Train2Game news: BAFTA Games Writers Panel podcast now available

Train2Game students who couldn’t attend the BAFTA Games Writers Panel at the end of October can now listen to the whole discussion via podcast.

The Games Writers Panel featured games writers Rhianna Pratchett, Jim Swallow and Ed Stern, and was chaired by Andrew Walsh. The panel discussed narrative in video games, so while it’ll be of particular interest to Train2Game Game Designers, it should provide interesting listening for anyone interested in video games.

Listen to the BAFTA writing for games panel debate podcast here. (It does contain some strong language)

When Train2Game attended the BAFTA Games Writers Panel we were fortunate to get interviews with two of the speakers, both of whom spoke in-depth about game design and offered Train2Game students advice on getting into the industry.

You can read the Train2Game blog interview with Deus Ex: Human Revolution writer Jim Swallow here.

Meanwhile, the Train2Game blog interview with Brink writer Ed Stern is here.

More recently than the Games Writers Panel, the Train2Game blog spoke to Bioware co-founders Dr. Ray Muzyka & Dr. Greg Zeschuk at the BAFTA Bioware Lecture.

As usual, leave your comments here on the Train2Game blog, or on the Train2Game forum.

BAFTA’s public events and online resources bring you closer to the creative talent behind your favourite games, films, and TV shows. Find out more at, or

Train2Game interview: Brink Lead Writer Ed Stern Part 2 – Game Design

Train2Game was at last month’s Games Writers Panel at BAFTA’s headquarters in London. There, the Train2Game blog spoke with panellist Ed Stern, Lead Writer at London studio Splash Damge. In an in-depth interview, Ed discusses development of Brink, game design and game writing and offers advice to Train2Game students on how to get into the industry.

Part 2 focuses on narrative in games, what makes a good game designer and advice on how aspiring writers can get into the industry. It’s on the Train2Game blog, or alternatively you can read it on Train2Game’s Scribd page. Part 1 of our interview with Ed Stern is available here.

We’re here at BAFTA for the Games Writers Panel, the theme is ‘Putting the protagonists in the hands of player kills traditional narrative concepts,’ what are your views on that?

It’s really interesting because we’re so used to, as writers, we think about character a lot and we think about action a lot. But compared to prose or theatre, stage play or screenplay, we just have to empty out our tool kit almost completely. All we’ve t left is a hammer and when you’ve got a hammer everything looks like a nail!

It’s really hard, we’re giving up control to players most of the time. Basically, if it’s a cinematic, players resent it because they’re not in control. If the player is control you’ve given up all control of the pacing and meaning to the player, what happens if they just don’t want to look at the thing you’re claiming is important?

I think part of the answer is what Bernard Herrmann did with movie scores. He realised the symphonic form or the classical form, it needs too long to develop, you need to write in tiny little dramatic units that’ll work no matter how short the scene is. It’s kind of like that and you just get used to writing at postcard length, or Tweet length.

So what do you think makes a good game designer?

I don’t think there’s any one quality but I guess adaptability because your Plan A will never work out. It’s like they treat you at Sandhurst, no battle plan suffice contact with the enemy, battles only ever take place on the edge of maps, never  in towns you can’t pronounce. It’s kind of like that! It’s the art of the possible and there’s and old joke; you finish up the game with the team you should have started with and a month after it shipped you find out what it was about.

So you want people who are flexible enough to not get too up or too down about stuff, but still remain completely passionate and committed to it. I think it’s hard for people when they first join the industry as they can do the passion but they can’t do the pragmatic. Or you get people who are a bit too pragmatic and won’t stand up to fight their corner and be passionate about it and then accept the production decision when it’s made.  So as in all things, balance.

How did you get started in the games industry?

It was just dumb luck. I was working in TV production making TV about computer games, or out of computer games, and one of the guys we had as a consultant was setting up a studio and needed a part-time writer to do press releases and I just fell arse backwards into it…Which I realise isn’t a replicable step but there’s lots of stuff now as then.

There’s a huge mod scene, there’s lots of teams making games out of existing games using existing technology, changing the look and changing the meaning. No one is stopping anyone from making game; it’s just very hard to get paid for it. But when you’re in that initial phase there are certainly projects out that that need writers or need designers, it’s just whether anyone is going to pay you for that time.

But it’s always more important to finish something than to start something, that’s what we look for when we’re hiring, what people finish in their portfolio, not what they start then kind of get a bit bored with and give up on.

Carrying on from that, what advice would you give to a writer or designer looking to break into the industry?

Learn to code, learn Unity, learn Flash, be able to make a game. Because even if you’re not great a graphics or great at sound you’ll understand what the issues are. You know that game Game Dev Story? You want to have at least a couple of stats in the other disciplines. Even if you’re never going to be hired to do sound, have some idea what the issues are with sound. If you’re a writer have some idea what the graphic issues are so you don’t inadvertently end up writing a cheque that no one else can cash.

