Patreon Post #4

By now, I’m sure you’re all wondering what’s going on with Untold that made me cancel my Patreon. The answer is anticlimactic: I’ve done everything for the project I’m comfortable doing without a team.  The stories for Untold are unusually interactive. They involve not just player choice but also active player participation and collaboration. I’ve written the story outline, the character bios, and the overarching background lore. I’ve worked up design docs. I’ve made graphs of how plotlines and character arcs intersect. I’ve weighed and reassessed every aspect of the story. Several times over. 

Until this happened. 

Until this happened. 

Once the smoke cleared, I realized that I was overthinking the project and needed to let it be for a while. So that’s what I’m doing.

Brianna is still hard at work talking to angels and VC investors. She’s absolutely confident that we’ll hit our ambitious funding goals and can make the game on the scale we envisioned. As part of her ongoing campaign to raise awareness about GSK’s goals and ideals, she recently spoke about emotional storytelling at several conferences.

Technically, this is Nicole Lazzaro talking about Brianna talking about storytelling, but still.

Technically, this is Nicole Lazzaro talking about Brianna talking about storytelling, but still.

She’s also been busy working with legislators like Rep. Katherine Clark to get the FBI to take online harassment seriously. 

Not only is this great news for people being harassed online, it’s good news for Project Untold.  Community plays a major role in our game, and we’ve been concerned about harassment  once the game was live. There’s no way the trolls who flood her mentions on Twitter would leave Untold alone. The abuse R60 got on Steam’s Greenlight is proof of that.

That’s the good news. The bad news is the same as it has ever been: raising big money takes time. I’ve worked on Untold on my own time for four months now, and I’ve done all the pre-production work I can do. So I’m shelving it for now. I have plenty of freelance work and ghostwriting jobs to keep me occupied.

Although, that sheet gets mighty  swampy in the DC heat, lemme tell ya.

Although, that sheet gets mighty  swampy in the DC heat, lemme tell ya.

I’m a true independent developer now, working on my personal game project here and there in stolen moments. A big change from the intense gamewriting schedule of AAA development. I kinda like it. Of course, once Brianna raises enough funding, I’ll move back on to Untold as creative director and work on the project full time.

All this to say that I can no longer in good conscience accept patronage from you lovely people. I know that money is tight for many of my patrons and even a dollar a month is painful for some of you. I can’t thank you enough for believing in Untold and giving me the gift of these past few months to work on it. Thank you!

Even though I won't be writing a dev diary every month, I'm still accessible via Twitter to give you Untold updates whenever you want them. I haven't been on social media much recently because a novel has been geysering from my brain. I wrote 120K+ words in less than four months, you all. That's dumbfounding for someone who never had any interest in writing long-form, non-game fiction before. I don't know if it's any good yet. I need some time and distance to be able to assess it critically. But I'm a much better writer than I was before I started it, that's for sure. And now that I've finished and the fountain has shut off, I'll be more visible on social media again.

That’s all the Untold and writing news that I have. In general news, I’m helping to judge the IGDA’s first gamewriting jam, The WAG Challenge. 

"A friendly jam" distinguishes us from the skullduggery and knife fights that mar other game creation competitions.

"A friendly jam" distinguishes us from the skullduggery and knife fights that mar other game creation competitions.

We’re announcing the theme tomorrow. I’m excited to be a part of the jam and to see what people come up with. I’ve seen groups discussing Twine, Ren’Py, Gamemaker, and “Bioware-style” games. I can’t decide if that last one is daring or dumb, considering that one of the judges is a Bioware writer. If any of you are participating, best of luck!

I'm sad that I never had the chance to talk about process in this dev diary. I can't discuss any of the details of my project while we're still raising funds for it. So if anyone has any general questions about gamewriting, worldbuilding, character creation, pre-production, etc., I'll be happy to answer them in the comments section.

Thanks again for your support. The newest member of my household says thanks, too. 

