Author Archives: Khyle

Khyle’s Out of Time Development Diary: Scripting For Games …or “What Is Currently Driving Khyle Crazy.”

So it’s been a long time since I’ve made a post on the blog. Reason? Sickness issues. Won’t go into it much more than that, because that’s not what this blog is about and it’s kind of depressing and talking about it isn’t much fun.

Anyway. Scripting for games!

And why it drives me crazy.

Let’s roll back a little and let me introduce you to an awesome piece of freeware called Celtx.

Celtx is basically a pre-production media development center. It allows you to alternatively write scripts, develop storyboards and collaborate with others on your projects through the internet. This program is a great find for anyone needing a basic script writing program. A ‘Pro’ version is also available for a nominal fee ($15) if you wish to stretch your production abilities even further.

Alright, now lets roll back to where we were: scripting for games drives me crazy.

Reason? Our good old friends called ‘Variables’.

Writing the story itself isn’t really the hard part. Writing a script for a game isn’t so much different than writing a script for a movie or play, except for the fact that it has multiple pathways and multiple ways to come to any one ‘conclusion’, with different story elements integrated at any given moment.

Developing a game script, at least, at the beginning, is relatively easy. Writing a very linear game is even easier. Writing for a game that will have some breadth of story-changing game play (like Out of Time) is much, much, much… much harder. While taking your developed mind map and adding scripted elements (surroundings, dialogue, music, sound effects) might seem easy at first, the more you get into it, the more complex it becomes. Like ripples in a pond, things begin to expand and overlap, and you must be sure to keep a close eye on those ripples so they don’t upset that little toy boat (your idea) like a perfect storm.

Let’s take a look at a little bit of the script to see what I’m talking about:

Here’s part of a scene at the very beginning of the game (don’t worry, no spoilers) where you are just starting to learn how to use the current interface (how we’re implementing it is blurred, for IP reasons).  It doesn’t mean much when you first look at it, but do you see all those sticky notes and all the tangents they go into? As we keep going, the number of sticky notes is going to gradually increase. At a certain point, more scripts will begin to propagate off of this one. Different scripts, with differentiating details and (in some cases) differentiating outcomes.

Having a program like Celtx is going to be very important (especially for a group with individuals like me who can’t find their own shoes sometimes). It’s going to give us the ability to keep all of our production notes together while giving us the flexibility of adding and deleting variables as we please. As this is just the first draft, more and more variables will be added until we’re comfortable with the level of interactivity overall. What’s great about this program is that once we do establish enough of the script, there is an area where we can specifically include storyboards! It’s awesome.

So, yeah. That about wraps up my post about scripting for games. I know I could go over all the finer details of specifically writing scripts for games, such as: headers, descriptions, differentiating and combining interface text, speech and interactive variables. But honestly? There’s really no completely ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to write a script for a game, as long as you’re being clear and organized. The most important part of writing a script for a game is simply sitting down and writing it. As you can see from the screen shot, Celtx does all that organization work for you, so all you need to do is focus on what you’re writing and what area you need to use to store certain bits of information.

That said, download Celtx and start writing!

And you’re welcome. :)

Khyle’s Out of Time Development Diary: The Mind Map – Characters, Plot, and Puzzles.

(Yes, I realize it’s been like, two or three months since I last posted about mind-mapping.  Oh well!)

Using the Mind Map for Development: The Process of Story Creation Part 2

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In my first development post, I explained a little bit about the process of getting used to the idea of using a mind map for initial game creation and development.  In this post, I will dig a bit deeper into the depths of how wonderfully versatile such a tool is for game creation between developers, and exactly how much you can plan and organize by simply using a mind map.

For this entry, I came up with a very simple idea for a game: “Cookie Jar”, wherein you play a six year old named Little Timmy, who wants to get a cookie from his mothers’ cookie jar.  He has a dog named Ruff who tries to keep him from stealing cookies from the cookie jar.  This game has everything: action, drama, and staggering moral decisions.  Let’s see how we can work with it in a mind map!

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Character Outlines & Plot Development

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Outlining your characters is very important when developing the foundation of a plot, especially if you intend on having a more mature audience.  Considering stories are built upon the concept of character development in relation to events and conflicts that they experience, you can really only have a good story if you have a set of good, solid characters that have various forms of depth to them.

When taking a mind map to a simple story concept like that of “Cookie Jar”, and the more you pan out details about a simple character and their fears, desires and motives, you will be surprised exactly how far the rabbit hole can go. A simple story about a boy wanting a cookie can turn into a tale of obsession and addiction: wherein the moral ambiguity of theft to feed a seemingly innocent desire is certainly brought into question. Perhaps to a shocking (or even humorous) degree.

