Coming from a studio best known for their extensive work on the Tom Clancy games, Red Storm Entertainment's Jay Posey had a wealth of knowledge to share in his GDC Austin 2009 Game Writer's Summit lecture about writing for franchise game titles.
Authority Without Tyranny
He began with a simple premise: How a writer presents information impacts how the reader views your information. As writers, building a relationship of trust with the reader is a key element to creating a successful franchise title.
Using an example bio with only slight tweaks, he demonstrated how tone can easily be changed and relationships formed or broken over seemingly innocuous statements. In playing a franchise title, the writer enters a pact with existing fans: The fan agrees that the writer can expand on what he already loves, while the writer agrees not to ruin what has already come before in the world/story.
Posey called for the establishing of a position of authority without tyranny. "Don't use your position as a writer on a Batman game to force your pro-Penguin propaganda down people's throats."
Despite the overall quality of the storytelling in BioShock, the writer called that game out for its perception-bending climax. "You trust the game to let you make good decisions based on what you already know, and then it laughs at you for following those assumptions."
With the industry itself creating many new franchises every year, and the explosion of new mediums like iPhone Apps, XBLA titles and mobile games, Posey sees it as an exciting time for games writers.
He pointed out that franchises can be a part of game culture for a very long time, even potentially dominating certain markets. Madden first came out in 1989, after all, and still annually sells millions of boxes every year.
Knowing your Past
To begin to write on a franchise game, emphasized the importance of starting with the basics and understanding the past of the franchise. "Don't rely on Wikipedia or friends," he cautioned.
Don't read about a franchise second-hand. Play past games in the series, if it has any. Read the books, watch the movies. Play the games on easy mode if you have to, but experience the franchise's story as a player would.
As you do, he urged, pay particular attention to the "writerly things" in the game: plot, characters, setting, and narrative gameplay. Try to figure out which of these is the most important. Figure out the franchise "pillars", those catchy slogans we always hear designers throwing around in interviews and on panels.
Lock onto what players think of most when they think of your franchise. Knowing what these pillars are will let you know if you're building a franchise-loyal game, or if you're wandering off the path. A franchise game unconnected to the core pillars won't "feel" like it belongs in that series.
Posey noted a number of specific examples elaborating on these concepts. Gears of War has several very well-publicized pillars, he noted: Destroyed Beauty, Humanity's Last Stand, Never Fight Alone.
It's easy to know if you're making a game in the Gears world by keeping your eye on those mantras. In contrast -- "and here's where I get fired" he quipped -- Ubisoft's first two Prince of Persia titles are a study in franchise splintering. Even looking at the covers of those games, it's obvious that too many things have changed. The tone is totally different between the two games, and as a result players were thrown off and disappointed.
As further examples, Posey offered some pairings of writerly elements and games. Plot-centric titles are probably best typified by Diablo, a game where the very character you play is entirely interchangeable.
The Splinter Cell and Halo games, on the other hand, are all about characters. It will be interesting to see, he mused, what it will be like to play a Halo game without Master Chief. The setting is often a reason to play a game, and the writer singled out BioShock as a great example.
The atmospheric storytelling of that game trumps either the plot itself or the characters that move through the gameworld. And of course, he stated, signature gameplay is a hallmark of a number of gaming franchises. The aforementioned Prince of Persia franchise fits nicely into that category; setting, characters, and story are all transitory, what you actually do in the game is what defines the series.
The importance of focusing on the "gamer-y things" in past franchise entries was also called out. What elements defined the franchise? What mechanics could you leverage in a new game?
As important as it is to know what to capture and keep moving forward, the writer continued, it is also important to know what can be jettisoned. Knowing what elements of a franchise are canon and what can be swept under the rug is critical. Beyond just games in a series, keep in mind that movies, comics, and web content might also be part of a franchise's canon.
With the key elements of a franchise nailed down, it's finally possible for a writer to understand what the project they're actually tackling is. Respecting the identified franchise elements is then key. Don't change anything just because it's popular.
Don't make changes based on personal feelings, and especially don't feel the need to kill sacred cows just to make waves. The goal is to refresh, not restart the franchise. Unless, of course, the whole goal of the project is to do a reboot. Generally a franchise-holder is just paying for a game to give a series new legs, not to reinvent the wheel.
