Monday 23 May 2011

Project Announcement: Evil Dead App

Today I've had the go ahead from the marketing machine to unveil my latest project, Evil Dead for iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch. If you know anything about my interests as a writer (horror, dark humor, zombies) you'll be able to guess my joy at being let loose with the franchise. I even got to say yes to the project while we-are-not-worthy-ing the Army of Darkness poster on my studio wall. The developer, Trigger - which specialises in promotional apps and website games - has a somewhat diabolical standard contract clause which denies freelancers the right to reference their involvement with a project (presumably due to the big name licences they're working with), let alone discuss it, so I'm lucky to have been granted a reprieve.

As ever, the question for fans is going to be whether or not this is a faithful tribute or a cheap cash-in, and the best way to answer that is to check out this trailer comparison. Trigger have remade the original theatrical trailer almost shot for shot in the game engine, and it's an impressive labour of love that convinced me this was something worth getting involved with. There's also some coverage at Kotaku.

The first thing you'll notice are the cutesie Mii-style graphics. You'll love them or hate them. I think they're ludicrous, and therefore thoroughly Evil Dead.

The game itself is a by-the-numbers 3D third-person hack-and-slash. It'd be hard to say it's stretching any gameplay boundaries, so it's an experience that'll live or die on its polish. Fingers crossed for the final version.

What I can comment on more conclusively is the passion that Trigger and I have for the source material, and in communicating it via the writing. That trailer really says it all. It's been commissioned by Ghost House, Sam Raimi's studio, and this is very much an Evil Dead game, rather than a Dead by Dawn or Army of Darkness concern; Trigger knows the difference. It's darker, more focused on Ash trying to hold things together despite his complete lack of heroic qualities. Not to say that this is literary fiction, but we've not gone the cheap route of just throwing in boomstick references every five seconds. Crafty dig at the competition there. Shame on me.

The first third of the game retells the original film's plot. It's a very faithful adaptation where I've tried to deliver the same sense of Evil-Dead-in-ten-minutes-flat that's presented as a catch up for new viewers at the start of each sequel. The rest of the game is new plotting developed at Trigger following an alternate timeline that branches off after the first film.

Look out for Evil Dead in the App Store come June, pending the usual Apple review shenanigans.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Get Your Writing Resources and Script Samples here!

Check out the new Narrative Design Resource

Today means I've been operating this blog for over a year. It took me a long time to get to the point where I felt like I might have something to say worth blogging, and it's something I continue to question. To all of my regular commenters, my lurkers (do say hello), and everyone who's expressed an interest in person - thanks for reminding me that sometimes I do. Sometimes.

Right, that's enough suck-up, self-congratulatory stuff for one year. Let's look at what we need to work on.

Thanks to a friendly link from RPS a year ago things took off quickly at Plot is Gameplay's Bitch. So quickly, in fact, that it took about six months for my unique visitors to reach that peak again. We're now trolling steadily along at around 3,000 - 4,000 uniques a month, except each time RPS links over here and we shoot up to about 10,000 and crash the server. Thanks guys :-)

I really want to drive the site into being a primary resource for interactive narrative theory and discussion. With that in mind I'm out collecting interviews and guest posts to boost the content - if you're someone you think I'd like and you're keen, do get in touch - and looking into ways to make the core theory content more immediately accessible.

The interim result is the new Narrative Design Resource. It's full of script samples, development documentation, advice and useful links. Do let me know your thoughts.

To close us off, here are a few of my early favourites that you might have missed.

Friday 13 May 2011

Designing a Dialogue System From Scratch @ GameCamp

I'll be at GameCamp tomorrow. If you're going, give me a shout via email or twitter and come say hello! If you've not got tickets but are in the area pop along to the most important bit: 4pm at the Southbank Students' Union.

This is my first year at the event, but I've heard fantastic things. It's also the first year it's been run at my uni, so I'll be feeling right at home.

I imagine I'll be holding a session at some stage. At the moment I'm considering:

Designing a Dialogue System From Scratch - A sort of design by committee (*groan*) session addressing the diabolical fact that dialogue interaction (mostly in the form of the dialogue tree) is one of gaming's oldest mechanics, and in much need of a refit. What happens if instead of building on existing tropes we analyse what qualities make up real world dialogue and then develop a system from scratch to model those features?

Hope to see you there.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Vapourware? You Decide.

I'm taking a risk on this one. Some time ago, I was contacted by a company and entered into discussion on a project. From the go I thought it was a bit too good to be true, but that's for you to decide. This blog is all about a candid insight into development and my career, and the world's full of fun people like those in this story, so I want to share it.

I'm taking two big risks here. First, I'm going to be publishing the representative (let's call him Jim) of the company in question's correspondance in part. He may not like that. More importantly, it's arguably unprofessional to do so. 

Let me make it clear now that I do not break NDAs. The details shared here are either unrelated to game content or they are very broad descriptions that the developer was happy to provide outside of NDA. I consider my clients' privacy paramount, and though this project didn't get as far as that, I will not be naming any names.

So, first off, Jim's original email. The email contained no restrictions regarding reproduction.

