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ContributionsPostmortem

Indie Showcase: Dream Symphony (Flash)

March 4, 2013 — by Martijn van Dijk

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George Zarkua is an indie game developer with four years of experience. He is the artist and game designer of Nude Hunter, Ragdoll Ball, Dream Symphony, and Spicy Story. He recently started his own studio, called Zarkua Studio.

A Vague Start

George Zarkua
George Zarkua

When the idea of this game appeared in my head, I had already done four projects in a rush mode. I enjoyed making games quickly, not only because it really saved valuable time, but also because this way the projects didn’t last long enough to bore me. The main idea for my new game was a bit blurry and existed only as an idea. The only clear thing was the concept, so I took it as a constant foundation that has been preserved from the beginning to the end of the development process.

I use tricks to escape the routine

When developing a game I try not to work in the same pattern over and over. I use tricks to escape the routine. On Dream Symphony, I tried to leave my comfort zone and tread into an area I had no experience with – music.

Despite the fact that indie games are mostly made without reliance on colorful graphics and effects, music always substantiates or even creates the atmosphere in those games.
Among flash games, there are outstanding representatives of the music games genre that are all based on the mechanics where static objects in the scene (such as obstacles or changes in the landscape) occur after the composition reaches a certain time or a certain pitch (Music in Motion and Take a Walk).

I wanted to create a musical flash game, but with rather unusual mechanics. The idea was simple: apart from the normal sound in the game, there were more sounds that were played in the interaction with surrounding objects. I.e. no objects were created depending on the music, but music was created by the objects.

The idea was very vague, and I could not explain what I wanted. So when I offered it to my partner programmers; four out of four said no. I created a thread in a forum, without a precise description of the concept. Before my idea gained any reputation, I got several messages from programmers who offered different kinds of partnership. There were about eight people and to each of them I described the idea. All of them were willing to work on the project., I couldn’t assess their levels, but one of them wrote GDD and showed his previous game with the mechanics of a platformer. This made for an easy choice. I chose Igor Kulakov. The last problem was me. I was tired after two years of working, so we agreed to start the game over time and I left for some relaxations.

At that time, I didn’t think that after the release of the game it would be featured on Newgrounds, Kongregate, NotDoppler, Bored, that we would win three cash prizes, including best game of Maypleyard, that I would read news about my game on leading indie news sites, including JayIsGames and that I would write this postmortem.

Character progress
Character progress

Before leaving, I made a couple of sketches of the main character (a huge goof pumped in a tracksuit, which jumped from cloud to cloud, and bursting bubbles with music) and a couple of backgrounds. It was cute, but not particularly interesting.

It was in a village deep in the heart of Russia where I decided to change the setting of the game. Originally, I had planned to make a quick jumper, with an active music. There I met a creature that changed my view of the future development of the plot. It was a sheep. I really wanted to see it in the game. I had only a pen and a notebook so all that I could do was make a few sketches. The body of the sheep looked like a cloud. In my head I animated the sheep slipping and awakening when you jump on it. This helped me to revive the game. However, the game still was in the same state, without any fundamental differences comparing to the flash jumper games, so I decided to add one more feature. The idea was that at the very beginning of the game the level was grey and while ascending in height, the game gradually became colored. This idea has also formed the basis for further work.

When I got home, the first thing to do for me was beating similar games. Meanwhile, my partner had created a working prototype. It was a very important step. After that, we coordinated our work through Dropbox and thanks to his prototype, we could work separately. He worked evenings and I started my work in the mornings.

Rush Mode

You just need to turn off the internet. Switch it off. You will reach zen

We worked in a rush mode, so the development of the game was enjoyable. Rush mode is the apotheosis of self-discipline, self-control and determination. In the morning, after you get up, cook all the necessary food for the day. Work should ideally take about 10-15 hours a day plus three hours for breaks. You should consider disabling all things that can give a signal. The most important discovery that I made for myself and increased my productivity 5-6 times is that you just need to turn off the internet. Switch it off. You will reach zen. The first time I came across this, lightning hit the transformer vault in my house. That day, I finished a big to-do list for the entire week and even cleaned the room, paid the bills and went for a walk. The second time, I fully encoded and made all the graphics to the simple little match-3 game, which I later sold it for 4k.

