Sunday 1 December 2013

Appearence: Annual London Games Writing Talk

Here's the blurb:
Interactive writing is not screenwriting. From character creation to plotting, format to structure, from root to interactive branch the process of creating a story and delivering the script has evolved from the skills needed to deliver linear on-screen experiences. 
In the annual London South Bank University, Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and IGDA talk, a group of experienced games writers Ed ‘Brink’ Stern’, Tom ‘FTL’ Jubert, James ‘Deus Ex’ Swallow and Andrew ‘Fable:Legends’ Walsh will examine a variety of techniques used in videogames writing and explore how they have used them in their own projects. 
Date and Time: Wednesday, December 4 at 7 pm 
Location: Keyworth Centre, London South Bank University 
As always, we’ll head to the pub for a few Christmas drinks after the talk!
That picture up there I believe is from the very first of these talks that we did - back when all my hair was on my head rather than my face.  Rest assured I am considerably better-kempt now.

I'm not 100% on what I'm talking about yet - suggestions / requests welcomed - but it might be something about FTL and slavery, or the different requirements of different text delivery mechanics. We'll see. Oddly enough, stretch back 5 years and I was full of things I thought needed to be said, and not enough opportunities to say them. The older I get the more doubtful I am that I have much new to add to the mix, and the more people seem to expect me to say clever things to rooms full of people.

Full blurb here. Facebook sign up here. Tickets free!

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Announcement: FTL: Advanced Edition

So FTL Advanced Edition is now a thing. It's nice that it is now a thing, because it means I can explain why FTL didn't really stop as a job for me after we released the thing. Advanced Edition contains all new events written by me and our guest writer, plus new music from Ben, plus all new tech and science wotzits and spaceships from Justin and Matt.

We've been working on it for ages, so the announcement has slightly taken me by surprise. I suppose the big news is... CHRIS AVELLONE FTL FTW! Following on from this interview I interpreted Chris' veiled offers with cunning and precision, forwarded them to Subset and sure enough we wound up with Chris playing the part of one of those PS4 interns who do amazing work but don't get paid. I dreamed of working for Chris for years, and I'm not entirely sure when we skipped that step and I started finding him jobs, but there you go. It's been a pleasure.

I haven't really received my marketing brief yet, but I suppose there are some reveals the boys are holding back still. I can tell you for sure they've not revealed all of the new systems yet, and that's where the meat of the new gameplay is. Certainly there's a load of new events and places to explore, new ways of hurling death at your enemies; but the expansion to me feels like it revolves around the systems - that's why it's the advanced edition. The new systems provide alternative playstyles, ones which liberate you from a reliance on traditional weaponry. It's reinvigorated the game.

So I don't know what I can tell you about the work Chris and I have done. There is a new sector in the game. For now it's known as the abandoned sector, but I can tell you that you'll meet a new species out there. They're pretty cool - both story-wise, and mechanically. The new content is focused both in the all-new sector, and throughout the original sectors, so whatever route you take you should encounter something new.

Of course, we're still working on this material, and no doubt we'll be stuffing new things in right up to the wire, as we were with the original release. I'm squeezing in what I can between two new, unannounced projects, one of which involves another collaboration with a writer whose work I respect every bit as much as Chris'. Watch this space for more details.

Thursday 26 September 2013

The Chris Avellone Interview

I don't know what I could possible write here about Chris Avellone that isn't already implicit throughout the writings on this blog. Chris' work on Planescape, Van Buren and KOTOR II was instrumental in inspiring me to do what I do, and I am not the only one. Without further ado, here's what came out of a night in the pub with Chris a couple of months ago.

Planescape was one of the games that made me get into games. Is there a substantive difference in the complexity and flexibility of Planescape's narrative as compared with modern RPGs, or do we just have rose tinted glasses applied to some cleverly hidden linearity?

I’d say it’s the rose-tinted latter (although adding rose tints to design like this is a good skill to have, imo). Torment may have felt free, but there were some clear narrative chokepoints along the way that were necessary for the critical path. I’d argue that the context of these chokepoints could change - and not just narratively, but systematically as the flexibility in the alignment system allowed for additional opportunities. Still, there were some linear segments. We’ve tried to use this methodology in future games, however – you can get a lot more bang for your buck in terms of reactivity by tying as much reactivity as possible to the “gates” the player is going through in the game or major NPCs you’re definitely going to meet (Fhjull, Ravel, Annah, Morte, etc.).

To play devil’s (baatezu’s) advocate to the linearity point, however, we did consciously design larger game hubs that allowed the player to choose and approach quests how they wanted, which we felt was important for a role-playing game. Also, one of our design mandates was to make sure we had a lot of variation in the dialogue interactions based on the abilities and alignment shifts of the Nameless One. We wanted every conversation to have many options for any style of player – smart, strong, fast, wise, companion interjection (like with Fell, where it was critical), good, evil, lawful, chaotic, etc.

Also, the companion characters added a lot of optional content. A lot. That was a conscious design choice and went against the studio’s wishes at the time, but I felt it was important that the player be allowed to form an attachment and explore these companions in a way that allowed the player to bond and understand them on a deeper level if they wished. And in many instances (especially Dak’kon), this proved to tie into the endgame quite well and give the endgame a much different context depending on the companion interaction.

What makes a torment game what it is? Is it just what arguably every fantasy RPG should be doing: not relying on tired Tolkien tropes?

That’s a good question – I suppose it’s a mix of things: doing reversals (puritan succubus, lying angels, truthful demons, incredibly powerful rats, sympathetic undead, enslaved githzerai), defying conventions (who cares if you die - no need to reload if you don’t want to and it advances the plot and solves puzzles, you get to guide your alignment over the course of the game, bending D&D rules to serve the narrative, no elves, dwarves, minimal swords), and a personal, selfish story that doesn’t pretend to shift the focus from the player. Your personal journey’s what’s important. Sure, what happened to you as the Nameless One may mean a lot for the planes, but ultimately, it’s all referring back to you.

