Writing for video games is an esoteric art. It’s very different from writing novels, comics, film scripts or event blog posts like this. Games have a number of layers of narrative – the overall game story, the stories of the characters within the game, the narrative the player creates as they move though the game world. As an interactive space, the writer might not be in control of what order the player experiences the chunks of narrative and even if the player encounters them at all. The writer is also subject to the resource constraints of the development process itself; new characters, locations, and events impose limits on where the story might ideally go. In the video below, recorded at the Nine Worlds Geekfest 2013 in the UK, two of leading games writers – Rhianna Pratchett (who credits include work on Tomb Raider, Mirror’s Edge and Bioshock Infinite) talks with James Swallow (who writes for games such as Deus Ex:Human Revolution, as well as being a noted sci-fi writer in his own right) about the intricacies, the ups and the downs of writing for video games.
Antony Douglas is responsible for Square Enix Europe’s mobile development and publishing business across smartphone and tablet. He has profit and loss responsibility for the creation, production and commercial sales of internal and external IPs, working internationally across the Square Enix Europe studio group and 3rd party development. Douglas has spent over ten years in mobile content; prior to Square Enix, he was Telefonica O2 UK’s Head of Content and European Director for Korean mobile game pioneers Com2uS.
Antony Douglas was inspired to enter the video game industry because of his desire for creativity. He likes the people who want to evolve with a way of creating something of value for people, but feels that the video game industry is the hardest business in the world because you don’t know what people will enjoy. The challenge is to create something people will take to their hearts; something that people value and that has meaning to their lives. And, although it is tough, the challenge can also be fun.
The challenge is to create something people will take to their hearts; something that people value and that has meaning to their lives. And, although it is tough, the challenge can also be fun.
Bringing Mobile Gaming to Square Enix
Douglas is responsible for finding ways to weave mobile into the world of the big game titles that Square Enix has traditionally produced. He believes that more and more core gamers will be playing on their tablets and smartphones because technology is developing to meet their expectations. Along with the growing demand for mobile technology, gamers desire more from the games themselves. To meet this expectation, he has learned to be respectful of the game and its meaning. “You have to understand what the game is about and what it means to people, says Douglas, “And then you have a blueprint to start creating a smartphone version of that world.”
Douglas tells us that although the company’s headquarters are in Japan, at Square Enix Europe, they run their own contact program and brands. They set up an operating business that ran itself and gave a guide to western tastes. Although they share ideas with their counterparts in Japan and have an excellent relationship, they are culturally very different, and it is essential to be aware of those differences. It is necessary to study the different brands and determine how they will appeal to the different customers.
Building the Team
According to Douglas, the key to succeeding in his area of responsibility is the ability to build and manage a good team. He emphasizes the need to find strong talent and put the right people in the right role. He says, “I don’t attempt to tell them what they should be doing; they should be coming to me with ideas. I learn from them on a daily basis because mobile is changing hourly.”
The team Douglas has developed is diverse, with people coming from countries such as Poland and Lithuania. They all have different skills and interests, but share a common interest in games and communicate with the language of games. As Douglas says, “Games is the prism with which we see our world.” So, despite differing skills and backgrounds, the team works well together.
The Maturing of Casual and Social Gaming
“Games is the prism with which we see our world.”
Douglas emphasizes the importance of understanding the free-to-play business model for gaming. Game design elements that suit this concept and effective ways of creating economies in the game are essential. Not only do you have to create a great game, you also have to be sure to avoid letting monetization ruin the game; these should be side-by-side aspects. And, as Douglas says, “It’s not a launch and forget mentality.” It is critical to continue updating and servicing the game.
Square Enix is examining its established properties for mobile development. Look forward to a few familiar faces to appear on smartphone tablets soon.
Scott Miller of 3D Realms discusses Duke Nukem, publishers, Tomb Raider, Hollywood, Star Wars, the importance of a strong lead and fixing the industry in 10 Questions from the Fall 2009 issue of the Gamesauce Magazine.
1) We keep hearing about transmedia. What exactly does that mean, anyway?
Star Wars is my best example of an entertainment property strong with the transmedia force. In fact, I’m working with a co-author to write a book about this topic—a book that will become a film, a graphic novel, a hit music CD, and a videogame. That’s the whole point, right?
A storyverse is to stories what GTA is to FMV games like Dragon’s Lair.
To make a transmedia property, you need first to build a “storyverse.” This is my catchy coinage to describe a broad and deep foundation of characters, settings, dramatic set-ups, conflicts, themes, mythology, rules, and hooks. But, the purpose of a storyverse is not to define a single story. Instead (and this is critical), its purpose is to create a uniquely compelling playground of story possibilities. A storyverse is to stories what GTA is to FMV games like Dragon’s Lair. (An extra life to those who don’t need to Google “FMV games.”)