You must be completely off-line. And if suddenly you need the internet write down what you need on a piece of paper. In the evening spend an hour online and go to bed cheerfully. Of course, working like this for a long time might not be healthy, but you should try it.

Working on the Sound

The effect created a sense of passage and epicness

We needed a specific type of music with a perfect tempo and a certain feel to it. We hired a professional musician who had to rewrite the main track a few times because it didn’t quite fit the gameplay. When objects exploded, the sounds did not fit with the overall tone of the music. In addition, the levels in the game seamlessly switched, and the track for the next level was a copy of the previous one with the addition of one more instrument. This effect, coupled with the effect of saturation rising, created a sense of passage and epicness. By the end of the level, you could see a completely colored game, with a soundtrack that also felt complete.

The sheep in Dream Symphony
The sheep in Dream Symphony

When all the music was ready, it had to fit the levels. Connected tracks should feel solid. As an artist of this project, I needed a simple program for sound processing. I was looking for a free, easy program with minimum functionality and intuitive function names. I only needed to be able to change the tempo, the pitch, and the volume. By changing these aspects, the music comes to the foreground, and the sound echoed in the background.

The most important part was yet to come. We had to place the sounds in a way that the track seemed to be solid. To do this, sounds had to fit into the gameplay music. The player should feel that he was involved in the creation of music. It should not distract the player from the process. So some sounds had to be neutral and others had to be more in tune with the rest of the audio. The musical instruments only appeared in intervals where there was a deliberate pause. Needless to say, because of these actions the game was really hard to balance. In the end, the balancing of the game took about 30% of the work.

ContributionsGame Development

Four game design essentials for developing mobile/tablet games for toddlers – by Ian Schreiber

January 24, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

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Ian Schreiber has been in the video game industry since the year 2000, first as a programmer and then as a game designer. He has worked on eight published games, two textbooks, two free online courses in game design, and several other things he can’t talk about since he’s still under NDA. He has taught game design and development courses at a variety of colleges and universities. He is a proud father of an almost-two-year-old, whose favorite activities include talking on the phone, going to the zoo, playing iPad games, playing in the sand, and tucking her stuffed animals into bed, although her favorite “toys” by far are mommy and daddy. From this experience of seeing his child playing with an iPad, Ian shares four game design essentials with us on developing games for toddlers.

1. Design for a child’s hand and touch

If you actually make a distinction between finger-swipe and palm-swipe, and if your hit boxes aren’t really tolerant of near-misses, you’ll have a hard time convincing me that any kids tested your app before release. Most storybook apps are pretty good examples of how to do this once you get them started – any kind of finger or palm swipe to the left or right turns the page, plus there are buttons in the corners to flip pages if you touch them.

2. Avoid having loading screens

Is there really a reason or need to have several gigabytes of 3D animations in a kids' game?
Is there really a reason or need to have several gigabytes of 3D animations in a kids’ game?

If your loading screen takes more than a second or two, my kid will think your app is broken. She doesn’t understand the concept of loading screens, but she knows how to hit the button to get out of your app and pick something else. If your game is aimed at young kids, just how much complexity do you want to have in there?

I suggest two ways of testing your loading screen. One is to set an actual metric goal, like half a second or less from startup to full load, and then you would just measure it. The other would be to test with actual young children, give them an iPad, have their parents guide their finger to touch your app in order to open it, and see what the kid does from there. I recommend you test with some kids who have iPads at home, so they know how to hit the button to exit an app when they get bored.

The trick is to not have loading screens of any noticeable duration in the first place. Most kids’ apps don’t particularly need to be all that complicated, they should not have a massive memory footprint or CPU requirements in the vast majority of cases. I assume any app that is running into long loading screens is either not (completely) optimized (i.e. the programmers were incredibly lazy with memory allocation or the use of inefficient graphics algorithms) or else it contains far too many assets for its own good.

