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A Successful Indie Videogame Company Vs. A Failure: What’s the Difference?

successful-game-companies
ambroo / Pixabay

A videogame company is a difficult venture for anyone, even with the deepest of pockets. The failure rate is EXTREME. How extreme? The New York Times says 80% of games (8 of 10) fail to make a profit.

So what distinguishes a good videogame company from all the failures?

We came upon this game industry question on Quora:

What separates successful indie games companies from unsuccessful ones?

We couldn’t resist writing up a quick answer. You can see the brief answer at the Quora link below, but here’s a more in-depth discussion:

Great question.

There are a lot of elements that go into a successful indie videogame company, just like any other business. It can fail on funding, staffing, management, vision, design, execution, technical foundation… so many pitfalls. But if I were to pick one, I’d say FOCUS is the key to a successful indie game company. You could also say DISCIPLINE.

People don’t make videogames to make money or to become famous (although that’s usually in there somewhere*)… they make games because they’re passionate about games, love playing them, skilled at creating or coding, and love sharing the joy and fun of a good videogame. 

The most common mistake I’ve seen with game startups — and with the personal approach taken by videogame employees toward their work, as well! — is that people don’t know where to draw the line. They overestimate what they can do, lose track of their budgets and their scope, and gallop headlong off the cliff of fiscal and timeline suicide. The saddest cases involve videogame companies that bet the farm on that first game, without realizing how malformed the initial approach was.

Examples: 
1) The game concept was for a Triple-A title, but they had a single-F budget.
2) The game concept was essentially a remake of last year’s big hit, and by the time it got to market five years later, it looked uglier and played worse than the game that inspired it.
3) The team was passionate but green, and they bit off more than they could chew.
4) The game was well-funded by one of the biggest companies in the world. The team was full of veterans. Great marketing and support. Everyone wanted the game to be a blockbuster, but too many months wasted on building hype, making demos that didn’t improve the game, and indecision on actual gameplay. By the time it hit the market, it sold well enough, but was too late to make a real impact. Bitter? Me? No, never!

Focus maintains a clear vision of a viable, polished, and fun product that fits the market and the resources available. You rarely see an indie game company fail because it thought too small (although it’s possible). You often see a game company fail because its reach outstripped its grasp.

I think it's also important to acknowledge how stacked the deck is against videogame development/publishing success. The odds are not in your favor, bravehearts. As with movies, it's a saturated market and your efforts are competing with some of the heaviest hitters and most beloved franchises in the world. As a result, a lot of indies cannot be blamed for failing. Market conditions shift during a game's months- or years-long production 

But I guarantee you: if an indie game company is in the black, they are lean, mean, and focused like a laser on their goals. And they should be championed for it.

I met a guy recently who is one of the founders of Storm Wars, a free-to-play collectible card game on PC, Mac, iOS, and Android. He's not a gaming icon, but he's making ends meet while working for himself creating games. I told him, "You're living the dream!" and he laughed... but I really think it's true. Anyone who's hammered out a place in the game industry independently is worthy of our respect.

*If you just want to make money, you’re probably at a bank figuring out how to cook up some new and ethically-dubious financial instrument. If you want to be famous, you’re probably… waiting tables in Hollywood.

https://www.quora.com/What-separates-successful-indie-games-companies-from-unsuccessful-ones

A Game Designer Who Hates Art Classes?

A game designer hopeful wrote us to get some guidance on coursework. We thought it’d be helpful to everyone to share the response.

It’s good that you’re so focused on your goal of game art/design.

However, I’m surprised you don’t enjoy classes like sculpture and photography. Most game artists would gladly swap places with you right now to enjoy the creative freedom and opportunity to learn. Seriously. For them, those two subjects would be the definition of fun. (They are for me!) They also call upon many of the same skills you’d need as a game artist – an eye for composition, form, line, juxtaposition. If you lack those skills, or don’t enjoy using them, perhaps you should re-evaluate your career goals using a book like “What Color Is Your Parachute”. I don’t mean that as a knock – it’s just very surprising to hear of a would-be game artist who doesn’t enjoy art classes.

