Posts Tagged ‘gdc online’

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.



  • 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


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


  • 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?)


  • 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:
        • 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


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.

GDC Online: How to create a diverse team and keep it


Donald Harris and Sheri Graner Ray hosted a round table on my last day at GDC Online about diversity in game studios.

Why I Went

The topic sounded interesting to me – diversity in my mind was a given as I have seen the power of mixing people from different backgrounds within the talent melting pot of Lionhead Studios.  Encouraging retention in particular was interesting to me, as people sometimes do not just leave a studio but the entire game industry itself.  I believe some of those leaving would have chosen to stay if there was a better work-life balance; e.g. improved working practices that supported fathers and mothers spending time with their children, rather than have them routinely spending extra hours at the office.  Those reading this blog entry interested in overtime practices and their impact on the workplace should review DeMarco(1999) and Keith(2010), as this topic was not discussed in depth at this round table.

First Impression

The round table discussion started with Donald asking everyone to introduce themselves and to explain what they wanted from the hour.  Diversity was understood by the room in two ways, genetic and skill.  Despite the room being mostly white and male, the entire room did declare interest in diversity in both regards.


The first question after introductions was “why would you want diverse teams?”

Diversity in skills was briefly addressed, with some questioning the value of mixed discipline teams.  Questions about improving communication between artists and coders were asked but never really answered.  The meeting was steered back to people with diverse skills rather than mixed discipline teams.

Personally I can see the value of mixed discipline teams as suggested by some in the industry including Keith (2010 pg.160-161); but in larger studios these disciplines do seem to be organized in to single discipline departments.  The different terminology and ways of communicating between disciplines does make people who can communicate easily with each very useful.

Interestingly during career track talks on Friday this kind of generalist attitude seemed to be under-valued, as graduates were being repeatedly encouraged to be more specialized.  I do wonder if the message of specialization given through career advice both before and after entering the industry could be creating deeper communication silos, thus hindering integration of disciplines in to cohesive cross-discipline teams.

Donald made the point that a modern game set in a city made by a diverse team would be inherently more believable because of the combined cultural knowledge of a diverse team.

Sheri steered the room towards recruitment ideals, clarifying the “how to create a diverse team” part of the title into “where to source skilled diverse people from”.  A side point here quickly resolved is that hiring an under-qualified candidate from a under-represented type of person is counter-productive.  Fulfilling corporate targets based on genetics rather than required skill builds weaker teams and breeds contempt.  The room declared the door was open to candidates with the right skills from diverse backgrounds, but sourcing those people can be difficult.

A grass roots suggestion about working with schools to encourage more diverse candidates interested in developing skills useful to the game industry was quickly discussed but ultimately the room was steered back towards addressing more immediate recruitment.

Places suggested included:

  • College campus
    • Talk to instructors directly, ask for interns
  • IGDA diversity groups
    • Cannot directly advertise, but there are networking opportunities
  • Mod Community
  • Linked in
  • Different types of colleges and universities
    • Architecture School
      • Level designers
    • Art School
    • Business School
  • International candidates
    • Localization & bring knowledge about their own culture
  • Community and customer management candidates
    • Starbucks, PapaJohns, etc
      • Received good customer service while serving studio,  worthwhile interview to represent studio.
    • Customer base
      • Passionate about product, though can be double edged sword
  • Game forums
    • Fans can be recruited in to community management
  • Poaching from other studios
  • Poaching talent from other industries

At one point I did suggest to the room that if working practices were to be improved that mothers and those physically unable to work a full day could be an untapped source of talent, especially if they could job share.

Behavior interview techniques were mentioned, with a split about whether the practice of letting every member of the team spend a few minutes with a candidate being interviewed was good or not.  DeMarco (1999) also advocated using a similar technique.  It was suggested that perhaps this practice is better for smaller teams, though some said that it worked with larger ones too.  An objective set of criteria for questions to be asked by the team if a team interview is done was agreed to be crucial for the practice to be effective.


In the closing minutes the elephant in the room was the word “diversity” itself.  It is a big word that can be quite confrontational (“You’re not diverse… you are BAD people!”).  Someone else said “I hear diversity, I think of lawyers”.  Corporate diversity training was spoken of briefly – some found it comforting, others thought it was just a box ticking exercise providing some kind of metric proving to someone somewhere that a company was diverse.

I found the round table discussion interesting though not quite what I expected  – it focused on recruitment rather than team cohesion and retention.  It was comforting to hear that my experiences working within a diverse team in Lionhead are repeated in studios elsewhere.  From my experience, Lionhead has recruited from many sources. My own recruitment into the studio was from a different industry – I used to create software for libraries and learning centers!  It was good to hear that many other studios also have open minds when it comes to recruiting from different pools and developing talent.


Donald Harris :

Sheri Graner Ray:

Keith, Clinton. (2010).  Agile Game Development With Scrum. Pearson Education, Inc. Amazon UK, Amazon US.

DeMarco, Tom. & Lister, Timothy.  (1999).  Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams.  Dorset House Publishing Co., Inc.  Amazon UK, Amazon US.

%d bloggers like this: