Ask a Game Developer Anything: DLC, Bad Video Game Writing, And MoreS

Hey Kotaku readers it's almost E3 time! I'm super busy preparing for E3 right now and it's madness over at the studio. But hey, I always have time to answer your questions about game development.

In case you haven't been following this series, I'm the CEO and Creative Director at 5TH Cell; we're the people behind games like Scribblenauts, Run Roo Run and our newest upcoming IP: Hybrid for XBLA. In these articles I answer your questions about game development and the industry at large. We got some great questions this month so let's begin!

Sononeo and JerreyRough asked, "What is the best way to get into the industry? Apply to medium or big companies or try to become a recognized indie developer?"

It's all down to personal taste. Some people like the corporate setting, others want to be more lone-wolf and self-starter. As for myself, I started 2 game companies and never worked at a pre-existing one. My mentality is one of a self-starter. It's a very difficult path but in the end I feel like it was more rewarding.

You need to ask yourself what you like most. Can you be self motivated and make the big decisions from the get-go? Or do you need the training of a corporate setting to get you on your feet? Ultimately you can always change paths, so don't be afraid to try.

CommentatorHatman asked, "Why is writing so bad in video games?"

The number one reason, in my opinion at least, is that if you're a good and talented writer, you would rather be writing a book or a screenplay where the writing is the focus and most important point. So the best writers are always going to flock to that general field.

Also, because gameplay is always the most important part of the game, sometimes the story has to be shoehorned in to fit the game. For example, in Max Payne, what is the story element behind his bullet time? As a gameplay idea, it's cool, but in a story it doesn't necessarily work. Whereas in the Matrix, there was a central story point for why it existed. You don't often see that fit in games.

Ask a Game Developer Anything: DLC, Bad Video Game Writing, And More
About the Author Best known for his multi-million unit selling franchises, Scribblenauts and Drawn to Life, Jeremiah focuses on creation of innovative new titles. His latest project, Hybrid, is due out this summer on XBLA.

And finally, narrative in video games has generally been undervalued. Therefore there wasn't much effort put into it. That is definitely changing, though. Stories are getting better and will continue to get better. We've seen some promising narrative recently and I expect to see more in the future, especially from the art house and indie scene.

Sublethalend asked, "Hey Jeremiah, I'd be curious to know how you (as the creative director) and your team prepares itself to shift gears from something like Scribblenauts to something like Hybrid?

Typically it is very rare to change genres so drastically. Very few companies do it. One of the few companies that also did it in the past was Rare. They went from Donkey Kong Country, a platformer, to Killer Instinct, a fighter, to Golden Eye, a shooter. The reason so few companies do this is because it's incredibly hard.

Going from Scribblenauts to Hybrid, we had to hire many people who had made shooters in the past to help bring us up to speed on development. We needed people who knew the ins and outs and nuances of making a shooter—people who knew the 3D development pipeline and what it would be like years down the line.

One of the major issues was that when we hired new people, we had to convince them, on faith, to trust in my ideas as the Creative Director. We had never made a shooter before, or even a 3D game. Because my ideas are different, that can be a significant obstacle for some people. Hybrid is a game where we've removed ground and free movement. It was initially hard to get people on board with that idea prior to a prototype. But once they played it, they found it fun and the trust grew with these new hires.

Alex & Heat: Attorneys at Law said, "I want a developer's honest opinion on the abuse of DLC. Namely the practice of the on-disc stuff, horse armor/costumes, online passes and just anything that isn't truly meaningful content akin to an expansion pack."

I hate on-disc DLC. I think it's crass and cynical. If it's on the disc it should just be released with the game. Publishers should not be hostile towards their consumer.

One of the major issues was that when we hired new people, we had to convince them, on faith, to trust in my ideas as the Creative Director.

However, I do understand what publishers are trying to do with online passes. They are trying to stem the tide of used game sales impacting their revenue. I don't think online passes are necessarily the answer, but I think game stores need to be less greedy and more flexible with used games policies. For instance: not allowing used game sales for the first 30 days of a product, the way you can't view a movie on Netflix the same day that it is released in theaters. But I've never actually had to deal with this issue personally as a developer.

I think that DLC that doesn't affect gameplay, like aesthetic armor, costumes, etc. is fine to sell, because it's your own choice if you want to buy it or not. However, charging for weapons that affect gameplay without offering a free counterpart is unfair to the player base.

toyotasupraman asked, "What percent of the original ideas make it to the final product? Did you once looked up to a game and thought ‘DAMNIT, WHY WE DIDN'T THINK OF THAT EARLIER!?'"

I would say about 70% of the original ideas make it to the final product. In the pre-production phase, we call it "blue sky", as in the sky is the limit. Anything is possible. But as production realities, schedules, and time frames start to settle in, some of the blue sky ideas have to be down-scoped to fit the release date.

"Dammit why didn't we think of that earlier?!" That happens way too often in this industry. Usually an executive will play the latest, hottest, coolest, game. They see something they like and try to wedge it into the game they're working on even though it doesn't particularly fit the game itself. It usually hurts the game, in the end, by taking time away from the features you were focusing on in the first place. A lot of publishing executives don't understand the intricacies of game development and how adding features late in development, because it's shiny and new, detracts from the game itself.

A lot of publishing executives don't understand the intricacies of game development and how adding features late in development, because it's shiny and new, detracts from the game itself.

When we were developing Lock's Quest, THQ wanted us to put in a dollhouse builder because our previous game, Drawn to Life, sold so well in the female market. They thought that having a non-combative creation feature would appeal to that market. In the end, it got cut from the final game, but only after wasting months of development time and precious resources on it that could have been spent better elsewhere.

WoundedBum said, "I'd be interested to know how much interaction he feels a developer should have with the community during game development - obviously there needs to be communication between the two, but is it possible to have too much? Should the developers have a clear vision of what should and shouldn't be done in their game and tweak it accordingly, or should they be completely open to the communities wants and needs? It's interesting because with movies, the community has next to no input on what will be done, but with gaming it's a long development period and things can be more easily changed and affected."

Yes, it is absolutely possible to have too much community input in game development. Probably the scariest thing that can happen is that a developer will cater to the ultra-hardcore, super vocal community members. The problem is that these players usually do not represent the average player, and request things that don't appeal to most people.

For instance, we received a lot of useful feedback from the Hybrid beta. However, some things were just completely out of scope or were not what the game is about. There was someone petitioning for vehicles in the game, but that doesn't fit with Hybrid's design.

Also, during development, people don't necessarily know what they want until they see it. Henry Ford said it best: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." Ultimately community input is very important, but like anything, moderation is best. We do this for a living, so trust us to make the best game possible!

press UP for oranges asked, "Why doesn't the jelly I bought last week taste good?"

Because it wasn't jelly.

That's it for this month's Ask a Developer Anything. Keep those awesome questions coming next time!