3. In-App purchases don’t work

Don’t monetize via in-app purchases

In short: Don’t monetize via in-app purchases, I turned those off ages ago (as did any other parent who knows better). Also, if your business model relies on toddler miss-clicks when parents aren’t looking: well… you’re the one who has to live with that on your conscience.

My toddler doesn’t really grok in-app purchases yet, so the subject of how to let her buy something that she wants in a game hasn’t really come up. I’m pretty sure she kind-of-sort-of understands the concept of exchanging money for a tangible object like a toy or stuffed animal, but in-app purchases are another layer of abstraction that my almost-2-year-old hasn’t really figured out yet. Mainly, any purchase screen, subscreen, or menu that takes her out of the game, she just sees as some kind of annoyance that takes her away from the game.

I decided to disable in-app purchases after seeing far too many stories of parents whose kids made hundreds of dollars worth of purchases without the parents’ authorization. Yes, there’s a password in there, and my kid probably doesn’t have the manual dexterity or understanding to key in my password. Yet. But she’s an information sponge who has shown herself quite capable of mimicking just about anything she observes. I know it won’t be too long before she’ll be able to enter my password and surprise me. Better to be safe, than trying to fight a protracted battle between me, my daughter, some hapless developer, Apple, and my credit card company.

4. Do you monetize through in-game ads?

I just can’t imagine ads working on really young kids (1.5 to 2.5 years) in any conventional sense

My kid doesn’t grok ads. She might click on it by accident or on purpose because it looks colorful, but then you just take her out of the game and confuse her and she’ll shut the thing down and try something else. If you use a third-party ad server that asks a 2-year-old if they want to find a date on Zoosk, your app is getting deleted. (No, “it’s a third-party component, we have no control over it” is not a valid excuse. Your app, your responsibility.)

I just can’t imagine ads working on really young kids (1.5 to 2.5 years) in any conventional sense. Perhaps an advertising expert would disagree, but just from observing my (pretty smart) kid right now, she really just does not understand the concept of ads in the way that advertisers would like. It’s like designing all-text ads in the Japanese language, to an audience of monolingual English speakers: 99% of your meaning is lost. And if you’re asking how to interest the advertisers, I’d say you’re asking the wrong question! The real question here should be: “Okay, so in-app purchases and ads don’t work. What’s the way to monetize a very-young-children’s app, then?”

The answer: monetize via app sales. Make a free version of your app that shows what’s cool about it, just enough for a kid to play around and get engaged and interested (and for the parent to observe this). Then make a paid version with the full feature / content set unlocked. If it’s a ridiculously simple app that kids just find fun anyway, like a set of interactive flashcards or a counting or drawing app or something, I’d expect to pay 99 cents for it. If it’s a more full-featured app, like an interactive storybook that will either read itself to you, let you read it, or let the parent record it in their voice, plus some minigames related to the story, I’d expect to pay $4.99 for it. Those seem to be the price points of the successful apps I’ve seen, and why spend more when there are plenty of great apps at these prices already? Only time I’ve seen anything go above $4.99 is when it has a golden IP like Disney.
Alternative monetization if you have a whole series of apps: make one app totally free, charge for the other ones as above. A lot of storybook apps do this, but I’ve also seen it for apps that use the same core engine with a number of different themes.

But… there is hope!

If you want to know the best apps out there, instead of just taking my word for it (after all, I’m just a random developer who’s never made a kids’ game, mouthing off about this because I have a toddler and am frequently frustrated by the apps I download for her), I’d recommend searching on Google for “Best apps for kids” or “must-have ipad apps for toddlers”. Then just find a number of top-10 lists from other random parents mouthing off and take note of the apps that seem to be on a lot of the lists. Besides that, you can try the top-selling kids’ games in the App Store or look for other articles on kids’ games.

