Posts Tagged ‘video games’

Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North now in open beta

December 21, 2011 4 comments

Here’s one of the five online games I’ve been working on since July. It’s got added Picts and a twisting plot involving Morgause, Lot of Lothian, and Drust mac Erp.

Turn to Paragraph 400

September 28, 2011 5 comments

I didn’t intend to leave such a long gap since my last post, but I’ve been buried in work. I wish I could tell you about it, but I can’t. Suffice it to say that I’m working on three – count ’em, three – video game projects for a top developer, developing IPs and creating storylines for games that I actually played and enjoyed before these contracts came along. It’s very exciting.

My first freelance contract – as opposed to unsolicited submissions – came along at about this time in 1985. Gamebooks were all the rage back then, and out of the blue I got a call from a publisher called Scribos, who had been contracted by Oxford University Press to develop two six-volume series of fantasy gamebooks that used the read-comprehend-decide activity loop and the appeal of fantasy gamebooks (Fighting Fantasy was everywhere at that time) to help encourage teenagers with reading difficulties. I’ve never actually seen the resulting books, The Adventures of Kern the Strong and The Adventures of Oss the Quick, but apparently they did well enough for the first series to be re-released as interactive CD-ROMs a few years ago.

Although the gamebook phenomenon receded in the face of the video-game explosion of the 90s, the faith is still alive. Fighting Fantasy titles are being reprinted by Wizard Books, the Lone Wolf series is being reissued by Mongoose Publishing, and Choose Your Own Adventure titles are still being published. I have even seen some moves to take gamebooks over to smartphones and tablets, another portable format that some fear may replace books altogether. Will they work out? I don’t know, but a gamebook app might include place saving and some kind of dice function, which would address the two greatest weaknesses of the original gamebooks.

It may be premature to speak of a “gamebook renaissance,” but the interest is definitely there, alongside the growing movement for “old school” roleplaying. Fighting Fantazine, a free, downloadable PDF magazine dedicated to gamebooks, recently interviewed me on my work with gamebooks, Games Workshop, and video games. The magazine also carries a wealth of information on the state of the gamebook hobby these days – and it’s healthier than I expected. If you spent any time in the 80s, you may find yourself getting a little misty as the memories come flooding back.

School Daze

July 28, 2011 2 comments

Back in March, someone on the LinkedIn group for my Alma Mater, Durham University, posted a question asking how much people used in their daily lives of the various subjects they learned at secondary school (that’s junior high and high school to American readers: think Years 1-7 at Hogwarts, but not so much fun). The poster was collecting data to help him convince 11-14-year-olds that subjects like English, math, and science would come in useful in their lives.

At some time in my games career I’ve used just about everything I ever learned at school and college. Here are the subjects I took at O- and A-level (to continue the Harry Potter analogy, that’s OWLs and NEWTs respectively) that I’ve used consciously during that time:

Maths: I took O-levels in both Maths and Statistics (and Further Maths, which was pretty much a freebie because it consisted of one maths paper and one statistics paper), and an A-level in Pure and Applied Maths. There was nothing in Computer Science below degree level back in the 70s when I was at school. Obviously maths is a good grounding for anything computer-ish, but as a game designer rather than a programmer I still found algebra and probability indispensible in designing statistical systems for games. The state of the art in game design is getting more technical with every year that passes, making these even more important. On the soft-skill side, any mathematical subject (and I’d include physics there) teaches the kind of organized thinking that is vital for game development. It also gives me at least a chance of understanding what the programmers on my projects are talking about – sometimes it can sound like Martian to me, and good communication between disciplines (design, programming, art) is vital on a big, expensive project like an AAA video game!

English: I took O-levels in Language and Lit. Writing is at the core of what I do, so much so that I now call myself a game writer with design experience rather than a game writer/designer. I despised Lit at the time, arrogantly thinking that I wanted to be a writer, not to obsess over the work of other writers. I was young and foolish, what can I say? I have come to recognize that as with painters, one’s own technique and understanding of the medium is immeasurably enhanced by studying the work of the masters. Story is a huge part of what makes a good game into a great game, and there is a suprising amount of dialogue and narration in most games – I’ve heard 60 hours (that’s 20-30 Hollywood movies’ worth) in a top-line MMORPG like World of Warcraft.

History: I didn’t take History O-level, veering more towards Latin and Classics. I came to history later in life, but quite apart from the work I’ve done on historical games (like the BAFTA-winning Total War strategy game series) it’s been tremendously important for doing things like creating fantasy settings for games. Understand how history and mythology work, and you can create fake histories and mythologies that ring true. Tolkien couldn’t have created The Lord of the Rings without his academic background in Anglo-Saxon literature. Oh, and enough Latin stuck with me that I was the go-to guy for fake-Latin Space Marine mottos in Warhammer 40,000 during my four years at Games Workshop.

