Coming Soon: Silk Kickstarter

Dear friends,
With a stomach-rattling cocktail of excitement and terror, I'm proud to announce our first Kickstarter. Silk, our lo-fi wilderness adventure, is seeking crowdfunding support to get the project over the hump - and we want your help to do it!

Silk Wilderness Adventures
Firstly, we are seeking to appoint three Community Nazgûl to help build and maintain links with our fans and backers. If you love getting engaged with gamer communities and want to become an ihobo volunteer, email our Nazgul at ihobo.com address and indicate your primary social media platform (e.g. Twitter, Facebook) and your level of experience with Kickstarter.

Also, we are recruiting alpha testers for the Silk Kickstarter demo. If the game looks interesting to you, you qualify to apply - please email our alpha at ihobo.com address and include a sentence saying why Silk appeals to you.

We expect to launch the Kickstarter in the next month or so - I hope we can count on your support through this new adventure!

And whatever dream you are working towards - just keep going!

Chris.

PS: For updates and further announcements, please join our newsletter!


A Crash Course in Narrative Design

ConfluenceOn 15th February, International Hobo's Founder Chris Bateman will be at Confluence in the Google Academy, London Victory, presenting A Crash Course in Narrative Design:

You came up with a fantastic story, but when you came to put it into the game you discovered the players hated it. Why? The answer could be that while conventional narrative techniques can be applied to videogames, what works in linear media seldom holds together when you put a player into the key role. When you work on game stories, you don't just need a writer – you also need a narrative designer. The title 'narrative designer' was created by International Hobo Ltd in 2001 to describe the unique challenges of combining game design and writing in the context of game stories. Since then, the term has spread out into the games industry – but there is still little understanding among writers from other media as to what narrative design is or why games cannot deliver great stories without it. This crash course in narrative design from the people who coined the term will open your eyes as to how great game stories are not just written, they are also designed.

Tickets are available from Eventbrite.


The Secret of Game Narrative – Live

Adventurex-2018

This Saturday (10th November) at 12:15 pm GMT, ihobo’s founder Chris Bateman is giving a talk at AdventureX entitled The Secret of Game Narrative. The event is being streamed live on Twitch. We hope you’ll join us for this special talk about the unique ways that videogames create and subvert traditional narratives.

12:15 pm GMT, Saturday 10th November 2018.


The Chronicles of International Hobo

ihobo_biglogoBig things are brewing at International Hobo… After nearly two decades of providing our acclaimed game design and narrative services to nearly 60 clients on four continents, we are opening a new office in downtown Manchester and putting together development teams to work on some intriguing game projects of our own. We’re still delivering our award-winning services to clients, but over the next few years we’ll also be dipping our own toes into development and publishing – not to mention some crowdfunding to help those projects get off the ground.

To help our loyal fans, clients, friends, and associates stay abreast of what we’re up to, we’re launching a new email Newsletter, The Chronicles of International Hobo, as a place for keeping track of our game projects, speaking gigs, and crowdfunding campaigns, as well as contractor and staff openings. We’d be truly grateful to anyone who wants to sign up for the Newsletter, using the box in the sidebar here, or via the landing page over at TinyLetter.

We will still be posting updates here at ihobo.com, but the Newsletter will provide additional behind-the-scenes information that won’t be here on the site, including opportunities to collaborate with us on game projects in ways we’ve never offered before.

Please sign up for the Newsletter – and thank you for supporting International Hobo!


Gamescom 2018

Gamescom stepsAt Gamescom again this year, but unusually I have client projects to offer to publishers – and really interesting ones too! Looking forward to finding out what the dev community makes of these games. Still interested in meeting with anyone who needs game design, narrative design, or script services, and also with game writers with experience in narrative design, so let me know if you want to meet up in Cologne.


The Persistence - Out Now!

PersistenceThis week, Firesprite’s Playstation VR game The Persistence was released – and to great reviews! It was International Hobo’s pleasure to work on the narrative design, script, and voice recording sessions of the game. This was a significant challenge since the roguelike, procedural elements disrupted conventional storytelling and required careful construction to ensure the story did not get in the way of the game. We also worked closely with Firesprite to tweak the world building in subtle ways that will be invisible to players but which significantly improved the final experience. Firesprite gave us a lot more rope than we expected, and allowed us to create a truly unique story mounted as a two-hander theatrical play set against numbingly recurrent death. If you’re a PSVR player, check it out!


Beyond Choice in Game Narrative

An open letter to Caroline Marchal and John Yorke as part of the Republic of Bloggers.

Dear Caroline and John,

Caroline-and-JohnThank you for your presentation yesterday at Develop: Brighton, “Relatable Characters, Depth, and Agency: How to Make Players Care About Your Story”, which left me feeling rather animated – albeit largely because of the depths of my dissent with the perspective on game storytelling that had just been presented!

