbour - the point of my endeavours quite clear stands before me. I never have the conviction to build something impressive in Minecraft, but Tropico's mechanics give me just enough of a lead to forge ahead. It's like the world's best paint-by-numbers kit.

But I think this observation also clarifies how the genesis from management genre to free-to-play occurred. Eventually, most of these games boil down to waiting for a counter to tick up so you can buy whatever it is the game tells you to, and start all over again. Mechanically the key difference between those games and the free stuff that's all over the AppStores today could (very bluntly) be reduced to the presence or absence of a fast-forward button.

So what should we do? Well, I'm not suggesting the guys at Introversion should stop what they're doing and go back to the drawing boards. But I do think these observations suggest one or two ways that we could reclaim the management genre and make it new again.

Obscuring the Stats
If one of the key problems in traditional management sims is that they devolve too quickly into stat tracking, why not deliver those stats in different body-paint?

What if to assess a potential staff-member's skills and happiness you had to interview them and make up your own mind? What if instead of purchasing a training upgrade you had to learn the skill yourself and then teach it to your staff? What if the number of goods you've sold today isn't delivered through some menu, but comes in a written report produced by one of your staff, where accuracy is dependent on their experience and can be checked against your own counts?

By humanising the way that players interact with the core management systems we can add drama, and cut back on repetition. A real business that presses the fast-forward button and makes no changes ultimately goes out of business because it doesn't keep up with the times. By making the numbers fuzzier we could make human reaction an essential element of maintaining your profits.

Mixing Up the Endgame
Most management sims make some effort to throw spanners in the works. This only makes sense. If I can just tick over economically and nothing gets in the way of that then there really is no endgame. A lot of games (Tropico and SimCity included) go for natural disasters, but I think this is missing a trick.

What you need is something which radically upsets the dynamics of your society. Natural disasters are too one note - handling them is damage limitation. Fires and floods are bad, end of, and are solved with sufficient emergency services. What would be more interesting, and more of a challenge, would be a disease that wiped out half the male population, or a scandal that means half of all parents refuse to give their children a vital inoculation, or the invention of cat memes halving everyone's attention span. We need disasters that can - through clever on-the-fly solutions - be converted into strengths. We need to re-involve the player's high-level strategic brain, not just continue to exercise the low-level tactical one.

As I write this I realise there are certainly going to be examples of these ideas already out there. Indeed, Tropico 4 plays around with some of these ideas, if not quite making them radical enough to make a significant impact on the flow. Still, it seems to me worth saying. A game which stops throwing new challenges at the player is a game that stops doing what it says on the tin. And I'd like to see the resurgence of the management genre - whatever you want to call it these days - continue well into the future.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Tom Jubert Blog Bi-Annual Update Extravaganza...

...or 'What I have been doing instead of writing this blog for the last couple of months'.

So the main pull on my time has been the two new narrative design projects I took on towards the end of last year. Both are now nearing completion (there's a first draft script, at any rate, and alpha builds are on the way) and should be officially announced in time for E3 in June.

nDreams VR Adventure
The first project is with UK firm nDreams. Their recent resume includes a lot of Playstation Home dancing avatar stuff which probably isn't going to blow anyone's narrative socks off, but their extended background covers ARGs, as well as a large portion of Eidos' back catalogue in the form of ex-Creative Director and nDreams studio founder Patrick O'Luanaigh. The project we're working on is a first-person virtual reality adventure, and it's the studio's first foray into what I guess I'd call traditional games development. It's by far the most commercial project I've worked on since, I don't know, something that didn't get published, probably, but that's something I've found time to enjoy. As with most of my games, I don't know if this one will get ripped to shreds or not, but for once it won't be because it's too pretentious, or too cold and academic. In this one I get to show off some dialogue skill, develop a more traditional, emotional, present tense narrative, and that's a surprisingly rare challenge that I rather relish. I also feel more like a real writer when I'm not just copy and pasting other people's philosophical ideas - and I promise you there's no room for treatises in this one.

