Gamer Hate

Belligerently lacking in remorse.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Professional Writers in Games
Why They Should Be Killed

It seems that there’s a bit of controversy over the use of writers in the game industry. Having done writing for several games and having dealt with “professional” writers on several occasions I thought I might have something interesting to add to the dialogue (though I’ve been wrong before). While I mostly agree with Mr.Maxwell’s post, I do think that writers can be incredibly useful for making a game in certain situations, however it’s always more fun to lay down the hate first so I will start with why they absolutely suck and are miserable on game projects.

First and foremost I want to say that I am specifically talking about “Professional” Hollywood-esque writers who typically have never touched a game in their lives and even the few who have are not really gamers in any sense of the word (as you or I would use it). These guys write pilots for tv shows, novels and screenplays for movies. Sometimes they write for reality shows or sitcoms. In all cases, their presence on a game is typically distracting if not outright disastrous.

The reason that I find them to be miserable to work with is primarily because they don’t know anything about games. Very few have any extensive experience even PLAYING the damn things, let alone knowing the subtleties of level design or various game mechanics. What you end up with in these cases is a writer who can’t figure out how they’re going to tell the story. They’re stuck thinking in terms of cinematics where there is no player input. They can’t comprehend how to introduce a character without them being in front of the player and interacting with them. Most of the time, they don’t know enough about the game to even figure out how the story SHOULD be told. In an RTS for instance you’re typically looking at tiny units on a battlefield. That’s not a conducive environment for a touching love scene between two characters, so you have to keep that stuff light or action oriented (see the original Starcraft for the scene where Kerrigan is overrun by the Zerg as Raynor is unable to act to save her). Most “Professional” writers won’t pick up on those subtleties when writing for games.

Can they learn? Yes, if you go over all the subtleties involved in writing for games, a “Professional” writer will start to pick up on certain things. However, they will also obsess over useless plot points and details. Game design is a fluid process and even the best laid plans can sometimes go to hell and require vast changes in the direction of the game. Boss encounters can be tossed, entire levels might get cut, replaced, or moved. The problem is, the “Professional” writers are still stuck in a very linear way of thinking. Attempting to explain to them why their epic intro is suddenly in the middle of the game and needs to be rewritten to accommodate for that will often end you up in a week long series of discussions and meetings. This is the true failing of “Professional” writers. They don’t understand game flow.

Now I mentioned all that to say this. A “Professional” writer CAN contribute to a game in a very positive way on certain occasions. If the game is 95% done and the writer can then overlay a story on top of it, they’ll probably do a good job. They can think linearly and don’t have to worry about sudden dramatic changes. That’s why in the case of “Professional” writers I recommend they be brought on to a project relatively late in development (maybe the month before Alpha) and for them to be directed to write within the confines of the gameplay and/or rewrite all the “temp” dialogue that may be in already.

While I don’t know the specifics of how Portal was written, I do know that all of the dialogue occurs between you and a computer which you don’t interact with directly for 95% of the game. A “Professional” writer can do very well in that sort of situation because none of the dialogue can interfere with or be screwed up by the gameplay (except in the case of explanatory dialogue, but that’s relatively easy to change and doesn’t screw up the overarching narrative of Portal). However, each individual game has its own nuances and ways to tell stories. A “Professional” writer is definitely NOT the expert on how to make story from gameplay and express plot points through the game world.

The best person to showcase the story through gameplay, is the game designers (be they level or otherwise). If you want to show the player that two characters care about each other, give them spells or abilities that work around helping the other character. If you want to show the impact of loss in a relationship and how it is viewed over time… Well, go play Braid (when you can), which btw, to my knowledge, does not have a “Professional” writer but still has a great narrative told via gameplay.

