Friday, December 18, 2009

Game writing video interview for Clash of Heroes

Here is a video interview that we did for the Clash of Heroes game, subtitled on a German site (it's about halfway down the page).
The point was to explain how we took a universe built for a 60-hour PC TBS game (Heroes) and FPS/RPG-style games (Dark Messiah) and condensed it down to the DS platform.
Unfortunately, the interview is missing most of what we said about the development team at Capybara, in particular Kris and Dan. They are the guys that took our storyline and characters and actually created the missions and the quests and the dialogs. They deserve a lot more credit than they get in this video, particularly as the real gameplay and story integration was done by them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Story on Escape Pod

My story that first came out in Interzone is up on Escape Pod as a free listen. Thanks to the team there for taking it and to Geoff for the great reading.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Steamed up

As a consumer I find Pitchford's comments to be ridiculous, and Wardell's to be whiny. I have used a number of on-line venues to purchase game content--Steam, GOG, D2D. Steam is hands-down the most effective in stability, support, ease of purchase, ergonomics, content patches, everything.

It's too bad that other studios have to go through a competitor's platform to sell games, though one could wonder why they didn't think of it themselves five years ago and do it first. Valve came up with a good idea and has been constantly improving the implementation. Frankly, as someone who buys games, I think that's great.

In fact, the basis of the complaints seems to be purely financial. There has never been a breath of scandal that Valve plays favorites, delays or slows competitor's offerings, dishes out unequal access, or commits any other form of unethical practice. In fact, it's worth noting that every single comment that came out as a response to Pitchford's original diatribe has stated that Valve could, but doesn't. After all, just because Valve also comes from Seattle doesn't mean that they use Microsoft's business practices.

Why does Steam have a 70% market share? Why are so many of us happy using it? Maybe it's because it works.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Real multiplayer games

It's a recent tradition in our family to buy the kids games for their birthdays. We are lucky to have a major game conference near us every February, which coincides nicely with Louis' and Zoé's birthdays. We go down every year, meet up with manic Kurt McClung, and peruse the latest and greatest.

It should be noted that the games in this case are board games, not computer games. Why? Because board games can be played as a family. Because boards games don't require that everyone own a battery- or electricity-draining device that costs from $150 to $500 (plus a copy of the $40 to $60 game, one for each player...). Because board games are portable, non-linear, age-indifferent, replayable, and they have better graphics. I'm not kidding about this; take a look at the maps, cards, counters, and dice in a game like Jamaica or Dixit or Keltis and you'll see what I mean. They are increasingly solid, well-crafted, and beautful; a pleasure to handle and play with. They are tangible and can be used even during an electricity blackout, given a sufficient supply of candles. Fifteen years from now you can take them out of the closet and play them, regardless of where polygon counts and graphic cards are.

Over the last few years we have purchased a number of excellent ones, the kids' favorites being Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Keltis, and Kyogami. This year we added Jamaica and Dominion, and I'll probably get Dixit  for Zoé (please don't tell her!).

So these birthday gifts made me think about comparing video multiplayer games to classic ones. For me it's interesting, because as enjoyable and wonderful and replayable as board games are, they do not have a formal story. What they have are unpredictable and anecdotal sequences of events that are great to live and great to re-tell, except for that inevitable "...but I guess you had to be there" ending. What is curious is that a hot topic for game designers and academics these days is "emergent story" (or emergent narrative because it has more syllables), meaning that the players generate their own story through their actions as they play the game (yes, that's a gross simplification, but it's the basic idea). This, as far as I can tell, what has been going on since the makers of Clue (a.k.a. Cluedo) gave the opportunity of mixing up the weapon, the place, and the suspect. This sounds reductionist, but it should be. We're taking two of mankinds three oldest activities -- telling stories and playing games -- and pretending that by adding a computer to the mix things have become radically different.

