Phase Four

Following a few months of convalescing after the big layoff, I now begin the next phase of my career. I have accepted a position at Blizzard Entertainment working on World of Warcraft.

This is a very exciting step for me. Blizzard has a proven track record of shipping quality products, and as a longtime lover of MMOs, it’s a thrill to go to work on the most successful title my favorite genre has ever seen. It will be a huge honor and challenge to try to make my own mark on the game. An added bonus is reuniting with a bunch of my former 38 colleagues who also work at Blizzard. This is going to be fun!

For reference, the title of this post refers to the big milestones in my career since moving into game development. Phase one was starting at SOE back in 2003. Phase two was helping found 38 Studios in 2006. Phase three was my return to SOE in 2012. Phase four begins now, in May of 2015.

Many folks would be happy to have enjoyed just one of those experiences, so I count myself as very fortunate to be given the opportunity to continue my journey. Thanks for all your support over the last few months, and I hope I can count on it going forward.

Backing (Away From?) the Crowd

When I first heard of Kickstarter, the proposition seemed straightforward and awesome. A smaller developer has a great idea and huge passion but can’t find a publisher willing to front their modest budget, so they fire off a campaign and let the market decide whether it’s worth backing. The developer has a team in place ready to go, knows the tech required to pull it off, and really only requires the cash. Seems ingenious. And frankly, since that isn’t the realm of game development I spend my time in, I really didn’t give it a lot of thought beyond that.

But after some high-profile Kickstarter debacles in which funded projects failed to deliver or required more than their initial ask, crowdfunding has come under increased scrutiny. As it should be–when you contribute to a campaign, you are an investor, and you shouldn’t be throwing your money into a black hole. Certainly the stumbles have caused me to rethink my initial perception.

Perhaps this was generally understood all along and I’m only just now getting it, but clearly Kickstarter is often less about “Money is the final piece I need to make this game, can I please have some?” and more about “We have this awesome idea and need your money to have even a chance of making it.” Which can be okay, so long as the expectation of funding hope rather than enabling completion is clear up front.

The problem is, it’s rare to see a campaign present itself that way. For me, a lot of it comes down to the promises being made. If you’re part of the team that has planned the project out and just needs $500k to make the game, then it is very prudent (and fun) to add stretch goals for what happens if you actually bring in $600k, $700k, and so forth. But if your ask is essentially for seed money to attract the real investors, then that initial crowdfunding goal is about making a vertical slice or demo, and anything beyond that should really only have the stretch goal of, you know, making a deeper, more polished demo. When you look at the perks being offered to higher-level contributors on such projects, you tend to see the same vanity items and feature creep common to just about every campaign.

Again, maybe I’m just naive for only now realizing this. But if the following point isn’t clear to you already, I hope you at least take away this one thing from my post: Giving a million bucks in seed money to keep a developer’s lights on while they seek out the $20+ million they actually need to make their game is orders of magnitude more risky than funding a three-person team that only needs a bit more cash to make it to the finish line. Yes, the world is full of rich investors, but–trust me on this–finding the right people willing to invest in making games (especially MMOs) is no easy feat. In the meantime, your hard-earned green is feeding those developers. This is high-risk investment, folks. Don’t do it unless you haveĀ  money to lose.

Crowdfunding asks like this can be done responsibly and in a way that frames expectations correctly, but transparency–especially upfront–is absolutely crucial. Know what you’re getting into before you give anyone your money is the foundation of smart business. Seeing a developer with passion is great and something we all want to encourage, but make sure that passion has a clear and achievable plan behind it. Cool ideas are common and cheap; it’s proper execution that’s rare and expensive.

Farewell to an Icon

With the news of Leonard Nimoy’s passing, I feel as though a tangible piece of my childhood is gone. The deaths of DeForest Kelley and James Doohan were tough, but Kirk and Spock were the heart of my favorite show. Nothing else, not even Star Wars, had as profound an impact on my life as the original Star Trek series.

