7/09/2015

Fallout Shelter vs. SJW

Let me tell you the story of my Vault 666. Room and resources were scarce. Everyone had to contribute. The expansion went fairly quick until we've hit the population of 14 or so. At this point, new dwellers did not appear and the growing production rooms needed manpower. In one of the lunchboxes my dwellers found a Medieval Ruler Outfit, adding to charisma among other stats. Quick check what charisma is for later, I've selected a man with the most charisma, added the Ruler outfit and that's how King Woland was born. His role - staying in the living quarters and impregnating all the women in my vault. This was the fastest and most efficient way, as everyone else needed to help with the respource production. Once all the ladies showed significant signs of pregnancy, King Woland, having the highest stats, went out to the wasteland, to find more weapons and outfits. In the meantime, it turned out that in case of any disaster, like fire or a raid, my pregnant dwellers run for their lives, leaving men to deal with the problem. This quickly taught me to give all the weapons I found to men, tasking them with defence. We are facing extinction - there's no point in arguing. Men get to defend the next generation with guns. Women with not endangering the fetus. Hard to imagine it the other way round.


A week later my Vault already has 120+ dwellers. Population is not an issue, I have more people than I need anyway. I keep training the dwellers to maximize production and caps income. Breeding is not necessary, since I have a fully upgraded radio station with six gorgeous girls in lingerie with their charisma maxed out. There's no reason not to give women weapons or education now. Some of them are as highly trained as men, some even explore the wasteland. Life is good. 

Now let's imagine Bethesda wanting to suck up to Social Justice Warriors while designing the game. After reaching the 14 dwellers point I would probably find out that half of the population is homosexual. Keeping track of everyone's sexual preferences would be extremely annoying gameplaywise, but I would probably finally manage to get one or two women pregnant, after hour-long minigames that show how respectful the men are towards these women. In a few days, I'd crawl my way up to the 20 dwellers treshold to unlock the radio and right after that a Wasteland Adoption Agency to let all the gay couples in my vault have a baby. In the meantime, the only women that were willing to get pregnant a couple times with different partners would be slut-shamed into leaving the vault and pretty quickly the Wasteland League for Equality would enforce parity that would make me unable to accept any straight white males into the vault. Within a week my shelter would be abandoned by its Overseer, who got tired of micromanaging and women screaming "rape" each time the poor raiders just want to steal some water. All those poor dwellers would die, equally irradiated, starved or slain.


What a terrible game that would be! Not because there would be homosexuals in it. Because gameplaywise it would be tedious and most of all, it would be unfitting for the world of Fallout. I am extremely glad that Bethesda did not give in to the pressures of seasonal feminists and other groups that aggressively refuse to think outside their narrow agenda. Fallout Shelter's gameplay quite realistically shows how a vault dwelling society in nuked 50's USA would get organized. I'm actually quite surprised that there was no shitstorm here like with Kingdom Come: Deliverance for example. Maybe the internet finally got tired of trolls? Maybe we're finally growing up and people are starting to use their heads for something else than angrybanging their keyboards? Here's hoping we are finally starting to let people make games about fun again, not enforcing social concepts.

6/17/2015

A few words on recycling in games

Me and my girl recently finished Child of Light (maxed it out actually, which is super easy when someone is sitting next to you and bugs you every time you go past a wall that you haven't licked yet). It got me thinking about recycling in games and how it works. It's been done for years now and the whole idea is pretty obvious, but I'll describe it a bit anyway.

Now the whole principle is... Making games is expensive. It's a lot of work too. And there's so many games that did things right. So many elements that would fit your game so well that you would just want to take these parts and put them in your game without really changing anything. Now imagine the situation where you actually own these elements, because the studio you work for owns them.


The "recycling" can be done in a number of ways, as you can recycle pretty much everything from music through art assets to the technology. Recycling is basically the whole idea behind dedicated engines. The engine From Software uses is one of the best examples - they are repeatedly making new souls games using huge chunks of code from the previous installments. Of course they have to adjust quite a lot here and there, but they do have a solid base. Another good example is the id tech engine, that keeps us entertained since the first Doom and now, guess what - the newest Doom will be using its sixth version. I'm sure they had to rewrite the whole engine at least once on the way, but they reused it more than once too. The first one alone was a base for somewhere around a dozen of games. Look at me, basically expaining what an engine is... Moving on!

