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POWER-UP Digital Games Conference - "Writing For the Computer Gaming Industry" Talk Notes
Today I was a guest-speaker for the Power-Up Digital Games Conference which was held online on the Gaming Chat service Discord. Here are the notes from my talk for those you who weren't able to attend.  Since these are a little more developed than notecards, I thought you might enjoy them.

WELCOME EVERYONE

- Thanks for coming to Writing For The Computer Gaming Industry, and thanks to Jesse and the rest Zetabyte crew for inviting me. 

OPENING REMARKS

- Talk will be very informal, basic, introductory stuff, so this will be of interest largely to people who are just getting into the industry, or those who are thinking about writing for games. 


INTRODUCE YOURSELF

- Neal Hallford

- Writer/Designer/Indie Filmmaker

- Worked in industry for 27 years. 

- Have worked all the way up from lowly writer to game designer to level design to systems designer to scripter to lead designer. If it's a design job, I've done it along the way at some point. 

- Got my start at New World Computing with Jon Van Caneghem and the Might & Magic series.

- Later moved on to Dynamix, Part of Sierra Online, got the opportunity to write and design the game I'm best known for, Betrayal at Krondor (talking about that tomorow at 11) 

- Subsequently worked on several other games like Dungeon Siege, Champions of Norrath (where I hooked up with Chris Avellone), and few others that unfortunately never saw the light of day. 

- Also the co-author with my wife Jana on "Swords & Circuitry: A Designer's Guide to Computer Role-Playing Games." Had a great time going around talking to schools and colleges about game development, and we co-host a panel at ComicCon with other writers from the industry.

MY ROAD TO GAME DEV

- People ask how I got into the industry, and I tell them that I blame it on Ally Sheedy. Wargames was movie with Matthew Broderick from 1983. Hacks into game computer trying to find out what new games are coming out and nearly starts World War III. I see this guy, and I want to be him. He's smart and he wants to make games himself. 

- I look into it and I'm buying all these books on programming for my Atari 400. And I spend all this time trying program in Basic, and I'm peeking and poking until I think my fingers are going to come off. Then I'm starting to really get off into the weeds with Assembly language and machine language, and I'm getting really frustrated. 

- I make the crappiest homebrew version of Defender that anyone has ever played. The computer always wins every time. But I'm terrible at math and my head hurts and I'm thinking I can never really do this. I can never get in the door because being a programmer just isn't who I am. And I almost completely walk away from the whole idea. Almost.

- One day I buy this cool game at a Software Etc. in Tulsa. I throw in my floppy disk and boot it up, and after all the basic startup information, I get a text message on the screen that says this. " 

"West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here."

- The game I'm playing is the classic text adventure Zork, and I learn that the way this particular game works is that I just type in my commands. GO WEST. GO NORTH. OPEN DOOR. THROW DOG IN THE FIREPLACE. And the beautiful thing I realize about this is that THIS is the part of making games that I want to do. It's a logic tree. Even if I'm bad at math and don't grasp why dividing by zero is a bad idea, I get THIS. It's telling a story with a branching narrative, and the whole thing is conveyed ENTIRELY by words, by story. And it was utterly engrossing, and it hooked me in. And that's when I realized how powerful an interactive story could be.

- I was already a writer. I wrote short stories for fun, and had been the founder and editor of a literary science fiction magazine from my high school called Vortex. I'd also been a Keeper for tabletop sessions of Call of Cthulhu, so I understood the basic concept of interactive narrative

- Zork taught me the basics of how you take a narrative and split it up into bits and pieces, and how players are going to do things you don't expect and TRY things you aren't going to expect. And that's one of the most important lessons you have to understand if you are coming into this industry from the perspective of being a "pure" writer. You need to try to find ways to open up your story to give your players the freedom to do as much as you can reasonably allow them to do. And this is something we'll come back to. 

- After I finished college, I got a phone call from my friend Ken Mayfield. Friends since Jr. High. Had job with New World, tried to hire me as artist. A few months later he called me back and said they needed a writer. How would I like to write science fiction and fantasy for a living. On salary. With benefits. You can imagine that it didn't take me very long to say yes. 

- My first job as a writer was to clean up the text for Tunnels & Trolls. Didn't have a design document. Gave me a copy of the bad translation...size of a phone book. Also gave me a copy of the game in Japanese. And I had to figure out what text went along with events in the game. Came to appreciate how important design documentation was, and how valuable it would be to have at least understood the world that all this madness was taking place in. 

