Masters of Narrative Design 8™: Bob Bates
While ‘narrative design’ is not a term in common usage, the design of
story experiences is nothing new. As game developers are increasingly
looking to create meaningful interactive narrative experiences, looking at
the lessons learned by these masters becomes increasingly valuable.
Today’s master is writer and designer Bob Bates.
After being inspired by the text-based adventure ZORK, in the mid 80’s, Bob began looking into blending traditional fiction with video games and started writing his own text-based adventures. He was contracted by Infocom to write his first two titles. Since then he has been credited on 38+ titles (!) and is author of the best-selling book Game Design: The Art and Business of Creating Games. Bob is also a co-founder and organizer of the Game Designers Workshop, an invitation-only conference of storytelling game designers. I’m hoping to see what we can learn from his wealth of knowledge and wisdom.
Stephen Dinehart: You currently list yourself as an independent writer? Has this always been your role in game development?
Bob Bates: Not at all. In 1986 I started a small company to design and write games that would compete with Infocom, the reigning king of text adventures. Very quickly we ended up cooperating instead of competing, and the first two games I designed and wrote were published by Infocom. When Infocom closed down in 1989, I co-founded Legend Entertainment with Mike Verdu, and while at Legend I wore many hats for the next 15 years, including administrative duties as studio head, operations, finance, sales, etc.
the way, I managed to continue designing and writing and producing
games, and even learned enough programming to implement the game logic
for a few of them.
I’ve been a freelancer for 5 years now, and
these days, I am mostly back to design and writing, which is why I got
into the business in the first place.
SD: As a game designer and writer, how do quality gamestories help you make a better gameplay experience?
human brain is a story-making machine. Stories are how we make sense
of the world, and if no story is present to explain unrelated events,
our brains will make one up anyway. If we do not supply a good story
to our players, they are likely to invent one on their own and then
yell at us because it wasn’t very good and it ruined the game.
Delivering quality gamestories helps us avoid that problem!
stories engage players’ emotions and give them a reason to care about
what they are doing. A well-designed story will drive gameplay
choices, and likewise, various elements of gameplay may also suggest
different bits for writers to put into the story.
game, the range of actions that the designer makes available to the
player will vary at different stages of the game, and often the driving
force behind which choices are available is simply a matter of where
the player is in the story. Designers always try to deliver different
kinds of fun as the game goes along, and a quality story will create
those opportunities for the designer.
SD: Do you believe there is a correlation between sales numbers and gamestory quality?
a weak correlation, unfortunately. As a writer, I would like to
believe that the quality of the story is the single most important
factor in a game’s sales, but in reality I believe it is well down the
list, easily falling lower than gameplay, graphics (in AAA titles),
level-of-bugginess, and license, not to mention marketing and
However, when games have checked off several of
these other boxes and are competing on an otherwise-even field, I do
believe a superior story can make one game sell better than the other.
SD: What about writing for games is most challenging for you?
most difficult thing is the tension between allowing players to do
whatever they want, while keeping them within the bounds of a dramatic
Beyond that, there are the challenges that all writers
face – creating interesting characters, putting fresh dialogue in their
mouths, and stirring different emotions in the hearts of the players.
writers also face a unique challenge in that players always need to be
grounded in what they need to do next — and so we have to tell them.
There is little room for ambiguity and subtlety. If a reader misses
the point in a novel, he can always read on and catch up. But if a
player misses the point in a game, he is stuck and unable to move
forward. That leads to the kind of “on the nose” writing that we so
often find in games, where we feel compelled to tell the player “go
here” and “do this.” Avoiding that kind of writing is a huge challenge
for game writers.
Game writers also must recognize that
players will almost certainly encounter certain lines of dialogue more
than once. It is a real challenge to write lines that will stay fresh
SD: How much classical story structure do you use in the creation of your gamestories?
don’t pay attention to structure at all while I am first creating the
story. I just create what I think I need to get it told. Afterwards,
I will go back and use structure as one of many tools to fine-tune the
narrative. If something feels wrong or out of place, a structural
check-up can sometimes reveal the problem. Looking at a story through
the prism of structure can also sometimes suggest opportunities I might
have missed. But I’m not obsessive about it.
SD: You are credited a range of titles that span over 20 years, what has it taught you?
basic challenges we face as writers of interactive stories are the same
today as they were 20 years ago. We have figured out a few solutions
to some problems, but we are still are severely limited in many areas.
For example, we still have no good way to let the player conduct a
dialogue with an in-game character. We still have difficulty limiting
the scope of the player’s actions without suggesting that the limits
are actually game obstacles to be overcome. We still cannot evoke a
very wide range of emotions in our players.