Croteam's First-Person Puzzler
The second project is Croteam's new first-person puzzler, on which I'm leading narrative development in partnership with another indie writer, whose previous work I think everyone's going to be excited about. If you're into philosophy and video games, I have got for you the partnership of the century. In terms of what we're actually doing, we've both developed the overarching world design and (minimal) plotting, and then split characters between us. I lucked out and landed the interactive script. A word count scares me, but I expect I've turned out around half a novel's worth of dialog trees over recent months. It is without a shadow of a doubt by far the most complex interactive dialogue work I've done, and I can't think of anything quite like it in another mainstream game. I am excited to see what people make of it. Mass Effect this ain't.

I think since we informally announced the project some weeks ago there's been a bit of misinformation floating about as a result of some of the things I said, so just to clear up:
  • It's a first person puzzler
  • Visually this is recognizably a Croteam game
  • There is no shooting
  • This is not a comedy game, but you can bet I snuck a few dry jokes in there
  • If you enjoyed The Swapper I think you'll enjoy this
  • If you enjoyed Serious Sam I hope you'll enjoy this
  • I have rarely worked with a team as keen to help as Croteam
So that's that. More details as they emerge.

Any Other Business
In other news I completed my Philosophy MA at King's College, netted a Merit overall and a 70 in my dissertation, which I'm happy with, but which does mean I'm around 4% less intelligent than I was 10 years ago.

I've had some press coverage as well, so I may as well do a quick roundup of that:

And that's about it for now. I've got a number of discussions ongoing for new projects when these ones finish up over the next month or so, but as ever I'm keen to discuss anything cool. For what I think is cool, see the rest of this blog.

Hopefully next month I can follow all this up with some real details.

Questions, interview requests, offers etc - comments or email are waiting for your words.

Thanks for sticking with me despite the dearth of new content recently!

Friday, 21 February 2014

What Did FTL's Use of Slavery Say to You? (Video)

In December I did a short talk at the annual IGDA/BAFTA Games Writing Panel, along with cohorts Andy Walsh, James Swallow and Ed Stern. The theme was something to do with the unique demands of interactivity on story, and after reading this post I decided slavery in FTL was the ideal topic. I was interested to think and talk about the creative and moral responsibilities we have as game designers who put out products with unsavory events therein, and how interactivity blurs those lines.

There's some further discussion below, but for now here's the full vid. Apologies for unprofessional lighting / camera angles etc. You can download the slides here.


So it's worth noting first that in front of a crowd I play things up a bit, including how chaotic development really was, because when I say anything positive about anything that I've worked on my first instinct is to immediately self-deprecate.

The truth is that the extent of FTL's planning was largely a factor hidden from me, occurring as it did in the years Justin and Matt were working away at the game before I came onboard. There wasn't no plan; there just wasn't the sort of extensive pre-production narrative design that laid out exactly what we were shooting for that I obsess over on other projects.

Here's what Justin said to me after watching the vid:
"While it's true that the overarching vision of the "story we wanted to tell" was not planned or scripted, this was not something that was due to lack of time or planning - it was entirely intentional. You may recall all the times you wanted to add more focused storyline or mini-stories that take place in events but we consistently tried to hold you back. In retrospect I wish we had made things more ambiguous and abstract. The fact that players could end up with a single crew member, wondering if this person would really want to continue the mission (while not a specific scenario we predicted) was the type of experience that we knew would only be possible if we left a lot of things unsaid."
Matt writes:
"I, like Justin, also wish we were a little more ambiguous with everything by the end. I went digging for an email or something where I voiced my original vision. This snippet with a friend is the closest I could find:
August 8th - 2011 (~5 months into development)

Anton: feel kinda bad murdering them
me: they aren't necessarily supposed to be menacing
me: they aren't supposed to be evil
Anton: oho, cause they seem to engage me without any warning every time...
me: it's a political conflict that you're on the other side of
me: that doesn't make them evil
me: you could be evil
While I think we could have done more to bring this kind of ambiguity to the fore, it warms me that FTL has this kind of philosophy at its core. In the talk I say something like, "As game designers... we have a responsibility that the options we provide the players deliver a coherent message", and this is what I'm talking about.