 

I'll take kitten name suggestions in the comments, too. Because "Wario" will not stand.

I'll take kitten name suggestions in the comments, too. Because "Wario" will not stand.

See you all on Twitter! ♥

Patreon Post #3

This month, your patronage paid my travel expenses to ECGC, where I spoke about player-created narrative and diverse communities—as separate topics, that is. I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of the East Coast Games Conference until last year. Richard Dansky mentioned in passing a loooong while back that he’d love to have me speak there, and I gave a breezy “Sure, why not?” response. Then, last fall, he called me on it. I was officially an ECGC speaker.

I had no idea what lay in store for me.

If you’re like I was and are scratching your head in confusion about what ECGC is, you can learn more HERE. As you see, it’s a scrappy, up-and-coming gaming convention in Raleigh, North Carolina. As of this moment in time, it’s also hands-down my favorite con out there.

You all know that PAX East left me regretful and wondering if cons were just for fans now. Well, ECGC reminded me of the magic that happens when fans and devs are free to focus on their shared love of games without hype or pressure. It was the anti-PAX (The PAXcine?) and the cure for my disaffection. It made me fall in love with the games industry all over again.
 
But let’s start at the beginning.

I was originally slated to do a presentation with Mikki Rautalahti from Remedy Entertainment, but that evolved into a panel discussion with Mikki, Ann Lemay from Bioware, and Jesse Scoble from Kingsisle Entertainment. After lengthy discussion, we decided to talk about ways to let players tell their own stories within your game narrative. 

Then, a few weeks before the convention, I somehow ended up on a second panel about diversity with Lindsay Grace and Chris Totten from American University's Game Lab.

Of course, I discussed Project Untold at both panels. As one does. I’ll get videos of the talks to you as soon as they’re published.

So far, everything sounds pretty much like PAX, right? So what was different?

From the moment I set foot in Raleigh, people started nice-ing at me. I’ve never met such friendly, helpful folks. It freaked me out a little, to be honest. But they tell  me that’s how things are in the South. 

        This is also how things are in the South. (click pic for nuance)

        This is also how things are in the South. (click pic for nuance)

I had an experience my first night in Raleigh that sums up the spirit of the con for me. It had been a long day of packing and traveling, and I got in to Raleigh around 9 p.m. My hotel was nowhere near as nice as it looked online. It’s the kind of place that you know has spiders. Even if you never see a spider in your room, you know they’re watching you from behind the walls.

           Here's Roz, because there's no way I'm googling spider pictures.

           Here's Roz, because there's no way I'm googling spider pictures.

I went out to find some food and got lost. I wandered around in the closed up, deserted downtown for a half hour before  running into a young couple. I asked for directions to ANY open store. Instead of gesturing vaguely to some distant point, these kind people walked me there. We made awkward conversation along the way. When they learned I was in town for a video game convention, the guy put his hand over his heart and said, “Oh. I love games.” 

I (obviously) asked what his favorite game is.

He said, “Guild Wars 2.”

Of all the gin joints in all the towns…

Well, we had a lot to discuss after that. I had a nice chat with him about his main, the GW2 community, and the upcoming expansion. Then we found the store, and they vanished back into the night.

But that experience reminded me of the power of video games. You can go into communities all around the world and have something in common with complete strangers. You have a shared lived experience. "Yes! I fought the elemental in the swamp, too! Many died that day, but we won in the end." It’s a powerful bond. At their best, that’s what games are. They are worlds and experiences that people have in common. And cons are a chance for people who create these experiences to meet the people who are enjoying them—and to find out what they’re doing in them. 

That's what ECGC was, for me. The con is small and new enough that there are few barriers between devs and the audience of (mostly) eager students and aspiring devs. While major companies had a presence there, they didn’t overshadow the experience. I didn’t feel marketed to. It felt intimate.

                                                             But not too intimate.

                                                             But not too intimate.