There's this general bias towards games that recycle assets, especially the graphical ones. A lot of people complained about Dragon Age 2 and BioShock 2. However, games recycling assets can be great. They just need special care. Portal is probably the best example. The core mechanic itself wouldn't be enough to make it a cult classic. They also had to execute it well, with decent puzzle design and brilliant tutorial and narrative.

Now this has little to do with the article,
but damn, what a cool idea!

Smart management of assets lets the company give us more games more easily. Look at WB Games. They released Injustice: Gods Among Us almost simultaneously on both mobile and "big consoles". The models were super easy to transition, as both games used Unreal Engine 3 and it only required remembering to prepare lower LOD's (from "level of details", versions of the model with less polygons used for optimization, like viewing from afar). They obviously used a lot of tech from Mortal Kombat 9 for the console version, but had to redesign and redevelop the combat mechanics for the touch screen. When releasing MKX however, I'm sure they didn't even have that problem - they already had all the components. That's what smart asset management gives you.



Child of Light is another example of great asset management. A quite heavily "recycled" title that got nice reception. Let's face it, Ubisoft does have a whole stable of titles, bits, assets and features. They not only used the UbiArt Framework engine, but the whole game plays pretty much like the mosquito levels of Rayman Legends. The light dots fly around with a copy-pasted code of Rayman's lums and the bossfight camera zoom-ins probably didn't get a second look at either. The combat mechanics look way too close to those from South Park: The Stick of Truth that Ubisoft was helping Obsidian to close around the time of Child of Light's development. The circular menu and the two switchable characters system might not have been copy-pasted from one game engine to the other, but I'm willing to bet these fighting systems share their origin. And now, the new South Park game's been announced. With it being developed without Obsidian, there's a decent chance the new Cartman and friends game will be done using UbiArt Framework, that, thanks to Child of Light, now has turn-based battle mechanics!

If you look at it like that, Child of Light becomes a milestone in the development of the UbiArt Framework engine between Rayman and South Park. And how cool is it that this milestone also gives us a game! One with straightforward awful rhyming, but still a really decent game. That's what good planning gives you. And without it, I'm pretty sure a game like Child of Light would never see the... erm... light. Its costs would probably be way too high for Ubisoft to risk it.

5/25/2015

About the #downgrade thingy...

Last week there were two major gaming events in Poland. First was the launch of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt on Tuesday. Second was Digital Dragons (a conference that's closest to a Polish GDC) on Thursday and Friday. Lots of developers and media people attended and there's been many topics on everyone's tongues, but this one I've actually debated during the afterparty and thought some of the facts are worth sharing.

Alright, so a lot of people, especially in the media, have been complaining about the graphic downgrade in The Witcher 3 and comparison compilations have been thrown back and forth to prove... something. Doesn't really matter. The downgrade quite obviously happened. But so what? It happens in most games.

What are these images trying to prove, with completely different lighting and scenes?
What many people don't understand is that for a developer, every project brings new challenges and new experiences. Nobody ever makes the same game twice and really very few sequels are made with the "let's do a copy with just a few tweaks here and there" mindset. When an AAA team is working on a game, they want it to be the best game they can make. And almost always it turns out to be very hard to achieve, because no matter how experienced they are, they're doing something that's never been done before. I'm sure that if you asked the developers of even the highest-praised titles (like Ocarina of Time with its 99 metascore), they would tell you how the game could have been so much better if they hadn't cut some features or optimized some graphics.

I have experienced a downgrade of the game I was working on myself. To quote Tomek Gop from the speech we gave on Digital Dragons: media demo from February 2014 was the best Lords of the Fallen has ever looked (more or less, don't hold me to the exact wording). And that's true. I remember exactly all the work that we've put into achieving this visual benchmark. I also remember all the reasons for the rest of the game not living up to this benchmark. 

Many people accused this screenshot of being overpainted,
but at that point Lords of the Fallen really looked like this.
Does that mean that we lied in February 2014? That we deliberately misinformed the public? No. We worked hard towards achieving that level of graphics. We really believed the whole game will look this good (and it ended up looking not too shabby either, but that's not the point). Most probably, so did guys from Red when they were pitching W3 over the past years. So did From Software, when they were first showing Bloodborne. 

So... Why can the downgrade happen? The most common reason is hardware's power. I know, yeah, consoles have fixed specs. Sounds like it's not rocket science. Well, it kinda is. There's dozens of parameters that can affect what you can show to the player at the same time. It's a function of particles, triangles, pixels, streaming, POV, horizon and a whole bunch of memory management elements I can't even list. With often hundreds of people creating assets, it's virtually impossible to accurately predict how advanced the graphics should be. And in AAA everyone prefers to produce assets of higher quality, because it's easier and more efficient to cut down than to scale up. 

