The creator of the interactive game-dev story The Writer Will Do Something Matthew Burns talks with 80.lv about big-budget game development and the main problem of huge AAA-projects.
It is not often that we stumble across something as beautiful as this: Matthew S. Burns – a producer behind such titles as Halo 3 and Destiny – published a small twine story The Writer Will Do Something. It’s a non-linear text-game, where you can pick up the answers and choose your path. The interesting part is that the main theme of this book is game industry. More importantly it is set during the meeting of the management team of a fictional blockbuster ShatterGate and this meeting happens to be one of the funniest thing in game-related fiction since JPod and Microserfs.
We’ve contacted Matthew immediately and asked him a couple of questions about his life and this entertaining project.
The Writer Will Do Something was an instant hit among the development crowd. All the CEO, COO, CTO guys instantly retweeted the link everywhere. Did you expect this story to get such a huge following?
No, I didn’t expect it to spread so widely at all. I thought it would be funny for a few people and that’s it. It seems to have touched a nerve. I’m glad people enjoyed it – if fellow people in game dev can play it and see their own struggle reflected back at them, then I feel like the story works as it should.
Obviously with your background you’ve had quite a lot of experience sitting through these kinds of meetings.
Well, first of all I should stress that the story really is fictional, in that it is not based on any one specific event, person, or studio. As for my own experience, I began a career in the game industry 15 years ago as a tester and worked my way into a variety of roles, mostly in production. I’ve contributed to titles in the Halo and Call of Duty series… those are the biggest of the “AAA” games that I worked on.
An important secret about this game is that another person, who has also worked with different AAA games and studios from me, contributed a lot to the story as well. That person has to remain anonymous, but he deserves credit too! The Writer Will Do Something is borne out of all of those experiences put together.
You have very witty writing and fantastic humor. The Writer Will Do Something reads like something Douglas Coupland or Tom Bissell would write. Why did you choose the interactive format and not a classical bookish story?
I do write conventional linear fiction also. In the case of this particular story, the interactive format makes it feel a little more immediate, forcing you to make the choices. It’s one thing in a book to say some character had these choices, but it’s another to make the reader actually have to pick one of those choices themselves. Of course, none of the choices are particularly appealing, but the fact that it’s presented that way makes it more real and more stressful.
Apart from being incredibly cynical, funny and engrossing The Writer Will Do Something also pulls out all those things we hate about modern big budget game development. What do you think is the main problem with big AAA gamedev right now? Maybe is the producer-marketing oriented culture? Maybe we should think less product and more game?
This is just my personal feeling, but AAA game studios should think about the health of their workers. Meaning not just physical health, but mental health as well. It can be tough, exhausting, and stressful to work on these projects for many years in a row, and simply giving out crew t-shirts or having a company party isn’t enough. Let’s take more active and better care of game developers.
I loved how you described the people in the room. One would think that making a game is a job of dreams, sort of movie making but better. Why do people get in this catastrophic state while making games? What turns them from enthusiasts into these hollows (forgive my Dark Souls pun)? Is this the problem of the production hell?
The story is like a concentrated version of all the pressure and frustration that comes with long hours and difficult tools. Crunching for long periods of time, laboring away on a something that doesn’t seem to have much point – those are the things that really make people shells of their former selves. It’s what happens when people are constantly tired, frustrated, and having trouble maintaining perspective. More than that, they’re afraid: huge amounts of money are on the line and the path isn’t clear how what they’re doing now will turn into the awesome game they need it to be.
You mention a lot of games like Minecraft, like Dark Souls during The Writer Will Do Something story, so I guess you’re a little bit optimistic about big games finding the right user and earning money. There are cool, innovative games after all. Not just ShatterGate all over. So let’s play a little time-machine game: what do you think will happen with gamedev in 10 years? Will we still have Steam? Will there be more/less indie teams self-publishing their products? How will the game development change?
I’m not good at predicting the future, but the game industry is fundamentally an entertainment industry. So I think we’ll see cycles of what seems like people doing the same thing over and over, punctuated once in a while that seems genuinely fresh, new, and interesting. Then that thing will get copied, and things will settle somewhat until the next breakout hit happens and surprises people all over again. That’s a nice thing about game development. It’s not always as creative as you might like. But it does happen.