That said, there are some games I would put forward as positive examples (and one mixed example):

Toca Docter HDToca Doctor HD – similar to the Trauma Center series or the Operation board game but for a much younger audience. First of all, it is a perfect example of a game that is designed for kids. There are basically no loading screens and the main menu is a giant button that takes up most of the screen so my daughter can start it on her own. After pressing the giant button, you’re taken to the main game menu where the only controls are things that flash or animate so it’s pretty obvious where to touch (and the hitboxes are generous). Each touch takes you to one of a variety of WarioWare-style minigames. Playing it for the first time, the minigames were hard for her to figure out on her own, but once I guided her hand with each of them she was able to do most of them on her own. Each minigame also has an exit button that’s always in the same corner, so it’s easy to exit a minigame when you’re stuck.

Toddler CountingToddler Counting – a very simple app where it just asks you to count some number of objects using your voice. Touch an object and it counts 1, then 2, then 3, and so on until you’ve touched them all. When done, it gives verbal praise (and in some cases an additional sound, like if you’re counting kittens it’ll meow at you). The free version does this like 4 or 5 times with fixed content and then locks up; the 99-cent paid version has more content and keeps going forever.
Again, there are no noticeable load times. Besides that, the main menu has two really big buttons: “easy” for counting 1-10, and “hard” for counting 11-20. No other controls at all, just touch the objects. About as simple as it can get.

I Hear Ewe Animal SoundsI Hear Ewe Animal Sounds – another simple app. No main menu at all – it just throws you right into the app. The screen is divided into 12 large buttons, each one with an animal icon on it. If you tap an animal, the graphic will enlarge. Then a voice says “this is the sound an owl (or whatever animal) makes” and it plays the sound. You can sweep between three pages worth of animals with a finger or palm swipe.

 

Miss Spider’s Tea Party, and Toy Story Read-Along – both of these are interactive storybooks and similar in format. The main menu has relatively small buttons and does require my input to start off, at first. However, she’s seen me do this enough now, so she can start up the app and select what she wants on her own. The app features options to read the story manually (finger-swipe, palm-swipe, or touch a button on the side of the screen to turn pages); have the story read to you (basically playing a video, pages turn automatically, voice reads to you, words highlight as they are read); and play some mini-games with the story theme (small jigsaw puzzle, card matching, etc.).

Miss Spider's Tea Party
Miss Spider’s Tea Party

While neither of these seems to have any load times, both have a brief intro animation on startup (same way the Sega Genesis always started up with “Seeee-gaaaaa!”) so I suppose it’s possible that it’s doing some loading while that animation plays, without announcing that it’s doing that – if so, clever for them.
So both of these apps include a lot of rich content and lots of stuff to do, which is pretty impressive for free apps. The other storybooks in the same series cost – and cost a lot – but they do show how you’re getting your money’s worth with the free app.

Play Phone – this one, I have a love/hate relationship with. Every time my daughter starts it up I debate whether I should delete it. On startup, first thing it invariably does is pop up a small text dialog asking if I want to leave the app, for reasons I don’t understand. Tapping ‘no’ reveals the main menu, which has three buttons which are all horizontal and spaced fairly close together. One of these takes you to the actual game, another to the developer’s page, and the third pops up some kind of announcements page (and they like to make frequent announcements that are, of course, completely meaningless to a toddler). So, a play session of this basically starts with my daughter starting the app then calling me over to help her past the main menu.

Play PhoneOnce you get past that, it’s a simple app where you have a standard 12-button phone layout. Hit a button and it plays a short animation. My daughter finds quite fun, even if I find it grating to hear the same sounds over and over. Additionally, the app includes one button where the parent can record their own message for playback on one of the buttons. This is done by hitting a two-button combination, in order to prevent the kid from recording over it accidentally. Great idea for a feature, but there are two problems, which I assume came from a simple lack of field testing. First, hitting the playback button before anything is recorded leads to the app locking up for 30 seconds or so. Second, hitting the record button on its own pops up a small text dialog that explains how to record properly. which is fine for me, but meaningless to my daughter, and difficult for her to dismiss if she brings it up by mistake. The app is free though, so I guess you get what you pay for.