You end up producing a virtual slice with these highest quality assets. A small piece of game that often has problems working properly on a console, so you take a PC with the best graphic card in the studio. Yes, the one worth your monthly salary. The one that nobody can yet afford. And it manages to run these 30-40 FPS, but you keep telling yourself it's allright, because it's not optimized yet. Because some of the LOD's are not loading properly yet. Because streaming isn't yet fully implemented. But you still believe it can be all crammed into the game, because you really want your game to look awesome.

And this is a build that you're showing to the media, explaining that it's a vertical slice or a work in progress or alpha or beta or whatever stage you're in and you hope they will understand. What you mean to say is: this is how it looks now and we want it to look this good, because you wouldn't show something that looks like shit to the public, would you? But what media people seem to undestand is this is still an early version, so there's a lot of room for improvement and everything will look so much better on the release! You can see some communication noise here, right? :)

Not without its impact is the fact that most of the recent games accused of graphic downgrade are being released on the newest generation of consoles. For the players, the consoles aren't new anymore. For developers, with three years of development cycle, the consoles are very new. Many of these games released today were started before the specs of the new consoles were final and way before the teams got their devkits.

It would be awesome if game development was as predictable as math.
And what about PC? Sure PC can be more powerful, but can your company spend resources to make a completely different build for a PC? Does it have a fanbase strong enough to wait for the PC version for up to a year and a half, like with GTA V? And lastly... How many PC players will actually own hardware strong enough to support your ultra-ultra settings? Optimizing for one setting and fixed specs of consoles is a bitch. Optimizing for 3 or 5 or more setting levels for every variant of a PC is a burning whorehouse. Most of the time the dev team doesn't have enough manpower to really handle that and with the PC market being considerably smaller than console markets, even in biggest companies nobody will invest enough manpower to do the PC version "right", unless it's a PC-centric game.

That brings us to another point - manpower and release dates. Sometimes the dev team just can't deliver. Again, there's lots of constraints here: availability of resources, deadlines, changing directions and a shitload of events or problems you couldn't possibly anticipate. Key person on your team might leave and the rest is struggling to cover for the loss. Or (sometimes even worse) someone else comes in his/her place, with a completely different vision. Two-three years is a lot of time and a lot can happen. That's why the best game producers aren't the ones that can plan the whole 3 years development from the beginning to the end, but those who can adjust the development to the current situation.

Reading all these accusations of ill will, where people compare two completely different screenshots to prove that they've been "lied to" makes me smile. And the most of this butthurt comes from people who have never been in development, but feel that they are extremely close to it - the gaming journalists. And yes, of course this scenario is possible: a company deliberately showing everyone pretty candies and then shoving shit into the Blu-ray boxes. But is it likely? From what I've seen, I doubt it. 

Gamedev is pretty unique. People want to make great games. Designers want systems that are fun for them. Writers want characters they like. Programmers want code that just flows flawlessly. Artists want visuals they can be proud of. And if for some reason this can't be delivered, they are always aiming for the second best thing. 

3/11/2015

How Blizzard tries to solve MOBA problems

I really didn't want to start playing Heroes of the Storm. For two reasons. One - I never had enough time to really enjoy playing any MOBA on a decent skill level. Two - whenever Blizzard releases a game there is a high chance it will be the only game I'll be playing for the next few months. I logged into the beta maybe a week ago and I'm amazed at what I've seen so far in terms of design.

Bear in mind that this article's purpose is to analyze how Blizzard has approached many problems that can be seen within MOBA games, especially on the entry level. For obvious reasons, I will be comparing it to the most popular two - LoL and DotA 2.

If MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch was still on,
I'm sure they would feature Drow Ranger vs. Ashe at some point.
Problem #1: Copying
The situation of the most popular MOBAs on the market is pretty ridiculous. Everything started with a Warcraft III mod, then LoL pretty much copied it, then Valve copied it (or "further developed"), and now the company that did the base for original, but not the original stepped into the picture. 

Battles between LoL and DotA 2 fans are almost equally amusing as the console fanboys throwing shit at each other while the "PC Master Race" is defending their 10% market share (mostly thanks to MOBAs). The differences between the two titles are cosmetic at best and are mostly on the visual side. Sure, the balancing is different, the difficulty is different, monetization is different, but the whole core design stayed untouched since what, 2003, when the first version of DotA saw the light?

