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June 14, 2014#

Now you’re talking: Getting the best from your in-game voiceovers

This article originally appeared on PocketGamer.biz on 30th May 2014.

I’m just finishing producing a narrative game with voiceover and, while it’s fresh in my mind, I wanted to share some of what I’ve picked up, as well as tips from working with talent on other digital and video projects.

You’ll also see quotes throughout the article from Tom Green, producer of audio-only hit Papa Sangre 2, who kindly offered his expert advice.

Hear ye, hear ye

First, a game design decision: cutscenes or narration? Or, to put it another way, do you want to take control away from the player while she watches a ‘lean back’ cutscene, or will she ‘lean forward’ with narration over the top of her actions as she plays?

Cutscenes can work well as bookends to an experience, as rewards for completing a level or a chapter (think the animations in World of Goo). They can set up dramatic moments (just before a boss battle in Kingdom Rush), and drive your story along. But on the flip side they can also interrupt the flow of your game by causing frustrating pauses.

Good narration seamlessly blends with the gameplay, doesn’t stop player progress and won’t cause frustration.

For that same reason it can also be much harder to get right. Does the narration respond to the player’s actions? How are the triggers set up? What happens if, for instance, a timed idle prompt (‘Don’t you have somewhere to be?’) clashes with a patrolling enemy shooting the player (‘Get into cover!’)? Does one line interrupt the other, blend in some way, or queue until the other has finished?

Writing your script

It’s worth considering how best to present your script to your voice artist. They’ll typically charge by the hour, so you want to make the most of your time with them. If they’re more used to TV/Radio than games they might be more comfortable with a traditional formatting (see BBC Writersroom for examples).

Your game may not even feature ‘scenes’ as such – it might be short dialogue snippets, one-liners, or a mixture. Try to group the lines by type: e.g. all the player prompts in one section (‘You can’t go this way.’ / ‘Try jumping higher’), all the exclamations in another (‘Argh!’ / ‘Ow!’) and all the more traditional scenes in a third.

This gives a structure to your session and helps your talent focus on one game context at a time when they’re delivering their lines.

Refining the script

Once you’ve got a draft script you’re happy with, record it immediately and stick it in your game.

This doesn’t have to be anything fancy – just use a smartphone to record yourself or a colleague, and a free sound editor like Audacity to edit.

As soon as you’ve got this ‘guide audio’ in-game you’ll almost certainly realise:

  • You’ve written too much and need to edit down the script.
  • What’s left in the script doesn’t quite work as you expected (e.g. you brought in too many story points too soon, was more ambiguous than expected, wasn’t as funny/dramatic/interesting as you thought it would be).

It helps to go through at least two or three revisions of this, tweaking your script and V/O each time. As Papa Sangre 2 producer Tom Green says, “this will show you what works and what doesn’t before you’re ‘paying per word’ with your main talent”.

Think about what extras you might need, that might not be obviously part of the game. Do you want voiceover for your main menu or help screens? Narration for your trailer? It’s great if you can keep your lead voice/s consistent across all your marketing materials – and don’t be afraid of recording a few different versions if you can’t decide on the exact wording at this stage. Give yourself options.

Working with voice talent

It’s a good idea to book at least two sessions with your voice talent, with a bit of a gap in between so you can review what you recorded and catch anything you missed or went wrong.

“Avoid hot drinks, as these will cause mouth clicks. Water or apple juice are best for voice talent”, recommends Green.

The sound will change depending on whether they’re stood or sat, and how far they are from the microphone, so experiment with where they’re positioned. Though Green does warn that “room noise may come in to play the further they move from the mic”.

Be mindful of the speed of the delivery – what can sound normal and conversational in the studio can come across as ponderous and slow in-game (particularly in cutscenes).

It’s rare that what’s on the script is exactly what will end up being recorded. Green adds, “it won’t be appropriate for every session but if you have a fiddly script, the talent is up for it it and you have a computer in the studio it can be good to work from google documents. That way you can be updating the script in real time as you go.”

You’ll want to get multiple takes of every line to give you options when you’re editing, and always be tactful and encouraging in your feedback. If you and the talent disagree about how a line should be performed, record it both ways. It keeps the peace, keeps things moving, and they might be right!

