Git a job az a Gayme Diviloper!

The topic of conversation in one of my other posts has meandered around to the art of crafting a game instead of the industry of manufacturing (“making”) a game. Julian over at bettergame reposted some pretty in-depth comments originally written a few years ago about the topic as well.

I have suggested (and ranted for years) that the game industry has focused too much on flash (particularly graphics) and neglected substance. Publishers have eschewed adventure games for years now, story is relatively non-existent in nearly every game on the market (a “setting” does not count as story or plot), and the few attempts at creating a rich and evocative game with depth and complexity have usually ended up being overly complicated and confusing.

Story (not setting) is incredibly important to crafting a great game. What do you have without it? Imagine a movie with the most impressive and high-tech graphics and visuals you have ever seen…add in sound and effects so real, you literally feel like you are right in the middle of the action. But what if the movie is simply about two people sitting at a table eating Doritos? Sure, the killer trailer got you to open up your wallet and go to see the movie, but so what? Without story, dialogue, plot, character development, conflict, content, and interaction, you leave the theater with an empty feeling that is easily forgotten.

You cannot have a good story without good writers. Our industry will never truly evolve into the next stage until we have more emphasis on writing and story. “Content is King” as they say, but Story is the power behind the throne.

Some thoughts before I continue rambling from my soapbox…

First, years and years ago, TV shows were pretty shallow. They were short, facile, and forgettable. It was rare for a show to offer ongoing plot and any semblance of a story with continuity that would last for more than a single episode. Conversely, games, particularly adventure games, were extremely rich and offered lush worlds to explore, even if the graphics were primitive by the standards of today. Some of the best games ever created (and that still have an influence today) were crafted with extreme restrictions and limitations. Zork was simply text based. Diplomacy was limited to four colors (black, white, cyan, magenta), and Bard’s Tale had sixteen.

Anyway, my point here is that years ago, games = depth and complexity and TV = shallow entertainment. Today however, things are quite different. Games and gameplay have been diminished into simplicity and banal shallowness. Television on the other hand, has made great strides into claiming the throne that games once had. LOST, Heroes, 24, The Sopranos, ROME, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, and many others are pretty good examples. The worlds are rich and many layered, with subtlety wielded by master writers.

But for games? We are more concerned with how big our gun is, whether or not that hot elf chick has melon sized breasts, and how many things we can blow-up and destroy are immediately available. This reminds me of something else I wrote in my book (go buy it already!)…destructive versus constructive gaming and its relevance to gender appeal. But I’m not going to talk about that today.

As our industry continues on a terrible downward spiral, it is also growing rapidly. That means that more and more people are becoming gamers, and a great majority of these new gamers are children and youth. I keep talking about the problem of “lowest common denominator” in our culture as a whole, but this point is dramatically illustrated here. Every time we make a game that emphasis quick and easy little rewards, shiny graphics, little or no story, separate PvP and RP servers for a role-playing game, or even something as seemingly innocuous as free and advertising based games or even double XP weekends, we lower the bar. Each time we lower the bar, we lower the expectations of gamers. As these bars descend, the chance of success for of a well crafted game that offers depth and sophistication also drops. Publishers and marketing companies keep whining and telling us that games are too hard and we have to make them “accessible” and “simple” to appeal to the mass market. The more we keep telling ourselves, the truer this mantra becomes. In ten years, the 12 year old playing with a Wii today will be part of our hardcore market. If we keep feeding them crap now, the only thing they will want later is more crap.

You know Myst sold over eleven million units? That may not seem all that impressive compared to other top-selling games *today*, but think about that for a minute. How much bigger is our industry today? If you adjust for growth and inflation, how many units does that eleven million equate to today? That certainly wasn’t an easy game. It had a highly detailed plot and storyline combined with mind numbing puzzles. How about our favorite “hard” game today? They said Eve-Online would never be successful at all because it was too complicated and the learning curve was too high. The last time I checked, Eve was still growing in numbers. To me, that says that all is not lost yet, and maybe games created to a higher standard (not just polish, but depth, complexity, and sophistication) could become a tremendous blockbuster that could reach far and penetrate deeper into the “mass” market than a silly go-kart game could. I’m not saying that simple games are bad (damn I love Katamari), I’m just saying that there is a perception in the industry that we have to keep dumbing things down to make games appealing. That ultimately means that we don’t need writers for anything other than press releases and marketing shlock.