For me, when developing Torment I had a long list of things I didn’t care for in modern RPGs, so I re-examined all of them to figure out how to approach them differently. I feel this process (I admit I’m assuming here) worked well for Ronald Moore when he moved off Star Trek: Voyager and examined where sci-fi should go in the Battlestar: Galactica reboot. Reading his vision statement for where BSG should go was really liberating.

Planescape blew me away primarily because it had that strong character thread throughout. It wasn't about saving the world, it was about discovering things about yourself, and the nature of mankind. That's still a powerful idea mostly ignored by today's AAAs. How did you develop those ideas, and what if anything is the philosophical takeaway from Planescape for you?

It’s a selfish one, and it comes from many long years of Gamemastering: players are selfish. They want to shine. They want to stand out, be special, and be recognized for it. One of the things I detested about a number of RPGs at the time was that these RPGs seemed driven to make you care about some crappy nation or nebulous figure to be saved, to force some kind of relationship and worse, try to force you to care about that relationship, when what a game designer should consider is simply focusing on the player’s own desire to play the game themselves. Make it solely about them. It’s fine if EVERYTHING in the game revolves around them. In fact, make that their story, their narrative journey, and you’ll likely have a much better game for it by stripping away all the bullshit.

What weren't you happy with in Planescape, and how is that influencing work on Tides of Numenera? And how do you say 'Numenera'?

It’s NEW-MEN-ERA. I could telepathically feel Monte Cook wincing every time I mispronounced it (which was a bonus), and I actually mispronounced it in one of the best takes of the Torment endorsement video. ;)

I thought the combat in Planescape was poor, there weren’t enough Planes to explore (we wanted more), and it could have used more fun dungeon and adventure locations as well. That said, Planescape taught me that you don’t always need to one-up the companion roster, one-up the inventory list, spell list, or any of the systems you’re being compared to as long as you set up the narrative and the world context to explain why and you’ll likely have a much better game for it.

Was I worried about the number of companions in Torment vs. Baldur’s Gate? Yep. Was I worried about the lack of inventory items and weapons you could equip? Yep. Was I worried about the character creation and lack of class options for the main character? Yep. But in the end, if you’re staying focused on making sure you’re providing a reason for all these elements (the companions only like certain weapons or can only logically use certain weapons – like teeth, it’s a more personal journey, you don’t become a priest because there’s a chance you were once a god yourself), no one really cares. And as long as you’re doing one thing really well (I’d argue in Torment’s case, that was the story and some of the game mechanic convention-breakers), that helps you stand out and carve out a game identity all its own.

In Numenera, Kevin Saunders (Project Lead) and Colin McComb (Lead Designer) are conscious of the original Torment’s shortcomings and its strengths, and combat and adventure are not downplayed in any of the design documents and discussions. I’ve also added my cautionary tales as well about player motivation and companion design, but Kevin and Colin already seem to grasp those points well, so it’s like preaching to the choir, really. Which is a good sign.

You've made a name with RPGs and dialogue trees. Do you ever want to try alternative narrative mechanics, or is this a path you're set on? If the latter, are further experiments like Alpha Protocol's dialogue system where you'd like to be, or are you content to further push the boundaries with the systems you have?

I think cinematic dialogue and menu-driven systems has put us in a dialogue cul-de-sac of diminishing returns on gameplay, and there’s more that can be done with dialogue systems, depending on the genre (Brian Mitsoda’s tension-driving, branching-but-linear-with-no-takebacks in Alpha Protocol I think very much complimented the espionage mechanics of the title).

Also, with our Aliens: Crucible dialogue system, we made a conscious effort to make sure the player could never take “refuge” in a talking head conversation – they should never feel safe, they should never feel like they couldn’t be attacked at any time in the environment... because, hey, that’s what Aliens is all about.

Usually the franchise ambiance or engine specs have been our guiding principles for dialogue system design, but there’s more room to grow. I’m really interested in helping develop the dialogue mechanics for Tides of Numenera, as the Numenera ruleset allows for some interesting speech–related applications that would work well in a new dialogue system.

You're working on the South Park RPG. How have you been involved, how is it working with Matt and Trey, and how were you affected by the publisher switch?

My involvement on South Park has been minimal, I worked on it for about 2-3 months helping assist with the cut scene pipeline, and that’s the extent of my efforts.

What games do you think have made interactive narrative a more interesting place to be over the last five years, and why? What blew you away, or expanded your horizons?

Walking Dead. I didn’t know if a largely narrative reactive title would work. It does. Now I know. BioShock: Infinite I thought took some brave narrative challenges (the context of Columbia and their moral compass in an otherwise beautiful world... and the fact it’s a beautiful dystopia is really interesting) in addition to the pre-existing strengths of the narrative design in previous titles (the big ones are visual storytelling, not letting the story get in the way of the player freedom to explore it).

And finally, since I've no doubt a bunch of my readers would like to know, what's the best way for someone to get a writing gig if you're hiring? Are technical level design skills a must, do you care about qualifications, which skills do you expect writers to bring to the table, and which do you think can be learned on the job?

That is (another) good question. So... technical design is helpful, but not required. So is programming, 3D art, animation knowledge, quality assurance training, web design... all of these additional skills beyond simply writing are helpful in game development, but not mandatory. That is not my way of saying you shouldn’t investigate and learn about supplemental careers, as all of these things make you a better narrative designer and a better developer.

The answer on how to approach being a narrative designer is a really long one, so let me try and highlight the big ones:

- Be accommodating. Your job is to support systems, not dictate them.

- Be helpful. Narrative is a powerful tool to explain away what would otherwise be considered a game’s limitations and problems. Make everyone’s life easier by volunteering ways to do this.

- Scriptwriting is a better focus for your time than novel or short story samples. Those are good skills to have, but scriptwriting (especially with regards to VO-centric titles) is more important.

- Graphic novels, imo, aren’t bad either. They teach how to use background visuals and camera and character placement to set up a scene, which is a good skill for a narrative designer to cultivate (and your storyboard artists and cinematic designers will hopefully appreciate this as well).

