Branching Conversation Systems and the Working Writer, Part 2: Design Considerations

This is the second part in a multi-part series on branching conversation systems (crossposted at See the Introduction for context.

So you’ve decided that a branching conversation system is the best choice for your game. You’ve got the writing and programming expertise to make it work, and the budget to support implementation and testing. But how will your system really function? You know your high-level goals, but it’s time to refine.

In this post, we’ll discuss some of the largest design decisions you’ll need to make before writing begins. Continue reading

Branching Conversation Systems and the Working Writer, Part 1: Introduction

This is the first part in a multi-part series on branching conversation systems (crossposted at See “This Blog Series” (below) for an overview of each part; experienced game writers may wish to skim early posts and jump directly into later segments as they’re added.

Video games are bad at handling conversations. Video games are especially bad at handling interactive conversations. There’s a reason most classic games are remembered for their gameplay or atmosphere rather than their dialogue: talking isn’t a strength of the medium.

But dialogue is a powerful and versatile storytelling tool–it characterizes, it builds relationships, it turns subtext into text, it gives rhythm and pacing to scenes, it creates an “index” of key words and phrases to a narrative, it brings drama into quiet moments… and so on. Foregoing dialogue altogether enormously limits the kinds of stories a video game can tell. So we’ve been using it from almost the beginning, despite our better judgment. Continue reading

A Short Update

I’ve been remiss in updating the blog over the past few months. The dry spell will end shortly as I begin a new multi-part game writing series. In the meantime, a few personal notes and links:

  • My short story “One Thousand Levels Down” was published in Star Wars Insider 151, available on newsstands and in electronic format.
  • BioWare announced Shadow Realms, a multiplayer action RPG. As I was Lead Writer in the very early days of the project, I’m both excited to see it reach the public eye and interested to see how it’s changed and evolved since my departure.
  • Marvel Comics announced that my Star Wars: Purge – The Tyrant’s Fist comics will be among the comics reprinted in STAR WARS LEGENDS EPIC COLLECTION: THE EMPIRE VOL. 1.
  • I continue to take on new video game projects (and continue hammering away at old favorites) which I can’t yet talk about. Sorry. I’m hoping to mention some soon.
  • Lastly, I’ve become enamored of the CRPG Addict blog, in which one dedicated player is working his way through virtually every computer role-playing game ever published. It’s a fascinating history of the genre.

Learning to Budget at a Glance

I’m hoping to discuss some more ambitious topics in the coming weeks, but let’s take a break from serious technique analyses and talk about a very basic skill every video game writer should possess (but probably won’t, starting out): budgeting at a glance.

When I say “budgeting” I don’t mean in dollar figures–I’m talking about the time and effort needed by a writer and other developers to implement a writer’s designs. (In the end, of course, this does equate to cash, but the numbers themselves are a red herring.) Game development is a slow, unpredictable, painstaking process–a writer who doesn’t understand the scope of her requests and their impact on the team is a burden to the project, not a benefit. Continue reading

Designing Stories for Nonlinear Game Segments (or “Civic Planning for Side Quest City”)

It’s been a busy few months–I’ve been juggling multiple projects across multiple media and haven’t had the opportunity to blog much. I’ll be at the Game Developer’s Conference next week and hope to see some of y’all there. In the meantime, here’s a quick and dirty examination of an important subject: designing stories for nonlinear game segments. In other words, side quests.

Continue reading