Sounding off

Obviously not all games need it, but it’s hard to argue that those which use voiceover masterfully (Thomas Was AloneBastionLeo’s Fortune, etc) are nearly as fun to play with the volume off. Great voiceover can be that special ingredient that pushes a game to the next level.

And, for more on voiceover, Full Indie’s Jake Birkett pointed me towards the recent excellent piece by Dan Marshall.

March 21, 2014#

How to break through the creative block and come up with your next game

This article originally appeared on PocketGamer.biz on 7th March 2014.

I recently asked a indie dev friend what his next project might be. He explained that while his technical ability was (more than) there, he struggled to think of a good mobile game idea that he felt he could stick with to completion.

This is the blank piece of paper problem.

When you can do anything, the paralysis of choice can mean you do nothing or, just as bad, try to do everything.

“Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” – Gene Fowler, or possibly Douglas Adams

Most of my experience has been with work-for-hire, where you always start with a brief. Now, you may not agree with the brief, but at least it’s not a blank piece of paper.

It comes with limitations, with objectives, with measures of success (“It needs to get players thinking about x topic”/”It must use y brand assets”/”It must have z plays in the first six months”).

Then there’s brainstorming, refining, and stress-testing ideas with colleagues before pitching back what is, by then, a fully formed (and hopefully good) game concept.

The contraints

I’ve been thinking how techniques from that collaborative formal-agency-pitching approach could be applied to to help other mobile indies break through their own creative blocks.

To arrive at your own brief – some self-imposed limitations – it’s probably best to start by thinking about what you want to get out of the experience of making your next game.

Is it about generating a certain amount of revenue? Trying out a new technique? Shipping within two months? Working on a new platform?

It doesn’t have to be long, but just clarifying what constraints you want to give yourself will allow you to be much more creative and give you something to measure a game’s success against afterwards and learn from.

Have you implemented that new technique? Did you ship on time?

Combinations

I’m a firm believer in that the only way to get to good game ideas is by wading through a swamp of truly awful ideas.

If you fire enough bullets, eventually you’ll hit the target. It might seem counter-intuitive, and feel particularly hard or weird if you’re by yourself and don’t have team members to bounce off, but stick with it.

The first goal is to come up with at least fifty starting points, all a variant of Thing 1 + Thing 2.

These Things can be anything – a genre, specific mechanics, the platform, art styles (or just artists), musicians, films, books, types of story (wandering around TV Tropes always sparks something for me), a random asset from the Unity Asset Store.

Or, my personal favourite, just a dreadful pun-based title. For example:

  • Cart racer based on 1950s US gameshows
  • Apocalypse Now dating sim
  • City builder inspired by the works of Hieronymus Bosch
  • Match-3 rails shooter
  • 3D text adventure with a jazz soundtrack
  • Underwater 4X game for Pebble smartwatches
  • Hairdressing sim set in a Tolkein-esque universe: Perm-an-Ent

Lists

Once you’ve got your list of fifty game abominations it’s time to take them seriously. Pick ten at random and think through how you’d actually turn them into a game you might actually play.

It’s fine to diverge at this point and tweak the core idea – the point is to get a paragraph or so of notes and doodles for each that turn them into just-about-plausible concepts.

So now you have three lists:

  • a list of constraints
  • fifty bad game one liners
  • ten average game concepts

Found an idea you can run with? Great! Take that one and go – Godspeed!

Still stuck? Find some trusted friends and pitch each of your ten ideas to them. The process of talking it through with someone, anyone, will help sharpen your own thinking, and expose any obvious flaws. Make lists of notes from everyone you speak to.

Sleep on it

Ideas that seem brilliant at 7pm are usually rubbish by the next morning.

Give yourself some space away from your ideas, let them fizz about in your subconscious for a few days. When you re-read your shortlisted concepts, alongside notes from trusted friends, you’ll either be blown away by your brilliance (great, make that one!) or deeply ashamed of your idiocy.

Don’t worry if you’ve still not cracked it – you just need more bullets. Start again from the top.

Remember: the goal of all of this is only to kickstart innovation and get you thinking out of your established routine. Anything coming out of this process is by design only the very first step toward making-your-next-game.