- Whenever possible, a narrative designer looking to get a leg up in the industry should shamelessly find a way to help Chris Avellone contribute to FTL2 because that would make Chris Avellone happy. If any narrative designer can do this, then the aforementioned Chris Avellone would be happy to help their narrative career however he can. Just saying, Tom, just saying.

- Narrative designers should look for ways to tell the story through visuals first, words second. Graffiti, prop placement, and vista-conscious level design are often more effective than listening to a talking head or a handler give a 3 minute exposition of what’s ahead.

- Story is not the most important thing unless you’re doing a Walking Dead/Telltale game. Don’t be stubborn, demanding, and insist that games are there to tell stories. You’re there to let the player have a cool experience, let them have it. Let them “mess up” your story. Let them do a non-ideal path if they want... and make it equally ideal, even if it isn’t the path you took. Your job is to entertain. Respect your audience and respect the fact you are making a game first, and your story supports that experience.

- Every time you interview for a writing gig, they will ask (or should be asking) about a story you liked or a story you hated or a story you felt indifferent about in a game. Then they will (should) ask you why. It helps if you have specific answers in advance. Keep a living post-mortem on your computer with critiques of the story of each game you play, and be prepared to speak intelligently about these story critiques in an interview at the drop of a hat.

I have one more bit of Chris-related news to share with everyone when the time is right. Stay tuned.

Saturday 3 August 2013

Worth Writing Home About: Payday 2 Beta

So it's a little known fact about me that I am a complete sucker for online shooters. Not your Quakes or your Counter-Strikes, mind you - they're for children and grown adults who still have the superior reaction times of children. No, I like my shooters the way I like everything in life - just a little bit different. Payday was one of those shooters.

Both games in the series have you and three others tackle criminal jobs from bank heists to drug heists to... jewel heists (you get the picture) and you do this in general by completing objectives (drill the bank vault, signal the boat, find the explosives etc). Hindering you in this regard are many, many policemen. The games could be described as L4D with cops instead of zombies, but to be honest that might be overselling Payday's AI. Here are some of the ways in which Valve's zombies are smarter / more plausible than Payday's people:
  • Zombies run on curved lines, making them more organic-seeming and less predictable.
  • Cops run in straight lines.
  • Zombies take tactical advantage of their strengths and weakness (ie they run at you as soon as they see you).
  • Cops take almost no tactical advantage of their strengths and weaknesses (ie they run at you as soon as they see you).
  • Zombies die when you shoot them in the face.
  • Cops die when you shoot them in the face three or four times.

I loved the first game despite its laughable AI. I guess I did so primarily because it was a riff on the L4D formula, which itself is still fresh enough to support similar products with different body paint. Payday delivered the same style of frantic co-op drama that Turtle Rock's zombie game did, but I think profited from more varied objectives contextualised by a heist movie setting that's more interesting and liberating than L4D's get-to-the-chopper overtones. It's fun to shoot zombies with your mates; but it's more fun (at least in principle) to stride into a bank and tell everyone to get down while your mates disable the cameras and beat the vault codes out of the manager. Payday 1, then, was an average co-op shooter with horrible AI, but it was attached to a compelling and ambitious setting.

The first thing to say about the sequel is that it does everything except fix the one bit that needed to be. For all of Payday's reactive, multi-stage missions, for all of its weapon customisation, enhanced stealthing and more varied heists... no matter how much you enjoy these things (and I have done) the core of the game will be waiting just around the corner to slap you over the head and remind you that you're not an awesome super-crook; you're just a guy (can you use 'guy' as a unisex term in this way? Discuss.), in a game, pretending to be a super-crook by shooting dozens of zombie cops in the face (many times each).

The second thing to say is that a bunch of other stuff has changed. There is now a more extensive, XP-based weapon and character customisation system. Enough said about that. There is also a broader range of stealth options in the levels themselves, which is appreciated. It's still bloody hard to pull off a stealth run (and when one goes wrong it's doubly depressing that the relative complexity of the stealth systems isn't reflected in the relentless combat that your bumbling has triggered); but it's eminently more possible than it was in the first game, and more interesting to do, too.

The scale of the levels has been altered too. It's worth noting that this is only the beta, and it comes with what I assume is a fraction of the full complement of maps (it's less than ten at the mo), but what is available is on a much smaller scale than the last batch. Gone are the days of being spread out over a vast complex of rooms and corridors; now we have much more intimate spaces. It feels less dynamic, but more plausible. It's hard to believe anything that happens in these games, but I guess four men are more likely to hold up a two storey jewelry shop on the high-street than a banking conglomerate. Sadly one repercussion of pinning the players into small spaces seems to have been the complete paralysis of the mission design team. Tasked with finding reasons to keep the criminal gang in a specified location for a particular length of time, the only thing they've been able to come up with is to drill holes in things, which takes loads of time, apparently, and is subject to frequent mechanical hitches. When you're not waiting for a drill to finish you're waiting for a van (or a boat, or a helicopter) to show up and whisk away the money. I know this happened a lot in the first game, too; but it seems worse here. No level has more than two real objectives: get the money, get out. I realise that's what a heist is, but what happened to interrogating bank managers, blowing through roofs and freeing captive prisoners?

Again, I should note that there's loads of the game I've not seen yet; but what I have seen doesn't fill me with confidence. Presumably the downsizing was in order to make way for the series' new USP: the multi-stage missions where events in later maps are determined by performance in the earlier ones. Sadly there's only one mission available with three stages at the mo, so I can't comment on how well that's working. 

I'm aware that this is sounding a bit overwhelmingly negative. I don't mean it to - I've had fun with Payday 2, and I'm dying to see the new maps. I love the efforts Overkill have gone to to make this a world, not just a series of missions. I like being able to see my money and guns on a table in my safehouse, and getting a little audio briefing before a job. The guns are meatier too. It's just that I wish all these cool things were built around a better, more plausible game. Payday has always been close to delivering a truly special experience; the holistic career criminal experience. All it would take is half the cops with twice the brains. I appreciate that one little sentence entails years of work, but I think Payday is worth it. I like interacting with other people in more interesting ways than shooting them multiple times in the face, and Payday is still one of the best opportunities to do that.