What is true is that game developers have a sort of Shangri-la vision of a future game system where the computer is another, unpredictable player; imagine what would happen if Colonel Mustard took the secret passage from the Conservatory to the Lounge halfway through the game, or  if a peasant army in Kamchatka fought back against your tray full of ten-army towers, or if there was a real estate crisis halfway through Monopoly and people started running to invest in 'safe' markets like railroads and utilities?

In truth, it would seem to me to be simply an unexpected twist on the old gameplay; merely an added dimension to an already well-worn (if well-loved) path. Primarily because I don't think that story generated this way will be able to provide the same sort of sense of tension / climax / resolution that a well-structured tale provides. It is, however, very tempting to think about it.

But remember--the next time you do a raid in WoW or fight off a competing guild in EVE, retelling it to those who weren't there is about as much fun as hearing the blow-by-bow of your last awesome RISK smackdown.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Review up for Black Static 11

Though horror is less my cup of tea than other spec fic genres, I enjoyed the magazine immensely. It seems to me that the editorial board at TTA has done a great job of choosing eclectic, intelligent, and very well-crafted tales for all of their titles. A few of them were real attention-grabbers, particularly "None Had Sharp Teeth" and "Out with the Furies."

My review of the six tales in the magazine can be found here, at Tangent Online:

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

When Designers Have Story Problems

I attended a great panel at the Austin GDC where Chris Avellone and Christian Allen (designers) discussed game writing and game design with Andy Walsh and Rhianna Pratchett (writers). It was a good debate with a few barbs on either side, presenting the problems that games developers have putting story into games.

However, at one point, I got really annoyed. One of the designers made a comment about the problems they have when the action has to stop so that "the writer's" story can be told at that point in the game.

Why was I annoyed? Because either: 1) Your game needs a story, or 2) It does not. If you are in the former situation for whatever reason (the market wants it, the IP has always done it, the producer insists on it, etc.), your job is pretty simple as a designer: Work the story into the game design.

So, let's look at the moment where, in the middle of some exciting gameplay, the designer feels that they are being made to stop the fun part to advance the story (Mary de Marle did a great presentation about this as well at the Austin GDC). Here is why I don't see this as 'writefail:'

1. It is unlikely that the writer suddenly walked in the door, handed the designer a story outline, and said "Change your level design because at this point in the action we have to have a cutscene." What is more likely is that the story documents have been laying around for weeks or months, either halfheartedly skimmed or largely ignored by the design team. In effect, the writer might be saying: "Remember this?"

2. It is equally possible, if designers find themselves in this situation, that the story is something that has been tacked on late in the development process. Not, shall we say, 'best practice.'

3. Story, if done well (and I assume we all want to do things well), is pervasive in a game. The environment, the audio effects, the character designs, the dialog, the level design, the tools or weapons, everything is part of the story. The story is not text and cutscenes; it is atmosphere and NPC actions and quests and marketing and everything else. A designer must know what the story is supposed to be doing in their level, because the story should be everywhere in their level.

4. Also, like the rest of game development, story is collaborative. Writers understand that changes in level design will require story changes; no one expects things to be otherwise. However this cuts both ways; the level design may have to change to accommodate the narrative. Admittedly it is rare, as on a per-hour basis writing is cheaper to change than level design, and it should only happen early in the design process. But it can, has, and will happen.

5. Last but not least, the story is not the writer's story; it is part of the game design. It is the team's story. If there is a sense that the story is some foreign entity infecting the rest of the design process, the whole project has a problem.

The simple fact is that level design and game design cannot be done in a vacuum. Just as the designer's work dictates other parts of the game, there are other parts of the game--like the story--that influence what the designer's limits may be.

It should never happen that a story element parachutes down to take the designer by surprise and force him to change his design and his gameplay and generally make his life miserable. That's not 'writefail,' that's 'gamedevelopmentfail.'

Sunday, September 06, 2009

My review of Interzone 222

In short, it can be found here, at Tangent Online.

