This was it.
The last hours of the Reboot Develop conference, a gathering of creative, interesting people under the Croatian sun, people who believe in the power of games, and the power of the imagination … to quote the immortal Sir Terry Pratchett, “Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one,” and so I am happy to report that, in all three days of my stay, I haven’t seen a single person acting upset.
Even Swery65‘s plush monkey seemed to be having the time of its life:
But before we jump right into the last two talks of the day — a fantastic speech on writing by video game writer & narrative designer Tom Jubert, and a panel with Chris Avellone, Tim Schafer, and Patrice Désilets — if you would like a “quick” recap (time goes fast if you’re enjoying yourself, right?) of my coverage of the event, I’d like to invite you to first read about Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 Part 1, because consistency is the breakfast of champions.
In that case — welcome back to the afternoon of April 30, 2016, Split, Croatia, a happy, sunny day at the 5 star beachside hotel Le Meridien.
I’d just finished listening to Rhianna Pratchett, and it was time for a talk called “Learning to Write by Numbers” by one of my favorite narrative designers / writers in the business, Tom Jubert. I took my place in UNITY HALL, where Tom was waiting for the audience to settle while playing with a yo-yo. He tried a trick, the trick failed, and so he jokingly declared that this is the quality level that we should expect from the presentation, and then proceeded to deliver one of the most exciting and interesting speeches on video game writing (or, rather, writing) that I have ever heard.
Photo via Forbes.
He started with René Descartes, the philosopher.
Because, who wouldn’t, right?
Descartes (1596 – 1650) had decided to throw caution to the wind and make a logical argument towards the existence of God. “Funny how philosophers seem to have their theories prove what they already believe is true,” Tom said. The approach Descartes took was that there “is nothing new under the sun,” that we are not truly capable of original thought, and that it therefore follows that since we can not imagine a perfect being such as God, it must be true that God exists. That’s the gist of it, anyway.
“That is, of course, nonsense,” said Tom, “Humans are quite capable of abstract thought, and can easily imagine concepts that we have not personally experienced. But Descartes was right about one thing. Everything’s been done before.” He’d used Terry Pratchett’s phrase of an, “Extruded Fantasy Product,” which is basically us taking what we know and putting it into a fantasy setting.
“An orc is just a green, angry man,” he said as an example.
His approach to game writing, then, is the research of games, literature, and other mediums close to whatever it is that he’s working on, and then synthesizing the ideas he likes best into an entertaining piece of narrative. Tom had also suggested to follow George Orwell’s 4 basic rules of writing when writing a game.
The rules that he’d quoted are as follows:
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
That’s George Orwell’s bit.
The steps Tom takes when he starts working on a game, are these:
- First, establish an objective.
- Produce the materials towards the objective.
- Cut out the fluff.
But what I found the most useful of all the talk was an idea so simple, and so logical, that I’m surprised I have never encountered it before. This is what Tom called a “controlling idea,” or basically the theme of the game. “Instead of bolting on cutsecenes,” he said, “develop a story approach that ties into the game mechanics that compliment it.”
He gave the example of how, when working on Penumbra, he was presented with a fairly simple concept: the main character takes shelter in an abandoned mine, the entrance collapses, and the player is forced to descend deeper into mine … some time later, he begins receiving radio messages from an NPC called Tom “Red” Redwood, who knows the mine inside and out. Tom described how he’d tried to make these interactions key to what the player is feeling — and to have the player’s perspective of the character change from “crazy evil guy” to someone the player can if not relate to, then at least understand … and have the NPC do the same in return.
When it was time for questions, I’d asked Tom the same question I’d asked Rhianna an hour before.
“What, in your experience, is the most difficult part of being a professional video game writer?”
“Working with others.”
I’d managed to squeeze in one more question, which was which tools he used when working on games.
“Notepad++,” Tom said to the cheerful approval of the programming crowd.
And with that, it was time for lunch.
The last talk of the day that I made it to was a panel with, from left to right, Chris Avellone (judging by his outfit, ready for … well, anything, really), Tim Schafer, and Patrice Désilets, moderated by Tobias Kopka. The photo looks like it’s all cozy and chilled, but the room was packed, though that did nothing to detract from the gleeful atmosphere of the happy gamers / developers crowd.
The panel was called, “From AAA to indie and back,” and, after the speakers introduced themselves, Tim Schafer shared a little about his experience making adventure games for LucasArts, who had “bags of Star Wars money” to produce development.
“They give you a pile of money, then when the game’s done, they make an even bigger pile of money, it’s exhausting,” Tim said.
He talked about how much better it was when they went into production themselves at DoubleFine, which was when they’d realized that they can actually keep some of that money to continue making the games that they’d wanted to make. He also mentioned that apart from supporting their own games, they now also support third party projects that they think hold some promise.
