Welcome back to my ongoing series on Commandments about writing for videogames. I’m your host, Lucien, though my acolytes call me Prophet! No? Okay, you can call me Loosh, and in today’s segment, I’m going to continue where I left off last week… talking about playing catch-up and not having the time to edit properly.

One of the most informative experiences I enjoyed at Ubisoft was undergoing their Design Academy courses. This 10-day seminar is all about videogame design, from gameplay to level design and what it takes to build the game on paper. One of the first things I learned was this tidbit:

Iterate fast, fail first.

Simply, it means start working early and get to the failures as fast as you can to knock them out of the way. This not only applies to writing, but it’s critical to the process. On Rainbow Six: Vegas, the final script wasn’t completed until a month shy of beta. That, I’ve come to realize, isn’t enough time to hammer the dialogs into place because:

1)      You no longer have the time to account for mistakes, you can only suffer them.

2)      The team is rapidly adapting to the fast approaching deadline and you need to pay attention to what might change under your feet instead of still laying the groundwork.

“But Most Holiest of Loosh,” you say. “If I finish my script too early, won’t that mean everything might change?” Oh yeah… no ‘might’ about it. On my current project (the one I cannot speak of for the moment), I finished the recording script months ago and had to rewrite a good chunk of it. Did it suck to kill my darlings? Yup, parts of it did. Was it necessary? Yes… on both sides of the equations. Allow me to explain.

Level design and game design both changed sufficiently to necessitate the rewrites, and I was dealing with a Creative Director with a very strong vision, so he knew exactly what he wanted to see. Now maybe I could have spared myself the work by holding off on writing the main script until everything was nailed down, but in videogames, the work is never down until you hit a hard lock. And by then, the recordings are in the game and the game is ready for its submission process. The game will always change. Some of it happens when level reviews among the directors reveal flaws in the mission flow. Some of it happens when we invite playtesters to try the game for the first time. Some of it happens when time is growing short and we need to drop features and levels to make a tighter game for the ship date. Every one of those changes impacts the narrative.

Now, I also mentioned it was necessary on the other side of the equation. And by that, I mean it helped me to iterate fast and fail early. I learned what didn’t work. I removed elements and had the time to deal with the butterfly effect when one small change has unforeseen consequences down the road. The script that emerged had stronger dialogs because it wasn’t the data dump of a writer firing off his first and easiest ideas to meet deadline. It was a writer who had more time to refine what the characters were saying and why. And it provided the Creative Director and I time to reread the story after gaining some distance on it to improve it.

Iterate Early: Time is never on your side in videogames, and the more you have done early on, the more time you have to mesh everything into a cohesive cell. Yes, things will change, but then they always do.

Fail Fast: Until the game is released, everything you write (regardless of how painful the editing process) is subject to the chopping block. Fail so you can get to those successes more quickly.

Next Up: Thou Shalt Man or Woman Up