I think that’s a problem for people coming into the games industry from other industries, they just don’t realise some things are incredibly cheap. I mean in games it’s not that much more expensive to make a building fly through the air then it is to just sit there. By the time you’ve made it you might as well move it around.

But some things are incredibly expensive. Like facial animation; that’s ridiculously expensive and that’s something you get for free in theatres and movies.  Close-ups are incredibly hard for us; they’re way more expensive than any other shot. But then again by the time we’ve built a set we can fly the camera around for free, that’s cheap for us to do, we don’t need to hire a helicopter. So yes, have some awareness of the other disciplines and the relative costs, I think that’s the most useful thing.

Speaking of facial animation, do you believe games will get on a par with films and television? We saw it earlier this year with L.A. Noire but it takes a lot of time and effort right now.

Possibly, it always sounds like it’s just around the corner. Maybe it will be with enough computing power. Photorealism, it’s a blind alley; games are a million times more expensive to make than Tetris now, they’re not twice as much fun as Tetris. Games like Limbo, now that’s not a realistic art style but it’s a fantastically immersive one.

Project Zomboid is a very unpromising sounding game, it’s about a zombie invasion, surely that’s been done to death? They do amazing things with that premise, Will Porter, the writer does incredible work within four lines; I was totally, absolutely obsessed with the fate of those characters. Graphically that’s not enormously complex and it’s just text on screen but it’s enormously effective. Now that’s not expensive, but it’s bloody good writing and it’s really effective on the player. So maybe that’s a more effective way of doing it because it’s not as expensive, but it’s not trying to be movie and as a result you get playing immersion and dramatic involvement much cheaper that way.

Thanks for your time Ed.

No problem, thank you.

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Train2Game interview: Brink Lead Writer Ed Stern – Part 1

Brink Train2Game blog imageTrain2Game attended last month’s Games Writers Panel at BAFTA’s headquarters in London. There, the Train2Game blog spoke with panellist Ed Stern, Lead Writer at London studio Splash Damge. In an in-depth interview, Ed discusses development of Brink, game design and game writing and offers advice to Train2Game students on how to get into the industry.

Part 1 focuses on Ed’s role as Lead Writer, the design and art of Brink. Read it below here on the Train2Game blog, or alternatively you can read it on Train2Game’s Scribd page. Part 2 of the interview is here on the Train2Game blog.

First of all, can you tell us a bit about your role as Lead Writer at Splash Damage involves?

It’s an odd one. It’s sort of a narrative designer director role which means lots of things. It can end up being virtual location scout and production designer and wardrobe guy. I think a lot of it is giving design documents and reference images to artists, environment artists and level designers and so on. And it’s tough for writers because we’re used to working with words but lots of people who make games aren’t textually inclined, you’ve got to give them images. So, photo research is bizarrely a lot of the writing I do.

Because it doesn’t matter if I write a document that I think describe what’s going on, that’s not the target audience, the target audience is the team making the game and quite often they’re more visually inclined. So yes, writing back-story, creating the world, writing cinematics, storyboarding cinematics, writing dialogue, directing performance capture, directing voiceover and trying to do localisation as far as possible. Well it’s not so much trying to do that as building in localisation, so something like ‘here’s a text box, I can’t fill it with text in English because in German it’ll be a third longer so whatever I write has to be a bit shorter than that” That’s the glamorous world of games writing!

Splash Damage released Brink earlier this year, how did you go about writing it?

Well that was really fun because that was the first time we at Splash Damage produced our own original IP. Previously we got to work on Quake and Doom and Wolfenstein which is fantastic, because if you’re working on other people’s IPs that isn’t a bad place to start! So we needed to demonstrate we come up with a world. Arguably we overwrote that, that’s kind of an RPGs worth of back-story and world for pretty much just a multiplayer shooter. But it was great! It was great fun to do and the goals were it couldn’t look like anything anyone had seen before, and we wanted to be sticky, it’s a great test of a character. You turn the page and do they still linger in your mind?

Dickens is a great example of that. He’s got characters who only have a detail of their costume, he only talks about the guys’ waistcoat, but he’s really memorable, even after you put the book down you think what was it about that guy? So the goal was that the world itself would be the games main character and it would be memorable and even when you’ve finished playing you’re thinking ‘What was the deal with…Oh that, that’s the half of that that was in that other level there!’ It was trying to create a world complex and sticky enough so players will think about it even when they weren’t playing.Train2Game blog Brink image

Is that the reason behind the very distinctive art style Brink has?

