Park Beyond Takes the Rollercoaster to Infinity… and then Some!

PB_KA_WIP_SIMPLELAYER_1772Why put a limit on imagination? International Hobo Ltd is proud to announce the release later in 2022 of Park Beyond, a revolutionary new theme park sim game published by BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment and developed by our friends at Limbic Entertainment.

"From the very beginning, this was a special game," says Chris Bateman, ihobo's founder and chief consultant. "Limbic had a vision to create something that broke through the limitations of the traditional theme park sim, and it was a huge honour to work with them on the narrative design and the script."

François Reinold, Executive Producer for Park Beyond at Limbic, was delighted by International Hobo's involvement on the game's ambitious narrative: "Chris and his team have a real instinct for how to get the most out of videogame stories. They're also extremely responsive to the challenges of game development – from fleshing out the concept, to recording the voice talent, ihobo have been there to support us."

Limbic Entertainment develops high-quality entertainment software for the global videogame market, with highly skilled and experienced teams in game and level design, programming, and art. They focus on PC and next-generation console games developed with Unreal.

International Hobo Ltd is the award-winning creative consultancy that coined the term 'narrative design', and has a strong history of commercial success with its client's projects. In 2019, their chief consultant, Chris Bateman, was selected to be the first writer to contribute to Bloomsbury's prestigious Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. Bloomsbury also publish the second edition of the seminal textbook, Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, edited by Chris, and featuring contributions by some of the major names in games narrative.

Kult Post-mortem (3): From Tom Baker to Release

This originally ran in March 2014 on the website for Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms.

Tom Baker in the studio for Shadows Heretic KingdomsPreviously I told the story of the origin of the Heretic Kingdoms setting and of Kult: Heretic Kingdoms' hybrid design, which shared elements of both Western and Japanese RPGs. In this final part, I talk about one of the most fun parts of the production of this game: working with voice actor Tom Baker.

Who to Voice...

One of the consistent problems that Kult faced was how to get the most value out of its extremely modest budget, and there were distinct questions about what to do about voice recording. It wasn’t going to be possible to voice all the characters, but it was still an option to cast the main character and some of the other leading roles provided we stuck to just a few of the key conversations. But I began to think that our best chance of success was to pick one really good voice actor and have them record narration for the painted cut scenes that were our cost-effective way of advancing the narrative. Almost immediately, I wondered about the former Doctor Who, Tom Baker. He was doing voiceovers for a number of TV shows at the time (including Little Britain) and one of the people I knew who worked in voice recording was able to get a quote for the work we needed. It was, on the whole, extremely reasonable – and I knew that it would be a huge asset to the project to have Tom as narrator.

At the time, Tom was living in France but was over in London periodically to work on various projects, so we were able to book a slot with him one of the days he was in the UK. Both myself and the recording technician had to catch a train down from Manchester to London in order to get to the studio we’d booked in Soho. It was a four hour session, more than enough for the core narration of the game since it was only about 200 lines. I’d already had a fair amount of experience working with voice actors who had a background in TV and radio in Discworld Noir, which had talent like Rob Brydon, Nigel Planer, Robert Llewelyn, and the inestimable Kate Robbins, delivering lines from my script (the first one of mine to be recorded, actually).

In the Studio

Meeting Tom was a dream come true for me, but I tried to remain professional. He too was the consummate professional, and arrived with extremely insightful questions about the script and suggestions for how to get the most out of the material. I remember a discussion about the word ‘inculcated’ in the script that showed a really masterful understanding both of English as a language and also fantasy as a genre. I had absolutely no problem with him during the recording of the narration – except that periodically he would launch into an entirely random anecdote about an ex-wife, or some incident in his past, and we would have to wait patiently for him to finish. Frankly, these only added to the experience and I had neither the need nor the desire to hurry him along.

We actually completed the narrator script in good time, and so I went on to have Tom begin to record the history books for the game. This was probably a mistake... we didn’t specifically need them, and it transpired there wasn’t actually enough time to complete recording all of them anyway. It proved rather taxing on Tom to get all the awkward names and sentences in place for the history books, and in the end I cancelled this part of the recording session and called it a day. Quite a day! It’s not that often you get to work with someone you admire and see just how good at his job he really is. Listening back to the sound files afterwards was extremely satisfying, and it was clear from the reviews that going with Tom had been a great choice for the project. In fact, one reviewer made a point of praising “the voice actors” – he hadn’t even noticed that we only had one voice for the entire game! That’s the value that a really great voice actor can add to a project.