I probably shouldn't score this since it's only a beta, but I think you're smart enough to appreciate that and judge accordingly.

Polish: 1 out of 2
Tilt: 1 out of 2
(Scoring explained here)

Payday 2 is available on Steam for £24.99, or £29.99 for instant beta access.

Friday 19 July 2013

The Swapper Postmortem - What Went Right

I feel like this is going to entail a lot of brain-work on my part when I should be writing my MA dissertation on sustainable contractual justice, so if you don't mind I'm just going to launch straight into it.

Needless to say, spoilers throughout.

What Went Right
Balance of Subtlety in Exposition
It is so hard to find the sweet spot between obvious and obscure. That we seem to have hit upon it is probably a matter of luck more than anything else. The challenge you have with the sorts of narrative mechanics we're using is that:
  • it's hard to keep the player's attention for long, owing to lack of interactivity in the narrative itself and lack of on-screen visual resources (no fancy animations, no facial expressions)
  • when you do have the player's attention you generally have to cover a lot of ground very quickly; a kitchen-sink approach to sci-fi tropes convolutes matters
  • different players pay different attention to both optional and forced narrative delivery; you need to give everyone the bare bones to keep moving forward, but give those that want it that bit more
  • it's super hard to playtest objectively, and - if I can say it without being lynched - informed opinions about games narrative are harder to find than bugs are
My fear in advance of release was that the game would be too difficult to fathom. This, to some degree, has been borne out. An awful lot of reviews refer to the protagonist as a man; in fact that little detail is a great barometer for whether or not someone's been paying attention / I've made it too obscure. 

Incidentally, I read some interesting discussion about whether or not the protagonist's gender is a spoiler. Part of me thinks we should have asked reviewers not to mention it (in fact I rather assumed most would choose not to for players' sake) because it does give you some clue as to her identity and to what's going on. The point made on the comments thread was that since the gender is never actually specified to you there's no reason to assume she's a boy or a girl, and the fact that she turns out to be a girl ought no more be a spoiler than if she turned out to have red hair, or be called Clive.

It's true that we don't do a lot of work in The Swapper to guarantee players' following of the story. In Penumbra we had load screen texts where the player directly reminds you of the salient stuff that's happened up to now precisely to solve these problems; indeed it's something games like Driver: San Francisco and Remember Me do to mind-numbing excess. In The Swapper there are three cinematic scenes which progress the plot, and for the most part they're the only time that we really underline the important points. In fact, it was only a week or two before release that Olli - I think with good insight - insisted we re-record lines for the final Theseus scene which more clearly emphasised the complicated existential situation Scavenger/Chalmers/Dennett finds hirself in. 

On another sidenote, I had male voices in mind for all the characters when I wrote them, but the possibility of a female cast was on the agenda. Olli decided on the switch, and I was all in favour, the week before we recorded. What we left open - because, really, it didn't matter - was the original gender of Chalmers and Dennett. I think maybe we left in some clue in one direction or another, but in the end that character sounds female because it's a female body, and I don't know that assumptions can be made beyond that (unless I've forgotten some further reference in the final script, which frankly is possible).

Stimulating Thought, Not Providing Answers
I think there is an answer to the mind/body problem. I think there is no such thing as a soul or a non-material realm, and I think consciousness will turn out to be identified with some kind of physical function or arrangement, with its experiential quality essentially explained away. Nothing would give me more pleasure than to construct a game like a logical argument for that conclusion, and there are some stubborn explanatory gaps in The Swapper's backstory which might suggest a conclusion of that sort (more on which later), but in the end what accounted for a lot of what people liked about the story and its philosophical content was precisely that it didn't push them firmly in one direction or another (more on which here).

The goal of challenging people's preconceptions regardless of what they were provided plenty of substance for the story. We knew we needed a way of representing these different points of view without bias, and we knew that however the Swapper device itself was involved in the story its use would have to reflect the deep-seated epistemological and metaphysical problems that face those two points of view. You can almost see how the whole story logically arises from those few initial premises.

In the end a lot of bad video games try to be power-fantasies; and presenting a thoroughly materialist manifesto in The Swapper would have been just that for me and, I should think, some large part of the audience. There's nothing unsettling about having your deeply held beliefs reinforced to you. The literature arguing against materialism is vast owing not to some huge percentage of philosophers who believe in the soul, but to the fact that no materialist theory seems to be quite satisfactory to anyone yet, and we need to keep working on it. That observation is at the very core of the game, and of what makes the mind so fascinating in the first place.

The Ending
I've said it before, and hopefully I'll have a chance to say it again: when an ending that I've worked on goes down well it's the greatest complement. It's probably a by-product of my abnormal fixation with logic - just as a correct answer in a maths equation is more important than showing your working, somehow if an audience approves of an ending then they implicitly approve of the whole thing. Certainly in my mind the ending is always the logical conclusion of what's come before (or just as frequently what comes before are the logical steps to reach a particular conclusion).

On The Swapper, as on Penumbra, the ending was stubborn until the last. We went through countless alternatives - some were concepted out, others were ideas that survived mere days. One decision we took early on was to have the game begin and end on the planet, Chori V (so-called during development because one of Carlo's first choir tracks played during that sequence), and that it should obviously involve the use of the Swapper in some meaningful way. This limited us vastly. There's only so many things the Swapper can do, and only so many actors in play at the end of the game. We could let you swap with the Head Watcher, or starve to death, or... about 20 different variations on those ideas. We didn't even consider allowing the player to get off the planet, or be rescued; that didn't seem to deliver on any of our themes, nor did it seem cohesive with the isolationist feel or the substance of the story.

In fairness to him, Olli wasn't satisfied with any of my ideas until the one that made the final game - he didn't let me sit on my laurels - and I think what we got in the end is better than anything we had before. We'd spent days on Skype to-ing and fro-ing over what was basically the same set of ideas pitched slightly differently when Olli suggested that once on the planet we needed some kind of goal or gameplay, and that maybe there was some kind of emergency broadcast antenna which the player could go switch on/off, for some reason or other. None of us seemed to particularly go for it, including Olli, but it did take us on that extra leap towards the idea of a distress signal and a rescue ship. We had to bodge it a bit - the characters have to be unaware the ship is on its way initially else their motivations don't fit - but the idea basically made it through unscathed. 