The fans noticed it, too.

One starstruck student who ended up sitting near me during Write Club! (like Whose Line Is It?  for writers), said, “I always thought you devs were like gods, just…out of reach. But you’re people. You’re just people.” I felt the same way. The wariness I felt toward the crowds at PAX was nonexistent at ECGC. I wasn't wondering if this congoer or that was a potential threat to my safety. We were able to be “just people” together. I had forgotten the joy of that connection. It’s another thing that GamerGate has stolen from our community.

After ECGC ended, I spent a few days hanging out with the other writers on the narrative track. In my eleven years in the games industry, I have never been in a room with so many gamewriters at once. It was a rare treat. Not only did I get a chance to pick the brains of some of the brightest literary minds in our industry, I also got to hear how they maneuver through difficult situations, what their processes are for producing content, and how they’ve overcome the turmoil of the past few years. We drank a lot of scotch, we swapped horror stories, and we talked about the challenges of writing interactive narrative. 

  Stories aren't all we swapped. Pretty sure I was Patient Zero for this particular plague. Sorry!

  Stories aren't all we swapped. Pretty sure I was Patient Zero for this particular plague. Sorry!

Good times.

It reminded me why I got into gamewriting in the first place. It restored my faith in the games community. It gave me hope that we can heal the damage from the recent culture wars. 

As many of you know, this past year has been a difficult one for me. Personally and professionally. There have been several occasions, especially in recent months, where I considered leaving the industry. Especially after PAX. ECGC changed that. I came out of the con with renewed purpose, determined to stick it out and make games I believe in.  I'm going to fight harder than ever to get Untold out there for players to enjoy.

To sum up this dev diary: ECGC rocks. Go if you get a chance—especially you devs. Next month: I’ll have a Project Untold update for you all. Shocking, but true. As they say in Kpop, please anticipate!


NOTE: I was going to talk about my trip to NYC for Rhizome's Theresa Duncan retrospective, but then I found this great writeup.

Definitely play her games on the emulator. They are absolutely charming.

Patreon Post #2

When we left off last time, I was heading to a Massachusetts studio to sell my games.  There I was, game pitches in hand when—

         (Are any of you patrons even old enough to know what this is?)

         (Are any of you patrons even old enough to know what this is?)

…for a SURPRISE SPECIAL PAX EAST EDITION of my dev diary. Yep, that’s right. I want to talk about the expo while it’s fresh in my mind.

It was my first time attending PAX East. I’ve been to PAX Prime many times—mostly because it took place a fifteen-minute stroll from where I was living in Seattle, so why not? I’ve attended as an exhibitor, a panelist, a special guest, and a regular fan. Surprisingly, I had the most fun being part of the unwashed masses.

                                       Nah, that joke's too easy.                   

                                       Nah, that joke's too easy.                   

So I thought I knew what to expect when I attended as a panelist this year. But, of course, I was wrong. PAX East is its own beast. For the first time, I came away from the expo feeling troubled about the games community. And you're hearing that from a woman who gushed to Giant Bomb about how inclusive PAX felt that year, while just across the expo floor Mike Krahulik was saying how much he regretted pulling the Dickwolves shirts. Yeah. Not a proud moment for either of us.

But let’s rewind to the beginning. I participated in two panels this year:

Both panels discussed important topics, but the discussion of censorship is near and dear to my heart. If you watch the video of our panel, I explain in detail why it matters to me and what makes it particularly relevant now (GamerGate). When Hatred came out, Twitter exploded with cries of “censorship,” yet not one example I saw involved genuine censorship. Not a surprise considering that some people at our PAX panel believe censorship means deleting a post you disagree with from your Facebook wall . I often hear that Anita Sarkeesian is censoring creative freedom in games by…well, I’m not exactly sure how. Asking for better female characters, I guess. Apparently, developers are so afraid to offend “SJWs” that they censor themselves and that’s killing their creative freedom. Or something.

