Level 54: Donate, Educate, Act

Diversity and Inclusion in Games

✊🏿 Letter From The Editors

Dear Readers,

We are outraged by the murder of George Floyd and the continued violent, anti-black injustices by the police. As a media publication, and as human beings, it is our moral responsibility to bring to light and condemn the dehumanization and inequality that black people face in our communities every day. Let’s be clear — there is no place for racism in the world and in games.

Diversity in all facets of gaming — content creation, hiring and recruiting, professional esports athletes — is severely lacking. Only 1-3% of gaming industry employees identify as black. This runs antithetical to the very thesis of games, which champions accessibility and inclusivity, socializing and community. It’s saddening that games, played by billions globally, don't have diverse representations of writers and creators. Anti-black racism pervades into games as well — in their plots, in their companies, and most visibly in their player base. This is a problem that we can help fix: hire diverse designers, engineers, and employees; uplift underrepresented creators; and educate ourselves on the adversity that our friends and colleagues face on a regular basis.

This Pause Button edition is different. We’ll be highlighting our colleagues of color and the black gaming community. We included content that identifies how gaming is playing a role in supporting change. We also provided resources to understand how we can be active allies. In the future, we’ll be making a more intentional effort to bring on a more diverse team of writers to contribute to The Pause Button and to spotlight writing and content from them.

Finally, we stand with the protesters marching for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others who have lost their lives to the hands of racism.

Black Lives Matter.

Max & Fawzi


✊🏽 Articles

Actions Speak Louder Than Words: In the wake of the ongoing injustices in the United States, many brands have issued official statements denouncing racism and injustice. Gaming companies are no exception, with organizations like EA, Square Enix, and others pledging to use their resources to help create change. But what are they actually doing? Kotaku examines the statements and actions taken by the biggest gaming brands. Take note of who is silent during these times, and who is taking tangible action to better the world. Link

I Am Black And Tired: Kotaku Staff writer, Ash Parrish offers a perspective into how she’s feeling as a black woman in the midst of this ongoing global outcry. Listen to those around you whose lives are impacted by this. Make space for them. Be an ally. Link

The Gaming Industry Has No Clue How to Respond to Protests: Many of the statements and donations made by gaming organizations are emblematic of a larger problem in the corporate world. Large organizations are slow to vocalize support for the injustices we're seeing. When they do, they release carefully crafted statements that ignore the core of the issue entirely in order to appease fans. With such massive and devoted followings, brands should use their reach (and finances) to do more. Urge your favorite organizations to act, to learn, and to educate. Link

African American Portrayals in Gaming: This is an interesting piece that highlights the dearth of diverse characters in gaming and calls game developers to action. Lots of resources and examples here. Link


✊🏾 Creators & Organizations

Spawn on Me Podcast: Spawn on Me is a podcast spotlights people of color in the gaming industry. In this week’s episode, a panel of industry creators and experts shares how they’re feeling in the wake of this senseless police violence. Link

Black Girl Gamers: Black Girl Gamers is an organization focused on highlighting the voice of black women in gaming. They are actively working with creators across the industry to spread awareness, fundraise, and support through platforms like Twitch. Link

Game Devs of Color Expo: Game Devs of Color Expo facilitates an annual event focused on putting creators of color at the forefront, creating a space where people from all backgrounds can come together to build, connect, and learn about games. Link


✊🏿 Actions You Can Take

Follow a diverse array of people on Twitter: Black Game Developers is a great place to start. Talk with them, promote their content, buy their games! Below is a thread of a wonderful slate of games journalists to follow, check them out!

