Monday 17 October 2011

Interview: Splash Damage's Ed Stern on Multiplayer Narrative, Baeckeoffe, and Living a Real GameDev Story

For the last 8 years Ed Stern has belonged to Splash Damage, the London-based developer that started out producing maps for 2001's Return to Castle Wolfenstein and wound up epitomising the genre it helped to create with 2007's Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. The closed in level design of this year's Brink has rattled some cages, but the free-running gameplay and world design have been singled out across the board. Ed would have it that his job title covers everything ever, so it's safe to say narrative design is right up there.

Hi Ed. What the hell do you do?
I’m very well, thanks. And yourself?

Oh what do I do? Ah. Well. You are by no means the only person to wonder that. I write game settings and backstory and concept documents for environment artists, character artists and level designers. I work with Creative Director Richard Ham and Lead Game Designer Neil Alphonso and Art Director Olivier Leonardi and many other people-persons on the narrative design and lean, pull, push and puff heavily upon the greasy tiller that is narrative direction. Occasionally I get to, you know, write dialogue and work with actors. Those are good days. Days spent in Excel trying to compare objective name-change localisation typos between three languages I don’t speak, THOSE ARE EVEN MORE BETTER GOOD DAYS. So I’m basically an embedded full-time narrative designer/director/writer monkey.

Since this is a reply-by-email thing I'll assume what you just said had something to do with writing.
Actually I just wrote in a recipe for Baeckeoffe. But now, stricken by a long-dormant voice I’m choosing to call a conscience, I have gone back and typed something else in. I’m sorry, I was interrupting you. What’s your next question?

For a long time writing had nothing to do with –

Sorry I was just attacked by a bin. Spirited brute, but I eventually o’ercame it. Threw me right off my stride, though. Please forgive me, do go on.

For a long time…

For a long time writing had nothing to do with shooting real internet people in the face, so how much narrative thought and work goes into the objectives and level layouts in Quake Wars or Brink, and how much of it is a case of, "Hey, we should have a bomb in a crashed spaceship!"?
An awful lot of thought goes into the levels and objectives, but the priority is always gameplay. If it’s not fun to play, it doesn’t matter if it makes neat narrative sense. Ink is cheaper than gameplay geometry, so inevitably it’s the story stuff that gets changed to match the gameplay. Alas, there’s still a basic tension between what we as writers would like the game to be about, and what players spend all their time doing in it. The plot isn’t the story of the game, the story of the game is the sum of the player’s experiences playing the game. And some of that you can shape and colour and influence in artful, craftful ways. And some of it you just can’t. Occasionally I mutter and grumble when I feel as if something’s strayed from my own PERFECT AND INVIOLABLE VISION OF WHAT IT MUST SIMPLY MUST BE. And then I’ll calm down, get over myself and get on with getting the game made. 

Splash Damage has always had a very community feel to it. The company started out, like a lot of the talent in the industry, producing maps for online shooters, and has continued to hire from the modding scene. Is that garage vibe still present, or have you sold your souls?
We got 10p each for ‘em. We certainly started out in the approved British amateur passionate and rather slapdash manner. But you can’t just keep throwing yourself at projects in a “let’s sleep under our desks until it’s done” sort of way, however endearingly shambolic it seems from the outside. You just break yourself that way, and perhaps more importantly, you don’t do good work.  And although it took a while to realise it, this is our Job now. People depend on us. We’ve had to grow up and learn about alien notions like “scheduling” and “pacing yourself”.

Certainly in terms of hiring we realised we couldn’t just restrict ourselves to the talent pool of the mod community, ingenious and brilliant though they are. Increasingly we need people who aren’t just bright and passionate, but also know how to get a game made, on time, on budget, on schedule. We’ve hired a bunch of very very good senior people, all of whom have previously shipped several AAA titles. So if we held ourselves to this standard, we original-ish members of SD, if we applied for our own jobs, we wouldn’t be sufficiently qualified to get ‘em. It’s all far too much like Game Dev Story. I fear I’m the first Writer guy you hire, with no Program stats, low dozens Scenario stats, zero Graphics, zero Sound and a pitifully short Stamina bar. I’ve certainly been tempted at times to mutter “You want me to write the proposal for another game? I’m not sure I can give it my best”…

I’ve started affecting a suit jacket, and the occasional ironed shirt. If ye have not maturity or virtue, then at least copy their outward signs. Also, if you’re of the plump persuasion, it gives your body the illusion of shape/corners etc.

It’s odd, when I started studying screenwriting more seriously, I thought it would make me more critical, that from then on whenever I saw anything I’d say to myself “Ah, well they got THAT wrong, and THAT wrong, and should have done THIS instead”. And the absolute opposite has happened. I’m now the least critical audience possible, all my sympathy is with people producing stuff. Anyone who gets anything finished, and to market, they’re a hero. If it’s any good at all in any way, they’re a genius. If I didn’t enjoy it, well, probably it just wasn’t for me, or more likely, a bunch of very talented people worked long and hard and did the best possible job they could with the resources they had available. Making games is hard. Everything’s in the way of you telling a good story with good characters and good dialogue. It makes me look enviously at radio drama, comics and prose: there’s so little to get in the way, it’s such a straight line between the heads of the writer and the reader. Thankfully my superpower-strength Inertia and Sloth prevent me from exploring those too closely.

