Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Does Your Video Game Have Too Many Words? (Yeah, Probably.)

TLDR.jpg (Also note: This gigantic lore-lump is just for choosing your character's sex.)
"Too long. Lose half."
"Which half?"
"The half that you don't need."
- Their Finest
My whole career has been based on writing very story-heavy games, with lots of words. Our company, Spiderweb Software, is small. We can't afford fancy graphics, so we have to rely on words. Interesting, quality words.

We're currently remastering the series with our most loved story and our bestest words. We also finished a new series, which had a lot of words which I suspect weren't as good because it didn't sell as well. Now we're planning a whole new series, and we need to figure out how many and what sort of words to cram into that.

We have a lot of decisions to make, so I've been thinking a lot about words in games. I have made a number of observations.

For Reference

A decently sized novel contains about 100,000 words. The Bible contains about a million words.

My wordiest and most popular game, Avernum 3, which I am now remastering, had about 200,000 words. At its release, people talked about how very, very, many words it had. Yet, by current standards, it is very terse.

In comparison, one of the best-written RPGs in recent times, The Witcher 3, had about 450,000 words. For The Witcher 3, "best-written" means "One really good storyline and many, many other storylines that were basically OK." (To be fair, I think the Heart of Stone DLC was really well-written.)

The word bloat continues. While Divinity: Original Sin had a mere 350,000 words, Tyranny spent 600,000 words telling the story of how you became the word's most evil middle manager, on a bold quest to try to tell apart the game's 73 factions.

And this is positively tongue-tied next to Torment: Tides of Numenara's 1,200,000 words. I admit I am curious about what story is so gigantic and epic that it requires 3 times more words than The Lord of the Rings. I will never find out, as there is nothing that will tempt me to play a game with 1.2 Bibles worth of text.

This is me playing your RPG lol.

Vogel's Laws of Video Game Storytelling

1. Players will forgive your game for having a good story, as long as you allow them to ignore it.

2. When people say a video game has a "good story," what they mean is that it has a story.

3. The story of almost all video games is, "See that guy over there? That guy is bad. Kill that guy." This almost never leads to a good story.

For reference, this is how to get me to read the text in your RPG.

Observations About Words In Video Games

1. For a while, there was a big demand for games like Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment. That is, old-school icon-based RPGs with big stories, told in lots and lots of words. Early hits, like Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity made a lot of money off this demand. Sales of later games in this style, like Tyranny and Torment: Tides of Numenara suggest that this pent up demand has largely been satisfied.

2. It's really easy to make words. Really, really, really easy. Any writer with half a grain of skill can spew out 500,000 like it is nothing. And if that writer's fingers get tired, an intern with aspirations of authorhood will chip in 100,000 more. And when that intern passes out, you can let your Kickstarter backers add words to your game and they’ll pay you for the privilege.

3. No, really, think about that last point. People will pay you to be able to write for your game! Adding words to your game has negative cost! Think about this the next time someone tries to use a giant word count to sell you a game.

4. The secret of great writing is not adding words. It's cutting them. You can almost always improve your writing by slashing chunks out of it and refining the rest. However, as game development is done with limited budgets and limited time, this editing process almost never takes place.

5. When a writer gets famous, they stop being edited. This is why the fifth Harry Potter book is 900 pages in which only like two things happen. This is also why, when a game in 2017 is written by a Big Name and has a script with one bajillion words, most of those words are going to be pretty boring.

6. There are well-written games. Fallout: New Vegas and Witcher 3 are solid. I remember Baldur's Gate II and Planescape: Torment were all right, but I played those 20 years ago, and there may be a lot of nostalgia in play there. (For me and almost everyone else.) Planescape was cool, but I definitely remember blasting past a lot of text just to get through it.

7. Sturgeon's Law is in play here: "90% of everything is crap." For every Planescape: Torment, where they had a cool setting and story idea and really put the time in to write good text and have it interface with the gameplay well, there have been nine other games where they just threw up a bunch of Tolkein-light Kill-that-Bad-Guy stuff and hoped it stuck. It didn't.