As always, I enjoyed both the range and the content of the stories. I think that one of Interzone's strong points is the mix of tales that it presents; you never quite know what you may be in for next when you read it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Good YBSF News!

In a gesture of extreme coolness, Gardner Dozois has included my story from Interzone 219 in the "Honorable Mentions" list in his Year's Best Science Fiction anthology. I would have thought that at my age there would be nothing that could make me incoherent with glee. I was wrong.

If you are curious, an e-version of the Interzone in question can be purchased for $5 from

Monday, July 27, 2009

5 workplace skills for a different future...

Reading the Institute for the Future's blog on workplace skills of the future,, I had a hard time swallowing words like "Emergensight," "Influency," and "Longbroading." I offer here my somewhat more dystopian view of what will be required of us in the future workplace...

1. Sociagiene. With the development of superbugs and pandemics, any area (such as the office) where multiple people come into contact must be entered and exploited with a great deal of care. The way that we as workers deal with public hygiene -- and the social consequences of that -- will have an growing impact on our business lives.

2. Chafftrol. As an increasingly vast number of communication channels dilute one's ability to trap pertinent messages, a lot of time is going to be spent trying to separate wheat from chaff. This will become increasingly difficult as only a single interface -- the browser -- is becoming the preferred medium for personal and professional communication, PR, marketing, shopping, discussion, and entertainment. If you add to this the tendency of social networks to over-react to any stimulus and explode into massive chaff generators, the wheat will become increasingly hard to find.

3. Consterm. As the availability of energy and water continues to shrink, any decision about how, when, and where to work will be increasingly determined by the balance of these scarce resources. Overhead costs reflected in heating and plumbing are likely to rise, and contract terms and performance targets will start to include consumables.

4. Langfusion. As work becomes increasingly cross-cultural and international, it will become critical to understand other people's English, either as spoken or as poorly rendered by a free translation service. The world is evolving to a point where most speakers of English will be non-native, taught by other non-natives. This is particularly important since Americans cannot in general communicate in a foreign language, and often in English either.

5. Panrentomy. Moves by any organization that creates anything (from movies, songs, and books to computers, cars, and housing) to turn their product that you purchase into a service that you rent will fundamentally change the way you live and work. In a few short years, the only thing that you purchase that you will actually own and have the right to consume as you wish will be the food you eat. Be prepared to deal with copyright statutes that control how you use document templates, computer hardware, office facilities, and kitchen appliances.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Simple View of Game Story

What is a story? It can be defined this way: A story is characters, with goals, fighting against obstacles to achieve those goals -- or failing nobly in the attempt. Don't quote me on this, it's a fairly standard definition that I pulled from Orson Scott Card's "How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy."

One can get analytical and academic and discuss lots of increasingly theoretical details and structures, but it's really actually about that simple. And whether your story resembles "Pride and Prejudice" or "No Country for Old Men", it's pretty much going to have those elements. I repeat: Characters, with Goals, Struggling to Achieve them. That's been the basis of a good story ever since Og first regaled his fellow cave dwellers with how he opened a crock of whup-ass on a sabertooth tiger.

But if you want to look at this from a game developer/designer's point of view, you might think about doing a bit of mathematical substitution:

Characters = Player-Avatars
Goals = Objectives
Struggling = Gameplay
Achieve = Rewards.

Which gives us this:

"A game story is player-avatars, with objectives, using gameplay to achieve those objectives (get rewards)."

Okay, it's not Shakespeare. But it's something. And it actually gives us an interesting look at where traditional story and this whole newfangled game thing might have some basic building blocks in common.

Which begs the question: "If it's that simple, why doesn't it work?"

