At GenCon this year I sat through Video Game Writing 101, where a panel of industry veterans told war stories about how they got into the industry, what it was like starting out, and things to avoid. It seemed a good way to meet people in the industry, begin conversations about the work, and share a few war stories of my own.
And it was that. I met Lucien Soulban, lead writer for Ubisoft on Wartch_Dogs 2 and a number of other projects, and we had a good conversation after the panel was over.
But during the panel, I also heard some things that really didn’t sit well with me. I heard game writers downtalk the value of writing manuals, describe it as a rite of passage before you got to do the really rewarding work of writing dialogue and crafting narrative.
A bit of context: I spent the last four years working as an untitled writer for Beamdog. In my tenure there, I wrote item descriptions for weapons like the Celestial Fury +3, dialogue for Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition, and a mess of journal entries for the main path of Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition. But if you were to ask me what I was most proud of in my work there, it wouldn’t be any of those things. It would be the manuals.
I wrote and designed the manuals for Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition, and Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear. Since these games use Advanced Dungeons & Dragons® rules for their mechanics, a good manual is crucial. Class and race descriptions and level progression tables, spell descriptions that describe the actual effects, the basic mechanics that operate the game world. Baldur’s Gate is a master class in complicated rule systems, absolutely critical for planning character builds and developing strategies.
And it was fun. I had the advantage of starting with text that already existed, even if it was mostly inaccurate, clearly ripped directly from old AD&D® rulebooks without any attention given to how the mechanics might have changed when they were translated to a real-time environment. But I got to play with those old TSR words and phrases, I got to shift language and clarify rules that had never made sense, I got to touch raw game data and enlist the help of programmers and testers and designers. I got to exchange emails with designers from Wizards of the Coast on fonts and formatting, got to manipulate graphics from the Player’s Handbook that sits on my desk.
The end result? A massive 154-page tome that clearly and accurately explains everything the player needs to know in order to play and enjoy a classic computer game from my childhood. (You can download it here)
When you write documentation, if you’re doing it well, is just as rewarding as building a five-act narrative for a AAA game. You get to solve puzzles, you get to linger on words, dwell on paragraphs. You get to touch every part of the development team’s resource pool, from code to art to the community of content-hungry players.
Documentation can be fun, it should be fun. If your documentation isn’t fun to write, it won’t be fun for the player to read. If it’s not fun to read, the player probably won’t take the time to read it at all; they’ll just jump straight into the game, flounder for a bit, and get lost until they figure everything out–if their patience lasts long.
So, writers: celebrate your rules. Savor them. They’re the lifeblood of your game, just as important–maybe more important–than dialogue. A player will forgive a lot of bad dialogue if they can more fully enjoy the experience of playing your game.
This section went a little long, so I’m going to end things here. Next week I’ll talk about the other event I attended at GenCon, the one that really made my blood boil: How to Write Clear and Precise Game Rules.
Until next time.