GDC 2004 Interview: Chris Bateman on Game Writing and the Future of Outsourced Game Design

Simon Carless talks to International Hobo founder Chris Bateman about how the videogame script writer is treated, and whether outsourcing of the design portions of a game can really work.

Heading up International Hobo (, a company offering an outsourced 'game design and narrative pipeline' , the UK-based Chris Bateman has previously worked on game design and writing on the Discworld series of graphic adventure games, as well as the recent PC title Ghost Master, and is currently working on a racing game title with Supersonic Software, and an RPG with an as yet unnamed Slovakian developer. He took some time out before his IGDA Writer's Group Gathering to talk to us about the state of the scriptwriter in the games industry, and discuss why he thinks game design works equally effectively and more cost-effectively when contracted out-of-house.

Q: How does the writer integrate into the game development process?

A: Getting writers into game development is definitely a good thing. The problem is developing frameworks to allow them to operate in a game design environment. It's not a good thing when a license holder brings in a writer from outside of games who has very little knowledge of development, and gives them executive authority - this is a situation which is beneficial to nobody. As with all external services, cooperation has got to be the center of any business relationship. If the development team sees the writer as someone brought into the project who's going to interfere, that's a bad thing. But it's very much about the perceptions and relationships between the individuals involved. We need to get more open communication and more willingness to integrate these different domains into the process.

Q: How do you go about dividing up game design and game writing as professions?

Chris Bateman

A: Calling games design a single domain is a massive simplification, because there are a lot of different divisions in that - there are multiple disciplines in both game design and writing. But in terms of building a coherent product, often narrative issues and game design issues go hand in hand. Sometimes you'll find a situation where there's a chunk of gameplay, followed by a chunk of story material - sometimes that the only option available to you. It's better if the content of the narrative and the story element can be woven into the gameplay more intimately - the Zelda series of games have had some success with this.

Q: Would a standardized game-specific script method, like film scripts, help bring writers more smoothly into games?

A: An integrated script standard is being discussed as part of the IGDA Writer's Group, but my instinct is that this isn't a major priority, because there are bigger problems. Writers are turning their back on games, because they would like to work on games, but there are too many closed doors. There's a certain perception that time and money spent on a writer are a waste - and that's the case for certain games such as a dance mat game. And there are many games where having good writing skills doesn't even require dialog. Ico, for instance, has a wonderfully integrated largely wordless narrative that is, in some respects, more effective than the gameplay. But there are also many games where writers are very important.

Q: How technical do game designers need to be in order to work in game development?

A: If the game development process is working well, a lack of specific game development knowledge is not so much of an issue. To expect the game design to stay on top of all the separate disciplines is to waste their time in education. If things are working correctly, you have a concept design project in which the overall scope and framework of the project is laid down. That is a fantastic opportunity for the game designer, and, if there is one, the game writer, to set up a framework, and then show it to the rest of the team and have them come back with their issues. For example, you can put something down in the design document that, on paper, sounds like a good idea, and the programmers come back and say it would take 2 years to develop that system, and they can't guarantee it would work. It is, however, important for a game designer to stay abreast of the technical situation.

Q: Can design overlap with other skills in game development, with multi-functional roles such as coder/designer?

A: If you have a programmer operating in the role of game designer, that could work if that programmer has game design skills - but the skill set for a programmer and for a designer differ significantly. There are companies out there that foist the game design task onto the programmers, who already have plenty to do. But it's a false economy, since you'll be evolving everything in a dynamic, committee-style environment that will only work if you have an unlimited budget both for time and money. But in much professional development, you can't afford to be wasting money by not carrying out planning. In Japan, they call a game designer a planner, and there's a reason for that, which is that game design is about planning ahead - about thinking about problems before you get to them.

Q: What are the relative problems and advantages of writing for licensed games?

A: Well, with a licensed product, the setting and the framework of the world is very much defined - so that's a weight off your mind. But with writing for licensed titles, you can have feedback from the developer, usually pertaining to game changes, feedback from the publisher, usually about limitations placed on them about products hitting the target audience or a particular platform. You've also got the license holder, who have their own view about what you can and can't do, and they will come back with another set of issues. Having too many bosses is not a very productive situation at times - you can lose an awful lot of time in editing, But
working on licensed games can be very rewarding. There is a concept in the games industry that licensed material is inferior to original project, which I think comes from a number of different places, but in particular from the hardcore gamers who see this as a commercialization of something that's actually quite personal to them. That's fair enough, but the average games consumer is not in that camp - they want to play around in a familiar setting. I think the market has to meet those needs.

Q: Should the game writer be involved in voice direction and casting?

A: I think it differs from project to project. At the very least, a writer should sit in on recording sessions to cover any possible issues. For Ghost Master, we had the opportunity to do multiple sessions and then do extra takes, and this worked really well. But it's very variable, and it's very much the case of adapting to the team's needs.

Q: What do you think the advantages and disadvantages of outsourcing something as
significant as game design are?

A: Bring an outsider into a team, and naturally, they're not going to completely integrate, it doesn't matter what domain you're working in. The key to successful outsourcing is that the outsourcer has to make it clear to the team that they are a resource, and they're not coming in to take control of the project. There is this misconception that game design is content design - deciding what's going to go into the game. A good game designer is not making those decisions. They're coming from elsewhere, from the team or elsewhere in the organization. But I think the
outsourcing paradigm works really well.

Distance from the product is a fantastic advantage. When I worked in-house there were enormous amounts of the project where no direct game design was required. I wasn't strictly in a production role, but I ended up carrying out production tasks to keep myself busy. That's a dangerous situation - it's bad to have a designer walking around the studio chatting to artists and programmers because, even if they don't mean to give secondary instructions, they end up doing so. That's a bad situation.

Plus, it's a question of efficiency. In a three-year games project, the actual high-level, mid-level, and low-level game design may take 6 to 9 months. That's a lot of dead time. I felt that game designers were a resource companies were paying too much for, because they were keeping a game designer on salary for the whole duration of a two or three year project, but the core productive part of their work cycle was coming in a fraction of that time. Even if the cost per man month for outsourcing design is slightly more than it would be to do it in-house, you can still make a saving on design of up to 70 percent when outsourcing.

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