This breakout session was led by Chris Avellone (the brain behind Planescape Torment, which remains my favorite game ever.) Chris encouraged attendees to speak openly about their successes, failures, and concerns; the result was an interesting survey of the demons troubling many game writers. Producers, take note.
For starters, not a single person spoke up when Chris asked them to describe a success. But plenty of people were willing to toss out failures and frustrations.
On “feature creep”:
Unknown Speaker: The story was too complicated; we crammed too much into too little time. Demands from design and marketing made it worse and worse. It didn’t help that I was working off-site, and changes would get baked into the game while I was out of the loop.
Chris: We’ve had this problem at Obsidian; it helps to break the story up into categories (the “A priority” plot line, then “B priority” subquests, etc). Then you can cut elements as necessary when things get difficult.
Tom Abernathy: We built extra content into the story so there would be room to cut things at the end, if necessary.
Chris: Being present at the critical last three months of the project is important; you can minimize damage to the story if you’re around and available to help out when people are deciding what to cut.
Chris reiterated his last point repeatedly (in various forms) throughout the session. It was clear that he felt strongly about the need for writers to engage the rest of the development team, and to be “as helpful as possible” (by, for example, becoming familiar with designer toolsets and actually pitching in on implementation tasks, which in some cases could make the difference between a critical story element being cut or not, and which helps you understand the game better — an important thing in and of itself.)
On the connection between story and gameplay:
Chris: The story should complement the introduction of new game mechanics; for example, when a new companion is introduced to the player, it’s helpful if the story provides opportunities to experiment with the new skills of that companion immediately afterwards.
On the relationship between writers and the rest of the dev team:
Unknown Speaker: 90% of the important decisions get made in the hallways between (not in) meetings. That day-to-day “in the coffee room” stuff is really important. You get a lot more out of game writing if you’re really a part of the design team.
Unknown Speaker: You’re more effective if you talk to others in terms of gameplay; i.e. “This will make the gameplay more fun in *fill-in-the-blank* way”, as opposed “let me explain story writing 101”.
Chris: Including reference art and/or story boards helps tremendously when communicating with artists, designers, etc. You have to communicate with others in a way they’ll understand. Another example: try telling the audio technician to make a character “sound like Hugo Weaving” instead of trying to describe what Hugo Weaving sounds like!
Rich Bryant: I wish there was some team-building thing that all different functional people were forced to do together, so they could understand each others’ roles and what the challenges related to those roles are…
Chris: It’s really important to have the project leads sign off on your vision for the tone of the game.
On voice acting:
Chris: If you can attend voice acting sessions, you should, even if it means a financial loss to you, because if the voice actor misinterprets your text, it could result in surprisingly bad-sounding dialogue that will be mercilessly ridiculed on the Internet.