Now, you might be sitting there, thinking: “But, aren’t you over analyzing the simplicity of your own plot?”

Well, true. I might. But for the development of a several hour game that you really want to sink your teeth into story-wise, as well as game play wise, it’s almost necessary to do so.  The farther you dig, the deeper you go, the more you can add to your game: not filler, but quality content that hasn’t been thrown in at the last minute to extend playtime. Not only can you make a simple childhood story into a conflict that everyone can relate to, but something that can be experienced by an age group that enjoys a completely different, mature level of drama.  The mind map is an extremely helpful tool for helping one visually attain and brainstorm these sorts of conceptual ideas, and one can easily add new branches as new ideas form and attach to previous ones.  You can then adjust branches and clip and trim away ideas to fit your target audience, what sort of tale you wish to tell with your story, and figure out what sort of symbolism or metaphors you can integrate into your environments and puzzles (if need be).

From a multi-developer standpoint, mind maps are even more useful as they can be color-coded to assist in showing unfinished ideas, important character traits, character traits that will effect game play, a character’s direct role in game play, and so on and so forth.  This way all developers can be on the same page, add their own ideas and questions to be finalized by lead developers, and not even have to be in the same room while doing it.

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Puzzles, Events, and Variables

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Whilst I may write a future development diary about the concept of variables, and how they are the cornerstone of versatile gameplay, I will briefly touch on them here with their siblings: puzzles and events.

First, a small description of each:

Puzzles – These are situations in game play where the player must interact with the game to directly solve a problem.  Whether it be a straight-out puzzle that concerns mechanized objects, a puzzle wherein logic and use of information must be used to give a certain outcome, or a puzzle in which directly relates to events and variables, puzzles are certainly key mechanics for any form of game (especially those of the adventure variety).

Events – These are the actual ‘parts’ of the game that are triggered by puzzles and variables. Don’t get actual game events mixed up with things like ‘quick time events’: QTE’s are a type of event, not the definition of a game event.  A game event is simply an moment in the game that effects continuing gameplay. For example: in a game like ‘Cookie Jar’, an ‘event’ could occur once, say, one discovers a puzzle where they must gather a pile of books to climb high enough to reach the cookie jar, and then another would occur once the puzzle is complete. Usually (but not always) events are marked by cutscenes, major plot points, or the introduction of major puzzles/game elements.

Variables – Basically, the entire concept of variables is simply based around the idea of ‘choice’. Like the word ‘variation’, or ‘variety’, a variable is an expression of a possible choice within a given range of choices. Due to the fact that variables (choices) can literally be endless, this is really the main reason why building non-linear games can be so challenging and complicated to make: you can’t possibly get inside every single player’s head to see what sort of decisions they will want to make while playing a game, as everyone will look at a given puzzle or situation differently. A main concept of good game design is to be able to inadvertently manipulate and encourage the choices a player will make at any given time. If you can do this successfully (and very well), a game can be very enjoyable. Do it wrong, and you’ll end up with some very frustrated players. The few complaints we actually got about The Marionette‘s gameplay were due to over-complicated variables.  Hopefully we can improve on this in Out of Time.

In mind-mapping, these game elements can be easily displayed for better understanding. Here, I have made a simple Event, Puzzle, and Variable action map for the “Cookie Jar” game I made up earliar:

cookiejar2

As one can see, using a mind map can greatly sort out confusing things such as variables, events, puzzles, and even the endings after whatever variable route is taken. You can then add and subtract more variables, events, puzzles, and endings from your initial mind map.  You could add a variable to have a second thought after you pile the books in front of the cookie jar, and come up with the ending on the top. Or you could even make it so that you could make the choice to come back inside and attempt to steal the cookies after all.

It really depends on how you want your game to play out, how linear you wish it to be, and what sort of experiences you wish the player to have.  If you plan on having lots of variables and decision-making, you also need to ponder how much control and freedom you want to give to the player throughout the game. If this isn’t fine-tuned, people will end up with too many variables and not really know where to go, or what to do, to get a certain outcome.

For now, I think I’m going to leave mind mapping to that. It’s a very important part of game creation, but I don’t think it really needs more than two posts to get a good idea of what it’s all about.

Potential developers out there: take this information any way you wish. Use it, utilize it, and remember to check out all the neat mind mapping software I mentioned in my first post.

Now, back to work…

Khyle’s Out of Time Development Diary: Episodic Games – Why they work, why they don’t, and why we’re doing it.