Blizzard had to differentiate. Not only because the formula deserved a bit of a change, but mostly because with established fan bases of the 2 biggest titles, not even the legions of Blizzard fans would be interested in a third game that's exactly the same. What did they do?

They took the most static element of the puzzle - the map - and made a few variants of it, making the players not only push lanes and jungle, but also fight for the overpowered power-ups that can be complete game changers. From resurrecting bone golems through collecting doublons for a pirate to bomb enemy forts to letting players turn into a dragon. On top of that, the lanes are no longer defended by towers you can just walk by. They are fortified, with walls and gates. And lastly, the mobs in the jungle, instead of being just a source of experience, cash or buffs, became mercenaries that you can recruit once every 3 minutes if you defeat them first. This way, the map design alone is a very distinctive game changer. 

Like with almost everything done by Blizzard - not really a revolution, but evolution comparable to dogs growing wings overnight.


Problem #2: Accessibility
I couldn't really get into DotA 2. The item icons were so small I could barely see anything, The AI of towers was just confusing in the first few matches and the overall difficulty at the lowest levels, the confusing plethora of characters to choose from... Lost two games, won three games, changed the character, lost again and that was more or less it.

LoL is correcting quite a lot of these. The free champion rotation is obviously there as a part of the more aggressive monetization plan, but it also narrows the initial choice of characters down, which is a very good thing for beginners. The item icons are bigger and the player can actually see what they depicts. The suggested items for each character are also a great idea for those who just want to try and play without reading through a number of guides first. On the other hand, the multitude of items later on did force you to put hours into investigating every single champion or at least copy-pasting a working build from some website. Not even then you have a chance for a relatively even fight, as LoL has a system of runes and sigils and whatnot that literally lets the higher level players who farmed more (or paid more) get significant bonuses that help them dominate lower level players. Mixed with uneven matching alghoritms it's far from a noob-friendly environment. 

Heroes of the Storm eases us into it. There is only 5 heroes in the rotation at first and that's more than enough for new players. As you gain player levels, you unlock slots that give you some more heroes in the free rotation, but that happens after you are already familiar with the basics and are unlikely to get overwhelmed. The player level gives you no advantage in a single match. Learning your hero is also much more user-friendly. There's no items you have to worry about in the middle of the battle and all three basic skills are unlocked from the start. The only thing you have to manage is traits that you get every few levels. Traits give you additional skills or improve the existing ones. At level 10 you get the ultimate skill (R). Simple? Wait, it's been made even simpler! When you are starting with a new hero, you have only half of its traits unlocked, so you only have to choose between two each time something pops up. When you finish your match, your hero gets experience and levels up, which unlocks additional traits and an alternative ultimate skill. Sounds limiting at first, but as soon as you learn that in no more than 5 battles your hero gets all its traits unlocked, the limitation becomes nothing more than just a smoothened learning curve. Especially with dynamically adjusted difficulty level that seems to base on your player level. 

What's also interesting is that for every hero you take to level 5, you get some ingame currency to buy new heroes, so it encourages you to try new heroes instead of sticking to one or two you know.

Some might argue that the trait system is an insufficient replacement for the skill upgrading and item buying system of DotA 2 and LoL, but nobody in their right mind can claim it's less user-friendly. And again, it helps HotS differentiate itself from the two.

These guys are actually behaving better than DotA and LoL fanboys.
They only attack the opposite "team".

Problem #3: Community
It's no secret that the current MOBA communities (especially LoL) is full of harassment and misbehavior. Riot even introduced the Tribunal system to fight the offenders, but all this reporting and reviewing cases feels more like pitting the players against each other more than really solving the problem. 

Blizzard tries to root out the causes of the problems. I'm sure they won't be able to succeed completely, but there are some ideas that certainly help fight some of the aggression.

First one they decided to tackle was the competition within the team. There is no such thing as individual hero level in a match. The whole team gets a level. You can't steal a kill, as everyone that does damage gets the kill and the experience goes to the mutual pool anyway. There's no coins to buy items, so players don't have to compete over that too. Still, there are statistics that show who did more siege damage or who participated in more takedowns, but nobody gets ahead of the team with the level and nobody lags behind. You'd be amazed how much it cuts down the shit flying on the allied chat. 

