INTERVIEW: Video Game Writers

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to make a video game? I know I have, so when I made friends with some guys who wrote for the Double Fine Productions Kickstarter game, MASSIVE CHALICE, I had to ask them some questions! Here are some insights from my interview:

Alisha: Alright guys, first question: Who are you, who do you work for, and what do you do?

Nick & Max: We are Nick and Max Folkman! We worked for Double Fine Productions as writers on their game MASSIVE CHALICE.

How did you get into working for Double Fine Productions? What was the audition/interview process like?

We were given a writing test that consisted of a few different things. It asked us what we thought the tone of the game should be and what other media we thought had a similar feel to that tone. Then it gave us a template for a random event (a text-based event that involves at least one of the heroes you’re managing and you making a choice that will affect the gameplay in some way, like a hero dying or your research speed doubling) with some factors already set (two choices, each with two outcomes each, etc.) that we had to then complete. After that we had to make up our own random event completely from scratch, and after that write a short dialogue exchange between the two halves of the Chalice about a situation that just occurred in the game. Finally, we had to name and describe an item based on the effects it would have on a hero. When we were finished with all of that, we sent it off, waited a bit, had an interview where we talked about the test, and were offered the job!

Woo! How did you start writing? What’s the first step in the game writing process?

We were brought in about a year after development started, so they already had some stuff set up like the Chalice itself, how the game began and ended gameplay-wise, what the enemies were, etc. We spent a while doing world-building, which meant deciding the back story for the world, what the Chalice was all about, who/what the Cadence (the enemy of the game) is, who are the people who live in the nation, naming the different regions, what the citizens do in their daily lives, methods of transportation, etc. Once all that was decided, we moved on to writing dialogue for the two Chalice characters, all of the random events, and finished with naming items and weapons along with writing their descriptions.

As for the first thing writers must do in the game writing process, there’s no one answer! It really depends on when the writer is brought on and what is required of him/her. Some writers are brought on in the very beginning and help develop gameplay/level design/etc. with all of the other departments, and others are brought on towards the end when everything has been decided and they have to connect it all together through the script or just write dialogue for the NPCs (Non-player characters) or what have you. The writer’s responsibilities can be very broad or very narrow, it all depends on the job. In general though, the only thing that’s common is that a writer should always be thinking about how their writing can complement the gameplay and not run against it.

A screen shot from MASSIVE CHALICE. Here we see some of the brothers' work!

A screen shot from MASSIVE CHALICE. Here we see some of the brothers’ work!

Did you have any involvement with any other parts of the game development process? (work with artists, actors, casting, etc.)

The only other parts we were involved with were casting and the recording sessions. When the auditions came in, we gave our input on who we liked best, as did the rest of the team, and Brad Muir (our boss) made his decision based on that. Then, since the recording sessions were near us in LA, we sat in and helped Khris Brown, our amazing casting and voice-over director, understand what was going on in our script when working with the actors.

What was your favorite part of the process? What was the most difficult?
Nick: The world building. It’s stressful because barely anything has been set in stone and there’s a deadline constantly over you, but it’s so much fun when you’re just bouncing ideas back and forth about stuff: like what the ending can be, how to tie in the themes, why is that Chalice so ridiculously huge, and so on. The most difficult thing… Names. Oh my god there were so many meetings about the names for the enemies, regions, and classes that we’d even bring in the whole team at some points so we could all brainstorm at the same time. Item and weapon descriptions would be a close second. The stuff that you assume would be the easiest always turns out to be the opposite.

Max: My favorite part was the puzzle aspect of trying to integrate the writing with gameplay as much as possible. For instance, apart from the opening cut scene, we never really see the citizens of this nation you’re in charge of. How do we build empathy for them and make their presence felt within the actual gameplay, while also minimizing the amount of extra work for everyone else in the process? Our solution was the random events, which ended up being the answer to a lot of these sorts of questions, so for as many events as we could we would use the problems your heroes were involved in to build a relationship with these citizens and regions of your nation.
The most difficult part was writing dialogue for the combat moments that could repeat possibly hundreds of times during an entire game. The Female and Male Chalice are our only fully voiced characters in the game (besides the grunts and cries of the heroes), so when a hero lands a critical strike against an enemy, we have to write a piece of dialogue that ideally: is short enough to be repeatable without boring the player and gets the character’s voice across. This is really hard! The answer we found was, if you can do both then great, but if not then try to nail one of them. Having talented voice actors also helps immeasurably, as they can lend their own special bit of magic that can elevate even the most generic-sounding of dialogue.

That chalice really is ridiculously huge...

That chalice really is ridiculously huge! I like it.