- I had to deduce context in a foreign language. And to a degree, it was important for to understand that players playing my games would be doing the same thing. They don't know what you meant to happen, only what they saw, what they experienced. And so the trick is to how to get what you meant into the game in a directly experiential way. In the old days when we didn't really understand game narratives, we filled games with cut sequences to ram all the narrative down player's throats, to make sure they got all the information in one place. I'd like to say it was just a naive mistake on the part of the writers, but also we had those sexy, sexy cutscenes that looked so cool. Unfortunately, what we learned is that everyone hates those things, for a variety of different reasons, and its the writers who love them more than anyone else. 

- Despite the ultimate genre of the game -- whether you're talking about fantasy, or sci fi, or adventure, or whatever -- underneath the hood of every great game story is a detective story where the story is something the player is gathering through a direct experience of interacting with the game world. You don't ram everything down their throat with exposition. 

- You treat everything as clues that they find that take different forms. One piece of the story may be conveyed by a character you meet. Another might be in the description of an object you find. Another might be walking into a village and finding all the villagers are dead, and there's a mysterious mark on their backs. Later on you see that mark on the side of a cave. 

- Telling a great game story is as much about making the player ask questions about the world as it is about giving them answers. You entice them to ask the questions, and then you let them peel back the mystery like layers of an onion till they get to the bottom. The old way of doing this was like making your game drill sergeant, ordering your player where they have to go and what they want to do. The proper way to explore narrative today however is to be cruise director, where the game suggests ideas about where you might go and might do, leaving it up to the player's curiosity and inclinations to follow their nose. If you do your job properly in enticing players with mystery, they'll generally go where you want them to go, and do the things you want. 

- One of the ways that you make the world more enticing is that you spend a lot of time trying to make sure that all the places and stuff in the universe has a reason to be there. It's one thing to get the sword of Zhuul that gets +10 to piercing in your pack, but if you find out that this was the legendary Sword of Zhuul forged in the fires of Mount Spunky to defeat Malifrax the Unready, you're connecting the player with an epic mini story. As much as possble you want to connect it, in whatever degree, to the main narrative to the story because this adds investment. Even if that sword isn't required as part of the main story line, just collecting that little nugget of a clue makes the player less frustrated if it isn't useful to them. Metaphorically speaking, make sure there's a prize of some kind in every box of Cracker Jacks. Make it worth the player's time to dig around the world. 

- Another way in which you make your story interesting is by making sure that things are reasonably internally logical to the player. Now there are all kinds of snooty writer reasons to do this, but when it comes to game design, I'll refer you back to experience with translating Tunnels & Trolls. A game world is a foreign country. As the writer and designer, you understand what's going on FOR REASONS. You know how everything works. But gamers are having to get to understand game mechanics and the UI and all this other junk. By the same token, they need a world they can possibly comprehend. Don't hit them with everything all at once. Make it possible for people to make choices about the story, even with piecemeal information. The more that you can convince them that the cultures and the languages and all that stuff is real and that it informs the way the world works, the easier it will actually make for them to buy into the experience. Once you get their buy in, then they'll be more willing to keep coming back again and again. 

- Game stories can take literally any form so long as you keep the player in mind. They are going to do and try things you didn't expect. I had a friend whose favorite thing to do back in the old days of playing Ultima Online was to sit on the bank an FISH. And that's what she would do all day. She'd sit on the bank and fish and talk to whomever came by and that was the game to her. It was a social experience. And that's something we have to keep in mind as game designers today, that most games are multiplayer to one degree or another. I think the most exciting game frontier out there yet is the person who discovers how to take game narrative and turn it into a fully social experience, allowing multiple players to be gathering pieces of a story and sharing them, and that becomes a kind of narrative economy all its own. 

- So what kind of narrative structure is ideal? There isn't one true path. One size doesn't fit all. It all depends on the kinds of players you are trying to appeal to. The first thing you do is figure out who your audience is, then develop against people who like that kind of game. People moan about the artificiality of some labels on games, but it is useful in helping the developers know who they are making the game for. An action RPG game is a different animal than an open world game which is different from an old school point and click adventure game. The story needs to work hand in hand with the mechanics in such a way to entice the player to engage and to move forward. 

GETTING IN & GETTING STARTED

- So how do you prepare for this as a career?

- Tools. Twine. StoryStylus.