What worked, I think, was that it put the central problem in stark relief. Previously the alternatives we were working with were swapping with the Watchers, swapping with the antagonist, or simply waiting to die. What made me uncomfortable about those was how hard it is to map them onto particular player motivations. I don't know if the player's chosen to swap with the Watchers because he believes he has an eternal soul, or because he's a reckless adventurer. By bringing in the rescue ship we're able to give the player the binary choice between swapping, or dying, and that's something we can much better map. Consequently if you choose to do what you have to to go on you get a poignant / slapstick scene in which your survival seems assured, but no one seems particularly to know or care whether it's your survival in particular. Provided the moment of that decision conjures to mind the issues we were trying to present throughout the game, all at once, then it's done its job. If the bit that comes after that can prod you just a little bit more then all the better for it.

A small, focused team. The Swapper was worked on by a game designer / artist, a level designer, a musician and a writer. Each of us had a high degree of ownership over our respective roles, with Olli (our team lead) keeping an eye on the overall product. Going into reviews I think everyone had the same fear I did: that each of our areas would turn out to be the weakest link. That most of the reviews commented on the coherency of the complete package I think is testament to what a small, dedicated team can do that is a far tougher demand of larger developers. It also, of course, reflects what you can do when there isn't a marketing department breathing down your neck, or a concern that your game won't sell unless the protagonist is a buff 30 year old male.

Next time: what went wrong.

EDIT: It occurred to me about three minutes after putting this post live that I said I'd run it by Olli before posting, and I forgot to. Having now done so it's apparent that Olli is concerned that a discussion of the game like this so soon after release will influence players' experiences of it. I think that if people choose to read this and that changes, for better or worse, their opinion of the game, then that's fine and good; but in the interests of me keeping my job on the next game from Facepalm I'll be delaying the 'What Went Wrong' until we're somewhat further out the gate (okay, Olli didn't actually threaten me, and I hope he would hire me again whether I did what I was told or not, but best to play it safe, eh?)

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Free Indie Game: Outer Wilds

Don't look at the trailer. Don't read this. Play (at as high a resolution as you can manage). It only takes 20 minutes. Then explore some more, and come back when you're done.

Monday 24 June 2013

What Would You Ask Chris Avellone If You Had the Chance?

Because we do! I met Chris here in London the other night which - apart from being quite surreal (Planescape is like the bible around here) - gave me the opportunity to flagrantly abuse my position and tie him into an interview.

I'll be firing some questions at him tomorrow. If there's something you want to know, put it here.

The Games You Must Have Played in 2012/13 - Part 2

Part 1 here.

Mark of the Ninja
Another Klei title? Definitely. Mark the Ninja, as he is called by sensible people, has an excellent stealth game built around him. While we seem to be rather spoilt for indie stealth titles at the moment (Monaco, Gunpoint, The Swindle...), Mark stands out for being a purer implementation of the ideal, for being rather more substantial in terms of content, and for actually being released. There's also a story packed in there with a fun twist, though it's perhaps not what you'll really be savouring.

Also ninjas.

Also I was reminded in San Francisco that Klei started out with Eets, which I recall from a long lost era when indie games weren't so much of a thing, and which I'm told was the first indie game ever on Steam, which is pretty weird to think about.

I really wasn't sure I was going to like Monaco. A quick play at PAX last year only exposed me to the quick-fire chaos of a noob game, and I didn't want arcade, I wanted stealth. Turns out it's my favourite game of the year so far.

The devs are right when they say whatever game you want from Monaco is in there somewhere. Soloing each level, taking it slow and methodical, is possible and highly rewarding, but playing with a reasonably experienced team is even more so. It's amazing how quickly you get comfortable enough with the mechanics to start improvising on the move.

Monaco is a brilliant co-operative stealth game that is worth every single penny, and that's all I'm going to say about it. Oh, and the map editor is coming out soon, apparently, out now in beta, and I am excited. have made a level.

The Walking Dead
And finally, because I'm super lazy and want to go play Don't Starve / read about political justifications for environmentalism / have a smoke / write a Swapper post-mortem... I will simply say: play The Walking Dead. It is amazing, there is new DLC coming out, and I will be surprised if it doesn't take the Writers' Guild of Great Britain Award this year. Oh, and the first episode is free on iPad. Boom.

Saturday 15 June 2013

The Swapper Sort of Postmortem & Game Key Give Away!


That's what I felt when the first review came in. Admittedly we'd had some indication from the press that The Swapper's reception would be warm, but I don't believe anything until it's in front of me, hence the non-committal tone of the pre-release post.

As it turns out, things went well. In fact, I think we've all been blown away by the game's reception, and by the fact that everyone is now paying their bills. Certainly I have never read kinder words about my work, and I'm thrilled that it's on a game I was so heavily involved with, and which reflects my particular philosophical passions so well.

So I was going to write this piece as a sort of round-up of some of the criticisms made in reviews, and look for where we went wrong. I'm certain there are places that we went wrong, but it seems the reviews are not going to tell us where. Instead I'll just delay it by telling you about some of the nice post-release stuff we've got going on.

First off, the Steam forums have developed into an active little community:
  • Fans are racing our level designer, Otto, for speedrun times. Otto currently has it with 29m24s, and if you've played the game you should check out his vid for sheer elegance, and to wonder how even the guy who built these levels can keep track of who he is when he's hurtling through the game at this sort of pace.
  • People are discussing the story at great length.
  • I have deviously persauded people to read more about philosophy of mind.
  • And, okay, there's also a four page contingent of people with Intel HD graphics waiting for a fix. It's coming, but until then be warned: this game probably doesn't work with Intel HD graphics.
Second off, I have two Steam codes for The Swapper to give away. Would you like one? If so, write your most convincing three word argument for the existence of god in the comments and check back in about 5 days. The two I like the most will earn themselves a Swapper key!

