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Rebuttal: Why Writers In The Games Industry Matter
Rebuttal: Why Writers In The Games Industry Matter
March 24, 2008 | By Ron Toland

March 24, 2008 | By Ron Toland
More: Console/PC

[Adam Maxwell stirred up a hornet's nest with his argument against writers in the games industry - an editorial Maxwell has since commented on further on his personal weblog - but the IGDA Game Writers SIG isn't going to stand for it. In this rebuttal, Brainstem Games' Ron Toland aims to put the "well-circulated myth" that "writers are nice to have, but completely dispensable" to rest.]

In his op-ed piece, “The Case Against Writers in the Games Industry,” Adam Maxwell articulates a well-circulated myth: to make a good game, writers are nice to have, but are completely dispensable.

It is time for this myth to be laid to rest. It needs to find its place in the graveyard of outdated truths, along with the line that “you don't need artists to make good games,” or “you don't need designers to make good games.”

As we can see from Maxwell's article, he is completely in thrall to this myth:

"Had I been hired simply as a writer that would have been the end for me. You see, that studio imploded very shortly thereafter, but it’s not that implosion that would have doomed me -- as a designer I survived. No, what would have doomed me is the simple, and some would say sad, truth: There is no places for writers in our industry."

I suspect that Maxwell survived because he carried the label of designer, even though what he was doing was (technical) writing. Why would the label "writer" have hurt him? Because of the myth about writers in the games industry that he still believes.

This myth is based on a profound misunderstanding of the role of the writer in game development. Maxwell provides several examples of this misunderstanding:

“When a writer sits down to build a story, they are usually building a plot.”

There are two mistakes in that sentence. First, building a story means building characters, the relationships between those characters, the setting around the characters, and the conflicts—plots—that involve the characters. Second, game writers should never sit down alone to build a story. They should meet with the entire team so that the art, sound, game mechanics, and story all work together to craft an interactive experience.

"The work of the writer is inherently linear – the work of the designer is typically *not*."

A bold but bogus claim. Has he never played D&D? Read an RPG module that accommodates several different paths to play through? Read a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book? All of the above were created by writers. All use non-linear storytelling.

Conversely, the work of the designer is often very linear. Super Mario Brothers is an incredibly linear game. So are Portal, the Heroes of Might and Magic series, and many others. All of those games were designed to be linear, and are great games.

Games are often linear because of limitations in technology and time. Writers can help make that linear experience feel more free than it really is, by involving the player in an unfolding story.

"...a writer expresses the plot by putting together scenes"

False. Portal has no cut scenes, but plenty of plot, all expressed through dialogue, character and setting. These were crafted by the writer to provide what the designers felt was missing from the game. Rather than do it themselves, they did the right thing and called in a professional. The result was one of the year's most impressive games.

"This is why the writer’s work is linear -- the writer’s power depends on the sequence of events."

Again, false. It seems he's got movie scriptwriting confused with game writing. It has been established in the games industry that the two are different, and require different skills.

“...that’s something you can never say about a writer. No matter how well written, a story can’t make the game better."

Strange words, since this is exactly what the lead designer on Portal said at GDC during their post-mortem. They had the game mechanics down, but needed a good story, and a good writer, to make the game better.

Maxwell also goes astray when he asserts that a lack of authorial control cripples game writing from the start:

"...authorial control is not something native to video games...It exists, I don’t deny it, but where it exists it does so because it has been enforced. Special effort has to be made to accommodate it; in the early history of gaming new technologies had to be created to enable it at all, in fact."

The notion of authorial control is another myth. Does the director of a film control the conditions in which I see it? Does he know how often I'll pause a DVD to go grab some popcorn, or when I might doze off and have to finish the movie later?

The idea that artists can control how audiences experience their art is a false hope. Games, with their inherently interactive nature, just make it more obvious. Good writing in a game can have just as much emotional impact as good writing in movie, so long as the writer knows how to use the medium.

