Writing Prose in Game Worlds

Whenever I tell people I’ve written a novel set in a videogame universe, one of the most common responses is, “that sounds like fun!” They’re not wrong! But what I found was that making sure it’s fun, for both the writer and the reader, required developing a slightly new way of thinking about storytelling, even though I’d written both novels and games before.

If we think about what makes games fun, we tend to come up with two basic categories: the gameplay or ludic elements, and the narrative elements. Games can fall anywhere on a broad spectrum of how much of the experience is playing and how much is experiencing a story, and the distinction can be quite fuzzy: for example, if your player character solves the puzzle that tells him why his father disappeared years ago, that is a moment for character growth and plot movement as well as player interactivity.

It's tempting to think of tie-in fiction as simply representing the narrative half of the game world, with the ludic elements cut away. At its most basic, related fiction will tell a story set in the same universe as the game, and possibly with some of the same characters or plot elements. And hey, game settings do tend to be pretty cool.

But I found it helpful to think of tie-in fiction as another way to partake in the experience that makes the game great, not just part of the lore. If what makes a particular game fun for players is, say, dungeon building, then how cool is it to get the chance to linger a little over a cleverly designed lair in prose? If the game focuses on the acquisition of skills, maybe the fiction gives the reader a chance to experience a training sequence with more time to think about the subtle and complex emotions involved. Maybe the fiction can explore and expand on some of the same vicarious experiences that make the game cool, using a tool the game doesn’t have: linear prose. The reader doesn’t have a player character, but they do have a way in to the story through point-of-view.

Playing to your format’s strengths

Of course, I should caution against taking the idea above too far, or too literally, and having the characters in your story or novel levelling up their stats or cataloguing their weapons. What is fun in a game can easily become boring or seem artificial in prose. Each should take full advantage of its own format. 

Prose can do things that games can’t, and games can do things that novels can’t. But prose can be immersive and satisfying. And in a certain sense, it can be interactive. The reader can be engaged in trying to figure out a twist or a mystery – isn’t that just solving puzzles, in a way? The reader will be rooting for or against a character, and watching characters grow and change. As I was writing, I often reminded myself that reading a novel isn’t any more passive than playing a game.  

Another thing that prose can do is fill out parts of the world or backstory in detail that games may not have room to include. This can be a bit of a challenge for the writer, in fact: with more narrative space to work with, there may be parts of the world or your characters’ lives that you need to imagine without having seen them in the game.

The business side

In my experience, a writer can have a surprising amount of latitude and creativity, telling their own story inside an expansive world. But of course, that will vary by project and universe. So will the terms of your contract, but in general, there are a few business-related things to consider. 

Any prose you write in a game universe will almost certainly be work for hire, which means it’s not your intellectual property. You may have to keep some things confidential, and you may need to consider canon and the larger universe. You may need approval for your outlines and for the final manuscript. And as with all tie-in work, deadlines can be tighter than in other kinds of publishing.

But as long as you go into it with your expectations clear, it can indeed be a lot of fun. It’s a chance to extend a hand to a reader and say: come on, let’s play together.

Flights of Foundry, May 16-17, 2020

Flight of Foundry

Dream Foundry is thrilled to announce Flights of Foundry, a virtual convention for speculative creators and their fans. Registration is open and the convention will take place May 16-17. Our guests of honor are:

Comics: Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu
Editor: Liz Gorinsky
Fiction: Ken Liu
Games: Andrea Phillips
Illustration: Grace Fong
Translation: Alex Shvartsman and Rachel S. Cordasco

In addition to panels and information sessions, our programming will include workshops, a dealer's room, consuite (yes, a virtual consuite!), and more.

There is no cost to register, though donations to defray costs and support Dream Foundry's other programming are welcomed. Dream Foundry is a registered 501(c)3 dedicated to supporting creators working in the speculative arts as they begin their careers.

To register, go to: https://flights-of-foundry.org/registration/
For more information about the convention: https://flights-of-foundry.org/
You can learn more about Dream Foundry or check out our other programs by visiting our website: https://dreamfoundry.org/

Learning at Home

While we’re at home and practicing social distancing, many of us are looking to learn something new or hone our skills. There are a lot of classes being offered online right now. Here are a few that are both free and potentially of interest to those of us in the speculative arts.