Matt writes:
"Part of me would argue that our message is coherent: the player's situation is terrible and war is horrific which can drive someone to do morally questionable things. And through the beauty of an interactive medium, the player experiences it first hand. But part of me would say that we specifically set out not to have a message. We just present a series of systems and choices to the player, and they are encouraged to come to their own conclusions and make their own choices without judgement from the designer."
The moment that you write an event for a game like FTL, you're taking some kind of political or ideological stance. Even if your objective is Matt's and Justin's - to present an amoral world and let the player make sense of it their own way - that in itself constitutes a stance of a sort. It says that politics, war and morality are very complex topics, and that decisions in such circumstances are rarely black and white. It says that you are the only one that can decide how you will behave. At the very least it is probably not the sort of stance you would take if your philosophy was one of extreme pacifism, because pacifism just isn't a viable path in that game.

For this reason, the conclusion of my talk was that it would be irresponsible of anyone to put out a game like this without thinking at least a little about the stance they are necessarily taking by making a game at all. Subjects like slavery and war are not simply there for our amusement - when we deploy them in interactive fiction we also need to design the choices and outcomes in a way that doesn't undermine their seriousness, but instead uses it to express something worthwhile. I'm pleased to say that I think FTL does some of that; but the point of the talk was that we can probably all do a little more of it.

There, I said something nice and I self-deprecated. Everybody's happy.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Plot is Gameplay's Bitch: Most Popular Posts

So here, because I saw another, better blog do it and it seemed like an easy way to generate content, is a quick rundown of the most popular posts on this blog from the last year... or so. This said, I've just noticed that when RPS does it it's a collection of other people's writing on their blog, which now makes me feel a bit self-conscious. I guess I'll just throw some classic interviews to help assuage my guilt.

2013

1. FTL Advanced Edition Announcement - In case you missed it, more FTL, more Chris Avellone, more platforms. I have been playing this for the last four months. Out of fairness, I should mention this post is at the top mostly because Subset linked here from their announcement, so don't expect rocket science.

2. The Swapper Postmortem: What Went Right - The second part of this is still coming at some point. There are some announcements to make before then.

3. Little Inferno & Plato's Allegory of the Cave - I was hot off a Greek philosophy module and raring to go.

All Time

Technically the Ir/rational Redux walkthrough is the most popular post on this blog, but that's mostly newgrounds traffic.

1. What I did on Which Projects - I have literally no idea why this is the most popular post I have written. While I think a large part of my audience is probably people interested in the trade, I wrote other posts far more cynically targeted at you guys. Maybe if you clicked that link before you can tell me in the comments why? My best guess is it got picked up somewhere high traffic largely at random.

2. 10 Tips for Becoming a Games Writer - Like this one, right? I wrote this fully hoping it would pull in some hits (and do some good, naturally), and in fact most months it still nets more clicks than any other single post - but still not enough to pip the top spot.

3. A Voyage to Ice-Pick Lodge - I think the odd times that RPS picks me up probably contribute about a quarter of my all time clicks, and this was one example. It is, also, one of my favourite stories.

4. Top Indie Stealth Games - This is a bit out of date now, but it's still a sound list of 7 great stealth games you can play right now, despite what some of the text may tell you.

Top Interviews

1. Brian Mitsoda - He of 'Vampire Colon The Masquerade Hyphen Bloodlines' and Dead State, which is almost upon us despite being only just announced via the medium of time travel available to you by clicking the link.

2. Zachtronics - They of SpaceChem and Ironclad Tactics.

3. Chris Avellone - Enough said.

Honourable mention: Brendon Chung on Quadrilateral Cowboy. One of my absolute favourite developers, a fantastic game that's almost out, and this deserves your clicks right now.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Indies: One Reason Why Something So Small Can Be So Impressive

Over the last 18 months I've worked almost exclusively with four-man indie developers, following on from a couple of projects put on hold at larger studios. These last two games have also happened to be two of the most successful projects I've had the good fortune to be involved with. Right now I'm working on new projects with middle-size teams, but nothing on the scale of those earlier disappointments.

Indies have tough competition these days, and they respond to it in roughly two different ways. 'First wave' indie studios like Klei, ThatGameCompany and Croteam, established around a decade ago, often chose to expand their staff and produce more work. It served them well, and remains a popular route. Increasingly, though, micro-teams and one-man bands are choosing to stay that way. In addition to Facepalm and Subset, the likes of Jonathan Blow and 2DBoy have also shunned growth in their development teams. Why?