However, I should like to open by expressing my deep agreement on two key points. Firstly, that theme is poorly understood and executed in game narrative; I cannot adequately express how great it is to hear other game writers make this crucial point. Secondly, that the majority of game writing falls short in terms of characterisation: far too many people working on game stories think story is synonymous with plot and therefore fail to adequately provide interesting characters. The model of wants and needs provided in your talk will certainly be helpful for anyone getting to grips with the tools of character arc construction.

Outside of these points, however, I must express my intense disagreement with the fundamentals of the way the two of you are presenting the task of the game writer. I should like to take this opportunity to make clear why I disagree, but also to recognise that on many of the points I am going to raise, you might well agree with me – it may simply be that the structure of your talk obfuscates some of the subtleties I want to draw out in this blog-letter. For this, I can only apologise in advance, and hope that the discussion itself will prove its own reward.

There are, I think, two main problems with game writing today. The first is that too many of the people working on stories in games have a great appreciation for the toolkit of game design but too little an appreciation for the vast toolkit for narrative… To have experimented with short stories, or plays, or novels, is not a wasted effort for a game writer, but an opportunity to learn vital skills in story construction. The second problem is that there are rather too many ‘carpetbaggers’ (if you’ll forgive the allusion), which is to say, screenwriters who think that the problem with game stories is something that can only be solved by writers with experience in film and TV. Of the two, the latter might be more dangerous to games as an artistic medium, since someone who is game-literate can learn conventional narrative relatively easily (by attending your talk, for instance) but a screenwriter who believes that games must adapt to the conventions of screenplays is undertaking a certain kind of violence against the radical potential of game narrative.

A fundamental proposition of your talk was that “for maximum impact, players should be able to influence the protagonist’s arc.” You talk about the importance of agency – and it is correct that agency is a powerful player motive, as I made clear in my Develop: Brighton talk the previous day “What Players Want: Understanding Player Diversity.” But I fear the grail of narrative agency that most screenwriters coming to games seek is a rather narrow way of understanding game stories; it risks confusing the possibilities inherent in a particular kind of game for the potential of games as a medium. It elevates choice-making above the other experiences of games. Good game writers must understand the motives and experiences that are entailed in videogame play in order to not fall prey of the temptation to throw away most of the game design toolkit in order to align with the screenwriter’s toolkit.

You mentioned Sid Meier’s famous (mis)quote “a game is a series of interesting choices”… for your purposes, what he actually said would have been even more applicable: “a good game is a series of interesting choices” (i.e. he did not intend to define game, but rather make a claim about what was aesthetically valuable in games). Sid’s maxim is deeply misleading, however: it suggests that Guitar Hero is not a good game, since it requires no choice-making whatsoever. More worryingly from my perspective, it plays into the disgruntled chorus that complained of Dear Esther that it was “not a game”, instead of recognising the genius entailed in the thin play of Dear Esther, which did more to advance the possibilities of game narrative than any AAA released in the same year. Not that AAA games cannot do the same: The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild has one of the most innovative narrative structures I have yet encountered, and I have written at great length about how the central character in its story is Princess Zelda and not Link, per se, and how the fidelity between avatar and character in the case of Link is better than in the vast majority of games.

For me and my company, narrative design is the key skill that game writers must master if they are going to get to grips with our medium. We were the first consultancy to put game design and narrative talent under the same room (back in 1999), and the first to use the job title ‘Narrative Designer’ (back in 2002) – the term later spread out into the industry via the IGDA’s Game Writing Special Interest Group, which I founded and lead for five years. Narrative design, as myself and my colleague Richard Boon understand the term, is about understanding the inherent story potential in game structure and crafting a story that aligns with that potential.

I first presented on the topic back in 2001, presenting four examples of different structures for games – two of which (tree and ‘Christmas tree’) you included in your talk. (Another point of intense agreement with the two of you here: branching tree structure is suicide for videogame projects; the combinatorial explosion of content spells doom for both production and QA.) Your ‘Christmas tree’ structure is what I’ve called the parallel path approach… I think I misunderstood in your presentation that you meant those parallel paths to be solely reflected in dialogue, and not in content (hence my question at the end). For this I apologise… we are perhaps more in alignment on this matter than I gave credit at the time.

A fundamental tenet of the way Richard and I came to understand narrative design is that different games require different story techniques. If I look at the three games my company worked upon that are being released this year, for instance; Shadows: Awakening is a series of vignettes connected by the theme of whether the past irrevocably conditions who we become; Tropico 6 is commedia dell'arte set against the backdrop of a strategy game; The Persistence is a two-hander theatrical play set within a VR experience of numbingly recurrent death. Not one of these games could have succeeded by implementing your choice-driven three act structure technique – although that too, of course, is a solid model for a particular kind of game story, and your advice to structure three key choices against the same character question is insightful.