Now I'm going to try to get you in trouble. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it was Nerve Software and id in the original Return to Castle Wolfenstein multiplayer who established a lot of what we now recognise as a Splash Damage game: asynchronous maps, the medic and character classes, the objective-based gameplay... How did Splash Damage come to figurehead these values in the first place?
I’m oddly inspired you call them values. I had no notion ET-style gameplay had such an ethical component. Well, a lot of that actually stemmed from Splash Damage’s work on the Q3F mod, which featured classes and a heavy focus on teamwork way back in the early 2000s. The other ingredient – asynchronous map design – came from Return to Castle Wolfenstein which was in turn heavily inspired by id’s Kevin Cloud’s experiences of board games.

So when it came to developing Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, we took our own Q3F ideas combined with RtCW’s approach to map design as a starting point, and added several new twists of our own, including experience points and command posts. I suppose Splash Damage gets associated with that objective mode stuff because we’ve kept plugging ahead with it in Q3F, Wolf: ET, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and Brink. I can see why many other devs don’t, though. It’s so much harder to balance and devise objectives for.

As games go, online shooters are the polar opposite of what we tend to talk about on this blog - the artsy fartsy indie games - and yet the Enemy Territory games are some of my favourites. I think that's down to the tactical (rather than run & gun) gameplay philosophy, and the drama that's generated by an open playfield, narratively contextualised objectives, and other people. How do you see multiplayer and narrative (procedural or pre-scripted) coming together in the future? Woo, long question.
Hrm, it’s a tough ‘un. There’s a fundamental incompatibility between simultaneous narrative and interactivity in games. It’s possibly an even bigger challenge for writers than the problems of simultaneous action and dialogue in non-interactive drama. Even though the Portal games have been rightly praised sky-high, I still don’t think people quite appreciate what Valve pulled off there: what other possible setting would allow the story to consist solely of player interactivity? And be so funny? And involve no uncanny-valley-dwelling NPCs? And this from the chaps who gave us Alyx Vance in HL2, one of the most companionable companions in games. Portal 2 in particular was such a splendid union of gameplay, narrative and setting, where the story absolutely consists of the sum of the player’s inputs.

Partly, it’s down to the fact that we still describe a really enormous number of very different things as all being “games”. There are different kinds, different keys and genres and forms of gameplay, and they’re each only compatible with certain shapes and sizes and styles of story. Linear scripted SP shooters allow you to control the pacing and experiential density of the game, slow the action, block off routes, insist that players witness certain events, follow a familiar cast of characters and so on. But it’s not particularly repeatable. Or at least, unless it’s very dense, the experience of replaying it won’t be meaningfully different. MultiPlayer, with its constant chaotic player interactions, seems too busy to tell story in unless you’ve puffed and panted to set up the objectives and make the player feel like they’re Meaningful and About Something. But that’s just one kind of story: the story the writer writes.  The story of the game is not the game’s story, it’s the sum of the player’s experiences playing the game. The MP game is a toolkit, ruleset and sandpit to let players author their own unique experiences. It’s a forge for them to forge their own watercooler moments. That’s why it’s worth going back to and replaying, because it’ll never play out quite the same way twice. And that procedural narrative unpredictability, as you say, can be very satisfying, even though (especially though?) it’s completely different from the narrative immersion of (generally SP) indie interactive installations. Speaking of which, aren’t Limbo and Project Zomboid great? Some of the best bits of storytelling I’ve seen in games. Very different in tone and feel and pace of action. But aren’t they both at least partly dependent on their pacing? Wouldn’t their meaning change if you set a busy MP game in those universes? Wouldn’t you lose a lot? Why I am asking you questions? What’s the year? Who’s the baby? Where do Prime Ministers come from?

Pure MP I think is going to remain a hard nut to crack, at least when it comes to linear narrative (whether “written” or procedural). Co-Op, Player(s) v Environment, traditional SP, those are all easier forms to tell a story in. Left4Dead (Valve again, I know, I know) did a great job furnishing players with a replayable game that told a beautifully detailed and compelling story, albeit one narrated by the environment rather than the characters. People just approach MP with a particular set of expectations, and narrative isn’t necessarily one of them. The danger you run trying to make MP meaningful is that it can seem like unnecessary clutter that’s in the way of you playing the game the way you want to play it rather than a welcome, added, delightful bonus. Genre is tough. Mainstream player audiences are conservative. For many gamers, story in MP is like anchovies in their ice cream: two great flavours that really don’t go together.

Finally, what's next for you and Splash Damage?
Fire alarm! Can’t talk! Bye!

Thanks for your time.
No thank you.

No thank YOU.

OK, I’m stopping typing now.

No you hang up.
No YOU hang up.

@EdStern often tweets things, while Splash Damage often makes games. These things should interest you.


  1. I hate the way Ed wrangles editorial control from the interviewer to make himself appear more humorous and lovely than he really is. Must learn skill.

  2. You two are cute together. Time to co-write something as team Ed-i-Tom-rial (note to self: replace with something less abhorrent later).