This morning Auriond informed me of an email from an adventure-gaming enthusiast about our development of Out of Time.  They were very concerned about our decision to make the game episodic, and had inquired to us about reconsidering our episodic development.  Team Effigy has always been wide open to consumer and player feedback, as we find that it is very important to take into consideration all comments and critiques of whatever we are working on.

In that light, instead of continuing to write about mind-mapping in this issue of my development diary, I’m going to take the time to give plenty of explanation as to why the episodic formula is going to be very important for Out of Time, and hopefully put curiosities at rest in the assurance that I’m pretty sure we know what we’re doing.

(This article is also fairly long-winded. You’ve been warned.)

Episodic Games

Why they work, why they don’t, and why we’re doing it.

If you look at the history of current episodic gaming, you can certainly say that there is a vast difference between creating a game in episodes, and creating a game to be episodic.  One of which can encompass both points, and one of which can only hold the former.  This, intermingled with how the episodes are developed and released, can easily determine whether or not an episodic game can succeed greatly, or fail miserably (outside the realm of being, at the core, a good or bad game).  I’ll be talking about the top three main points of such successes and failures.

1) Episodic games should have a story that specifically fits the episodic format.  Otherwise, don’t bother.  (Also:  If you are making an episodic game from the beginning, it’s a good idea to keep it that way.)

TellTale Games is currently the studio at the forefront of episodic gaming, even though their first episodic series was a bit of a flop.  Starting as a hodgepodge collection of former LucasArts employees, their first episodic property attempt was that of Jeff Smith’s Bone (a graphic novel series that is a particular favorite of mine).  In my opinion, they picked a very poor property for episodic gaming: Bone is not a story arc that fits the idea of ‘episodes’ very well.  It functions much better as a long storyline, and the broken-up nature of episodic format does not attune to the nature of the way Bone’s story flows.

Once TellTale began getting (back into) story arcs that fit the episodic format much better, they began to see a much larger return on their efforts.  Sam & Max, a property formerly worked on by members of TellTale (and a property that they wished to get back into when they formed TellTale), was their gratuitous launchpad of episodic gaming awesomeness.  It’s one of those properties that fit the episodic format perfectly: a comic with short, contained storylines that have larger story arcs running through them.  Stories that can be enjoyed independently from one another, and yet are part of a much larger, much more enjoyable vision.

The plain success of Sam & Max lead TellTale onto one hot property after another:  Wallace and Gromit, Homestar Runner, and Monkey Island.*  All properties, of which, translated perfectly to episodic format in one manner or the other.  Wallace and Gromit through their popularity of several short animated films, and Homestar Runner through their quirky and highly episodic flash animations.  The quality of Monkey Island related directly back to TellTale’s grassroots:  the highly reguarded collection of existing Monkey Island titles.

TellTale is certainly the current forefront of episodic adventures because they understand that in order to have a successful episodic game, the story must fit the formula.

… Of course, you can also make a very, very, very bad game by reversing the formula: fitting an episodic storyline into a full-length game.

Brace yourselves.  I’m going to talk about Indigo Prophecy.  (Or, as most may know it, Fahrenheit.)

I was drawn into this game by the demo.  I found the concept that I was playing to be truly awesome: the main character had just murdered some stranger in cold blood, and I had to clean up the crime scene and vamoose before the mean policeman caught me.  I was impressed that it got a very visceral response from me.  My heart was pumping while I was trying to clean up the blood and hide the body, all the while watching as the elderly officer made his way to where I was hastily covering up my trail of unsolicited murder.

Considering it impressed me, I went and purchased the game. At full price.

… And heavily regretted it.

I believe Ben Croshaw (Yahtzee, for all you Zero Punctuation and Trilby adventure fans) said it best in his Condemned 2 review.  It has a plot that, at the halfway point, goes something arbitrarily known as ‘snooker loopy’.  There is a total abandonment of subtlety, there is a sudden introduction of ancient mystical cults, and enough ‘wtf’ moments to sate you of un-conjointed randomness for the rest of your natural life.

Moments of which include, in no particular order, being chased by a panther in a Mayan temple, secret cults named after different colors of the rainbow, dying and then coming back to life (as in, you are basically a walking corpse) to have sexual relations with the police officer (ya, srsly) chasing you for murder, angelic statues springing to life to blatantly attack people, discovering a puddle of alien goo on a military base, being attacked by giant insects, and the cheesiest of face-palming paranormal-related content: indigo children.

That, paired with some very sticky and very frustrating quick time event ‘simon says’ gameplay (that I swear single-handedly gave me carpal tunnel through movement repetition) made me a very unhappy adventurer.  It made me wonder: why? Just … why?