Currently, Ian is (again) under an NDA. However, you can check out some books he co-authored: Challenges for Game Designers and Breaking Into The Game Industry. Be sure to check out his blog as well.

Video Coverage

Spiderweb Software’s Jeff Vogel on getting started in the biz, getting on Steam and using storytelling in videogames

September 10, 2012 — by Nicholas Yanes

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The mid-1990s was a period of significant changes for the videogame industry.  Arcades were beginning to decline as home console systems became more popular, the Nintendo NES would be discontinued in 1995, and computer games were increasing in popularity.  Specifically, 1994 saw id Software’s Doom II: Hell on Earth and Bullfrog Production’s Theme Park become best-selling games at the time. 1994 was also the year Jeff Vogel founded Spiderweb Software while working towards a Masters in Applied Mathematics.

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Vogel about his love for the industry, what inspired him to create this company, his thoughts about making casual games, and what type of games he sees himself making in the future.  (Sadly, no Spider-Man jokes came up.  We are deeply sorry about this.)

Getting Started & Escaping Grad School

In 1994, Vogel was low on cash and dealing with the mental stress inflicted upon students by grad school, and decided to create a videogame to relieve stress and maybe earn some cash.  It was a decision that would lead to the creation of Spiderweb Software.  “I wrote my first game as a way of maintaining my sanity during grad school, and I released it in the hope of earning pizza money,” Vogel said when asked about the creation of Spiderweb Software, “I really didn’t have any plans.  I still don’t.  I just write games, release them, and hope they sell.”

“I have the rare gift of being able to do for a living what I dreamed of doing when I was a child.”

His first game was 1995’s Exile I: Escape from the Pit.  It sold so well that he dropped out of grad school and committed to teaching himself programming.  His decision to pursue a career in the videogame industry is not one that he takes for granted.  “I was fascinated by video games from when I first played them over thirty years ago,” this lifelong fan said, before immediately acknowledging how fortunate he is to have made a career in this industry, “I have the rare gift of being able to do for a living what I dreamed of doing when I was a child.”

Learning About the Industry

After Exile I, Vogel went on to finish two more installments of the Exile series, and create the Avernum series, Blades of Exile, Blades of Avernum, the Geneforge series, and Nethergate.

Even after this success, Vogel’s humble.  He still sees himself as the head of a “little indie company” and “probably the wrong person to ask about anything real industry people do.”

When asked what game design component he thinks is often neglected during development, he professionally responded “Not sure, really. I think games tend to be very well-designed, overall. But there are a million things that can go wrong implementing even the best design.”

“There are a million things that can go wrong implementing even the best design.”

Another element of Vogel’s success stems from the value he gives his audience.  While he remains the driving force behind the games he develops, he always takes into consideration what potential customers might want. “Because there are a million choices to make in writing a game, and the answers are rarely obvious,” Vogel said. “When given two roughly equivalent paths to take, knowing who you are writing the game for can provide guidance.”

Current and Future Projects

One of his most recent games is Avadon: The Black Fortress, which Vogel describes as an “indie fantasy RPG.”  Though he acknowledges its low budget origins, he knows that writing and careful craftsmanship helped make it an indie hit. “We worked very hard on its storyline and gave it a lot of polish, with the hope of getting it onto Steam.  We succeeded [and] I learned that a little polish goes along way.”

When asked what he thinks helped Avadon stand out from the crowd, Vogel places a particular amount of importance on the game’s storyline.  “It’s actually detailed, epic, and heavily integrated into the game. We cared about it, and it shows.”  And it’s this emphasis on narrative that seems to be Vogel’s and Spiderweb Software’s most important attribute. “If you’re going to have a story, you might as well make the extra effort to make it good.  It takes about the same amount of time and work, and can only increase your fans’ fascination with your product.”

As for what future projects Spiderweb is producing, Vogel would only humorously state “I don’t have new ideas anymore.  I’m too old.  I plan a long, joyous run of more-of-the-same.”  We doubt that this is true, but even if it is, we know that we can still look forward to some great games.