Anyway, I did a little research tonight. I went to a number of sites that offered game industry job listings and searched for how many writers were sought after. My results were surprising…I mean, I expected the number to be small, but not this small.

GameJobs.com

83 Jobs Listed

1 for Editor/Writer (website journalist)

 

Gamesindustry.biz

1352 Jobs Listed

No Writers

(404 artist, 135 game/level designer, 529 programmer, 161 management, etc.)

 

Gamasutra.com

290 Jobs Listed

1 “Senior Writer”

Slipgate Ironworks, ironically enough (John Romero’s MMO Studio)

 

Gamedev.net

21 Jobs Listed

No Writers

 

Gignews.com

22 Jobs Listed

No Writers

 

Now, I know there are writers in the industry…pick a game and look at the credits. There is usually at least one writer listed (even if they are heavily outnumbered by everyone else). Of course, these poor saps are usually relegated to writing the manual, doing “flavor” text for quests, or editing everyone else’s work to fix atrocious spelling and grade school attempts at grammar. You would be amazed at how many emails I get, or even business plans and design documents that I review that are more like an imbroglio of letters and thoughts splattered across the page as if some alphabet soup was shotgunned all over a wall.

But why isn’t the industry hiring more writers? Why doesn’t the phrase “excellent writing skills” appear very often on job postings for *all* jobs?

Maybe this is why no one in the industry can really tell you what a producer or designer actually does, or is supposed to do. We lack a common standard language. I mentioned this before, and why it is important. Heck, even with MMORPGs, “guild” and “clan” are used interchangeably, even though both have very different meanings, and neither of which are even appropriate for a number of players forming a social organization (in this context). How many “guilds” or “clans” have you seen lately that has less than 20 members? Wouldn’t the term “gang” be more appropriate?

I wonder, if we had more writers in our industry, if they wouldn’t be sitting at their desks, demanding that people quit screwing up words and definitions, and insisting that the proper words be used in the appropriate context. Yes my friend, semantics is important.

By the way, I linked all the “big” words to their definitions over at dictionary.com. No, I am not showing off, I am trying to make a point. Good writers craft. Paper is their canvas, the pen is their paintbrush, and a broad vocabulary of words becomes a palette of rich colors with subtle meanings and differences. Graphics can make you say “wow”, music can transcend mere feeling into deep emotion, but it takes words to truly draw you in and change your life. Nothing else can communicate an idea, a philosophy, or have a real impact on our lives and history as much as the written word.

Where are the writers? Why has our culture become so disdainful of grammar, spelling, writing, and education? Have we lost our cultural soul? Where are the storytellers and dreamweavers? We may still dream in color, but the sandman is no longer welcome, and our sleepy wanderings are empty and forgotten in the morning.

If you really want to make a change, read a book. Buy a dictionary and use it. Quit using stupid abbreviations when you chat. Write some poetry. Refuse to buy any game that lacks good story, and return the ones with bad writing and terrible spelling. Ban any moron that makes fun of someone else for being a grammar or spelling nazi (what a terrible insult that is!). Challenge your peers. Demand more. Teach someone to read. Be articulate. Consumers can make or break a market…you can change the world if you really desire it.

It is getting late. I meant to write a lot more here, and throw in some sweet words like desanguination, causality, ephemeral, anthropomorphism, and excoriation, but I am running out of steam. So, for now, I will leave it to you to critique another late night rant. You get extra points if you correct a spelling or grammar mistake. Maybe I did it on purpose to see if you would notice. Or maybe, my coffee is just cold.

~ Robert / Nicodemus.

11 thoughts on “Git a job az a Gayme Diviloper!”

  1. Lots of points, young man! *whacks Nic with a ruler on his fingertips*

    First, I guess personally I’m not terribly concerned with having better and better graphics all the time. This thing of ours, for good or ill, is a visual activity 90% of the time, and we are visual creatures. So, yeah, make it look better. Make it true. But you know what I’m saying. I’m saying that I don’t want that extra veneer of glitz at the expense of other essential things. So, focusing on graphics should be a very high priority to me. But not the only priority you have. And it shows so damn hard when it’s the only priority… you can tell so easily.

