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Writing by Design:

The Critical Path to Great Gameplay

(CGDC Proceedings 1997)

by Terry Borst

Target Audience

Producers, project managers, Business Affairs folks, game designers, programmers, art director and writers: in other words, anyone involved in creating interactive entertainment.


The earlier a writer is brought aboard your interactive product’s development team, the better. Design and Story are not discrete elements of an entertainment experience: they should be welded together to the point where they cannot be separated. If you wait to bring in the writer, to bring in story and narrative elements until after the Design Document is written, it may already be too late…

Koyaanisqatsi: Game Out of Balance

How many times have you looked at a game and thought: “Great graphics, but the story and dialogue really sucked”? How often have you played a game and thought: “Story’s cool, but all they did is substitute mouse clicks for page turns — I should just be reading this”?

Far too often, one creative element of an interactive entertainment dominates the others, when they should be blending together to create a kick-ass joyride or an intellectually and emotionally rewarding experience.

White Noise and Useless Clutter

In the predictable backlash against the use of Full Motion Video (FMV), a school of thought has arisen that writers were never really necessary to the art of creating great interactive entertainment, and in fact got in the way of it — as if it was the writer’s fault when linear video clips were poorly integrated into gameplay (everyone else, presumably, was just standing around with his hands in his pockets).

In fact, FMV vs. 3D Graphics is a False Issue. If not a single frame of video is ever used again, the points to be raised in the following paragraphs will be equally valid.

Other pseudo-oppositions include “story games” vs. “environment games”, “twitch games” vs. “interactive movies”, server-side vs. client-side (i.e., Web vs. CD-ROM), and so on.

Writing and Design need to shake each other’s hand, early and often, in all these modes.

A Quick Case Study

Part 1: Wing Commander III

In WING COMMANDER III, creator and designer Chris Roberts was making a number of technological leaps, including the implementation of a new gaming engine and the introduction of extensive FMV into the successful franchise. WING COMMANDER is an interactive entertainment designed for a broad audience: a flight-sim game aimed at players who aren’t hardcore air-combat junkies.

Simply because of the learning curve associated with such an ambitious undertaking, the screenwriters (Frank De Palma and myself) were brought in very late in the development process. Missions had already been designed and the player interface was already in place. The screenplay that developed the narrative (a story of the Confederation in its darkest days in the galactic war with the Kilrathi) became an overlay on the basic game design.

While the screenplay allowed the player to shuffle around the video segments that he/she viewed, and guide some of the interpersonal relationships (which would also tweak the mission AI — the pilot on your wing would perform better or worse depending on your interactions with him), the video segments could impinge only peripherally on the space combat itself. Aside from the basic shoot-em-up, the missions themselves weren’t really interactive. Thus, decision points were offered in the video segments that required emotional (or at least entertainment) decisions — but these emotional decisions rarely had a payoff in winning or losing a mission. Conversely, little such decision-making subtlety was offered in the missions: shoot or be shot was the choice, pretty much a no-brainer.

In addition, occasional cheats were inflicted on the gameplay to service the narrative — the most glaring being the famous Behemoth cheat, where it was absolutely impossible for the player to destroy a ship (thus violating the basic precepts of the flying and shooting environment) because its destruction was required for future story and gaming elements to work.

Part 2: Wing Commander IV

WING COMMANDER IV had a crushing production schedule and a daunting task: top WING COMMANDER III and do it in a year.

There were a couple of things on the side of the development team, however: the gaming engine would be the same, and the player interface and basic elements of the franchise would remain.

In addition, the screenwriters (again, De Palma and myself) were brought in at the beginning of the project, with everyone’s goal being to better weave together the gaming and narrative elements.

An initial challenge was to create an entirely new conflict: new antagonists for the player/Col.Blair alterego. What do you do for an encore after you’ve won the Galactic War and vanquished the enemy? (It’s no secret that WING COMMANDER is influenced by “Star Wars”; but I’ll point out that even George Lucas has dodged this challenge, and is now making PREQUELS to the famous trilogy. We’re rather proud of having tackled this head-on.)