There are a few reasons, I think, but I am by no means the first and last authority on this.
1. Characters
They are often 2D paper doll imitations of well-known stereotypes. If a character is predictable, it's hard to get too fired up by her problems. See the comments to my previous Gamasutra blog post for some good thoughts on this.
2. Goals
What the character wants might not make sense, or might not be realistic, or, on the other hand, might have been done in a much more direct and simple way if there wasn't a lead designer involved... Besides, since the goal is generally "Save the World/Universe/Species," it often lacks interest. Goals are too often epic, but not personal.
3. Struggling
It's not unusual that the story occurs in parallel to and independent of the gameplay -- the classic set-up of lots of gameplay, then a cutscene where other things happen that advance the story. While the gameplay unlocks the story, it doesn't always drive, enhance, or enrich it. Necessarily, the story equation starts to fall apart. If what the player is doing isn't the story, we no longer have one.
4. Achieve
We're usually pretty good on this one. Whether it's rankings, virtual gold, cutscenes, bragging rights, or power-ups, one thing you can guarantee is that success is rewarded. However, if it isn't tied into the struggling and the goals of the character, why should the player-avatar care?

So though the definition appears deceptively simple, there seem to be a lot of weak links in the way that we execute it.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Which fantasy writer am I?

Obviously, in the spec fic field it's making the rounds. I came up with Philip Pullman, and a lot like Tove Janssen. I don't mind being associated with the "anti-Narnia" crowd. On the four scales that go from -25 to +25, I measured :
  • Slightly more High-brow than Low-brow (3). Literary upbringing, pulp fiction tastes. Makes sense.
  • Much more Peaceful than Violent. (-19). Color me Quaker.
  • Barely more Experimental than Traditional (1). Experiment is fine, but it has to have a point.
  • More Cynical than Romantic (5). But not much. It must be living in France that did it to me.

Friday, June 05, 2009

From a Gmail sponsored link:

Creative Writing Software
Guaranteed To Have Your Book In A Month Working Only 1 Hour a Day
www.(name withheld to protect the guilty).com

Gosh, maybe I should do that! And I thought that writing a novel took months and lots of effort. Silly me. I bet they have a service to help you self-publish it, as well.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Stem cell research

Apparently the discussion is being hijacked by fringe groups. Don't let this happen; go here and take the three minutes to leave a comment in support of loosening the restrictions.

A more detailed discussion and explanation is here:

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Finally finished...

The project that has been eating the rest of my life for the last week is done. My photo-travelogue of our trip to Costa Rica is posted here:

Even if you don't read the blather I typed in the captions, you might enjoy some of the rain forest pictures.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A great article on the relevance of high fantasy

In this article, R. Scott Bakker makes a very interesting argument that explains the popularity of works of high fantasy in contemporary society.

In short, all of our ancient explanations for what happened in the world around us have been invalidated by science. Weather, animals, and geology are controlled by indifferent scientific mechanisms, not by gods and spirits. The world no longer has an intrinsic moral meaning; everyday events no longer have a lesson in values attached. As Bakker says, "Where we once lived in a world steeped in moral significance, now we live in a world where things simply happen."

Thus, we turn to high fantasy or religion to find those moral lessons that are no longer part of our daily rituals. A fascinating read by a very bright author.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Back from the jungle

Literally. We spent two weeks in Costa Rica for spring vacation, and discovered an amazing little country. When time permits I will put up a ton of photos on Picasa with comments (which doubles as my travel journal).

We had a great tour organized by Wildland; while Lidia and I are confirmed and avid backpackers we decided that with two kids in tow, no time to plan, and an enormous number of national parks we would just sit back and let the experts do it.

The experts responded with canyoning, nature hikes, white water rafting, river exploration, scuba, a night hike to study bugs, mountain biking on a volcano... great stuff. What is funny, though, is that one of the most memorable experiences happened off-itinerary.

It was our last day, and we had wandered into San Jose to see a museum and to actually see what the people are like, because until then pretty much all the locals that we had seen were covered with fur and lived in trees. We knew the wildlife better than the Ticos (with the exception of our excellent guide, Charlie).