Even though it’s not digital art, these studio art classes are important to your development and ability to work in the industry. (Sculpture translates directly into 3D modeling, and photography helps with a lot of aspects of design and art.) The best game artists live and breathe art. They are constantly doodling and creating in both digital and traditional forms. Most of them have at least some classical training like the training you’re dreading now. Artists who only have digital skills almost always cannot do the same quality of work. You’d think it wouldn’t be obvious, but you can really tell the difference in the quality.

In short, you need to broaden your definition of art and design. Enjoy these classes, and if you find them odious, you should really find out why.

On 6/20, C, D <> wrote:

Classification:  UNCLASSIFIED
Caveats: NONE

I am bored because I have to take sculpture, photography and what does that have to do with gaming.  I don’t like doing that kind of stuff.  Why can’t they teach me what it is that I need to learn.  I guess school or college is not for me but I need them to help me obtain my goal.  So how can I get pass all this in order to more ahead.  My parents are riding my back and the more they ride me the more discouraged I get.  I love drawing my own cartoon characters, and the ideas in my head, but there are no trade school in my area.

Can you give me some advise on how to get past this so I can accomplish my goal.  I would appreciate all the help I can get.

—–Original Message—–
From:
Sent: Tuesday, June 19 5:14 PM
To:
Subject: Re: Gaming (UNCLASSIFIED)

D,

I’m not sure why you’re bored. I would hope that the courses would be a bit exciting. What kind of courses are problematic for you? Are you bored because the courses don’t seem related to game work?

On 6/18,  < > > wrote:

Classification:  UNCLASSIFIED
Caveats: NONE

Hello,

My name is D, and I am a sophomore in college.  I am very interested in game design/art.  I find it very frustrating to maintain what I learn in school.  I find the classes they are offering to me very tedious and boring.  I need to know how I can maintain my studies the rest of my college years.  We don’t have a tech school by me to attend so that means I have to go to college.  I will get my B.F.A. so any advise on how to stay alert with the classes. Thanks.

Classification:  UNCLASSIFIED
Caveats: NONE

Austin Central Library Picked By TIME As One of the World’s Greatest Places

We’re all proud of Austin Central Library. It’s an impressive structure right by Town Lake in the heart of downtown, with a lot of great books, an event space, a rooftop butterfly garden, a “tech petting zoo” where visitors can try out new gadgets, and even a world-class collection of self-published lit with a focus on Austin ‘zines.

And get this: TIME Magazine has chosen it as the only American library to be listed in its 2018 “World’s Greatest Places.” Pretty cool.

There are only two places in Texas on the list. (The other is Morgan’s Inspiration Island in San Antonio.) Here’s the page for the library: http://time.com/collection/worlds-greatest-places-2018/5359176/austin-central-library-texas/

If you haven’t visited our local oasis of words, get down there ASAP. Any good game writer should of course be just as enamored with the written word as with digital entertainment.

Game Case Study Update: Kaos War and Damon Grow

So recently I wrote a long, rambling post talking about the Kaos War MMORPG and some of the mistakes that founder Damon Grow makes during their journey (as documented by a Games.net video series).

What ever happened with Damon and Kaos War?

Kaos War never came out. Not a big surprise, you say? Get this: Damon Grow has pivoted successfully and is now leading a small dev team at Superstar Games, which has investments from a number of notable groups, including lead backer and NFL legend Joe Montana.

Grow has clearly done well, even if he hasn’t blinded us with brilliance. I’m pleased to see that he’s managed to make the most of the unique attributes we saw on Kaos War: the passion, the communication skills, the chutzpah.

His big project when he launched Superstar was a VR football game, though. On the website, there’s not a hint of that project, although if you search around you can find video and news coverage. Instead, the site touts several modest casual VR games.

That, too, I think can be read two ways. Either you’ll think he never finishes his projects, or he’s learned to bite off something he can actually chew. Good luck, Damon. It’s a tough industry.