Contributions

Dedicated to Game Dialogue – by Richard Rabil

February 14, 2011 — by Mariia Lototska

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Richard Rabil

Richard Rabil is a technical writer, aspiring game writer, RPG enthusiast, and designer and creator of Dialogue Junkie. He has a passion for understanding the power of language in interactive digital media, as reflected by his graduate studies in Technical Communication and his research interests in the way video games engage people. When he’s not at the office, seeing friends, or playing games, he works on game design ideas and writes occasional blog posts at IGN. In his first contribution for Gamesauce, he examines the challenges of writing and evaluating game dialogue, and suggests how the industry could move towards some common criteria for judging its quality.

The ups and (mostly) downs of game dialogue

Figure 1: Aralon HD for iPad is impressive in narrative scope and rich environments. Too bad neither the NPCs nor the dialogue get any more interesting than the cliché lines like this one.
Aralon HD for iPad is impressive in narrative scope and rich environments. Too bad neither the NPCs nor the dialogue get any more interesting than the cliché lines like this one.

Let’s face it. Despite the strides that games like Red Dead Redemption, the Fallout series, and the Mass Effect series have made in the realm of game writing, there is still a lot of stilted, stereotypical, and clichéd dialogue out there. We needn’t look far for examples.

Heavy Rain (2010). Woman with insomnia: A hot shower! That’ll create the magic of sleep!
Bayonetta (2010). Bayonetta: I’ve got a fever, and the only cure is more dead angels!
Infamous (2009). Zeke: Look, I’m being serious man, now DARPA is the mother-load of black-ops crap. If she’s in with those clowns, you better watch out, son. Cole: Yeah, yeah, yeah, and Santa Claus shot J.F.K.
Aralon: Sword and Shadow HD for iPad (2010). Elf: Leave me alone, please. Protagonist: Am I bothering you? Elf: Yes, as a matter of fact, you are. Now get lost. And don’t tell anyone you saw me here.
Resident Evil 4 (2005). [after villagers trying to kill him have all left at the sound of a bell] Leon Kennedy: Where’s everyone going? Bingo?

This might seem like a small issue in an industry that earns billions of dollars without much help from interactive dialogue. To succeed, games need to be games first, and this golden rule usually makes dialogue a secondary concern, and rightly so.

“The standards for game dialogue change when producing games that weave intricate narrative into their design .”

However, the standards for game dialogue change when producing games that weave intricate narrative into their design. This holds true primarily for role-playing games, but it could also apply to first-person shooters with complex campaigns like in Call of Duty: Black Ops, or real-time strategy games with substantial cut scenes and plot lines, like StarCraft II. At any rate, as Darby McDevitt (writer of Assassin’s Creed: Bloodline) has argued, if narrative is central to your game, then you must treat writing—and by extension, dialogue—as a vitally important design component. Why? Because in these types of games, bad dialogue can “more or less eject you straight out of the experience” and make you remember you’re just a player in front of a screen.

What counts as ‘good’ game dialogue?

Game dialogue will, ideally, support the interactivity of video games, as in this example of branching dialogue from Fallout 3. This is a tough act to balance in addition to other factors like helpfulness, believability, and depth.
Game dialogue will, ideally, support the interactivity of video games, as in this example of branching dialogue from Fallout 3. This is a tough act to balance in addition to other factors like helpfulness, believability, and depth.

Good dialogue, on the other hand, can strengthen a player’s identification with the characters and the overall virtual world, deepening her emotional engagement and heightening the game’s replay value. Unfortunately, we can’t find quantitative evidence of this. We can, however, point to examples of dialogue that have managed to make an impression on more than a few people in terms of a game’s level of engagement. For example, take this mash-up of Best Nathan Drake lines, which appeared in the Complex Video Game Voice-Over Awards in 2010. Furthermore, we can cite memorable lines from critically-acclaimed video games that have been recognized for excellent writing:

Dragon Age: Origins (2010). Morrigan: “And now we have a dog. And Alistair is still the stupidest member of the party.”
Red Dead Redemption (2010). [Various lines from John Marston.] (General taunt) “I’m gonna give you a chance to kill me, ’cause I’m just that nice.” (Lassoing a lawman) “America! Home of the free!”
Portal (2007). GLaDOS: “You euthanized your faithful Companion Cube more quickly than any test subject on record. Congratulations.”
Baldur’s Gate (1998): Protagonist: “Utterly amazing! You spoke so long, but you didn’t say anything.”