8. Having lots of lore in your game is OK. Some players really love lore. But then, a lot of players really don't. I think it's best if you try to keep your lore separated a bit from the significant game text, like Skyrim putting the stuff in books you could easily ignore. World of Warcraft quest windows did this perfectly. All of the lore was in one lump ("You mean dwarves like to dig mines? WOAH!"), and the actual text of the quest ("Kill 10 goblin toddlers.") was broken out of it so you could digest it quickly.

9. Humor is very hard to write well. It is also one of the most enjoyable things to read. If you can make your game genuinely funny, people will love it forever. (The actual gameplay of Psychonauts was only B-, but people LOVE that game because of how funny it is.)

10. The ultimate goal of writing in a game: Have it be good enough that getting past the gameplay to reach the writing is your goal. Your writing should be the REWARD. If your writing is something the player has to slog through to get to the game play, there is too much writing.

You have my UNDIVIDED ATTENTION.

Physician, Heal Thyself

Every game I've ever written has had a lot of words. Some of those games, my fans really loved the words. Some of them, not so much.

My goal for my next series is to use fewer words, but to make them as light and interesting and funny as I can. I want words to be the reward, the thing that pulls people through the story. I am dreading this, because, again, writing something good and short is way more work than writing something dull and long.

In the meantime, I am remastering my old Avernum 3, with its pokey little 200,000 words. This means giving those words an editing pass. A lot of my time is spent chopping out extraneous words and revamping what is left to make it smoother, easier to read, and, whenever possible, funnier. If the new version has more words than the old version, I've done something wrong.

For a long time, I sold games with a lot of words. Now there is a lot more competition in that space, and words are super-cheap. I need to try to sell good words. Even if I never make a nicedank meme, in this crowded market, you need to get every little advantage you can.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Writing Indie Games Is Like Being a Musician. In the Bad Way.

"Our game is called Mystik Spiral. It is an indie interactive aggression about the evils of conformist corporate culture. Coming on Steam for Windows and Mac and as an XBox One console exclusive."

Over the last couple years, I've gotten a fair amount of attention for my articles about the Indie Bubble and the Indie Glut.  (And even a GDC talk.)

Quick version of indie gaming history: In 2010 or so, due to a combination of factors (AAA creative stagnation, better development tools, better online stores to sell on), indie games caught on in a big way and made a ton of money. For a short time, getting the Golden Ticket and landing a game on Steam was guaranteed big cash. This was the "Indie Bubble" phase.

People who wanted to write a video game (i.e. everyone) saw this and went, "Hey, I wanna get rich following my dreams too!" There was a big pile-on. MANY indie games became available, more than anyone actually wanted. This was the "Indie Glut" phase.

At last, I can complete the trilogy of articles. Now we can look around and see where we've ended up, a phase which I suspect will be permanent. (At least until the Earth gets hit by a large solar flare and we get to start over.)

You can't deal with this business without grasping its fundamental reality. So it's worth wallowing in this topic one more time. A proper understanding of reality will help us process a lot of otherwise perplexing issues (like Apple or Steam charging devs to have games on their store, or the ever-present "discoverability problem).

To see where we are, let's talk about a long-standing rite of passage for young creative types: Starting a band.

I think this would be really funny if I knew anything at all about music. Can someone translate it into a Guitar Hero chart for me? I think it means I have to learn how to play the orange notes.

The Story of Being a Musician

For decades, many young, enthusiastic, creative people have worked through their dreams, energy, and youthful ambition by forming bands.

Why not? It's takes a fair amount of technical and artistic aptitude to learn an instrument, write songs, get gigs, press a CD, etc., so it's a good sponge to soak up excess ambition and energy. But it's not a prohibitive amount of energy, so just about anyone can start a band.

Usually, this band is a reaction against corporate pop culture. "Screw your plastic, AAA, mass-produced, soulless Katy Perry crap! We're going to create real art." This is an entirely worthwhile goal, even if it fails 99.999% of the time.

Of course, most bands die. After all, most bands are terrible. Even if they aren't, people grow older. They lose their energy. Their dreams die. Life intervenes. They get jobs as insurance adjusters or whatever. Their demo CDs get stuck in the attic, forgotten, and then they have kids. Who start their own bands.