The Home Straight

All the way through, Kult had been short on time and money, and in the end we were definitely not going to be able to complete everything to the standard we would have liked. A decision was made at some point that we would focus on getting the game balance right for the main body of the game, and not worry too much about the ending. The result was that the final battles are actually really quite easy – but anyone who was hooked into the game mechanics and the story were thoroughly into the game at that point and they didn’t need a knock-you-flat end of game boss to come away having had an enjoyable experience. I’m sure other game designers would have felt it necessary to work on making the final boss a mountain to climb – but it’s not really my style. I’d rather give an interesting game experience than a vicious challenge any day of the week, although I have great respect for the difficulty involved in making a satisfying challenge. Honestly, though, there’s no shortage of challenges in videogames – but interesting experiences are a little harder to come by.

One casualty of the rush to finish was the difficulty settings: we really only balanced the game for the normal difficulty (and even then, only the first three quarters of the game). All the other difficulty levels were effectively an afterthought, and I really don’t know how satisfying they were to play – although I’m doubtful they came out well under the circumstances. Still, I figure it’s better to have the option to adjust the difficulty (even a badly balanced option) than to not have it at all, especially since it was in essence just a few changes to the parameters of the core combat mechanics.

When the game came out, I didn’t know what to expect from the reviews but in the end I was thrilled by how it was received. Of course, there were reviewers who couldn’t get past the game’s technical limitations or who didn’t see anything new in the design for whatever reason, but there were a wealth of reviews praising both the story and the attunement system. Worth Playing gave it 90% and were particularly impressed by the depth of the skill system, while Boomtown, Game Chronicles, and Gamer’s Hell gave it 80% and considered both the game mechanics and the story to be innovative. Four Fat Chicks also gave it 80% and said it was “fun, fun, fun and destined to be a sleeper hit” – which is an extremely gratifying thing to read about a game you worked on. Game Over Online and My Gamer both gave it a 78%, the former saying that it “does more new things in one game than I’ve seen in the last dozen games I’ve played combined” while the latter suggested that it “proves that innovation is alive and well”.

I’ve worked on over forty videogames at this point in my career [more like eighty now!], but there’ll always be a special place in my heart for this little EuroRPG that gave International Hobo and 3D People (now Games Farm) a chance to show that even when you don’t have a mega-budget, you can still make a game which offers an engaging experience and a memorable story if you’re just willing to take a few chances, put in the legwork, and keep believing that if you make a game with something to offer, the smart gamers will eventually find it.

Kult: Heretic Kingdoms (Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition in the US) was released in April 2005.

How to Get Out of a Tricky Situation

3 minute read

Thunderbird 2Nobody who has built half a house wants to knock it down and start over. What a waste of effort! But if you're building the house wrong, if it doesn't make a space that people can actually live in, then completing the house would be the waste of time. You ought to knock it down and start again. It's just the same with a game project.

There's much talk about 'agile' development in software development, including videogames, and this word suggests that teams will be flexible. There's some truth to that - after all, the key insight of agile development lay in shortening the development lifecycle to provide more flexible iterations. That was a radical departure from the more traditional method of planning everything out in excruciating detail at the start and then simply trying to implement it all as written. That method had a huge disadvantage - you learn the most important lessons about a project when it's underway, not while you're planning it.

What do you do, though, when you find yourself backed into a corner with no apparent options?


How are We Going to Get Out of This One...?

The last thing anyone wants to do with a project is pull the plug. But it does happen that you reach untenable situations. It's part of doing business and it cannot always be helped.

What we have always tried to offer at International Hobo, though, is more than a 'yes-no' approach to project consultancy. A significant number of the nearly 80 game projects we have helped clients to deliver are 'rescues', projects that got into trouble. What sort of trouble?

Projects that never established a clear vision, and so didn't know where they were heading.

Projects that thought they could make up their design elements as they went, and so didn't think about how all the systems had to fit together.

Projects that had too many systems to deliver in the time available.

Projects that had beautiful art but nothing to do with them.

Projects that became invalidated by unexpected shifts in the market.

Projects that knew what they wanted to be as games but not as stories, or vice versa.

The loss of morale that a team faces when they come up against these sort of problems can be devastating. Which is why it can be immensely helpful to get on the phone to Tracy Island and call for the Thunderbirds to rescue a project from having taken a wrong step.


Can Anybody Help Us...?

It's not a coincidence that the name 'International Hobo' evokes the name of the rescue organisation in the 1960s classic sci-fi puppet show Thunderbirds, 'International Rescue'. If it wasn't somebody else's brand, we'd have loved to have used that name instead! The very mission of the company was to be able to find ways to solve the new problems that the games industry was encountering at the start of the twenty first century.

At the core of our original mission was finding ways to put people with story skills together with people who had game skills. This led to Richard Boon and I coining the name 'narrative design' for the process of making story and game pull in the same direction, a term which spread into the games industry via the IGDA's Game Writing Special Interest Group, which I set up and ran. In 2006, Stephen Dinehart became the first person to be hired as a 'narrative designer'. Narrative design is now a big part of the games industry's business, and we're proud to have had a role in making that happen.

