And by ‘conflict’, I don’t mean just dudes biffing each other. I mean conflict in the more general meaning of the word – Struggle, opposition, friction.
Whether internal to the characters or external, ratcheting conflict is what builds tension in a narrative, pulling the audience along through the story. Building up the pressure until it peaks, then releasing it in a final, (hopefully) satisfying climax.
So a lot like sex, then. And like sex, fumbling the beginning can kill the mood.
This feedback on the SC beta leads me to suspect that the latest version of SC’s storyline is a bit of a failure to launch. Luckily, like sex, writing is a skill that can be practiced, and stories can be refined.
Now, that forum comment is just one person’s opinion, I know. And you can’t necessarily take any single individual’s feedback as objective truth, everyone brings their own subjective tastes to the mix. But this comment rang true, down in my gut. And I’ve learned to trust that feeling, it’s rarely led me wrong.
As Maximillion says, he found it odd because the previous iteration of the story hooked him. Not that strange, if you examine both intros with an eye toward the underlying conflict. Here’s the last beta’s intro:
In the aftermath of The Great Collapse, the world teetered on the verge of chaos.
Starvation and rioting spread across the globe like wildfire, nation-states dissolved into anarchy, and militaries clashed over ever-dwindling resources.
The spectre of global war loomed once again.
Strained to breaking-point and facing populations in open revolt, western governments took desperate measures.
New legislation was passed outsourcing the management and security of entire cities to private corporations.
Though politically controversial, the transfer of city governance into corporate hands was extremely successful.
Armies of privately-funded security contractors re-established control of troubled urban centres, putting down rebellion with ruthless efficiency.
The new corporate enclaves were beacons of stability and prosperity in a world wracked by turmoil, and other nations soon followed suite.
Order was restored, but the balance of power had shifted permanently.
Megacorporations are the new global Superpowers.
There are some who reject the new corporate order.
Operating in the shadows cast by the gleaming towers of glass and steel, they follow their own code, surviving by taking on the dangerous, illegal jobs that the rich and powerful cannot be seen to be involved in.
They call themselves Runners.
I took inspiration from the opening of Blade Runner there, introducing the dystopian futuristic setting in a little text sequence, trying to squeeze the maximum amount of expository and thematic efficiency out of those few lines. If you’re unfamiliar with cyberpunk genre tropes, that was intended to get you up to speed.
But where’s the conflict?
Sure, it suggests some larger themes of conflict in the overall setting. But where is the direct, personal conflict for the player? There isn’t any. Not good, not good. You have to touch your audience in the right places, if you want to get them excited. 😉
(Try not to picture these sexual metaphors, you’ll creep yourself out. Or, perhaps, get yourself excited. You pervert.)
Now, I’m not going to replicate the old intro for comparison, because it was 7 pages long, a lot to read before getting into the game proper. One of the things I’ve had to practice is brevity. But I will share the new intro I’ve been working on, or at least what I have at the moment (it may get a few more edits). It cannibalizes and repurposes plot elements from the old intro, which some of you may recognize. No use wasting good words, after all.
The sprawling San Angeles Metroplex rises around you, brightly lit towers thrusting up through the smog to rake the sky, neon ad boards jostling for your attention.
You take a deep breath, almost smiling at the foul, familiar taste of the air. It’s been more than a year since you were on the West Coast. You’re glad to be done with Europe and its miserable winters. The assassins didn’t help, either.
The job in Berlin, the one Jackson promised would be a piece of cake, was anything but. Things had gotten real messy, real fast, and you’d had to leave Berlin in a hurry, hired assassins hot on your trail. If you’d known you would be tangling with the Syndicate, you’d never have accepted Jackson’s offer.
No use holding a grudge, now. Jackson died in Amsterdam when the hunters ambushed your team in a small cafe. He and Summers were torn apart in the initial burst of gunfire, you barely made it out of there alive. You had to pay a black market body shop a small fortune to graft you a new hand to replace the one you lost to a grenade. A rush job, the colour doesn’t quite match.
The team split up after Amsterdam, those that were left figuring that travelling alone would be less conspicuous than in a group.
Six months you traveled the globe, staying one step ahead of the killers looking to collect the Syndicate’s bounty. Six months before you were convinced they’d lost your trail.
And now you’re back in San Angeles. Your first order of business was getting a new deck, you’d had to abandon your old rig in Amsterdam. And the kind of deck you need, they don’t sell those at the mall. Black market cyberware is expensive and you’d burned most of your credits getting out of Berlin. A bank loan was out of the question, the background check would poke holes in the fake ID you’re using.
That had left only one option – a loan shark.
Miriam had a reputation for ruthlessness, but she was the only one whose terms you’d found even slightly palatable. She’d agreed to lend you the 25 thousand credits you needed for a new Hijati, on condition that you paid her back 50. You’d had little choice but to accept her terms. You can’t buy a deck without credits, and without a deck you can’t work to earn the creds.
You have 3 months to pay back the debt. After that, Miriam will send her goons to collect your organs.