I guarantee that if you do this enough times, you will think of something that surprises you. Come to think of it, a Match-3 rails shooter could actually work pretty well. A sort of 10,000,000 meets House of the Dead.

Has anyone already made this? Bagsies!

February 28, 2014#

February 2014 – Punderwhelming

This month’s #punliners. Steady as she goes.

February 1st – February 28th 2014

Was I pleased to meet my clone? I was beside myself!

Time to darn it? I would say sew.

Your compulsive habit of careful enunciation is worrying – could be the first signs of a diction.

Tuna coffee ok? I’d offer you a salmon tea but that’s a whole new kettle of fish.

Leper party? I’ll be there with bells on

If there was an award for not-drawing-attention-to-yourself-in-the-classroom, you’d win it hands down.

It’s my pet rooster’s tenth birthday today. He’s no spring chicken.

I awoke on a sled, hurtling down an icy track. Let that be a lesson: you snooze, you luge.

I demanded steak and lobster and a peasant vassal gave me a lump of grass. That’s the last time I order serf and turf.

After Bon Jovi gave the stag horseshoes it couldn’t stand up. So I told Jon “how it was shod threw the hart, and you’re to blame”

“Just booked us a week’s cruise around the fjords.” “Norway?” “Yes way!”

Lent my friend some furniture to store her books. Being shelfless is its own reward.

You actually believed that I’d put a tag on that sea bird? Talk about gull-label.

This trend of cooking with household cleaning products instead of oil and butter? Flash in the pan.

Yep, it’s a salmon fillet, no bones about it.

Blocking access to that underground aquifer is well out of order.

I kept asking why he was humming ‘Kiss from a Rose’, but his lips were Sealed.

Why is there so much free verse written about existentialism? There’s no rhyme or reason to it.

The tooth fairy’s servants are all indentured.

I’d planned to surprise you with a cup of freshly ground coffee, but it looks like someone’s spilled the beans.

The nosy ‘Lord of the Rings’ devotee retreated to Hobbiton where her plight worsened; rout of the prying fan… into the Shire.

Got a great deal on an Impressionist masterpiece from a baby horse. A foal and his Monet are soon parted.

Can’t find much about the inventor of the comb. I suspect they’ve been hairbrushed from history.

“My dog makes noises near docked ships.” “Was it a wharf?” “No, a bark.”

That juice from a Middle Eastern fruit may be out-of-date.

When drunk you may perceive a group of people as more attractive geese than when sober; an effect known as ‘beer gaggles’.

Can someone please balance a load of stuff on a windowsill for me? You’d be an absolute ledge.

One shop extended its canopy, then another, then the whole street. I guess awning IS contagious.

January 31, 2014#

January 2014 – Punapologetic

I’ve decided to write a new pun every day until the end of the year. They’re published daily on twitter under #punliners, and here’s the first monthly roundup covering all of January.

It’s my version of those take-a-photo-a-day challenges, with a little bit of the Seinfeld don’t-break-the-chain productivity hack. I last did it in 2010 and have just about summoned up the nerve to have another crack at it.

Feel free to join in – I love reading tortured, awkward puns even more than writing them.

January 1st – January 31st 2014

Was I pleased to find out I was really a fictional character? I was made up!

“Are you the pig made of old rope?” “Yes, I’m a frayed sow.”

“These are my last words, Captain Hook.”, he deadpanned.

“Five letters: ‘to tell someone off’…?” “It’s scold.” “Well turn up the thermostat and help me with this crossword.”

Started a business supervising infants by giving them tiny stringed instruments. Let me know if you need a baby sitar.

In my transition from stage to screen, acting lessons from Tom Hiddleston have helped me turn in a convincing low-key performance

Are you drawing a hill or is it just an ink-line?

“I’m really struggling to get excited about the new Killzone. About anything, really.” “Is it ennui?” “No, exclusive to PS4.”

Saw some kids snipping loose lace off other people’s clothes, trying not to get caught. They’ll do anything for a cheap frill.

I’ll trade you a cut of beef for your How To Dig A Bottomless Pit guide. I know it’s a punt but come on, brisket for abyss kit?

When you’re first to the top of the mountain it’s summit special.

Got punched and it left a mark in the shape of a major Belgian city. Anyone else Bruges easily?

I sprayed different perfumes on my butter and now it glows in the dark; such unusual flora-scents.