Even worse than his myths about game writing, Maxwell has mistaken beliefs about the role of designers:

"A writer might create the characters, and a writer certainly architects the plot of a game’s story, but the work a player actually sees and consumes? That is the work of the designer..."

That's a pretty hefty claim. Do the designers also create the art consumed by the player? Or write the code that enables the game mechanics? Or compose the music playing in the background of the game?

No. Neither should designers be the primary person on a team concerned with story.

According to Maxwell, the designer's job isn't made any easier by the presence of a writer:

"Case in point, as a part of my job on Dirty Harry, I met with our writer once a week to discuss the story, his progress in the script, changes we had made to the game that he had to accommodate. It was a great process that really helped the game, but it was also a 3-4 hour event, once a week....During that time, I was not balancing weapons, implementing core game play systems or overseeing the work of the rest of the team, which was what my job description actually called for...I’m not saying this time was wasted, but it was time where part of the game design was suffering for the sake of the writer."

A wonderful anecdote that fails to prove his point. Is he claiming that, as a designer, he never talked to the programming team? Never once stopped to see what an artist was modeling, or talked to the art team? And I suppose he never spoke to the sound designers, either?

Didn't those meetings take time away from working on game mechanics? Or are they properly recognized as being part and parcel of developing complex software with a team of people?

Instead of showing how inconvenient writers are, Maxwell's story supports the idea of having a writer on staff and integrated with the development team. That would give the writer direct access to all departments and give the designer more time for balancing game mechanics.

His worst mistake is that he implies that designers are the only people required to make a good game:

"Designers give us puzzles to solve, worlds to explore, new ways to interact and above all, new games to play...Even in a linear single player experience where story is king -- say an old school RPG, writers alone can’t get your game done; you will need designers to implement game play."

False. Game development teams give us new games to play. You can't have a game without programmers. A game without artists is going to look terrible. A game without designers won't have good mechanics. A game without sound designers is going to sound cheesy. A game without writers (or someone acting as the writer, even if they're called a designer or narrative designer or scribbler-in-chief) will probably be full of clichés. Just like movies, games require a lot of different disciplines to come together and make something fantastic.

Writers are not game designers. Nor are they merely dialogue-generation-machines. Writers use story—character, setting, and plot—to enhance the experience of players, just as sound designers use music and sound effects to improve the player's experience.

There are many tools in the writer's toolbox for conveying a game's story. Story can be expressed through dialogue, or the graffiti on a cement wall, or the name of a character. This is the writer's unique role, their place on a team of talented people with different skills.

Can you make a game without a writer? Yes. But, like a game without sound, their absence can be felt. Development teams need writers to help them craft the best stories they can for their games.

Better stories lead to better games. And that's good for everyone.

[The IGDA Game Writers' Special Interest Group was formed in 2002 to improve game writing as a craft and combat the myths surrounding game writing. They offer an active community to support anyone involved in game writing, from dialogue scripters to narrative designers to those managing writers. They encourage anyone interested in the topics discussed to visit their website or their wiki to learn more about them and join the conversation.]

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First, I'd like to say I'm still a student, and by no means a professional game developer yet, so I can't speak from experience. But just from playing games and looking at industry news, I have to agree with both sides of the story.

While its true that Game Writers are important to bring about better games due to the contribution of more interesting stories, plots, etc... I agree partially with Maxwell's belief that a Game Designer is much better then having a Game Writer.

The deciding factor, in my opinion, really comes down to, who would you rather a hire?

I'm sure there are many situations in which a Game Designer who is also an astounding writer should be hired in place of a Game Writer who isn't on par, but the situation would be reversed if the Game Writer was known for excellence, and just simply could not be passed up.

I also disagree with the fact of specialization in the industry, and while its an undeniable fact that games are becoming more hefty on the budget, and due to this, there must be focused roles; a multi-talented person is worth much more then one who is so focused and knows nothing else.