    To run along with your example, I don’t wanna go to the movies and stare at a black screen for 90 minutes, even if the narrator is telling me the best story in the world with the best sound effects. Balance is key.

    On the subject of writers: I consider myself a writer (still trying to get the damn book published, but that’s grain from another sack). Writers are the red-headed stepchild of the gaming world for many reasons, but the main one is this: You don’t get much with a writer, and writers are pretty much naked.

    Writers are the real world equivalent of a high-DPS, single-target, no healing, no CC class. That is, they’re really, really good at one thing and one thing only by default. But they need lots of love, otherwise they die. It’s different in the case of an artist, for example, that has lots of software and hardware to back him up. An artist can be a mediocre texturer, for example, but there are gobs of software that can take that artist’s output, chew it a little, and spit it out looking much better. Even a mediocre designer, with some luck, can count on the help of his coders to hide or obfuscate the errors in his design with code.

    A writer is alone, and if you get a mediocre writer, you’ll get mediocre output. And there’s nothing you can do about it. No software is going to take that writer’s bland, derivative output, process it and make it look like a Tolkien short story. There’s nothing a coder or a designer can do to help hide the output of a mediocre writer, other than not to show that output at all. And if you reach that point, you’re better off just firing that writer and having the coder, the designer or the artist chip in with their bits to fill in for the writer’s output; it’ll end up being the same quality, and you save some money.

    Writers excel at one thing: writing, and that’s it. Sure, some writers can assist in other areas, but you know the case is very, very rare when you get a writer that can also code, or a writer that’s also a very good artist. So, yeah, naturally that writer once he’s done and you still want to have him around, you’re gonna put him to spellcheck the mountain of shitgrammar his coworkers produce, or to ’embellish’ quest text by adding a few words that are not monosyllabic. Some can even help beta test and make coffee. But that’s about it.

    When you get a writer, that’s all you get in most cases. Designers, coders and artists are usually more versatile. And when they’re not, they have software and hardware to back them up. The writer has his word processor, and that’s it.

    One last thing, keep in mind that it’s much, much easier to see when a designer, a coder or an artist is screwing up. It’s right there in front of you at a glance. Knowing when a writer is fraggin’ up usually is more subtle, and may involve periods of reading – the bane of middle management! That’s why writers seem to have that certain, very tenuous aura of uncertainty around them. Most people don’t know how to approach the writer’s work, or how to determine if it’s good, crap or *something else*. Yeah, writers take advantage of that. Mea culpa ex profeso, I guess. But it’s there. Writers, and their production, is usually less approachable and appraisable than everyone else’s.

    Regarding our collective state of dumbing down: That’s huge, and there’s no room to talk about here, I’m afraid. But it’s a good point. Valid now, valid 20 years ago, and I fear will be valid 20 years from now.

  2. I’m going to put dirt in your inkwell for smacking my knuckles.

    One of the curious aspects of our industry, is that the people that tend to excel the most are generally the ones that are capable of wearing more than one hat (and no, I don’t mean asshats… those are never in style). Looking back at my examples of how some of the greatest games were made years ago (easily more than 12 or so) it is interesting to note that the number of people involved was dramatically smaller than what you would expect today. Going back even further, and the team size drops down to a handful of people, and in some cases, less than five.

    Heck, in one of my first projects, I was designer, artist, animator, and sound effects engineer.

    Two of the points I was trying to make (among a gazillion others) was that 1) The industry isn’t even bothering to hire token writers anymore, and we are at a point where we need some fresh blood with a focus and emphasis on writing and storytelling and
    2) Hiring standards for all positions need to start making “good writing skills” an important qualification, on top of everything else. This is good for a number of reasons, including better work and communication, as well as adequate “skill” to fill in for “talent” that might not be there because of the lack of on-staff writers.

    Damn it is late. Maybe I’ll go dream about hosting a coding contest where all code must be in iambic pentameter. That would be amusing. Or maybe haiku.

    You know, something else that is missing…good puzzle design. Quests, particularly long ones, could really be spiced up with some quality puzzles.

  3. Writers are good. Writers are important for developing the overarching themes and storylines of your game. They absolutely play a role in the development process. In the single player arena, I think they are possibly the single most important part of the team, if you’re developing anything more complex than a movie tie-in or a throwaway shooter.