Those white chocolates are very clever; I couldn’t tell until I tried using them on the blackboard. But you can’t sweet-chalk me.

Have you heard the urban legend about the tallest Conservative politician and the guillotine? Well, to cut a long Tory short…

“While you’re asleep I sometimes kiss your shin really passionately.” “How creepy.” “I’m just pulling your leg.”

The inventor who combined a seat with a bicycle is completely overrated. They’ve really put her on a pedalstool.

He sells clockwork pranks. Absolute wind-up merchant.

The tourist tried to understand their suffering, but there was too much of a languish gap.

Clothing too tight? Corset hurts.

Got trampled by a herd of cow ghosts. Shouldn’t have ordered the medium steak.

A gang broke into my manor and stole thick-cut fillet steaks right off the grill. Got to keep an eye on these chateaubrigands.

You can’t make a squid omelette without kraken eggs.

Starting yet another side project, this time making puppet pastry. You know me – fingers in many pies.

Got kicked off a cruise because I didn’t like their live music. No idea why it was a big deal; all I said was “oh no, a band on the ship”.

You always knew when Jim Henson came to your birthday party – he made his presents felt.

Vampires: don’t work with inexperienced plumbers. Trust me, it’d make your blood run cold.

This sketch of a gun doesn’t look quite right. Maybe something to do with the bullets? I’m drawing a blank.

The arcade attendant mimed feeding the machine – a token gesture.

Had the King’s daughter fled the castle? No, she had hidden beneath his chair the whole time, just a throne’s stowaway.

Some folders left at the Large Hadron Collidor somehow caused a fire. Everything got CERNed to binders.

December 25, 2013#

Ludonarrative insolence: Add one part ‘game’ to four parts ‘story’, mix well and serve

This article originally appeared on PocketGamer.biz on 13th December 2013.

Over the course of the last seven years, I’ve been involved in designing a range of digital interactive narrative projects across mobile, social networks, TV and games.

These projects have always been interesting, but (rightly or wrongly) their mass-commerciality has often been called into question. This now seems to be changing, particularly where story games intersect with mobile devices.

The case for

Within weeks of each other this year, we’ve seen the launch of Inkle’s Sorcery 2, Simogo’s DEVICE 6, Somethin’ Else’s Papa Sangre 2 and Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us.

All have Metacritic scores of at least 85 and reams of five star reviews, so there’s clearly an appetite from both critics and players for these kinds of narrative-led game and useful lessons can be drawn from them.

Good reviews and innovation are fine as far as they go, BUT as an indie dev planning your next project you have to consider the bottom line. Narrative games are a definite niche, which is clearly a risk, but also an opportunity.

If, for every 50 free-to-play casual gamers, only one is a potential narrative game customer, that’s still a vast, vast market. 2 percent of hundreds of millions isn’t anything to sniff at.

Anecdotally it also seems that those who are a fan of narrative experiences on mobile are also more likely to pay. DEVICE 6 is £2.49/$3.99 and Simogo has just announced (a very well deserved) 100,000 downloads within a couple of months.

So, practically, what should you think about when making a narrative game?

Start with a good story

This probably means that, unless you’re working with (or are) a very gifted writer, you shouldn’t make a choose-your-own-adventure. Branching narratives are flipping difficult because you need to write 100 good stories instead of one. A good linear story is more than difficult enough for most.

Telltale’s recent titles have all started with big, established storyworlds: The Walking Dead, the Fable’s comic series and now Game of Thrones all have solid narrative foundations to build upon.

Think about your game’s Attention Shape

A hat tip to Matt Locke on this one.

What are you demanding from your player, and what are you offering in return? The bigger the demand, the more you need to offer.

Part of the reason that narrative games are such a niche, certainly when compared to casual games, is the pattern of play which they typically demand.

Telling a good story requires a certain degree of focussed attention from the reader/player/watcher/listener. It’s generally a single-focus activity over a sustained duration in order that the desired ‘flow’ can be reached.

They’re not games you play on the sofa while flicking your eyes to Homelandwaiting for that dull Dana subplot to finish.

When playtesting Papa Sangre 2, for instance, I found it best enjoyed while sat on a wheelie chair in a dark room (wearing headphones is compulsory). This, perhaps unsurprisingly, made me look a little odd.