Because the interface and gaming engine were already in place, a traditional Design Document elaborating these elements wasn’t really necessary. After discussing basic story-drive and game-drive with designer Chris Roberts for several weeks, we developed an 80-page treatment that “beat out” the storyline, the narrative branches, linear scenes and decision-points within those scenes, and bare-bones mission concepts.

We then spent 3 long (but very productive) days in a conference room with the designer, art director, project manager, and gaming programmers, fleshing out the design of each mission and trying to marry design and narrative as much as we possibly could in the limited time we had. I believe that the writers contributed to even more inventive and richer missions, while the programmers and artists contributed to stronger and more interactive narrative.

The result was both better gaming and better drama, resulting in a more affecting interactive experience. A few examples…

Narrative could now be interwoven into the fabric of the missions themselves. Decision-points were required mid-mission that went beyond simple shoot-or-die reflexes: choices to be made to rescue A or confiscate B, to proceed to planet X or asteroid Y, to move now or wait 60 seconds, and so on. Audio was now as important as video in providing cues and directing traffic, further immersing the player in the experience.

The player was offered the choice to switch sides on more than one occasion, and this affected the player’s homebase (what ship he was flying from), choice of wingmen, ships, weaponry, etc.

The player could even design his own missions on a limited basis, choose which mission to fly from a slate of missions, and even which goals to pursue on the mission (ideally enriching the repeat-play experience).

As always in production environments, some of the best ideas don’t make it into the finished product. At one time, a Doom-like sequence was going to be woven into the game, taking WING COMMANDER into an entirely new direction. The logistics of integrating this sequence into the WING COMMANDER franchise, given the production schedule, proved its undoing.

WING COMMANDER IV hardly approached perfection in the marriage of story and design. But I think there is little question that the gaming is a more satisfactory experience because the writers and programmers were on the same page from the beginning of production.

Getting Paradigmatic

WING COMMANDER is a very particular type of game, and it may be tempting to dismiss these experiences as singular, and not relating to your CD-ROM, DVD, or Web project.

In fact, these lessons can be applied to any entertainment project in any medium. Wouldn’t you agree that “Twister” would have been just a little better if someone had spent time on (or even cared about) the screenplay? Sure, the graphics were cool, but the cardboard characters and cliched dialogue and situations…

If you think about it, it’s television that provides some of the most affecting entertainment experiences you might have these days. Whether it’s “Larry Sanders” or “Frasier” or “NYPD Blue” or “X-Files”, what they all have in common is that a writer is onboard from the conception of the show.

Nor does this apply only to original material. For better or worse, the greenlight is also given to developing existing or “repurposed” franchises. That’s a fact of the marketplace. But an example of clever repurposing is the TOY STORY ANIMATED STORYBOOK. It would have been easy to simply “re-do” the movie and put in a few games. Instead, the writers and designers together decided to re-imagine the story from the point-of-view of a peripheral character, and to design games that interweaved both the player’s psychological concerns and the motifs of the movie, enriching the finished product.

The Web itself, and its struggles to emerge as an entertainment medium, offer a final object lesson. As this is being written, Microsoft is downsizing its MSN entertainment content development: its “shows” are not drawing an audience. American Cybercast is in bankruptcy court, and online soaps also appear to be a novelty item. Why are these things happening?

I would argue that it’s because each mini-genre lacks something in the interactive medium known as The Web. The online soaps had some narrative, but lacked interesting design and interactivity for its participants. The MSN shows have gaming elements, but lack content, narrative, and emotional pull. One is yin, the other yang.

It’ll take more than bandwidth to marry the two: it will always take a conscious effort, and something more than lip service to the concept.

Techno-Fashions and the Grail

A few years ago it was CD-ROM, then 3D graphics, then the Web. DVD’s next, and there will continue to be new technologies and delivery systems. As entertainment creators, however, hardware and bandwidth is beside the point. It’s a matter of understanding the key elements of creative development for interactive media.

The holy grail is melding design and story to the point where you can’t tell where one stops and the other picks up. Design is story, story design. I’m not sure I’m going to see this in my lifetime, but the excitement is in trying to achieve it.