No games please, we’re British

Danny Boyle’s magnificent Olympic opening ceremony celebrated everything great about Britain – except for our games.

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Cheshire, UK – 15th May 2012 – Dan Whitehead, a game and film critic with twenty years experience, has launched Word Play, a new company aimed at bringing writers from film, comics and other mediums together with video games developers.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the narrative possibility of games,” he explains. “The medium offers narrative opportunities that film can’t match, but that doesn’t mean that film experience can’t be used to improve the writing in games. The demand is out there. Over the years I’ve collaborated with lots of experienced writers who were interested in working on games but had no idea how to find the work, and have met lots of developers who wanted to use professional writers to script their games but weren’t sure who to approach. Bringing the two together just made sense.”

Word Play offers a wide range of writing services, ranging from feedback notes on existing scripts to dialogue and character polishing, and full start-to-end project support. “If a developer has an amazing gameplay concept, but needs a story to make it sell, we can do that,” says Whitehead. “Alternatively, a game may already have a story but it’s not making sense and milestones are looming. Dialogue polishing, backstory, plot pacing, character development – these all matter, but often get lost in the scramble to solve problems with the code. That’s where we can help.”

Whitehead began writing about games for Amiga Computing in 1991 and currently freelances for Eurogamer. He has previously contributed to Hotdog, The Big Issue, DVD Review, Death Ray, Official Xbox Magazine and Retro Gamer. An accomplished author and editor with extensive experience of working with licensed brands, he has completed publishing projects with major entertainment brands such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Looney Tunes. He has also been a specialist gaming consultant for Guinness World Records and is a voting member of BAFTA.

Several experienced writers are already available for video game script work via Word Play.

  • Mark Wheaton: Los Angeles-based screenwriter Mark Wheaton has developed scripts for clients as varied as Steven Soderbergh, John Carpenter, Oprah Winfrey, Oliver Stone, Sam Raimi and Michael Bay. His video game credits include work on the F.E.A.R. series.
  • Ian Edginton: Eisner Award nominated British comic writer Ian Edginton’s credits include the critically acclaimed Scarlet Traces, as well as successful runs writing Batman, Alien vs Predator, Wolverine and Judge Dredd. Edginton has also written several video game adaptations, including the Hellgate: London comic and the official novelisation of cult Amiga title Zool.
  • Tim Neenan: Tim Neenan is a member of LA’s hugely popular comedy theatre Upright Citizen’s Brigade, and has written and produced sketches for Funny or Die and CollegeHumor.com, as well as Ben Stiller’s charity, The Stiller Foundation.

For more information on the services Word Play provides, contact Dan Whitehead.

Email: dan (at) wordplaynarrative.com

Web: www.wordplaynarrative.com

Twitter: WordPlay4Games

Skype: wordplaynarrative

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The dangerous myth of “real” games

Call of Duty Zombies for the iPhone“It’s an exciting time to be making games,” says Steve Ellis, formerly of Free Radical, now head of new startup studio Crash Lab with Martin Wakeley and former Rare man Lee Musgrave. “It’s great to have thrown off the shackles of traditional console development and to be able to enjoy the creative freedom of working on titles without exhaustive development cycles.”

He’s right. It is an exciting time to be making games. The barriers to publishing haven’t been this low since the 1980s heyday of home computers and mail order cassettes, and the sheer power and variety of hardware platforms means there’s a format for every idea. Good times.

Not, apparently, if you’re a hardcore gamer.

“Wasted talent.”

“come on guys, you’re legends! You can do better than IOS stuff…”

“I really hope this trend of talented developers forming studios to pump out iOS titles is bucked soon.”

That’s just a sample of the comments posted under this news on Eurogamer, and it reflects an unfortunate snobbery that is endemic among the people who claim to be most dedicated to gaming. To this vocal so-called hardcore minority, “game” means a console and a joypad. Maybe a keyboard and mouse, depending on their vintage.

Facebook? iOS? Not real game platforms. Not real games. All those developers eagerly ditching the grind and crunch of AAA console development for the wild west of these new, emergent platforms? Fools at best, traitors at worst. The prospect that great designers plus innovative new technology could equal exciting new game experiences is not allowed to enter into it.

It’s depressing and disheartening to see an industry so divorced from its most dedicated audience.

Is this a monster of the industry’s own creation? In part, I think some of the blame has to fall on the way gamers have been cajoled and coddled over the last fifteen years or so. Ever since the PlayStation broke through into the mainstream with its CD-powered 3D worlds, cinematic production values and increasing obsession with “mature” content, the variety of games has declined in parallel to the rise in console power and market dominance.

The evidence is right there in the slew of iOS games that bend themselves into ridiculous shapes in order to replicate the joypad experience on a touchscreen, hammering square pegs into round holes as if their livelihood depended on it. Why? Because it’s familiar. It’s expected. It’s what games are. If there are no buttons or sticks, we’ll just make pretend ones. What a sad response.

Maybe it’s because I’m an old fart who got misty-eyed at Google’s tribute to the ZX Spectrum earlier this week, but I don’t remember this sort of hair-splitting animosity over what constituted a “real game” in the past. There were simply games. Big games, small games, epic games, silly games – but they could all be played, and were all accepted or not according to their merits.

