Thursday 31 March 2011

Atom Zombie Smasher

I've been playing two games recently - Crysis 2 and Atom Zombie Smasher. The former's new emphasis on cyber-conspiracy waffle and linear gameplay has left me entirely cold (Crysis-lite anyone?).

The latter is a new top-down tactical game from Blendo Games, the developer behind the excellent space opera, Flotilla. Hundreds of pixelated zombies flood a cityscape, and using an assortment of helicopters, infantry, mines and artillery you have to evacuate the civies and ideally wipe out the hordes before nightfall - battles knitting into a cursory campaign map overlay. It's a smart system that encourages all those heroic last ditch rescue attempts and frantic fighting across town, and the scale - which must see close to 1,000 pixel zombies, scientists, peds and mega zeds in play at times - is gratifying.

There's only skirmish mode available here, but it's given some life by the comic 'vignettes' delivered at random between play cycles (as pictured in the header). The story takes place in 1960s Latin America, but the whole thing exists in the Blendoverse, the same universe as Flotilla - a universe where people drink vodkahol, think they're descended from aliens, and are pillaged by space crocodiles. It's constantly familiar, yet bonkers.
One summer, a very young Tabajaras shaves the fur off one side of his cat. "Now Peachie can sleep on the hairy side when he's hot, and flip around when he's cold."
The cool thing about these vignettes is that save for the prologue and epilogue they're delivered at random. You end up filling in gaps as you go along (so that's why he's steaming out into the desert looking for his t-shirt), and the plot covers multiple characters connected in some way to an uprising and a scrabble over a national defence program, all in the midst of an incoming zombie-based catastrophe. By the time all the pieces are collected the threads have... mostly come together. They're amusing and, incidentally, entirely modable:

I made that.

So for all of Crysis's bells and whistles - and for all the times AZS comes dangerously close to being a tower defence game - it's still the latter that's done more for me.

There are problems you'll have to be prepared to look past. This very much feels like a Beta release: there are no auto setup options so you'll be doing a lot of the same routines over and over, the tutorial text never seems to go away, you have no control over your troop roster, and the balancing is all over the place (a levelled up artillery gun can win pretty much anything). The scenarios also lack visual and tactical variation - the same old buildings and street layouts rejigged for every mission. An international level pack would make this an altogether different offering.

And, yup, this has officially turned into a review.

The game seems to know it's a one-off strategy blast - the vignettes will keep coming fresh until about 5+ hours in, around the length of a long skirmish campaign. It's a shame the £6.99 price point lets it get away with this - there are lots of fun, underdeveloped strategy games on the market, but I'd have loved to see a more fleshed out vision of this.

Monday 21 March 2011

I've Been Doing Some Writing!

I know, hard to believe. This particular writing has been nothing to do with games - though I've been chocka on that front since Feb so watch out for details on my latest three (three?!) projects over the next couple of months.

First, as I mentioned over here, I've been writing for performance recently, turning out some monologues at various events across London. I can't say how fantastic it is to actually get in the spotlight and see the reactions on people's faces, both good and bad. The one I'm happiest with is a development of a concept I came up with way back during my undergrad days at Southampton. I perform it in character, and it's about a guy who works for a major charity forging letters from third world orphans to their western sponsors. It usually gets a mix of dark laughs and gasps, and while it's a touchy subject I stand by the moral discussion I'm attempting to have, and usually remind people that I am not the character.

You can download a short story-ised version here.

Secondly, the short piece of philosophical science fiction that I posted... wow, I was going to say a couple of months ago; turns out it was last summer... has been published as part of an anthology. It's an interesting one, because the whole thing's a borderline scam. Usually when I produce short stories (and monologues for that matter) it's as a creative release - my chance to express myself and improve my technique. Occasionally I'll fire off something I'm happy with to a couple of competitions just for the sod of it. Turns out I won one and the prize is being published in this anthology.

Now, there's another way to spin that ball: that by entering the competition I've allowed someone to profit off of my writing for free. I wasn't even provided a complementary copy. Of course, if most of the other writers were amateur there's maybe a different emphasis on that, and I'm not particularly complaining: I of course ensured that I retained the rights to the story, and if it weren't being published there it's not like it would have done much beyond fester on my hard drive. But there's undoubtedly a murky middle ground in the new found popularity of internet and self-publishing, and I think I may have waded straight into it.

Monday 14 March 2011

10 Tips on How to Become a Professional Games Writer

It's the number one question we get asked. We talk about it in panels, in classes, in interviews, and in the pub. Even assuming you're remarkably talented and know everything that's everything about games, you're facing long odds - but you know that already. I don't claim to be any kind of expert at 'getting in' - after all, I've only done it the once - but for what it's worth, here's the definitive guide as I see it to becoming a professional narrative designer.

1. Be a remarkably talented writer. Frankly, like me, you could get away with being competent with a bit of personal flair, provided you also have a bit of luck and know games inside out. But if you're a naff writer - if you've not written for yourself, or braved honest critique with your work - that's your first stumbling block. Being fantastic will help lots.

2. Understand games. Playing lots of shooters probably isn't enough. You've got to think about games critically as any developer would - that's what makes you a narrative designer, not just a hired hack.

3. To those ends, play lots of games, read lots of books. Think about them. Write about them.

4. Keep trying, take anything, try everything. Build an indie game, write for a mod, write reviews, email devs, work in QA, build a portfolio.

5. Network. Doesn't matter what route you come into the business through, getting jobs - particularly writing jobs - isn't always a case of seeing an ad and sending in your CV. Go to events, buy people beer, bum a cigarette, blog, twitter, remind people you exist.

