Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

21 May, 2016

“Why can’t you add just one more thing….”
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:59 PM

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.

Introducing efficiency

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?

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  1. These are my favourite games, narrative games where choices matter. In fact, they’re my favourite form of entertainment period, and by a large margin.

    I do tend to pay attention to these things while playing them – characters who aren’t shown(or mentioned) because of that very reason – they may be present or not, and you assume they are even though it’s not shown, like you’d assume of course they were not there if they weren’t in your party/were dead/what have you.

    I’m not a writer, unfortunately, because it’s this aspect of game design I’m most interested in.

    Comment by Derrick Whittet — 21 May, 2016 @ 5:39 PM

  2. When I was much younger I thought the branching storylines and multiple options of RPGs were a great innovation for narrative. Now I’m older and have a lot more experience of them I think they are, at best, an unnecessary distraction.

    It sounds great in theory, all these different threads and alternate endings, but in practice it’s a waste of resources and development time as far as I’m concerned. I have discovered that it’s extremely unlikely that I’m ever going to replay any RPG in order to see a different outcome. No matter what path I take it is effectively the only path so all the others may as well not have been written.

    Moreover, in MMOs, where there are storylines with options and where I play several characters who have the opportunity to try them out, I just don’t. If you put three options in front of me today and I pick #3 there’s an exceedingly good chance that if you put the same questions in front of me a year from now I will again pick #3. I piked it the first time because it was the most appealing. Unless I’ve had a personality change since then it will go on being the most appealing.

    I can’t say I’ve ever been interested enough in the alternate options even to look up on a wiki or website what would have happened. The story I experienced is the story and that’s an end of it. I’ve just played through the long questline of EQ2′s Tears of Veeshan expansion. That features no branching narrativs at all. You click the reply and move to the next step. That’s one of the reasons I really enjoyed it. It told a clear, unambiguous story that I could follow.

    That’s very much my preference these days. I think the whole branching narrative concept was a cul de sac that we’d have done better to avoid. I’d far rather have three separate sequential or parallel narratives than three branches of the same. And from what you say that would be far easier to produce, so we could, presumably have more of them for the same cost in development resources.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 22 May, 2016 @ 3:24 AM

  3. I might not have put it as firmly as Bhagpuss but I tend to agree: while the idea of multiple options is nice, in practice I vey rarely replay storylines. In SWTOR I’ve tended to make the same choices on the same quests with different characters because *I* haven’t changed much from one play-through to the next. Multiple options might be good for attracting different player types, perhaps, though we all seemed to make do 30 years ago when options were more limited.

    Either way — I’m an armchair designer myself and still I try not to assume something is easy just because I want it in the game. The people who do that seem to me to suffer from an impressive lack of insight as to how games (or indeed any software) are made.

    Comment by Ysharros — 22 May, 2016 @ 9:44 AM

  4. Oh, I too will only play the game once, and I’ll never know what the other possibilities are. In theory, this means there could have been only one possibility and I’d never know,excelt for two things:

    It’s critical to me that the game world reflect my choices. If they are all false choices, that quickly becomes obvious. And then I’m being told a story and not driving that story, and THAT is a very significant difference.

    Still, careful use of that is able to prune down branches in a lot of circumstances. For example, a companion may be “fated” to die no matter what you do, but one should still include snippets of conversation later to reflect on what the player chose even though his choice didn’t impact the world state.

    Finally, one way these things really work is in discussion of a game after the fact. When you can see just how your choices impacted the narrative.

    After I played Mass Effect 2, and had a favourite character die while a buddy playing alongside me did not, due to my choices – my fault – it shocked me, stuck with me. That was an awesome gaming moment, knowing that the character didn’t die because he was written to die, he died because I failed.

    Comment by Derrick Whittet — 22 May, 2016 @ 10:13 AM

  5. I think it’s notable that the first two comments expressed exactly opposite reactions. The first was that narrative options are indispensable, the second that they are a bad design model that should have never have become widely used.

    I would expand this to other game design decisions though, too, not just narrative. How about game mechanics? Take combat for example. In any combat-oriented game, there is a wide range of different offensive, defensive, and other moves to take into account. Considering different numerical values is one thing, but comparing apples to oranges is another (e.g. a move that can invalidate certain opponent choices). Some modeling can probably help with this, but player behavior ends up being the best simulator of what’s possible, and by then another factor is in play: some players have based their enjoyment around your unbalanced mechanic. Bring back precasting!!1!

    Adding a new mechanic or stat into that kind of soup is daunting to say the least. My hat’s off to those who go do that hard work, and doubly so to those who do it well.

    Comment by fenjay — 23 May, 2016 @ 8:31 AM

  6. Sorry, Brian, but I like playing games with lots of branching narratives. Work for me >:D MWahahahahahah

    I’ve always liked games where people I’ve helped throughout it may show up later to help me out. Makes the game feel a little more real to me, but I definitely see that adding “just one more thing” exponential increases production time. As stated, the more efficiently they can be added, the better.

    I do like to restart characters and run them through different options. I’ve done this a lot in Bethesda games and MMOs. It gives those characters just a little more unique character between them. Even if the choices turn out to be superficial, they still leave me with knowing that this character would save the lady from the wolves, while another would instead run to the town to warn them of an impending wolf attack. I’m still fighting wolves, but one option let’s me keep a clean conscious, but I have to work for it by fighting alone, or getting help at a cost against my morals.

    However I equally enjoy linear stories because they make it simple with progression. Going to the castle to save the princess is all I can do, so I can focus on doing just that to the best of my ability.

    Comment by Tyrannodorkus — 23 May, 2016 @ 12:52 PM

  7. bhagpuss wrote:
    Unless I’ve had a personality change since then it will go on being the most appealing.

    For me, it’s about role-playing. When I played the original Knights of the Old Republic, I decided to play the dark side. Most people who know me know I’m not really the “dark side” kind of person in the offline world. To be fair, the “morality” system in the KotOR games is pretty hokey, but I was playing through a story with a character, not trying to live the experience as a version of myself. It’s the same motivation I had when I was playing the “evil paladin” in university (that I talked about in, because I wanted to play a different kind of character. The role-playing challenge was kinda fun, even if I didn’t “like” the character on a personal level.

    Derrick Whittet wrote:
    After I played Mass Effect 2, and had a favourite character die while a buddy playing alongside me did not, due to my choices – my fault – it shocked me, stuck with me. That was an awesome gaming moment, knowing that the character didn’t die because he was written to die, he died because I failed.

    This is a great point. People don’t have to play through the game multiple times to learn about all the options. Having a different story helps make it unique to the person. Same thing I think about multi-player games: the story focus should be on what the player does, not the narrative that the designers want to write.

    fenjay wrote:
    I think it’s notable that the first two comments expressed exactly opposite reactions.

    Players are not monolithic. Both points of view are legitimate, and in the ideal world different games will satisfy different needs. Derrick would probably really enjoy my DLC for March of the Living, but bhagpuss may not appreciate the work I put in. :)

    And, yeah, you can say the same thing about adding in a new mechanic to the game. But, “balance” is a lot more nebulous of a concept and some people like strange bugs “emergent gameplay”, whereas adding a new option directly adds more writing required.

    Tyrannodorkus wrote:
    However I equally enjoy linear stories because they make it simple with progression.

    Yeah, I don’t think you have to commit to one or the other. A fast action game works better with a simple narrative. Or even no narrative to interrupt the action. A role-playing game, though, can really be enhanced by a non-linear narrative. But, as I said, a lot of work goes into that.

    Comment by Psychochild — 25 May, 2016 @ 1:42 PM

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