Modern Languages:
I took French and German. They’ve come in handy on trips, such as the handful of visits I made to Paris for a project with Ubisoft. And as with history and mythology, an understanding of how languages work helps you construct fake ones for a fantasy game. For example, when I was writing for Warhammer Fantasy products, I twisted Welsh and Gaelic words for the Elven languages, while the Dwarf tongue was based on slightly mangled words from Scandinavian languages.

Geography: I took O-level and A-level, plus O-level Geology. Like history, they have come in useful in creating fantasy worlds. Knowing how landforms, climates, and so on all work helps create a more convincing world.

Biology: Once again, knowing about basic processes, anatomy, and ecology in this world helps create others that ring true.

At the time, very few of the subjects I was taking at school seemed like they would ever be useful to me. It’s surprising how wrong I was.

Empire: Total War videos on YouTube

May 28, 2011 2 comments

Back in 2007 I scripted some videos for dueling in Empire: Total War. I’ve just come across them on YouTube, and the art team at Creative Assembly did an outstanding job.

Here are the links to my favorites:
Hang fire
Unfortunate squirrel
Just a flesh wound
Clearly no gentleman
The better part of valor

Video Killed the Radio Star

March 23, 2011 3 comments

TV is killing the movies.

Home taping is killing music. Filesharing is killing music. MP3s are killing music.

E-commerce is killing retail. E-books are killing publishing.

Everything new is killing something old. It’s the way we’re conditioned to think. Darwinism. Nature, red in tooth and claw. Predatory executives quoting Sun Tzu, gladiators in suits. When they’re up, they’re lions, roaring and magnificent. When they’re down, they’re gazelles, swift or dead. Or whiny.

“It’s not fair!” they wail, although they couch the whine in terms like “killing the industry,” “economically unsustainable,” and “force for instability.” But what they’re really saying is “It’s not fair!” just like anyone else aged three through sixteen who suddenly realizes that life doesn’t always have to go their way.

At the Game Developers’ Conference earlier this month, Nintento chief Satoru Iwata urged game developers to ignore smartphones. Smartphone games are killing the game industry. They’re too cheap to be economically sustainable. They’re too cheap to be any good. People are buying too many of them with money they should be spending on Nintendo products. It’s not fair.

It’s the old story. Whenever something new comes up to challenge a large and established industry, we hear the same howls of anguish.  But the howlers are not in fear of their lives – or the lives of their industries – they’re in fear of change. Change is hard, as any therapist will tell you, and it’s impossible without will. How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? It doesn’t matter unless the light bulb really wants to change.

The music industry has survived home taping, filesharing, and e-commerce. The Day The Music Died was never. But it was shaken up all the way through, from the label execs to the record stores. Musicians can now reach their audience directly without going through middlemen – although the middlemen still come in handy for their expertise in promoting artists, bankrolling tours, and the like.

The publishing industry is confronting the same dilemma right now. The author Barry Eisler explains on his blog why he walked away from a half-million dollar advance on a book – because he reckons he can do better through self-publishing. I’ve read his argument, and I have to admit it kind of makes sense. Enough sense for me to walk away from a half-mil advance? Offer me one and we’ll find out.

In giving his take on the shifts coming up from POD, e-readers, and the like, Eisler quoted the example of the railroads in the USA when the Interstate highway system was established. They thought they were in the railroad business, and they thought they were safe because they were the railroad business. No one could offer a better railroad service. But actually, they were in the transportation business, and other modes of transportation – first the Interstates and then the growing postwar airlines – offered passengers a better transportation service.

But let’s get back to Nintendo and The Great Smartphone Scare.

The market and a little time will sort out those games that are truly low quality and economically unsustainable (though “economically unsustainable” is often big-company code for “won’t make nearly enough money to sustain our company in the manner to which it has been accustomed”). But there will be survivors, and the paradigm will shift. Companies who are too invested in the prior paradigm to be able to shift along with it are in for a rough time.
Nintendo has been around long enough to have become a little set in its ways commercially, despite the technical innovation that drives it. It happens. Years and decades of refining your business technique to become the perfect shark in your area of your industry, and it can be tough to maintain the split-focus you need when something shakes it up. Smartphones have done just that. They could kill the DS stone dead, and although you hear more about the Wii (perhaps because smartphones have already begun to drag attention away from game-only handhelds – when’s the last time the PSP made any headlines?) the DS is one of Nintendo’s two core platforms. That’s got to hurt.