Game Design Case Study: Kaos War

At first I was going to subtitle this post “Follow your game-making dreams like a crack-crazed, howling, insensate lemming plunging from the peaks of Mt. Everest into the fiery pits of Hell itself.” So… should you?

What am I talking about? I’m talking about big talkers and bootstrappers in videogames. And I’m talking about how to build your dream game.

I’m specifically preaching about Kaos War, an old virtual team videogame project that had some dude in San Francisco – name of Damon Grow – betting the farm and bankrupting not only his wallet but also all of his personal relationship capital. I’m talking about an MMORPG dream that either Jesus or Satan engraved into this dude’s brain with a icy scalpel. Games.net posted a series of video minidocumentaries by Wendy Chan that are unfortunately no longer online (I checked Youtube as well). There are nine of them, all revealing and painful. I regret you can’t see them, because they are full of lessons. And lesions.

It’s old news, but I think you can still profit from some of Grow’s mistakes and successes. And stick around… later I’ll post an update on Kaos War and Grow so you can see what ended up happening in this drama.

If you don’t already know, a virtual team is an international group of dreamers who group together – often never having met in real life – and communicate via the internet to cooperate on a project. Of course, especially when they’re building a game, this fails pretty frequently. In Damon’s case, I have to give him props. He seems to have picked people who are dedicated and have some experience. The video clips gloss over that fact a bit. That’s one of the big keys to success, and Damon seems to know how to pick ’em and hook ’em.

In the documentary, they made a big deal out of the fact that he has no experience. Frankly, the suits don’t need to get their hands dirty, and in the world of Kaos War, Damon’s definitely a suit, and probably best doing suit things. Damon seems to have some of the necessary elements to become a gaming executive, truth to tell. He’s obsessed. He loves to talk. He believes 100% in his game. He inspires people and gets their juices flowing. He sacrifices. He’s abusing drugs (okay, caffeine and energy drinks). He’s insane. He makes bad decisions and has skewed priorities. If you can find the video, check it out. Let me know what you think.

p.s. Nice work, Wendy.

Damon’s did a lot RIGHT with Kaos War. He worked hard. He motivated people just by his presence and his words. He recruited talented people from around the world – people he’d never even met.

This guy has charisma, and he was getting stuff done.

For Chrissake, the guy actually managed to get real funding from a game company. He deposited a check. I’ve never deposited a check except as an employee. Many, many pros in the industry have never gotten Funding with a capital F. This boy is delivering.

But what’s he doing wrong, in hopes that someday, someway someone like Damon can follow in his footsteps but do it just a tad better, causing a degree or two less human suffering? What was Damon doing wrong? What not do to when starting your project?

5. Bitch about cosmetics to the guy who just paid your rent.

In one episode, Damon and his forgiving roomie Brian go over to the warehouse district to look at a possible development location. It’s a skunky warehouse and the place is doubtlessly riddled with crime. Surprise – it’s cheap real estate in San Francisco.

Damon immediately carps on the lack of paint and the fact that “it has birds*** all over it.”

Damon, your project has no funding and your team is eating ramen and sleeping in your bathtub. Embrace the birds***.

In fact, you’re not to the birds*** stage yet. You aspire to birds***. I admit that maybe you could skip this stage entirely if you get funded. But you’re not. Why’re you even shopping? Later, Damon and the boys go over to the Boardwalk of SF real estate, Lucas’ digs in the Presidio. Someone mentions that he could hire (and pay!) a programmer a year’s salary with the rent. Hmm. I wonder which one will win in a pinch? Employee salary or fancy-pants suite next to Lucasarts? Hopefully Damon will get this one right.

4. Assume that human suffering is a substitute for excellence.

Damon tells us that one of his teammembers has been homeless for two weeks. We’ve sacrificed so much! he avers.

I’m sorry, Damon. This is wrong in two ways. First, you’re kind of using this guy’s horrible situation to further your project, and in a way, YOU made it happen because he’s spending energy on your game instead of on finding a decent crackhouse to sleep in. This is a bad example for the troops. If you don’t mind bragging that a guy went homeless to work on the game, maybe you won’t mind bragging about having the whole art department on the street.