It is probably terribly obvious to point out that a significant advantage small teams have over the big guys is radically lower costs. Who isn't all too familiar already with the path many a critically successful developer has taken from bedroom coding, to fancy offices and a staff of 40, to a crucial project being canned and there not being enough cash in the jar to keep up the payments? But I think there is another angle on the idea that is perhaps more expressive.

Suppose you're a one-man band. You've turned to indie development because mainstream games don't do it for you. You've accepted the product you're putting out is not an Assassin's Creed. You know that if income were a primary concern you wouldn't be doing this; indeed you've sacrificed some level of guaranteed income precisely to pursue this course. You'd like to get the game done ASAP, but because this is a labour of love, and because overrunning 6 months will jeopardise nothing more than your living standard, you're prepared to work on it until it's right. When you hit a creative decision in your game, the only thing you really need to weigh is what is best for the quality of the game you want to make.

Now compare with the pressures that even a team of ten put on development. A six month delay now costs you or your financier £150,000 in salaries alone, or around 25,000 full-price sales of The Swapper. Failure to meet the bills costs you and your staff your livelihoods, and kills your game. A staff also costs you the luxury of doing everything in the right order. You can't afford to have salaried staff sitting there twiddling their thumbs. If you have to build the levels before you write the story, it's too late to do anything else. Finally, when you come to that creative decision, you've got all the above on your mind. This is something I have to remind myself of when I go into meetings with larger teams sometimes. I get to waltz in, push my creative agenda, and (usually) have a guarantee of a reasonable payment at the end, as well as a new job. I have suggested that small indie devs share this advantage to some degree. But if you're at the head of a medium-size studio, each creative decision can make or break your entire business. It's easy, from this perspective, to see why those studios sometimes err on the side of safety.

Of course, there is some level of generalisation here. It is not my intention to suggest small teams suffer no financial burdens, nor that larger teams are incapable of pursuing creative ideals. Rather, I want to celebrate that we're here at a time when developers can choose the path that suites them, and make it work either way.

Me, I like a bit of both.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Project Announcement: Organ Trail Director's Cut

While demoing The Swapper on the Indie Megabooth floor at PAX last year I met the delightful people behind indie dev, The Men Who Wear Many Hats. I'd played through their Oregon Trail remix, Organ Trail, on my iPhone earlier that year, and have felt old every time since that someone younger than me doesn't know what Oregon Trail is.

A few months ago the guys got in touch to ask if I'd produce some new events for the Director's Cut, to coincide with its release on new platforms. It's already out on just about everything from Android to Ouya to Steam, and I have no idea what the new platforms actually are, but I suppose the only possible options are further mobile/tablet platforms, or a console-based digital distribution store. The breakdown of the job was 30 events at 300 - 400 words per event, which is a good couple of weeks' work, but also constitutes a significant increase in the variety of events offered by the main game. At any rate, I said yes, and the results should be available at some indeterminate point in 2014.

The work is obviously quite similar in nature to what I'm doing on FTL, but it was interesting to be able to directly compare the different tones of the games, and how the subtleties of gameplay in each dictated unique structures for the events themselves. For instance, the core gameplay in FTL is quite detailed - you directly interact with your systems and crew - while in Organ Trail your buddies have no visual presence in gameplay, and the resources are limited to car parts, food, cash and bullets. In one way this limits the story, because there is less variety in what you can deliver gameplay-wise as the outcome to an event. You can't introduce a character in the story and then see them in gameplay during the next combat. However, because both combat and text events are relatively rare in Organ Trail, the narrative is freed of FTL's constant pressure to keep the word count to an absolute minimum, and to push towards combat-based outcomes. Every event in Organ Trail is as involved and varied as the 'big budget' events in FTL.

The tones differ as well. Justin set the style in FTL, and it's what I'd call a matter of fact attitude. Events are generally described in an objective way, without florid details or in depth character analyses. Organ Trail has a darker tone, and more room for detail. What's a zombie apocalypse without a little gore and despair?

So, you can grab Organ Trail right now for £2-£4, depending on your location and platform, or you can wait for the new platforms to be announced, along with the release of the new content I've been working on.

Here's a trailer.