Near the end of your talk, you suggest that “writers have to abandon their god-like control over the protagonists destiny and story.” This is a true statement of the challenge of game writing…. but crafting a character space conditioned by choices is not to abandon that god-like control at all, but to become the god of a tiny multiverse instead of one corner of a universe. If you truly want to engage player agency, you have to find ways to allow players to exert their agency freely, without the writers sculpting those possibilities in advance – and that can also involve a kind of letting go, but need not involve yielding character stories to players. Indeed, it can provide new ways of bringing out the potential for character arcs precisely by placing them in a different relationship to player agency.

From the very beginning of my career as a narrative designer and writer, I was using choices to deepen the player experience, and I do not want to suggest that the choice is not a valuable technique in game writing. (All three of our games releasing this year make use of choices in various roles.) What I do want to suggest is that marrying choices to the protagonist’s arc is not the only way to draw upon agency in stories, nor to get players to care about stories. My first game as lead writer and designer was the award-winning Discworld Noir, for which I had the honour of working with Terry Pratchett (not then knighted!) as script editor, and from who I learned immeasurably. The site of agency in this game was not within the character arcs, but with the investigation – the player has tremendous freedom to advance the story through their choices of where and how to pursue their leads. Indeed, many players found ways to advance the story threads that I didn’t know were possible: I had successfully given up my ‘god-like control’ to the player by pursuing a game structure that might well have been slightly insane, for all that it did in fact work. But then, as Terry understood, “There’s a streak of madness in everyone who spends quality time with gods…”

Wishing you all the best in your future writing projects,

Chris.

My thanks to everyone who attended my talk at Develop, and to every presenter who endured my questions after theirs!


What Players Want: Understanding Player Diversity (Develop 2018)

At Develop: Brighton this year? Don't miss this essential talk by International Hobo's Founder Chris Bateman!


10PlayerMotivesWhat Players Want: Understanding Player Diversity

Tuesday 10th July: 17.00 - 17.45 : Room 4

Everyone who makes games is in the business of designing for an audience, but understanding what players want has become increasingly difficult the broader and more diverse the audience for videogames has become. Combining cutting edge psychological research with practical game design techniques, this How To talk puts player enjoyment into a more concrete perspective by answering three questions. 

What do players want? The ten psychological motives players have for enjoying games, from the victory motive to the narrative motive, provide every possible reason for players liking the emotional experiences of games. The most common mistake game designers make is assuming they are a typical player: they’re not, and neither is anyone else.

Does my game have what players want? The most reliable way of tracking audience preferences is to look at what players are already playing. Here, marketing and game design have to learn to work together to find the all-important balance between the familiar and the original.

Could my game appeal to a wider audience? You can make changes to a game to help it appeal to a wider audience – but you have to be certain you aren’t destroying the core experience just to go fishing for the mass market. Commercial videogames today have to court and keep an audience, and to do that you need to know which player motives your game can deliver, and which other motives are compatible with it.

Don’t guess at your audience: understand them, and yourself, and learn to make better games.

Takeaway

  • Understand the Ten Player Motives, and how to design games that satisfy these needs.
  • Estimate your game’s potential sales by recognising how to relate your design to games already in the marketplace
  • Maximise your audience appeal without destroying your core experience through careful design tweaking

 


Best of E3: Shadows

Best of E3At this year’s E3 in Los Angeles, one of International Hobo’s RPG projects received two Best of E3 nominations, one from RPG Fan and one from WorthPlaying. The game, Shadows: Awakening – the latest instalment in the cult Heretic Kingdoms franchise that began in 2004 – is developed by long-time ihobo client Games Farm. Featuring an original narrative design and script by International Hobo’s founder, Chris Bateman, the game features characters voiced by Tom Baker, Sally Knyvette, Robert Ashby, Joanna Wake, Ramon Tikaram, Marc Silk and many other talented actors and actresses.

Due for release later this year by publisher Kalypso, Shadows: Awakening is an action RPG set in a dark sword and sorcery world. The player controls a Devourer, a kind of demon that can swallow the souls of the dead and manifest them as puppets. But who is really pulling the strings? Find out later this year!


Why Players Love Stories

Shadows AwakeningOver at the blog for Develop: Brighton today, I discuss the weird double standard that game developers sometimes express about the importance of narrative to videogames. Here’s an extract:

What I’ve come to realise over the last fifty videogame projects I’ve worked on, and particularly as a result of my research into how and why humans enjoy games (I’m presenting my latest findings on this at Develop:Brighton next month), is that “it’s the gameplay that matters” misunderstands the relationship between games and stories. It’s a mistake that scholars in game studies repeatedly make as well – they assume that the ‘game’ is the crunchy designed systems, and the ‘story’ is this kind of wrapping paper that you dress up the mechanics in. There might be a recognition of the importance of that ‘wrapper’ in getting players interested in playing the game, but sooner or later, everyone comes down to the importance of those game systems and the lesser role of narrative.

Trouble is, that doesn’t describe how people play games, much less why we enjoy them.

You can read the entirety of Why Players Love Stories over at the Develop: Brighton blog.