AGC – How To Write The Best Game Ever

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…

On vision:

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.

3 responses to “AGC – How To Write The Best Game Ever

  1. The notes above bring to my mind a seminar about model-based and agile testing, which, in a nutshell, mostly emphasised interaction with the programmers and the testers in the start of the project and after the project. The point was to arrange a meeting among the crew in which the main lines of the project would be outlined thus increasing the common understanding of how things should work.
    In the seminar, people also lectured about documentation and outlining 4-5 most important things to keep in mind during development to keep the priorities straight.
    So, as a conclusion, I think the whole design phase is in the grip of a similar phenomena: People just don’t talk enough with each other. I can imagine the benefits of joining forces throughout the development to create a uniform feel and structure to the whole story-gameplay-art -axis.
    The economy of the project wouldn’t be staggered with this choice, because, though communicational mishaps don’t cause any straight loss of money in development, as people have already delivered what they promised and at least I haven’t heard of a game designing project in which the product has been withdrawn from the shelves for a severe problem with the story.
    The financial gain would come with the fame. Let’s face it, games are getting technically more similar and similar, especially so with RPGs. (I have playing experience from many of that type, including the great Planescape: Torment) The only thing that is beginning to count at the moment is the storyline. Technical supremacy counts for some sales, yes, but, for example titles Jade Empire, Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, Fallout 1 & 2, etc. have all (in my opinion, I don’t know the real statistics) have been more famous and popular mostly for their storyline. I don’t buy a game because it’s based on the newest D&D rules, I buy a game because it’s got a great potential of having a long and enjoyable story. Bonus is, if you can affect the story more as a player.
    So, the point was, that games should be designed rather with the game and it’s story on mind than with the technical eye-candy as the overlord (which, don’t get me wrong, doesn’t hurt contributing to).
    This piece of a novel didn’t really contribute to the main aspect of the event, but I might just post my opinion on it, too. If You read this far, thanks for your resilience and sorry for the trouble. Didn’t really structure the text.

  2. OK, one thing common to all the games I have played thus far (BG 1&2, Torment, Fallout 1&2, NWN trilogy, Morrowind trilogy, Icewind Dale 1&2, Jade Empire, Fable, KOTOR 1&2, Shenmue 2, just no name the most of the RPG-type) is the linearity of the main plot. I know that the work involved with making a story is huge, possibly even more than a fat fictional book would take (I don’t have real experience from making a story to a game, but I’m trying to write as a “consumer” anyway), but many of the previous titles have the feature of different choices in the dialogue. It would be nice to have more impact on the ‘real’ storyline, the main plot. This means that the entire plot is affected with the almost same kinds of chages as the side plots. Usually the answer has been to change the ending movie via the player’s choice, which is, of course, better than one ending (more eye-candy :)). The suggestion is impossible to make without limitations, of course, but as far as I see, that’s the direction we’re going, if we’re going at all.
    I have some untested suggestions to try to solve the problem. One would be to make some critical points, a few, maybe, during which the choices of the PC are tested so that the entire game can change from there on, meaning the entire game. For example, when after a long hunt for a band of werewolves that killed your father (the mainplot thus far), You encounter a strange beast from outer hell. There You must decide whether You want to kill the beast or run like hell for the safer option as are the werewolves, or talk to the fella. If you go for the werewolves, the story goes on like usual(mainplot), but if you choose to kill it, it might be for starters a kind, changed deamon, which changes to real bad (for humankind) when You attacked it, thus obliging You to save the world from your mistake (when the beast gets away, a new main plot) thus making the entire storyline change in tone, as the priorities change (for example Werewolves become the minor nuisance and will be dealt with in time, if you have, that is and your whole life, including the whole game, starts to revolve around the hunt for the beast, with it’s tragic twists and twirls, after all, You made it bad, etc.) Then You could talk to it getting it to either work with you for the good or the bad (depending on your alignment) thus changing the story into save the world from You, or some other evil coming later and each consequence comes with very different sets of associations with characters, the good guys become your enemies and the evil ones your allies, for example. When one reaches one of the possible endings, the game ends (or let’s You find something else to tamper with, for example a previous critical point and go on from there and save the world again.)
    The point of the previous suggestion was that PC would encounter a critical phase, where all stories are intertwined, then must choose one, which becomes the mainplot, making the other ones sideplots, or choices PC had no time for. Thus making it a one very intertwined story with a lot of chance for interaction. The way one should think, to make it possible, would be a little like a graph or a module. You’ll just have to use more of the background story make it all fit in. After all, the whole association graphs between the characters are propably part of the whole designing phase anyway. The bonus just is that You use more of that knowledge making a lot more for the PC to go through. The making of one such world would go, for example, by making the world without the player with all of it’s premonitions, great leaders, warheroes, villains, robbers, tales, places, etc. Then You just add the player a nice ‘foster’ family, which takes the player as it’s own (might be changeable play by play) and then throw the player adventure. Eventually PC will stumble upon some critical phase and start a world changing event, which might lead to many permanent changes within the story, cutting off some options, and making some others available until the road he’s on is gone or something else, more important, comes along. It would be nice, if I could draw a picture, but I’m not thinking about ASCII right now. 🙂
    I hope I have managed to convey the image of a limtedly real world (like earth now) and given it a chance for a person to really affect it (unlike in real world). I think that’s the thing, which draws people to games again and again. The want to affect something or someone with what they do.
    The question remains whether the approach to will be sufficient for the writer as it is a BIG workload for anyone creating such a story. Of course one could take the old clichés and…Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V… NO! What did I say? 🙂 (just to lighten people up after another load of daunting reading, if I failed, sorry.)
    If You like something You have read, just go ahead and use it. That’s the way things change; by using something new. If this post wasn’t new to You sorry for wasting Your time and I sincerely didn’t know.
    A workshop for improving such ideas would be nice, anyway, as where I’m standing, this business might have a potential of exhausting itself from content if something is not done some day. Though, as a student of computer sciences in Europe, I can’t sadly see a way of me attending one of those. 🙂 Maybe after a decade or so of hard work. Maybe.
    In any case, I hope I have helped and failing that, entertained You for a while. And sorry for the rant.
    Yours sincerely Vili Forsell

  3. Vili – excellent suggestion, somewhat hard to implement with the limited time
    and resources available in any development cycle. On the other hand, if they
    could implement additional “main” or “A” quests and movies or rewards into
    add-on packs, I think they would both grow the revenue stream and prolong the life of the project which has been labored over for the past however many years. Why designers and
    publishers don’t do this is a mystery.

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