Though it’s almost inconceivable now, I watched those reruns of Trek when it meant sitting on the floor in front of our tiny TV (must have been 17″ if we were lucky) and manually turning the knob to one of the four or five channels we could pick up from the airwaves. There wasn’t a lot of sci-fi or fantasy being shown, apart from a few cartoons and Sunday morning monster movies. Those Trek episodes were my lifeline into a world I wanted to believe in, one that rescued me from the trials and fears of being a skinny, nerdy kid. They let me dream.

I knew every episode by name. I could recite many of the lines word for word. I still retain a surprising number of those tidbits, even if I haven’t seen some of those episodes in years.

Back then, it was pretty much all I had. Many beloved series have come and gone in the years since, most all of them with higher production values than what Trek could manage. But none surpassed the heart of those original episodes, and few would have anywhere close to the influence on my life and work.

While of course I never met Leonard Nimoy personally, he always seemed like a wise, gentle man who tried to do good in the world. He wanted others to learn from his mistakes and not repeat them. And he served as the cerebral anchor of the Trek cast, being very patient with fans who obsessed over that iconic character of Spock for nigh five decades. Such was his impact.

His passing reminds us that the rest of the crew won’t be around forever, either. Let’s treasure them while they’re with us, and remind them how much they’ve meant over the years.

Rest well, Mr. Nimoy. You’ve earned your place amongst the stars.

Quests As Kindling

Keen (hopeless EverQuest sentimentalist that he is!) wrote up a nice piece on how quests should inspire player-driven stories.

I think it’s dubious to hold up EQ as a model for how quests should work. While certain of them can be romanticized, long would be the parade of people who quit the game over the very Journeyman’s Boots quest he cites. And it’s just as valid to look at the orc belts and other turn-ins like it as grindy time-killers.

But I do agree with the spirit of what Keen is trying to say: That quests should not be the content of a game; they should be the spark for the true content, which is player interaction.

The original epic quests are a good example. For the most part, their execution was spotty–poorly written, relying on guessing more than logical deduction. But what they did was bring a whole cross-server community together. We were racing other servers to be the first to solve the quests, and class members from rival guilds who wouldn’t ordinarily interact were sharing leads and ideas.

I think the role of the content designer should be to provide compelling hooks for player storytelling. And by compelling, I mean both interesting and well-executed. Players should be drawn in by the quest and incentivized to undertake it, but the quest itself should be mere manipulation to get players interacting. It might be through cooperation, competition, or some kind of symbiotic relationship where both sides benefit in different ways.

I also agree that quests can, and generally should, be simple and straightforward. Designers often fall into the trap of wanting to tell a grand tale, when it’s usually much clearer and more effective to use quests to tell micro-stories that let players draw their own conclusions. Weave these together through consistency, continuity, and quality, and you can create a powerful tableau that tells a much bigger story.

To make those micro-stories work, you need to invest in quality worldbuilding, which I’ll talk about in a future article.

The Right Amount of Story

Sometimes people assume that, because I specialize in narrative design, I think every game needs to be saturated with story. But in fact, I look at it from the opposite point of view: What is the minimum amount of story needed for the game being made?

Excess story is a waste of resources and potentially gets in the way of play. Hey, I’m a gamer too, and I don’t like clicking through needless dialogue or extraneous cut-scenes any more than you do. It’s not that I don’t love well-done dialogue and cut-scenes, because when used correctly, they are powerful tools that can enhance your experience. But I like to focus on finding the most concise path to conveying the most effective story. And often that means doing less, not more.

Of course, some types of games demand a big, sprawling narrative. The Mass Effect series wouldn’t be what it is without complex dialogue trees and detailed cinematics; they’re part and parcel of the experience. But Frogger wouldn’t be any more fun if you understood the protagonist’s childhood or explored the world’s political struggles; it’s enough to know you’re playing a frog who needs to cross roads and rivers to get home. Building games like Minecraft or Landmark are another type that benefits from having a loose narrative at best, allowing the player to imagine as much (or as little) story as they like.