On the way back to our hotel, and thence the airport, we wanted to stop and buy a soccer shirt of the national star, Centeno, for Louis.
When traveling in third world countries, having a cute kid who wears t-shirts of famous soccer stars is just an awesome ice-breaker.

So our taxi driver drives us to the stadium where Centeno's team, C.D. Saprissa, trains, and asks around to see if we can buy a t-shirt. Suddenly they are swinging open the big metal doors, and we are driving in. The driver parks under these enormous cement bleachers, gets out, and starts talking. One of the team stars comes over and shakes our hands, then starts chattering at everybody. Within a few minutes he has a t-shirt for Louis, has signed it, and is corralling all the other members of the team to do the same thing. Somebody gets called over from the snack counter to sign it. The guys who are driving out of the stadium after practice get stopped, they sign the shirt, and so on.

Pretty soon Louis is standing there with a foolish look on his face, holding a shirt that has been signed by a dozen players from the best football club in all of Central America (they won the CONCACAF Champions' Cup in '93, '95, and '05).

And all because we happened across the right taxi driver. Pure travel serendipity.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Grammar sniping

A short note on the 'ending a sentence with a preposition = evil' rule. It seems to be accepted that this is not a grammatically meaningful rule, and here are two further destructions of it:
  1. Ben Jonson: "Prepositions sometimes follow the noun they are coupled with."
  2. Phrasal verbs are verbs that take the form of phrases -- to put up with, to look out for, etc.  So when you write "When hunting werewolves, large bloody pawprints and half-eaten carcasses are signs to look out for" you are actually ending a sentence with a verb, not a preposition.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Louis in the snow

This is what Louis is up to this week. I guess it was kind of inevitable; there is only so much time you can spend on the slopes as a young boy without wanting to try a snowboard.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Here it is: the proof that GM was behind the Obama campaign.
How pathetic is that, using the "Yes We Can" slogan to advertise SUV's?
Posted by Picasa

Belated Merry Christmas to us

We finally cashed in a gift certificate from the in-laws: a spa treatment and lunch at the Mas Candille in Mougins.
The morning started with half an hour in the exercise room, followed by two sessions in the sauna, some time relaxing in the heated pool, and a 45-minute massage. From there we were off to a three-course lunch that included a glass of champagne and a half-bottle of wine.

That explains why last Tuesday was a vacation day...

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Sunrise in Le Bar sur Loup. We get up early to send Zoé off to school, and this is what greets us from the living room windows.
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Friday, February 20, 2009

Confetti for the kids

Louis' school (or Louis's school, depending on your grammatical preferences) had its Carnival today. He went dressed as Calvin & Hobbes with a stuffed tiger (dote factor pegs the redline). This is what the street looked like afterwards.
Posted by Picasa

Friday, February 13, 2009

Porcine maquillage redux

I made a post to the mailing list of the Game Writers' SIG last month about a lipstick-on-a-pig project that I am involved with.

Basically, due to errors of timing and personality and development, I will be the third writer on this particular game which has been in development for two years. I will be the last one, however, and though I would love to call this a testament to my talents it is in reality because the beta has to be finished in the next few weeks...

Though I should say this sotto voce, and not admit in public that it is really the case, I actually think that this particular story will work out quite well in spite of the apparent last minute rush. There are several reasons for this rare exception to The Freelance Game Writer's Rule*:
  1. Because two writers have trod this lonely road before me, the developers have been working with a few well-defined main characters in mind (though some of the secondary characters will have to change). Therefore, the protagonists and antagonists are not afterthoughts to the level creation.
  2. Because the level design is 95% complete, I know that what I write is not going to undergo numerous changes and require numerous re-writes. In other words the story will not be a mutant; something disfigured and contorted to adhere to the shape of the final level design.
  3. I am sitting two or three days a week with the developers in the studio, with access to everyone from the level designers to the creative director.
  4. I have won the acceptance of the Creative Director, who has grudgingly admitted that though my baby is not gorgeous, he has seen many others that are far uglier.
  5. The gameplay just absolutely rocks, and I look forward to playing the final product. This helps in those times of temporary lapses of motivation.
To quote Charlotte: "Some pig."

