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How to Write For Video Games Part 1: World Plotting

Final Fantasy III for the Nintendo DS, a singl...

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As some of my faithful readers from the old days at thePuckWrites may remember, I wrote the story, quests, and designed the classes for an upcoming online game called Ghostees!. It was a lot of fun and a lot of work, and since I know that many young creatives feel drawn to games (I know I do) I thought I would do a series about what is necessary when writing for a game.

For the purposes of this series, we are going to assume your game is a role-playing game because these require the most writing. If you are writing for action or strategy games, you will need to tighten up your dialogue and plot a great deal, but you have much less to worry about in the long run because there are fewer possibilities. While in an RPG each decision and will have different possible results, your average FPS or RTS has only two possibilities: live or die.

How to Build a World

Your client or boss has a basic idea of what kind of game she wants. A number of other titles are thrown at you as examples. Genres are considered and abandoned. Finally, all that will be done for you is done, and you have to create your world plot. Now what?

A world plot is the story that the player, whether with others in an online game or alone, has their story take place within. This is the background history of the world, the basic conflicts at work in the big picture, and the basis for your general quest progression. An example is in Warcraft: the storyline originally comes from three real-time strategic games and was adapted for World of Warcraft. This background story defines the locations of gameplay (Azeroth, the Outlands) and establishes the basic factions (Human, Orc, Undead, Night Elves, Dwarves, etc) and their various conflicts. Additionally, the events of the prior games established even more history, defining new conflicts and specific enemies.

Now examine how all of this world plotting works to create the rest of the game. Once you have your world plotted you have a place for the player’s characters to be from, groups for them to both identify with and have conflicts with, and a set of larger plots for them to take part in as their characters become more powerful. In the case of WoW, their world plot has given them an almost endless supply of material for expansions, quests, races, classes, and locations. So when first conceiving your world plot you have to take all of this into account.

So what does it take to make a good world plot?

Consistency

Your world plot must be consistent in its history and rules. This doesn’t mean things can’t change, but it does mean they have to change for a reason. In the plot of Warcraft, the orcs went from demon-worshipping necromancers bent on destruction to tribal warriors profoundly concerned with honor and loyalty. The game mechanic that drove this decision was a desire to makeĀ  players better able to identity with the orcs and to render the duality in Warcraft, which had before been about good and evil, a bit more ambiguous. This was a money-decision…they wanted more sides and races so they could attract more players. However, in-game they made sure to justify the change using information from the game lore. Always make sure the events in your world plot are consistent, because contradictions make for a weaker story and a weaker game.

Fertility

A good world plot is defined enough to make writing quests easy but flexible enough to give birth to new sub-plots, creatures, and NPCs. More content will be the cry you will hear from happy project managers, supervisors, and players, so if you wrote yourself into a corner you are screwed. You can’t have there be a single big bad boss, because then you have nowhere to go when your players beat that boss. You can’t have the whole world divided up between two factions and then introduce a third as the project leads you. A closed story, however easy it becomes to build your conflict and plot your quest progression, is a mistake. Instead, build worlds where there is plenty of information to add depth, but plenty of unknowns to leave yourself room for expansion.

The game Mass Effect does this perfectly: the main storyline is truly epic, with a plot spanning millennia. However, the world plot of the game allows for new races, locations, sub-plots, and now a sequel to branch off convincingly. This is because the world plot of Mass Effect is open…its basic premises define it without limiting it. Do likewise.

Tropes and Atmosphere

Tropes are repeating motifs that exist in stories. They are things like “the haunted house”, “the wise old man”, “the lover lost and regained”, and so on. Specific genres have specific tropes, so science fiction has the monster that turns out to really be a man and horror has the man that turns out to be a monster, and both of them, once identified by the audience, can be predicted. However, tropes are useful; they are like cliches in that they sort of work. The secret is not to avoid tropes, but to use them sparingly and well to create an atmosphere that guides the expectations of the audience. You can’t lead them by the nose, but you have to let them know there is something to be led to, otherwise they will get bored.

