(For those of you working at game companies or academic institutions, I'm going to teach another free class next year, and am looking for sponsors. If you want to broadcast your message worldwide to people interested in learning game design, email me: my address is ai864, and it's a yahoo.com account.)
I returned just last week from SIEGE 2009, a small conference in Atlanta. Even though it is largely focused on game development in Georgia and the surrounding region, for some reason they like to bring me down there. I spoke on a panel about experimental games (short version: find them, play them, make them) and ran two game design workshops. Here are my takeaways from the conference:
Story/dialogue/creative writing is one of my weak points as a designer, so when people who know about this stuff are speaking, I pay attention. This session was given by Bill Bridges, Nathan Knaack, and Joe Carriker.
- Create a backstory document for internal use only. The idea, I assume, is that you should know enough about your world that (especially if you use multiple writers) you can avoid contradictions and continuity problems. This was referred to as the "writing equivalent of concept art."
- The hardest part of game writing is making it succinct, because game writers instinctively want to write long walls of text (which leads to the "TLDR effect").
- Separate the gameplay-relevant text from the flavor text (flavor text is, by definition, that text which is not useful for gameplay and is purely for the enjoyment of players who want to know more about the story world). A good example of this was given in World of Warcraft, where the text for a quest includes a short gameplay synopsis ("kill 5 rats") alongside a large block of flavor text (telling you why you're supposed to care about killing 5 rats).
- Someone asked, why not include some gameplay text inside the flavor text, as a way of giving a gameplay bonus to those players who read the story? Great answer: if you do this, you are giving a gameplay advantage to precisely those players who don't want it! The players who care about getting more plusses on their equipment are the ones that ignore your story because it slows down their power-leveling, and if you force them to read your elaborate story just for an extra +1 they will resent you for it. (The roleplayers who just want to immerse themselves in the story, meanwhile, are more concerned with reading the story then optimizing their stats.)
- Corollary: one positive trend in game writing these days is to try to embed the story in such a way that it is optional -- players who care about it can spend all the time they want reading it, but it should not get in the way of players who just want your story writers to shut up and get on with the game already. (Ideal example: the audio tapes in Bioshock.)
- When writing dialogue for characters, give each character a unique voice. By giving different accents and verbal mannerisms, it's an easy way to give them more personality, while also making it easier for the player to tell the NPCs apart.
- Writing for MMOs is a huge challenge, above writing for most other kinds of games. Why? Because story is about change, and in MMOs there is not a great deal of change. Any game writing in MMOs has to work around this somehow.
The actual name of this talk was "Getting the Human in the Game" and it was about never forgetting that you're designing your game for actual players, not robots. What followed was a blast of quick game design tidbits from designers Andrew Greenberg, Danny Miller, Michelle Menard, and Harrison Pink.
- Many games follow the classic Hero's Journey quite well, until you get to the end, where the hero is supposed to return with the Prize and then share it with the rest of society to make a better world. This last bit is an important part of the classic story structure, and most games leave it out entirely. One major exception: MMO Raids, where a group of heroes follow this journey and return with epic loot that they can all share.
- One other challenge to the classic Hero's Journey: most hero stories center around a single heroic figure, but in games we are moving towards a collaborative set of heroes rather than a single central hero (think Team Fortress 2 or Left 4 Dead). This is not unheard of in classic hero stories either (Jason and the Argonauts has an all-star cast of heroes, it's not just about Jason) but this is something that contemporary game writers should be aware of when crafting their stories.
- Interesting potential for exploration in game design: there are six primal emotions (fear, disgust, joy, sadness, surprise, anger). Instead of saying "I'm going to create a game that causes a particular emotional response in the player," start the other way around: find existing game moments that produce your desired emotions, then extrapolate to figure out what mechanics can cause those emotions.
- When trying to force an emotional response in the player (especially towards an NPC or other object in the game world), do not assume players will inherently know that, say, dogs are scary or that they should love butterflies or whatever. Show them through NPC dialogue or behavior modeling that this is how things are in your world. For example, if you want the player to find a certain flower beautiful, have an NPC remark on how pretty that flower is. (I think a great example of this is the Weighted Companion Cube in Portal, where players can become emotionally attached to a crate, simply because this psychotic disembodied voice tells them to.)
- Numerical score is meaningless nowadays. You scored 10,500 points -- is that good or bad? How would you know? An alternative is low-dimensional scoring (say, a score of 1 to 10). There is a temptation to make scoring complicated for the purposes of game balance, and feel free to do this, but it is important to make the final score less granular so that the player can have some idea of how good they really did. Examples: ranks or letter grades; achievements and badges; or giving some kind of context ("your score is better than 80% of other players").
- We think little kids are dumb, but they are actually smarter than we are much of the time. When designing for kids, we tend to lead by the hand to make sure they don't lose... but the end result is that they don't feel a sense of accomplishment. Alternative: create safe spaces for kids to fail.
Jason Della Rocca gave a wonderful keynote entitled "10 things that don't suck about the industry." There were a number of points he made, but the most relevant takeaways I saw were from finding new business models beyond the current AAA publisher / third-party developer model.
- Current typical business model: spend lots of money (in the millions), then stop development and release your game, then make money (hopefully more than you spent). This sucks -- you get no feedback during development, so the best you can do is cross your fingers and hope. Failures are expensive and cannot be undone, leading to the excessive risk-aversion that we all love to whine about.
- Here's a better alternative, which we are already seeing with many social network games: spend a small amount of money, then do a "soft" beta launch and start making money much earlier. At this point you can then manage your income against your development expenses in realtime. Ideally, have several games in development at once, and you can shift dev resources from the worst-performing to best-performing games.
- Even better: we are moving towards a better understanding of how to collect and make use of metrics in games. Combine that with fast releases, and we can use metrics to figure out what games are and aren't making money, and why. This can greatly reduce the risk of development, allowing developers to take greater creative risks while still reducing the cost of failure.