RPG writers spill their secrets

PAX 2011: Authors from ArenaNet, Obsidian, Warner Bros., and DoubleBear gather to discuss the many challenges in writing for role-playing games.

Who was there: This Penny Arcade Expo 2011 panel included writer John Gonzales from Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment; writer Travis Stout from Obsidian Entertainment; content designer Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda from ArenaNet; and creative director Brian Mitsoda from DoubleBear Productions.

The panel addressed the changing ways writers are incorporated into RPG development.

What they talked about: Just like saving the galaxy or uniting a fractured kingdom, writing for a role-playing game is a massive undertaking. OK, maybe it isn't that massive, but keeping track of all the heroes, villains, and non-player characters while weaving a cohesive story is challenging. To make this process as painless as possible, the panelists stressed the importance of having the narrative and design departments of a game collaborate at a very early stage in development. This way they can be made aware of upcoming changes, either to the gameplay or to the story, and can adapt accordingly.

Change can become a serious issue once voice actors are added to the mix. "How many of you have heard this before: 'I'll mark this location on the map?'" Annie asked. There's a good reason for that level of ambiguity. The voice actor should never say anything too specific unless it's definitely going into the game. "Don't ever have a character say, 'I'll give you 500 gold pieces for killing this dragon,'" Stout said, "because design will up and change it on you." The dragon fight may be moved until later, or the reward may be altered.

Writers have to master the art of vague specifics, said Stout. There's an art to making it clear to the player what they need to do without actually telling them what they need to do.

While instructions may be vague, characterization needs to be clean and concise. When writing a new hero, or villain, Annie said the author has to look at what that character will be doing through the game, build around that, and visualize that character's personal arc. No one wants a character whose message and actions don't line up.

While this may be easy if a game has a small, clearly defined cast, typical RPGs have so many characters it would be impractical to try to have one person keep track of them all. Therefore, the task is typically assigned to a writing team. "At Obsidian we have a head writer who makes sure everything is cohesive," said Stout. "He writes all the plot-critical NPCs and keeps the game's themes in check. Then there is a team of writers who support him and fill out the other characters."

"The trend in games now is for story to be front-loaded more and more in development," Gonzales added. In the past the story typically came later; now it's at the very beginning since you need someone working in concert with design and art to ensure everything flows smoothly in development. Everybody who is working on a game is a storyteller, so it's important to have someone who can champion narrative values and their importance.

Everyone on the development team is a storyteller of sorts, and writers need to consider that in their approach.

During the question and answer session, one audience member asked how the panelists overcome creative disagreements between writers. Gonzales said it's the lead writer who makes the final call, but a better solution is to have the writing team debate the issue and try to reach an agreement. "The discussion could spark a new idea that could be a better approach [for the character]," Stout added. "You just have to talk things out."

Quote: "The more people you can get excited about a character, the better and stronger that character will be."--Annie Mitsoda, on teamwork and writing new characters.

Takeaway: Journals, diaries, and audio logs are the unsung heroes of the role-playing universe. Should a character die prematurely, players can always count on finding a convenient recap of everything they need to know. This is just one of the many tools writers have developed to account for player choice, especially in open-world RPGs. When the player can go anywhere and kill (almost) anyone, it can be challenging to handle issues of pacing and story progression. However, it's nothing several white boards and a keen eye for details can't fix.

Written By

Want the latest news about Guild Wars 2?

Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2

Discussion

45 comments
Chaos_Dante_456
Chaos_Dante_456

I just know i love the Fallout and Eleder Scroll games whatever Bethseda is doing to make their RPGS keep it up cause I really enjoy the games

albertafox
albertafox

Aristotle Poetics is what should be read for a better understanding on how to provide a good story. A good video to watch is Aristotle goes to Hollywood. It explains how nearly all the top movie(story) makers use Aristotle's Poetics as a guide book.

vivalatour
vivalatour

all RPG's would be GREAT in 3rd person ! evryone I know likes 3rd person over 1st person ! these guys should be hip to the groovy scene ! 3rd person 3rd person 3rd person 3RD PERSON !

