I’ve been meaning to write about this since I got back from ECCC, and I guess this is my first opportunity. I spent most of the time at the con hiding behind the Angry Robot table and trying to convince passersby to buy some books. Which isn’t a problem, I assure you. I don’t really like crowds, so I’d rather be safely barricaded from them via a table. That’s why I only go to ComicCon-type events when I have to.
This time was a little different because we had several people come over to the table and introduce themselves. They didn’t want to buy any books, but specifically wanted to make contacts with writers because they were looking to hire some. So at each of these, my ears perked up. I’m a writer, after all, and I do like money. (And I have done writing for games, by the way, just saying.)
But most of the conversations went the same, kind of weird way. I’ve got a game, the person would say. It’s going to be a match three game with a social aspect and microtransactions and loot boxes and replayability, and we want women in their 30s to play it. Or variations on that, which were basically a laundry list of mechanics, mostly whatever game mechanics are currently making people their money.
Okay, but what is the game about? And that was pretty much where the conversation ran aground. Most of the people who talked to us didn’t have an idea of even the broad genre the story for their game would fit in, let alone a vague outline of what that story might be. Like, I don’t know, whatever ladies in their 30s are into.
I get that there are pressures to game design as far as profitability, and mechanics are a big part of that. But listening to a lot of these really random-sounding lists of mechanics, I spent a lot of time wondering what the hell kind of story they expected to be able to wrap around all those moving parts. Definitely not a story that was going to make much sense, in many cases.
Maybe it’s a symptom of the idea that writing is somehow “easy” and only needs to be an afterthought when it comes to crafting a game. Like it’s just wrapping paper over the mechanics that you’re going to use to extract the maximum amount of money from your audience. But if you want a narrative that’s going to compel people to, say, get attached to their favorite characters so much that they’ll throw wads of money your way, you need to at least know what kind of story you’re trying to tell. The best games I’ve ever played, while they haven’t necessarily been the most well-written on a dialog level, kept me coming back because they knew what they were and they knew what kind of story they wanted to tell, and the mechanics worked with that. If you have a story, or hell, just a genre and theme you’re passionate about, it comes through.
It bothers me and makes me sad, both as a writer and a gamer, that story seems to be treated as some kind of necessary evil, and writers an unfortunate expense that must be paid to thinly wallpaper over your game mechanics.