For me, the last day at Reboot Develop was the most important. Why?
It would start with a writing panel where I’d have the chance to listen to some of the most accomplished video game writers in the world and ask them about what they think about producing a book of video game case studies, then – a talk by Marek Rosa, one of reasons I came to the conference in the first place, followed by talks by video game writers Rhianna Pratchett and Tom Jubert, and, to close it all off, a panel with Brian Fargo, Tim Schafer, and Patrice Désilets (the auteur behind Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Assassin’s Creed, don’t forget to add him on Twitter).
Otherwise, without further ado, let’s get on with the show.
At 10:05 am straight, I was sitting in CRYENGINE HALL, hoping that Chris Avellone would recover from yesterday’s afterparty’s Gamma Gulp beer and join the writing panel. He did, and, a few minutes in, the panel looked like this:
From left to right are panelists Chris Avellone, Jonas Kyratzes, Rhianna Pratchett, Tom Jubert, Steve Ince, and our moderator Noirin Carmody, the COO and one of the co-founders of Revolution Software (Broken Sword, Beneath a Steel Sky). After the introductions, the first question Noirin asked was, “Why write games, instead of, say, novels or comic books?”
My notes here are a little scattered, but the answer I remember with crystal clarity was by Chris, who said, “Because it’s fun! Why not make games?”
To quote Chuck Norris, “Damn straight, cowboy.”
Jonas said something along the lines of wanting to get into games from his early childhood, which, growing up in Greece, seemed to him a dream quite distant. Being a Russian guy who grew up on Cyprus and then Hungary, I could certainly relate. Rhianna talked about how the opportunity naturally grew out of her background in video games journalism, Tom talked about his desire to do away with false dilemmas in video game narratives (or, in other words, that players should be presented with choices that seem plausible to them, as apart from choices ham-fisted into the game by the designers for gameplay), and Steve mentioned his career in a field unrelated to games whatsoever before getting his big break at Revolution Software as a writer / designer where he’d worked for 11 years before going freelance.
The other interesting question Noirin asked was how they see technology in games … at which point the conversation diverted into a talk about the possibility of A.I. NPCs, who wouldn’t converse via predetermined strings, but rather generate dialog through contextual awareness of the player’s actions, the NPCs own personality, etc. Everyone at the panel seemed to agree creating this sort of an NPC which wouldn’t sound like a chat bot was implausible, at which point Jonas said that if such A.I. technology were to exist, it would effectively be “a human being,” and would potentially have better things to do than to play games with us. This theme came up again during Marek Rosa’s talk about ‘Good A.I.,’ and more on that later, but now, it was time for questions from the audience.
My heart began to beat faster — it was a choice between risking sounding like a fool trying to push my own agenda, or being the fool and not risking a thing. I waited until it was almost too late, and then the moderator gave me the mic.
“Thank you for the wonderful talk,” I said, my voice faltering. “Even today, games are usually bashed for their narratives … this doesn’t apply to the games you’ve worked on, as those are usually complimented on their stories instead. So, the three-part-question question I want to ask all the panelists, I suppose, is, can you please recommend a good book about writing for video games, and, in your opinion, would it be useful to create a book of case studies, where the writers would talk about the actual projects that they’d worked on, as opposed to the theory? And, finally, why do you think nobody made such a book before?”
In truth, I’d already spoken to Tom and Jonas about the subject beforehand, and they both expressed their enthusiasm, and I’d sent an (in retrospect, a rather silly) e-mail to Rhianna well in advance, and, as she didn’t reply, I assumed that she wasn’t interested, so I was mostly curious about what Steve and Chris had to say. I guess the month I’d spent writing gambling promotions for a local PR firm wasn’t for nothing: Steve and Chris were the only two people to answer.
“Well,” Steve said. “You could read my book.”
“What is it called?”
Now that’s an informative title if I’d ever seen one myself.
“Though,” he continued, “I suppose a book of case studies could be helpful. If you’re working on something like that, you should definitely write it.”
At which point I’d almost began to say that I can’t truly “write” it because it’s not about my experiences, but that I would like to help compile such a book, but cut myself short because I still had some manners.
Steve passed the mic to Chris Avellone, who said, “Yeah, that would be a great book to read! Not sure why nobody did something like this before, probably because the writing profession in the industry is still in such a flux, but I can easily imagine people being interested. As for which book I would recommend on writing, I found Save the Cat by Blake Snider to be really useful. It’s a book on screenwriting, but most of the principles carry over to video games.”