Use your Twitch Prime Subscription: If you have an Amazon Prime account, that’s a quick and easy way to support your favorite content creator of color. Link

Call out Racial Gaslighting Where You See It: Infinity Ward announced that they would be adding additional resources to monitor and identify racist content, making it easier to report offenses and intensifying repercussions to offenders. Next time you find yourself queuing up in a League or Overwatch game, be active in reporting offensive and racist language when you see it. Link


Donate: The George Floyd Memorial FundReclaim The BlockThe Bail Project NAACP Legal Defense FundCampaign Zero Black Visions Collective

Educate:Lesson Plan to Be an AllyRacism & Anti-BlacknessAnti-Racism Resource ListWhite Fragility

Act: Sign Petitions ● Attend Protests Near You ● Educate Family, Friends, and Coworkers ● Write Your Local Government Officials


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Level 53: Epic Games Plays the Long Game

This week, Smash.gg's fraught place in the Smash community an Epic Games primer of epic proportions and Fanime in Discord

Fortnite to stream live Travis Scott concert, in-game. Here are ...

✏️ The Pause Button Exclusives

Growth vs Grassroots: The Struggle for Expansion & Identity in the Smash Bros Community: In this week’s Pause Button exclusive, Alexander Lee joins us to outline the ongoing identity crisis taking place in the Super Smash Bros. community. A historically grassroots group, the world of competitive Smash is still adjusting to the introduction of the “corporate” side of esports. A major point of contention: a global tournament circuit dubbed “The Smash World Tour” and Smash.gg’s deep integration into the competition. Link

How to Put More “Character” In Your NPCs By Geoffery Golden Link

Can Riot’s Wild Rift Become the Next Honor of Kings By Jeff “SuiJeneris” Chau Link

P.S. We’re always looking for journalists and contributors to write for The Pause Button. Let us know if you’re interested! 


📜 This Week’s Notable News

The Primer on Epic Games: It’s no secret that we’re big fans of media industry veteran Matthew Ball. When it comes to understanding the future of gaming, whether it’s the metaverse, or esports, Ball consistently produces thoughtful, easy to understand content. 

He recently released a critical analysis and breakdown of games publisher/developer Epic Games. In this six part series, Ball and co-author Jacob Novak detail every aspect of Epic: their game engine, game store, game studios, online services, publishing division, and (of course) Fortnite.

“This six-part series is designed to be an “Explain Like I’m (Twenty) Five” edition of Epic Games. Or if you want a throwback to the 1990s, when then-Potomac Computer Systems was founded, “Epic Games For Dummies”. Technical terms and other details have been eschewed and simplified accordingly.”

If you only have time to read one section, read the last one, covering Ball’s perspective on Epic CEO Tim Sweeney and his ambitions for the future of gaming and technology. Rather than charge exorbitant fees by controlling the ecosystem from end to end, Sweeney is actively using all of Epic’s resources to grow the industry. It’s the ultimate long-term play: make the entire pie bigger rather than take a larger piece. Link


💡 Industry Content

Discoverability in the Sea of Nintendo: Discoverability is one of the most difficult problems for any gaming platform. Marketplaces like Steam are prime examples of how having too much content and not enough platform management can lead to a bloated system. In this piece, fellow newsletter author Simon Carless discusses the discoverability problem that's begun to plague the Nintendo Switch, and how developers are tackling it. Link

Sponsorship Banners in League of Legends: This week Riot Games announced “Arena Banners” for League of Legends; essentially these are in-game sponsored ad spaces, visible only to spectators. In game ads stand to be a multi-billion dollar industry, but historically haven’t found success with the top developers. Keep an eye on this space moving forward — when one of gaming’s largest publishers, Riot, takes a step, it’s not long before others tend to follow.  Link


🎮 Fun & Games

Remasters and the Death of Innovation: Let’s face it, remakes of hit games are “in” right now. Taking a successful classic with devoted fans and reproducing it for the modern era is a sure-fire way to make money. But when everything is a do-over, what place is there for something new? In this piece, Jordan Oloman outlines his theory on the future of new games in a world of remakes. Maybe taking risks on new games isn’t such a bad thing? Link

The CEO’s Kid Played It: Across the industry, we frequently hear stories about last-minute deadlines and resource-constrained creators. But as far as rush-jobs go, the story of side missions in Assassin's Creed might be one of the craziest. Charles Randall, one of the game’s developers, recounts how he and four other devs built the entire side mission mechanic for the original AC in five days — all because the CEO’s kid allegedly said the game was boring. Game Development is wild. Link