Its also true that without good writers, there cannot be such great games. Some of the most memorable AND enjoyable games I've played this 2007 have wonderful stories along with deeply engaging game-play. Writers certainly have a place in the Game Industry, but a writer who has multi-faceted talents is even more sought after.

While both sides of the argument have interesting perceptions, I think it comes down to the case that, in regards to game development, there is no role that is more important then the other, but there are roles that can definitely be considered more priority.

Just my newbly 2 cents :).

Kirk Battle
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Looking for a game designer who also happens to be an "astounding writer" is like looking for a pro-athlete who is a rocket scientist in their spare time. It's two different schools of thought and requires two different methods of training & practice. Finding someone who can do both is easy, finding someone who can do both very well is where it gets tricky.

Writing is a skill like any other. To become proficient at it you have to study, be disciplined, and practice a great deal. You're going to get a better product by having someone around who has put in that kind of time rather than just a hobbyist.

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You need formal training to be a writer, not to be a designer. Experience and passion can fuel the latter. Finding a writer that is enthusiastic about video games is not as hard as previous posts make it out to be. It's just very often a risky venture because you can't really justify hiring someone with such skills that can be regarded as subjective when compared to their more technical counterparts.

And, frankly, weak stories in video games are not always the writer's fault. Clunky delivery, unrealistic deadlines and the inability to revise over multiple iterations (due to the deadlines) can mar the final product.

For example, voice acting to computer simulated lip syncing on what could be otherwise great dialog when on a tight deadline will pull from the immersion and knock points off the "story".

The article and posts seem to define game design as a exclusive field requiring formal study and other such nonsense. You can be a writer and a designer, and you can be a developer and a designer (see 90% of games now).

William Anderson
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Over the past 20 plus years of my development career I’ve had the opportunity to witness the many pros and cons of working with professional writes in the game development field. While I agree that it’s a silly notion that a professional writer is needed for ever game product, it is true that games these days are taking on a more epic scope, requiring skilled writer’s participation. The problem I’ve seen over the years is that a lot of writers don’t really comprehend interactive story development. Now you can’t fault them for this, for tell me what college offers a degree program in game story writing! The other problem and one that I’ve seen kill great productions and teams in the past, is that studios and publishers sometimes put way too much development authority into the hands of a writer, in the area of dictating play design and pacing based on the story they have developed. The play should always be the primary focus of any interactive entertainment product, and the story should be that which ties it all together. Sometimes there needs to be give and take, on both the part of the play design and story, but in the end the player is there to have a great playing experience.

Roane Beard
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While it's true that game writing is in its infancy, and that there are many writers who don't understand non-linear storytelling, it's just as true that there are many well-trained, well-versed, talented writers with experience in non-linear storytelling; many of these writers have numerous game credits under their belt, and are available for hire.

How can a developer tell if a writer understands non-linear storytelling? Simple. Look at what they've done. Most talented game writers, even those new to the field, will be able to point to their work in some way. It behooves developers who recognize that their game would benefit from having a professional game writer on the project - and if your game has a story, it will - to seek out these writers, and abandon the many myths outlined above.

Neil Sorens
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The core issue is that story in games is rarely as important as it is in other media (books, films, graphic novels, etc.). Even in games with excellent story, the story often unfolds in disjointed fashion because its advancement is dependent on player skill/decisions. In other words, the story is told in less than optimal fashion because the interactivity is more important (the decline of adventure games, where the story often takes precedence over enjoyable gameplay, shows that the priority placed on gameplay is well-founded). As a result, story ends up being just the bridge between gameplay segments. The closest correlation to film would be pure action movies, where the plot is just a vehicle used to provide the viewer with other types of entertainment (martial arts moves, blood, guts, guns, etc.). The key to writing successfully for games and these types of movies is to realize that your story on its own will not be great, because it is not told in a way that allows it to be. But it can be perceived by some as being great if it does a good job of supporting the action or the gameplay. When we look at game stories that have been heralded as being great (Bioshock, Planescape Torment, etc.), we know that they don't compare well to great stories from other mediums, especially when you take into consideration the herky-jerky delivery. But they do a good job of keeping the player motivated and immersed in the game world, which is all you can really ask.

