Develop Conference: Book of Spells scribe says writers need to be fostered and empowered by studios

Game studios need to treat story as an asset

Developers need to treat story as an asset because it is capable of lifting their game and giving players more reason to engage with it, says the lead writer behind Wonderbook: Book of Spells.

Robert Morgan, who was taken on by Sony’s London Studio to be an in-house writer and VO director, said the time was right to give a talk about narrative in games because the medium of interactive entertainment is now more sophisticated than ever, and it also communicating a lot more information to players.

“You have to treat story as an asset, it has to be part of your process,” said Morgan, speaking at the Develop Conference.

“That means it has a price tag, it has a set of dependencies and it needs to have a staff attached to it. But in order for that asset to work you need to give it time.”

Having a dedicated writer, or somebody who has responsibility for caring for a game’s narrative was Morgan first piece of advice to studios.

He then went on to explain that the process of providing a satisfying narrative or one that suits the kind of game the studio is making is highly dependent on how closely integrated the writer is with the development team.

Morgan said he spent about 30 per cent of his time talking to Book of Spells’ code team about how certain elements would manifest themselves on-screen, and that allowed him to provide context within the dialogue. Similarly, he said a writer should ideally be involved in design meetings so that both parties can converse about the game elements early on.

Writers, he said, will have a finite deadline when new narrative element can no longer be added to the game, and they need to recognise this and communicate it to the designers. And those designers in turn must be ready to plan their design around dialogue and know what’s going to be said when.

As an example, Morgan talked about a collaboration between writing and coding on Book of Spells, where a dialogue system was integrated to reduce the chance of repetition.

Said dialogue system had multiple audio strings that had to be completely exhausted before any of them were repeated. This meant there was next to no repetition in the game audio prompts, and the advantage of the system SCE London created was that it was all done in-engine and additions could be made by the writer without having to trouble the code team.

Morgan added that iteration can pay of greatly: “You need to iterate. It makes a massive difference. It’s often you don’t get it right the first time, and that’s why story often feels its left behind in a lot of games.

“Even if your recording studio talent recording dummy voices for the game, as soon as you hear voices in the game it makes a difference to how it feels, and you can try again and get it right next time.”

Finally, Morgan went on to discuss vary ways that he believe developers can make stories resonate with players.

Escalating is not worth it on its own terms, especially if it’s going to cost you money he said.

Instead, Morgan encouraged developers to think about their game experience outside of its own context, and how they can use narrative to re-engage players who have lost interest.

He gave an example of how a player might spend time off doing another task, away from the main quest. Once back on the main path, a character could comment on why the player has spend so much time away instead of on the main quest, meaning the game is responding to the players own choices and actions in relation to its narrative.

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