😎 Other Cool Reads

The Sims & Quarantine Escapism: Do you remember your last “normal” day before the pandemic? Were you outside at a park, or hanging with friends? In her recent piece for Vice, journalist Gita Jackson discusses how she’s handled moving to a new job, making new connections, and finding her way in the city since shelter in place began. Her main outlet? The Sims. She has an ongoing game featuring a character to represent each of her co-workers. It’s a hint of Black Mirror meets modern gaming. Link

Prince of Persia: This a podcast with the infamous video game developer, Jordan Mechner, who built Prince of Persia from his dorm room. Link


😍 Our Current Favorites

Max (@maxlowenthal)

Tons of gaming conventions are being cancelled in the wake of COVID-19. In reality, there isn’t really a good alternative that encapsulates what it's like to go to one of these events IRL. That being said, passionate communities don’t let anything get in the way of celebrating their favorites. Case in point — Fanime is attempting to run their entire convention via Discord servers.  Link

Fawzi (@fawzitani

I’ve enjoyed keeping tabs on Launcher.gg’s running list of Indie Games to play in May. If you’re looking for unique, relatively cheaper alternatives to your classic AAA title, this is the best place to start. Link


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Growth vs Grassroots: The Struggle for Expansion & Identity in the Super Smash Bros Community

Alexander Lee writes about The Smash World Tour and startup Smash.gg's fraught relationship with the spirit of the Super Smash Bros community

Welcome to The Pause Button, a newsletter about video games. We send a weekly curation of the most interesting news and articles in gaming, and also have regular contributors writing original content. If you’d like to sign up, you can do so here. Or just read on…


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As the Smash scene grows increasingly centralized, some community members fear the loss of the scene’s grassroots ethos. (Image credit: Image via Twitch/Beyond the Summit)

In March, the announcement of the Smash World Tour sent the grassroots competitive Super Smash Bros. scene into a frenzy of hype. The World Tour, an international tournament series with a record-breaking $250,000 prize pool, has since been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it remains the largest and most cohesive Smash league in the game’s two-plus decades of competitive play. Chief among its sponsors are Twitch, the Amazon-owned live-streaming platform, and Smash.gg, a Silicon Valley startup that has become one of esports’ most popular tournament hosting services since its foundation in 2015. 

The emergence of a centralized circuit is good news for most members of the competitive Smash scene. While most prominent esports leagues are funded by corporations such as Riot Games and Activision Blizzard, Nintendo has historically been reluctant to support Smash tournaments, preferring to focus its marketing efforts on the game’s casual player base, which dwarfs the competitive scene.

Without monetary support from Nintendo, “smashers” have largely financed tournaments with their own capital, leading to the growth of a fiercely independent grassroots community. The downside of this grassroots spirit is the Smash scene’s lack of a centralized circuit or advisory organization, which can cause events to compete against—and even schedule over—each other on a regular basis. The Smash World Tour solves the problem of conflicting events by creating a standardized tournament calendar. 

Nintendo has shown no indication that it will ever acquire Smash.gg or the Smash World Tour. But if the Japanese corporation makes its first foray into esports by hiring any of the individuals behind these companies, the resulting official Smash league would be one built by genuine and committed members of the Smash community. By combining the advantages of corporate backing with the strongest aspects of the scene’s grassroots structure, Nintendo could throw its support behind pre-established major tournaments instead of replacing them with its own.

In a way, this situation fits Smash’s identity and history as an esport. The series is not designed for competitive play; casual players accustomed to Pikachu and Kirby free-for-alls could very well confuse high-level Smash play for a completely different game. The standard Smash ruleset, with its limited stage choices and item ban, is a construct of the competitive scene, not a reflection of the game’s built-in rules. Smash players didn’t like the hand Nintendo dealt them, so they pushed and compromised until their candy-colored platform fighter morphed into one of the most prominent cult esports.