    However.

    In MMOs, I think the role of the writer is to create the main story (or stories) of the game, then mostly act as an editor and flavor text writer. I think this is even more true now as we (should) move toward procedurally generated content for the vast majority of material. At the core of the overarching story should be the writer’s work, but most of the time, players should not/will not see that core story. Simply because of the way games are designed now, “Bring me 15 kobold tails” quests are going to make up the bulk of play time, and all they require are flavor text. Sure, it’s fine if that’s woven into the larger story, and it should be, but it can be done in a very minimal way and work well.

    I’ll go one further: there are too many writers in the MMO genre, in that there are too many bad writers, or at least hack ones. As Julian touched on before, any halfway decent designer should be able to hack out something functional for text. It would be great to have a good writer come in and touch it up, but good writers often don’t want to “touch things up,” they want to rewrite them, because they’re inherently creative people. Because of that, bad writers behave, very often, in a similar way because they so desparately want to emulate good writers, down to their creative tantrums. They want to improve upon the ideas already in the script. However, if as a coder, I screw something up in an attempt to streamline or improve it, it’s immediately obvious, or at least it comes to light pretty quickly: the code stops running, or it starts running in a weird way. If a writer, or worse, a group of writers, does that, unless you’ve got a godlike editor, it won’t be caught until it’s in and seen by a ton of players. A perfect example of this was the removal of the Fifth Column from City of Heroes and their replacement with the Council: an overzealous staff writer went through and removed all traces of them from the game, including on historical plaques, which got jumped on by the players.

    And that dovetails into another problem: how do you know that a writer is good? Further, how do you know he’s any good in the genre, or in the medium? Take a look at the latest crop of novelists that are trying, usually badly, to write comics and you can easily see what I’m talking about. That also goes into “how do you evaluate a writer?” A good writer and a bad writer are difficult to tell apart for the common man, because it well and truly does not matter to him. It’s the old, “I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it” thing. Writing to the common denominator works, because that’s what you have to write to in order to reach a broad audience. Those of us which are literate and cultured are not going to drag others up to us, because there is, frankly, too much of a barrier to entry in terms of time and effort, past a certain point, in learning how to “truly” appreciate the best in art and literature.

    One last thing: I was a “grammar and spelling nazi” for years online, until I realized how pointless and silly it was: language evolves. That is its nature. I mean, it’s why we don’t speak Middle English anymore. Just like we speak with more familiarity and casual language in our day to day lives than we do when, say, running a presentation for investors, there is a tendency toward the arguably simpler and more understandable abbreviated language in online gaming, and it is, in my opinion a good thing. Just like I wouldn’t say, “Zounds, good sir! It does appear that a girder has fallen and is about to crush you flat before these fine people!” when “Look out! Move!” is much more appropriate in real life, I would much rather have someone say, “OMG 2 adds inc” than “There are two additional monsters coming toward us and about to engage,” particularly since in the time it took them to type that all out, we’d be in the shit with no warning.

  4. Evolving is one thing, devolving is something else. Ebonics anyone? I think our culture is devolving and our laziness is perpetuating itself into a decline of our civilization. The barbarians are truly at the gate.

    Hiring a good writer is the same as hiring anyone else. Experience, judgment, and faith. If you can’t make the determination yourself, find someone else that can. This is why I don’t hire programmers. I can’t code. So, I get someone else to handle that, usually a CTO or Senior Engineer.

    Finally, one of my biggest points was that there simply aren’t 1) enough writers and 2) enough good writers in our industry (mmo or otherwise). Also, just getting someone to do an average job writing filler text isn’t a good way to *craft* a game, but it is perfectly acceptable to manufacture one.

    If you want polish, get an editor. If you want mediocre, it doesn’t matter who does the writing. If you want fantastic, evocative, engaging, immersive, and lush, get a good writer. (or two)

    Are there any good writers left out there?

  5. You’ve fallen into the same trap you decry: that of thinking that what a writer is there for is words.

    It isn’t.

    The problem with the relationship between the games industry and writers is that the games industry thinks that writers do words like artists do pictures; that you can come up with a game and then bring the writer in afterwards to ‘give it depth’ though adding the right words. Throught writing ‘filler text’.

    It doesn’t work like that. The writer needs to be involved with structuring the story right from the beginning.