I won’t go into it here because we discuss it at length in the panel video, but there are limits to creative expression for all game devs. Only they aren’t what everyone seems to think. Some are natural constraints of huge group projects. Marketing often plays a role. Decisions can be politically motivated, for sure.  But the people screaming "censorship!" the loudest don't care when people like me are creatively stifled. 

Oh, do I sound bitter?

"You want to make the lead character in your game female? Sure! No problem. But she has to be a brown-haired stubbled guy in his thirties. And her name will be Clint Bicep. Okay?"

"You want to make the lead character in your game female? Sure! No problem. But she has to be a brown-haired stubbled guy in his thirties. And her name will be Clint Bicep. Okay?"

The irony of our censorship panel became more apparent as we planned the discussion topic around the limits of our respective NDAs. And the irony deepened to lethal levels when Brianna Wu was forced to pull her booth from the expo because of death threats. There’s more than one way to prevent creative expression.

This was also the first time that I was wary of the other attendees as potential threats. And I recognize that my previous freedom from that fear is a luxury many never get, sadly. Many people have felt unsafe at PAX in years before this one. And rightfully so. Now, the atmosphere can feel hostile if you're a gamer and not a Gamer. I've always known the schism was there, but this year the rift seemed unbridgeable. 

My sense of danger worsened when we had to ask for extra panel security because of death threats. And then we learned that the people who were supposed to be protecting us posed a threat.  I will never think of PAX as a safe place again. Even the illusion of security is gone.

I have no words.Full story here.

I have no words.Full story here.

Safety concerns aside, the panel went off with only one hitch: Mike Bithell’s flight from GDC was delayed and he was unable to speak. It's a shame because he had strong feelings on the subject. Despite his absence, many people told me it was their favorite panel at the expo. Some of them were even telling the truth.

With all that drama, perhaps it's not surprising that I felt disconnected from the experience. But I couldn’t help comparing PAX to GDC. Obviously, PAX is for players and GDC for devs, but PAX used to be a place where devs played, too. I saw less of that this year. It felt to me like devs were putting on a pleasant mask for the public and only felt comfortable being their real selves behind closed doors. That’s always been true to a certain extent, but I’ve never felt such…wariness behind it before. Everyone had their guard up.

And again, my take on the expo was influenced by an unusual level of ambient menace. I would have dismissed it as result of personal stress  if I hadn’t read this article by Maddy Myers. 

What I felt was nowhere near as extreme as what Maddy did. And I felt detached for different reasons. While I do agree that PA’s bad behavior in the past has cast a long shadow over the expo, my problem wasn’t with PAX itself. I'm more concerned about the growing divide I feel between devs and gamers.

Compare Maddy's piece to this article by Carolyn Petit. Carolyn's experience aligns with what I heard from so many devs: GDC was a wonderland of acceptance and affirmation this year. After a year spent circling the wagons, it felt good to lock the gates against the wilderness and be with your own people. It felt good to freely make sockpuppet jokes and wear Cuties Killing Video Games t-shirts without fear of backlash. I get the imprtance of having that space. But I think it's troubling that we need it so much now.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope my dissociation from the expo was because (unbeknownst to me at the time) I was already infected with the shiny new 2015 version of the PAX Plague. 

I'll be more prepared next year.

I'll be more prepared next year.

Anyway, this is getting far too serious for me. 

I don’t want to diminish the good stuff that happened at PAX. I caught up with many old friends and made some new ones. I got to put faces to Twitter handles. The Empathy Games panel was wonderful. I'm excited by where empathy games are leading us, especially as the possibilities of VR open up. 

I'll leave you with my short list of Good Stuff from PAX

I also had what was truly one of the worst meals of my life at a place I know I'll see again in Hell. 

You don't want to know, trust me.

You don't want to know, trust me.

But it was an adventure. And during that moment I was reminded of what PAX can be: something new and strange that you share with people like you.