The best writers are naturally drawn to other media where their talents can be showcased and used to their maximum potential. And development teams are often best-served by using writers who lean more on experience than talent. Often, those writers with experience have gotten their experience as designers and have designer in their title. In that sense, it is often good to have a designer-writer instead of just a writer. But it is absolutely necessary for people in designer-writer positions to have a certain amount of writing skill, and that is my main concern with the original article: too many designers think they can write--and are assigned a writing role--but aren't good enough to fill it. And the all-too-common result is text that offends decent, literate people with its inadequacy.

Benjamin Hoyt
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This is one of the most ridiculous debates I've ever heard. It seems pretty simple to me:

1) Do some games have writing in them? - Yes

2) If so, is it possible for that writing to be "good" or "bad"? - Yes

3) If so, isn't the game generally "better" if the writing is "good?" - Yes

4) On average, wouldn't someone who specializes in writing for games be more likely to produce "good" writing than someone who specializes in tuning game mechanics? - Yes

5) Are there games out there that have a sufficient amount of writing that they could keep such a person busy, full-time, for the duration of a project? - Yes

Seems like a pretty cut-and-dry case in favor the existence of full-time game writers to me. Now, whether or not all game require a full-time writer, or even a writer at all, is open for debate, but it seems pretty unambiguous that SOME games will benefit from them. Everything else is simply a question of how many game writers the market will support and what their employment model looks like...

ian christy
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The somewhat arbitrarily point-by-point rebuttal above is fairly riotous, highly subjective, and deeply wanting for some scrutiny by a wholly impartial copy-editor. Reading through I could easily envision fists angrily pumping the air, torches being lit, windmills being circled on maps parchment with lumps of coal. Would be fun to objectively deconstruct, but I digress…

I’ve read Adam’s original post and subsequent response and frankly saw nothing meant to wickedly solicit the ire of any writers, or designers either. Some irony perhaps, the posts seemed tuned a tad to the tone of “Modest Proposal,” though certainly nothing any prospective game writers should be building effigies or siphoning gas tanks or smashing keyboards over.

During the GDC ’08 Writer Roundtables the idea emerged with the fair regularity of a breakfast prunes that teams might consider adopting narrative designer roles to bridge the divide between design and writing, that this entity could fill or better facilitate these potentially disparate agendas via the composite strength of their personal experience and ability to manage / direct same. Not that this issue of design versus writing applies to all games across the board; really just the ones attempting any sort of ending that doesn’t involve a trophy, cup, or flashing high score.

An ideal narrative designer would be a cat (person) with sufficient experience / skill / versatility in Design to understand how to push / inspire / implement gameplay, mechanics, emergence, choices, and interaction models while also having enough of a Humanities background to know how to supply the broad strokes of story, character, incentive, risk, reward, candy mountains, etc. though every channel and window afforded via a given game’s many functional folds.

Adam is right that one possibility for true synergy of writing and gameplay would be more and deeper than ‘08’s award winners. One avenue would be supplying players with tools that allow experiences to culminate with stories not expected from the get go. Imbed the components of narrative into the functional DNA of the gameplay and allow experience, trial, and adaptive stipulations stir the stew as a kaleidoscope churns a visual into something new, rich, and largely unexpected. Though to carry that analogy further; unexpected yes, but not uncontained or unbound, just built up from fundamental elements with no energy lost, only transformed.

I liked the D & D example as Adam applied it from the context of emergence; NOT as Ron Toland did as an example of linear storytelling supplanted on a potentially branching narrative that at best ended with one of several predetermined outcomes. Also, Adam’s analogy leans more towards models like Spore and Sims, not Bioshock or Portal, what with GTA and Scarface and Mass Effect in the middle.