At this point, the writer can begin to add their own creative voice to the establishment. Taking advantage of old patterns, recognizing what the audience expects, writers can play into or subvert franchise standards with open eyes. Don't just blindly repeat elements from past games; "Give people what they want ... just not how they expect it," Posey joked.
Forging Your Present
Once a new franchise project has begun, Posey suggested the very first order of business is to understand the boundaries imposed by content and command. Content is, of course, the writing you're generating.
What is off limits in the franchise? Conversely, what has to be covered by the game's storyline? Are there any characters that have to make an appearance? Are there any character traits that have to remain consistent?
The content questions roll on: what is the setting of the game within the franchise? Is it a place that's already been covered? Is it a new world connected to the old one? Is there any place that has to actually be avoided?
Is the plot a continuation of the previous story, or an entirely novel one? Are there any questions left hanging by previous franchise entries that have to be answered? Are there any hanging questions that should be deliberately left open-ended? The more about all these questions a writer knows up front, the less "wasted work" he'll put into the project.
Command in this context is ownership, the signoff process for any franchise-related materials. A writer has to know who has the ultimate creative authority on the project, as well as who has signoff. Sometimes those are the same person, sometimes not.
The figure of creative authority has the vision for the project, and it is vitally important a writer understands the vision held by this person. Anyone who can veto or approve work is also someone a writer should come to understand, Posey argues.
Establishing milestones, deadlines, or other regular feedback cycle will ensure that these command figures are kept in the loop. Keeping others in the loop, working in collaboration instead of a vacuum, will all keep dedicated writers "on the rails".
"Why go to all this trouble? So you know whose opinion you can ignore." From programmers to QA, everyone on a games project has an opinion on the story. The key is to know which opinions are just opinions, and which opinions carry the weight of command or content. Whose input is critical to your success on a project?
With a firm understanding of a writer's relationship in hand, Posey argues that you should then become a white knight for the game's story. Become "THE KEEPER OF THE FRANCHISE", a paragon of information and collaboration who can get things done and listens to feedback.
"Be an ambassador", the writer urged, "be the expert. The team will expect you to be the guy who knows the most about your story, so they're going to ask you all about it. Bring the story to them first."
Knowing whose opinions you have to value most allows you to take creativity in measured amounts from every level of the development team. Let the ideas of everyone from level designers to artists inspire your own work. Process the feedback you get for content, not just the words that your co-workers use. As a member of a team, you're representing games writers to the rest of the company.
Other writers want to have jobs too, eventually, Posey quipped. Stay respectful, collaborative, and communicative. "Writer" and "Narrative Designer" are relatively new roles in the industry ... don't wreck it up for the rest of us.
Don't Poop on the Baby
Also: "Don't poop on the baby," Posey warned. Don't be the guy who is going to ride in and 'fix' the franchise from its dark past. Some members of the team might have worked on past "bad" games, and won't look kindly on that.
Show that you care about the franchise as much as your fellow developers. Be collaborative, be flexible ... but ultimately be prepared to end unproductive conversations respectfully. Your coworkers have to recognize that - just as writers shouldn't tell administrators how to optimize a database - not everyone is qualified to make story decisions.
The best way to avoid those situations is to educate other developers on what writers do. The more you help other developers understand how complex the writer's job is, the more they're respect you and your work.
The sad fact is, many people think writing a story is easy because of our constant exposure to media. When you write well, when you do a good job conveying a story, people think it looks easy. Don't try to show off your "fancy book-learnin", don't try to talk down to them; use analogies from their own disciplines and be respectful.
At that point, with all expectations and relationships underway, the great brainstorming begins. Posey notes this is often a writer's favorite time on a project. The key is to remember how important it is to set the scene. Even with the whole ocean before you, you're still on a beach.
You've set up buoys and can call for a lifeguard if you need to. You've proven you're a good swimmer to the team, and you've trained for the event. That's when you can unleash your creative energies, when you know what your limits are.
Start your brainstorming, Posey suggested, with the player. What will they be doing in the game? What is gameplay like? That informs what the story is, and what it could be. Are you shooting people? Okay, we've done that before. What if you're shooting new people? What if you're shooting people that used to be your friends last time out?
Combining the franchise pillars and player actions is what creates the feeling of a true "franchise experience".