In a game, tropes are often used to establish the kind of game you are playing. A science fiction game like Fallout 3 will use different kinds of monsters and plot devices to characterize what sort of story it is than Oblivion, another RPG made by the same people using the same engine. An easy way to figure out your tropes is to think about the monsters and locations. While Dead Space and Silent Hill both feature themes of isolated locations with visually disturbing enemies, and both are indubitably horror games, they use the “abandoned town” vs the “abandoned ship” motif to characterize their genre. This example is meant to be obvious, but tropes can be very subtle (and should be!), and also illustrates the proper use of tropes: tropes characterize and establish atmosphere, they are not a replacement for real characters and stories. In your world plot you must use tropes to quickly and easily create the player’s expectations and allow them to see what kind of game they are playing, but avoid simply using generic tropes as your plot points.

Stay Tuned!

That’s it for this installment. Next in this series we will cover lore writing and the details of how to write good background stories. Please feel free to ask questions on world plotting or add pointers of your own below.

How To Find New People On Twitter

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...
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Well, as everyone has been noting, Twitter is now thoroughly mainstream. Once you have Oprah and her legions on a service, it has definitely left the exclusive realm of geeks and early adopters. Unlike some of my peers, I do not resent the presence and arrival of the celebrities and their virtual entourages. However, I do recognize that all these newcomers might be a bit overwhelmed. While Twitter itself is simple, the assorted applications and services built around it are most assuredly not, so newcomers might not know how to find new twitterers to follow. While there are many services out there trying to build a business model on top Twitter, many of them are poorly conceived or poorly implemented and are of little help. Since I have been through most of them and seperated much of the wheat from the chaff, I decided to share my favorite services for finding new people on Twitter.

Mr. Tweet

Mr. Tweet is a simple service. From their site:

Mr. Tweet is your personal networking agent who helps you expand your network easily. To do that, he helps you regularly:

1. Get relevant followers by recommending you to them
2. Discover great people relevant to your current needs
3. Improve your Twitter usage via useful statistics

All you do is follow Mr. Tweet on Twitter and a few days later he sends you a direct message with a link to a page with suggestions for you to follow. The app keeps various statistics on different users so you can intelligently decide whether or not to follow. Every few weeks thereafter you will get another DM with new users for you to follow. Mr. Tweet also works together with Topify, a great service for dealing with the abundance of email that a strong Twitter account can generate.

WeFollow

WeFollow is a user driven directory that uses hashtags to classify people and organizations on Twitter. It was started a little while back by Kevin Rose and already has a strong following. There you can add yourself under three tags (such as #writer #socialmedia #tech) and others will find you, or you can search for others based on their hashtags. The site also shows you top twitterers according to various standards and give links and details for their accounts.

Twitseeker

Twitseeker is a very simple search engine that allows you to seek out users based not on how they classify themselves, but what they are tweeting about. From their site:

TwitSeeker is basically an alternate search engine for finding twitter.com users – “twits” – and browsing the results all in one combined control panel. It works by using the twitter.com API, and finds twits not by what’s posted in their bios but rather based on what they’ve been tweeting about lately. It uses a custom tag cloud generator written by the author, and was created as an experimental tool to help users quickly build up a twitter community around specific topics.

As people find you and you find them, the service send you an @ reply which plugs them, you, and the person you found or found you, which is a nice what of spreading your social presence around.

TwitterPacks

I have written on TwitterPacks before, but I wanted to plug them again because of how awesome their site is. TwitterPacks is a wiki that allows people to add themselves and their information to packs sorted by location, interest, profession, company, and topic. What makes the site so awesome is their AutoPack script which allows you follow an entire pack at a time. A few caveats: the site is user-driven and thus can be a little slow and disorganized. The AutoPack script is sometimes slow, and if you don’t take yourself out of any pack before following it will cause an error. Additionally, because TwitterPacks is user-driven and hosted on a shared server, when there is a lot of traffic the site or the AutoPack script might simply fail to be served. Just wait a while and try again.