Finally, expect a fuller analysis of what we did in the game, why, and how we could have done it better at some point soon.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

The Games You Must Have Played 2012/13 - Part 1 of 2

There was a time on this blog when I did previews and recommended games and things, and that time is returning... NOW! I've been stuck in exams and The Swapper crunch for the last month or three, but no longer.

Every week I play games that are worth writing about. I rarely actually write because the internet is full of such things, and actually lists are a bit time consuming to write; but it is worth doing if even one person comes here and is sold on a game they'd not gotten around to yet, so here we go. These are the games that stirred that childhood emotion inside me of wonder and delight over the last year.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown
My word does XCOM make me realise how much TBS fans have been hard done by over the past decade, and how glad I am those days are over. Frozen Synapse reinvigorated my interest in the genre, and games like Memoir '44, Hero Academy and Rad Soldiers have been sustaining it. XCOM well and truly sates it.

It's hard not to admit that a big part of XCOM's appeal is in the looks (especially with the HD mods). The cover system is similar in function to Rad Soldiers' (though far more nuanced than), but seeing your people actually dashing for cover in roadie-cam, being pinned down by suppressing fire and shying away from incoming fire actually makes me feel like a commander. Sure the animation and clipping is still seriously rough really quite frequently, but who cares?

The meta-game deserves mention as well. While it's not as involved as the classics, it does a decent enough job of representing to you the global view, and the dramatic progress that you're making. I love the X-Com experience more than anything because it's holistic: I don't feel like I'm playing a game, I feel like I'm defending the world from aliens.

Don't Starve
If I'm honest, I've not booted Don't Starve since it officially released. It hit that point for me where I hadn't played in a while, and I couldn't bring myself to make the reinvestment in the perma-death only to starve gruesomely yet again. Don't Starve, it's true, has a bunch of features that distance me from it. There's not enough hand-holding for me - I like feedback from a game that I'm doing something significant, even if it's only a few lines of text. There's a bit of grind in the Minecraft-y elements as well, and frankly clicking on tiles all day so I can make my garden more aesthetically pleasing isn't the sort of activity I'm ever likely to engage in voluntarily.

None of this is to say I didn't thoroughly enjoy the hours I put in during the beta. I love Don't Starve because it's one of the best survival games I've played. I love dynamic systems, I love fleshed out worlds, and Don't Starve's nightmare wilderness is at once fascinating, fluid and convincing.

Quite apart from its lovely aesthetic, Journey was an important game for me for its 'co-op'. By eliminating almost all interaction, and then placing players in that beautiful, ever shifting desert Journey achieves that most difficult of goals: it takes the general awfulness of people on the internet and turns it into something wonderful. Okay, perhaps the way I've described this makes Journey a sort of lobotomy: take all the tools away from people and they've got no choice but to be nice; but play through the game to the end with someone you'll never know and tell me you didn't appreciate it.

Part 2 next week.

Friday 24 May 2013

The Swapper Releases Next Week!

It's that weird time again when all those months of work transmorph into an actual playable video game - and some of you would be surprised how often that is not the case. After years on 'currently on hold' AAAs at the likes of Hydravision and Sega Hardlight I can't express how good it is to have my name on not one but two fantastic indie releases in the space of nine months.

The Swapper is coming to Steam Thursday, 30th May 2013. It is currently confirmed for Windows and Steam only, but we hope to offer a Mac build, as well as sell via other digital storefronts, on or shortly after release.

So, this is the point where I usually tell you a bit about the game, and what I did on it, but that's all discussed in the narrative design blog I put up at the Facepalm Games blog the other day. Instead I shall tell you what The Swapper feels like to me, just to see if it holds your attention.

First it feels very familiar. Working on The Swapper reminds me of working on Penumbra: both games are puzzlers made by young, four-man teams (at least, I was young when I made Penumbra); and my role on them has been more extensive than, say, on Driver or FTL where I was providing text without the overarching narrative design responsibilities. I'm also reminded of the guessing games we were playing with Penumbra's metacritic score and sales - the former of which was still very much in its infancy at the time. When you're on a AAA or a sequel you have a good idea of what to expect from the critical reaction. You have a basis for comparison. With The Swapper we just don't know, and that's a lot of fun. It's nice that 6 years after Penumbra Valve is actually letting indie games onto its platform as well; that should make a big difference.

All the same, I have no real idea of what to expect - for once the release and review embargo feels like a major event. Our break-even point (the sales we need to pay back indie-fund's investment and begin making profits ourselves) is not massive. In fact I'd be taken aback if we didn't hit it in the first week - but who the hell knows? We're so close to the game now that it's hard to tell. Should we have layered up the story in this way? Should we have made things simpler? Should we have gone with that actor? Things have changed a lot over the course of development, and I no longer have a gut feeling about which way things will go. The unique art style is invisible to me now (and I was never very visually-minded in the first place); the experience of the player as they work through the narrative is hard to synthesise, and we've not had a lot of QA in that area; every word we've heard from critics and journos has been positive, but then previews always are. Next Friday is going to be exciting.

I keep reminding myself that the puzzles, at least, are inventive and satisfying. They are the strongest part of this game, and that's the way it should be. I only hope my writing doesn't let them down. We'll find out soon enough.

Saturday 20 April 2013

PAX East & GDC 2013 Debrief

So that whole thing happened, and I am still reeling. I've been trying to think of an angle from which to write up the trip, but have failed, so instead you get the pictorial highlights reel. Lucky old you.

This is our hostel in Boston. It doesn't look it but it was quite luxurious. So much more space in US cities. Also full fried breakfast in the price. Lush.

This is our booth. It's got a rather sleeker black vibe going on compared with last year's, and four HD tellies. We were blaring out the trailer on the big screen, but after a while we started hearing the same two lines of dialogue over and over in our dreams and we had to turn the sound down.

Klei Entertainment are awesome. Play Mark of the Ninja and Don't Starve immediately. As Alia (software engineer, above centre) pointed out to me, they're somewhere in between being a small indie and a pro-developer, and that's a theme that continues throughout the conference. So many people from so many different areas of development all with their own ideas about who's doing important work - and me, somewhere bang in the middle.

