It’s 2:30am on Friday at the UKIE JournoDevSwap event, where journalists and developers are trading roles for a weekend. I’ve written an interview already, and am toying with ideas for the “scoop” task tomorrow – as well as talking to the team about what I can do for the 11am preview of their game.
So far it’s great fun playing at being a game journalist.
But this opinion piece feels different. I think it’s because it’s not about pretending to be a journalist for a laugh: I’m lucky enough actually to be a game developer – a writer.
I should have opinions for real. Heck, I do have opinions – and now I’m in a position where I will be published in Develop, even if it is sneakily through the back door. That’s… amazing.
So, I hope this is worth the share. This is an actual process that keeps me awake at night sometimes (literally – it’s now 3:50am):
I love telling stories in games.
It’s really hard to tell stories in free-to-play games.
Free-to-play games are getting increasingly popular.
I bloody love telling stories in games.
So why do I say it’s hard to tell stories in free-to-play games? And if it is hard, then is that maybe a sign that they don’t need stories? Or if I don’t like it, maybe I should shut up and do stories for games that aren’t free-to-play?
I say it’s hard to tell stories in free-to-play games because I’m literally doing it every day and it IS hard. I work for online game company Mediatonic, and for the past two years I’ve been working on our latest free-to-play release on Facebook: Amateur Surgeon Hospital.
I’m trying to cram as much of my characters, story and world into bite-sized chunks where people don’t want to read text, are generally consuming as much of my game as they can in five-minute sessions before logging off, and forgetting all about it until the next day (if we’re lucky), and for the most part wouldn’t be able to name the main character from the game if their life depended on it.
(His name is Alan Probe, by the way, and that’s possibly the best, most evergreen joke I have ever written in my life).
Does it sound like I hate my players? I don’t.
I love them.
I love every single one of them; so much so that I want them to have the best possible experience they can – no matter how fleeting their visits or obstinate their refusal to read any of the words I’ve spent a long, hard time writing.
I want them to know my world and my characters, because I love my world and characters.
And my world and characters are worth getting to know. I want to share them. I desperately, desperately want to share this world that I’ve built with people. That’s what I think the heart and soul of a writer is – game, book, film… whatever. A writer is someone who will use whatever tools they have to try to make a connection; to share something that they believe is wonderful.
But maybe free-to-play games like these just don’t need stories? People like to just log on, do a few quick quests and go!
No – that is a stone cold awful thing to say. It’s these games that can get the most from good stories well told, with interesting characters that do the unexpected. People aren’t expecting to find a good story here – and that’s when we can really take someone by surprise.
I wasn’t expecting the Opera Scene in Final Fantasy VI. I wasn’t expecting the Clown in Phoenix Wright to do the Fresh Prince rap. But I remember those moments and can pluck them out and put them here on this page as fresh as if they just happened a second ago.
That’s what I want for my players. That moment of surprise – that a game can be funny, or maybe touching, or something meaningful – and for that moment of surprise to blindside them so hard it leaves a dent forever. That’s why I became a writer in videogames.
It’s hard. It’s really hard. Stories in free-to-play games are terrible. They’re horrific. They are. Including mine – especially mine. But that’s why I have to try so hard. It’s worth it.
There’s maybe a different vocabulary we have to find. Maybe we need to get even better at pictures, tell our stories entirely visually, or make sound the number one priority. Can we do a full voice-over for a Facebook game? I don’t know. That might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever said.
The point is, if you’re making games: keep trying to show your players how great your world and story is. And make sure it is that great.
Invest in better worlds and characters. Invest in really good writers who love games, and get them to train up idiot kids who never wrote for a game in their life until someone gave them a chance.
Tell your artists to find five ways to fit a joke into a background. Tell your animators it isn’t done until it’s sad or funny, or so broken it’s brilliant, and then use everything that the whole team has to get that feeling across to your players.
Manage it just once, and they’ll love your game and your world. It’s good for business. It’s good for the soul.
Free-to-play is bringing new rules – I wish with everything I have that it wasn’t so, because I feel like maybe I was just starting to get good at telling stories in Flash – but it’s true.
That doesn’t change the people who play them. They’re people. They’re awesome.
People bloody love stories, even if they don’t know it. Even if they don’t think they care.
We just have to find the way to tell them right.
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