Chris Avellone talked a bit about how, for him, it’s easier to work with smaller teams. “We’ve had maybe 20 people on the team once, which is still a big team, but at least you get to know everyone personally, that’s great.”
Which is when Patrice said, “Well, there’s a plus of working with big teams, too. You can just get stuff done that you can’t otherwise do. For example, when working on Assassin’s Creed, I said, let’s add another city! Or maybe add this really cool mechanic with ships. And we can! No problem with money at Ubisoft. There’s money.”
But, Patrice said, that at some point after his second daughter was born, he realized that, “I know people in Singapore, or what have you, but I don’t know my own daughter.” And so, when he had the chance, he’d quit to start his own game studio, Panache Digital Games, where they’re now working on their first title, 1666 Amsterdam. Check it out. “And I don’t want to say, ‘add me on Twitter,’ but add me on Twitter,” he added.
When Tobias asked how they manage to communications, Tim laughed, and said, “By having a gigantic ego.” He clarified that, “It’s important to remember who you are. Not some kind of a famous person, or anything like that. So I put on a different person, a different version of myself who’s making all the interviews, talking to producers, and so on.”
Time flew by, and it was time for questions. Somebody mentioned about how difficult it was to make it in the industry, and if they have any advice of how to succeed.
“If you don’t know what you’re doing, or if nobody knows you” Tim said, “Just act like you know exactly what you’re doing. Fake it ’till you make, that can certainly work.”
Another interesting question was from an audience member who said they’re making research on episodic games. “One thing we’d noticed,” he said, “Is that a lot of games get a lot of sales when the first episode is out, but the sales drop dramatically at the second episode, even though the reviews for both episodes are very, very good. What do you think about that?”
“Well, the thing about episodic games,” Tim said, “Is that they’re very narrative-heavy. Let’s say, I really liked Life is Strange, but I wish there was something else to do after I’d finished an episode. Play basketball on the basketball court, anything.”
Something to consider for anyone working on episodic games, no doubt.
After the panel, people were lining up to speak to the legendary developers in person, and I thought that maybe I could ask them what they think about helping to get the word out for a free book of video game writing case studies by video game writers, but didn’t want to be a nuisance, so I’d existed the room and thought about how unhelpful feeling self-conscious can be … at which point I decided that I’ve nothing to lose, and went back inside to see what was going on.
What was going on is that a developer from a company I didn’t catch the name of was talking to Tim, trying to persuade him to have a beer with them on the seaside to discuss the game project they’re working on. When Tim asked him where is the man’s team, he said that they’re waiting right outside the door, and Tim knew there was no escape. I’d abandoned my idea of promoting the project, because, while it’s a part of why I was there, there are more important things in life than trying to get famous / talented people interested, and so I just shook Tim’s hand and thanked him in person for bringing many happy moments to my childhood when my family moved from Russia to Cyprus with only the Day of the Tentacle characters as my closest friends. He seemed really cool about it. Once again, I headed for the door, and literally almost rubbed shoulders with Chris Avellone, at which point I thought to hell with feeling self-conscious, and said, “Chris, do you remember that book of video game writing case studies I’d mentioned earlier? You said it’s a good idea. Well, if you still think so, I’m trying to crowdfund a book like that — which will available for free to everyone, naturally — so, if you’re still interested, check it out,” and gave him my card.
“Word Cowboy? I like that.”
“It’s a cowboy lifestyle.”
“Sounds good. If you don’t hear anything back from me until the end of the week, ping me on Twitter.”
“And thanks for Fallout,” I said. “One of my favorite games ever, I learnt English from that game, and now it’s my bread and butter. So I owe you a lot.”
“Yeah? Well, thanks for playing our games, man.”
Awesome, I thought, and, feeling happy that I could thank two of my favorite creators in person and somewhat hopeful that Chris would push some magic button to get the word out about the Video Game Writing for Video Game Writers book, I headed down to the beach to have a pint as I watched the sun set.
To recap, the most important things I’d learnt about game development at the conference was:
- It’s faster to fix mistakes than to prevent making mistakes. Get an iteration of the game as soon as possible. “You’re not making the game until you’re playing the game.”
- If you’re working on an episodic game, consider the importance of replayability if you want people people to buy the second episode.
- Do not give up.
I’d like to close with a quote from one of my favorite philosophers:
“Don’t fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.”
– Bruce Lee
Please consider supporting the Video Game Writing for Video Game Writers project (if not the production costs, then at least by getting the word out), the first book of video game writing case studies ever, thank you very much for reading, and I hope to see you at Reboot Develop 2017.