How involved are the writers once the game is released?
We’ve been pretty much finished since the game came out on Early Access, but every now and then we help out with touch-ups and small stuff like the descriptions for the Steam cards. If the game does well when it’s fully released though, who knows! 😀

We mentioned Double Fine Productions in our previous blog about Kickstarter! Check out MASSIVE CHALICE and help DFP get the game ready for a full release!

We mentioned Double Fine Productions in our recent post about Kickstarter! Check out MASSIVE CHALICE and help DFP get the game ready for a full release!

What’s next for the game? What’s next for you?!
The game’s still getting balanced while it’s in Early Access, we actually just put out a big patch last week, and getting ready for a full release on PC/Mac/Linux/Xbox One very soon! As for us, nothing announceable yet, but we’re keeping busy!

How did you get into writing for video games as a whole, not just for MASSIVE CHALICE?
This was actually our first experience writing for video games ever (we had been and still are focused on screenwriting for film and TV). The way we got MASSIVE CHALICE is the way a lot of jobs happen in the entertainment industry, we were at the right place at the right time. Early last year we were visiting Brad in San Francisco when he told us that they were looking at writers for the game and that we should apply. We got the application and that was that.

Do you have any advice for anyone who may want to get involved in any part of game development? For anyone who wants to be a writer?
We can answer both at the same time: Make stuff and go to events. Whether you wanna be a game designer/programmer/writer/etc., you have to just start making stuff. Don’t worry about it being bad because everyone’s first work/draft/version, is bad. The important thing is that it’s just going to get better the more you work on it. If you don’t know where to start, the internet is an amazing resource for tips, tutorials, and finding people to ask for help. And that leads to events. There are tons out there like Indiecade, PAX, and GDC where you can meet tons of amazing people who are starting out, super experienced, and everything in between. Besides the inspirational value, events like those are fantastic for learning more about the advances in the industry and for building connections that could lead to future work.
Just remember the golden rule: don’t be a dick.

Our interviewees! Nick & Max Folkman, writers for Double Fine Productions. Definitely not dicks. :)

Our interviewees! Nick & Max Folkman, writers for Double Fine Productions. Definitely not dicks. 🙂

Nick and Max write words for film, TV, and video games, and since they live in Los Angeles, they also direct stuff on occasion as well. They believe Speed Racer is one of the greatest films ever made and are eagerly awaiting the next game in the Gex franchise. Follow the brothers on twitter! @twinmadefilms & @maxfolkmax.

Have any questions for Nick & Max? Interested in another aspect of video game making? Comment below and we’ll make sure the brothers see your questions and we continue to bring you material you love!

AlishaSignature

Crowd-funding the Underdog

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At the moment I’m writing this, there are 185 live projects for video games on the popular crowd-funding site, Kickstarter. Since its launch in 2009, Kickstarter has seen more than eight million backers fund more than 81,000 projects with over $1.6 billion in the fields of film, music, art, fashion, and gaming. Crowd-funding has boosted the indie developer’s chances at producing top quality products through you: the passionate and supportive audience willing to shell out the dough to help the underdog give it their best shot (and often score some cool incentives). We’ve seen developers excel with the support of the people and deliver some outstanding games. However, crowd-funding can be unpredictable; many projects never come to fruition and the passionate, supportive audience is left thousands of dollars short and without the exciting gaming experience they were promised. Does the risk of giving money to an unfinished product, and many times to an unproven developer, negate the reward of a unique game? Can crowd-funding be an integral part of the gaming industry’s future?

Backing a Kickstarter project requires a lot of thought (unless you’re a gazillionaire which, by all means, support ALL THE THINGS. Take my college debt? No? That’s fair.) if you don’t want to squander your money. There are numerous questions to ask yourself before supporting: Who is the developer? Do they have a history with crowd-funding? Are they someone you trust to make a quality product? Does the developer have a strategic development plan for what they are going to do with your money? Are there any incentives for you to back them, other than receiving the product at a later date, which could be several years from now?If you’re planning on investing a good amount into a donation, these questions are very important. Based on data collected in 2014 for Kickstarter projects funded between 2009-2012, only 37% of the video game projects were fully funded and developed. During that time, $21.6 million was invested in projects that failed to deliver. Unless directly discussed by the developer and individual backers, none of that $21.6 million was refunded to the backers. Kickstarter doesn’t refund anything itself, so if the project you support ends up on the cutting room floor, so does your money. This is why you do your research before backing a game project. Once you know who they are, figure out what they plan to do with your money. Most developers will post at least a brief synopsis of what goes into making a game so you know what your money is going towards. This is good. Look for that transparency. If a developer seems like they’re not telling you everything, they’re probably not and you should take your money elsewhere. Take it somewhere where they tell you what’s going on and say, hey, give us $10 and we’ll give you a t-shirt, too. Be smart with your money not only so you don’t lose out on the cash, but so you can help the developers who have the know how to actually produce a quality game leave a positive mark on the gaming industry.