Not everyone gives up, though. A tiny handful of bands, through a combination of skill, connections, and luck, become actual successes and make careers out of it. Other musicians make a living as freelancers or working in a business environment (studio musicians, corporate gigs, etc). Others, the damned souls, trapped between a lack of talent and an inability to quit, live long (looooong) lives as failed musicians.

Most quit (or do art as a hobby). This is ok. The world needs plumbers far more than it needs musicians.

But the hard inexorable math of the thing is this: There are far more people who want to make a living as a musician (actor, writer, dancer) then there are paying jobs they can occupy.

There comes a time when you have to face this. Disney movies and La La Land lied to you. There is a point where refusing to give up makes you stop being an admirable young spitfire and start being a cautionary tale.

Anyway, this is the basic cycle of the thing. For the last few decades, younger people with a certain amount of talent, energy, and time could soak all that into starting a band. A few prospered. The rest went on to other things.

The current location on Steam of the New Releases chart. (Artist's conception.)

You Probably Figured Out Where This Is Going

Getting together with some friends and writing a game is the new Starting a Band. I'm not saying this is going to happen. It already has.

Plenty has been written about the flood of games appearing on Steam. As I write this, 125 in the last week alone. More games than anyone wants, that's for sure. That's why Steam has made it very difficult to see all new releases. Let's be honest. Almost nobody cares to drink from this firehose.

Don't believe me? Check it out yourself!

It is very instructive to look at these new releases, which is why the site What's On Steam, which just shows all new releases, is useful. Take a look. New titles appear FAST. Most of them will bomb, and their creators will vanish from the public view forever.

Here’s a fun trick. Write down the most recent 10 Steam games released. Wait a month. Check their sales on SteamSpy. (Bear in mind you need a few sales to appear on SteamSpy at all.) You will see very few games that get any traction. Each of their creators is just another kid who started a band (and there's nothing wrong with that).

There's no need anymore to predict the endgame for the video game glut. It's happened. We're living it. Bands haven't gone away. There's still a billion of them. People making lots of video games won't go away. There'll always be a billion of them, offering their hot take of the procedurally generated Roguelike 2-D platformer (now in VR!!!!!).

This is why "Indiepocalypse" is such a useless term. Other fields have exactly the same situation, but nobody talks about the Musicianpocalypse or the Actorpocalypse or the Writerpocalypse. It's just part of life.

This is the new normal. So, if you are one of the doomed souls who is determined to make a living in this business, you must figure out how to deal with it.

Fun business tip! When you start seeing articles like this, you've already missed the boat.

Curation Won't Make a Difference

Here's what gets me about the situation. Often, when people talk about the flood of games on Steam, they act like it's mostly trash and Steam should just curate most of it away.

I wrote a whole article’s worth of stuff in this section, but this post is already stupid long, so I chopped it out to post on its own. I’ll bullet point it for you:

1. Steam doesn’t want to curate. They hate it.
2. Even if they did curate, at least half of the stuff would remain, because it’s good enough. It’d still be a flood.
3. A fee to get on Steam won’t change anything any more than the fee to get on iTunes did. In other words, not at all.
4. Steam and iTunes don’t have a discoverability problem. They and their customers are doing great. Developers are the ones who have the problem. Nyeah.

College Degrees In Game Development

Colleges are, for all practical purposes, businesses. They charge a fee and provide a product (your degree). Like good, practical businessmen, when they saw video games get hot, they jumped forward and generously offered to give you, in return for over $100K USD of post-tax money, a piece of paper that claims you know how to make them.

I've written about college video game degrees before. I don't have much more to add to that, except to say you shouldn't get one without being realistic about your chances.

You might have a lifelong career in video games. Hey, anything's possible. But video games are an artistic field. Writing a successful video game is HARD (like becoming a full-time musician), and a huge portion of the field burns out of it before they hit middle age.

Want a degree in video games? Fine. But you may want to approach it like getting a college degree in, say, playing the trombone. You might be one of the ones who makes it, but you'd damned well better have a solid Plan B.

