18 February 2010

[Conf] Creative Writing in Video Games

Here are the notes I took at the last OC IGDA chapter. The title of this panel discussion was "Creative writing in video games". First, Steven-Elliot Altman from Acclaim introduced himself. Then the panel discussion started. In the panel were Chris Avellone, John Gonzalez, Anne Toole, Leonard Boyarsky, Dan Arey, Cameron Dayton and Steven-Elliot Altman. My comments stay in [brackets].

9 Dragons anecdotes by Altman

In 9 Dragons, the first authentic martial arts massively multiplayer online role-playing game, Altman created and animated The Hermit, a character in charge of many events in the game. Altman explained that The Hermit is like a rock star, but in real life I'm Steven! You have to reconnect to reality sometimes. Altman mentioned that 9 Dragons is F2P and that 6% of the players use the item mall (a RMT system - virtual items can be purchased for real money). Altman told the audience that The Hermit is the most powerful character in the game and can beat any others. [Interesting idea in a PvP game?] Altman decided to organize an event that would lead a player able to control a Dark Hermit, the ultimate killing Mob of The Land. Wielding a Sabre, he has all the power of The Hermit but will be bent on destruction. [On each of the 3 servers worldwide, the winner of a month-long rush-for-XP event in September won the Dark Hermit in January.] Following this rise of an extremely powerful player, other players feared to die and loose XP for nothing. So Acclaim decided to enable the Dark Hermit only between 4pm and 7pm (for instance) and increase the XP rate by 5 times during this period of the day. [Risky XP daily event.]

Random notes

[These notes are sometimes exact quotes from the panelists, sometimes a summary of what they actually said. I only kept the parts I found the most interesting.]

  • You have to be creative on demand.
  • Everyone, players or in the industry, share a common knowledge/common references about games.
  • Nearly all the panelists read comics and novel books.
  • But if you read the same thing and regurgitate the same thing all the time ... That's why you have so many Space Marines at the moment.
  • Be able to sit and daydream, ignite ideas.
  • You need to practice daydreaming.
  • Geek culture is a shorthand in discussions.
  • Game design and game writing were often put together in the discussion, people did not really make any difference between the two.
  • In a game, everything tells a story. Music, textures, level design and even game mechanics are telling a story.
  • Games are mimicking film conventions.
  • Kratos fights against himself to save his wife and daughter in the last level of God of War. So this game is actually not totally for 9-year-old skater kids who only want to bash and slash. [But we had a discussion about that after the panel. In Ico as well, the player protects a weak person that the hero cherishes. But in Ico, it is all the time, this entire innovative game is "poetic"/"artful". I argued that in God of War, the wife and daughter scene where Kratos has to take them in his arms to heal them was only a pretext for "kids" to slash, because in the end, which game sold more copies? 3.21M for God of War and apparently between 650K (original sources are dead ...) or 900K]. Die Hard was also mentioned as a true love story [but it is yet another pretext for action to happen.]
  • Writers have first to spend 10,000 hours before reaching a decent level and be recognized for their good work. [I hope this is a big exageration.]
  • I use Excel cells for 3x5 cards. I write molecule stories in them and I can move them where I want. [this reminds me of post-its used in affinity diagrams in HCI.]
  • [The panel consisted of 6 men and 1 woman but in college classes, I think there are usually more girls than boys in writing classes. So why are there more males than females writers in the game industry? I was told by a woman at this conference that the writing area has more girls in proportion than other areas of the game industry. But there are not many because group meetings look like fraternity meetings when you collaborate with a male development team. Hence, when you are a woman, you do not always grasp all the references, but you have to compensate with your own ideas.]
  • Merchants NPC should not have too much story/background because the player wants to talk to them quickly. [generally true, but I think including merchants in stories, or unlocking them through the story could be interesting]
  • If the player does not read the text, he/she looks at NPC faces
  • ["Video games as art forms" is a cliché I can not hear anymore. SOME video games are TRULY art, and not presumably and vague "art forms".]
  • Take a step back, think what a player expects at that moment
  • If there is one NPC that is permanently (verbally or any other way) agressive to the player, the player should always have the last word. [wrong in Pokémon Red/Blue with the repeated Rival encounters: even though he always loses the fight, he says he was not really trained, that is the reason why the player has beaten him, and the player is just weak, and bye looser]
  • [no game remembers the whole dialog tree to establish a psychological trend of the player and adapt the game possibilities to him/her. Crazy idea to use logging to anticipate people's behaviors ...]
  • You do not want people to hate a NPC because he speaks too much [I find it depends on the situation. I found Jaheira in Baldur's Gate II spoke really a lot, especially during her romance with the player's avatar. At first, reading the dialog is bearable. But being interrupted in a crucial room of a dungeon, about a random discussion topic such as the divine origins of the player's avatar or the good old time with Elminster, is the best way to make the player hate the character AI. But this same situation in a tavern would be fine. The Team Rocket always speaks too much, and I find that gives them a small humorous role when they lose the fight.]
  • You do not want the player to follow a weird track, you have to keep the control of the story [instead, why not having meta-stories that do not define the perimeter, but rather the types of possible interactions, stories being generated on top of the meta-story rules?]
  • Watching a powerful NPC fighting at your side is much more impressive than any dialog
  • Even evil choices should be satisfying for the players [Black and White!]
  • The illusion of choice: do not let the player think "what does the developer want me to do now?"
  • In 9 Dragons, some people did not want to join any clan. We did not expect that. So we started developing content for them, because after all, they pay for that!

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