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AGC: Terrano Keynotes Game Writers Conference

For his keynote at this year's Game Writers Conference, designer, programmer, and former Age of Empires 2 lead Mark Terrano looked at storytelling, the history of words in games, and the most important market forces changing games as we know them.

Wendy Despain, Blogger

September 7, 2006

6 Min Read

At Ensemble, Game Writers Conference keynote lecturer Mark Terrano was lead designer on Age of Empires 2: Age of Kings, and as part of the Microsoft Xbox team, he helped developers improve their games. In that capacity, he oversaw a wide variety of games and development processes. Now he's design director for Hidden Path Entertainment, an independent game company, which lets him claim experience in both big and small development companies. Terrano's keynote was peppered with big-picture ideas and humor, starting out with him saying he's a game designer and storyteller, but not a writer, so he decided to focus his talk on what he wishes game writers knew, from his perspective as a designer and as a game player. Games Are Not Movies One quote he used to illustrate his point was from Steven Spielberg, who said he thought games would arrive as an entertainment medium when, "somebody confesses that they cried at level seventeen." Terrano thinks this is looking at games all wrong. He says everyone, including writers, needs to stop comparing games to other media - saying it's "kinda like a movie," or "kinda like a book." He says games can't even be classed in the same ways. For instance, a movie taking place in the old west with a sheriff and gunslingers is called a "Western." If it takes place on a space station with ray guns, it's "Sci-Fi." If it's in the gritty underbelly of the city with mobsters and crime, it's "Film Noir." In games, though, if it's set in the old west with gunslingers, it's a shooter. If it's on a space station with rayguns, it's a shooter. If it's got mobsters killing people, it's a shooter. Game genres are about interaction, not about setting. "Let Me Tell You About My Favorite Battle…" - Every Age Of Empires Player Terrano says game writers should use many of the same tools as with movies and television and books, but not all of them, and they need to bring their own toolkit. Games can connect with their audiences in very personal ways, with players building their own very personal stories about their characters - almost like they're children or pets. Game stories are not necessarily about other characters or elaborate plots, they're stories about real people and the actions they took to outwit their opponents. This isn't really the same thing as narrative, and usually not what game writers are aiming for, but players can become devoted fans of games dressing up as their favorite characters and taking the game far beyond what the developer designed. What About The Writing? Terrano said one thing he's learned about writers is that they love words for the sake of words, but most of the gaming audience doesn't share their fascination. "Look," he said, "somebody had to tell you this, and it might as well be me - I'm just not that into words." In the earliest days games were all about words. Adventure games had elaborate descriptions of setting and actions, but the gameplay left something to be desired. Next, text games got still images attached to them instead of long descriptive paragraphs, but they still required clunky text interaction with the players typing in actions they wanted to take. The next era in his personal method of categorizing games involved the beginnings of animation, with players pointing and clicking to move through the game, but it was still essentially a matter of getting the red keycard and shooting the bad guys. Next came the era of the "island worlds" with artistic settings to explore and hidden secrets. They had new stories, but the most interesting parts of them involved the items players could find in drawers and under bushes. So in the next era, the story was all about the loot. Diablo was the beginning of what he called the "inventory game" era, where players worked to collect the coolest armor and the nicest weapons. Then came the "sandbox games" like Grand Theft Auto which let players tell another kind of story, "Um... innovative stories..," said Terrano, "with guns and hookers." And this leads to the present where MMOs combine all these storytelling elements from all the previous eras, with lots of text to read and lots of items to collect or build and huge worlds to explore. Market And Audience Changes Are Forcing Changes Terrano identified five market forces pushing for change in the game industry. The first was ubiquitous online: consoles, as well as PC games, now include an online component, allowing for more competition and more of a sense of a social space. The second was increased costs and high fidelity content: with the new platforms being introduced, there are opportunities for content to move to a higher level, but there are also higher costs involved. The third was micropayments: a new way of making money on games presenting new challenges to writers as well as players. Fourth, user created and customized content: with YouTube and Google Video, users are stretching their creative wings and turning their once solitary experience into a social experience. Finally, user time and social pressure: gamers have less time to devote to games as they get older, but that doesn't mean they aren't interested in games anymore. There's currently a huge demand for casual, retro titles, but casual games will soon be defined in terms of time available to play the game, not skill level. Some Things Never Change With higher development costs, publishers are going to continue to rely on established franchises and well-marketed licenses. There will also be more pressure to incorporate advertising into games - and ways of tracking how many "impressions" that advertising gets. However, these ties to an online experience also open up an opportunity for episodic content with reusable high quality assets. Terrano encouraged writers to play more games - all kinds of games, and especially ones the writers don't already like - because games are a language. Writers need to find out what games their clients are inspired by and play them all. They don't have to be good at these games, but they need to be able to talk about them in the same ways Hollywood talks about new projects in terms of existing movies -- "It's kind of like this movie, crossed with this other movie." Terrano says if writers play enough games, they'll understand why players click through the dialog. It's All About Pacing Terano defines pace as "the rate at which players make decisions." The kinds of decisions don't matter as much as the time it takes. As an example, he had a quote from D. Isaac Gartner talking about Diablo: "If 30 seconds went by and the player hadn't seen either blood or fire, we knew there was a problem." Terrano's advice was to do what they do in movies - develop stories and characters while your player is doing something else. In Saving Private Ryan, we got to know the characters and backstory as the group was exploring and worrying about what might jump out from behind the next bush. Game writers can do the same thing. For instance, in GTA: San Andreas the story goes on while the player is driving around with characters talking in the car. Terrano is convinced that we can do better, improving the combination of writing and gameplay into a powerful experience. He says, "Our form of entertainment goes deep - all the way back to childhood play. In games, we can make anything happen. People can get things from games they can't get from other media."

About the Author(s)

Wendy Despain


Wendy Despain is a multimedia writer who has worked primarily on television shows, although she has recently begun writing for and about videogames. Wendy started her career writing and doing editorial work for science magazines, with some technical writing and fiction on the side. Then she took a left turn into the Internet and started writing and designing Alternate Reality Games for television shows. For seven years she worked with major Hollywood distribution companies. Now she writes dialog and does narrative design for video games through International Hobo and occaisionally does science and video game journalism. Wendy is a key member of the IGDA's Game Writers Special Interest Group, and a contributing editor to the book Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, published by Charles River Media.

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