Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Game talk

There's an interesting thread over on the Adventure Game Studio forum about how to handle large dialogs in adventure games.  The question is whether conversations that give lots of background detail on a character or event is important enough to include, even if it's optional.  Does it bloat the game?  Or does it enrich the game?

Dialog is something I have always struggled with.  Writing it comes easy enough for me, but should I?  I've found myself growing incessantly impatient with long dialogs in games, and unless the characters are engaging enough I simply skip through it.

Adventure games have it tough, especially indie ones.  If a company like Bioware wants to have a longish conversation in one of their games, they can usually get away with it.  They have production values, so we get all sorts of funky camera angles while the characters talk.  We get wide shots, close-ups, even pans and zooms.  The characters move. They gesture.  We can see their eyes and expressions, and so we get drawn deeper into what they are saying.  The fact that the conversations are usually well-written and engaging are just a bonus. 

Alas, little games like mine don't have this luxury.  Usually you have one screen and two characters standing there.  They talk.  And that's all you see.  The camera doesn't move.  The characters barely move.  Nothing happens, except the dialog.  Even if the conversation is an interesting one, it is bound to get boring for many players.

As I've written more games, I've found myself writing less and less dialog.  Or rather, each individual dialog exchange has gotten shorter and shorter.  It's very tempting to give your character gobs of words to say, especially if you think they are interesting.  And since the characters are interesting, obviously the player will want to spend some time listening to them talk and get to know them, right?

Meh... sort of.  It's taken me several games to learn this, but less is definitely more.  Games are all about interacting with the world.  Yes, you want to talk to the characters, but you also want to explore  and get on with the game (and meet more characters).   Yes, allow the player to chat with your characters, but try and keep it short. 

I am very guilty of this sin.  Inspired by the Adventure Game Studio thread, I went and skimmed through the dialog of The Blackwell Legacy.  And man, can those characters talk.  Here's a particularly evil example of what I'm talking about.  It's a long section of dialog which is made worse by the fact that Rosa is on the screen by herself.  She's on the phone talking to her boss:

Boss: Rosangelina. Hi.
Rosa: Hi Bob.
Boss: Thanks SO much for submitting your last review on time. For once.
Rosa: Yeah.
Boss: I got a little assignment for you today.
Rosa: Assignment?
Rosa: I just review books, Bob.
Boss: Well, today you're not.
Boss: Human interest, Blackwell. And it's RIGHT in your neighborhood.
Rosa: Human interest?
Boss: Yep. College girl. Suicide.
Rosa: Someone killed herself?
Boss: Yep. Some girl named... JoAnn.
Rosa: That's-
Boss: You know the Britany House? The NYU dorm?
Rosa: Yes, but-
Boss: Great! Head over to the dorm and get a few statements.
Rosa: But-
Boss: Speak to some people on her floor. Get a word in with the roommate.
Rosa: Listen-
Boss: Speak to the R.A., too. And hey, if you can score a picture of the girl, that would be a real coup.
Rosa: But I don't do that stuff!
Boss: Like I said, today you ARE.
Boss: Jared's over at city hall covering that strike.
Boss: So you're it.
Rosa: Today is not the best-
Boss: Not hearing you.
Boss: Write it up for tomorrow's edition.
Boss: Pressures of college life, etc.
Boss: It practically writes itself.
Rosa: Wait-
Boss: I'm SO looking forward to reading it, Blackwell.
Boss: Ciao!

(hangs up)

Rosa: I hate him so much.
Rosa: Is freelancing for that stupid paper even worth it?
Rosa: I guess it keeps me writing, but...
Rosa: Oh, whatever.
Rosa: I'll just go over there and get it done.
Rosa: It's not like I don't have enough death in my life right now.
So hm.  Let's count those lines, shall we?  1..2...3... 41 lines!  41 lines to tell the player they need to go to a location and ask some questions about a girl, and to grab a picture while there.  41 lines of zero player interactivity.  41 lines of Rosa standing there on the screen with a phone to her ear. 