PAX was fantastic for us. Quite apart from hanging out with excellent indies like Klei, The Men Who Wear Many Hats, and Blendo Games we secured some lovely coverage for The Swapper. Head to Game Informer, IGN or the New York Post for more.

Also massive props to Kelly and Megabooth for everything and being excellent.

So then we hit San Francisco. Neither Olli (Facepalm Games) nor I had full conference tickets, so this was basically the start of our holiday. I immediately went to Golden Gate Park and was attacked by this gopher thing.

The cab back to the conference hall was surreal. My first time out and about in a city I've written for in a game, and here I am sitting in the back of a cab driving through those iconic streets, listening to a game developer conversation that could have been straight out of the game. I was having fun.

The following days involved avoiding the infamously overcrowded / crap GDC parties, hanging in the indie hostel, and seesawing between horrendously overpriced beers and entirely free ones. The indie hostel was an experience in itself - and entire building taken over by everyone from Zachtronics to Vlambeer. Keeping as I do various fingers in various pies, the whole thing was a slightly different world. Olli knows every game and every person in the room. I can't tell the difference between a student and someone putting out a game everyone else in the room evangelises. At the same time, the writers are a few blocks away on the 40th floor of the Marriott hotel drinking $7.50 beers. I'm getting a bit bored of the stale pizza-by-the-slice, so it's nice to have both options available.

We hit the Humble Bundle party that night, which is a most civilised affair in an old mint building. It of course ends with champagne and scotch being snaffled before the free bar closes, but it's a good crowd, and I manage to pin down John Walker and secure Ir/rational investigator a playtest and some coverage.

The next thing that happens are the IGF awards, in which FTL is nominated, which seem to take us all by surprise. I find my way to our table and meet Justin's parents and assorted family - there are only four of us who credited on the game, but from what I understand it's very much a group endeavour. I can't imagine bringing my parents to an awards show, but Justin's dad was in the industry, and they are awesome and well into the swing of things. We win three awards, I get up on stage once, look very nervous and forget to thank my girlfriend, then we eat tacos and go to the Steam party.

The parties later that night are yet more surreal. We go to the Wild Rumpus, and pretty much everyone I've met in the last week is there, and has been watching the awards. The Subset guys aren't really much part of the indie scene - they're out of AAA, they want to keep their team small, and they want to make the games they love. The limelight is perhaps not their territory. Still, for one night we are minor celebrities. It's quite strange.

The following day I lend a hand on the booth, which really just involves shaking peoples' hands and awkwardly taking credit for Justin and Matt's work. Everyone's played the game, so they just want to come over and say thanks. I love the picture above, because Justin (2nd from right) and Matt (3rd from right) are talking to a chap who worked on the old X-Wing vs Tie Fighter games, which are one of the guys' core inspirations. For once on this trip they get to be the ones meeting their industry heroes.

It was a thrill to spend time with Subset, with Facepalm, and with all the other devs I met out there. I really am lucky to work on the fantastic games I have done, and there's nothing like seeing a bunch of other people making fantastic stuff to make you want to go home and do some more of your own.

As ever, I'll keep you posted on that front.

Monday 8 April 2013

How to Hire a Games Writer

It seems like I've written a bunch of stuff on how to freelance and secure jobs as a writer, but very little about the other side of that equation - how studios can go about finding and selecting writers. If anything it's perhaps the bigger open question of the two.

Writing is still a new and niche enough discipline that a majority of the people who have hired me have been hiring a writer for the very first time - and they sometimes come across me in the most roundabout of ways. So maybe you're a one-man band looking for someone to write some short dialogues; maybe you're a producer on a AAA tasked with finding a narrative designer. Where do you start?

Where to Look for Writers
Most developers probably know and have worked with numerous freelance programmers, artists and musicians - but if you're hiring a writer for the first time, where should you look?

Online Databases
There are a bunch of sites which allow freelancers of all kinds to upload their details for your perusal, like this one. These are often hit and miss - some are out of date, most have no curation, and many still don't have a separate category for writers. Still, they're usually free for everyone, and a LinkedIn search is never a bad idea. You could also check out local writers' guilds, or the IGDA list - but at the end of the day writers have the same problems getting their names in front of you as you do finding theirs because the channels are so niche and distributed.

Recruitment Agencies
Generally recruitment firms aren't setup to deal with contract positions, but they do have large databases, including lots of writers, so it may not hurt to get in touch. There's a cost associated with advertising via a recruitment agency, but you should have the benefit of a wider reach and some degree of curation on the part of the agent. I was actually contacted by Interactive Selection the other week for a full-time position which I seriously considered, and I'd not been on their site in years, so the reach may work for you.

Writers' Agencies
An agent will represent anywhere from a couple to twenty-odd experienced writers - those ont he smaller side are often a small cabal of writers pooling their marketing resources. A good agent will have writers with guaranteed experience on their books, and be able to recommend particular people for particular jobs, provide a team of writers, or give you an opportunity to meet and assess some potentials.

The only agency with which I have any experience - and the only one I'm aware of of its size and experience - is Sidelines. It currently represents 16 writers (myself included), and frankly I was lucky to get in the door with only the Penumbra games when I did, because in their five years' operation the entry requirements have only gotten tougher. An agency will charge a small commission, which generally comes out of the writer's side.

Do Some DIY Headhunting
You might be surprised by how many games are written by freelance writers. While you can rule out a lot of AAA RPGs, games as diverse as Fable, Tomb Raider, Deus Ex and Hitman all involve freelancers one way or another. It can't hurt to get onto MobyGames, find out who did what on a game you reckon, and click through to their bio to see. Any good freelancer should have a few credits to their name and - if they're any kind of marketer - have their details filled out.

Email the IGDA Writers SIG
There are a lot of experienced writers on this list, and there are also also a lot of journalists and students. Treat accordingly.