The nature of the sandbox MMO is to eschew formal narrative in favor of free-form play. That doesn’t mean your world shouldn’t have a rich and detailed backstory. On the contrary, I’d argue that sandboxes benefit from deep histories even more than structured narrative games do, because it provides a wealth of story for players to find on their own. Bits of story are embedded in the world awaiting discovery instead of being served up on a quest-journal platter.

But it all comes back to finding the right fit for the game you’re working on. As much as creating the tale itself, the role of a narrative lead is to pare the story down to its minimalist core. Part of being a memorable storyteller is being a judicious editor.

Similar, But Different

When 38 collapsed, I was deeply depressed. In addition to the usual stresses–finding a job, providing for your family, the self-doubt–I was plagued by the nagging sense of work left unfinished. Sure there was a game still in progress, but even more than that was this rich universe of stories that, aside from Reckoning, were going to go untold. Though the story of Amalur was in every way a team effort, I took it personally. It felt like my life’s work was ripped away, utterly out of my control. It still sits on some hard drives in Rhode Island, songs left unsung. And though it still haunts me, I’ve come to terms with it.

Being let go from SOE/Daybreak is a different feeling. Yes, all the usual stresses are there, but at least the project I was on continues. I respect and like the designers still on the project, and I know work I did will see the light of day, even if it ends up being different from how I might have done it. Things are in good hands. And yeah, I regret that I won’t be there in the trenches as those stories come to life, but at least I can point to a body of work (the EQN ebooks we’ve released) as tangible evidence of my contribution. I can make peace with that.

I’m starting the job search again, but I’m in a much more positive, healthy space than I was last time. While looking for work isn’t what I’d call an ideal process, things could be a lot worse. Trust me.

The Too-Familiar Road

Today I was released from Daybreak Game Company, which is to say the entity that was Sony Online Entertainment. I’d been back for about two-and-a-half years following 38 Studios’ collapse, and they were very kind to offer me a position on Landmark and EverQuest Next. I had a great time and worked with fantastic people, and I’m sad to see that come to an end. But the thing about this business is that the connections you make last a lifetime.

Jobs come and go. Some are terrific; others less so. But relationships endure. No matter what line of work you do, if you work hard and support those around you, good things will come your way. It’s proven true across the various careers I’ve had.

I poured my heart into the story for EQN, just as I did for Amalur before it. Norrath is in good hands, and I can’t wait to see what Daybreak achieves.

My Favorite Music of 2014

In last year’s post, I admitted that I was finally buying more music digitally than on CD. Unsurprisingly, that trend has only escalated in 2014. I bought digital music exclusively except in three cases: 1) it’s an artist I have a particular fondness for, and I consider their music to be an artifact I wish to own, 2) the CD was cheaper than the digital files, or 3) there was an in-store exclusive version with bonus tracks I desired. That last one is particularly powerful, and Target has proven particularly skilled at grabbing exclusives with a wide variety of artists.

I spent less and less time in record stores, as Amazon has become my shopping destination of choice. What’s more, their Prime Music library is utterly amazing, and well worth the price of Prime in and of itself. While browsing through pages of thumbnails lacks the tactile pleasure of flipping through music bins, I find the thrill of coming across a great old record and adding to my library nearly as satisfying. And it’s not just ancient stuff; they have many releases from 2014 that you can grab and enjoy, including several mentioned in this article.

Anyway, without further ado, my list of favorites from another great year of music: Continue reading My Favorite Music of 2014

That Time of Year

I’ll soon be heading up to Vegas for yet another SOE Live. I’m pretty excited, as we’ve got some great panels on fiction and the content of EQNext.

I’m also terrified, because I’ll be on stage in front of several thousand people to talk during a small portion of the keynote speech. I love doing panels, but standing in the spotlight of the big stage is another thing altogether. It’s early in the morning on Friday, so with any luck I’ll be too tired to be nervous. Sadly, though, Vegas and luck don’t usually go hand in hand for me.

These shows are a ton of work, but seeing the reaction of the fans makes it all worth it. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s actually true. So come say hi if you’re there, I’d love to chat!