My faith in the validity of my mad venture had been restored, but there was no time to calm down.
The next talk was by Marek Rosa, the owner of Keen Software House, where I’d applied for a dedicated writer position a couple of months ago, and their charming HR representative appeared encouraging of me trying to approach Marek at the conference when I’d followed up, so, in my mind, this was my big chance to make it: the chance to work on a major title, to make my work known and to become known for my work. That is to say, I care little about “fame & glory,” but if people don’t know you or your work, it’s next to impossible to get good writing gigs in the industry, it’s a simple as that …
… or, like a poet once said, “One shot, one opportunity.”
And so I made it to UNITY HALL, where Marek Rosa’s talk was called “The Space Engineers Perspective: Decisions on the Path to a Successful Game and Company.”
Which principles did they use to make “The Space Engineers” as successful as it became, even though it’s still in Early Access (with the full release planned for later this year)? First of all, he said that being unique is critical. And, as the drive to create is part of our nature, they decided to focus the unique gameplay mechanics on applying real life science and physics to allow people to do just that — to create. It wouldn’t do to compete with shooters, as there are tons of them on the market already (and, in my understanding, KSH wasn’t interested in bringing violence to their games in the first place), so they bode for a different approach. A game that allows you to build whatever you wish, a game which would allow them to think beyond a single franchise (eg., “Medieval Engineers” that grew out of the first game).
Another point he mentioned is the constant engagement with the community — releasing regular patches (such as planets in “The Space Engineers”) and incorporating popular player creations into new iterations of the game, such as a space fighter’s cockpit which was designed by one of the players, for example.
Marek mentioned the importance of keeping the team small: if there are too many people working on a title, he said, then the development pipeline becomes cluttered with fluff. I’m paraphrasing, but, according to him, keeping the team small and focused on the tasks ahead instead of the features “that might be cool” was one of the keys to their success, and so was as empowering his employees by giving them equity in his companies.
In the second half of his talk, Marek spoke at length about GoodAI, the company into which he’d invested $10,000,000 for the goal of what basically amounts to creating a new sentient life form, an Artificial Intelligence as intelligent as man, via the means of giving them the properties intrinsic to intelligence such as the ability to learn, to adapt, and to achieve goals in a complex environment.
He spoke about the necessity for the general AI of having creativity, an ability for pattern recognition and for different kinds of learning, short and long term memory, the ability to make predictions, and the ability to stay consistent. Interestingly, he said that he doesn’t want to impose superficial limits on the AIs, such as Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, for example, because rules change.
“What if, a million years into the future,” Marek said, “The AIs would encounter a different intelligence, not bound by these rules? They would be put at a disadvantage.”
When it was time for questions, I’d asked if he sees any dangers in creating such AIs.
“Of course there are dangers,” he said. “And we try to minimize them as much as we can by teaching the AIs with concepts of ethics and goodness … but the fact is, this technology will exist anyway. Someone will make it. And since we’re the good guys, it’s best that we make it first. At least that way we know it’s done right.”
A valid point, but keep in mind: when game developers talk about “world domination,” I don’t think the guys from Keen Software House are joking.
When almost everyone left, I came up to Marek, introduced myself, and said, “I want to write for you. Do you have a few minutes to talk maybe?”
“Did you apply?”
“Yes. Sent the spec work along with my CV, your HR should have it.”
I had to think fast.
“I imagine you’d gotten tons of applications, because everyone wants to be a video game writer. But I don’t want to just write for video games. I want to write something exceptional,” I said.
And that was the end of that.
Unsure of my chances, I at least knew that I did all I could, shook his hand, gave him my card, and went out the room to search for more coffee.
In all honesty, after Marek’s talk it seemed to me that KSH’s hit “The Space Engineers” is but a means to an end, not the end in itself. A project to financially fund his passion in the development of a general Artificial Intelligence for (in his opinion) the betterment of mankind. A respectable goal, no doubt, even if only because it is a goal. Like we’ve discussed with my friend afterwards, some people made millions, if not billions, of dollars on casual social games, but what then? What was their purpose? To make even more money?
Apart from Marek’s very serious (in my opinion) attitude to life in general, he also stood out as appearing to be the most driven (or, to phrase it differently, the least relaxed) from all the speakers I’d heard.