There are many types of game designers and some of them are extremely proficient and prolific writers (I count myself among that group, so grain of salt all this). It is this group of game designers that should be writing for games because they’ve not only done it before, but they understand the gameplay elements to such a degree that they can incorporate the flavor of the story in almost every section of the game. A good game designer/writer is able to put the flavor of the story into every bit of the game so that instead of being told what’s going on in the plot, you feel it in every action you take and every puzzle you interact with.

You see, there are good designer/writers and there are bad designer/writers. The bad ones ruin it for everyone and the sad truth is there are a lot of people who THINK they can write who make games, but are honestly absolute shit. That is often why a “Professional” Hollywood writer is brought in. The company feels they can’t trust the in-house writer so they want a “Pro” doing it. Sadly, what you end up with is often worse than what the bad designer/writer would have done who at least has an idea of how to ingrain the story into the gameplay. In many cases the game ends up being “written” by a committee of people, and the term “too many cooks in the kitchen” is a bloody understatement when you start reading the shit that comes out of those meetings.

That’s why I believe the game industry needs on staff writers on a permanent basis. Designer/writers are the perfect people for that job because they understand both writing and gameplay mechanics and can marry the two into an excellent story told through the game instead of on top of the game. When they aren’t writing, there are definitely plenty of other things that they can do with their design background so it’s definitely not a waste of time. In fact, if they were put in charge only of the story, they could be playing other designer’s levels to give feedback on how to tell the narrative better through the gameplay. Not only can they anticipate changes that will happen during the course of design and write to accommodate it, but they can anticipate required story changes due to gameplay changes LONG before a “Professional” writer would pick up on it. Of course, no game company will ever hire a designer/writer to just handle story…

The truth is that designer/writers are never respected within the game industry or outside of it until they have written and published a novel or screenplay or two. Unfortunately, as soon as that happens they get the hell out of the game industry because they can now make a TON more cash. $30,000 for the OPTION to use my script? Fuck games, I wrote that screenplay in a week. What? You get a TON more money if they actually DO use the script??! Why would I ever work for salary again?

So, if you are in charge of a game company and you have a designer/writer on your staff that is really good at writing. It’s time to look at seriously upgrading their salary to make sure they stick around. At the very least, don’t disrespect them by hiring a “Professional” writer to come in and take over what they were doing. We really don’t like that, and the game will be much worse off for it in the end…

posted by CommanderHate at 12:49 pm  

7 Comments »

  1. It’s too bad that the current state of the industry won’t treat the designer/writers as Hollywood do.

    It’s even more sad to think that many artists in the industry aren’t even gamers. (It’s ludicrous to even think that..)

    I’ve met so many non-gamers while working, and the people who DO play only limit themselves to very few games (Mostly FPS, sports and fighting games) and view it nothing more than a time killer.

    Comment by Kohyunu — March 24, 2008 @ 4:44 pm

  2. It’s certainly true that many Hollywood scriptwriters who write for TV and film won’t “get” how to write for games. However, there are a number of writers who write for different media: animation, film, TV, Web, plays, and games etc. You might argue that David Mamet should stick to plays, perhaps, and not do anything else or perhaps because you think that he writes plays better, that’s what he should do … but you’d find in history that a lot of writers have appreciation for different media and _can_ cross a divide. Personally, my only published writing credits are in video games and poetry (in addition to my other credits as designer, producer, voice actor, or director). To say that because I have written for video games, there’s no way I’d be good at writing for screenplays or poetry is a sweeping generalization. Just as a game programmer has to be better than most corporate programmers, a game writer needs skills beyond typical screenwriting. I invite you to visit our blog, and read our rebuttal at http://writerscabal.wordpress.com/2008/03/20/good-writers-make-better-game-designers/
    We give tips for dealing with writers.

    Comment by Sande Chen — March 25, 2008 @ 9:05 am

  3. A feel for the media is required, but not necessarily a limit on crossing genres. I have no doubt that a good screenwriter could contribute strongly to a game, but only in an advisory (not supervisory!) position. The same goes with designers – an amazing puzzle designer might be horrible at gameplay flow, or a designer who is fantastic at combat scenes may have no concept of memory/animation limitations.