But although narrative design was always a key part of what we did, our vision of it was always based upon the idea that games were collection of assets and that it matters how each of them gets used. What matters is both how it looks and how it behaves in the game systems, and because both the function ("it shoots the player") and the fiction ("it's a tank") matter, every game is always producing a narrative experience for the player. You cannot avoid performing narrative design if you're making games, although you can certainly do it badly!

When we've come on board to rescue a project, we always start with the asset list. What do you already have? That sets a major constraint for what a game could become, which doesn't have to be anything like what the game was originally intended to be. Coming from the outside, as discussed last week, gives us the opportunity to think up new ways of making a game work, by building new options for narrative design from the available building blocks.

I've never seen a project that couldn't be rescued, provided the team is ready to ask for help. The key is remaining flexible, and not getting blinkered by what the project was originally supposed to be... and sometimes, teams need a little help to achieve that.

More consultancy advice soon.

How To Bridge the Inside-Outside Divide

3 minute read

Minecraft BridgeThe biggest problem facing any company working with consultants is how you deal with the fact that the consultants are 'outside' and the team is 'inside'. Or at least, that's how it often seems...

Now there certainly can be problems between the internal teams and any external teams working on a project, and it's worth considering how to address these. But in fact, every company already has a far bigger divide that it has to bridge daily - the top-bottom divide, that is, the manager-team divide. Because although there are a tiny number of small enterprises that operate with internal equality, for the most part the role of the manager or producer is an unavoidable cost of doing business. And it is the manager role itself that can create the biggest problems when a team isn't quite working as intended.


What's a Manager For...?

There is a prevailing mythos in business that the manager, being higher up in the corporate hierarchy, can see further, and therefore can make good decisions to steer the team - like the Captain of a ship or the commander of a military unit. But this risks devolving into nonsense, as anyone who has worked on restructuring organisations can attest. It is not the case that the manager has access to a special perspective by virtue of their position (although they may have that insight by virtue of their skills and experience). In fact, it is quite the opposite: the manager is quite frequently the key bottleneck in a team's ability to operate.

For all but a vanishingly small number of organisations, the manager has to bridge between the constraints being imposed top down (including financial, market, and governmental constraints) and the problems being experienced bottom up (including operational problems, clashes of personality, and breakdowns in communication). As a result, a depressingly large number of managers find themselves in a position that is pragmatically impossible because there aren't enough hours in a day to thread the needle. So they end up either siding with what's above them, where they risk becoming a slave driver, or siding with those below them, and thus risk becoming a loose cannon.

What can you do?


What's a Consultant For...?

What a good consultant brings to the table in any situation is an external perspective. As consultants, we have to understand all the constraints that operate on a project, but - unlike managers - we aren't caught up in the operational complexities and so have greater freedom to reflect upon the possible meanings of those constraints. That's part of the advantage that hiring a good consultant brings to the table - not only the benefit of an external view for a 'sanity check' on what's being attempted, but also the luxury of a little space to think about the problems being faced and how they can be solved.

A key principle of how International Hobo consults on all its projects (whether in the games industry or otherwise) is that those on the 'outside' are in an advantageous position to spot problems, but we are at a disadvantage when it comes to establishing which possible solutions have the best chance of solving the problem. That's because solutions to problems are operational - these have to be resolved by managers listening to the issues those problems present at the team level before putting any possible solution into action.

It is also worth noting that the first solution attempted is not always the correct one - too many companies get caught up in sunk cost fallacies about solutions that have already failed and miss their chance to pivot onto alternative solutions. A good way to resolve this is to have multiple solutions to problems from the outset, and have the team rank-order these solutions. That way, if the first solution proves inappropriate, you have a Plan B (or even C or D...) in your back pocket.

We take pride when we conduct a design audit for any project, and that's evident in the way we present the potential problems we identify as entirely separate from any proposed solutions. We may have insight on what's causing problems because we are 'outside' but that comes with a necessary disadvantage at judging the efficacy of solutions for exactly the same reason.

As a result, you don't need to bridge the inside-outside divide when you're working with a good consultant: you just need to make that divide work for you.

Next week, the tricky problem of incorporating external feedback.

How to Work with Game Consultants

3 minute read

The LabyrinthWhen I set up International Hobo back in 1999, we were something of a conundrum. There were a great many game developers who could not understand how what we were offering could possibly work. "But what do you do...?" seemed to be the main question. After more than two decades, I feel that we've more than proved that our model of providing game design and narrative services to developers and publishers via external consultation works. But there is still some mystery about just how it works. I thought it might be useful to provide a few short articles about how game consultancy operates, why International Hobo is still a unique example among the companies that provide game consultation services, and some advice about how to get the most out of working with game consultants.