The range of
genres I have worked in has taught me that each is different, and that
the devotees of one genre have certain things they care about that
players in other genres don’t. For example, action gamers want the
story to come to them, while RPG players don’t mind going to look for
the story. Pace is also different from genre to genre.
one thing that most players seem to have in common is that few of them
are fans of the “big information dump” cutscenes that unduly interrupt
gameplay. Over time, good writers have learned to distribute the story
elements throughout the environment, so that they come to players in
small pieces that they assemble in their heads to understand the
SD: Are you able to experience more creative freedom as a contract writer?
increased freedom I have comes from being able to figure out whether or
not I’m a good match for a project before we start. I think most
in-house writers have to work on whatever their company is doing,
whether they are suited to it or not. In my case, I can talk with a
developer ahead of time about what the project is and what they want
done, and if I don’t think I can do a good job, I can refer them to
Once I have taken on a project, I don’t feel any
different degree of freedom than when I was working in-house at
Legend. The writer always operates in service of the needs of project,
and those needs are generally determined by the designer and the
producer. I always try to work with them to be as creative as possible
in interpreting their ideas in fresh, innovative, and unexpected ways.
But theirs is the final word, and if they disagree with my ideas, then
I write it the way they want it.
SD: What format do you prefer for writing your games?
format truly doesn’t matter to me. I’ve worked in all sorts of formats
including Excel, Final Draft, and several proprietary systems, but it
really doesn’t matter. For virtually everything I write, Word is my
My methodology is simple. I start a “spew” file
for each project, and I call it that specifically to free myself up to
blat out whatever I want to, without regard to form, beauty, or in some
cases, even comprehension! It’s just thoughts streaming onto a page
with as little interruption as possible.
Once I have that, I
start to refine. I use cut-and-paste extensively, never throwing away
a single draft of a line or paragraph. Instead, I copy it endlessly
down the page as I make even minor changes. In this way, I never have
any paranoia about “losing” some particularly felicitous phrase, or
forgetting some important idea that might otherwise get lost in
Once I have the piece revised within an inch of its
life, I simply cut-and-paste the final version into whatever document
format the client wants.
SD: As a creator of original IP with a habit of working in licenses do you have a preference?
BB: Each has its advantages.
an original IP, you have the freedom that every writer wants – the
chance to create a world from scratch, just the way you want it. On
the other hand, creating every single aspect of a world and its
characters is hard, not to mention risky.
With a licensed IP,
you are already handed a world and characters that have been proven to
be popular. Your challenge becomes creating something new and
interesting that fits into that world. That’s often a worthwhile
challenge to undertake, although of course you are always bound by the
licensors – or their representatives – which can get difficult.
to answer your actual question <g>, if I were given a choice on a
new project, presuming money and risk were not a factor, I’d probably
choose to work on an original IP.
SD: How do you sell yourself as an expert in storytelling?
BB: I don’t know that I am
an expert in storytelling. I think I understand many different aspects
of telling stories within games, but there are huge chunks that none of
us has figured out yet. As for selling myself, it’s more like a
conversation with the developers to see if we agree on what the game
needs, and whether I’m the right guy to provide that.
SD: What do you see as an ideal future for storytelling in games?
I suspect my hopes for the future are the same as most gamers. I hope
we will figure out a good way for players to talk to in-game
characters. I hope that stories will be deep and rich and compelling,
and that players will encounter them naturally, without any
interruption in gameplay. And I hope that our stories will enable our
medium to take a place alongside the other art forms that matter so
much to people everywhere.
SD: Last but not least, can you explain what the Game Designers Workshop is?
BB: The Game Designers Workshop is an annual two-day, invitation-only, mini-conference that is run by Noah Falstein, Steve Meretzky, and myself. We try to identify experienced people with multiple game-design and game-writing credits, and gather them for a weekend session that’s a cross between a writer’s workshop and a GDC roundtable. We cap attendance at 30, and each of the attendees gets a slice of time to present a specific problem to the group, or to discuss some general issue related to game making, or to demo a product they think is important for the group to see, or simply to lead a discussion on any topic they think is important. We find that tapping into the collective knowledge of experienced writer/designers is an effective way for individuals to get practical advice for problems they are facing.
SD: Bob, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to interview with the NDE.
is true veteran of video game storytelling. His humble honesty, and experience
make him a incredibly compelling person to speak with. He remains committed to gamestories and is surely an inspiration to us all. I know I have learned, and I
hope you can say the same. For The Narrative Design Exploratorium™ I’m Stephen Dinehart.
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