Another common cause of rage is players quitting mid-game. LoL community even wrote an open letter to parents about that recently. Players quit, the rest of the team is doomed. How do you counteract that? It looks like there is a number of ways. First - if a player quits or has connection problems, the hero doesn't idle. Heroes of the Storm switches to a bot as a backup. When the player reconnects, he regains control of the hero. Sure, the bot might not be as good as the player, but at least is isn't just standing in the base. Second idea is the very length of the match. Many co-op vs. AI matches last between 10 and 15 minutes. PvP matches last around 30 minutes. That's approximately 50% of a standard LoL / DotA 2 match time. On top of that all, the matching system seems to be much more effective here than the team setups in LoL that can take half an hour.


Next step in MOBAs?
Since I've never played any of the titles on more professional level, it's hard for me to assess how much the simplification of gear/skill systems will affect the depth of gameplay, The matches do seem more varied when it comes to level-related tactics and it could actually be enough to make up for possible lacks in the character development depth. Not to mention the fact that number of systems or items doesn't necessarily increase depth.

From what I've seen so far, HotS is a much smoother experience for a starting player. Shorter matches, shorter setup times, more incentive to learn new heroes and much friendlier learning curve combined with more map variety can all be great attractors. It definitely does a great job standing out as a title without abandoning the 10-players-3-lanes core of the genre.

How successful will it prove to be? Time will tell. Right now, top 2 spots on Twitch don't seem to budge, but who knows? Maybe it's because more people are actually able to play HotS on a satisfactory level that they don't have to watch it.

12/10/2014

Quickie: Piracy and voting

It's been boiling in my mind for quite some time now and I couldn't decide how to take a bite of this topic. I still don't know if this is the right way, but... Here goes:

Buying games is your voting right
Seriously. Not only the fact of buying it, but also the way you do it matters. You can preorder or buy a collector's edition, showing your strongest support. You can buy digital or day one version or any other full-price. You can also wait for a discount, buy it in a Humble Bundle, a used box or even get for free on some giveaway or from PlayStation Plus or XBL Gold. You can play a free-to-play title without spending a single dollar or you can finish the game and decide you want to pay - let's say $10 for it. What matters here is basically how much you spend on the game and how much of it returns to the developer.

You may not realize what great power we are all holding in our hands. With our money, we are encouraging or disencouraging studios to do certain stuff. When a studio plans a game, it always looks for references and it always looks at success stories. Whether you're an indie developer or a AAA company, you will always choose to go the way that made millions over the way that commercially failed. And that's actually the only sane business strategy, but it also smothers innovation.

Every E3 people are waiting for Sony to announce The Last Guardian will come out soon. We would all have The Last Guardian on our shelves for years now if ICO and Shadow of the Colossus sold a decent amount of copies. 

Everyone keeps getting back to Vampire: Bloodlines and Arcanum and remembering, what great games they were. So what they were great? Bloodlines sold less than 100k units and there's no Troika Games anymore. Who knows how many great RPGs we could have had if they were kept afloat? Instead us, gamers, gave our money to BioWare to recycle Baldur's Gate into two mediocre Icewind Dales.


I see a lot of people complaining that all the games are the same, that the AAA industry is just copying the same ideas over and over.  I am not gonna tell you how to spend your money, but if you want more innovative games, try buying games that are innovative. Not the same titles every year.

Oh yeah, piracy. Right. You, pirates, have no voice. Whatever you download, doesn't matter. Your choice doesn't matter. You're complaining the game isn't great? Who cares - it's not like you tried to support it in any way. You're complaining there's no game worth buying? Well who do you expect to develop it if nobody has your support?


11/28/2014

"What should I study to become a game designer?"

That's a question that popped up a lot recently, on various occasions. It comes in all forms and flavors, really. Every other week on LinkedIn someone asks how and where he/she should start to pursue their career in game development.  We've lately even been asked that on twitch while we were presenting our game. Here's what the answer was:


And frankly... These 5% I mentioned were a big exaggeration. The real answer is "You don't need a degree at all". Let's even put aside the fact that a degree is pretty useless in most of the fields nowadays and that the education systems all over the world are so outdated it hurts. Think for a moment: how many great writers needed a degree in literature? How many rock stars have a solid musical education? A designer is more or less the same type of job. You learn it mostly by doing, not by attending lectures. You have to solve problems specific to your project and there's no universal solutions that could be just taught to a hundred students so that they can just go out and design. If these universal solutions existed, all games would be the same and that's exactly what the good designer is there to avoid.

Game industry is still young. So young that the people who started making the first commercial games are sometimes still in the business. And with the education lag we are facing nowadays, it takes long years until schools even realize they should teach something. That means only one thing - most of the people in the industry don't have the degree in anything game-related. So whenever you're applying for a job, the person interviewing you most likely never had any formal game education and therefore will not care whether you do.