The difficult question, especially for game writers but also for critics, is how do we know what counts as “high quality” dialogue?

The difficult question, especially for game writers but also for critics, is how do we know what counts as “high quality” dialogue? Are there criteria we might apply across all video games? As a technical writer by trade, a game writer by aspiration, and a lover of RPGs, that’s a question that has nagged at me for the past year and half. So I looked into numerous books and played a lot of story-driven games, such as Mass Effect, Fallout 3, and Dragon Age: Origins. As I dug into the topic and reflected on my gaming experiences, at least four criteria kept emerging again and again:

Helpfulness: Does the dialogue meet the minimum requirement to give the player the information he or she needs to learn the rules, obtain a hint, or play the game, while not making things too obvious?
Believability: Are the characters saying things that a real human or sentient being would say?
Depth: Are the characters in the game saying their lines in interesting ways?
“Gameness”/“Interactivity”: Does the dialogue appropriately support the interactive medium of games?

Of course, these criteria are not as straightforward as they sound. Most if not all of them depend on interrelated factors such as genre, visual style, and intended audience. There is also the matter of delivery: the dialogue itself might be well written, but it could be easily hindered by poor voice acting and subpar visual effects. And the “gameness” / “interactivity” criterion is almost entirely dependent on each game’s unique characteristics, generic conventions, and technical challenges. Writers of branching dialogue in complex RPGs will have different challenges than those who are writing non-branching dialogue in relatively linear action-adventure games.

Still, I couldn’t get past the thought that if we are to seriously consider how to judge the quality of game dialogue, that we should try to establish some common analytical criteria. Or, at the very least, to get people talking about game dialogue more critically and examining instances of game dialogue that “work” or “don’t work.”

Thankfully, this isn’t new territory. Some sources that have helped me think more deeply about this topic include Wendy Despain’s Writing for Video Game Genres, Donald Freeman’s Creating Emotion in Games, a variety of blogs and academic journals, and even interviews with game writers at BioWare and Bethesda Softworks (my two favorite game companies). Most of all, though, I’ve found it helpful to pick a specific segment of gameplay (or several related segments), play them through, and analyze then from different angles—taking care, of course, to consider them in the broader context of the game’s narrative and my experience with it as a whole. After all, it’s unfair to make judgments about game dialogue by simply reading scripts or reading over memorable quotes. Game dialogue must be “experienced.” Only then can we start to critically examine whether it is good, bad, or somewhere in the gray area in between.

Conclusion: What’s next?

In sum, even if we gained widespread agreement on the criteria for evaluating game dialogue, it would remain a messy, subjective business. There are a lot of factors to account for, and it’s hard to agree upon the precise ways in which dialogue will benefit the overall immersive effect of a game. Ideally, we could focus on one game at a time, or perhaps one segment at a time, and get data and opinions from a large number of people who have experienced it.

I invite everyone, players and practitioners alike, to visit the web site to share your thoughts and opinions.

That’s why I started Dialoguejunkie.com, where I post videos of game dialogue and ask visitors to rate and/or comment on them. This will, I hope, foster a more community-oriented sense of what works and what doesn’t in game dialogue, and ultimately promote better writing in the industry.

I invite everyone, players and practitioners alike, to visit the Dialoguejunkie.com to share your thoughts and opinions. At a minimum, I hope it will galvanize us gamers to consider not just what the state of game dialogue is at a given point in the history of the medium, but how we can fairly evaluate it after experiencing it, and what we can do to make it better.

References

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