Chart from evilasahobby.com

For those of us who like our numbers in picture form. Chart from evilasahobby.com

For game developers, Kickstarter and other crowd-funding options like Indiegogo have given them the chance to create the projects that they have always dreamed of creating. As in most creative fields, the money to create these projects comes from large companies and producers. However, very often we will see these companies pass on projects that are too weird, too niche, not marketable. They have that right, since they will be the ones funding the entire production, but it unfortunately leaves the market saturated in the same five or six kinds of games. For game developers who have very small teams and/or unestablished careers, crowd-funding allows them to take their idea directly to the gamers, who can decide if the idea is good enough to warrant their hard-earned or parent-distributed cash. This not only allows developers to get around the hardship of finding funding from a major corporation, but also brings them closer to their audience, allowing for input and participation in the process. Crowd-funding isn’t only for the little guy. Chris Roberts, despite creating the very successful Wing Commander series, was turned away by everyone he took his new idea to because these companies were convinced the audience wasn’t out there, that “space sims are dead”. Roberts didn’t believe it and took his idea, “Star Citizen”, to Kickstarter. It’s success was immense, which I’ll touch on further in just a bit. Said Roberts, getting to make a game “without having EA looking over your shoulder, or Activision looking over your shoulder…it’s pretty awesome.” When developers are free to bring their ideas to the democratic system of crowd-funding, they often find their audience, and their audience is able to find them.

Now that you’ve funded a gaming project, you’re going to have to wait a while. Games don’t happen overnight. A game needs planning and then execution, which can take several years depending on the length and budget of the game. What happens in the meantime? Hopefully, the developer is extremely transparent with you. You are an investor now and you deserve to know what’s going on with your money. Double Fine Productions, an indie gaming company based in California, promised a documentary with their 2012 project, “Double Fine Adventure”. Double Fine came out with the idea that they wanted to create a point and click adventure game, but didn’t have an exact story in mind or planned yet; so, in lieu of a timeline expressing exactly what they’ll be doing with your money, they said your money will go towards our game and a documentary of the entire game development process; which I think is awesome (you can check out the documentary here). The documentary came out in full once the production was complete, but it was filmed in monthly chunks, given to backers to showcase the process. Double Fine’s transparency showed that they really care about the support and want you to know exactly what’s happening with your money. This helped them cross over into the millions again with their second Kickstarter last year for the recently released “Massive Chalice”. Another example of an amazing developer-backer relationship is the one for the highest grossing crowd-funded projects of all time, “Star Citizen”, a space simulator for PC. Cloud Imperium Games and Chris Roberts kickstarted their project and let backers support directly through their website. They made constant updates, stayed connected with backers and fans on gaming sites and forum sites like Reddit, and they added more incentives and stretch-goals as they made more money. As of the day of this posting, Cloud Imperium Gaming has raised over $76 million (only $2.1 of that was on Kickstarter). That’s seven times the budget of the original Star Wars. Their transparency let backers in on the nitty gritty details and it boosted their support and credibility. The same cannot be said for developers who don’t fully develop their projects. Sometimes, projects fail to reach their monetary goal and backers are left wondering where all their money went. Refunds don’t happen unless you harass the developer, but even then, they’ve probably already blown through your money on a project that’s sitting in numerous digital trash cans. I know I’d be less pissed if the developer kept me informed throughout the process and I knew that they didn’t blow my money on trips to Belize or those awesome Barbie/GI-Joe jeeps that I totally wanted but never got as a kid. I understand that “shit happens” and developing a game is hard, but if you keep me in the dark, I’m less likely to cut you some slack – or support your next project.

The project status for "Star Citizen" on their website: robertsspaceindustries.com

The project status for “Star Citizen” on their website: robertsspaceindustries.com

Crowd-funding is probably here to stay. The benefits for everyone involved are too important for us to see it diminish. When projects are completed, we are often given gems that never would have seen the light of day if not for the contributions of passionate gamers. I’ve donated to Kickstarters here and there and it’s a really great way to feel like I’m a part of the game development process, as I don’t have many abilities that would otherwise lend themselves to that kind of work. Crowd-funding can be a really fabulous way to bring indie games to the forefront of the gaming industry, if we all do our part. Developers need to keep us up to date and treat us like big name investors; we’ve given them our money and now they need to deliver. The relationship between developer and gamer can be rewarding for both and improve the process of game creation. I think the boost indie games have seen within the industry can only take us higher. Do your research, stay passionate, and stay supportive, like a great bra or a well-meaning mother.

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