    Ultimately the lead designer should be responsible for coordinating the writers and making sure their work meshes with the game as a whole. Good management entails utilizing all resources to the fullest.

    The only point I really disagree with is bringing on writers late in a project. I think it’s important to have the writers on as early as possible, to come up with ‘moments’ that can be implemented in gameplay, and improve the voice of the characters as they progress artistically. You also want a lot of options for recorded dialogue as early as possible.

    As a designer who’s had to fix bad design, I wouldn’t wish the same problems on anyone else. It’s always better to do something right the first time rather than fill it in and work around it. Writing and story is a huge part of design, and downplaying it is just as foolish as overemphasizing it. A true project lead/designer would either work with what he had, or find someone better.

    Comment by Technohazard — March 25, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

  4. “It’s too bad that the current state of the industry won’t treat the designer/writers as Hollywood do.”

    In Hollywood, writers are the lowest form of scum. In comparison, game writers are treated like gods.

    Seriously, they’re treated like they don’t matter. Actors re-write their own dialogue, and most writers aren’t allowed anywhere near a set. (Much less parties.)

    They can make decent money, but most don’t.

    Comment by steve — March 25, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

  5. “In Hollywood, writers are the lowest form of scum. In comparison, game writers are treated like gods.

    Seriously, they’re treated like they don’t matter. Actors re-write their own dialogue, and most writers aren’t allowed anywhere near a set. (Much less parties.)

    They can make decent money, but most don’t.”

    I’m sorry to hear that 🙁 I thought Hollywood, with it’s history with writing and all would be better than the game industry..

    Comment by Kohyunu — March 26, 2008 @ 11:06 am

  6. “I’m sorry to hear that 🙁 I thought Hollywood, with it’s history with writing and all would be better than the game industry..”

    You’d think that, but it’s not too dissimilar to what happens with games; everyone thinks they can write, so they tend to devalue the contributions of an actual writer.

    Producers say, “We need the third act to be like this.” The actor says, “My fans wouldn’t expect me to say that,” so they re-write their lines. (And actors are really the draw of movies, so they hold all the power.)

    There are exceptions, but it’s mostly in indie films.

    In games, publishers/producers can make irrational requests, and since they control the money, the writers just sulk and write in all sorts of obvious exposition because some guy didn’t “get” the story, despite only playing a tiny portion of the entire game.

    Comment by steve — March 26, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

  7. “And actors are really the draw of movies, so they hold all the power”

    On the contrary, actors really aren’t the draw of movies, Hollywood just thinks they are. I agree about the ‘obvious expostion’ and requiring writers to dumb down the game, or explain with dialogue – which too often seems like a fix for poor game design or technical limitations. “Oh, the player doesn’t understand the puzzle? Let’s have someone explain it.” or maybe “Hey, the player isn’t really getting the interaction between these two characters because our animation is horrible/they’re never in any scenes together – let’s throw in some cheesy dialogue to cover it up”

    I can’t remember what game it was, but I remember playing some RTS back in ’99 – a C&C clone. The units would say a different phrase everytime you clicked on them, and the last few phrases were something totally off-the-wall, in the vein of Starcraft/Warcraft’s clever multiclick responses. Only this dialogue was insipid and trying far too hard to the point of absurdity. The marine units would actually say “What the Fuck.”. I wish I could say it didn’t ruin the game for me, but it really was terrible and overly cliched.

    If you haven’t already, check out http://tvtropes.org/ which has a fairly deep set of references to common writing components. Could you rely on this for good game writing? Sure… but after reading most of the Tvtropes database, you’ll realize the best writing is fresh, original, out-of-the-box material – especially when it subverts established archetypes, stereotypes, or cliches. The trick is – you need a good writer to implement this, no matter WHAT their other job qualifications are.

    Comment by Technohazard — March 26, 2008 @ 6:56 pm

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