When I met James Portnow on PAX Prime, a guy ran up to us and after a quite embarrassing display of worship, he started a rant about how he wants to be a game designer and how he's always wanted it and how he has been now studying for 4 (!) years at some design school. I did my research on the schools with gaming programs and there is maybe one or two in the whole US that can actually teach something valuable. That leaves the guy from PAX with a very high chance of wasting these 4 years completely, along with the money burnt into getting this "education".


I don't know if you've noticed, but formal education in general is for people who are not sure what they want to do. I myself went to my schools purely because I had no idea what I want to do with my life. Even though they were all among best schools available, I can't help feeling I've wasted a lot of my time. Because if you really want to learn something, you always have to invest your time in learning it. Teachers can accelerate the process, but at least equally often they will slow you down. And nowadays, with all online tutorials, all tools freely available, there really is so many ways to learn whatever you want without leaving your bed... Including game design.

So instead of paying some shady school and wasting 4 years, what do you do? First, check what a game designer really does and decide, if it's really what you are after. If yes:

Option one, for lone wolves: you download any free basic game making tool and start designing. If you get stuck, you check out tutorials. If some mechanics don't work as you wish, seek references. Your games will be simple. Your games will be ugly. Your gained experience will be incredibly helpful. You will learn designing, scripting, balancing, maybe a bit of coding and graphics. If you really put some time and heart into it, within a year you will build a decent portfolio that will get you so much further than any game design degree.

Option two, for online socializers: you find a modding forums or community for your favourite game and start getting to know the people there. Get involved, show that you want to help. Really help by getting your hands dirty, not give ideas. Someone will definitely give you the tools. Someone might help tutor you. Someone might take you in for a tiny project, after which you might help tackle a bigger one. If you have talent and are really active, within a year you'll be helping other noobs and doing crazy stuff like Oblivion Zelda mods, or even remaking Vampire: Bloodlines, who knows. Still, you'll be way more valuable to any company than after 4 years of attending design lectures.


Option three, for explorers: Study something else! Seriously. As a designer, you can always benefit from vast knowledge. Take up various classes - art, history, anything you can get your hands on and that sounds even remotely interesting. It will pay off. And instead of partying every night, try to spend some afternoons every week on including some design learning mentioned in option one and two. Otherwise you are just learing without a goal, which can be fun, but certainly not the point here.

Option four, for those who want in: start in QA! It's really not that hard to get in. It is hard to stay sane there, true, but you will learn a lot, being close to development. And testers get accepted as juniors for all other dev jobs, designers included. And you don't need to show anyone any degree, because they already know what you can do!

Oh, and for option one and two - prepare to get a job while you're learning. I know your parents would rather pay for your college instead of supporting you when you're "wasting your time on games". It might feel like it is slowing you down, but at least gives you some backup option in case you don't succeed as a designer of any kind. Play it smart - that's what designers do.

Of course, the designer is always on top of the list when people think of dream jobs in games. Let's not forget there are other ways to make games than just being a designer. If you'd like to check out the requirements for some of these jobs, just explore the jobs in gamedev label.

11/12/2014

Jobs in gamedev: writer / narrative designer

Having finished my first game and being heavily involved in the story production for it, I now have a general idea what the job of writing for games requires. What's more, I've been neglecting the "Jobs in gamedev" series, so all the more reasons to bring you guys this article.

So you write stories...
Good for you! Unfortunately, it doesn't necessarily mean you will be able to write for games. There are hundreds of professional screenplay or novel writers that have failed miserably while trying to deliver a narrative for a game. And many of them weren't mediocre either. I'm talking awarded writers recognized for their achievements in movies or books. If they were so great, why did they fail in games? To explain that, I have to give you a brief tour, how the writing process for a game can turn into a nightmare, but first let's talk a bit how the narrative designer differs from a game writer.


Not every writer is a designer... and that's fine.
There is a huge difference between a writer and a narrative designer. Basically, a writer is the guy who deals with words. There are lots of game elements that require only that and the writer doesn't have to get concerned about how these words affect the game mechanics. These elements are the static pages in the menu, like bestiaries or equipment descriptions, stuff like that. Sure, the writer has to be careful to make sure they fit the general theme of the game, but these flavor texts won't really break the game or heavily interact with the gameplay. Dialogues and quest descriptions are a bit more complicated, as you have to know what's going on at a certain point of the game. What dialogue options need to be included and what information the dialogue or description needs to give to the player. That's still quite easily manageable if you are a writer, not a designer. As a writer, you have to be great with words. Your sentences have to be brilliant and snappy, your dialogues need great pacing.

