GDC Online: Writing the Whirlwind (Joseph Staten)

Why I went

Halo is a successful franchise with a loved universe spawning a wide array of products.  I am keenly interested in how he made that vision a reality and what tools were used over more than ten years of stewardship.

First Impression

Obviously a popular talk – the speaker engaged well with the attendees from the start.

Notes

Beginning

  • The place was more important than the plot
  • Creating a believable and engaging setting was the focus
  • Mystery and adventure on an infinite horizon
  • Concept art captured the feel of Halo
    • Feedback: “I don’t know what this game is, but I want to be there right now”
  • Do not start with the plot, start with the place
  • Master Chief was designed to be
    • Simple and iconic – an uncomplicated vessel with not much to dislike
    • Essential straight man – a foil to the chaos (and humor) happening around him
    • Perfect reflection of power projection
    • Fun to play

Middle

  • Halo 2 had the best final act that no one saw
  • Perfect storm of over design and over reach

Ending

  • All good things should come to an end
  • Take risks to avoid ruts
  • Good structures are built to flex so they can be cut
  • Quick to adjust
  • In ODST everyone felt connected to the story on the team
    • Original idea came from the team (Dan Miller?)

Writing

  • Even if you are in a writing role, the entire team are story tellers
  • Writer has to be aware that a story change can have huge consequences for the game
    • Writing a check is easy, cashing is hard!
  • Keep bulleted lists for story problems
  • The most important story notes are created for internal use only
  • Know the strengths and weaknesses of the team.  Work closely with them
  • Big canons
    • Unwieldy and hard to shoot!
    • You are creating collaborators not just fans
    • Make safe pockets in canon where they can play
      • A sandbox for them to play in and expand complementary parts of the universe.  Examples:
        • Ilovebees.com
        • Red vs. Blue (makes good fun of the craziness!)
        • Halo Wars
    • Tricky… novel “Reach” came first and differs from game “Reach”
  • Hollywood
    • Build it and they will come
      • Do not be offended – they want your *world* not your *words*
      • Do not compromise; the film industry need the game industry as much as the game industry needs them
      • Even though the film never happened, learned a lot from meeting with Peter Jackson
  • Cortana
    • Smart women are sexy
    • Needed someone who could get under Master Chief’s skin
    • Inspiration came from the strong women in the writer’s life
  • Other literature
    • Speaker read “The Hero’s Journey” in college
    • Lessons to be learned
    • ODST non-linear journey
  • Story over plot
    • Story always matters
    • Story can be told without dialogue
    • Keep the story simple
    • Would be great if the world was always there.  Lots of stories to tell rather than just one over a dozen hours.
    • Mute scale
      • Gordon Freeman (Mute)
      • Master Chief (Slightly Talkative)
      • Duke Nukem (Talkative)
  • Writing pipeline
    • Touch type (!)
    • Software
      • Uses OneNote to share ideas across the team
      • Final Draft
      • Excel (started to not cope with the volume)
      • No custom tools he was aware of
    • Used bulleted lists
    • Halo 3 used something like Robovoice for place holder audio
    • Powerful cinematic tools in game
    • Own mocap stage

Conclusion

It was a very enjoyable session.  I am glad I asked the writing tools pipeline question, as there does seem to be a lack of specialist tools for writers in the games industry.

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