Similarly, you can’t listen to your own music while you’re playing DEVICE 6 and need to spin your device end on end throughout (which can also look a tad peculiar).

These narrative games are unapologetically demanding, but I’d argue they make up for it by the experience they offer to players.

Consider your storytelling toolkit

You’re on a connected mobile device that can detect location and orientation, has a microphone, a camera, haptic feedback, the ability to play video, text and audio, and run a bunch of logic, etc.

Shakespeare only had a quill and a bit of paper. Now, give yourself some specific constraints: pick a few of those tools and stick with them.

Will you reinvent the novel like Simogo? Make a video game with no video? Reboot a 30 year old gamebook for the iPad? Hopefully you’ll do something we’ve never seen before.

Now, add the ‘game’ bit

As a very tall person once argued, successful gamification is really the process of adding non-game elements to games. It similarly seems that the most effective narrative games are those that take a story and add game elements to it, rather than the other way around.

It’s worth being ruthless, and to stop adding new mechanics before you think you need to. This is exactly Inkle’s approach with the Sorcery series, taking a light touch in Sorcery 2 and even lighter touch in the first.

Combat in Sorcery!

What’s your story’s story? 

I’m not talking about your game’s story here, but rather your marketing story.

This applies for any game, but given that you know you’re only going to appeal to a specific niche, you can look at targeting your message more precisely to the particular outlets, reviewers and communities that have demonstrated a passion or appetite for similar titles in the past.

What will make your title stand out?

Is it your studio’s credibility and reputation for innovation (Simogo), having a big name attached (Sean Bean was the lead voice in Papa Sangre 2), working with an existing IP (Steve Jackson’s gamebooks for Inkle, everything Telltale’s done recently), or something else?

That’s it!

Now, the selfish bit: I’d love to know your recommendations for other great narrative games for iOS – I’ve got a week over Christmas where I’m planning to play little else…

 

October 14, 2013#

Trail Blazer or Trail Fail: Making a Great Promo Video for your Indie Game is Hard

This article originally appeared on PocketGamer.biz on 27th September 2013.

As indie mobile developers we can’t command AAA marketing campaigns, and it’s worthwhile taking Byron’s advice to involve PR expertise as early as possible.

One of the most obvious areas to make an immediate impact is through our video trailers – YouTube isn’t exactly a level playing field, but YourStudioName can have its own channel just as much as RockstarGames and your trailer is displayed in an identical video player to the audience. We must think like the Pufferfish – make ourselves look big.

Promo-phobia

Every spare second of making-a-game tends to be sucked into actually making the game, leaving little leftover brain-space to make videos. I think this is why so many indie game teasers are lacking in focus, concept and/or quality.

They can feel rushed, or an afterthought (“oh Google Play metadata says I can have a video – better make one quick”). Given that they can often represent the first experience anyone has with your game (especially if it’s paid-for), it’s a problem if they don’t reflect the care and quality of the final product. Even before spending £0.69, I’ll want to watch the official game trailer. If it’s clearly a laggy screen-capture from simulator with some generic library music slapped on top, I’ll notice and wonder if that’s the level of neglect I can expect from the game itself. I may put my £0.69 towards one-fifth of a coffee instead.

Focus

Focus for us means thinking about who our audience is for the game – which slice of the game market do we think this will appeal to? How have similar games advertised themselves? Are there common tropes we should adopt, subvert, or avoid? How can we delight, surprise or scare?

Focus also means thinking carefully about the game – identifying what makes it unique or distinctive, and listing in priority order the main selling points to our audience. For our upcoming game we put together 8 slides to summarise this, each starting with “Papa Sangre 2 is…” – an easy digest for anyone on the team to review, discuss and argue about.

Concept

For the concept we’ve been thinking about how best to present our unique selling points to our target audience in a way that would provoke a reaction, whether sales, word-of-mouth or press attention. The risk here is creating a confusing or bland trailer by trying to do too much at once.

If your selling points are quite vague, or encapsulate the whole game experience (“you just need to SEE it”), you’ll probably need to show in-game footage. BUT that requires a time commitment from the viewer, so ideally you also need a hook within the first 10-20 seconds (or sooner) that suggests it’s worthwhile to keep watching and not wander off and make a cup of tea.