    Writers (in this context) don’t write the words. It doesn’t matter, here, whether a writer can spell, or has atrocious grammar. What matters is whether they can structure a story, and you don’t have to be able to use words at all to do that (think of silent movies, or comic strips without words).

    If you tried to make a movie by getting together some artists, some producers, some designers, some actors, shooting a load of stuff, and then asking a writer to come along and put words over the top, you’ll end up with a mess (unless one of your producers etc could also structure a story, in which case they count as a writer for our purposes).

    But if you had a writer writing the script at the start, you’ll end up with a proper story — even if it’s silent and not a word that the writer wrote ever makes it to the audience.

    So: the way the games industry needs writers (and it does, if story-in-games is possible (it may be, it may not be) and if they are to achieve it) has nothign to do with words; everything to do with story structure.

    (oh, and you lost all your points halfway through by implying that you thought Lost had any depth whatsoever).

  6. As a tabletop RPG player, I am decidedly a Narrativist (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNS_Theory) – story is of the utmost importance to me, with simulation and character advancement not even taking a back seat, but usually shoved somewhere way back in the trunk, occasionally chopped up into little bits.

    As in (most) of my computer gaming – some of my favourite games include Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, Dreamfall and any number of classic and modern Interactive Fiction titles. I’ve always been a huge “adventure game” fan, basing my opinion of the game almost entirely on the quality of the writing – including story and dialogue – rather than the puzzles themselves.

    However, some game genres simply do not lend themselves well towards displaying pre-written prose, but can still tell a great story. As a near-perfect example, take Nethack (or any of its hundreds of Rogue-like derivatives). The plot is “get thee to the lowest level of the dungeon, kill the foozle and return with the Amulet of Yendor” or whatever. Everything that happens from that point on is procedurally generated.

    But just because the game has a crappy plot is not to say that the game doesn’t have a good story. The story is that “on level 5, I was unexpectedly besieged by a horde of mutant crabs. Since my encounter with the minotaur had severely injured both my flesh and courage, I had to retreat back to the village, but my torch burnt out somewhere on level 3. Let me tell you, the flight through the darkness to find the hidden staircase I had come through was enough to bring a lesser man to the very edge of sanity…” and so on.

    There is a story, but it is narrated by a little voice in your head, and it’s different every time you play. When you roll a new toon in WoW, you’re being explicitly force fed the same shiny turd of a story you were force fed the last time you played someone with that same starting point, and discussing it with another player delivers the sad fact that they, too, rescued the fair maiden a mere 20 minutes ago. Nothing changes, ever, unless the devs decide that “Ooooh, a world spanning event is occurring and now you all have to team up into 40-man raid parties to kill the giant foozle to save the world” and then they might deliver some up-to-date flavour text and new quests via a 300MB patch.

    It doesn’t matter if the writing is world class, because it doesn’t make sense to have static prose embedded in a dynamic virtual world.

    There is another problem with the equation: back in the dawn of time, when we were 10-12 year olds playing with our C64’s and Ataris, games were deep because hardware resources were limited and therefore there was little competition for eye candy between games. If you were publishing games commercially, or you were a bedroom hacker, you had roughly the same resources available to you. The professional game publisher could hire a larger team and get the game out quicker, but given a reasonable development schedule even a single programmer with limited artistic skill could spew out sprites that looked just as good as those the software houses could come up with.

    Thus, the differentiators between games were the things we now bemoan as absent in today’s top titles – an engaging storyline, replayability, a higher-than-current degree of difficulty, and so on. Graphics and music resources were manufactured quickly, and the real effort was put into design and coding. Even marketing budgets were rather limited, since the computer gaming clique was so small and fanatic they’d likely find and play your game regardless of how glossy your magazine ads were. This also plays into what games would be accepted by a substantial percentage of the market – if you were really into computer games, but didn’t like reading prose, you’d probably play a game with a lot of text anyway as long as the rest of the package was OK because there were no other games out that month that were better and had less of that annoying text you had to click through. Today, a game based around beautifully written prose would get a mere fraction of the percentage of Infocom players in the 1980s, because there’s other games on the shelf that allow me to blow shit up.