When playing role playing games as a kid, or younger adult, subconsciously I think I saw them as test beds for social actions or interactions I would not be able to act on as such in the real world. I wasn’t drawn to role play games for concern about big stories or how well written the Eye of the Beholder’s affiliated hobgoblin’s dialogue was; or further, how well the Dungeon Master could act out same. I was drawn in through the chance to do something, and felt challenged to be creative, to think of things the DM’s book hadn’t anticipated, to get to the good stuff through any means I could devise, crafty or devious or lazy or even through bribery. An agile Dungeon Master or Keeper could adapt and riff off the cuff, modify content to keep the experience reactive, adaptive, dexterous, and ultimately, rewarding, even when the award was something about being set afire and cast up into space… again.

To start, the Dungeon Master had a stack of maps, of story components, of characters, plots, punishments, and pay offs. A writer furnished those, point to Ron.

However, when I went off the rails combining items from my toolkit with incidents from my experience, creating new choices when none of the apparent ones seemed fun enough, I’d left the reality where choice Tab A fits snugly into plot advancement slot B. Compounded by the reactions of other players, suddenly there is a situation where the only thing still linear by even a Choose Your Own Adventure sense of linear is in jeopardy. Welcome to the aspect of open world and sim-style emergent gameplay design that keeps designers awake at night.

Enter the Dungeon Master. Faced by unforeseen circumstances, limited only by their respective mental agility, gold coins go to the DM willing to go off the page herself, to write on the fly, to allow players to author their own experience while farming what preexisting content she had already to ensure some great arch of experience still applies for the campaigners. All roads can eventually lead to Rome, so to speak, though some journeys may have more roam to them, while others suffice with a permanent layover in Vegas. Here is where I think Adam was headed. If not, oh well, it’s where I’m headed anyway. And small surprise I was an avid Rifts player when it came out, though the last role playing game I played was written on the fly by a friend of mine via a devilish system of extrapolating incidents from the news respective to what part of the world our party happened to be in. Conspiracy theory candy, through and through. But I digress again, beg pardon.

As a narrative designer on an “open world” title, I’m straddling the same fence as the DM I tormented as a youth was, one foot perched on narrative & writing, the other soaking in game design and interaction models. I have lengthy experience designing, producing, and implementing content for games. Additionally I have a lifetime of personal and scholastic exposure to the humanities. Not just literature, but the rest of the visual, aural, and tactile to esoteric gamut. I can make an Equus joke with the best of them.

From the narrative standpoint we want a plot, as in, some big, Earth 4 shattering events that will ultimately be affected / initiated / prevented by the player’s cumulative actions and choices. I work with a talented writer forming those events and characters, building layers of details and fleshing out aspects to those events that could independently or collectively serve as catalysts for one another or culmination together as such. Systems for progressing all overriding narrative elements should feel relatively invisible to the player. Ideally two players might have attained similar outcomes through entirely different journeys. Design must step up to facilitate emergent experiences, adaptive systems, and gameplay experiences that are directly contingent on the gameplay choices and styles of the players themselves. Thus behooves the narrative designer to represent the needs of design for gameplay features and systems to the writer, inversely to represent and challenge design with the needs of the narrative; and also subsequently to liaison with Sound and Art to garner assets supporting what the merged narrative and gameplay systems require.

Currently technology restricts content, IP dictates narrative constraints, budget limits resource allocation, limited resources humble ambitions, and marketing / sales / publisher expectations effectively neuter diversity and ingenuity. Ideally, down the line I’d love to help create worlds that adapt and evolve from the moment of inception upon the player’s first drop in, and to let the experience develop without ever introducing choke points. Somewhat like the book in the Diamond Age (though hopefully without need of a real person puppeteer), perpetually adapting and growing parallel to the player. Wherein a writer contributes elements that dress functional aspects of systems, characters, much like coding up DNA strands.