And second, there are a lot of homeless guys in the world who suffer every day. How many hit MMORPGs have they made?

3. Tell your team to shoot for Goliath.

Taking on World of Warcraft, geez, Damon. What kind of expectations are you trying to set? “Plan B” might be good to have. Good leaders prepare for all cases. Good leaders pick achievable goals that won’t crush the troops if they aren’t met.

A real MMORPG team is 30+ professionals working fulltime… and building ungodly amounts of art, script, story, characters, monsters, and code. These guys have done it before. They have all the tools and training. They can concentrate on their jobs without having to worry about spaghetti supplies or being pushed off the futon at 3 am by the kid they’re sharing it with. These are significant advantages.

Dreamers keep the gaming industry alive. But practical dreamers achieve their goals and start out with baby steps.

2. Shop for your Blofeld-style mountaintop headquarters.

It’s rough to see these game newbies picking their game dev “mansion” when the guy has no money and his rent is due. What the hell? Seriously, who’s supplying these boys with nose candy and uppers?

This is the equivalent of a high school baseball player shopping for bling at Shaq’s favorite jewelry store in Beverly Hills. Helloooooooooo in there! Earth to Skyler!

1. Force your CTO to pull up roots for a pitch meeting – or quit the project.

Lead programmers are gold. They make everything happen, and the whole game is built on their tech design. If your CTO is in Europe and living with his folks, you respect that and let the poor SOB telecommute.

It’s nice to have warm bodies in the boardroom with you when you meet with the publisher, but warm bodies can be hired at the local Walmart. Sure, you want the CTO there to talk tech with the brain trust, but if your publisher doesn’t have the ability to call a guy in Europe you don’t want them.

You don’t force your #1 guy to choose between leaving the country and leaving the project. Most of the time he’ll choose the latter.

Seriously, kids. I urge you. Be realistic. Do some research. Stay focused.

Well, I wanted to respond to Mike’s post from March 6th with some new angles. Hopefully you folks will find it interesting to see two designers honing and whacking on an idea a little – and hopefully Mike won’t mind. ;)

On the 6th, Mike brainstormed up a bold new idea that pivots on something very common yet also very evocative – the thumbtack. He proposed that the game involve a mystery that the player solves by arranging photos on a corkboard using the thumbtacks.

Here’s my feedback:

I like this idea – as well as the concept of building different game pitches here for people to ruminate on.

I do have some suggestions – I fear that the game as described in the main post would be technically challenging (for a developer, due to its nearly unlimited permutations) and could be hard for some gamers to get invested in (because the medium of a corkboard and flashbacks doesn’t give the game much room for interactivity and narrative).

Maybe we could make it a murder investigation where thumbtacks and pushpins are also used to plot travel paths or mark murder locations. These additional uses would introduce more scarcity and require the player to strategize their use. Each pin’s color or material (plastic, metal) could have different properties or affinities.

And for narrative/interactivity, the player could travel around the world and take photos and ask characters about the images shown in them, or combine photos of different suspects to trigger more focused flashbacks.

To explain the scarcity of such an inexpensive item as a tack or pin, we’d have to make the player’s tacks special. Perhaps she’s a psychic and can only use these tacks because they’re not her memories that she’s unlocking – they’re the victim’s, and the player/psychic found them drenched in the victim’s blood at the crime scene. Under duress, the player could even use the tacks to write notes in a desk, punch Braille messages to a blind friend, or let her own blood to trigger memories or distract a vicious dog.

Dang, I didn’t know I’d get so carried away. Thumbtacks! Who would’ve guessed. Fresh ideas come in all shapes and sizes, and they can be powerful.

 

 

 

Quick Notes on the New Star Wars Movies

The New Heroes

I thought Force Awakens was merely serviceable as a movie, a huge chunk of fan service and a merry-go-round of “hey remember Star Wars?” but not a lot of new life. And honestly, that means it was a massive failure.

