Thursday, June 23, 2005

Writing for computer games

More than 150 people packed into BAFTA last night for a Guild event looking at the role of writers in developing computer games.

On a panel chaired by Andy Walsh (who has written for games, TV, film, radio and stage) everyone agreed that writers were, or at least should be, central to the process.

Lydia Andrew and Guy Miller

Lydia Andrew (Sound Supervisor) and Guy Miller(Creative Director for the Harry Potter games franchise), both from EA, kicked off by arguing that computer games need scriptwriters for:

  • original stories
  • structure
  • character depth and evolution
  • high quality dialogue
  • to assist with adaptations

Ideally, they said, the writer should be involved right from the start helping to develop original ideas. But this doesn't happen much at the moment.

Lydia outlined some of the difficulties of writing for computer games:

  • non-linear narrative
  • the amount and type of dialogue
  • the need to learn a new set of techniques and technologies
  • the undpredictability of the player
  • the constantly evolving nature of the game development cycle.

The challenge for the future, Guy argued, was to redefine the process of storytelling. Games needed to be more emotionally compelling, while retaining gameplay. No one quite knew how it would be done, he said. But writers will be in the lead.

Chris Bateman

Chris Bateman, Managing Director of game design and scripting company International Hobo, began by stating that the overall quality of narrative in the games industry is currently poor. But it is improving.

The script budget is normally about 2% of the total, he said. Which, although low, is still an improvement on the 0% of a few years ago. The problem is that writers are still being brought into the process too late.

Chris suggested that writers without prior experience in the games industry were most likely to find work either writing 'cut-scenes' (the set pieces where the narrative is spoon-fed to the player) or technical writing for documentation that accompanies games. The more complicated narrative design required more understanding of how games work, he said.

As examples of games with competent narrative he suggested:

James Leach

Next up was James Leach, Head of Writing at Lionhead Studios.

His main concern was that professional writers who get involved in computer games should stand up for what they believe in. Too often, he argued, story points get over-explained and repeated. Stories get cut to pieces and actors, rather than recording dialogue together, never meet.

Less is more, he insisted. With dialogue and plot points, the key is to get as much information over using as few words as possible.

Katie Ellwood

The final speaker on the panel was Katie Ellwood, Narrative producer and director on Sony's The Getaway and the forthcoming The Getaway 2.

As an example of a game where good writing supported the gameplay, she suggested Ico, a game so emotionally involving that it can make players cry.

At Sony, Katie explained, they have been spending a lot of time thinking about the role of writers in games and on The Getaway they had a writer involved right from the start.

Katie ended by showing a scene from The Getaway 3, running on a PS3. It was an almost photo-realistic recreation of Piccadilly Circus. Apart from the people. Who, as several panel members commented, can still not be rendered convincingly.

Writers and theme

A questioner from the floor suggested that writers should be used more to generate the theme of a game - that, after all, is what writers do in other mediums.

Guy pointed out that for Harry Potter games they use JK Rowling's themes, and Andy Walsh said that in four of the last five games he has written the question of theme has emerged in discussions.

However, talking to writers in the bar after the event, it was clear that many felt that the industry was still not looking to writers to pitch original ideas. Why shouldn't it be more like film, when spec proposals are submitted, options bought etc? That, several people said, is what would really take the games industry forward.

How writers are found

While Chris and James said that they have plenty of CVs sent to them by potential writers, Lydia said that she had never been approached (writers flocked to her in the bar afterwards). Katie said that she tended to use agents to find writers, but there was a lack of knowledge about the games industry among agencies.

Where next?

As Chris pointed out, story and dialogue are worth 10-15% in the all-important games reviews, so producers should be willing to invest in writers and story development. If they don't, Katie said, they will be left behind.

The Writers' Guild is keen to represent the interests of games writers as their role in the industry develops and, as a starting point, has designed surveys for games writers, aspiring games writers and games producers.

Guild Events and Communications Manager, Naomi MacDonald, said she was hopeful that more games writers will join the Guild and that last night's event can be followed up with more in the future.

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