Professional profile Joe Velikovsky

Professional profile Joe Velikovsky


What do you do as a games writer?

Day to day, I read (and/or write) the Game Design Document updates, play a lot of games (as research), create a lot of Word, Excel and Visio documents and sometimes Google Sketchup models. (I’m kind of a rare case in that I also game design and produce ... sometimes, all three at once.)

My most recent console game credits include LOONEY TUNES: ACME ARSENAL on PS2, Wii and 360, and also JUMPER (based on the Fox movie) on Xbox360. The mission, story outlines, narrative walkthrus, etc. are done in Word, the dialogue and screenplays are usually in Final Draft and later as Excel sheets, and the mission flowcharts, in Visio. You also play through the game levels as they evolve, and see what’s working, and work a lot with the sound guys, to ensure the dialogue sound files all go in the right spots then you get to write the Game Manual when it’s all done and dusted.

How do your skills as a film and TV writer and game writer inform each other, if at all?

They inform each other loads in my case, as I’m working a lot on alternate reality games now (film/TV/Internet cross-platform games/narratives) but I’ve also tended to work mainly on AAA (big budget and high production values) console games, with filmic narratives. As I’m a feature script and TV writer, I’m interested in non-linear narrative movies like Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Memento, Rashomon, Sliding Doors, Run Lola Run, Vantage Point, etc., and there are many lessons from all those films (about point of view, and parallel and alternate plots) that cross over, into game narratives.

Writing your Game Story in ‘Modular Chapters’ is often the key – so that, if you lose a level/chapter during the development cycle, or, like in a ‘sandbox’ game such as GTA, you want to let the player ‘choose the order of chapters’, it doesn’t ‘break’ the story. Game writing and design are intertwined and are often more about engineering. One cool thing about games, is you often get to write various versions of the same plot, like a) good guys win, b) bad guys win, and/or c) good guy achieves his goal, but potentially in four different ways. , etc (though, each player may only ever see 1 or 2 of them)... All that writing lets you, as a storyteller, hone your dialogue chops and kind of ‘have your cake and eat it too’. Narrative games often need a lot of structural plotting and dialogue, which are both strengths of mine, as a writer. I use a lot of Story Template tools, like those in my Screenwriting Textbook at [http://www.joeteevee.com/features.html]. As for film/TV/Web/ phone stuff – as I say – I’m working on alternate reality games which ‘straddle’ most media platforms anyway so, with the film and TV writing versus games writing it’s all narrative, just in another format.

How do you develop a game concept document?

For console games, first I usually come up with a ‘unique gameplay hook’ (like say, maybe a psionic spy who can see peoples’ auras or, whatever). Then I write a three-page Game Concept around that hook, which has paragraph headings like: genre, platform/s, gameplay, missions, story, characters, settings, items, weapons, vehicles, collectibles, theme, look and feel, sound and music, and target audience. The producer, lead programmer, lead artist and sound designer all meet and we talk about what’s possible – and what needs changing. You end up with a 200-page Game Design Document that changes daily, based on prototyping and the engine’s technology.

On paper, the gameplay mechanics might sound cool together but when they are actually combined, a third, emergent behaviour could ‘leap out’ that changes everything. This is part of the fun, riding that wave. Like Brian Eno said, ‘Let the system tell you where it wants to go ...’. Despite the best-laid plans of mice and game designers – whatever is actually the most fun to play, once it’s prototyped, always ‘wins out’. Story (and everything else) is always secondary to the gameplay ‘hook’.

I think Nikola Tesla would have made a really hectic game designer as he could apparently mentally visualise a machine with over 1000 moving parts, hypothetically ‘run’ it for 1000 hours and then take it apart and see which parts were worn and needed replacing. For the rest of us, you have to firstly, loosely design it on paper, then build it, play-test it and then just suck it and see if it all works. The game design and the writing both have to stay flexible all the way through the process (which can be about two years sometimes), to work in with all of that.

What makes a film or TV script suitable for translation to a game?

Spectacular locations, a mystery involving exploration and puzzle-solving, and ‘travel-narratives’ often help, but the main thing is a ‘unique gameplay mechanic’, which often comes back to the physics of the narrative world itself. In the movie Pitch Black, the way in which enemy creatures can only move in the shadows, makes for an interesting gameplay mechanic. In Jumper, it was the teleporting which made the combat more interesting (and great locations like the Roman Coliseum, the South Pole, etc). In Harry Potter, the magic spells and supernatural aspects (and even the visual effects) that all made for good adaptation to games. In Looney Tunes cartoons, (much like The Simpsons and Futurama), there’s loads of madcap cartoony violence and slapstick – as well as all the ACME weapons, the classic characters and the one-liners. So, some franchises are clearly more adaptable than others.

One big thing that Professor Henry Jenkins at MIT has pointed out, is how games are often less about character per se (mainly as player freedom usually ‘annihilates’ character) and often much more about ‘immersive spaces’ and/or ‘travel narratives’ (like most of Jules Verne’s work). Film on the other hand is more about character change and character journeys and novels are usually more about internal journeys and mental philosophies. Of course those are generalisations, as these days you have everything from BioShock to Boom Blox, and WoW to The Sims.

How do you stay current (professional development, networking)? 

I read Gamasutra and Sumea news, hang out with/talk to my other game developer buddies, buy game magazines with demo game disks (if I don’t have time to play the whole game) and read blogs like Jason Hill’s ‘Screenplay’ at The Age online. I try and read all the latest books on game and screenwriting – stuff by Dara Marks, Skip Press, Henry Jenkins, Ernest W Adams, Christy Dena’s stuff on ARGs, and so on. Metacritic.com is also useful.

What advice would you give to someone keen on working in game writing?

Today, if I was looking to break in, I’d maybe do a short interactive/game writing course (AFTRS and loads of unis and colleges have game courses now), or else, read Dille and Platten’s Ultimate Guide to Videogame Writing and Design as well as [http://www.designersnotebook.com] then get on [http://www.sumea.com.au/] and [http://www.gamasutra.com] and send off my CV and some writing samples to game developers. Writing samples might include a short (20-page) game design document (to show you understand how the game narrative works within the game design), a sample game screenplay (or part thereof), and maybe even some short films.

Other writing samples (like short stories) can help, but it’s mainly screenwriting – so dialogue and working to a brief is crucial. It is also important to be familiar with the classic ‘narrative’ games – things like Deus Ex, the Sam & Max games, Metal Gear Solid, Half-Life, Bioshock and things like Hotel Dusk on DS. In game job interviews you often get asked, what your favourite game is, and why – so it’s good to have examples ready to quote. But if you’re a mad-keen gamer you know all those already.  

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