Monday, November 18, 2013

Sometimes millions of people like something… because it's really good.

Back in '99 I was working at ION Storm in Dallas.  I saw a trailer for The Matrix and came back to the office raving about this movie to coworkers; it looked insanely good.  Of course when the movie came out everyone lost their minds and everyone saw it at least 3 times in the theater.

Months later some Matrix discussion came up and one of my close friends kind of pulls a face and tells us he hasn't seen it and doesn't want to.  He made a comment about, "there's no way THIS many people like something and it's actually good".  It was kind of a joke comment, but it was also his case for not wanting to see it.

When the DVD came out, we basically dragged his ass into the nutty expensive THX equipped theater that ION Storm Dallas housed.  He absolutely loved it.  After being forced to watch it, he watched it again several more times over the next couple days, and went so far as to start making low poly models of the Matrix characters on Polycount in his free time.  Now he too could join the rest of us in, well, seeing the series crash and burn after that.  I digress!

In the 14 years since, I've accrued many nearly identical stories about a broad array of games, books, and movies.  Oh man, Call of Duty multiplayer is actually a blast!  Who knew?  Wow, ALL my friends weren't wrong about Minecraft!  It really is awesome!  Why did I wait so long to try a GTA game?!  Woah!  Everyone who wouldn't shut up about Game of Thrones knew what the hell they were talking about?!

Here's one for you… hey, guess what?  Candy Crush Saga is actually pretty stinking fun!

I know, we all imagine we have super refined tastes, particularly as we're neck deep in the age of frowning on AAA and cheering on indie games with artistic merit.  When Twitter is lit up with praise for "Papers Please", who wants to be the guy saying "Holy crap, the new Assassin's Creed game is freaking mind blowing"?  We want to be seen as the person who introduces friends to great new stuff and build up our credibility as a 'true connoisseur' of rare subject matter X.  It's part of striving for validity, and a huge factor in social media.  Surely our tastes are too refined for the likes of a game enjoyed by 15 million other people!?

Welcome to "Green Eggs and Ham" territory.  If you tried Animal Crossing and for the life of you can't understand WTF people see in it… cool.  No harm done!  But you tried it.  Even in the indie world, if you didn't care for Dear Esther, so be it.  But try it, and form your opinions based on experience instead of ultimately petty social pressures.

As a developer, you're doing yourself a huge disservice by actively blocking out games that you view as "too mainstream".  Surely the biggest current MMO has at least one cutting edge mechanic that could influence and improve your current project, even if it's seems unrelated?  With so much to learn, you can't afford to arbitrarily limit yourself like that.

Saying "a billion people can't be wrong" might sound like I'm saying "get out there and make a bunch of mass market bullshit! Weeee!"  I'm not.  I'm saying it's ludicrously unlikely that anything with critical success has done so with no actual merit behind it.  It might not be obvious, but something had to work incredibly well even if you believe they just "fool" millions of players.  You can really improve yourself by trying to understand those successes.

Far too many people take pride in their willful ignorance on various topics.  I'll resist the urge to make political or religious jokes to follow up that point.

As always, thanks for reading!

Monday, November 11, 2013

What I value about 'writing' and 'story' in games

I always feel a disconnect when I hear discussions about 'game writing' and 'story' (and often random people use the terms interchangeably).

For the most part, there are very few games I have continued playing to 'find out what happens'.  With most games, once I am no longer feeling invested in a game's mechanics (or I've just 'got it' and it's feeling repetitive) I stop playing and move on to another game.  For an actual plot to grab me and give me the motivation to finish a game... it's rare stuff.  It's also my metric for a 'good story' in a game.

Last of us, Heavy Rain, Catherine, Breakdown, Shadow of the Colossus, Kings Quest 3... these are rare examples of games "worth playing to see what happens", and they used massively different techniques and styles to achieve that result.

Looking at reviews though, those games get praised for the stereotypically broad definition of 'writing'.  Is it petty to take solace in how many major reviews of films simplify to that degree?  Regardless, it's refreshing to be at GDC and see discussions about specific aspects of narrative, setting, background, etc.


Personally though, I have three strong opinions on the topic of "story" as it pertains to games.

1) Despite the excellent examples of plot driven games I listed above, what I truly value in game writing is simply dialogue.  At the end of the day I really just need the actual words coming out of a character's mouth to be even vaguely relatable.  I barely even care if it's 'interesting' as long as it sounds like something you might actually hear from a random person in the real world.  If you've got relatable dialogue you've got a lot of credit towards the general perception of a game with "great writing" IMO.  You don't get paid per syllable, and it's not an intelligence contest; just talk like people talk and don't over think it.  To a good degree the desire for relatable characters plays into my second strong story opinion...

2) I really don't give a shit about 'saving the world' in a game.  I'm sure you can read into that cynicism about solving modern political issues, but really, who relates to that as a goal?  Stop it.  We as humans have so many common experiences already, it's a waste not to use those shared experiences and craft a story around relationships and events we actually deal with in our lives.  Do I care about stopping the international terror organization from breaking the super virus vial, or do I care about saving a loved one?  My list earlier of 'games I play to see what happens' involves very little 'saving the world'.  With rare exception you already know what happens when a world needs saving, *gasp* the world gets saved!  (Yeah yeah, hush, astute reader!  No spoilers in comments!)

3) Don't Techno-MacGuffin me.  Regardless of the overall plot arc, I *completely* zone out the moment someone starts squawking at me to "isolate the permashield reactor before the rezosphere updates!".  Again, just keep it simple and don't overthink it.  Use concepts that can translate to actual words.  Anyway, nine times out of ten I only need to shut down the 'Pleseopod Device' because it'll let me save the world. (We already know I'm apparently fine with a total global reset ;-)


I hate to paint with such a broad brush, but these three issues are part of why I have such a hard time completing many FPS campaigns, and many (*not ALL*) JRPGs?  Hell, I had what I can only describe as 'violent bodily rejection' to watching the FF7 Advent Children movie.

I also know I am beating the "relatable" drum pretty hard.

The moment where you sneak off to the bathroom to check your cell phone in Catherine, the moment the wizard Manannan leaves you alone in the house to work your mischief around your chores in Kings Quest 3, the time you're fearing for your safety as a woman in her apartment with intruders in Heavy Rain... those moments are lifelong gaming hall of fame magical moments.  I think back on them years later and grin out loud.


I dabble with writing based on necessity for making games with only a couple people (and zero outsourcing).  After Epic I wrote most of our adventure game Lili.  There's a crime of a "techno MacGuffin" at one point, but it was due to an unforeseen production change.  There's also a big bad guy to defeat, but that's more of a hook for gameplay reasons.  It also needed more editing, but overall I was very proud of the results (and Lili's writing had some acclaim from people whose professional opinion I really value).

Aside from trying to be funny and writing with the same casual nature as one would use on FaceBook with friends, we tried really hard to give Lili a story we could all relate to.  We went with Lili having conflicts about her career after school.  There's pressure from Lili's father to follow in his path, she's interested in doing something for herself, and it's chock full of paraphrased conversations I've had with real people like my wife.

Bottom line, I don't consider myself a "writer" any more than any other developer who takes it on themselves to write their own games... but I found that the three things I felt strongly about when playing games was also a great guide for the first time I had to write something.

Thanks for reading!