The narrative designer kind of needs a higher awareness level than the writer. He has to take into account all these elements the writer doesn't worry about. He needs to make sure all the tools are being used, especially the gameplay, to tell a compelling story. The narrative designer needs to help guard the concept of the game, make sure all quests are in line with the story, all dialogues serve their purpose, all characters have their place. Paradoxically, the narrative designer doesn't necessarily have to be a brilliant writer when it comes to the use of words, although it is very often expected of him/her. Especially in smaller studios, the role of narrative designer is either held by the writer or by creative director or lead game designer. Also in bigger studios, there are many cases where the writer never designs a story, he/she just puts it into words. Let's get back to our story of a potential story development nightmare.

Image stolen from theiddm.wordpress.com

Step 1: World creation and preproduction.
This is the step where the general idea shapes up. Art style is chosen. The development team decides or learns whether they will be doing a game about pirates or ponies. Based on this, further decisions are rapidly being made - all the guys on the team have to start with their work. Concept artists are drawing characters and enemies, 3D artists are starting on the blocking of the locations, game designers are inventing game mechanics. And very often, they are doing it completely independently, exploring on their own based on their individual understanding of the theme. They do coordinate, but mostly on the most "gamey" things. For example, game design coordinates with level design on the metrics used in the game, but they do not talk about how the game mechanics work with the mood of the locations to deliver a story to the player. Of course, the "right way" to do it would be to have a creative director who would make sure every person does his/her work according to the same core esthetic and sometimes this "right way" actually occurs. Still, majority of creative directors focus more on the gameplay than on the story and we see results of that even in big titles.

At this stage, there's usually some kind of problem with a writer. In some cases there's no writer at all and all these assets are just being produced because the team knows the theme and knows there's supposed to be some enemies and some NPCs. In other cases, there is a designated writer, but he/she doesn't really deliver or delivers a first draft of the story that the dev team just keeps filed "for later" while doing their thing. In yet other cases, there are some guys on the dev team that have some story ideas put together in a more or less chaotic document. You as a writer, more often than not, are not present at this stage. 

Step 2: "But our story sucks!" also known as production.
This is the moment when the prototype has been done and accepted. The gameplay is shaping up, the locations are being produced, there's a few characters implemented, maybe some dummy dialogues or even a prosthesis of a tutorial. It's the moment when the general player's path is being decided on and suddenly, the dev team wakes up. They either pull out the story document someone created and realize it has an army of holes and irrationalities in it, that the current gameplay ideas have evolved way beyond the script, that one of the locations has been cut. That a key NPC won't be produced. That there's been a side quest system implemented or that there will be no more side quests. If there was a writer that was hired from outside of the game industry, this is usually the moment he quits, because "the dev team is unable to execute his vision".

The prototype is approved, the deadline for alpha is not far away, and in most cases, the team has no writer and only some general premise of the story. This is the moment when the writer is hired. It might be a full-time position. It might be an oversea freelance. It might be some person within the team stepping up with hopes of doing a decent job.

Whatever your origins are, the writing task before you is not trivial. There's already a lot of things that have been decided without consulting them with you. If you got in early, it's just going to be about getting into the theme and getting around some things, like having a fixed moment when the peak happens or having to meet some character sooner or later. The longer the team waits with bringing you in however, the more things like that get included. Suddenly you have a character that's in a specified place, having to go the specified route and very soon, what could have been a straight walk in the park with going around some trees once in a while, becomes a crawl through a tropical jungle with a rusty machete. Instead of creating a story, you end up creating justifications for what's happening on the screen. And then, whenever you fix the problems of NPCs appearing out of nowhere and doing things that are completely out of of their character, the dev team just comes up with another idea for something that doesn't fit the story no matter how you slice it.

With a bit of persistence and luck, you end up with a satisfactory story that makes sense.


Step 3: Story implementation.
If you were hired as a freelance writer, this is very likely the step you won't be involved in. If you worked closer with the dev team, you are likely to stick around and be able to prevent a shitload of things that can go wrong at this point. Dialogues that you've written might not exhaust all the gameplay options and game designers will try to fill the holes with so-called "designer art". Some tired designers will implement the dialogue trees all wrong and suddenly they will make no sense at all. There will be another change in the game scope and a key character will be cut out, making the current story pointless. Casting for the VO (voice acting) will be done by a deaf person and every character in the game will sound the same or lines of an old man will be played by a young girl. The VO script will be poorly prepared and the actors will read their lines completely out of context. The cutscene that was supposed to deliver the backstory will never be produced. Someone will add equipment descriptions that do not match your story or your world. The letter that was supposed to give clarity after the story twist will be accessible way before it, spoiling everything. The character animations will break and in the middle of a serious, heartbreaking dialogue, one arm of an NPC will start a pop & lock dance. And these are just some of the possibilities.