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The Smash World Tour’s page on Smash.gg describes the league as “the future of competitive Smash.” (Image credit: Image via Alexander Lee)

Without Nintendo’s support, members of the Smash scene have had to develop their own community-building tools to provide services that other esports scenes receive for free from their corporate backers. Blizzard developed the matchmaking and social interaction platform Battle.net, but Nintendo has no equivalent, so the Smash scene created its own in the form of Smashboards and Smash.gg. Riot funds the LCS, but there is no Smash equivalent, so the team behind the Smash World Tour willed their own circuit into existence.

But the same centralization that promises to unify the Smash scene threatens to leave some members of the community behind. The World Tour’s official rulebook mandates that all participating tournaments be run through Smash.gg—a logical move for a circuit sponsored by the startup. This means tournament organizers who have long relied on alternative bracket platforms must choose between overhauling the way they do things or not participating in the World Tour at all. 

Though Smash.gg provides a valuable service to the Smash community, some of these “TOs” fear that its centralizing presence represents a shift away from the grassroots ethos that defines competitive Smash. While the scene’s grassroots nature has allowed tournaments to experiment with rulesets and software modifications that would never be permitted by a corporate league, this independence has led smashers to become deeply suspicious of any interloper who tries to grow or monetize Smash using methods or resources that aren’t endemic to the space. Though Smash.gg has gained much goodwill within the Smash scene—and an advantage over competitors such as Challonge—by employing Smash figureheads and community members, the startup is largely backed by outside venture capital.

Chris Farina, a longtime New Jersey TO, runs most of his brackets on Challonge. After the announcement of the Smash World Tour, Farina took to Twitter to voice his concerns over the circuit’s mandatory Smash.gg policy, which requires all participating organizers to both register entrants and administer their brackets through Smash.gg. Though he respects the value Smash.gg has added to the Smash scene and is friends with some of the startup’s staff, Farina prefers not to use Smash.gg because of what he sees as an unresponsive interface and flawed user experience design. “The UI is very confusing and bloated,” said Farina.

Farina also notes that, despite Smash.gg’s origins within the Smash scene, the company has already begun to branch out into other, sometimes larger esports in order to drive profits. “In a way, they’re starting with us as their use case,” said Farina. 

As far as Smash.gg CEO Tom Schofield is concerned, his company’s connection to the Smash community is rock solid. “Smash.gg grew out of the Smash scene,” said Schofield, “and so is well-suited for Smash Bros. events.”

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Smash.gg tailored its interface for the Smash scene’s standard double-elimination brackets. (Image via Alexander Lee)

Schofield sees Smash.gg and the Smash World Tour as a natural pair, thanks to Smash.gg’s circuit features, which allow users to combine the results of multiple events in order to create centralized league standings. For this feature to work properly, all participating tournaments must have accurate and up-to-date results on Smash.gg. From a logistical standpoint, hosting all of the league’s events on Smash.gg is the path of least resistance.

“One of our core tenets is that we assume TOs will make the best choices and that as a business we should be following their lead,” said Schofield. “So we’re not in the business of trying to limit their options.”

The Smash World Tour is far from the first attempt to create a centralized Smash league. Years ago, Farina was part of the effort to turn Smashboards, a discussion forum that once formed the online hub of the Smash scene, into a consolidated tournament tracking and ranking platform. “We made a point of saying you can upload any data type in there,” said Farina.

The Smashboards league still exists today, but it failed to catch on, perhaps due to its lack of a large prize pool to entice big-name players and TOs. Its incorporation of a multitude of bracket data types didn’t help, either: players were often required to claim their own results, and sometimes failed to do so when their gamertags were misspelled or formatted in a nonstandard way. 

While some platform standardization might be necessary in order to create a streamlined Smash circuit, Smash.gg’s centrality in the Smash World Tour doesn’t inherently contradict the grassroots spirit of Smash. Dr. Kristopher Alexander, an esports infrastructure expert and professor of video games at Ryerson University, believes companies like Smash.gg can help bridge the gap between grassroots communities and corporate interests. 