However weird they are.

Patreon Post #1

So here it is. My first dev diary entry. I was going to discuss world-building for Project Untold, but I changed my mind. Instead, I’m taking us back to the beginning. Way back to where it all started.

                                                                                    Bang!

                                                                                    Bang!

Okay, maybe not that far back. But back to the beginning of Untold. Let’s talk about turning your game ideas into pitches.

Industry veteran John Sutherland wrote a guest post about pitches for my gamewriting FAQ. It’s great general advice about the process, RFPs, and prototypes. You can read it here (at the bottom of the post). But my experience was different from John’s, and it’s worth discussing.

It seems like everybody has a game idea. I’ve worked at studios with shelves full of unsolicited game proposals—that we weren’t allowed to look at for legal reasons. I’ve had fans at PAX approach me after panels or at restaurants to tell me about their winning game ideas.

                                               “Excuse me, do you have moment to hear my game idea?”

                                               “Excuse me, do you have moment to hear my game idea?”

People submit game ideas through my website all the time. “What do you think? Is it marketable?” they ask. The truth is that they need to answer that question themselves. (Okay, the real truth is that I don’t know because I don’t read their proposals. Let’s not get nitpicky though, jeez.) A general game idea isn’t enough. You need more information than that for a persuasive pitch. So here’s how I went about the process.

Disclaimer: this might not work for you. I’m not offering this as infallible advice. I’m telling my story.

In October 2014, I was settling back in to DC and starting to think about looking for work in the area. I made some vague noises about my job search on Twitter and was contacted by a mid-size studio in Massachusetts. They were looking to take the company in a new direction and had a senior design position open. Would I be interested in visiting the studio and pitching some game ideas to them? I said, “Of course!” Then I hung up the phone and thought, “Crap.” I’d never even thought about pitching a game. What should I do?

                                                                                 Besides the obvious.

                                                                                 Besides the obvious.

First, I solicited a pitch template from John Sutherland, and then I googled “video game pitches” to see if I could find any more examples. Boy, did I. There’s a great site called GamePitches.com (imagine that), which has a repository of design docs, pitches, and other useful resources. I found Irrational Games’s Bioshock pitch the most helpful. After extensive research, I decided that my pitch required four key elements: Game Overview, Market Demographics, Risk, and Return.

  • Overview: What is the game story? What is the gameplay? How is it like best-selling games? How does it innovate?
  • Demographics: Who will buy it? What’s the audience like? How does the game meet the audience’s needs or desires?
  • Risk: What’s the budget—for both money and time? What are the odds of success? Is the market glutted or untapped?
  • Return: What would success look like? What are the long-term possibilities? Are there ongoing profits? Sequels? Cash shops? Tie-ins? Merchandising?

If I gave persuasive answers to these questions, I knew I’d have a good pitch. Maybe you’re surprised by how small a role game story and mechanics play in my pitch. I was. I questioned that decision for days, but finally decided that a pitch was about business. The studio wanted an idea that was going to make them successful, whether that was Littlest Pet Shop or Hatred. I was confident I could write a compelling story. I needed to convince the studio that my story would make them money.

I call this game “Cash Grab.” You literally pickpocket people on the streets. It’s not so much a family game…

I call this game “Cash Grab.” You literally pickpocket people on the streets. It’s not so much a family game…

As I sat down to assemble my pitches, one surprising fact became clear: I’d been creating a game in my mind for a long time without knowing it.

Nobody reading this diary should be shocked to hear that I support diversity and inclusivity in all media and, well, life in general. When I play video games, I’m frequently frustrated by the depictions of gender, sexuality, and race available on the market right now. Things are getting better, but it’s still rare to see a new game trailer that doesn’t make me pull a muscle rolling my eyes. I talk to people every day in the industry and on Twitter who feel the same way I do. But some folks argue that we represent a tiny fraction of the gaming community and that there’s no money in making games for us, blah blah, ad infinitum. So, long before I thought about creating my own games, I was in the trenches doing research to prove the demand.