If you are still with the project at this point, this is the moment where the real video game writing skills get tested. This is where you see how your story holds up its limbs get cut off. How well the rest of the team understands it and how much they feel and agree with your vision of the story. This is where you find out whether you are able to solve the problems that pop out on the fly without generating too much additional cost and workload. This is where you really see the difference between writing for games and for any other medium.

"But I will do it right"
Of course you will. What I described was an extreme case where everything gets out of control, but don't fool yourself - it's not a domain of small and inexperienced studios. If you take a closer look at the stories of big titles with 80+ metascore you will easily find story holes, ridiculous moments, terrible execution and many, many more. It ranges from high-level absurds like going hunting to enlarge your wallet instead of rushing to free your friends in Far Cry 3 to choices between "No", "Not now" and "Not really" in Mass Effect. Most of the games have their narrative sins and most of them aren't necessarily the writer's fault. No matter how good or bad the writer is, it's not the writer that makes all the decisions. A game can be still pretty decent with a crappy writer and it can be a disaster with even the greatest writer in the world.



"So what do I do?"
First of all, the poetic lone wolf writer approach will get you nowhere. You have to be a team player and accept the fact that the dev team is not there to execute your vision. You are to support the vision of the team with your excellent storytelling skills. You have to get invested in the project. You have to be as close to the development team as possible and support them as much as you can. There's no other way to see your script really come to life than to help implement it. Your job will never really be done until the game ships. You can't just assume what you have written is enough and leave it in the hands of others. You have to remember, that the game narrative is way more than words. Gameplay tells a lot of the story too. You can't just write the words completely independently from the rest of the team and then just hope the game mechanics will tell the same story as your words.

Be prepared for changes. Lots of them. Game production is iterative. That means your script will have iterations as well. It will have to be adjusted many, many times. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but you will have to accept it. In the end, the gap between the early draft of the script and what gets shown in the game will be extreme. Way, way bigger than in any other medium. You have to know that from the very beginning.

Oh, and one more fun bonus: you will never be the author of the game, like you would be an author of the book. Your name won't be on the cover. It won't even be the first name in the long list of credits. You won't be able to say "this is my game". Or "this is a game I've written". Or even "I wrote the story for this game". A lot of people will chip in to the extent of making your story not yours. All you will be able to say is "I have worked on the story of this game". If that is not enough for you as a writer, I can't blame you. This is one of the reasons so many traditional writers don't write for games. This is also the reason why good game writers are so rare and so highly valued. If you are able to harness all the chaos that comes with making games to tell your story, the impact your game will have will leave millions of people on their knees. Even, if they don't even realize it was thanks to the writer.

Image stolen from writerscabal.wordpress.com
"So how do I get the job?"
This is actually a very hard question, because writing for games is one of the most blurry areas of the industry. A lot of teams still live by the outdated story = words definition. In other teams, having someone hired as a writer seems like a waste of office space. Games that require vast amounts of words are actually in a minority and the narrative designers often derive from the team of game designers. So here's the first problem. Writer or narrative designer is not a position like a coder or a concept artist: not every studio needs one.

Another thing I have mentioned before is that just being a good writer doesn't necessarily mean you will be a good games writer. There are some personal traits that might help you in succeeding. Like being a team player, being open to feedback and being able to scratch or tweak your ideas according to the requirements of the project. All the time you have to remember you are the writer or designer for the game, not its author.

As for how to break into the industry as a writer, keep a portfolio of your writings. Preferably short, brilliant stories that show off a lot of your skill in a short period of time. Get published in some literature magazines, win a contest or five. If you have already published a novel, that's all the better. In general - have some relatively objective proof that you're far from illiterate. When you have all that, start spamming the companies with your portfolio, but do it wisely. Studios like Telltale or Bethesda are way more likely to need writers than Riot Games.

There's of course a lot of different ways to get your hands dirty with game writing. I'm working as a producer, but still had my chance to work on the story a lot more than the producer's job description requires. Game or quest designers with a knack for storytelling can move to the narrative section of their team quite easily too. And as always, there's QA, from where you can jump to anywhere in the game industry, if you are good and persistent enough.