Nintendo needs to make a decision about the handheld/mobile market. Up till now, it’s been in the device business as well as the game business, selling the platform, making games, and exercising absolute control over third-party developers. If it wants to keep doing what it’s doing with the DS, then the DS needs to compete head to head with the smartphones – which means, Nintendo needs to get into the smartphone business. I’m no industry expert, but to me that looks like several billion dollars’ worth of scary. Could Nintendo turn the next-generation DS into an iPhone killer? An Android killer? Could it go toe to toe with Nokia, Motorola, and Apple to get its new smartphone out there in sufficient numbers to create a viable market for its games and apps? Imagine if Nokia or Motorola suddenly announced a new game console and gleefully predicted it would kill the Xbox, the PS3, and the Wii. Very long odds. Would a DS phone be a Wind from Heaven or a kamikaze? There’s only one way to find out.

After the Dreamcast failed, Sega got out of the console business and focused on the game business.  They’re still around a decade later, and doing very nicely, thank you. Discontinuing the DS would be painful, there’s no doubt of that, but letting it stagger on until smartphones finally kill it off would probably be worse. And with the installed base offered by the iPhone and Android platforms alone, Mario and friends would have new lands to conquer.

I know what I would do, although I’m realistic about the chances of finding Iwata-san on Line One asking my advice.

Ten Things I’ve Learned About Localization Editing

March 11, 2011 6 comments

I have worked as a localization editor on a half-dozen or so projects ranging from an MMORPG being imported from Asia to mobile phone games whose code and initial text were developed in eastern Europe. Here are a few things these projects have taught me, both as a writer/editor and as a freelancer.


1. Know What You’re Getting Into

Or more specifically, how much you’re getting into. The client may quote you a number of entries, but the number of entries is only a very rough guide to the amount of work required. Quite apart from the amount of editing the text requires, the number of entries gives you no real idea of the starting word count. Depending on the platform an entry may be as short as 2-3 words or as long as a half-dozen paragraphs.

There’s nothing wrong with being paid by the entry, so long as you know how many words there are in the average entry – if you don’t, you could be letting yourself in for a lot more work than you expect, and a lot more than you quoted for. Always get a word count when you can – or better still, sign a non-disclosure agreement and look at the work before you agree a price. If neither of these is possible, negotiate an hourly rate.


2. Learn to Love Excel

This kind of task is almost always done in Excel rather than Word. Excel is not the friendliest environment for text editing, but it does support automated uploading of text to the game program, and that is why producers prefer it for this purpose.

For reasons that will be made clear later, there is no way around this. Excel – learn it, love it, live with it. The alternative – if there is one – may be some home-brewed text management system, and they are usually far less friendly even than Excel.


3. Establish Word and Character Length Limits

Before starting work, ask the client if there are any limitations on the number of words (or, more usually, the number of characters, including spaces and punctuation) in an entry or type of entry. In general, the smaller the screen on the target platform, the more likely it is that character count will be an issue.

Once you know the maximum character length for an entry, here is a neat trick that will have Excel monitor the character count for you:

  1. Enter the maximum number of characters in a cell to the right of the edited text.
  2. In the next column, enter “=LEN(A1)” where A1 is the cell with the edited text. This column will display the actual character count for the text in cell A1.
  3. In the next column, enter “=IF(B1-C1>0; “OK”; “Too long”)” where B1 is the cell displaying the maximum character count from step 1 and C1 is the cell displaying the actual character count from step 2. This cell will now display “OK” or “Too long” according to the number of characters in cell A1, so you can see at a glance whether you are within the limit.
  4. You can copy these three cells into the entire column and Excel will automatically update row numbers as required.


4. Beware of Codes and Macros

Some of the original text may include codes for paragraph breaks, special characters, fonts, and so forth. Always get a list from the client to avoid deleting them by mistake, so that you can enter them correctly in the edited text, and so you can spot errors. The client may tell you not to worry about this, but you should. Original text may also include macros of various sorts, which will be attached to the spreadsheet cells in which the text appears and will not normally be visible. These can be lost if, for example, you copy the text into Word for editing and then copy it back into Excel.


5. Show Your Work

Unless the client insists otherwise (which may be because of macros) use a new column for the edited/rewritten text, so that the original and edited text can be examined side by side. This will help the client in the event that your editing turns out to be based on a misinterpretation of the meaning of the original. Original text can sometimes be ambiguous. If this is not possible, highlight the cells in which you have changed text by using a different background or text color.


6. Edit, Don’t Write

The product is already made, and the story is set. No matter how much you think you could improve the story, do not rewrite to change story elements, as this can cause problems. Just fix up the text. But see below.


7. Look for Cultural References

A game that is imported from overseas will probably use metaphors from its language and culture of origin, and these may be literally translated. There will almost certainly be other cultural references, included knowingly or otherwise. Here are a couple of examples:

A game developed in Asia may refer to rice cakes instead of rations; this is easy to fix, provided you check it with the client first. There could be art or other ramifications to changing the word without telling anyone.