To make his point, Alexander cites the case of GGPO, the company that innovated the use of “rollback” netcode, a fighting game netplay system that reduces lag by predicting players’ upcoming inputs. After GGPO’s netplay tech became widely popular within the fighting game community, Capcom purchased a license to the software and swapped it in for the preexisting netplay systems in titles such as Street Fighter III: Third Strike Online Edition. “Instead of shutting it down, they just watched the community,” said Alexander.

For years, Nintendo’s official competitive events were few and far between; 25 years passed between the first and second Nintendo World Championships. But recently, the company has begun to host official Smash Ultimate tournaments using a ruleset similar to the competitive standard. The winner of the spring 2020 iteration received a trip to CEO Dreamland 2020, a grassroots Smash major. 

As Nintendo’s attitude towards esports thaws, Smash.gg and the Smash World Tour could be the GGPO-style proof of concept that Nintendo could utilize or adapt in order to create its own centralized circuit. “I think Smash.gg is going to get GGPO’ed, simply because the companies need to move quickly,” said Alexander. “There’s already infrastructure there.”

The Smash World Tour’s structure is far from perfect. As the circuit picks up steam, some of Smash’s grassroots ethos may very well fall by the wayside. But this is simply another situation in which Smash players are doing the best they can with the resources they have. Even if the World Tour’s rules prevent some tournament organizers from participating, these organizers will do what the Smash community has always done: adapt their tools, adjust their rules, and never stop fighting to make competitive Smash as good as it can be.


Alexander Lee is a freelance writer and Super Smash Bros. fanatic based in New York City. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Nation, ESPN, and elsewhere.


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Level 52: NPCs, Mobile Gaming, and Mario

This week we have two (!!!) Pause Button exclusive articles, cover the new Paper Mario title, and celebrate graduation with some Minecraft

✏️ The Pause Button Exclusives

How to Put More “Character” Into Your NPCs: In this week’s Pause Button exclusive, narrative designer Geoffery Golden joined us to talk about what makes a good NPC (Non-Playable Character).  Even though they’re just bystanders to your playing experience, NPCs play an integral role in building deep and immersive worlds for many of the gaming’s greatest hits. As Geoffrey puts it “there are no small characters, just small sprites” Link 

Can Wild Rift Become the Next Honor of Kings: Mobile gaming expert Jeff “SuiJeneris” Chau joined us to write about Riot Game’s upcoming mobile title Wild Rift and how it stacks up against the current mobile industry leader Honor of Kings. Reading Jeff’s work reminds us just how underappreciated mobile gaming is in the West. With a reported 100M daily active players in 2020, this space is expected to explode in the U.S. sooner or later, it’s just a matter of time. Link


📜 This Week’s Notable News

It’s Me, (Paper) Mario! With reports of no Nintendo Directs in the near future, and nothing on the Summers Gamefest schedule, there has been a ton of speculation on how Nintendo would spread the word for its upcoming releases. Nintendo's response: just drop stuff with zero warning. 

Last Thursday Nintendo announced a new Paper Mario game, set to release in less than two months. It’s a major deviation from the company’s normal marketing tactics, which heavily rely on boosting sales numbers through early announcements and “hype” build up. It’s an interesting approach for a company that prioritizes traditional marketing. Link

A few thoughts on the implication behind Nintendo’s seemingly “random” announcement: 

  • Delays are Imminent:. The lack of upcoming Directs, which are usually bookended with Nintendo first-party news, is not a great sign. We see it as a clear indicator: games are going to come out later in the year than Nintendo expected. The benefit? No E3 means that Nintendo can release content when they want. After all, you can’t let down people if they don't know what they’re missing. 

  • Financial Safety: Traditional “Direct” style announcements for Nintendo are great marketing tools. They generate social media buzz, views, and huge word of mouth content. By just dropping this trailer Nintendo could be implying that they’re not worried about sales for Paper Mario. This could be in part due to the games limited fanbase, or perhaps Nintendo’s assumption that any game featuring Mario will do well, no matter how much marketing it has.