paladinjedi
paladinjedi

Well, a good story has a mix of ambiguity and clear. But if you have to choose, you choose clear. Games should be fun and relaxing, not brain tensing. Of course, it is nice if they made the player think more, but not that much in terms of puzzles and pausing the combat for giving orders... Instead, in terms of story, philosophy of the world, ethics, moral choices etc. And, so, the natural conclusion for radically different endings... One thing I didn't like about Dragon Age 2 was how you do not get any ceremony when you become viscount, and no moral implications derived from it... It just jumps over and the expansion brought the player into a boring dungeon?... Oh, *yawn*... I'd have preferred to administer my city a bit, see Fable 3 kinda... More interactions with people, more ethical choices, not more combat... when will designers ever learn? That's what differentiates in the end, graphics aside, a good game from a hack' n slash. That's why games like Star Wars KOTOR, and somehow Mass Effect, too rule... And why not different stories with some common aspects, function of character class. for example, you save same galaxy but defeat a different villain if you are a mage than if you were a warrior...That would add huge replayability to the game... .

Atheosis
Atheosis

@revanknight Plot and story are synonymous terms. They change the superficial details of their stories, but at the core they are the same. They know what sells and just keep doing it over and over. To their credit they tend to do it very well.

revanknight
revanknight

At least in gaming terms, there is a difference between "story" and "plot."Does Bioware recycle plots? Absolutely. Do they try to make a different story based around that plot? Yes, and that is why I give them credit.

Lion_man
Lion_man

@Atheosis Very good point. So long as they present the story differently and in such a way that it doesn't feel like the story has been recycled they should be acknowledged for it. Whether the acknowledgement is positive or negative is up to each individual.

jasonzilla11
jasonzilla11

@Rovelius Not a whole lot, Knights of the Old Republic, a little Dragon Age II, Fallout 3 and New Vegas, and Mass Effect 2 (obviously). :D

ihateds2
ihateds2

@soccerpzn It honestly makes me sad when I read a comment like that.

Rovelius
Rovelius

@jasonzilla11 ME2 is your favorite huh? What other RPGs have you played?

Rovelius
Rovelius

I hate choices and dialogue wheels in RPGs. It's stupid. Stat management and exploration FTW.

claykenobi
claykenobi

@SauhlGood - I get what you're saying, unfortunately game writers/developers have to aim for a wider fan base and if a game is on the easier side, more age groups and causual gamers can enjoy it.

drokmore
drokmore

Ya bioware does seem like they are a bit more specific with all the chioces..

SauhlGood
SauhlGood

"Writers have to master the art of vague specifics" -stout so why do most rpgs feel like they are spoon feeding you the storyline, it feels like your following breadcrumbs, not actually outwitting/winning/solving any puzzles/situations there are hardly any puzzles in games that make you think anymore, entry-level difficulty has become such a taboo in the game industry, im not asking for some masochistic level of punishment, just a little bit less spoonfeeding, and some mental demand on the player. on a side note im sure the development budget/time prolly contributes to how complex/simple the story/game will be. @jazilla lol gotta have amnesia... we'd have no more star wars games *cough* kotor1/2

GamerLegend10
GamerLegend10

great article, very interesting @jollybest1 very well said

jazilla
jazilla

they didn't talk about amnesia. isn't that an integral part of all rpg's?

Shinkada
Shinkada

"RPG writers spill their secrets." I read this and my immediate thought was "we've secretly been using the same script for 20 years. Sorry about that."

jollybest1
jollybest1

fallout universe =/= me universe , 2 games that are different and the games/universes have great stories .ME is based more on Shepard (or the main character) everything is happening around him he is the center of the story and the main reason ME exists, Fallout from the beginning of the franchise (5 games) is based more on the world , the character (no name hero) is part of something bigger than him, the lore is more evolved, the story doesn't end or start with him , the universe isn't ending if he dies , the main character is just a part of the story ... Another great example is the Witcher universe which is based on books written by Andrzej Sapkowski is more of a dark universe (dark ages kinda universe) based on lets say less moral choices or choices that aren't good or evil, and it is known for conspiracy's and a complex story (everybody can be evil or good ), the first witcher has the best example when you have to choose to kill the vampires or kill the knights of the order of flaming rose (like the Templar's from da series), both groups have sins which is better? you decide.............SO every game has it's story and all of the 3 universes mentioned are different in a way and all of them are beautiful ....The story creators are artists from my point of view because a story and customization makes a good rpg and a good game

