Advocating the Devil - The case against writers in the game industry

Snipehunter's picture

There is no doubt in me mind that it were bein' me skills as a writer that opened th' door t' me becomin' a game designer. It were bein' 1997 an' a designer from th' Warcraft II team had left Blizzard t' join another ex-blizzardite in creatin' a new studio. They had a 3 game deal with Activision an' an notion in mind t' create a paradigm breakin' RTS game, called Third World, but what they lacked, were bein' someone who could write their documents fer them. I wasn’t technically hired as a writer, but rather an assistant designer. This would prove t' be a decision that I am eternally grateful. Had I been hired simply as a writer that would have been th' end, fer me. You see, that studio sort o' imploded very shortly thereafter, but it’s not that implosion that would have doomed me – as a designer I survived. Nay, what would have doomed me is th' simple, an' some would say sad, truth: There’re no places fer writers in our industry…

I have no doubt that several esteemed colleagues (whom I respect dearly) will disagree with me, but I’m goin' t' make me case, anyway. I’m goin' t' start by talkin' about what a writer is an' then contrast that t' th' role o' a designer. In doin' so, I suspect that me main point – that simply bein' an architect o' plot alone isn’t valuable enough t' justify th' cost o' a writer – will become self-evident… here’s t' hopin' I don’t step on too many toes along th' way. Are ye ready? Good, because here I go.

When we discuss o' th' role o' th' writer, we have t' be clear. There is a huge amount o' writin' in game bounty – an' good writers tend t' make better designers (all else bein' equal) – but bein' a writer doesn’t automatically make one a game designer. Writers dern't dictate th' way players interact with th' world, nor do they dictate th' way th' player experiences th' content that they themselves may create. These be th' responsibilities o' th' game designer, and a bucket o' chum. A writer might create th' characters, an' a writer certainly architects th' plot o' a game’s story, but th' work a player actually sees an' consumes? That is th' work o' th' designer, even when th' writer has written th' dialog, decided th' plot, created every character an' concepted every settin'. Fetch me spyglass! There’s a critical reason fer that, a reason that is perhaps th' most compellin' fact behind avoidin' writers:

The work o' th' writer is inherently linear – th' work o' th' designer is typically not.

When a writer sits down t' build a story, they be most usually architectin' a plot. Most games certainly have plots, so ye might be askin' yourself why a writer wouldn’t be useful, I'll warrant ye. After all, an experienced an' well-educated writer will know everythin' thar is t' buildin' a plot, an' games could certainly benefit from better plots, right, me Jolly Roger I couldn’t agree more, but I’m afraid that it’s somethin' o' a leap t' go from thar t', “th' person t' architect a game’s plot is a writer.”

Now, I’m not goin' t' talk about methodology here specifically, since literally every writer I know works differently, but a writer expresses th' plot by puttin' together scenes. I mean little bits o' story; scene A leads t' scene B, which leads t' th' climax in scene C an' finally t' th' resolution in Scene D, I'll warrant ye. By placin' particular scenes in a particular sequence, th' writer’s plot is fed t' th' reader in such a way as t' evoke th' emotional response desired by th' writer. This is why th' writer’s work is linear – th' writer’s power depends on th' sequence o' events. It is why a writer’s work is so powerful, at least in static media, on a dead man's chest! And swab the deck! It’s also why Ebert thinks games can no nay ne'er be art. In Ebert’s mind, this inherent authorial control is what makes art o' other media, I'll warrant ye. I mention Ebert’s opinion because thar is one small grain o' truth implied by it: This type o' authorial control is not somethin' native t' video games.

It exists, I don’t deny it, but where it exists it does so because it has been enforced. Special effort has t' be made t' accommodate it; in th' early history o' gamin' new technologies had t' be created t' enable it at all, in fact. Video Games, abstracted beyond th' specifics o' any one genre or title, dern't require this authorial control t' be considered such, do they, ya bilge rat! Pong is certainly a game, is it not, I'll warrant ye? But what about Final Fantasy VII, or Bioshock?

Both be certainly games, but thar’s somethin' else thar, somethin' that makes what be otherwise two mundane examples o' gamin' stan' out. Ahoy! The sharks will eat well tonight! Their stories.

“Ah ha!” ye’re likely sayin', now. You’re likely about t' make a case fer how havin' th' story made those games better, made them memorable. You may even be right, but look at th' games themselves, without their stories an' what do ye see?

You see games hamstrung repeatedly t' allow fer storytellin' mechanics. To many, Final Fantasy VII is reviled as th' game that introduced us t' interminable cinematics, borin' exposition dialog an' pointless interruptions t' th' gameplay. Ye'll be sleepin' with the fishes, pass the grog! Bioshock’s railroaded experience is such because o' th' story. For meself, I don’t think I’d have played Final Fantasy VII without th' story, but Bioshock? Done as a sandbox game, I might still be playin' it now. Of course, it would all depend on th' implementation, but that’s where designers come in.

