Wednesday, September 16, 2009

GDC Austin: Tuesday Writers Summit

We spent our time on Tuesday hitting up sessions in the Game Writers Summit. Interesting points were brought up, some more original than others. I'll write up my notes here, but I was surprised at how infrequently game writers actually play games or know what the next step is in their medium. I didn't say everyone, but there are many focused on falling into the same pitfalls they are trying to avoid.

I'm going to list the authors of these sessions rather than their titles because often the titles were misleading.

I am leaving out one session because it was in a bad format, and the moderator couldn't get past his agenda. He opted to stop a beneficial conversation in order to move on to his next small-group question. I know my explanation is vague, but it was a bunch of writers sitting around in tables talking about morality in games and missing the point completely (at least at my table).

Aaron Oldenburg
  • counseling as a model for interactive narrative
  • challenging mechanics trivialize narrative (Mots: This is the point the morality folks missed.)
  • silhouettes as conversation choices rather than seeing speech options
  • player doesn't know exactly what they've said
  • they fill in the gaps--story grows in their imagination
  • non sequitur responses also create gaps

Stephen Brock Schafer
  • theater metaphor for the conscious and unconscious
  • game image is the stage--the conscious
  • the stage actors interact with the audience (unconscious) to form richer experiences
  • even if we have a design to have "open endedness" or the illusion of (in terms of story elements; "if I am Oedipus and want to take a bath in jam..."), the technological resources to manifest that design are not present
  • you can't express all those emotions without procedurally generated animations
  • you can't have NPCs saying all this dynamic dialog without good text-to-speech

Steve Danuser & Tracy Seamster (NB: This pertains to MMOs)
  • nobody wants to read what writers write
  • Play is the shared experience: communal narrative or dialogue
  • MMO challenges:
  • - story arcs without conclusions; need to keep threads dangling
  • - lack of single protagonist: everyone is a hero
  • - pacing is up to the player
  • Solutions:
  • - don't cross playstyles in an arc (solo to group to raid)
  • - provide satisfaction to players with different playstyles
  • - "build a soap opera"
  • - frame the narrative to emphasize teamwork
  • - e.g. building towers in eq2; sunwell opening in wow
  • - don't trick the player into believing they are the world's only hero
  • - narrow focus: don't Christmas Tree
  • - create urgency with event-based or time-limited quests
  • player stories are more memorable than anything the writer will tell
  • not about the written word; it's about the experience
  • quest journals: good intentions, but where is the focus among 100s of quests?
  • non-verbal story telling elements to create atmosphere and mood
  • - dark portal in Hellfire
  • - scar through Blood Elf starting zones

Mary De Marle
  • what does a game writer do?
  • - help develop game story
  • - write dialogs
  • players say, "story getting in the way of the fun"
  • goal of a story-based game: make the player live writers' story
  • won't work if story and gameplay are separate
  • the player story conveyed through: mechanics, levels, placement of game challenges, NPCs, ...
  • Who's really creating the player's story?
  • - core mechanics: designers
  • - levels: level designers
  • - NPC behaviors, movements: AI programmers
  • - look and feel of the world: artists
  • - sound
  • The writer is the "keeper of the story logic"
  • - ensures the story remains consistent across all other disciplines
  • How to make stories into game stories:
  • - divide into playable sequences
  • - dissect intentions so other disciplines have clear understanding of the story logic
  • - how many "blocks of gameplay" are needed to portray intention?
  • - writer sits back and listens to designers and artists discuss blocks


Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

I enjoyed the writer portions of the Austin conference. I think there's a bit of conflict between the right-brained story types and the left-brained game mechanics types in design. The answer usually lies somewhere in the middle of what works best for a game. Tying the story too closely to the game mechanics hinders the story (as most people know how to write it), but separating it just makes it feel like a disconnected part. The big challenge is to find a way to tell the story so that it works with the medium. In terms of the development of film as a storytelling medium, it's like learning that the camera doesn't just have to take the place of someone in the audience watching a play.

When focusing specifically on MMOs, it's really hard to see where a writer fits in. Walls of text are bad according to many people, so the "writing" part of the job description takes a back seat. The story the players experience is the most important, so that diminishes it even further. Mood and atmosphere are elements that are maybe best handled by traditional (visual) designers. The only thing left is trying to be the continuity nazi, is an MMO really enhanced by that? How much has WoW had to "retcon" stuff to make it fit in the game?

I'm interested in reading a post about some of these topics in more depth as they relate to both your thoughts on game design.

motstandet said...

I will definitely be writing up my thoughts more deeply. After a full day of sessions, I'm pretty beat by the time I get back to the hotel. I really just want to crash. I'd like to at least get the notes up first so that if someone wants to read them, they can. My further comments will be posted soon enough :)

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Oh, no worries. I know how draining conferences can be. Part of me wishes I were there to meet with some of the people there. But, the sane part of me knows I'd get even less work done there than here. :)

I was just saying I'm looking forward to some more in-depth analysis.