6. Network. Seriously. 70% of my work comes through networking and repeat custom. The rest is through my fabulous agency (who, I'm afraid, only consider established professionals). Can you guess how I got in touch with my fabulous agency? Networking.

The routes in... 
7. Be a professional writer in another medium. Sounds like a big ask, but look at it this way: every medium other than games is better equipped to recognise and reward writing talent. Books and comics in particular are far lower cost, and have more releases every year - and therefore have more demand for good writing. It'll still require excellent networking to make the switch, though.

8. Move roles within the games industry. Entry level positions in production, level design and QA are all realistic goals for a talented writer and, with some careful planning and a constant eye on opportunities within the company, can be converted into a writing role - either over time by picking up basic writing responsibilities, or as a direct move. Do note, though, that telling your seasoned QA manager that you're only there to get a 'proper job' is most likely a poor idea.

9. Get in with the indies. This was my route. Working on something amateur is very easy to get into (by comparison to, say, writing a novel). Do it enough and one of them might turn pro. Congrats - you've got your first professional writing credit! Now go network!

10. Learn from my mistakes.
DO email loads of devs (ideally smaller ones in less established territories like eastern Europe) out of the blue telling them how much you love their games (if you do) and how you think you can help. I must have sent hundreds of prospective mails before I got my break on Penumbra.

DON'T piss people off with spam.

DO keep trying.

DON'T keep trying if everyone (even your mum) tells you your writing is shit. It probably is. Play to your strengths.

DO realise that being a video game writer is one of the most sought after jobs on the planet because it's one of the most amazing jobs on the planet.

DON'T forget that if you're a fantastic writer you're already ahead of 90% of your competition.

***UPDATE 2***
This post remains the most hit page of this blog, so I can only figure a lot of you are landing here from google searches and whatnot. Hello, I'm Tom.

If you'd like more help and resources on how to get into this line of work do leave me a comment down below and I'll get back to you. I also recommend you check out the list of narrative design resources (design docs etc) listed on this very site!

You may also find some of the other posts on this blog of use. Some good places to start are the Development and Advice tags.

I went to a BAFTA games writing event recently at the ICA to have a meeting with my agent and Charles Cecil, and met a chap from the drama industry looking to break into games. I wrote him out some good places to start looking for small indie teams and while I'm sure a lot of my readers will be familiar with these already, they may prove useful for anyone referring back here in the future. Indie dev forums with lots of work-in-progress and volunteer request threads. Just be aware that most are ludicrous pipe dreams; steer clear of the one-man-MMOs. I've seen the odd small / cheap writing job go up on these boards, worth posting a profile at any rate. Home of work-in-progress mod projects, some really good stuff here. Competition for the very best indies, should give you a picture of who's big at the mo.

Monday 7 March 2011

With Fewer Obstacles to Release and Escalating Audience Demand, is PC Gaming Becoming the Realm of the B-Game?

Sometimes I like to wander around Steam looking for some under-marketed, under-reviewed, under-£5 indie gem. Sometimes I find fascinating stuff like Dinner Date or Winter Voices; sometimes it's utter tat; but it's always interesting (and rare) to come to a game with zero preconceptions, and that's not half because a boxed game is usually too expensive to buy without reasonable evidence that you're going to like it.

On my travels recently I've come accross an increasing number of what I'm going to term B-Games. In cinema, the B-Movie was the cheap filler that was produced - often as accompanyment to a more polished feature - to feed the unforseen demand that had appeared overnight. They usually focussed on tick box stuff that could easily be sold: horror, gore, sex, exploitation; and audiences were so hungry for content that they devoured it without complaint.

The idea of a cheap, poorly crafted game is nothing new, but it seems the environment is ripe for a whole new wave. The audience for games today is larger than it has ever been. The games themselves, though, are more expensive to produce and provide ever shorter playtimes. This, I'd argue, is exhasperated by the fact tastes are more niche than they ever have been. There are a greater variety of genres to focus on - many of which are hard to come by these days - and gamers are older and more set in their ways than the fledgling industry could have allowed 20 years ago. Digital distribution, therefore, provides just the low cost delivery platform required in order to produce and distribute a cheap genre game that will - for simply being in that genre - satisfy a profitable portion of the audience.

Look at the games that are able to find their way onto Steam. Dungeons not only makes no qualms about its Bullfrog inspirations, it uses them in its marketing (and though there is gameplay differentiation here, visually speaking 'inspired by' is less fair than ' clone of'). Hacker Evolution's content and minimalist presentation is straight Uplink in a way that's so uncanny any claim of shared inspiration can be safely replaced in favour of canny targeting. Kaptain Brawe is an achievement for looking more like a LucasArts adventure than anything ever made in SCUMM - it's practically postmodern simulacra. Monday Night Combat is hard not to like, but it's plain bizarre to release a $15 budget version of a game that's already only $15.

Analysis? Well, I suppose in the same way that all the talented indie devs who spend their days turning out retro clones is a drive that completely passes me by, the idea here of relegating game design is a touch uncomfortable. B-Movies were cheap, and bad, and mostly better forgotten - sure; but they also pushed boundaries and proved their longevity (through ironic rewatching, historical interest and modern homage) in ways I find it hard to believe games are likely to ape.

It could be argued, though, that what this is all truly indicative of is just how slowly games are developing. At that rate we should hit our Post-Classical era some time around two centuries from now.

Wake me up when we get there.