The craft of writing
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by a working writer
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Thursday, May 27, 2010
I asked a friend of the blog who works in the game biz for some info on the structure of the game industry. If you're in the game biz, this is old news to you, but if you're not, it might be interesting.
There are publishers and developers. The publishers are akin to the studios; developers are akin to production companies.
For example, Activision is a game publisher. Generally, they don't create content. They distribute it. EA and Blizzard are also a video game publishers. (Blizzard and Activision operate completely separately from one another though they're under the same corporate banner).
Developers actually make games, like production companies actually make shows. In the Activision umbrella is Neversoft (Guitar Hero), Infinity Ward (Call of Duty), High Moon, Treyarch, and a 1/2 dozen other developers. They also just recently established a deal with Bungie (Halo). Activision is more or less a name that ensures sales and a distribution route, like Fox or NBC, etc.
If you want to do anything creative, you want to be involved with the developers.
Most developers are smaller boutique type companies. Video game publishers are focused more on the business side of video games and are not very focused on innovation. They quite frequently will buy out developer companies that are innovative to stay competitive in the marketplace. They are also the reason you see Guitar Hero 9 and Tony Hawk 27.
However, some companies produce and distribute. Rockstar games both published and developed Red Dead Redemption. Most developers start out wearing both hats. Then get bought out by a bigger publisher. Red Octane was the original publisher of Guitar Hero. It is still involved with Guitar Hero, but now Activision is the publisher.
Writers don't always get the writing gigs on games. It seems people who are good at creating a smooth work flow, or have a background in programming, or have a grip of money, often get them. Companies don't typically have a department, like say a staff writing team, like television does.
Sounds like the early days of the movies. Hopefully as games mature this will change!
As for breaking in -- the bottom line is video games don't need a story. Unlike film and TV, games don't need writers.
Take Guitar Hero. It's a huge franchise that rakes in cash hand over fist. It really has no need for writers. The game could simply be colorful gems on a digital highway with a guitar controller (which it basically is).
A good story is frosting in the video game world. Gameplay heavily outweighs story.
Also, the need for people who can manage a projects work flow and/or program the game are higher up the totem pole than writers, for mainly practical reasons. Without them, there is no game. Without writers, you can still have a game.
Video games aren't known for their dialogue. In fact, they are known for their horrible Engrish translations: "All your base are belong to us." I think the bar is much lower in what is acceptable, to the point that an employee who can do something else (3d level design, program, etc). gets these jobs.
PORTAL is a great exception. Getting sarcasm across in a video game is awesome.
I think it's much easier to break into video games as a writer as a known entity. Like Tom Clancy and his SPLINTER CELL stuff. For an unknown, it is almost impossible (unless you have another skillset more suited to video games, which many people do. (3D modeling, animating, etc.) If you have that it's probably easier. I just meant on a one to one comparison of people who are strictly writers with no other skillset, it's tougher.
I actually think people involved with new methodology of advertising would be able to make an easier transition into video games. The work flow documents for many of these "viral" and ARG based advertisers (www.whysoserious.com) are very similar to the documents used to create and map out video games.
I guess, in short, it's less about writing an emotionally involving story, and more about creating an interesting puzzle. Not saying they are mutually exclusive. Just saying, video games reliance on story isn't as high as it is in film / telelvision.
Yeah, there are plenty of games which don't rely on story at all. I haven't played GUITAR HERO (I'm trying to learn actual guitar), but I can't imagine why I'd want a story -- you're there to "play" rock'n'roll.
But I do think that games are getting more into story and dialog. Obviously the makers of ASSASSIN'S CREED 2, BIOSHOCK 1 and 2, and RED DEAD REDEMPTION all put a lot of loving care into their dialogue and story, to name just a couple I've played lately.
In general, games are getting more sophisticated. The rendering on RED DEAD REDEMPTION is spectacular. Good writing may just be icing on the cake in some games. But who wants bare cake?
(Yes, yes, I know. The cake is a lie. Whatevs.)
Here's something I've been looking for:
Is there the online equivalent to the HCD, but for game developers?
Note that there are two pretty distinctly different pipelines for story writers -- that is, the people who develop the story and structure the storyline -- and dialogue writers.
For about a decade now, the pen-and-paper roleplaying game business (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons, Vampire, Shadowrun) has served as a feeder for video games on the storyline side. Greg Costikyan (Toon, Star Wars, Paranoia) made this transition, for example.
On the dialogue side, I know that there's been some feed-in from both comic writers and "genre" (such a wacky term) novelists. Both Warren Ellis and Orson Scott Card have provided game dialogue.
On a non-writing-related note, the bread-and-butter money of many of the actors in our local theaters here in the Silicon Valley area is doing voice work for games and anime. That keeps them actually paid so they can spend their evenings acting in small venues performing work they want to perform.
I'm about halfway through Alan Wake and have been impressed with the visuals, acting, and writing. Top notch. The designers did an excellent job of immersing you in the world.
The most significant departure I've seen--from other games--is their willingness to let you interact with the world without the pressure of enemies or time or even a clear goal. For myself, it gives my time to reflect on the previous action sequences and creates an emotional puzzle/mystery that I have to figure out.
It's also split into episodes which end with a cliffhanger and are separated by an intermission. I've seen this tool (gimmick?) before, but here, it induces an excellent sense of dread.
Side note: I've been looking at Red Dead Redemption lately and would like to hear your opinon of it now that you've had some time to evaluate the game.
@Jason: I'm not sure I have anything intelligent to say about RED DEAD. It's a loving adaptation of westerns to the gaming world. Good characters and voices and dialog. Really nice job overall. I can't think of anything groundbreaking about it, but if you like westerns, it surely is the game to play.
What do you think of it?
I ought to buy Alan Wake, oughtn't I.
@Jason: there's an interesting conversation going on in the Writers SIG of the IGDA about RDR -- some accusing it of clunky dialog, but loving the Mexican characters and situations...
I've been thinking about this post, because I found Beatles Rock Band on clearance the other day, and have been working through it.
The Guitar Hero games I've played have a simple story: your character starts off playing dive bars and fraternity parties, then eventually concert halls, stadiums, then there's a finale venue where you play Times Square at New Year's Eve with Sting and Ozzy Osbourne, or where you play in Valhalla for the God of Rock. It's a gratuitous plot, much like your average formulaic musical, but it is a plot.
The Beatles Rock Band has an interesting variation on this: it starts similarly at the Cavern Club, then quickly takes you to the Ed Sullivan Show, Shea Stadium and Budokan. The crowd reaction escalates through these scenes. But after that, the plot of the game takes a turn. The songs begin and end in the recording studio, with no crowds cheering. During the songs, psychedelic visuals increasingly take over the images of the Beatles playing. The plot almost seems like Pink Floyd's The Wall--the musicians getting further removed from reality as the story goes on.
It actually has potential, but there's a big setback to the story really landing. In Guitar Hero, you choose a character to play, and you're reminded that you are that character. If you fail a song, the other musicians give your characters dirty looks. If you succeed, your character gets a moment to gloat. Your performance unlocks ways to customize your character's appearance, so you're participating in the story. The Beatles Rock Band doesn't allow any of these things--the designers wanted to avoid showing the Beatles getting booed off a stage, among other things--so there's very little connection between your performance in the game and your avatar on the screen. That's a setback, to me.
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