Eight game developers from various studios, including Bioware, Ubisoft, and Hinterland, compare the challenges of creating science fiction settings, and how that effects game design differently than other genres.
Tanya X. Short is the director of Kitfox Games. She previously worked as a content and system designer for Funcom, Hololabs, and Iron Realms Entertainment.
When we started digging deep into the design of Shattered Planet, outlining its game mechanics, setting, and story, we didn't know much. Our fun little prototype had dictated that it would be a game about a space captain exploring a tile-based alien planet.
Shattered Planet isn't a story-driven game. It has role-playing elements, but they're mostly in bite-sized interactive fiction snippets, rather than extensive dialogue trees or long-winded backstories. The emphasis is on the player's actions and decisions, rather than on non-player characters. Even so, we had to have some kind of explanation (even if only internally) for why you were on an alien planet, who had sent you there, what the aliens were motivated by, etcetera. We wanted the world to feel rich, even if we wanted to show and not tell.
I found it more challenging than I was expecting. In the process of filling in the blank spaces of progression systems, respawn mechanics, satisfying conclusions, and so on, I realised there were a few difficulties I'd never dealt with before, despite having plenty of experience writing and designing games. I honestly felt a bit lost, and it surprised me.
In my years writing and designing on Age of Conan, The Secret World, or even Fashion Week Live, the setting had been pre-determined, and that helped more than I'd realised. Embellishing or adding detail to existing lore is fun, satisfying, and significantly easier than working from a blank page. On the other hand, settings I'd created for hobby or mod projects, or even short fiction games I'd written tended to be minimalist or unconcerned with audience appeal -- no attempt at commercial appeal or forging "a new IP", as the businessfolk say.
But this was different. I want Shattered Planet to be a well-regarded game... at least, I want it to be worthy of the fan-created tvtropes.org page. And we're building from scratch.
I had begun narrative and feature-design on hard mode. I grappled and struggled.
It took a few days for me to remember that I probably wasn't the first person on the planet to encounter these problems. Google didn’t immediately give me any answers, but this was a fairly specific and open-ended question.
So I reached out and asked various mentors and peers and even a few strangers. I wanted to have these difficulties accurately identified. I wanted to name my mental adversaries.
I asked (pleaded, really):
What are the unique challenges of creating a game based in science fiction?
And, fortune of fortunes, talented folks responded.
The answers I received were so varied and interesting that I felt I had to share them, in case someone else would benefit as I did. At the end I'll summarise what I learned for Shattered Planet, but I suspect you'll glean different gems for your own projects.
The Round Table
In order of answers received, our resident experts are as follows:
Ann Lemay - Bioware, Narrative Designer. Game credits: Mass Effect 3, Assassin's Creed Encyclopedia, Naruto: Rise of a Ninja.
Ian Frazier - Bioware, Lead Designer. Game credits: Infinity Blade: Dungeons, Kingdoms of Amallur: Reckoning, Dawn of War: Soulstorm.
Darren Grey - Freelance Writer. Game credits: Tales of Maj'Eyal, Elite: Dangerous. Also, host of Roguelike Radio.
Craig Morrison - Funcom, ex-Creative Director. Game credits: Anarchy Online, Age of Conan, The Secret World.
Christian Read - Freelance Writer. Game credits: Sacred, The Secret World, Mythos Magic. Also, various graphic novels & anthologies.
Raphael von Lierop - Creative Director, Hinterland Games. Game credits: The Long Dark, Space Marine, Far Cry 3, Company of Heroes, Dawn of War.
Lucien Soulban - Lead Writer, Ubisoft. Game credits: Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, Far Cry 3, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Rainbow Six: Vegas, Dawn of War.
El Drijver - Game Designer, Firi Games. Game credits: Phoenix HD, Flare Elite, Chronicles of Spellborn.
Any emphasis added in bold is my own, not the authors. None of them were able to see each others' answers, other than Ann Lemay & Ian Frazier.
Ann Lemay, Narrative Designer
First, a note on characters: the setting doesn't change the fact that, first and foremost, we're writing characters reacting to situations. While the setting's jargon may change, character psychology, motivations, and actions can and will be similar for any given archetype. They live in this world, be it one using magic or science fiction, but the setting doesn't determine how they act within it according to their personality archetypes and the decisions they have the latitude to make.
Now, the second you move away from pure character writing, you may find that exploring scientifically grounded science fiction is a different enterprise from creating a fantasy world with a consistent set of rules that govern its magic system(s). Yes, both genres require a logical system grounded in concrete, set rules (even if those rules seem to break the systems). However, most science fiction attempts to ground itself in real science first, before positing advancements based on a technological deus ex machina that requires some suspension of disbelief. Fantasy settings can also do this groundwork, but aren't obligated to, depending on the writer's preferences. A fantasy system that does try to stringently observe scientific principles can often find analogues from a comparative science-based setting. For example, a bag of holding uses a pocket dimension to justify being bigger on the inside than the outside. Pocket dimensions (or universes) are relevant to astrophysics… yet originated in science-fiction decades before actual science began exploring the concept as a reality. Fiction nudges into reality, which circles back into fiction!