💡 Industry Content

Supercell Turns 10: Mobile gaming giant Supercell, known for games like Clash of Clans, turned 10 last week. To celebrate, IIkka Paananen, the company’s CEO & Co-founder reflected on the 10 most important learnings that have led to Supercell’s multi-billion dollar success. The entire list is worth reading, but if we had to boil it down, IIkka highlights two core concepts: retention & culture. Link

Facebook’s VR Vision: Protocol sat down with Jason Rubin, Facebook’s VP of Special Gaming Initiatives, to get the scoop on the social media giant’s broader gaming strategy. Much of the article is a mix of name dropping and making sense of Facebook’s absurdly complex gaming org chart, but there are a few gems to be found. Most notable is Rubin’s vision on how cloud gaming & VR can partner to create AAA gaming experiences. It sounds a lot like a lot of what consumers want (portable, console-grade AAA experiences) is not happening in the near term. But to Rubin’s point, we may be closer than we think. Link

Dr. Lupo’s + Recode: Popular Twitch streamer Dr. Lupo, made an appearance on Recode Media’s podcast. In his interview, Lupo discusses his rise as a streamer, the implications behind the work he does, and where he plans to go in the future. It’s an interesting opportunity to take a step back and understand how the larger media industry looks at gaming. Link


🎮 Fun & Games

Amazon’s First Game: Amazon (like the package company) released their first major game this week, a MOBA style FPS called Crucible. The game mixes elements of Overwatch, League of Legends, and Dota to create a seemingly unique mix. It’s an interesting first step for Amazon and they expand their gaming footprint outside Twitch. Link

A Minecraft Graduation: COVID-19 has prevented much of the Class of 2020 from truly appreciating the “graduation experience” — but not UC Berkeley. A handful of dedicated students built a 1:1 replica of the university in Minecraft, and last weekend capped it off with a graduation ceremony hosted on the virtual campus. Link

Biz Sims: This is the story of Maxis Business Simulations, a spinoff division of SimCity that made sim games for corporations. Link

Business simulation games were always a bit of a wild idea, and it never really came together as a business. But their work raised a lot of big questions about how much we trust games to teach us about the world around us


😎 Other Cool Reads

The Story of DJWheat: Marcus “djwheat” Graham is a legend to esports: Hall of Famer, broadcaster, professional Quake player, 19th employee at Twitch. The accolades keep running and he’s “not even 5% in”. Djwheat was foundational to the popularization of esports in Twitch and the world beyond. He now heads up creator development at Twitch. This is part one of a two part biography feature. (Warning: #longreads) Link

Gaming’s Very Own Rent-a-Friend: Many of gaming’s biggest products are built on one idea: connection. Platforms like Twitch and Discord are all about removing the barriers between a viewer and creator. This week, Wired covered a new service that takes the concept a step further: E-Pal.gg. The premise is simple: log-on, pick a creator, and pay by game to play with them. It sounds straightforward, but dig a little deeper, and you actually unearth one of gaming’s fundamental problems: a world of sexism, harassment, and the marginalization of female gamers. Link


Our Current Favorites

Max

A few weeks ago I found a Twitter thread talking about the impact gaming had on one woman's son and his friends. Gaming has been a huge social outlet for me over the past few months, and threads like this remind me of just how meaningful digital connection through games can be. Link

Fawzi

I finally got a Valorant beta key...


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How to Put More “Character” Into Your NPCs

Geoffrey Golden explores narrative design and imbuing NPCs with life and personality

Want to stay up to date on the games industry? We release a weekly newsletter featuring exclusive long-form content, including the best headlines, releases, and articles in gaming.

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There’s something about the term “NPC” (Non-Player Character) that sounds hollow to me. Maybe it’s the ambiguousness of acronyms, or how the term literally sounds like “empty.” As a narrative designer, my philosophy is to think of NPCs less like assets on a spreadsheet, and more like my cast. There are big and small parts, but I believe designers can give any character soul. (Even a character whose soul was stolen by an evil wizard of some sort!) A bit more effort can make a minor NPC more human, and a game’s world more alive.

Rabbit Girl, an NPC from Undertale

When I think of NPCs, what immediately comes to mind are the villagers who populate roleplaying game towns. You enter the village and stop the first wandering stranger you meet, who says something like:

Villager: Do you think the red dragon will come back?