How to Select a Writer
Once you've got some names in mind, what should you do? First, read this. That'll give you an idea for rates and standard engagements. Next you should get in touch with your shortlist and gauge their interest in the project. If they're game then - unless you've got someone whose previous work you're sure enough of not to bother - I'd suggest constructing and issuing a short writing test. I think out-of-context samples suck (at least watch a video of the game in action), and often enough the samples a writer has to hand will not sell them to their full. Samples tell you what a writer was able to do under different conditions. A bespoke test tells you what they can actually do for your project.

The test should ask the candidate to write according to a brief in keeping with the project, and should test each of the disciplines required for the role (eg dialogue writing, character design, prose, dialogue trees etc). For a short engagement ( less than 10 days), I'd say a few hundred words is reasonable. For a larger project you should probably stretch to a couple of thousand.

There is a general consensus between the agencies and writing guilds that writers should be paid for the time they spend on tests. I suppose there would be. The reality is that we're often not, and personally I will always take the chance to do a test for a game I'm interested in, whether it's paid or not. If you can afford it, or if you're asking for a big chunk of work, or multiple meetings / submissions then we certainly appreciate it. If not then don't let it put you off.

If you're not sure how to go about constructing the test and you don't have another writer on hand to do it for you, either give your candidate what they need to know about the game and let them take the lead (they should be more than capable of doing so) or get in touch with me.

Finally, get experienced second opinions on the tests. If possible meet your candidates in person, or over Skype. Make a call.

That's it. You've got yourself a writer.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

I Will Be at PAX East & GDC

You spend your whole career hoping your AAA bosses will send you to the big US shows, then a small indie game comes along and sends you to three at once. Thank you, Facepalm Games.

Yes, next week I'll be accompanying my latest indie project, The Swapper, and Olli (its Lead Designer) to PAX East, where we'll be demoing the game on the Indie Megabooth floor. The Megabooth is gargantuan as viewed through the lens of my esteem, and pretty-well filled-out by anyone's reckoning: it's the beating heart of the indie dev presence at PAX, and the people are top. Do get yourself there.

Following that we'll be flying across the country to hit GDC in San Francisco. I have helped make a game based in that town, but I have not been there, so I can't wait to find out what all these invisible walls are actually made of.

Once there I'll be accompanying the chaps from Subset Games to the IGF Awards in which FTL is nominated; and generally milling about the place going "Gosh, isn't Develop quaint." (Develop is the UK equivalent of GDC, American chums).

I'll be in the US for ten days, and throughout that time I'll also be demoing Ir/rational Investigator on iPad. Whether you're press, dev or consumer, if you fancy a play drop me a line or come find me!

I'll be at PAX East 22 - 24 March 2013, at the Facepalm Games booth.
I'll be at GDC 25 - 30 March 2013.

Hope to see you there.

Sunday 10 February 2013

How I Got my First Job - Penumbra: Overture

Here's laziness for you. By far and away the most common question I'm asked by aspiring writers - after 'How do you be a games writer?' - is 'How did you get your first job?'. As much as I love hearing from and helping aspiring writers where I can, perhaps this post can save us all some time that we can then spend on nice things like writing tests, and reading RPS.

I got my first job, as narrative designer on Penumbra: Overture, at the end of 2006. I was 22, and halfway through an English & Philosophy BA at Southampton. I'd been reading books, playing games and writing stories for as long as I could remember. I'd been in the habit of sending sporadic bursts of emails to UK devs - at first looking for work experience (I didn't get any), then for entry-level QA and production jobs, which landed me a Summer's work at Lionhead on Black & White 2 the previous year. I don't know what spurred me to to switch from applying for actual jobs that existed to fantasy writing jobs that I figured should exist, but post-Lionhead I decided the smartest route into the industry was as a writer. After all, I was actually in the process of getting a qualification that would support my applications, and I already knew rather more about writing than I did about production or level design. Youthful naivety can be a valuable resource.

I recall one thing that happened at Lionhead while I was there that might have triggered my shift in focus. A few months before release a bunch of the other QA guys got together and wrote a short intro script that would frame the gameplay of B&W2 in a way more consistent with the mythology of the first. Frankly it was needed - any semblance of narrative progress that existed in the first game had largely been stripped out of the combat-oriented sequel, and it really didn't make much sense. In the end the idea didn't even get as far as being vetted - we'd hit text lock weeks earlier - but the image stayed with me. I realised that if Lionhead was approaching writing in so haphazard a way then maybe even a writer of my mediocrity could make a difference.

Luckily enough the indie game revolution was well under way by now. For the first time that I could remember the games I wanted to play weren't in the hands of the big corporations - everyone was doing it. Suddenly the people making the games were as inexperienced as I was. I started emailing small studios, new studios, eastern European studios... anyone doing something interesting that might be able to make use of a writer. No one replied.

And then I sent this email:

> Dear Penumbra,
> First of all, many congratulations on Penumbra - the physics based
> interaction interface is so intuitive it's a wonder it hasn't been done
> before.
> I read that you are embarking on a commercial project, and I wish you
> all the best with this, and wish to offer my services.
   The area that interested me particularly was the potential of the
> narrative to further enhance the atmosphere.  It's a promising start, but I
> think there's so much more that could be done with the actual
> implementation of the narrative, from the introduction, to the item
> descriptions, to the character's internal narrative during the game.
> I realise that Penumbra is currently a tech demo: obviously you have
> plans for the commercial release.  If you are currently looking for
> publisher financing, however, I would imagine that the tech demo is
> your greatest tool of persuasion, and as such, it would benefit from
> being as polished as it possibly can be.
> I am a UK based writer with a keen interest in the future of narrative
> based video gaming.  I have had a play with the config file for
> Penumbra, and I see that it is very easy to adapt in-game text, and I
> would love the chance to help write a more stream-lined, more engaging
> script and narrative for Penumbra.
> In case you are interested, I enclose below a re-imaging of the
> original introductory text, to demonstrate what can be done with the
> material.  If you enjoy it, please do contact me at the email provided.
> Yours sincerely,
> Tom Jubert

Despite addressing the email to the name of the game rather than the team, Frictional responded and offered me a volunteer position on the commercial project, with an unspecified offer of royalties on release.

And that is the story of how I got my first job.