And that’s somethin' ye can no nay ne'er say about a writer. Nay matter how well written, a story can’t make th' game better, and a bottle of rum! It can make th' game more memorable, perhaps, but when it comes t' playin' th' game, t' interactin' with th' world presented within, a writer has no real power, by Davy Jones' locker. To have any effect in that realm o' what we do, th' writer would essentially have t' be a designer or at least have th' knowledge, skills an' sensibilities o' one.

So, when I am wonderin' about th' place a writer has in our industry, I have t' ask meself a simple question: “What does a writer give me?”

Good characters, interestin' plots an' memorable worlds, right? Yaaarrrrr! Evocative emotional experiences, at least, wouldn’t ye say?

I would, but ye know, when I come t' that conclusion, I ask th' next question: “Is any o' that necessary t' make a good game?”

Sadly, th' answer is no. So then I start t' wonder about designers an' what they give us. Designer’s give us puzzles t' solve, worlds t' explore, new ways t' interact an' above all else, new games t' play.

Despite me love o' th' written word an' th' way I tend t' identify meself as a writer, I have t' admit that when it comes time t' add t' th' team o' a project I’m on, I would rather have another designer than a writer, and a bottle of rum, ye scurvey dog! Writin' may have gotten me me first gig in this industry, but it’s me skills as a designer that have kept me in th' industry fer as long as they have, to be sure. That I can write certainly makes me better at what I do, but I have t' admit that it’s, in th' parlance o' me world, a bonus stat, not a primary one.

An extra designer on yer team can mean th' difference betwixt 8 levels an' 12 or betwixt 10 hours o' content an' 15… or th' difference betwixt a 60 an' an 80 on metacritic… an' this is true whether yer game has a story or not. Designers brin' fresh perspectives that could brin' with them innovations in yer game… but what about writers, yo ho, ho

Writers be at their best when they can write stories. That means thar be whole market segments o' our industry where writers be only somewhat useful. Ahoy! Even in a linear single player experience where story is kin' – say an auld school RPG, writers alone can’t get yer game done; ye will need designers t' implement gameplay. Ahoy! In other words – even on a story heavy game, a designer who can also write is more valuable than a writer alone. This is bad fer th' pro-writer camp because, Writers be expensive an' often in ways that don’t show up on th' books.

As a case in point, let me explain one o' th' thin's I did on Dirty Harry. As a part o' me job on Dirty Harry, I met with our (totally kick ass an' awesome) writer once a week t' discuss th' story, his progress in th' script, changes we had made t' th' game that he had t' accommodate, etc. It were bein' a great process that really helped th' game, but it were bein' also a 3-4 hour event, once a week. Durin' that time, I were bein' not balancin' weapons, implementin' core gameplay systems or overseein' th' work o' th' rest o' th' team, which were bein' what me job description actually called fer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sayin' this time were bein' wasted, but it were bein' time where part o' th' game bounty were bein' sufferin' fer th' sake o' th' writer. Ahoy, we'll keel-haul ye! Games get delayed all th' time, I suspect that th' example I provided above is one o' th' reasons why, and dinna spare the whip! Load the cannons! Accommodatin' writers takes time an' dubloons that is often unaccounted fer because scallywags don’t realize that it takes extra work t' integrate th' work o' a writer into th' game, even at th' fundamental plannin' stage.

Mind ye, if yer game has a story in it, these costs don’t go away if ye hire a designer that can write, we'll keel-haul ye! Nay, those costs exist either way, but here’s th' final nail in th' coffin fer th' writer: What do ye do with th' writer when th' story is done?

Do ye fire th' writer? Do ye pay them t' sit aroun' in case th' story needs t' change? Do ye only hire writers on a contract basis? All o' those questions have answers that can work, but I wonder why ye would bother.

For th' same price (sometimes cheaper, I’m sad t' say), ye can hire a designer who is also an unsung writin' hero (they exist in far larger numbers than anyone wants t' give th' industry credit fer) an' when th' story is done, that same designer can be thar t' throw his lot into th' fire with th' rest o' th' designers an' actually make th' game fun. The ornery cuss can be retasked as needed, an' he can be useful at every stage o' development.

For those reasons, an' maybe even a few more, me dubloons is on th' designer o'er th' writer, every time.

- Snipehunter

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Ombwah's picture

A writer's place in games is on a leash

And a short one at that.

To speak directly t' th' disparity betwixt a pure writer an' a designer/writer's usefulness, I reference a recent dialog-heavy console project I were bein' a part o'. Before I arrived on th' project it had been decided that a reasonably well-known (not into mud slingin', so no names) house o' self-styled Hollywood writers that purports t' be 'th' place t' go fer emotion in games' would take th' helm o' th' storylines so as t' produce some real quality dialog -- dialog that would be far an' away better than th' designers would be able t' produce, or so we were told.