Atheosis
Atheosis

@Lion_man Bioware has one basic story they use over and over in all of their games. That's not a lack of originality, that's conscious use of a formula.

stabby_mcgee
stabby_mcgee

I wish they had talked about all the little details that are added to make the world seem more alive and real. For example, in Fallout, they give a lot of information on how things work. They explain to you simple things like why people use bottle caps as money. They tell you that the merchants in the Hub back caps with clean water and they chose bottle caps because there's a limited quantity and they're difficult to counterfeit. They also give details on things happening in the background like how people make a living and how they've managed to survive. It really helps make the world come alive. Despite all the craziness with things like ghouls and super mutants, they still give you a sense that the world operates by a logical set of internally consistent rules.

Lion_man
Lion_man

@Atheosis: There is no such thing as an original idea or story. There are only new and different ways to present them.

Atheosis
Atheosis

@revanknight They know how to recycle stories you mean...

Atheosis
Atheosis

What secrets? None of these guys have written anything good.

KamuiFei
KamuiFei

Interesting article. Not much of an Obsidian fan, but it is interesting to hear how writers develop characters and storylines in their games. I'm sure other companies use similar techniques.

Unfallen_Satan
Unfallen_Satan

I just want to thank these folks and others like them who have brought many wonderful stories to the gaming community, so that we gamers could proudly say, "No, it's not only about 'blowin' sh*t up.' There are games that are, in their way, just as provocative as 1984, just as farcical as Don Quixote, just as wondrous as One Thousand and One Nights." Game writers, I salute you.

TheStickMafia
TheStickMafia

I wonder how the JRPG writers do their setups...

soccerpzn
soccerpzn

to bad bethesda and bioware was not in this. And obsedian is a horrible rpg game maker, only reason fallouts did good is because of bethesda and they ruined kotor 2.

ACMC85
ACMC85

I agree, the only reason I became interested in Mass Effect was someone spoiled the first game's story for me and even then I wanted to know every single detail. For some strange reason, it roped me in more than anything else that game had to offer.

darth_sedus
darth_sedus

Fallout 3 was awesome, but Mass Effect Universe is the best RPG I've seen in the last few years, and I'm certainly excited for ME 3

revanknight
revanknight

I wonder what Bioware's take on this would be. I really don't care what anyone's opinion is of Bioware "streamlining" some of their games. They know how to write a story.

XtremeDude09
XtremeDude09

All these RPGs stories and dialogue are totally inferior to that of biowares. Bioware doesn't seem to use these cheap tricks as much, especially not in Mass Effect.

mellow09
mellow09

The only game out this gen that actually has writing in there, good writing, is Lost Odyssey via those memories. All of these guys write mediocre to bad stuff. Perhaps somewhere in the future good hard lit writers will start to do some of these things. It's down to some rich lore until then.

jasonzilla11
jasonzilla11

I love New Vegas, but my favorite RPG of all time is Mass Effect 2. :) Can't wait for ME3! :D

nemesis4x
nemesis4x

@nyran125 what are you talking about? fallout new vegas was more interesting for me than fallout 3. More varied areas, more mission etc

nyran125
nyran125

yeah fallout vegas bored the absolute crap out of me, one of the most boring RPG's ive ever played , the original Fallout 3 got boring later on after most o fthe side quests were done and it was a pretty good ride up to that point THEN go boring but Fallout Vegas, had me yawning right from the start............rather play STALKER 3 times over.

Black_Id_Jenova
Black_Id_Jenova

Yep agreement betweeen writer, big massive effort = Great Game, whatever your game genre is, nice article two thumbs up!!

Toropore
Toropore

This is why I love gamespot. Though I don't agree with many editors scores, they always have great articles and news, plus it has a good community. Great article, very interesting.

charlieboomboom
charlieboomboom

New Vegas could had been goty without the bugs..still loving it

bezerk114
bezerk114

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

Jarltheafro
Jarltheafro

This seems to be very focused on the writing of characters, as pointed out in the Takeaway I wish there would be a bit more about the journals, diaries, audio logs, signboards, in game display screens, art etc. Good article nonetheless

ObeseChipmunk
ObeseChipmunk

Listen to those audio logs and read those journals! Appreciate the work of the writer!