Partly. I mean partly that’s just to get away from photorealism because there are enough dark brown or green shooters and so it was a unique thing. Also for immersion, I mean realism doesn’t actually engender believability. In fact it turns out that you can exaggerate facially quite a bit, it’s whether there’s an immersive character or situation. But yes, partially it was also to be visually distinct. It made it interesting trying to direct for that with performance capture, because the actor makes a subtle gesture, but by the time it’s been replayed on this enormous hand model with these huge great meaty fingers, quite a subtle gesture turns into this huge operatic gesture. We didn’t see that coming, we should have anticipated that.

What were the challenges of writing a mainly multiplayer focused game in Brink?

The problem is that you’ve got is all the writers tools are generally about a protagonist and you stick with this hero who works their way through. We didn’t have one – we had these three characters depending on what faction you chose and you saw cutscenes with them – but you weren’t one of them, you were just a member of their team.  The challenge is to make the player interactions meaningful so that when they press a button, they don’t just feel like ‘I’m running around and pressing a button on a controller or clicking a mouse.’ You’re feeling like ‘I’m one member of this team and I’ve picked this faction rather than the other and I’m in this location and I give a hoot about what the objective is.’

One of the things we did – for instance there’s a level called Container City and it’s a kind of slum – and if you go there as Security you’re told ‘They’re building a bio weapon, you’ve got to get this thing,’ and that’s a pretty important reason to go and get that thing, fair enough. But if you’re as Resistance you get told ‘They’re stealing our vaccine.’ So hopefully they care about that. Or my personal goal if they’re paying attention to the story – and lots of people don’t, that’s another thing – is they go which is it? And we’re never going to tell you definitively and it’s entirely plausible that it’s both because what do you make vaccines out of other than viral particles which could be used as a bioweapon?

The goal was that it wasn’t just ‘Take objective to place B,’ that we were going to dress it up in a fiction, so that even though it’s all just chaotic being shot in the head action, the narrative carries on even though the cinematic was over. That was the challenge.Brink

And what was the thinking behind adding the alternative game endings as missions?

Well we didn’t want to privilege one story over the other: if you win fantastic, if not that other thing happened. We didn’t want there to be a canonical ‘this is correct and all the other ones are wrong.’ Actually it turns out there is kind of a storyline but we didn’t want to collapse all the possibilities down unless we absolutely had to.

I think it’s a problem with lots of games that in their urge to explain everything they kind of explain everything away and it’s like an equation where it all factors out and there’s nothing left, it just goes, and it’s an exhaustive explanation of what’s going on and there’s nothing left to think about. So we quite like that there were these loose ends and the loose ends themselves would join up, and so players should have questions should have questions about ‘Why are they doing that?’ If they’re of a disposition to listen to audio diaries, ‘Oh that’s what that was about!’ Even if players aren’t into that I think they can sniff it in the time and trouble that’s been taken.

So that was the goal, even if people didn’t watch all of the cinematics or read all of the diaries, somebody has done the work and it does all add up to something.

Looking back at a Brink, if you could change anything, what would it be?

We weren’t able to do it, unfortunately, but it was very much the plan that you would be one of the characters in the cinematics, it would be you doing those things. But because we really wanted to let people choose their voice packs; that would’ve meant recording every line of dialogue in every single one of the voice packs and we just didn’t have the budget to do it. That I think would’ve changed the sense of story, because it would’ve been you going through it, not just three guys you might or might not care about. That would’ve been one thing that would’ve changed the meaning of the game and it’s a shame we weren’t able to do that.

Read part 2 of our huge interview with Ed Stern here.

Leave your comments here on the Train2Game blog, or on the Train2Game forum.

For more information, go to

BAFTA’s public events and online resources bring you closer to the creative talent behind your favourite games, films, and TV shows. Find out more at, or

Train2Game news: Deus Ex writer on what makes a good game designer

Train2Game recently had a chat with Deus Ex: Human Revolution writer James Swallow at the BAFTA Games Writers Panel where he discussed various aspects of game writing and game design.

But does the he think is the key skills a good video game writer should have?

“Play lots of games, I can’t underline that enough.” he told the Train2Game blog in an interview to be published on Monday.

“I would say be a good writer first, obviously, you can’t be a writer without being a writer.  But play lots of games, understand games, and try not to come at it just from a writer’s standpoint, but understand a bit about design and the way games are constructed”

Swallow argued that a good game designer needs also needs to understand the roles of the rest of the game development team in order to do the best work.

“Listen to what level design guys and art design guys talk about, producers and directors, understand how they do their job because ultimately if you want to be a games writer you are going to have to interface and mesh with these people.” said the Deus Ex: Human Revolution writer.

“So if you have an idea of what it’s like to walk a mile in their shoes, you can do your job a little better.” he added

Train2Game’s in-depth interview with Swallow covering Deus Ex: Human Revolution, writing for games and how to get into the industry will appear here on the Train2Game blog next Monday.

So Train2Game, what do you make of the advice from the Deus Ex: Human Revolution writer? Do you think about game design while playing video games?

Leave your comments here on the Train2Game blog, or on the Train2Game forum.