Twibes

Twibes is a neat little directory that allows you to form groups on Twitter similar to a social network like Facebook. You connect your account and you can either start or join a “twibe” (twitter tribe) based on similar interests. This is simple in concept, but is powerful in social media as it allows mini-communities to form within the larger community of Twitter. While this post is aimed at new Twitterers, old hats will recall that we have been asking for groups for a long time, and this service grew up in response to that demand.

Add your favorites to the list

I know many of my readers are already very involved in social media and probably are gnashing their teeth that I left out their favorite service…so make your voices heard and list your favorite way to find new twitterers in the comments and I will add them to the list.

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How to Write for the New Media

Writers write, and we like to think we do it well. But sometimes what we were taught in writing classes and have learned from reading will mean death in online media. This is because the medium is so vastly different and people have different needs from the new media than they did from the old. Here are some tricks and tips for developing a new media writing style.

1. Go Short

In school and literature, often we are taught that more is better. If you can slip in more detail, another source, or another idea, you should. Well, this is just plain wrong in the new media. Here we have to capture a reader who with the click of a mouse can be somewhere else. They are not a professor paid to read a paper or a book-reader sitting and relaxing in a nook. They are on a computer and working in a very “hot” (interactive) medium. Keep your posts and articles between 400 and 700 words. If you absolutely must go longer, consider splitting the post up into a series. DO NOT go for the “multi-pager”. It does not work, nobody reads it and if you keep trying to write your magnum opus you will lose readers.

2. Avoid Big Blocks of Texts

Break your articles up into multiple paragraphs. What seems like over-formatting in a book or magazine can be perfect for a post because of the difference in how they are read. People’s eyes react differently to text on a screen. Use pictures, changes in font size, and lists to break your content up into meaningful chunks. The goal is that at any point a person could finish up a section in just a few seconds and easily come back for the next chunk later.

3. Avoid the Passive Voice

In school we learn to speak in the passive voice to record facts. This makes things very “objective” and “neutral” sounding, but is not what people are looking for online. There are a billion other things they could be reading that can all be objective, but they will read your work because it is yours. Make your writing drip with active verbs and your own personality. Let your voice come through so strongly that the reader will hear you in their head.

4. Lead the Reader

The formatting of online content is always a problem, but the best thing you can do is let your content guide the reader’s eyes and mind. Use lists, headings, and text styling to lead the reader’s eyes to the important points. This is what is sometimes called the “Command to Look” from a book by the same name.

5. Make Your Content “Hot”

This is the internet, web 2.0 thank you very much, and we want our content to be dynamic. We want links, video, and the ability to converse. Pepper your articles with interactivity, even to the point of asking questions for your readers to answer. If you refer to something, link it (but only the first time!), if you say there was a video, include it in the post.

6. SEO

Ok, get the groan out of your system. I know plenty of the community has a bad opinion of SEO, but I don’t agree with them. Search engine optimization is simply par for the course; you have to deal with it. Some simple tips are:

  1. Format your post titles to include the most well-known keywords for your article’s subject.
  2. Write your post to include a few repetitions of various keywords pertinent to your article (don’t oversaturate).
  3. If you are hosting your own blog, make sure your post titles come first in your page titles. The reason for this is that search engines only show the first part of the title, so if your blog title comes first then, even if you are on the front page, all people will see is the blog title, which makes them unlikely to click.
  4. Also, if you are hosting your own blog, make sure that you set your title page, archives, and tag pages to show only excerpts of your post contents. Search engines frown heavily on duplicate content.

7. K.I.S.S.

Keep it simple. No, really. Really simple. Avoid clarifying clauses, complicated thoughts, and involved sentences. This is not say you can’t write difficult ideas…just break them down. Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. The reason for this is (again) about how people read on the internet. Since people are always multi-tasking, being able to come back to an article and read it in little chunks without losing the thread of the thought is absolutely necessary.

Final Word

Following these simple steps you can increase your reader loyalty and the uselfulness of your posts. People will be able to get what they need from your content easily and efficiently, which will make your posts and articles appealing and useful, which means people will come back to read more and pass on your work to other potential readers and clients. Help your readers read and they will stay loyal, make them work too hard and they will just click something else.

Does anyone else have any good writing tips for new media?


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