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January 18, 2009

Write from the Start

So pretty much one of the most challenging parts of making games for the small indie or hobbyist developer is getting the extra help you need. The developer who can do it all on his or her own -- programming, artwork, writing, modeling, animation, web design, yada yada -- is a rare breed with far too much talent and disposable time. When I made Missions of the Reliant way back when, in (gulp) 1994, I could handle most of it myself because things were just...simpler. I didn't have to worry about modeling or animation, and web design meant little more than plain text and a few animated GIFs (mostly I just focused on BBS's and AOL -- and, sadly enough, eWorld). Life, as they say, was so much easier when we were young.

Unless you start from the beginning with a set of partners, it's tough to find people who are willing to put the necessary time and effort into your project, particularly if they're not being paid. But once you start paying people to provide the services you need, the expenses can start piling up fast. That's especially true for modelers, animators, and 2D artists, where the good stuff usually doesn't come cheap. And since the majority of small indie and hobbyist developers who initiate new game projects are programmers, not artists, you end up with a lot of projects that die on the vine because they just can't obtain or afford the artwork that is needed. As one person I knew said, it's cheaper to program than to create art.

A while back, as these thoughts were bouncing around inside my head, I began to wonder how different it might be if a game project was started by a visual artist rather than a programmer. I started a thread on the GarageGames forums to see if people were familiar with any such projects, and it turned out to be a pretty long thread. Some good thoughts there, but not a lot of games that started with the artist and lasted through to completion and release.

That was a couple of years ago, though, and I know of (or suspect) a few examples since. One that came up recently, as reflected upon by Chris over at The Artful Gamer, is the Quest for Glory II remake by AGDInteractive through the efforts of artist Eriq Chang. As Chris notes:

"I call this a 'renaissance' of computer game re-makes because the creative torch has finally been returned to artists. Instead of designing and conceiving games from scratch without any attention to their expressive qualities (as we see in most commercial games), AGDInteractive (has) put artists behind the wheel and allowed them to drive the creative process."


But I'm not really here to discuss how visual artists can drive creative game development. The reason I bring this up is because I was reminded of this topic during a recent web chat about a similar concept.

Back at the Austin GDC last year, I found myself most interested in the discussions and talks on game writing, and through those interactions I was introduced to the Game Writers SIG, a "community of game writers whose goal is to improve the quality of games writing by increasing overall awareness of the craft of games writing and how it fits into the game development process." Although it's not exactly my specialty, I enjoy following the e-mail list discussions from a distance. Anyone else interested in signing up for the mailing list can check out their sign-up page.

One of the topics that often comes up on the list is how to better promote the idea that writers should be involved in the videogame development process much earlier than they typically are. What often seems to be the case, as I understand it, is that writers are engaged well after a game has been designed, such that the writers are frequently asked to fill in gaps or otherwise work within a well-established framework that has little chance of being altered much. As such, there is little opportunity to shape the project from the beginning, or to impact game design and gameplay mechanics through the writing process.

Something like this was brought up again on the SIG's monthly (roughly) chat meeting, which I checked out for the first time this past week. The discussion turned to the creation of a list of arguments the group could use to convince game companies of the benefit of hiring and involving writers. One member, Reid, posed the following question:

"Here's an idea. What if the SIG made a small game to showcase the value of writers when they have more creative control and are brought in early?"


In response, Corvus brought up the idea of using Inform to create a piece of interactive fiction. Nice idea, I would have to say. But then again, there are already plenty of excellent IF games already out there that have been written by, you know, writers. Is the problem that game companies aren't familiar enough with good IF games, and they just need someone to make them take a closer look? Or is it perhaps because companies that make graphical games might not be terribly interested in what text-only IF games might have to offer?

I don't know the answer to that, and maybe I'm missing the mark, but I do know how I feel about the whole idea -- it forms the basis for the Vespers project. When I started this thing, the goal was to create a 3D first-person adventure game that was based on an established interactive fiction game. The main reason was to see how a typical text-based interactive fiction game would mesh with a visual 3D interface, but just as importantly, the idea was to start with a game that was fully designed and written by a writer. That's one of the big advantages to having started with Jason's Vespers game -- the plot, dialogue, characters, setting, puzzles, all of it was already written, tested, played, and critiqued. We knew what worked well, and what didn't. Characters and setting were already nicely fleshed out. All we needed to do (easy for me to say) was to take that entire game design and translate it from text to graphics, while still keeping most of the text.

In the end, Vespers might not necessarily be the best example to show game development companies to convince them of the value of starting with a game writer, but I certainly hope it will encompass this idea and at least help move the field in this general direction. That's the goal, at least.

A secondary but related goal is to use this game as an example of what, specifically, interactive fiction has to offer to the mainstream videogame industry. While I wouldn't necessarily describe IF as a "mature" medium, it has been around considerably longer than most other types of videogames and, as such, I believe it has a maturity that perhaps other genres lack. This extends to some of the more interesting areas of game design (at least to me) -- puzzle design, narrative design, character development, and conversation dynamics, to name a few. I think there is a lot that mainstream game designers can learn from some of the better or more advanced IF games. It's an overlooked genre and community, and it's something I plan on submitting to an upcoming GDC for a lecture and/or group discussion. We'll see if anyone's listening.

6 comments:

gnome said...

A very enlightening read indeed. Though you'll have to admit that no hope is to be found in mainstream game companies. They -by definition- care only for profit, and profit has nothing to do with, well, expression.

Oh, and I quite firmly believe there is no way a game 'should' be done, exactly as there's nothing a game (or any kind of artistic product - not in a consumerist way) should be.

Cheers!

Rubes said...

Well, I don't know if I would say that there is no hope at all in mainstream game companies. Maybe not much, but I do feel that the importance of writing in games is at least being discussed to some extent, which might lead to changes down the line.

And I agree there is no particular way a game should be done -- although, if a game wishes to emphasize story and character, I would hope that the developers understand the need for good writing early in the process.

gnome said...

Well, they *could* understand it if a manager convinced them, but I'm pretty sure they wouldn't be willing to pay a decent writer to well actually write. At least if the hollywood paradigm is to be followed.

Gail said...

I do not design games, but i was wondering if withing the indie game design world there is a bartering system amongst the different proffesions involved - You-work-on -my-project-and-I-will-work-on-yours
Kind of deal? That could solve a lot of dilemas plus create a suportive design community.

Rubes said...

Actually yes, this does go on to some extent in the indie development world. That's actually how I got started with Vespers -- after blogging about the project and looking to see if any 3D modelers were interested in contributing, I got a response from the person who ended up doing all of the modeling for the game.

Part of the agreement between us is that, in exchange for the modeling, I would help him with the programming for a game he wanted to create. It worked out at first, and this type of thing goes on all the time, at least to some extent, in the indie scene.

The problem is that it doesn't always work out in the end.

In my case, our modeler ended up shelving his game idea for various reasons, so there was no opportunity anymore for me to pay him back. So eventually, Vespers fell on his priority list below other paying gigs, and so I was left in the situation where if I wanted to make any progress on the game, I'd have to give him a little more incentive, which amounts to $$. I'm sure that's a very common type of scenario.

I think bartering for services is an idea that sounds good in theory, but often fails in practice.

Gail said...

Rubes - I have to agree with you on that. It has to be mutually beneficial at the time of the barter, plus it has to be broken down into dollars and cents even if no money is changing hands.
I still barter sometimes, but only if it meets all of the criteria otherwise - you are right - it might go sour.