I'm not knocking the dialog.  I like the dialog.  But hey, I'm a bit biased.  However, I can't deny that it could have been much shorter.  So as a little writing exercise, I decided to see if I could edit it down:
Boss: Rosangelina. Hi.
Rosa: Hi Bob.
Boss: I got a little assignment for you today.
Rosa: Assignment?
Boss: Human interest, Blackwell. Suicide. A college girl named JoAnn Sherman.
Rosa: That's awful, but-
Boss: You know the Britany House? The NYU dorm?
Rosa: Yes, but-
Boss: Great! Head over to the dorm and get a few statements.
Rosa: But-
Boss: Speak to some people on her floor. Get a word in with the roommate.
Rosa: Listen-
Boss: Speak to the R.A., too. And hey, see if you can score a picture of the girl.
Rosa: But I don't do that stuff! I write book reviews.
Boss: Versatility, Blackwell. That's you make it in this biz.
Boss: Get cracking.

(hangs up)
Rosa: I hate him so much.

Count 'em.  It's now 17 lines instead of the previous 41. It's shorter, snappier, and gives you the exact same information.  I probably could have cut it down further by removing all of Rosa's interjections of "But!" and "Listen!", but they show Rosa's reluctance nicely and made the dialog flow a lot more naturally. This is how I probably would've written this exchange today. 

I have no plans on releasing a "cut down dialog" edition of Blackwell Legacy, but it begs the question.  How do you feel about long dialogs in games?  Do you enjoy them?  Skip through them?  Did you play Blackwell Legacy and ever cry out "God, do these people ever shut up?"  Please comment and let me know.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Wi-fi is everywhere

Cafes and laptops go well together.  There's something about tapping away on a sleek little machine while sipping a drink in the intellectual surroundings of a cafe that appeals to a lot of people.  You only have to peek into a Starbucks or a Cosi's or a Think to see that thousands of others feel the same.  Which is why many cafes offer free wi-fi in order to bring people in.

Wi-fi in cafes I understand.  Wi-fi in some other places... well, it just baffles me.

About six months ago, a burger joint opened up around the corner from me.  I've eaten there.  It's pretty good.  Eating a burger in a burger joint makes sense.  What doesn't make sense is the sign in their window that proudly displays the words "FREE WI-FI!"  I read this and was instantly baffled.  Surfing the web while drinking a double mocha latte?  Sure!  Surfing while munching on a burger?  How does that work?  Wouldn't you get grease everywhere?

I've noticed free wi-fi being offered in bars and diners, too.  I guess it makes a kind of sense, although I have yet to see many people taking advantage of it.  Maybe I should try working in one of those places one day.  In the name of research.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

More programmer art

You might have noticed the programmer art I posted yesterday.  It happens that Ron Gilbert (no relation) of LucasArts fame also posted some programmer art on his blog.  So in the interests of keeping up with my fellow Gilberts, here are some more of my attempts at programmer art from my previous games.

The Minetta in Blackwell Convergence:

At one point looked like this:

And the construction site in Blackwell Unbound:

Looked a little something like this:

And let's not forget my first attempts at Rosa and Joey:

Maybe I should have kept Joey's original design. Who wouldn't want a ghost slug as a sidekick?


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Post release philosophy

With all the twittering and Facebooking I do, it's hard to come up with interesting things to write about.  Puzzle Bots came out a few weeks ago.  And in case you haven't heard, it's awesome and stuff.  So you should check it out.

And as I often do after a release, I tend to get a little philosophical.  This is the sixth game that we've completed since we started this studio in 2006, and man have things changed.  And by "changed" I don't mean myself.  When I started, there were very few people doing this kind of thing.  But now?  The entire indie gaming scene has taken off like a howitzer blitz.  Everyone's talking about it.  Mainstream gaming websites and media outlets now dedicate a good chunk of their time to indie games.  The IGF has become a force to be reckoned with.  Game conventions normally reserved for the biggest high-budget console titles (like E3 and PAX) now have indie game booths and they are packed to the gills and swarmed with press.  There are major websites and web TV programs (including the fabulous Bytejacker) dedicated to the subject.  And that's just the tip of the iceberg.  I could go on, but you get the idea.  It's pretty darn amazing.

As for me?  I'm still that guy in the cafe.  Drinking coffee, plinking away at a laptop keyboard, and somehow ending up with a game at the end of it.  The way I work hasn't changed all that much.  And I wouldn't have it any other way.

So what's next for us?  Janet and I are working on a new project, but there's very little to show so we're keeping mum about it for now.  It's very much a "back to our roots" kind of thing, but it's also something very new.  I DO have some truly epic programmer art, done by me, which you can see right here:

I wonder if the game would sell more if it looked like this.