It was the vanguard of the new guard, the movie that was supposed to introduce us to new heroes that we’d love as much as the old ones. Instead, we got Rey (generic gee-whiz do-gooder with a hardscrabble past who can somehow fight and fly better than all the others), Poe (generic impulsive anti-hero type), and Finn (indecisive cipher). To be fair, Awakens was more of an ensemble romp, more like Avengers than Star Wars, but none of these characters are given full living breath in Episode VII; they all feel like stand-ins for real heroes, or Saturday morning cartoon characters.

Finn is the most glaring screenwriting problem. For once, we have a character who’s been inside the machine, who’s served as a stormtrooper, and yet he’s as bland as porridge. He was sold at a young age to be trained by the First Order as a killing machine, for crying out loud! And then he got reassigned to sanitation, apparently. Do we get to peek inside his head? Aren’t the rebels going to treat him with a little suspicion, deprogram him, debrief him, pump him for secrets, test him, find out what his true motivations are? Do we find out what it’s like to be a ninja who’s been bumped down to trash detail? Does he think about his family or his friends back in the Empire? Does he undergo a journey of self-doubt and self-discovery (Rey) or discover the meaning of sacrifice and leadership (Poe)? Nope, nope, nope. If anything, he’s the counter-example to Poe’s learning as he tries to sacrifice himself futilely against that space cannon thing.

In the real world, we have examples of kids like this, who were abandoned by family and trained to be child soldiers. People like this are usually scarred, hard, fragile, difficult, unpredictable, and inherently compelling. But Finn does not behave like a Sudanese child soldier. He behaves like a suburban dork.

I think Force Awakens is a good case study on what does and doesn’t make a hero. Star Wars shows Luke Skywalker suffering great tragedy and then struggling to understand himself and his tremendously dangerous challenges, building a framework for action and self-sacrifice. Force Awakens shows a group of stock videogame characters running from objective to objective, completing quests to get to their next level-up. It feels cheap.

Cinematic Tension

Last Jedi, however, does a better job of capturing that Star Wars panache, in my opinion. While watching it, I remember saying, “Finally, a Star Wars movie that brings it back to these loaded, fraught, incredibly tense face-offs between powerful and determined heroes and villains.” Chiefly, the emotional psychic connection scenes with Rey and Kylo; the Kylo-Luke confrontation; and of course that brilliant faceoff between Rey, Kylo, and Snoke in the throne room. Jedi also does something that none of the prequels ever did: it gave real immediate stakes to a character’s moral choice. Game of Thrones isn’t a brilliant show because of the bloody battles; it’s a great show because of the memorable tensions between great and unpredictable characters.

The Star Wars prequels are boring because there are no mysteries or surprises. Kylo is definitely one of the more interesting elements in the new Star Wars.

For me, Jedi also performed the miracle of redeeming Rey as a character. She was bland and uninteresting to me in Awakens but in Jedi she developed passion, self-doubt, and purpose.

Killing Off Heroes

I agree that Jedi wrote Skywalker out in a weak and anti-climactic fashion. Honestly, the magnitude of Luke’s Force achievement– broadcasting his convincing self across the galaxy, blah blah blah– was never convincingly shown in a cinematic way. To the average moviegoer, Luke could’ve just jumped in an x-wing and flown over in five minutes… and Disney would’ve been better served to shoot that and let Luke die epically in the flesh.

I also take issue with the way in which the creators have chosen to close the chapters of the three primary heroes of the original movies. For a franchise as mythological and metaphysical as Star Wars, does closure on a character arc have to be a death? I think that’s short-sighted. Look at all the great movie endings through history. Many end with deaths, but just as many end with small victories or new journeys. (And of course that’s also what I hope happens to Princess Leia.)

Bad Technology

I was deeply annoyed at Holdo’s sacrifice, not because of any complaints about the character, but because of the holes it punches in the rules of space combat that Star Wars has always upheld. If lightspeed is really the ultimate weapon, why aren’t the x-wings firing off little miniaturized lightspeed missiles instead of stupid lasers? Is it because a lightspeed drive is too big and expensive to put in a missile? Cellphones used to be too big and expensive to put in your pants, too.