* The Rule: Involve the game writer early, involve the game writer often.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

More nice comments

A few other reviews of my Interzone story have come through. I liked the IROSF one in particular.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Griping about the AIAS awards

1. If you want to cast even one vote you have to cast all your possible votes. This means that you are forced to vote in a category, even if you don't believe that any of the nominations deserve the label "outstanding."  And even if you are not actually technically competent to judge.
2. There seem to be, as far as I can see, a total of 0 indie games on the ballot.
3. Many games that I would have liked to see nominated were not present.

I feel like I have been co-opted as an unwilling participant in some groupthink project.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Interview on the Narrative Design Exploratorium

I was interviewed by Stephen Dinehart for his Narrative Design Exploratorium. Stephen is a narrative / story designer, experienced with and fascinated by the integration of narrative into video games. His interview with me is the fourth in his series "Game Writers in the Trenches."

While I make no claim to genius or insight, the series that Stephen is running - "Masters of Narrative Design" and "Game Writers in the Trenches" - have a lot of great content for people doing game writing.

Please take a look and comment on my foolishness and/or wisdom.

P.S. And enjoy the photo. It's my "uncompromising artistic tough guy" shot. With stubble.

A moment of silence...

The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, a staple of the speculative fiction world, will not be published this year. The series ends with last year's volume, the 21st. This is a loss to readers and writers alike, as evidenced by the comment thread on the LCRW site.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

I've been BoingBoinged!

Which is about as cool as it gets. The Tumbarumba anthology was posted on this very famous blog site by Cory Doctorow, SF author and uber-geek. The submission came from Ethan Ham, who collaborated on Tumbarumba with Ben Rosenbaum.

Excuse me, I must go lie down and wait for my heartbeat to return to normal.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Another kindly review

SFRevu has nice things to say about my story "Everything That Matters," which has the fortune to be in an issue with some superb writing by Jason Sanford, Gord Sellar, and my fellow Villa Diodatian Aliette de Bodard. I don't mind being overshadowed by writers like that...

Monday, January 05, 2009

Vacation snaps

  1. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow... er, rain.
    The first full day of our Christmas vacation we discovered that our ski suits were no longer waterproof. It is a strange sensation to be soaked, pretty much to the skin, and not be cold. Hooray for modern technology. One can of waterproofing agent later things were much better.
  2. The Joy of Sechts
    ...couldn't resist that one. Secht is the Austrian version of champagne, and the best ones do have a level of dryness and finesse that is similar to the original. However there is a lot of plonk out there as well, and they are often too sweet. If forced to recommend or purchase it, Henkell is generally a safe bet.
    In addition to the bubbly Austrians also make a wide range of schnapps (however, the Joy of Schnapps is nowhere near as interesting a title). Plum, pear, and apricot are probably the most common, but there are a lot of more exotic and infinitely more interesting ones. Enzianschnapps made from gentian, vogelbeere schnapps made from rowan berry, and himbeere schnapps (raspberry) are my preferred after-dinner shots of choice.
  3. Hooray for Austrian trains
    The long-distance trains have plugs for laptops in second class. Even the famed French TGV can't rival this.
  4. Vienna for the holidays
    Highly recommended; it's a city that knows how to dress up and celebrate. The streets are decorated, there are Christmas markets all over town, and a zillion little stalls spring up that sell mulled wine, hot chocolate, and other specialties like gammsmilch (spiked milk) and jagertee (spiked black tea), etc. Further proof that for Europeans, alcohol > cold.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Hooray for nice reviews

A tip of the hat to Garth D Jones and his impeccable taste in speculative fiction (he liked my story). He liked Aliette's tale as well, calling it the best one in the issue.