Um. Yeah, I could go on here. Short version: Science fiction is more likely to have technical jargon and usually requires a measure of scientific research. Fantasy can as well, but more often than not, it relies on a totally invented system that suits the creator's purposes without grounding itself in modern science. Above all, though, characters are characters are characters.
Ian Frazier, Lead Designer
One of the tricky things about sci-fi as opposed to fantasy is that most players expect at least SOME degree of real science behind your technical wizardry in a sci-fi setting. This definitely puts some additional constraints on your ideation. With fantasy, as long as you’re internally consistent with the “rules” of your wacky magical world, you’re generally ok, but with sci-fi, the language we use creates (very reasonable) expectations in the minds of the player because it’s all based upon real-world concepts they understand.
A levitation spell in a fantasy setting can work pretty much however I want it to and players are unlikely to bat an eye, but when I go into a sci-fi setting and start talking about electro-gravitic emitters, things get tougher, since players know (at least to some degree) how electricity and gravity work. In short, they’ll know if I’m “breaking the rules.”
In terms of raw mechanics and systems, the setting rarely influences us. Most of the time, it simply determines what sort of “packaging” we put on a mechanic to make it fit within the game fiction. It does serve in a grander sense, though, in that we know each setting comes with certain expectations from the player base which we need to satisfy, and that in turn will sometimes drive us toward using one mechanic over another.
Obviously when you work on a specific IP (say, Spiderman), those expectations are much stronger than just working on a new IP within a genre, so in those cases the game mechanics and systems will be influenced by the narrative much more than might otherwise be the case.
I haven’t seen any major differences in the player base. First of all, there’s quite a bit of overlap between the two. But even setting that aside, both groups are simply very passionate about a genre that they love, and they want to see it brought to life in an exciting and interesting way that also remains respectful toward the roots of the genre. As long as players see that the developers of a game are just as excited and passionate about the genre in question (sci-fi, fantasy, noir, steampunk, you name it) as they are, everybody’s happy!
Darren Grey, Freelance Writer
What can be difficult is framing the setting without boring the audience. You want them up to speed on how the universe works, what's allowed and what's restricted, but dumping large amounts of exposition is terrible for the story. Sci-fi has so many variations, so many different potentials, that you can't assume background knowledge - in fact, you have to actively break preconceptions from other fiction. Doing this in a way that keeps the action flowing is very important.
For instance in my novella tying in with Elite: Dangerous the main character has cerebral palsy, and explaining how that effects her and how society views that in the future all requires careful exposition. On the technology side the Elite setting has no antigravity, and just breaking that expectation is an immediate challenge. People get actively offended that something they're used to in other sci-fi isn't there! Of course if you show them how that can be interesting for the story or the gameplay they can change their mind.
Traditionally in a story the setting and the events are just vehicles for the characters. What matters more is how they think and act, how they interact with others, and what changes about them over the course of the story. Of course in sci-fi games it's often the setting and events that matter more for the gameplay. Players get excited about the technology and the potentials for great change empowered by the technology. The characters thus need to shine stronger to push themselves in front of that and make their voices heard. And they can't just be a magic chosen one when empowering technology is all around - they really need individual personalities for players to take an interest.
For me that's why I've tended to use weak characters in futuristic settings. With so much empowerment coming from outside the body it can be much more interesting to have a character who is physically or mentally restricted. This is the precise opposite of what tends to be popular in fantasy settings.
Craig Morrison, Creative Director
There is always the temptation to go all deus ex machina on things and use 'because, Science Fiction' as some kind of narrative magic wand to fix your plot holes, inconsistencies, or worse, budgetary constraints.
Thus having a strong and internal consistency to your world is vital. It informs the story, characters, and narrative, ensuring that things feel consistent. You have to know how things are going to work in your world. The most believable and immersive science fiction worlds all have these well-defined worlds and a sense of place. If you suddenly drop new, and previously unmentioned technology or knowledge into the middle of a story, the audience will usually notice. You want to build the world so that characters' choices, reactions and options feel as if they belong.
That’s not to say that a science fiction setting isn’t, or shouldn’t be, flexible and inventive. Far from it! Part of the appeal is allowing the designer or writer to create an extraordinary world, which might include some amazing technology or advances in civilization. The key is that your world is consistent in how it applies those advances.
Know the rules for your fictional setting. Decide in advance your parameters. How does travel work? What is alien and what us not? How far does the technology of the age go? If you have established the building blocks of your world, the narrative and gameplay design can be reliably informed by them. If you are able to treat things in a consistent manner the audience should notice the proverbial ‘seams’ of your world a lot less. Consistency makes for a more immersive experience.