Those Other Tiresome Dustups

As for the fuss over Holdo, here’s a great article that puts Jedi‘s leadership lessons into laser focus. If you missed the Poe leadership thread in this movie, shame on you.

And here’s another great article about the much-ballyhooed Canto Blight casino scenes in Jedi and what they brought to the franchise. Say what you like about the inclusivity, which I think expands the Star Wars universe rather than tainting it, but you have to admit that Blight itself represents a whole new facet to the universe.

What Happens to Princess Leia?

What’s Next for Our Star Wars Princess

What happens to Princess Leia in the next Star Wars movies? What should happen with Princess Leia?

There’s no doubt that old-guard Star Wars heroes are dying like irradiated flies. So far, one hero per movie. And no matter what you think of the new trilogy, the question remains for our beloved franchise: what happens to Princess Leia now that Carrie Fisher has unfortunately passed from this world to one far, far away?

Here are some options, and some thoughts.

Princess Leia Becomes CG

I’m fairly certain there isn’t enough footage for Leia’s future to be stitched together out of odds and ends. So the CG option rears its ugly head, and if you remember the uncanny valley moments with Grand Moff Tarkin in Force Awakens, you know how ugly that head is.

However, Disney fortunately shot this down in April 2017, announcing that they will not digitally recreate Fisher. They also said that Fisher won’t be in Episode IX, which is… interesting. But it doesn’t solve the problem of what happens to the character.

Princess Leia Becomes a Force Ghost

This is the lazy solution: cobble together enough old footage to kill Leia and then have her reappear as a benevolently-smiling but silent Force ghost, standing beside all the others. (I wonder what all the Force ghosts do when they’re not summoned for some feel-good postlude. Force bowling? Force Scrabble?)

However, with Disney saying that Fisher isn’t going to be in Episode IX, this is also seemingly off the table.

Leia Goes Offstage

Not Off-Broadway, but simply gets called away and isn’t involved in the flow of Episode IX at all. I doubt anyone is considering this kind of farewell.

The Princess Leia Time Jump

Popsugar posits that Leia will be written out in exposition via a leap forward in time between Episode VIII and IX. I’m thinking Ep IX would open on a memorial service to remember her great sacrifice of five years ago, and all the new heroes would weep over how noble and impactful her last deed was.

Honestly, I think this is a bad idea. In my opinion, one of the main reasons Last Jedi did worse than Force Awakens at the box office was fan revolt at the way the new movies have been killing off favorite characters (although I believe Jedi was a stronger film). Killing Leia offscreen, no matter how reverently, doesn’t feel right. The early returns on Solo make it clear that the Star Wars magic does have its limits. Mistreating Leia could damage the franchise further.

Princess Leia Becomes an Audio Presence

With Fisher unavailable, what if Princess Leia’s called to a far-flung star system to fight another great conflict for the Force? There are plenty of voice talents capable of capturing Fisher’s wry, gravelly audio presence, and plenty of side quests (and for that matter, meta-quests) she could pursue for years and years. This is a bit of an old-school lo-fi solution, but an elegant one.

Princess Leia Ascends Into a New Lifeform

Unfortunately, with the trilogy format, I don’t think they can postpone the Leia problem in Episode IX. So something must be done.

Here’s a suggestion: give Leia her moment of ultimate sacrifice, maybe something where she willingly steps into a trap or threat to save another hero or heroes. (This could be done via a long shot and a lookalike.) In my example, the threat is a chamber encrusted with eggs, each containing a horrible biological threat. After the explosion (there’s always an explosion), the good guys find a large, oddly-shaped globe in the room. After some discussion, they take it to their base and scan it to find that it contains a child.

At that moment, the globe dissolves, revealing a mysterious girl. And Princess Leia is reborn, keeping our ties to the original trilogy alive, and giving Carrie Fisher a positive, life-affirming farewell to the Star Wars universe.

But again… Disney has said that Fisher won’t be in Ep IX.

Don’t Kill Leia at All

My last modest proposal is to find another way. It’s rather short-sighted to assume that all character arcs end in death. Wouldn’t it be seemly to send Leia off to new journeys and new arcs?

