Shoot an alien, dodge a bullet, guide a spaceship, cast a magic spell. Such typical video-game actions move plots along in unexpected directions, largely controlled by a gamer's skill. But game writers are the original plot-drivers of any video game, from first-person-shooters such as Half Life 2 to adult-entertainment games such as Leisure Suit Larry. Increasingly, game writing is a topic that's gaining attention among developers and publishers looking for new models of game design that might resonate better with audiences and translate into higher sales.
Consider the attendance figures at the second annual Game Writers Conference, which took place Sept. 6-8, in Austin, Tex., (concurrent with the Austin Game Conference, a popular industry event), as evidence that game writing is a hot topic. Attendance was up approximately 25%, to 250 from 200 last year, according to the conference's marketing manager, Kristin Ward.
At last year's inaugural Game Writers Conference, many sessions were so crowded that attendees couldn't find seats. "Attendance was more than we expected, because we went into the conference with no idea how it would be received," says Ward. "We were scrounging around for chairs to put against the walls." This year, the organizers prepared themselves for larger crowds that included returning attendees and a new crop of interested parties.
WARTS AND ALL. The range of topics offered in talks and panel sessions suggests how the field of game writing has evolved in only a year. In 2005, sessions covered extremely general topics. The talks that drew the most attendees addressed basic how-to tips on moving from screenwriting into game writing. This year, Ward says the conference's organizers decided to add speakers and sessions more targeted to specific topics and new styles of writing. Microsoft Game Studios writer Rich Bryant led a panel on "Writing Comedy for Games," for example, which generated a lot of buzz among attendees, says Ward.
The genre of game writing is becoming increasingly more complex, largely because game-console tech has become more sophisticated. Microsoft's (MSFT) Xbox 360 console, for example, offers highly refined graphics that add a new level of realism to game-play. Gamers can experience more human detail onscreen, such as very realistic sweat, which can indicate nervousness or fatigue.
The opportunity for more nuanced plotlines than ever to match these visual scenes is now possible. "Facial expressions now have unprecedented detail. So writing becomes more subtle and graceful. It's not just about small plumbers jumping through pipes," says John Sutherland, a writer at Microsoft Game Studios, referring to Nintendo's classic video-game franchise Super Mario Bros.
JUMP-STARTING SALES. Developing more emotional games could play a part in broadening audiences to include female and older players not interested in shoot-'em-up titles such as Grand Theft Auto. It's crucial to cultivate more gamers, as overall sales of PC and video games are on the downswing.
According to the latest point-of-sale statistics from the Entertainment Software Association, total combined U.S. sales of PC and video games decreased between 2004 and 2005, from a total of $7.4 billion to $7 billion. More types of game writing could result in a spectrum of inventive titles that might appeal to a wider audience base and give sales a jump-start.
Although game writing might be rising in prominence, video-game scripts featuring complex characters and plots date back to the 1980s. When Japanese role-playing games began taking on complicated storylines, game writing became a profession, according to David S.H. Hodgson, Bryan Stratton, and Alice Rush, co-authors of the forthcoming book Paid to Play: An Insider's Guide to Video Game Careers, which features a chapter on writing for games. More than a decade later, when graphics and game engines had advanced and more complicated narratives were possible, the need for scriptwriters increased.
LITERATURE 101. And game writing is quickly spawning genres, as Paid to Play's authors point out. Game localization, for example, is a growing subfield in which publishers hire writers (and translators) to adapt scripts for foreign markets to widen the audience base and avoid cultural gaffes that can turn consumers off.
Industry experts don't agree on the game-writing style that is best at drawing players in—and keeps them coming back. Some believe classic character and plot development will continue to resonate. David Jaffe, creator of the Sony Computing Entertainment America PlayStation console game God of War, believes game writers really only need to worry about creating "iconic" characters.
He defines these types of protagonists as having one or two core values—for example, Kratos, the protagonist of God of War, is motivated primarily by rage, and the game's writers focused on this central characteristic. Jaffe believes that iconic characters are simply easier to grasp while players are engaged in the multitasking—shooting, maze-navigation—that gaming, unlike less participatory forms of entertainment such as movies or books, demands.
REALITY GAMES. Others are searching for totally new models and seek to break the mold of the movie, the model for many game writers today. Microsoft Game Studios' Sutherland, who gave a presentation titled "Finding New Models for Game Stories" at the 2006 Game Writers Conference, believes that observing how reality TV and sporting-match plots evolve might provide intriguing new inspiration for games.
"Both reality TV shows and sports events feature emergent stories. They offer insight into how we might be able tell a good story when as a writer you don't have complete control," Sutherland says. In other words, game writers might wisely take a cue from how narratives emerge from the unpredictable situations presented on The Apprentice or Monday Night Football and then adapt them to the process of scripting a video game. Sure, many sports-themed games already exist, but Sutherland's point is to apply sports game writing to other genres.
Could cultivating new styles of game writing really pay off? It's hard to predict. And the plot thickens as radically new models of video games such as Will Wright's Spore, which features user-generated characters and content, hit store shelves in coming months. Not to mention both Nintendo and Sony are set to deliver powerful new consoles this year, with controllers that open the door for inventive, rule-breaking types of navigation and interaction.
Whether publishers and developers are willing to explore new directions in game writing that will draw in audiences is uncertain—the chapter is still being written.