In short, you want to both create and constrain a rich possibility space for stories to emerge. For Star Wars, we have a great supply of the characters (including heroes and villains), the planets and outer space (locations), the force (mythology), several conflicts between characters and factions, and unique hooks (Force powers and the lightsaber) within the storyverse.
2) How do you prepare IP for transmedia?
The secret sauce is all common sense stuff
The secret sauce is all common sense stuff. But, above all, two things are required. The first is a strong lead character (James Bond, Spider-Man), or several strong characters (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings), along with a good supporting cast of secondary characters. Both Star Wars and Star Trek score well in this department. The second requirement is unique hooks like the Force and the lightsaber, both of which translate into unique and compelling gameplay features. I’m certain George Lucas wasn’t thinking about videogames when he wrote the script for Star Wars, but these hooks are what make it so unique and compelling as a videogame franchise. These hooks are what differentiate Star Wars from Star Trek, a franchise that has not successfully crossed into videogames, despite dozens of expensive attempts.
I find it revealing, in fact, that of the tens of thousands of films, novels, TV shows, and comics that have been successful in the linear media, only a dozen or so are consistently successful on the nonlinear, interactive side of the fence. That short list includes Star Wars, Spider-Man, James Bond, Batman, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and only a few others with a track record worth bragging about. That’s because so few have those inherent hooks that translate into unique, compelling game-play features.
Kids will indiscriminately buy anything that’s based on a brand they already like.
Here’s where I need to unveil a big caveat. Kid properties don’t count. Kids will indiscriminately buy anything that’s based on a brand they already like, and so they fall willingly for transmedia efforts, even all of the bad ones. THQ became one of the top-tier publishers by taking successful non-transmedia TV shows and making (mostly crappy) games. With adults, though, that emu won’t fly.
3) When making a new IP, what’s important and what’s not?
I have a strong interest in creating transmedia properties. Why do anything less? While they can be creatively rewarding, they are also more challenging due to increased pre-planning. In this area I feel like my studio has done well with several of the properties we brought to the market, including Wolfenstein 3D (the last Id Software game to star a named hero), Duke Nukem, and Max Payne. Prey also has potential: MSNBC rated it as one of the five games released in 2006 that should be made into a film, alongside Halo and three others.
Games I’ve been involved with have always focused on lead characters with notable, strong personalities. This goes back to the early ‘90s when I realized that all of the popular comics were named after their lead character, like Superman, Batman, Iron Man, Spider-Man, etc. I figured out that this spotlight on the lead character greatly helped burn the character’s name into readers’ minds, plus it allowed maximum flexibility with future stories. Let me give you an idea of what I mean: As I said when it was first released, Eidos made a boneheaded mistake naming their female Indiana Jones game Tomb Raider.
Eidos made a boneheaded mistake naming their female Indiana Jones game Tomb Raider.
Instead, they should have named it Lara Croft. Think about it: By using Tomb Raider as the brand name for this franchise, each game MUST be about raiding a tomb, otherwise the name doesn’t make sense. In effect, this name entombs the franchise into a limited, repetitive set of stories over its lifespan. Maybe that’s interesting to ancient Egyptians, but we current day humans prefer more variety to our stories. Additionally, Lara Croft is a star character that Eidos obviously wants to promote, but they must also spend time and money promoting the frivolous Tomb Raider brand. Had they named the game Lara Croft, they would have instantly avoided both of these problems.
6) Where does the money keep coming from for 3DR and what would you do differently with Duke Nukem?
I get this question a lot. Then I remind people that Duke Nukem 3D was made for $300,000, and we made back 25 times our investment—not to mention all of the third-party Duke console games that sold well. Plus, we made a killing with Wolfenstein 3D. And we made the biggest killing on Max Payne! We made $30 million in royalties on that game (off of a $2.5 million investment), plus another $48 million selling the IP to our publisher.
We made the biggest killing on Max Payne
Oh, and we were also part owners of Gathering of Developers when that was sold to Take2. And finally, we have been pretty lucky with other investments, both in the stock market and in other studios. The bottom-line is that it really shows how important it is to own your own brands. It is only through ownership that a studio can truly create wealth and long-term sustainability.
Even so, I think I would have abandoned internal development six or seven years ago. I much prefer to work with external studios to develop games, as we did with Max Payne and Prey. Radar is following this very model, with no internal development. I wanted 3D Realms to switch to this model years ago, as it’s much more cost effective for us, with lower risk. For other independent developers this advice doesn’t apply. What I’d recommend for them is to not strive for perfection, which is the enemy of completion. For practically all aspects of a game, 80% is good enough.