Thomas Was Alone, for instance, used two hooks – a celebrity voiceover in the video name, and whimsical copywriting (“a game about friendship, and jumping”). I’m a fan of all three of those things and that kept me watching long enough to have Mike Bithell show (not tell) me that there’s also something quite special about the atmosphere, graphics and story.

Quality

This gets back to the (slightly awkward) metaphor of the Pufferfish. There is no excuse for using in-game footage that isn’t high quality, or having production values suffer in any other way. It’s never been easier to capture high definition in-game footage (we use a Black Magic Intensity Pro capture card set to 720p and 30fps, outputting from an iPad through a thunderbolt-to-HDMI connector).

Audio levels, video editing, keeping it short – there are tutorials and cheap/free software that can get you quickly trained up to a level good enough to produce punchy, well edited trailers. If that’s too daunting/time-consuming, seriously consider outsourcing to a specialist.

 Trying something new

For our earliest projects, I was a one-man-band putting together simple trailers for our apps and games, but for our latest effort we worked with the expert in-house video team at Somethin’ Else.

The video team took our principles slides (“Papa Sangre 2 is…”) and used it as the basis of their video treatment, which went through several revisions before being shot. We also brought in an Art Director with a background in music videos – that outside perspective and expertise was hugely helpful.

We’re editing it into a shorter teaser (with the hook of ‘You are dead’), followed by a longer trailer closer to release (leading instead with the voice of Papa Sangre 2 being Sean “Game of Thrones” Bean).

It’s a marked departure from our previous promos, and we’re excited (and a little nervous) to see how it performs. At the very least we’re confident that its quality matches that of the game itself, and that we’ll learn a lot whatever happens.

How do you approach making promo videos for your games? Or if you don’t make trailers, why not? Is there perhaps an argument that part of the authentic charm of indie games is a slightly shonky, overlong video?

May 15, 2013#

On Luck and Lightning

 ”Our only strategy was to get the game featured. There was no Plan B. It was ‘if this game doesn’t get featured, we have 0 money to market this; no-one will ever hear of it.’” - Barry Meade

That’s one of the co-founders of Fireproof Games, talking about The Room for GamesIndustry.biz. Earlier in that same talk Barry discusses how they created three prototypes in three months and picked the best to progress. So, a lot of focus on making a great game and almost none on marketing. It’s since sold millions and was Apple’s (and my) iPad Game of the Year.

The CEO of GungHo (maker of Puzzles and Dragons) was interviewed recently on PocketGamer.biz about the secrets behind their phenomenal success (their market cap now exceeds the actual Nintendo!).

“Any game we make, we expect it to be good, of the highest standard,” [Kazuki] Morishita says.

“We were very confident that Puzzle & Dragons was a good game, but the success was mind-blowing.

“It had a lot to do with luck,” he adds.

“It was intuition and luck,”

Rovio had famously made 51 titles before Angry Birds (source), and similarly OMGPop made over 35 games before Draw Something and their subsequent acquisition (source).

Lots of food for thought from the how-do-you-make-a-mega-hit point of view, which shares a lot with the let’s-make-a-viral school of missing the point. You can’t bottle lightning. All you can do is give lightning the best possible chance to strike, whatever kind of content you’re making.

And, yes it’s quite distorting to focus on these outliers, but I have much more admiration for craftspeople who start with a focus on quality than those who start from a cynical need to be popular, to be ‘viral’.

It’s the difference between building a skyscraper topped with a lightning rod, and running round on iron stilts in a thunderstorm waving an umbrella.

With the former, if you’re not struck by lightning you’ve still got a beautiful building. With the latter, whatever happens you look a right ninny and you’re probably going to get electrocuted.

By http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikebehnken/5115137630/

Photo by Mike Behnken

May 14, 2013#

How to make a great branded app

Using gaming apps as examples, I’ve written a companion blog to this for a brand/agency audience.

These novelty apps fail because they’re treated like an advert, where the initial spike is all that matters. But no one wants an advert on his or her phone. We download useful apps, fun apps, apps our friends are talking about; and the few brands that understand this, that create not branded apps, but great apps, are getting phenomenal results.

Read in full at The Marketer: How to make a great branded game