Perhaps for a generation that has grown up expecting escalating levels of visual flair, with no budget market to speak of, the idea of what games can be has become too narrow. So while developers see the challenge and freedom of the App Store as a chance to break out of the corporate cycle and finally do something with those ideas that have been buzzing around in their heads for years, with no outlet, a certain portion of gamers sees only a mockery of a hobby they believe belongs to them.

It doesn’t, and it never did. Digital distribution, social networking and the rapid ascent of mobile gaming can only be a good thing, in the long term. It forces developers to think of new paradigms for player engagement, new control schemes, new game structures that no longer have to be crammed into the sectors on a disc in a box. For some, change will always be scary, and they’ll stand by the sidelines and grumble as the world moves on without them.

For others, like the gents at Crash Lab and the dozens of other new studios being founded by experienced veterans and hungry newcomers alike, change is a chance to experiment, doodle and try things out. Some will be crap, others will be amazing. Mistakes will be made, but at least they’ll be new mistakes, and we’ll learn new things from correcting them.

And all of them, every last one, will be a real game.

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Why players press to skip

Skip cutscene intro prompt

It’s easy to forget that games are still an artform very much in their infancy, given how dominant they have become in pop culture, and there’s a danger that such a rapid rise in popularity has left the medium running before it can walk, narratively speaking.

We’re still working out the best way to tell stories in games. The default setting is to simply look at what movies are doing and copy that, sandwiching short animated films in between slices of thick buttery gameplay and expecting the player to sit back and digest the mouthfuls of exposition like good children. And, let’s not be snobby, that approach works. We’re used to it, the players are used to it, and if most of them press A to skip after a few minutes, does that really matter?

Well, yes. It does matter, and the fact that a creative media actively encourages its audience to skip the story is quite worrying, when you think about it. Would filmmakers put on-screen prompts on a DVD reminding viewers they can jump straight to the exciting bits? Would an author suggest the reader skip ahead to the next chapter because there’s a boring bit coming up?

That’s what we’re doing when that “skip” icon appears. We’re acknowledging that the audience isn’t really interested, that “story” in games is an optional extra and telling them it’s OK to bypass it and get back to the fun stuff. They’ll pick it up as they go along, surely. Here’s the goodies, there are the baddies, space soldier man go shooty shoot, right?

We’re doing ourselves a gross disservice by pandering to short attention spans in this way, and what makes it all the more galling is that it’s not neccesary. Often, the problem isn’t that the story isn’t any good, it’s just being told in the wrong way.

People play games because they want to play games. It’s simple and obvious, but it’s too often forgotten where story in games is concerned. The narrative is doled out in non-interactive chunks, like medicine. As soon as you take that control away from someone, they cease being a player and become a viewer. Their role in the experience has just been completely and utterly diminished. “Sit back,” you’re saying, “We’ll do this bit.” You might as well walk into their house and snatch the joypad from their hands. For someone to buy a game and then sit, passively, joypad in hand waiting to be allowed to join in is like putting on your swimming costume and then being told to sit in the cafe next to the pool.

It all comes down to inherited ideas of what story must be. There’s a tendency to defer to the cinema template whenever story comes up, because that was the best model available. But story for film is completely different to story for games. In film, the story is everything. It’s what gives a movie its structure. In a game, it’s the gameplay that provides that structure. That’s why there’s this grinding friction when the cutscene comes crashing in – you’re changing gears with no clutch, swapping one structure for another. It’s only because gamers are used to this clumsy method that we can get away with it at all.

In games, the story should provide the motivation and explanation for the real story of the game, which is taking place in the player’s head. That’s what we, as game designers, have to accept: we have very little control over the real stories in our games. Those belong to the player. We merely light the fuse and let them ride the rocket.

This isn’t just true of the epic and open role-playing games like Mass Effect and Skyrim. It’s true of all games, right back to the earliest days of the arcade. Space Invaders didn’t need a story because it generated a new one every time it was played. Every laser bolt that just missed, every UFO downed, became part of a glorious temporary narrative that existed only in that moment, and only for that player.

The technology may be more sophisticated today, but that’s still the sort of story that games tell best, because those are the stories that only games can tell. These are stories that transcend genre, and apply to all games, from Call of Duty to Canabalt. The player is immersed, in character, and never told to sit out of the action, reminded that their story only happens when we say so.

Our job is not to be storytellers but world builders. We have to let go of this idea that we own the narrative. We erect the scenery, we provide the other characters and the guiding framework, but the player must be their own hero in their own story. We provide context, rather than imposing content.

Of course, you may be thinking, isn’t this a strange argument to make for a company that aims to bring more writers from other media into games? Not really. Professional screenwriters and experienced comic writers don’t benefit games design because they understand the three act structure or how to fill 22 pages with action-packed panels. Their skill is insight and economy. They know how to establish character in just a few lines, how to sell a plot twist without belabouring the point, how to deliver exposition in a way that feels natural and how to make the supporting cast linger in the memory without losing forward plot momentum.

This isn’t to say that cutscenes should never be used, but they are a crude tool and one that does nothing to showcase what makes games unique. Games are not movies. That’s what makes them so great. By thinking more carefully about how we play to the strengths of the medium, we enable our players to tell better stories a thousand times over. Let’s make it happen.