Instead of specifically writing a character’s dialogue moment to moment, the game writer might define a bible of words, and boundaries of expression a character might utilize and adhere too, further said character’s motivations, aspirations, inspirations, and shortcomings or fallibilities. A writer could describe social conditions and history and environmental aspects that affect how a level is designed or dressed and thereby become one voice among many affecting the evolution of a functional game space. Designers collaboratively feed in systems, choices, challenges, risks, and rewards such that one might arrive at a game of life via a living, breathing game space.

However, that’s down the line. Right now, I’m pleased with the narrative designer hybrid notion. Similar to an Art Director tapping in a painter or an architect when need arises, helping them to do what they do best within the over all context of the greater project whole; the narrative designer should be a good short to mid-term solution for marrying narrative design and all it’s many sub-components to the ever expanding range of emerging opportunities for interactive experience. I just can’t accept hog-tying a player into an experience. Dragon’s Lair had charm, but I always wanted to play through it As Space Ace. And then pop astride my light cycle and slide through a conveniently opened wall ala Tron. And am I the only one that found breaking through to the other side in Portal somewhat ironic when you couldn’t actually escape the hallways? My hats off to whomever finds a way to escape from Portal into the rest of the Orange Box levels, play through all of Half-Life only to emerge inside a Team Fortress 2 map dodging two on-line teams both running and gunning for you.

But again, I digress…


PS – The quote from Ebert about games never being art is fun. Art is subjectivity manifest. One man’s used Band-Aid is another critic’s Graduate Dissertation. Is art art because of a distinctive authorial voice? What if the piece was collaborative? And is it no longer art if it is a commercial product? Didn’t Warhol riff on this notion? The Gorilla Girls said all galleries are stores, and all they contain is for sale to the deepest wallets. So if it’s for sale, is it still art? Does art count if it isn’t recognized by critics or galleries? Does a painting make an impression if no one is around to see it? Is the art of Jackson Pollock the end product, or the execution? Is a game art when the player uses the tool of the game to create something unique, or is the game a deconstructed art piece with multiple manifestations, like viewing a sculpture from different vantage points? Is a film viewed in a theater art? Even when playing in a discount or second run theater? Or a repertoire theater? Or a TV set in a college dorm room? Is their an ideal mini mum size requirement for viewing Citizen Kane? Is Blade Runner art since commercially it was a box office failure? What about Earnest Goes to Camp? No, wait, EGTC made a profit…

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I think it comes down to how much resources you have,

you definately need (but maybe not as Mod tools have gotten better) a programmer to make a game. Next person on the team is up for throws. It could be a Graphical Artist, or a Designer, or a Sound Engineer, or a Writter. There was a time when we had no graphics or very poor ones and a writter's skill were indispensible to make a great game.

Now if you go the resources you want specialists in all fields,

however if you don't a Designer can laways dubin as a Writter, or a Programmer as a Designer, or a Sound engineer as a Programmer.

Shawn Kirsch
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Next time someone thinks about writing a rebuttal, can we stop the immature dissection of a paper into sections based on single sentences? Many times, the context of one sentence can be twisted into infinite interpretations. (This is why we use more than one sentence to explain in-depth arguments.)

For a metaphor, think of 2 people dancing. These people could be having a great time, laughing with each other, truly enjoying their night. A photographer sitting in the back of the room is snapping shots of them. He goes home, develops the pictures, and chooses to show everyone the shot that makes the girl look like a vampire. (for your viewing pleasures)

My point is, in your case (the rebuttal against Maxwell) and in Winogrand's, "El Morocco" both cases present a bad imitation of what is really going on. There is a better way to go about rebuttal's. I'm not saying that I don't believe in quoting the original paper. What I do believe is right, is that while incorporating quotes from the initial argument is essential, to base your whole rebuttal on the structure you chose to use is quite naive.

Brandon Van Every
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Blah blah blah, a silly debate. Again as an indie I'm glad I needn't partake. The free market will decide how many and *which* writers are needed.