Although it’s ostensibly scifi, the Star Wars universe has always been one steeped in magic and myth, about an adventure as connected to the spirit as it is to the physical realm. The Leia of The Last Jedi is certainly older and frailer, but she clearly demonstrates that she is no ordinary being, and perhaps her last farewell to the movies should do the same.

Simple Gameplay In Banner Saga: A Mini Case Study

Finished Banner Saga awhile ago, but I captured this image when I was impressed by some of its simple but thought-provoking gameplay. Seems like a simple multiple-choice question, doesn’t it?

banner-saga-game-writer

So… let’s break this down a little bit.

This challenge (and similar others) comes up midgame and has consequences on the size of your cohort, although I’m guessing that failing or nailing all of these still wouldn’t make or break you.

Still, the challenge does raise some fun tactical questions that convey the sense of a larger campaign that you don’t really see in the central gameplay.

Five choices. If I remember rightly, my smaller army was bottlenecked at a bridge and trying to break through to green pastures. Tough spot. I’d say that 2 and 4 are largely the same, but certainly 2 has its appeal since it seems to imply an aggressive attack that might lead to a successful exit. 1 was interesting since the alien dredge seemed like they might try to win by force of main. 3 didn’t seem like a good fit to me for the situation; 5 seemed like a misfit for the tight quarters.

But five options, and a bit of a word puzzle as I tried to guess at the possible interpretations based on word choices and previous experience. I ended up choosing 1, which I fear wasn’t the best. It cost me some soldiers, but also wasn’t the end of the world.

However, I was impressed by this implementation of simple gameplay. Banner Saga never puts a lot of actual units on screen — battles are staged between heroes, not hordes — but these little multiple-choice challenges are thoughtfully crafted and fit perfectly in the fiction of a large, drawn-out campaign between entrenched forces. If your cohort is drawn down to skeleton numbers, it has a real effect on your success.

Five questions. Simple gameplay. In context, this is effective game design.

The New Tomb Raider Movie Was Written By A Game Writer

How Come The Game Writer Who Rebirthed Tomb Raider Isn’t In the Credits?

Hmm. I don’t want to throw a lot of shade and grump about how game writers get no love, but it is rather curious.

You see, if you’ve played Crystal Dynamics’ 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, the trailer for the new Tomb Raider movie should look awfully familiarIn fact, IGN has a helpful video that matches the movie trailer shot-for-shot with game footage:

Obviously, the woman who wrote the game script did a hell of a job. The young Lara, the missing father, the ominous threat, the leap into the stormy sea, the pickaxe, the decaying WWII bomber… it’s all there. (We’ll see if the movie also includes some of the game’s more fantastical elements, like the Sun Queen and the demonic Oni.)

Who might this formidible writer be? Well, it’s veteran videogame writer Rhianna Pratchett, who not only worked on Mirror’s Edge, the Overlord games, and Prince of Persia, but is also nerd royalty as daughter of the incomparable Terry Pratchett. (If you haven’t read any TP, get thyself to a bookstore stat!)

And yep. Rhianna is NOT in the IMDB credits for the movie. The two credited are Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons (which, by the way, are admittedly terrific names for someone writing a Tomb Raider movie), although they are credited as “screenplay by.”

Most tellingly, if you google the trio of Rhianna Pratchett, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, and Alastair Siddons together, you immediately plunge into the dark web like Lara Croft diving into the ocean. Ok, slight exaggeration. But the first hit is the Polish website filmweb.pl, mentioning Rhianna thanks to a comment from a savvy reader, and it gets slighter from there.

So What the Heck Happened?

I’m going to tweet this to Rhianna in hopes that she tells her side of the story. We’ll see. But my guess is that she didn’t have a whole lot of rights in the picture. She delivered a viable story for a game, and of course gave Crystal the ownership of the story for future projects. Like this movie. And fortunately the studio and director Roar Uthaug (another great name, by the way) thought highly of the game’s storyline and chose to keep it for the movie. Perhaps Crystal even required it to follow the game so that the two reboots would cover the same arc.