When I discovered that it was originally intended to be an episodic game, it suddenly all came together.  It all made sense.  They tried to fit three (or more) games into one title.  I felt very bad, as I knew that if they had stuck with the episodic formula, the game probably would have done much better.  Unfortunately, Quantic Dream ran out of funding while trying to ‘revolutionize’ the genre, and had to mush all of it together. The storyline did not merit at all from being one full-length game, and reducing a plotline that could have had great depth otherwise made it hokey, confusing, and just downright laughable.

To this day, I will never know how the game did as well as it did through sales, the press, and many online reviews.   Everyone I spoke to disliked it.  Including myself.

Albeit, if Quantic Dream has taught us anything, it is what not to do with an episodic story arc.

2) Don’t even think about releasing your next episode more than 5 months after your previous one.  (Unless you have the rabid, loyal fan base of Half-Life.)

Another reason why I believe Bone did so poorly as TellTale’s first episodic game was simply the time frame in which episodes were released, which was something that was immediately fixed upon the creation of Sam & Max.  The time between episodic release is crucial to how well a game will do out on the market, simply due to how the consumer base (and even the general public) reacts and relates to episodic material.

Take television for example: episodes of programs reliably air at consecutive dates not long after the last episode is released, to keep viewer interest.  It would be hard to keep television audiences if a show only aired a new episode once every six months.  Attention would waver, new interests would be found, and the show is canceled as it is inevitably lost and forgotten.  As is the case with many episodic adventures that have not made it past their second title.  Unless the company you work for is named ‘Valve‘, of course.

To get an idea of how time frame affects sales and popularity, the first episode of TellTale’s Bone was released on September 15, 2005, and their second episode of Bone was released on April 12, 2006.  That is nearly seven months after initial episode release.  That’s over half a year of waiting.  (I’m sure coinciding with the release of the Xbox 360 didn’t help its case, either.) The length of time between episodes of Sam & Max were greatly reduced: each episode is separated by a time frame of about 2-4 weeks.  This good habit carried on to their newer series, and greatly contributes to how Sam & Max became the impressive series it is today.

This sort of situation is even more apparent with games that have an even further time gap between episodes (no matter how much their creators are passionate about them) which seem to come out with a bang, then go out with a faint whimper and fall into obscurity .  The critically-praised episodic first person shooter SiN fell victim to a whopping eight year span between the first and second episode.  Its initial release concurrent and competing with that of the original Half-Life back in 1998 certainly could not have helped, but I think they might have been able to stir more attention to the original title if they had attempted to release a second episode immediately after the first.

I also think that Hothead Games’ second installment of Penny Arcade Adventures would have done much better sales-wise if it had been released sooner after the initial game, to keep rolling along fresh in the praise and high ratings of the first.  It seems as though even the course of three months is ‘too long’ for optimal span between episodic games.

Of course, the only company to negate and completely not have any trouble maintaining audience while they develop new episodes is Valve, respectively.  Half-Life is indeed an “episodic” game, and spans of time between game releases have ranged from one to two years, with no fault in their record sales figures due to it.  Their amazing consumer loyalty is completely related to Valve’s high-quality game play and story development, however.  The fan base that has been built up over time due to this is strictly what sets this company’s episodic strategy apart from other episodic games.  Albeit, there is word from the inside that Valve kinda regrets doing the “episodic thing”, and it is unlikely that they will go back to it.

It is truly unfortunate that the only other company that has been able to keep up with quick episodic releases is American McGee’s company Spicy Horse with his most current title: Grimm.  It was very impressive that a new game was released every week or so, but Grimm will still be getting a bit of finger-wagging from me in my next (short) point on this list.

3) Quality over quantity. (Srsly. Don’t overdo it unless you have a really, really, really, really good story. Or something else to hold a player’s attention.  You will be loved for it.)

I have to admit that I never finished the Grimm series.

I got up to the “Mulan” episode, played halfway through, and quit the game with a sigh of disappointment, never to pick it up again.

There wasn’t really too much wrong with the series.  The idea was great.  The game play was amusing, and occasionally disturbing.  The dialogue was funny, and some of the episodes were just downright entertaining.  The game released weekly to bi-weekly like clockwork, and they were short enough that you could sit down with a cup of tea and unwind with them during a lunch break.

The reason why Grimm only did ‘average’ where critics and player reviews were concerned, I believe, boiled down to one thing: There were just too many of them.