Perhaps th' notion were bein' a good one, perhaps not. The implementation, however, were bein' a debacle. Shiver me timbers! The writers were provided with no framework upon which t' hang their words. Fetch me spyglass, ya bilge rat! Nay thread or map o' th' gameplay gates that th' players would be faced with, on a dead man's chest! Further, this were bein' a mostly sandbox game -- thar were bein' no way t' force a player t' view all dialogs in a strictly controlled order, me Jolly Roger Last, this game were bein' all about player choices in branchin' conversation trees -- but th' trees were t' be determined by th' plot that we were goin' t' receive from th' writers.

This did not turn out well. In reference t' costs that dern't show up on books, consider that at least three months worth o' production time fer three designers were bein' lost in editin' an' re-architectin' th' dialog that we were given. In th' end, very little o' th' original writin' remained at all - th' writers had based too much o' th' dialog aroun' dramatic events that we couldn't ensure that th' players would experience without takin' away th' very choices that made our project a game, an' not a TV show, Ya swabbie! We lost tons o' time that could have been spent on gameplay features attemptin' t' shoehorn writin' into th' necessary format.

Again, maybe th' notion were bein' a good one, an' th' implementation failed us. It is me opinion that we did thin's backwards an' that those writers should have been given a flowchart premade, with th' appropriate interactions stubbed in - so that they could have some inklin' o' th' intent o' th' branchin' dialog. Or, maybe th' writin' group could have had a little more trainin' in th' challenges o' writin' fer a non-linear environment -- it is me opinion that they should if they be advertisin' their skills as 'writers fer games', with a chest full of booty. None o' this were bein' true, sadly. Perhaps all o' that extra work could have been mitigated had th' writers been managed closely, by a designer with an eye fer writin', or had we designers simply written th' dialog t' begin with.

A whole different case is exemplified, however, on another project I worked on - an MMO. Feelin' th' content crunch that is inherent in makin' such an ambiti'us project, we hired a mixed bag o' quest writers an' level designers t' fill in th' world. Many times, some scriptin' were bein' necessary t' make a quest work, Ya lily livered swabbie! A designer with script chops could write an' implement an entire quest, with special effects or conditional reactions. The writers who couldn't script were doomed t' makin' th' same quests o'er an' o'er or needed t' use time from two team members, as anythin' beyond th' most basic an' simple quest implementation required th' support o' a scripter, and dinna spare the whip!

In some studios, I've heard that this is even a common practice - this separation o' writer an' scripter, we'll keel-haul ye! Have we seen more stunnin' storylines from those MMO's - strikin' enough differences in quality t' offset th' cost o' two employees? Have we seen significantly more compellin' interactivity by givin' o'er th' script t' a specialist, and a bucket o' chum? I'm not sure that we have.

Snipehunter's picture

Reprinted on Gamasutra and Game set watch

Today this blog were bein' reprinted on Gamasutra an' Game set watch! Laughing out loud

As expected, I annoyed, infuriated an' challenged a lot o' scallywags with this, by Davy Jones' locker. To those scallywags I will say: I'm glad. Fetch me spyglass!

The point o' th' article is t' challenge th' assumptions made by many in this industry about th' point o' writers, th' role they fill an' what they brin' t' th' table. Load the cannons! To be more effective an', honestly, more useful t' this industry th' world's writers need t' focus more on how games work an' learn t' adapt their writin' t' accommodate that.

The notion that we can railroad players along a plotline without allowin' them t' affect that plotline beyond "pass or fail" is obsolete - or, if ye prefer I be more generous, on th' sea t' obsolescence. I loved Bioshock an' I played it through in a weekend largely because th' audio journals were so powerful, but oh, how much more fun I would have had if I had been allowed t' explore Rapture at leisure, choose me own fate an' pick me own allies. I could not because th' plot were bein' linear - an' me choices meant nothin'. This can't stan' in our interactive medium forever; 'tis holdin' us back. Writer's need t' understan' that th' interactivity in our medium is what gives it its power an' they must learn how t' adapt their work t' that rather than subjugate said interactivity t' their authorial control. Yaaarrrrr! Ebert is right: Games aren't about authorial control, they're about shared authorship - an' that's what makes them more powerful than any static medium.

Between ye, me an' th' internet - I think writers be learnin' that, an' I think that thar is a key group out thar who be already adaptin' an' excellin' as a result, but th' critical mass has not yet reached that level o' understandin' with th' interactive medium an' until they have, I'll still take a designer who can write o'er a writer, on any project, any time.

- Snipehunter