Typically when you see a movie credit a book or short story author, it’s because the movie’s producers had to approach the author to get the rights to develop their project. In this case, I rather doubt Rhianna had much say in the development of this property. It would’ve been a fine tip of the cap for Crystal Dynamics to ask that her name be in the credits, but maybe they weren’t able to. For all I know, her name will appear in the final credits and the omission is IMDB’s fault.

What Does This Mean For Game Writers?

Congrats to Rhianna, first. It’s a rare treat indeed for a videogame writer to see her work hit the silver screen in identifiable form.

At the same time, if I’m a design lead, I’m never going to mention this example to any of my writers! It’s hard enough trying to produce a cohesive story for a game. The last thing I’d want is my team getting distracted and starry-eyed, thinking that their scripts are going to get picked up by Hollywood.

Okay, Enough Trying To Make Game Writers Seem Important

Now… fight!

This Is Why Marvel Is Better Than Star Wars

Marvel Is Beating the Pants Off Star Wars – Admit It

Marvel Comics and Star Wars have always been the polestars of my geekdom, but things have changed and now we have to admit that cinematically, Marvel is better than Star Wars, for some really obvious reasons.

marvel-is-better-than-star-wars

Star Wars came to greatness by taking chances. It had a cast of virtual unknowns, wacky creatures and locations, and a story based on Japanese archetype that blended fantasy and scifi elements.

Now, after a whole trilogy’s worth of cringe-rife agony brought on by George Lucas’ egotism and inability to innovate, Star Wars is trying to regain its mojo, but in the worst possible way. Star Wars: Force Awakens summarizes the dilemma in a nutshell. They hired a hotshot director and were so busy trying to please the fanboys that they remade Star Wars: A New Hope with a less-compelling protagonist with no weaknesses or interesting flaws. (Aptly named, Rey, which is “King” in Spanish, enters the franchise able to fix spaceships better than Chewie, fly and shoot better than Han, mind-control better than Obi Wan, and swordfight better than Luke, but is as interesting as a cardboard cutout.) The whole thing felt more like a salute to a dead franchise than a new chapter in a living one.

Meanwhile, In a Marvel Franchise Far, Far Away

Marvel has its own set of issues, as it introduces more and jankier heroes and muddies the waters of public consciousness as it tries to combine storylines and build team adventures while still maintaining a logical universe (not exactly its forte). Honestly, sometimes I wonder if they’d be better off keeping each character’s arc as separate as possible, a.k.a., not digging into the Civil War storyline while the Avengers thread is still running.

And then Thor: Ragnarok comes out with a totally new approach. Folks, Marvel reached out to Taika Waititi, not the other way around. And this indie director, best known for the hilarious Flight of the Conchords vampire spoof What We Do In the Shadows, is destroying Thor in just the right way.

This is a movie where Thor and the Hulk have a fight and then the next scene is the two of them sitting on a bed, talking about their feelings. Would this scene ever have been pre-approved by committees and fanboy screenings? Hell no! But are the fans loving it? Hell yes! We don’t want crowdsourced entertainment. We want new ideas, and the two are antithetical.

It’s different and fresh and irreverent, but also attuned to character and Marvel’s rich history. Marvel has always been the anti-comic universe, the funny universe, the reality that counterpunched Superman’s sanctimoniousness with Spiderman’s sass and humanity. And Thor has been Marvel’s Superman in the previous movies, noble and distant and sterile.

That’s right: the Marvel handlers wanted a Cannonball Run-style wacky romp with Thor at the wheel. They knew that Thor was boring and stiff and needed a revamp. The MCU vision remains clear, echoing the blast of fresh creativity and fun that was Iron Man. Rather than strangling out new approaches and slavishly trying to recreate its past, it is charting a new and vibrant future.

This is the kind of vision that I admire as a game writer. This is why Marvel is better than Star Wars. All hail Marvel.

And what is Waititi doing next? Why, a stop-motion retelling of the Michael Jackson story from the point of view of Bubbles, his pet monkey. Depending on your point of view, it’s either trash or genius, but apparently it’s one of the hottest scripts in Hollywood.