Villager: I hear there’s a mirror in the Fire Mountains that can block its flames.

I’ve seen dialogue like this in countless games, both old and new. I call it “skeleton talk.” On the plus side, skeleton talk is usually efficient. From a gameplay perspective, the purpose of this dialogue is to communicate an important plot point (the town was attacked by a dragon), and guide the player’s next action (go to the Fire Mountains to find a magical mirror). 

But as a player and a storyteller, I find skeleton talk unsatisfying. Yes, it tells me what I need to do, but this character is forgettable, and therefore a missed opportunity. Isn’t the point of a story-driven game to immerse you in a fantasy? Forgettable characters like the villager above won’t add to your world. In fact, if the dialogue reads too much like simply a game clue, the NPCs might detract from it.,. It could take players out of the immersion.

After understanding what the requirements for an NPC are from a game design perspective, here are questions I ask myself when writing their dialogue:

  1. Who is this person?

  2. What is their relationship to the player?

  3. What do they want?

  4. How are they feeling?

These are my Four Questions of Personification (patent pending). They allow me to put flesh, organs, all the cool human-stuff onto the skeleton. Let me break each of these questions down, and I’ll show you how answering them leads to richer dialogue.

Zelda’s Old Man

WHO IS THIS PERSON?

Adjectives, adjectives, adjectives. When I start writing a character, I begin by thinking of words that describe a character’s personality. Boisterous, stingy, scared, suave. For minor characters, maybe only one adjective is necessary, but for more important NPCs I’ll come up with several.

Let’s go back to our villager. Say she’s wearing a dirty dress and is carrying a heavy looking burlap sack. What kind of adjectives might describe her personality? Maybe she’s haggard from overwork, or assertive about her responsibilities, or eager to do her part for the village. I’ll say she’s brave, and won’t let some dragon intimidate her.

So, knowing she’s brave, let’s rewrite her dialogue to show that personality.

Villager: That ugly red dragon better not show its face around here again.

Villager: I hear there’s a mirror in the Fire Mountains that can block its flames.

Villager: If I wasn’t so busy hauling grain, I’d get it myself!

Notice we’re not changing the information the player receives. We’re just adding personality. Because we know she’s a brave villager, we can write her as such. She’s not afraid to insult a scary creature. And she’d even be willing to climb the Fire Mountains, which sounds like a pretty dangerous place to climb!

We could also go the complete opposite route. Let’s say instead of brave, this villager is klutzy

Villager: Oh no! I spilled another grain sack. My lord is going to KILL me.

Villager: Thinking about the red dragon coming back keeps distracting me.

Villager: I hear there’s a mirror in the Fire Mountains that can block its flames.

Villager: I got rid of all my mirrors. I keep breaking them!

For major characters in a game, I like to write them full biographies, so I get a sense of their background and point of view, all of which contribute to scenes. But all my biographies begin with personality trait adjectives, because they help me quickly get my bearings with a character.

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Bob from Secret of Monkey Island

WHAT IS THEIR RELATIONSHIP TO THE PLAYER?

Most people have different ways of speaking to their partner, their boss, their pet, and to strangers. I rarely call a perfect stranger “my perfect widdle fuzzball,” and I don’t ask for a Skype meeting with my partner to give “constructive feedback on meal scheduling.” Who the player is to the NPC can make a big difference in how they talk to you. Defining that relationship will bring more personality to your dialogue.

For example, the villager and the player character might be literally related. If the villager is the player’s mother, they might be worried about you, and call you by pet names…

Villager: You don’t think the red dragon will come back... right, dear?

Villager: I hear there’s a mirror in the Fire Mountains that can block its flames.

Villager: But don’t go. It’s too dangerous for my precious angel!

If the villager is a stranger: How do villagers in this town feel about strangers? Are they overjoyed to meet anyone who can help? Are they eager to vent their feelings to anyone who will listen? Let’s say after the attack, the townspeople became paranoid of strangers...

Villager: Who are you? I’ve never seen you before in my life.

Villager: Are you a spy for the red dragon? Hmm?