That’s better. Gives you a nice, clear conflict for the player character, a reason to be doing the game’s missions. And I’m introducing a some scripting and missions involving Miriam, the loan shark, in the early game. The push to earn enough money to pay her back before she comes to collect your kidneys will carry players through into the primary storyline involving…well, you’ll have to wait and see. 😉
So that’s what I’m currently doing on System Crash. Painting Miriam, prepping her dialogue and scripting, cutting and chopping the mission flow and storyline a bit to accommodate that. If I do it well enough, new players won’t even be able to see the stitches where I performed my script surgery. 😉
My twitter feed right now is filled with awesome devs meeting and hanging out with other awesome devs over at GDC, having a whale of a time. I’m a bit jealous, I’ll admit. Maybe more than a bit.
I have the money to go to GDC, but I’ve never quite been able to justify it to myself. With the terrible exchange rate from SA rands to US dollars, it’s a rather expensive trip. And that’s just the trip, never mind actually renting a booth. Without a game with a bit of buzz behind it to show, I don’t know that the return on investment would make sense. Or rather, make cents.
At least, that’s what the “sensible” part of my mind tells me. But I’m still jealous.
And I’m remembering something I read about the phrase “fake it till you make it.” The word “fake” has unpleasant connotations attached to it, sleazy connotations. But, as someone pointed out once, the point isn’t to be a fake. Rather, it’s to act like the thing you want to be, even if you don’t feel you are that thing, yet. If you want to be a game developer, act like a game developer. Go to the conferences, introduce yourself as a game developer, go up and talk to other professionals in the industry etc. Even if doing so feels like wearing a suit that doesn’t fit. Eventually, so I’m told, it stop feeling like an act you’re putting on.
As a side note, I still hesitate to call myself a game developer. I haven’t finished and released a commercial game yet, so I still feel like a wannabe. Calling myself a game developer twangs away at my Imposter Syndrome, and I still often introduce myself as a programmer.
It’s something I need to fight against. I know that, logically, but it’s still a struggle, emotionally.
So I’m thinking next year I just need to make a plan and go to GDC. Just fucking do it. Walk the walk. Go as a developer, get a name tag that says Director of Rogue Moon Studios on it.
Oh, how pretentious I feel saying that. I struggle to refer to myself by that title with anything other than a self-mocking smirk. What a laugh, me, a director. Psshhtt.
Well, that’s that, then. The last of my things moved out of my old flat, spare furniture sold off, keys handed over to the landlord.
It’s a bit strange to be out of there, finally. Seven years I’d stayed in that flat, I’d long since outgrown it. But I stayed because rent was low(ish) and the shops were within walking distance so I didn’t have to drive much. A good spot for keeping my expenses reasonable while I pursued my dream of indie game development.
That didn’t quite work out, of course. Despite my careful planning, I still ran out of money before finishing my game, and I’m now back to working a day job while I finish SC after hours. But it sheltered me along one leg of my journey, that little flat, and now I’ve seen the last of it.
Strange, like I said. But good. Good to move on.
The packing up was rewarding, too. I sorted out my crap, consigning the detritus to garbage bags and hauling them off to the bins. You feel lighter after such an exercise, unclogged. And it forced me to go through my old notepads and scrap books, looking for anything worth keeping. In the process, I found my old game design notes and the little concept sketches I did, some of them kind of cool, some of them scribbles incomprehensible to anyone but myself.
I sat there, on the floor in my now furniture-devoid apartment, paging through those old, dusty notes and smiling. Remembering.
Game development can be hard, and solo game development even more so. There’s no one to motivate you but yourself, no team mates to draw emotional strength from or to share the burdens with. There have been times, working alone in that little flat while my friends buy houses and start families, where I’ve wondered whether the sacrifice was worth it. Whether I even really want to continue. Whether it matters.
Looking through those notes reminded me. No, this is where I belong. This is where my heart is, where it’s always been.
Page after page of notes and sketches and diagrams. Skill and character descriptions, city and continent maps, spider diagrams of plot brainstorming. Snippets of world lore and quest ideas, monster and building and equipment concepts. Logos and emblems. Database designs and class descriptions(the code kind).
Some of the pages I took photos of:
Much of it shoddy, my nascent skills not quite up to the task of capturing the ideas in my head. And not yet disciplined or committed enough to sit and really flesh them out. But the spirit of the endeavor was there, shining through those pages. The urge to bring my daydreams of other worlds to life.
Like I said, I’ve asked myself whether it matters to me, which is part of the larger question of what I want my life to be about, really. The answer is there, in those notebooks. Indie game developers have a variety of reasons for doing what they’re doing. Some come to game design in order to explore interesting mechanics, others for the chance to bring their art to life. Me, I’m a world builder. World building, the exploration of imaginary places and characters, is what really fires me with excitement.
That’s why I love the fantasy and sci-fi genres. That’s why I can lose an entire Friday night on some Warhammer 40k lore wiki. That’s why I don’t skip the text. Strong world building is the common factor across my favourite games, more than mechanics or genre; compelling fictional worlds that I long to lose myself in, characters that I want to spend time getting to know.
I have spent my youth enjoying and absorbing the fantastical worlds that others have built. Now I want to craft worlds of my own design. And then hand them over to other people to enjoy.
Design is communication. The skills I’ve taught myself, coding, painting, writing, those are just different tools to communicate a design. Each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Game development weaves these disciplines together, binding story, art and mechanical interaction into a whole greater than its parts, conveying living, breathing worlds as no other medium can.
I’ve saved those old design notes, filed them away fondly for when I need a boost. To remind me of where my heart lies, if I forget again.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have worlds to build. 😉