Steam tried to get me to pay full price for an indie game. My face when.

Global Competition!

The competition in the vidya gaems biz is going to get even more gruesome. Development is starting to become far more of a global activity. This will mean not only more titles to fight, but more downward price pressure.

The Law of Supply and Demand already tells us that when there is a glut of supply (games) and roughly constant demand, prices will be pushed inexorably downward. (Which explains deep discount Steam sales and Humble Bundle.) I've sadly watched indie devs plaintively asking their fellows to join them in trying to keep prices high, only to see those efforts get ground to dust by the inexorable gears of Economics 101.

(Though I would note that if your business model requires Price Fixing to survive, it may be a bit flawed.)

But prices will get even lower, because you will increasingly compete against developers in the third world. Having a hard time competing now? Wait until you’re fighting someone in a country with 1/10 the cost of living of yours. Someone who can charge $1 USD a copy and still make out great.

Yeah. However pessimistic you were feeling about your game's chances before, it's even worse than that.

So What Does It Take To Succeed?

A really good game that feels fresh and new and is solid and also manages to, through going viral or really good PR work, get attention. Sometimes bands still get rich. So can you.

You just need to watch for those rare opportunities to make a game that says, "It's Like [Popular Thing], but [Some Small Change]." in a new way. "It's like Harvest Moon, but 16-bit." "It's like Minecraft, but 2-D." "It's like a JRPG, but with bullet hell shooter combat." “It’s like Huniepop, but more Huniepop.”

There will always be ways to get rich. All you have to do is be brilliant, spot the right opportunity at the right time, have at least a little luck, and then make an amazing product.

This is all getting depressing, so, to cheer you up, I added a picture of an adorable doggo.

My Grim Future

When the Indie Bubble happened, I made a bunch of money. More than I deserved. And then I saved it. I'd been around long enough to see both booms and busts, and I knew you had to save during the former to prepare for the latter.

But the games business for small developers (and if you are an indie developer who didn't write Minecraft, you are a small developer) is in a bust phase that won't end. So now I'm asking myself, "How am I, between new games and remastering old ones, going to stretch Spiderweb Software for 20 years and reach retirement."

It's scary. I don't know if I can do it. Our newest game, Avadon 3, didn't do that well. I think it's a really good game, and the people who bought it seem to like it. But there are new RPGs coming out on Steam every single workday, some of them are good, and you can only hold off so much competition before being overwhelmed.

Next year, I am going to write an all new game engine and series. I think it's going to be really neat and different from what I've done before, and I'm excited about it. But I'll tell you this: Its development is going to be LEAN AND MEAN.

I'm using as little custom art and music as I can. (Working title is "Unity Asset Store: The Game.") Any way I can cut costs and still maintain a constant art style and game quality, I will take it, and I won't apologize. This market doesn't allow for blowing money unnecessarily anymore, at least not for me.

If you criticize me for that, feel free. It's your right. I'll just think of the developers who, during the Indie Bubble, flush with easy Steam money, made fun of my development style TO MY FACE. Developers who are sadly no longer in business. While I keep plugging along in my humble little bottom feeder way.

My goal is to prove you can live an entire fulfilling career writing indie games. From college to old age, all the way through. I'm over halfway there. But man, the next two decades are looking like a long road.

I'm Done Writing About This

This blog has been focused on the indie business for the last few years, and I'm mostly done with that topic. I believe we are in a stable phase now, so there isn't much else to say. I think that most gamers don't actually care. They don't care about business stuff. They just want to talk about games and how awesome they are.

I write this blog to get attention for myself, because it's really hard for a small developer to get attention. From here on, I want to write outrageous funny things about games in the hope that I get a little attention and something goes viral and I pick up a handful of customers along the way.

Good luck to everyone in this business. Unless you're directly competing with me, in which case I wish you luck in some other business.

And if you want to make a living in games and need some advice, here it is: Write a VR game. It's TOTALLY going to be the NEXT BIG THING and not a faddish washout AT ALL.

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All of our delightful retro RPGS are out on Steam. I occasionally mutter on Twitter.