Villager: Prove you’re on our side. Get us a weapon to fight the dragon. 

Villager: I hear there’s a mirror in the Fire Mountains that can block its flames.

By clearly defining the relationship for yourself, you can then communicate it to your players. 

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

This is a bit of advice I got from a talented screenwriter named Todd Alcott. He always asks, “What does the protagonist want?” The hero of a story has a strong inner desire that inspires them to action. Tom Nook wants to be a successful businessman. Lara Croft seeks adventure by uncovering lost artifacts. The journey and actions these characters take spring from their main desires.

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Executioner from Yono and The Celestial Elephants

Minor characters have wants, too. Knowing an NPC’s needs, and stating them clearly, can inspire helpful players to want to assist them. For example, let’s say our villager desperately needs sleep, which she hasn’t gotten since the dragon attack. In this version, I’ll have her state what she wants directly to the player.

Villager: I’m exhausted. Haven’t slept a wink since the red dragon attack.

Villager: This town used to be so peaceful. Now I hear shrieks of terror all night.

Villager: There might be a mirror in the Fire Mountains that can block dragon flames.

Villager: Please defeat the dragon, warrior. I’m so tired...

But she might want something completely different. Maybe this villager is more militant and wants to see the dragon destroyed.

Villager: Finally, there’s a true warrior in town. Have I got a quest for you!

Villager: A red dragon’s been plaguing us. I’d love to see you bash his disgusting head in.

Villager: I hear there’s a mirror in the Fire Mountains that can block his flames…

The villager’s motivation, clearly stated, gives the player a stronger sense for why they’re going on this quest – from a human perspective. It’s not just that you need to go to a location to acquire an item. You’re playing to help a villager sleep, or to satisfy their weird bloodlust! The NPC’s appreciation when the player returns to the village will be an extra reward for a successful quest. What’s at stake for these people, both collectively and individually?

HOW ARE THEY FEELING?

If you stop someone fleeing a rampaging bear and ask them for directions, they probably won’t express much of their personality to you. But you’ll likely get a sense for how they’re feeling at that moment – as they scream in terror – and that’ll make your interaction with them feel very human. After all, what could be more human than our gooey, squishy feelings?

So let’s put our villager in immediate danger. Say the dragon is looming on the horizon…

Villager: What are you doing? RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!

Villager: The red dragon is coming to kill us all!

Villager: Finding that legendary mirror in Fire Mountain might be our only hope!

Villager: It can block the flames and– OH GOD, I can see the dragon’s shadow! 

It’s logical that someone in immediate danger might feel panicked or scared, but it’s not always the case. People don’t always feel the same thing in the same way. Let’s say the villager is serene, because her religion provides her comfort…

Villager: The red dragon will not harm me. The goddess sent you here to defeat it.

Villager: There is a mirror in the Fire Mountains. It will protect you against dragonfire.

Villager: The goddess protects me, always. 

In a town full of frightened and panicking NPCs, a few expressing very different feelings would stand out and be memorable to the player.

I don’t always answer all four questions for every minor character I write. Sometimes it’s enough to answer one or two. However, I always try and give an NPC justice by taking the time to understand who they are. Just in the same way an artist considers an NPCs facial features, clothes, and how they walk, I think about what they’re thinking and feeling.

Notice that all my examples stayed within 3-4 lines. You don’t have to write a lot of dialogue to give a minor character personality. As the dialogue writer, you just need to make a few decisions and write to them. Who is this NPC? What do they think of the player? What do they want? How are they feeling? Short answers to those questions can go a long way toward bringing your non-player characters — and by extension, your game’s world — to life.


Geoffrey Golden is a narrative designer who has written for Ubisoft, Square Enix, Capcom, and indie studios around the world. He’s the game master for Adventure Snack, a free “choose your path” adventure game played via email.

The editor asked Geoffrey to list all the different platforms he’s written games for. Here goes: Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, iOS, Android, tabletop RPG (in books, zines, and magazines), Kik Mobile, Facebook Messenger, Adobe Flash, email, and toy robot. 


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