A game from Russia may have tough guys calling other characters “darling” regardless of gender. This does not imply anything about the speaker’s sexuality, because terms of endearment are often used ironically in the Russian vernacular; instead, it implies a put-down. The phrase will have to be changed for an American audience, to something less ironic and more directly insulting.

If you are lucky (and the text is clean) most of what you don’t understand in the original text will be some kind of cultural reference. Ask at the outset whether you will have access to the overseas writers and/or a locally-based speaker of the original language, so you can clear up any questions or problems quickly.


8. Eschew Exuberant Punctuation

In Asia, particularly, it is common to use multiple sentence ending punctuation marks, especially question marks and exclamation points, to convey emphasis. The text can look like a written version of the archetypal screaming Japanese game show host, and this may not be the desired tone for the game. Check with the client first, but as a rule only use single sentence end punctuation and convey emphasis through word choice and sentence construction.


9. Typos are a Universal Language

At the start of the project, get a definitive list of character, place, and creature names from the client. There is no guarantee that they will be spelled consistently in the original text. If in doubt, query. A dargon may be a mis-spelled dragon, or it may be a completely different creature.


10. Clear Name Changes in Advance

Sometimes a name will have to be changed, either because it is too similar to another name in the game (like the dragon and dargon example above), or because it has a sound or meaning in English that is laughable or runs counter to the game’s intended tone in some other way (for example, a spell that conjures a scalding explosion of steam may be called Wet Bang in the original text). Be aware, too, that the original text may be the work of multiple translators, each with their own way of rendering names into English. The Dark Wood and the Forest of Gloom could be the same place.

Always run suggested changes by the client before making them in the text, as the original names may be tied to art and code entities and those links may be broken if the change goes unnoticed. Also, you may not be the only editor on the job – especially if it is an MMORPG with tens of thousands of lines of text – in which case the client will need to juggle the input of multiple contract editors. The sooner you get your suggestion in, the more likely it is to be the one that sticks.


It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

March 11, 2011 2 comments

Well, maybe not today, but some time this year. My first video game writing project was published in 1991. It was the Northern Campaign expansion disk for Interplay’s Castles game.

The core gameplay involved strategy and resource management as the player tried to complete a castle on schedule. More workers made the work go faster – provided you got the mix of skills right – but guards were also needed in case of an attack by unfriendly locals.

All well and good. But what made this game special in my eyes was the way it integrated interactive stories. Every so often a screen would pop up showing an adviser or other character asking the player to make a decision. Vikings are attacking elsewhere in the kingdom! Do you: (a) ignore them (they raid and loot, and your revenue goes down); (b) send troops (leaving less to guard your castle); or (c) buy them off with Danegeld (expensive, and may lead to other Vikings showing up later to demand money).

Mechanically, it was a piece of cake. In terms of design, a storyline was no less taxing than a conversation tree in a Monkey Island style adventure game or a short section from a numbered-paragraph gamebook. But I always felt that the little stories added a lot to the game, and I’ve often wondered why no one else has used this cheap and effective technique. RTS games continued to emphasize building and resource management, but their storylines became more linear as their cutscenes and other narrative elements became more expensive to create. I imagine the prevailing thinking was that it would be wasteful to create narrative animations or video clips that the player might not see because of a decision made earlier in the game.

Visually, there’s no question that subsequent generations of RTS games were – and still are – far ahead of Castles. The stories, while more linear, are richer as well. But something about this humble little mechanic still charms me. It’s interactive storytelling, albeit on a modest scale, and even that small amount of interactivity added something to the game that was out of proportion to its cost. To me, it was a good mechanic that disappeared not because a better mechanic came along, but because no one figured out how to make it work with cutting edge visuals.

Now don’t get me wrong; I love good-looking games. But when the choice arises to create better gameplay or better visuals, is gameplay underserved? Visuals have that instant impact – great screen shots, jaw-dropping trailers – that serves a marketing function as well as making the game better. Gameplay is harder to see without actually playing the game, which no one will do unless they have been inspired to buy it – probably by jaw-dropping visuals. Word of mouth happens, to be sure, but it takes time, and in today’s release-driven market two or three other games with jaw-dropping visuals have started to hog the limelight by the time the word of mouth on your game has had a chance to build.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this train of thought. Not into an anti-art, anti-marketing, design purist rant, because I know that making a great game without marketing it is like smiling in the dark: very nice for you, but who else cares? I know that all the elements of a game – design, art, audio, engineering – have to work together in order to make something that is greater than the sum of its parts, and I know that in order to achieve that, compromises have to be made in all areas. I guess I’m wondering whether anyone from a discipline other than design or writing has any similar regrets.