I gotta tell you, research has never been so fun. My college library excursions were never this entertaining. I visited secret message boards and became a part of fan communities for shows and celebrities I’d never heard of before.

                                                                      Somewhere a fangirl is screaming.

                                                                      Somewhere a fangirl is screaming.

I even picked up a few obscure OTPs that I root for to this day. As I spoke with people about what they like and what they want to see more of, I discovered that some fans were so starved for connection that they’d drive halfway across the country to small cons where they could be around people like them for a few hours. Some fans would pay $150. a pop for a five-minute photo op with stars of their favorite shows. And they’d consider that money well spent. They’d buy anything from pins to pillow cases if it was branded with the right images.

I learned to have strong feelings about the question posed here. (FYI, the RIGHT answer is Boys Before Flowers.)

I learned to have strong feelings about the question posed here. (FYI, the RIGHT answer is Boys Before Flowers.)

I found fans who were compensating for the lack of good stories about women, POC, and all sexualities by writing their own stories on fan fiction sites. And then I stumbled across the world of Kpop, which has a reputation for the most rabid, stalker-ish fans in the world. And okay, some of them are scary as hell.

                                                     You know what you’ve done, sasaeng fans. You know.

                                                     You know what you’ve done, sasaeng fans. You know.

But I also discovered groups of young people so passionate that they organized votes for their favorite idols—carefully assigning voting times to teams by global time zone to maximize their effectiveness and maintain a constant level of activity. I discovered fans who were buying bushels of rice for charity and building entire libraries—all in the name of their idols. They formed loving, supportive communities based around a single common interest and accomplished amazing things.

                                           I hope they don’t expect the celebrities to eat all that rice.

                                           I hope they don’t expect the celebrities to eat all that rice.

So there they were. This lively, powerful market starved for songs, and shows, and stories made for them. I‘d found my audience. And after spending six years dishing with them about everything from Supernatural to Sistar, I had a good idea of what they liked. Could I design a game around those interests?

Spoiler: I did.

My research experiences provided almost all the information I needed for my pitch. I knew who my audience was and what they wanted. I wrote a story overview based on what I knew they liked. I proposed some ways we could keep the audience invested in the game long-term, both financially and as a community. I calculated the risks of catering to this market. All I had left to do was figure out gameplay.

                                                  "Alright, team. You have your instructions. Get to work!"

                                                  "Alright, team. You have your instructions. Get to work!"

I already knew what types of games my demographic was interested in, but I wanted to be sure I was playing to the studio’s strengths. So I looked at their website to see what kind of games they were making. I incorporated gameplay mechanics from their most popular games and put my own spin on some other aspects of gameplay. In other words, I built on what they already had to minimize the initial outlay for the game.

This approach worked for my game because it’s story-based. It obviously won’t work for everyone’s idea. And some of you may have exciting ideas for new game mechanics, but might be light on story. My point is to tailor your pitch to the capabilities of the studio. Pitching a triple-A game to an indie studio is pointless. They won’t have the resources to make it. My advice is to think big, but realistic. Your pitch should be feasible.

And that’s it. That’s the work that went into my game pitches. Writing up the story was easy once I knew who my audience was. Coming up with gameplay was easy once I knew who I was pitching to. And the risk and return became obvious as I worked out the details of the game. I wrote pitches for two game stories that would be released using an unusual game distribution method. (The distribution model was the studio’s idea, so I can’t discuss it.) My final pitches were about eight pages long each, including cover page, table of contents, and reference photos. When I had my pitches assembled, it was time for the next step: selling my game ideas to the studio.

I’ll write about my pitching adventures in next month’s dev diary. Here some high points to anticipate: cider donuts, pot-smoking in the conservatory, a haunted inn, and my visit to the studio