No wonder he called his company Keen Software House, I suppose.
Coffee located, I got a chance to play a game on a display stand called Superverse, which was one of my favorite indie games on the show.
As I was playing it, I overheard a conversation between the developer and a different company’s producer who approached to give it a look (the name of the company, for ethical reasons, I can not reveal), who asked the developer to keep them in mind if they want some help with getting the game out there. He named a (considerable) figure for their last year’s annual revenue, and said that, as developers themselves, they don’t push their rules on the projects they like … and while I don’t really enjoy eavesdropping on people, I’m only writing this to make the point that I’m not the only one who thought the game looked and played stellar if you enjoy action, spaceships, and space.
I’m sure we’ll be hearing about the title in the nearest future, but, in the meantime, since we’re already a couple of thousands word in, I recommend you to take a break from reading and have a look at it for yourself:
After trying a few different ships and drinking a couple more coffees, it was time to listen to Rhianna Pratchett in OUTFIT7 HALL.
Her talk wasn’t exactly a talk, but rather a conversation with Noirin Carmody, who’d asked Rhianna about her career and experience. Rhianna had worked on at least a dozen of games as a writer or an additional writer, though she’s probably best known for Overlord, Mirror’s Edge, and the last two Tomb Raider games.
Photo by Tadej Fius
She’d talked about how when she’d first started in the industry as a games journalist back when print magazines were still a thing, and her first video game job on Beyond Divinity for Larian Studios.
Rhianna made interesting points about the importance of balancing gameplay and narrative, and how important it is to bring the writer close to the beginning of the project … I think at some point she even called herself a “character generation machine” for having had to write so many different characters. When she was just starting out on her career, she’d said that conventions and tools for writers were far in-between, as game studios had hardly seen a need in hiring dedicated writers. “This is beginning to change,” she said, and named a couple of organizations that video game writers can find useful, such as the writers Special Interest Group of the IGDA and the Game Narrative Summit.
As she spoke, I found myself thinking about how difficult it must have been for her to make her own way in the industry. Being the daughter of the acclaimed fantasy (satire) writer Sir Terry Pratchett, surely she would’ve had more opportunities, if only for knowing the “right people,” but, at the same time, it must have been daunting to have to wonder if her success is her own, or partially dictated by her last name. I’m sure it’s a little bit of both, but there is no denying that Rhianna is a talented video game writer. Personally, I loved her work on Overlord, Mirror’s Edge (even though she was brought late into the project) and Tomb Raider … her work on Heavenly Sword was nominated for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts award in 2007, and she won the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain award for ‘Best Videogame Script’ for Overlord a year later, not to mention that she’s had over a decade of professional experience working on all kinds of titles, so you be the judge. Or better yet: don’t.
To quote Leo Tolstoy, “The best solution is to be kind and good while ignoring the opinions of others.”
When it was time for questions, I’d asked what, in her experience, is the most challenging part about being a professional video game writer.
Rhianna said, “If you’re working freelance there can be the challenge of getting work, and also there’s a challenge in the power of freedom, as you’re sitting in your chair, typing on a machine creating characters much crazier than you. You have to adapt to it, and that can be sometimes challenging to get your head around. Of course, there is also the balancing of gameplay and narrative. So, quite a few challenges.”
In response to another question from the audience, she’d named two examples of good storytelling in video games, mainly the environmental storytelling in Diablo and the first BioShock, where all the elements came together in supporting the story.
And with that, it was time for lunch.
Afterwards, I would have a chance to listen to two of the most useful talks (for me) of the conference: a talk by Tom Jubert, known for his work on Swapper, Penumbra, and, of course, The Talos Principle, where I’d learnt something about game writing and design that is so simple and so critical that I can’t believe I haven’t read or heard about it anywhere else, and a panel talk with Chris Avellone (standing in for Brian Fargo, apparently), Tim Schafer, and Patrice Désilets. A panel which answered the question of the secret of making successful episodic games, among other things.
But that is a story for another time.
Stay tuned for Reboot Redux Day 3 Part 2 (the last, the final), and thank you for reading.
And if you’ve made it this far, you must be interested in reading, and possibly writing and stories in general, so why not check out the Video Game Writing by Video Game Writers project to crowdfund the first book of video game writing case studies in history?
I just did.
Until next time!