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AGC Writer Keynote

Aaron Roxby Posted:
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AGC Writer Keynote: Designer Mark Terrano speaks

The Game Initiative’s Game Writers Conference is a fascinating series of lectures, being presented at this year’s Austin Game Conference. These special dissertations focus on the unique challenges faced by writers in the relatively new and constantly changing world of interactive entertainment. The keynote speech was given by Mark Terrano, a game designer and specialist consultant for the Xbox Advanced Technology Group. Terrano is a seasoned industry veteran, who has had the opportunity to visit game design studios around the world.

The presentation itself took the form of a fast paced and humorous PowerPoint presentation. Terrano is a relatively unassuming looking man. Bespectacled and not too tall, he probably looks exactly like what you think of when you think the words “Game Designer”. Despite his unassuming look, Terrano has a fast, energetic and engaging way of speaking.

The presentation began with a simple concept. Video Games are not movies. To illustrate this point, Terrano showed a series of slides. He asked what you would call a movie, about a gunfighter in the Old West. A Western. What about a movie about a Space Marine? Science Fiction. A gritty movie about mobsters? A crime film. He then asked, what would call a game about a gunfighter in the Old West? A Shooter. How a about a game about a Space Marine? A Shooter. A gritty mobster game? Shooter. As he put it “[Game] genres are not defined by setting.” Terrano went on to explain that, while in a movie the audience is being told someone else’s story, a game is the player’s personal story, about their decisions, not the same thing as narrative.

Terrano explained that while “Writers love words”, the history of video games have been moving steadily away from that, starting with purely text-based adventures, moving to GTA-style sandbox games, MMOs and everything that came between. The future, he believes, will be defined by such factors as ubiquitous online games and their competition for the online market share, the increased cost of Hi-Fi development, micro-payments, user created content and the pressure that developers are receiving from publishers to add things like in game advertisements. He spoke of the need, given the mainstream player’s busy lives, for smaller, “bite-sized” chunks of content. He went on to explain that micro-payments are finally allowing developers to create cost-effective episodic content for games, such as the recent Half Life 2 episodes.

For game writers, he explained, it is vital to play as many games as possible. “Our mother-tongue is games. The more you play, the better your vocabulary for communicating with developers.” Terrano then broke into a lengthy explanation of pacing in video games, and its importance in different types. A game like Tetris, for example that relies on the player making very fast decisions would be fast paced, requiring greater interactivity, but less in the way of visuals and audio. A deep RPG, or even a DVD movie, by contrast requires less overall interactivity, but greater visuals and audio.

The lesson of Saving Private Ryan, Terrano says, is that you can tell a story and develop characters in a game, while the characters are doing other things. To illustrate this, he showed a scene from the film, illustrating Spielberg’s ability to hold tension and develop characters even when nothing is actually happening. Tell the story during the lulls in the game and the expectation of danger can be enthralling. To further illustrate this point, he attempted to show an early scene from GTA: San Andreas, in which two characters share a lengthy dialogue exchange while driving from one place to another. While a technical error prevented him from showing this clip, anyone who played the game should know what he is talking about.

“It’s 2006. You shouldn’t have to beat the conversation out of characters with the “A” button.” To illustrate this next point, Terrano showed a long and funny scene from Grim Fandango, in which the player is able to interject with an NPC giving a long speech. In addition to being very funny, it was fascinating for how natural it sounded. In addition, he called for little touches, like making sure that NPCs stand at a natural distance from the player when talking.

After showing a fan made video of characters from Half Life 2, speaking to the soundtrack to A Few Good Men, Terrano spoke of the need for designers, writers and artists to interact in a face to face manor. Though many writers may prefer to work alone, in their “Happy Place”, he explained that designers are often able to express things outside of and beyond the design document, when speaking in person.

Next, Terrano expressed the importance of expanding what developer’s perceive as their potential audience, drawing not just from the pool of current hardcore and casual gamers, but considering “everyone” as potential audience. He invoked the book Everything Bad is Good for You by Seven Johnson. This book’s data shows, that television shows today, such as 24 are much more complex in story and character than television shows from just thirty years ago, like Dallas. This is thought to be the result of things like TiVo and internet message boards, which allow people to analyze and discuss these shows in depth. With games moving into the living room, many people outside of the normal pool of gamers are becoming “Passengers”, watching their friends and families playing games. This means that when writing for a game, you are not writing just for the player, but for everyone who may be in the room with him as well.

Terrano continued, bringing up Reality Television, and their aspect of “Social Competition”. Along with sites like YouTube and Google Video, people outside of gaming are getting used to remixing and adding to preexisting content. Because of this, user created content is something that must be embraced.

The presentation concluded with a lovely analogy between video games and medieval cathedrals. These structures were created by craftsmen willing to work long hours because they were caught up in a vision and wanted to help create something great and lasting, something that might have a chance of changing the world. Mark Terrano believes that games can change the world and maybe more. As he puts it “We can make anything happen”.

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Aaron Roxby