Every writer knows that the best work comes from writing, rewriting, and rewriting again until you’ve gotten so sick of your story that you can’t imagine looking at it anymore. But for video games, sometimes that’s not possible, as discussed on today’s Kotaku Splitscreen with special guest Tom Bissell.
Kirk and I start things off by talking about the SNES Classic, Danganronpa V3, and Divinity: Original Sin 2. Then it’s time for news (34:36) about the voice actors strike ending, toxicity in gaming, and Assassin’s Creed: Origins getting a tourist mode. Then, prolific writer Bissell joins the show (50:26) to talk about how his opinions have evolved as he’s moved from game criticism to helping write video games like Gears of War 4 and Uncharted 4. We talk about why it’s so hard to write games, and how even the best plans can go horribly wrong.
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Jason: What sort of complications would arise (when a writer is in the room from the beginning) that would lead a story to fall apart? Is it talent, is it technical difficulties, is it creative conflicts, is it people just not prioritizing story? Is it all of the above?
Tom Bissell: I won’t name the project, but I went into a game project with a bunch of people who were absolutely aces, top of their game, top-tier level people, amazingly talented, great studio, that was just in the process of shifting from their old engine, which everyone knew how to make stuff quickly [on], to a new engine, which was very hard to use. And you probably know roughly what I’m talking about and which company sort of mandated an across-the-board shift to one engine, which in a business sense, a corporate cultural sense, made perfect sense. In the long run it was the right thing to do. But in the short run, a lot of games got thrown into a meat grinder on it. Which, everyone pretty much expected would happen.
So you go from working with these people who in the previous game franchise could literally have an idea on Monday, have a workable prototype on Wednesday, and have it more or less functioning in the game on Friday. On their old engine. They could get stuff up on its feet—is this cool? does it work? OK yes, let’s polish it, go with that.
To suddenly they’re working with an engine that took, no shit, 2-4 months to get a working prototype up on its feet and into the game. So now, when the iteration process is slowed to such a crawl, you don’t have a choice to do anything other than polish the turds of your original first ideas, because by the time you have something up on its feet there’s no time to tweak it, and implement it. Your idea that you had 4 months ago or 2 months ago, it’s now so late in the development process, you have to run with it and make [it] work.
Having worked at a place like Naughty Dog, which is in a complete class of its own, obviously they have some of the most talented people in the industry working for them, but a lot of places have super-talented people. What makes Naughty Dog Naughty Dog, I believe, is comfort with their tools, speed of iteration, and they know that tech inside and out.
I’ve seen an idea in the apple of [Uncharted 4 co-director] Neil Druckmann’s eye on Monday turn into something that you could basically ship a week later. That is how quick they can get stuff on its feet. And it is astonishing that it’s just not like that everywhere. It gives them the ability to abandon ship and do something else and it just makes their development process electrifying, and inspiring, but it’s just not a luxury that a lot of places have, for various reasons.
For more, listen to this week’s episode. As always, you can find Splitscreen on Apple Podcasts and Google Play. Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any and all questions, requests, and suggestions.