Perhaps I should start, however, by answering that question:


But What Do You Do...?

When it comes to my company, the answer to "what do you do?" is "everything an in-house game designer, narrative designer, or scriptwriter would do - but externally". In 1999, this might have seemed like a crazy proposal because most people didn't understand remote working. After 2020, that mystery has rather fallen away, and it's become clearer how remote working can function effectively. Actually, putting aside the depressing big issue stories from that year that affected everyone, 2020 was only unusual for International Hobo in that we didn't get to go to conferences, because in all other respects we carried on working with our clients just as we had every other year.

However - that skips over the toughest part about being a game consultant, which is that you are on the outside.

This turns out to be both a benefit and a cost. On the negative side, being outside means you are quite insulated from the internal development culture, which creates a very specific problem I'll explore next week. But it is precisely because we are outside our clients' company culture that we can bring the kind of insights into a project that we always do. It's not because we are 'more objective' - that word gets sorely misused. It's because when you're inside the maze you can only see the walls and the dead ends, but from the outside you're ideally positioned to offer guidance. 

The heart of what we do at International Hobo is provide documentation that helps clients navigate a different aspect of the game development labyrinth.

A concept design provides raw material for developers to make technical assessments or to pitch to publishers, bringing focus to the early stages of development when focus is hard to come by.

A core design (or GDD) provides a framework of how all the eventual elements of the game will work together, and on some projects will be a 'living document' that changes every month or week (at times, every day!).

A narrative design explores how the game's assets are used to create a story experience - with or without voice over. It's like a core design for the way the game will create engaging story experiences.

A game script provides dialogue that a voice actor can use to make sound files that deepen the player's emotional engagement with the game.

A game audit explores how well the existing design or build meets the client's creative and commercial requirements, providing a map of where the project is strong and where it needs some work.


What We Do

What we do at International Hobo is listen, ask, play, write, and edit.

I've heard it said that game developers don't need documentation - and if you have a tight development culture, you certainly can minimise this requirement! But in our experience, every project that doesn't have adequate documentation has a problem and just doesn't know it yet. And the more systems the game entails, the more unreasonable it is to just try to play the design or narrative design process 'by ear', as it were. Games are expensive... you're almost certainly wasting money if you're just trying to 'wing it'.

I used to say that what we do is help our clients make better games. But 'better' isn't quite right... if you're trying to be 'better' you don't really have a clearly defined goal.

What we do is help our clients understand what is good about their game project, to eliminate as early as possible anything that doesn't contribute towards what's going to be great about the final game, and to ensure sound practices underpin every design and narrative decision.

What we do is help clients navigate the maze.

We don't pretend that we 'know better' than our clients - we trust them to know what they're doing. What we bring to them is decades of experience honed from working for clients all around the world on projects at every scale of development. That's what a good consultant always brings to the table - experience. The trick is in knowing how to use that experience to foster co-operation. And that's something you can only learn together.

Next week, some good advice for working with any kind of consultant.

Graham Goring joins International Hobo Family

Graham-GoringInternational Hobo is proud to announce the addition of a new member of their game design, narrative design, and dialogue scripting "family". Veteran writer Graham Goring, who recieved critical acclaim for his comedic writing on LEGO City Undercover and worked on eight games in TT's hugely successful cross-branded franchises, has become the latest consultant to join the International Hobo brand.

Graham's credits also include Planet Zoo, Planet Coaster: Console Edition, Elite Dangerous, Deaths Door, as well as supporting credits in Braid, Spelunky, Super Hydorah, Aquaria, and Titan Souls. As well as working on and with a great many developers on their projects, Graham is an accomplished programmer, and working on his own indie masterpiece (currently under wraps).

"We started working with Graham on Tropico 6," explains International Hobo Founder and Chief Consultant, Chris Bateman, "and immediately knew we'd found someone with a special talent for both comedy writing and understanding the narrative complexity of game scripting. As we kept coming back to him for more work, it made sense to offer him a seat on the core team. Our unique business framework allows talented individuals in the creative medium of games to gain the strengths and advantages of a larger organisation while maintaining a high degree of autonomy."

Graham had this to say about becoming a member of International Hobo: "Ever since I first heard about International Hobo in 1638 I have wanted to be a part of it. Alas at that time I was an earthworm, but thanks to a fortuitous series of reincarnations (jellyfish > duck > horse > dolphin > human) I eventually acquired the requisite limbs and brain-chunks to be a writer, and so here I am now."

International Hobo was founded in 1999, and over the decades has served as the consultancy framework for some of the biggest names in game design and writing, including Ernest Adams, Rhianna Pratchett, Richard Boon, and Wendy Despain, who still moonlights as a writer for International Hobo while officially working for ArenaNet, the Guild Wars developer.