All too often there is a compulsion to think maintaining that consistency isn’t as important as other big ticket elements. Certainly as a producer you are often left evaluating those ‘soft’ areas that can be cut without damaging the overall feel for the game. There is a real danger in going too far there. While it can be subtle and hard to tie a direct return of investment to having the world well enough established, often through those things dismissed as ‘fluff’ can add massively to the quality of your final product.
When asked about this I’ll often point to the fate that befell Joss Whedon’s Firefly. When FOX infamously decided to not air the pilot first, and instead jump to a later episode they thought was ‘more exciting’, they immediately alienated a good chunk of their potential audience because the viewer lacked a context for what was going on, even if it was a fun episode, it didn’t grab people. World building is important!
Balancing that requirement against resources is, of course, the game producer’s eternal bane, but think of your favorite science fictions games and you will soon notice one unifying theme amongst the best of the genre, they rarely skimp on establishing their worlds, and the rules that govern them.
Christian Read, Freelance Writer
SF has its own concerns.. if we're talking SF as opposed to space opera or space fantasy or whatever. The primary challenge would be educating yourself in science and explicating ideas to a layman reader and then make your fictional science rigorous and interesting. If you're just ballsing around with 'reverse the polarities' then you're not writing SF.
Other than that, the challenges of good SF are the challenges of fiction. Write a sharp sentence, develop complex characters, invent engaging plot.
As far as games go, the issue that comes to mind is that SF can slow itself down to discuss scientific ideas, sometimes at punishing lengths which I suspect is poison in gameplay. If we're back on space opera, no, no unique challenges. But most space operas I've played are just Star Wars/Star Trek with a hat on, written by people uninterested in challenging themselves or their players. Space Opera is just putting orcs in a rocket ship, no matter how you dress it up.
Raphael von Lierop, Creative Director
Any writer's responsibility, regardless of setting, is to create a world - whether real or imagined -- and populate it with people and things and events that help make it feel real. Without that verisimilitude, you have nothing but a thin illusion. We all know what reality looks like so having some common touchstones makes creating that reality a little bit more straight-forward. You don't have to stop to explain what a car is, or a bank, or a chair, because everyone knows what those things are, and what they mean.
In a science-fiction setting, there is no common touchstone, except when you appropriate real human mythology or history and use it as a kind of shorthand, so your readers or players immediately understand that Alien Race X is really just a metaphor for the Jewish diaspora, or their mythology is an allegory for Western materialism run rampant, or whatever. Those fictional, alien things feel more real because they reference -- perhaps sub-consciously -- stuff we already understand. That makes their "alienness" a bit more accessible.
But a fictional world that doesn't connect to the real world in some recognizable, comprehensible way, puts the burden on you to explain the significance of everything. And it makes it even harder to "show, don't tell", because what the hell are you showing me and what does it even mean? So one challenge with sci-fi is riffing on the familiar while simultaneously making it feel exotic. It's very hard to do well.
Working with sci-fi licenses is even harder, because now you are introducing your own interpretation of someone else's interpretation of reality. And what happens is, often your interpretation of an author or artist's interpretation, conflicts with an existing fan's, and now you have some kind of mismatch that turns a fan into a hater, which is much wore than having someone who is simply ambivalent.
Writing for sci-fi settings is deceptively difficult to do well. You're weaving an illusion that is so, so easy to break.
Lucien Soulban, Lead Writer
I've been lucky enough to work on three science-fiction videogame properties in my career, starting with Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. The first two came with pre-established universes and themes, which made things easier; Dawn of War was entirely space gothic-fantasy and Deus Ex more true to hard science fiction in its vision of the future and how it affected society.
And then there was Blood Dragon. You can't see the grin on my face, but it's there. We looked backwards, through the lens of the 80s with its awkwardly grim heroes and worries: Nuclear war and dystopian society riddled with crime and poverty. Instead of embracing the future as the fears we once held as kids, we embraced all its camp and cheesiness. It was nice, being free of those worries.
Our approach to the future was simple. Make it fun, make it camp and vulgar and overwrought and a homage to everything we remembered and loved about the 80s. It was odd, remembering the future through the lens of nostalgia, but really liberating especially when there was so much tied into geek culture today. That said, I had to walk a very fine line between paying homage to 80s science-fiction, and loading everything into a shotgun and painting the walls with it. There's this need to be inclusive to prove your geek cred, to prove you own the material. Don't get me wrong, we burrowed from as much as possible, and yet we tried to make sure it fit together in a way that the player didn't feel overwhelmed.