    Today, the scene is different – the look and feel of your game, the visual impact and sex appeal, is directly proportional to the amount of money you throw at it. The big houses know that all they need to do to get another bestseller hit for the next few weeks is to spent a gazillion bucks on:

    a) Middleware
    b) Artists
    c) Marketers

    If they follow that formula, their game will sell for those two weeks until they can release something new. If they try to put money and effort into building new in-house tools (or hire a staff of writers) to work on a project substantially different than games already in existence – then their big hit may flop in the face of some shareware bedroom coder with a great idea and a runaway success.

    Honestly, I don’t think pre-written prose in MMORPGs has a future, nor that it should, whatever Nic and Bioware says. I do, however, think that it’s a fantastic platform for allowing players to experience their characters’ own story, if the MMORPG developers would stop with this static rollercoaster crap already and give us game logic as advanced as Nethack’s or Rogue’s (hint – the first version of Rogue was written in 1980).

  7. Sometimes when I do a late night rant, I tend to ramble a bit or even miss the point I was trying to make entirely. I usually don’t edit these pieces, so they pretty much are a flow of consciousness…

    One of the things I was attempting to address was the difference between manufacturing a game and crafting one, and the importance of writing here.

    I did not mean that games would suddenly be better if we had engaging prose all over the place or quests that were written better. That is to say that no, I don’t think that writers are just good for pretty words…but pretty words contribute to the difference between manufactured and crafted.

    Writers should, as SK pointed out, be involved from the earliest stages of design in a game. Sure, it is nice to have a game based on aliens vs robots vs zombies vs humans, but the story behind WHY is critical, and a great story is one of the core pieces needed to really draw players into the game.

    Story also has (or should have) an impact on the game mechanics and logic. Keeping them separated during design and development is just a bad idea. You have to meet the four W’s….Why, What, hoW, and Who. Story can address the Why and mechanics/logic is part of the hoW. They should be interrelated and work together

    Another point is that story, setting, plot, and content are usually confused with each other and the lines blur. Developers commonly miss the differences between macro and micro…a macro level plotline or story is fine to establish setting, but most players could really give a fig about what happens in some top level event that only a few lucky players get to be involved in. But plot or story on a micro (player) level, particularly if they can influence it, is so much more important and immersive…but also overlooked and rarely implemented well (if at all).

    Pre-written prose does have a place in future MMORPGs, but not just as something limited to flavor text and quests. Writing, particularly in establishing the lore of the world and the game, is key. Keep in mind too that not all of this lore needs to necessarily be *in* the game, but it has a place in other areas.

    If my cleric is looking to pick a deity to follow, I don’t always choose based on the advantages and disadvantages (although I recognize that many do)…I like to know more. What is their background? What is their origin and history? Relations with other deities? Symbols and affinities? Most of this stuff has no actual impact on gameplay, per se, other than providing a richer environment for gamers and some material for role-players to work with.

    More later…

  8. If my cleric is looking to pick a deity to follow, I don’t always choose based on the advantages and disadvantages (although I recognize that many do)…I like to know more. What is their background? What is their origin and history? Relations with other deities? Symbols and affinities? Most of this stuff has no actual impact on gameplay, per se, other than providing a richer environment for gamers and some material for role-players to work with.

    I guess I straddle a line there. I think it should have both a story effect AND a game effect.

    At the beginning of the game, everyone should have to pick a god, in the example. If you worship a god that is in opposition to the one the cleric worships, they automatically heal you for less. If you worship the same or an aligned god, they heal hyou for more. If your god is neither opposed nor aligned, you get the flat heal rate. Now, you can eventaully, through the course of good or bad works, reach the point where you’re equally healed by all of the gods’ clerics, or maybe you’ll get +healing if you’re loved by all of them. If you want to “opt out”, you can pick “Pantheon,” or soemthing similar. If you want to make it really tough on yourself, or alternately, want a bonus to something else, like science skills or arcane magic skills or whatever, take “Atheist.”

    That’s a great example of something that can have both a character flavor effect and a game effect, and it’s also a great way to have overarching conflicts/storylines directly affect the lives of even the newest character. Sure, it’ll take balancing, but everything does.

  9. Your TV comments are spot-on. I used to play MMOGs as a choice *over* watching TV. Simply put, MMOGs were more interesting than TV.

    These days, I’m watching more TV and playing less MMOGs. TV is more interesting than MMOGs.

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