21 May, 2016
One of my pet peeves is people underestimating the work that goes into game development. For example, people ask, “Why can’t you add just this simple thing?” not realizing that this one thing has a lot of consequences.
I’ll go into some detail about why one simple thing is usually not a simple thing.
Let’s write a story!
My current work is writing a DLC story and text for my good friend Dave Toulouse’s game March of the Living. (Go buy it if you haven’t already. There’s some cool DLC coming soon!) I won’t spoil the DLC’s story here, as I think it’s pretty cool; instead, let’s pick another famous story: The Lord of the Rings
So, let’s say we’re going to write a story about Frodo, Sam, and Gollum. Frodo carries the one ring, and could lose it or not. Gollum could decide to help Frodo or steal the ring himself, based on events in the story. Frodo could die, but if Frodo dies and the ring is lost, it’s game over. Gollum could also die along the way. Sam is too important to the story, so if he dies it’s just game over.
Explosion of options
So, let’s list out all the variables we have:
- Frodo is alive – Frodo is dead.
- Frodo has the ring – Frodo has lost the ring.
- Gollum is alive – Gollum has perished.
- Gollum wants to destroy the ring – Gollum wants to steal the ring.
Only four variables, but that means that if each of these options creates a unique “state” in a story when combined with other variables. For each part of your story, you have 24, or 16 states the world could be in. That means that for each part of the story, you have to develop and write at least 16 times the content.
Along comes Arnie the Armchair Game Designer and scoffs, “What about the Phial of Gladriel? You should track if Frodo is carrying the Phial or not.” Well, now we have to worry about 25 world states, which likely doubled the writer’s work and only added one bit of story for the average person playing through the game once. Not a great use of time and resources, so every variable needs to be carefully considered before it is added to the game.
Not only does it take extra writing, but it will take extra work to verify the extra bits added. Testing will likely take over twice as long as you have a lot more. And this is why adding “just one more thing” is not as simple is it might seem.
And now consider a big-budget triple-A game like the Mass Effect series, where each option required not only writing, but also art assets and voice acting. Adding another option added a lot more work on top of the existing work. There are reasons why the major choices are few and far between, and some options simply get lost in the shuffle.
To be fair, you can find some efficiencies when writing. For example, not every scene needs to worry about if Gollum wants to destroy the ring or steal it; a scene with a conversation with just Frodo and Sam wouldn’t need to consider that motivation. However, some things like Frodo’s current state of life could have major impacts on nearly every scene.
You can also re-use some passages to reduce overall writing requirement. Clever writing can introduce Gollum in one part, then re-use another section where Gollum isn’t explicitly mentioned but players assume he’s there (or not) because of framing. Plus, people will impart their own feelings, so you can give a few cues about how characters interact and let player imagination do some of the work that would be more explicit in a linear narrative.
You can also make some assumptions in the story to prune some of the branches down. For example, if Frodo loses the ring, then Gollum may leave the group. So, a check to see if Frodo has lost the ring can also assume that Gollum wouldn’t be in the party.
But, this can make the work harder, too. Editing becomes harder because if you edit one part and violate an assumption, you might refer to a state of the world that is not accurate in every case. And keeping the exact world state assumed by a passage can be hard without a good notation system or really amazing tools.
It’s fun, but it’s still hard work
I’ll probably write up a bit about the work I’m doing for the DLC in a future blog post down the line. As I said, I think the story is pretty good and worth trying not to spoil, so there’s not much detail I can go into here. But, expect some discussion about what went into the work. :)
What about you? Do you notice little things like the game taking into consideration different world states? Do you play though games multiple times to try little changes? Do you strive to find the “perfect” world state that gives the best results? Or are you more interested in a linear story to go with your games?