It wasn't always easy; part of it was a journalistic approach where 75% of what you research and learn will never make it into your body of work. Once you realize you don't need to include everything, you start being more selective about what goes in. I know, I know... selective and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon don't seem like likely companions, but the line gets drawn at what serves the script/game, and what serves a writer's ego. If you can be honest with yourself, it becomes easier to understand why you might want to include something. Then there's the added factor that you have to, erm, uh, factor in... where the line between homage and plagiarism lies. For us, it was being upfront with everyone about what inspired us. People expected the riffing... it was mandatory.
That said, what made it fun was that nobody had to be sold the idea of what made for 80s Sci-Fi. Everyone shared the same language and everyone was invited to participate. It was the first time that I was on a team that the genre was the team-building mechanism.
El Drijver, Game Designer
With regards to designing games in a sci-fi setting, or any other setting for that matter, I'm very much a believer in sticking to what's awesome. Especially in the early stages a concept should not be wing-clipped or watered down for whatever reason. Though this sounds obvious, this actually happens a lot, usually to satisfy an expectation, fit within an image or avoid extremities (the fear of what it could be). This should really be avoided. The early concepts and designs will anyway lose their rough, extreme, edges while they mature and are further detailed. Starting with a really strong core, however ridiculous it might look at the start, will generally give you stronger character at the end of the ride.
After we released our first iOS game, we were anxious to break all the rules we had set for ourselves in our little space shooter. What would happen if the player ship flew ten times as fast, shot its lasers a hundred times as fast and faced enemies at least ten times bigger? Our 'X-treme' prototype needed about twenty iterations and six months of work to end up as an, against all expectations, very accessible pick-up-and-play but still spectacular looking game. The almost jokey-joke exaggerated values we started with brought us in an area of gameplay we otherwise would never have arrived.
My personal affinity with fighter jets, especially those from the cold war era, heavily inspired the visual design of the ships in Phoenix HD. Bubble cockpits, big air intakes, big turbines, the whole shabang. Never mind jet engines have no place on a space ship as long as it fits the picture and looks cool, why not? We chose really vibrant colors with a clear color scheme to identify the different elements of the game. Red for bad guys and their bullets, blue for the player etc. Though the ships started out as menacing cold war machines, they are now flash-gordon-esque bright space ships with turbine engines. Definitely not what I was aiming for at the start, but I am extremely happy with in the end.
A Final Struggle
Reading through all of these helped me come to understand a final struggle I was undergoing, which only Craig touched on in his mention of budgetary constraints.
The central plot device of Shattered Planet is that you are sent to explore an ever-changing planet, indefinitely, mostly on your own. You die thousands of times as thousands of clones, yet you continue on. Why? Well, someone tells you to. Who?
The first answer that came to mind was an evil corporation. Perhaps I was subconsciously influenced by the light-hearted violence of the Portal series. Certainly, I find the contemporary political dialogues about the future of capitalism and corporate rights compelling. It's easy to believe a multi-world company would exploit its clone workers.
When I showed a friend the game and gave my explanation, he asked: "Is that how you see the future?"
I could have brushed his question aside and continued on. Nobody expects my silly little game to be social commentary. It has space-cheese and lasers and tiny worm-people.
But the more I thought about it, the more I came to feel that science fiction is in a unique place to posit something credible about today. Beyond the daunting initial task of capturing the human condition, there is the possibility of conveying how what we are doing today, right now, might change our futures. All writing is commentary, sure, but futurist writing is predictive commentary... and in games, exploring those systems involves the player at a critical level. Their interaction makes them complicit in your prediction.
We ended up changing your employer in Shattered Planet to a more optimistic, almost Roddenberry-esque Galactic Union, paying you for scientific research of new species and technologies. It ended up making the game more light-hearted, matching the tone of the content better. Besides, that's how I'd like to see the future.
Since I started writing this article, the breath-taking No Man's Sky trailer has swept the internet with its bold vision and procedural storytelling. I can't help but wonder what setting Hello Games has chosen... it smacks of conquistadors and lone wolves. We'll see.
Lessons & Take-aways
So, here's what I got out of it.
Most of this is standard writing advice, but it bears repeating for even those of us who are game designers looking to dovetail story and mechanics.
* Decide on your unique scientific/societal rules, jargon, & innovations early on and apply them throughout, including the very beginning.
* Do plenty of research to become an expert in your chosen innovations... but be ready to throw most of your research away.
* Be consistent in how you apply these chosen innovations. If it's true once, it's always true (except the twist ending, of course).
* Strategise on how best you will win over genre purists and defensive fans. Be ready for 'em, because they're coming for ya.
* Follow your personal passion/obsessions and see where they lead.
Thanks for reading! Now get cracking on those refreshing new science fiction IPs! I expect a fleet of new starships on my desk by Friday.
If this virtual "Round Table" is an interesting or useful format of article, let me know in the comments or via Twitter, and maybe I'll do another sometime.