My name is [Jim]; I am the director of [the company]. My team and I have been in production of a demo for a next generation game, unique in style, gameplay and in story. It is not an RPG nor an MMO but something completely different. It has gained great interest inside the industry and has many investors, publishers and other developers very interested. We have sponsorship agreements with [some big companies]. [Some other big companies] are among the many game publishers which have expressed their interest in this project. We have varied talent working on the project, artists from [some very big movie studios].
Immediate alarm bells, right? It's not an RPG nor an MMO? Sounds like it's going to be an MMORPG that never happens. The list of interesated parties is far, far, far too good to be true.
[A guy famous for something really quite dubious] acts as business adviser and takes great interest in the project, helping put together a structured business plan. We have had a $53,000+ sponsorship from [a tools company] this software has greatly increased the productivity of the project.
The demo only has three months left in development. For these last three months we are looking to recruit an extra 20-30 developers for the development team, so we can show off the full potential of this remarkable game.
My suspicion is that the sponsorship may have been in the form of free software, but that's just conjecture.
I'm approaching you, requesting, that you join us for the last three months as a story writer. I have seen your site and believe you are talented. After signing NDA agreements further details on the project can be explained to you. If you do join us, and all goes well, when we move in-house you will be offered a full-time position working with [the company]on the actual game development of 180-220 people (Flights and relocation can be discussed, etc). If you believe it would be too difficult to relocate, but are still willing to help out for these last three months you'll be given a letter of recommendation and compensation for the work you have produced. Also upon joining the demo development team you will be given a share in the company (initially small, but will grow as the company develops).
So, it's free work. It turned out later the share in the company is a legal thing to make the contract more binding.
After this final three months of development I have arranged to visit 13 different game publishers and investors to pitch the demo we have created. Half the games out there started off the same way we have, without you and the other people developing on the demo it would not be possible, I ask only three months (part time) to help out on this revolutionary project. Thank you.

Kind Regards,

A big part of me at this stage wanted (and still wants) to believe him. While it's not true half the commercial games out there start off like this, it is true some brilliant ones have done, and it's people like Jim with a dream and some balls that makes that happen.

I got in touch and we had some lengthy conversations on Skype. He was smooth talker, he really sounded like he knew his stuff: contracts, patents, publishing contacts, a big team... and for a moment he had me going. I will happily work for free on a passionate indie project if it's something really exciting that I can invest in.

Then we got past the NDA and he started describing the game. I wish I could share some of the details, but I'm trying to keep this all legal. Suffice it to say, the first sentence was along the lines of, "Okay, so if you want to call it an MMO or an RPG, you can," and any pushing on my part for solid details rearding mechanics resulted in long winded descriptions of character classes and special abilities.

Then there was the contract. I understand the need for a contract even on amateur stuff because it saves problems when you do go commercial and someone starts claiming they own half your game. This one was different. Jim openly admitted he'd spent most of the budget so far on legal expenses, and it showed. Despite having signed an NDA I was asked to sign the contract before I could take a look an any in-game assets or see detailed design documentation regarding the top secret central mechanic that would prove this game was something new and exciting.

That was the end of the line for me, but not for the story.

The sort of big names he was throwing around as interested publishers, and the sort of people he was approaching to work on the project, it was inevitable someone somwhere would know someone at one of the publishers. That was me. I checked in with someone at what is probably one of the most well known publishers in the industry - a publisher with whom Jim had been discussing financing. They'd never heard of him. Maybe he got lost in the post somewhere.

Last I heard, Jim's three month deadline expired some time ago, and he'd begun approaching universities for volunteer developers.

More than anything, I love Jim's gaul. People with a vision, the ability to bring a team together and to find inventive routes to publishing are what creative industries need. The reason I pursued the project at all was because I'm in love with the idea of this all being genuine and being proved wrong a year from now when Jim's the next big thing and I've soiled my lifetime employment opportunities with a huge new developer.

What these project really need, though, is the ability to develop a realistic and successful project off the back of all that - otherwise you end up here. What do you think?

Friday 6 May 2011

Driver: San Francisco Previews Abound

With Driver: San Francisco out later this year the first batch of hands on previews has come in. Here's one. Here's another.

I worked on Driver as part of a writing team, and it's great there are now some decent details out to talk about. In particular, I can actually explain what I did. Or, well, I can let Meer do it for me. From RPS:
[Tanner] somehow finds himself able to transfer his consciousness into the body of any other driver in the city. [This] is doubly entertaining when your car of choice has a passenger. One minute they’re being driven around by some boring old fart, next minute their companion apparently turns into a suicidal gobshite with zero respect for health, safety or authority. Like Quantum Leap, your host doesn’t physically change, but Tanner’s gung-ho, wisecracking, mortality-ignoring persona is entirely in charge.

Who knows just how much comedy can be wrung from what’s always going to be essentially the same gag, but Reflections certainly seemed to be experimenting with a vein of humour previously absent, rather than hanging proceedings around gritty grime. One mission (for there are set tasks as well as a glut of optional ones and simply dicking around) sees Tanner brain-steal some rich bugger test-driving a Ford GT, with the salesman offering snake oil from the passenger seat. His patter slows down as the supercar is hurled around the roads at deadly speeds, and prissy screeching about losing his bonus begins. Tanner giggles to himself, a police officer entirely unconcerned about ruining a man’s career or, indeed, causing terrible injuries to civilians and untold property damage. 
That was me - along with some other chaps from Sidelines - churning out weeks' worth of in-car dialogue and character designs, each with their own mini-arch as the player pushes that particular passenger to the edge. As Tanner's coma dream gets deeper and darker the dialogues push into black comedy, and I get to turn out everything from suicidal cult leaders who are worried they're going to pop it before the ritual, to dispirited TV repairmen who decide to go postal.

It was a rush job (shame, given the delays), and after 30 characters (each with 20 triggers, each with 6 variations; you're basically rewriting the same 20 lines hundreds of times over) you start to get a bit stretched. However the tone is a perfect match for me, and it was a fun departure from usual AAA fare. I've not seen enough of the project to comment authoritatively, but I'm quietly hopeful the game, and its writing, will be well received.