Having too many episodes with similar game play and no meta-story made them extremely varied in quality and made later episodes downright stale.  Almost to the point of being unplayable, because you simply got bored with them.  There is really nothing there to hold your attention, or to encourage you to play more, aside from seeing what happens when you ‘Grimm up’ the happy-go-lucky storybook worlds.  If there had been just a few less episodes, mostly focused on very well-known fairy tales instead of more obscure ones, with a meta-story that enveloped all the episodes (and I’m certain there could have been an absolutely great one, with a versatile character like Grimm), I know for sure I would have played them all the way to the end, and would have rated them all higher than a 6 or 7 on GameTap.

And thus concludes my three point list.  There are other factors as to why episodic titles success and fail, but I find that these three are the major ones (in accordance to current episodic games).  All in all, the developmental success of any game (especially episodic games) all boils down to that of the concise planning and forward-thinking of those actually creating the game.  Know what you want, plan up the wazoo, and plan for the development of an episodic game: not just ‘a game’.

So, why is Team Effigy developing an episodic game?

There are many reasons why a very small, independent company like Team Effigy would want to develop an episodic title.

1) First and foremost, it will help us release new, complete games in shorter periods of time.  After a 3-4 year project like The Marionette, there is a personal challenge of never taking that long to develop a game like that ever again (lol).  Dividing it into episodes makes it easier:  You might only have to wait a year or two for the initial product while finishing touches are being placed on the next game, and development is wrapping up on the one after that.

2) We don’t have to bite off more than we can chew.  A full-length 8-9 hour (or more) adventure game is a bit of a large undertaking (especially for a team as small as Team Effigy).  At this point, Team Effigy knows how to make a decent 3-4 hour adventure game.  Instead of having to step it up from making one 3-4 hour adventure game to making a full 8-9 hour (or more) adventure game, we can focus on making three or four 3-4 hour adventure games.  In this respect, it’s much less intimidating.

3) Making shorter, smaller games means that we have many more distribution options.  Due to a manageable download size, we can port and provide the game on many more systems than just PC with minimal effort.  We can then distribute our content to the Wii, Xbox Live, Sony Marketplace, Steam, GameTap, and other online game services and download sites for better player convenience and visibility.  We’re going to try and get it distributed on as many platforms as we possibly can (including the ones listed above).  I’m particularly excited about possibly seeing it on the Wii.  (That said, I’d also love to see The Marionette on the DS, possibly on a cartridge with a couple of other short point-and-click adventures that we might have a hankering to create.)

4) Smaller games mean smaller cost, which means you don’t have to make a huge $50 investment in the game to get a satisfying return.  Don’t like the first chapter?  Don’t buy the next one.  Love it and can’t wait to see what happens next?  Put the next episode on pre-order.  Feeling so-so about it?  Wait for it to go on sale, and then indulge to see if you like it.  ( As far as Out of Time goes, we’re fairly positive that each fresh-release episode will be priced below $15.  We’ve actually been discussing pricing it under $10, depending on how development goes.  Nothing is set in stone yet, though.)

5) Players actually get to be involved in the development of the games!  Having episodes to the games means that there is a window of opportunity between them where player critique and feedback actually gets used to make the game better! Of course, huge major overhauls can’t really be done, but little things that could make the game just ‘a little bit better’, can.  Users think the controls are a bit wonky? Fix them for next episode.  Is it hard to navigate to the interface?  Fix for the next episode.  Main character walks too slow?  Fix for next episode!

(Of course, we’re pretty aware of stuff like that, because we’re sort of awesome.  So hopefully our problems will be minimal.)

6) Less investment, greater return.  Instead of attempting to make one huge long game as a single release, we have more than one chance with a game to effectively adapt and ‘get it right’ before the game is completely finished.  There is also less monetary investment in ‘smaller’ games than a full-on ‘large’ game:  we don’t have to put all of our eggs into one basket, so to speak.

… And I could go on.

All in all, I think the biggest, largest, huge-ist, most gigantic-ist reason as to why Team Effigy is developing Out of Time as an episodic game is merely this:

The nature of the storyline is episodic.

Going back to my very first point as to why episodic games do and do not work: It would be really silly, in my opinion, to develop the story of Out of Time as a singular unit.  It is a story specifically suited for an episodic release.  The plot-line, the character development, the way that time will be expressed to pass during the story will be particularly intense when expressed in episodes.

We’re hoping to have people on the edge of their seats, talking and theorizing between episodes about what will happen next.  We want people to be excited about what happens to Travis.  We want people to be able to get right into the story, just as they get into their favorite mystery on TV.  We want people to be following every twist and turn, and to be chomping at the bit to play the next episode when…

…  well.  You’re just going to have to wait to find out. ;)

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(*I personally think the CSI games they made do not count, as Ubisoft had direct involvement with those.)