Let’s start with the courses that happen at a specific time:

Next up are a slew of classes that you can check out anytime:

If you’re willing to sign up for skillshare.com, you can get two weeks for free. And if you do so, you might be interested in these course offerings:

Have you found a really neat class that you’d like to share with our readers? Or perhaps you’re teaching one? Be sure to tell us about it on our forums!

Interview with Badru

What started you out on the path toward games development?

I had a few early triggers. I was raised by a programmer and an architect, and my mom (the programmer) helped me make a text-based game for a school assignment. My close friends growing up bonded over games. It always seemed like something I could do, and something that would be exciting to do.

Could you tell me about your process as a game developer? Where do you get your ideas and your inspirations? How do you strive to improve?

Every game is different, but for this project (Tenderfoot Tactics) I work full-time, with the part-time support of four good friends and former collaborators, who have a major hand in almost everything except for 3D, code, and in-engine work.

My collaborators and their contributions:

  • Michael Bell: Music, Sound Design
  • Isa Hutchinson: Systems Design, Writing
  • Taylor Thomas: UX Design
  • Zoe Vartanian: Graphic Design, Voice

The first few years of this project was largely myself (then part-time) and Michael, with Isa coming on midway through. It's in an established genre, a tactical RPG, so we understood early what our strategy for developing it would be: first code infrastructure and broad design planning, then mocking up and testing combat, then classes and skill progression, and finally our overworld and narrative framework, all the while writing and rewriting. We're finally in our last stint now, what games people call "production," with the designs and engine having both iterated each other into a near-stable, near-final resting place, and with a solid plan developed for the full scope of the game, it's time for us to finish actually building out all of the remaining bits.

I find inspiration in novels (recently finished and was deeply inspired by The Earthsea Cycle, currently reading and moderately enjoying The Pale King) and paintings (Tenderfoot's world's color script and shape language are largely stolen from the work of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven).

Tenderfoot Tactics is of course heavily inspired by other works in its genre. Especially Final Fantasy Tactics, which I believe is the best yet made, but I also try to play as many modern TRPGs as possible to understand what's being done in the genre, what the audience is coming from.

Tenderfoot, as well as a previous work, Fire Place (sic), are very much inspired by science and mathematics as well, especially in the realm of chaos and complexity theory. Or maybe it's better to just say they're inspired by the beauty of the natural world, which if I put it that way makes it true of all of my work.

I work hard to improve in the various craft aspects of game development, of which there are many, and in all of which I have plenty of room to grow. This learning is almost passive, as craftwork is how I spend my days, and it's learned by doing.

I also journal irregularly to try to develop a more robust and realistic self-understanding: what are my goals, who is my audience, why am I making what I'm making, who am I working with and under what conditions, etc.

Could you tell me about your previous games? What challenges did you face making them? What was unique about them? What did you enjoy most about making these games?

I'll just talk about the big ones if that's okay.

Eidolon's biggest challenge, for me, was probably learning how to coordinate a ten-person, two-year project, although it was also the first time I touched 3D. Eidolon is probably not unique in any major way, anymore, but at the time it felt very special in its vast, lonely expanses, and in the breadth and density of its writing. I don't think I enjoyed making Eidolon.

Viridi was in many ways remarkably unproblematic to make. But it was in a new engine (for us), and was a struggle to maintain after launch, when we were flooded with players with corrupted save data or minor purchase problems. Also, building for iPhone is a tremendous pain. Three of us on the Viridi team (Zoe, Isa, and I) were working unemployed for a summer in our living room in Eastlake (Seattle) and we would walk the dog every day as a sort of midday meeting. That's easily my favorite memory of the process.

What are the greatest challenges you face, and what advice would you give to those who are interested in getting started in your field?

My greatest challenge is self-imposed: working for extended periods of time without financing.

To people interested in game development: just start making things. The best tools are largely free, if you have a computer at hand. Especially if you want to work as an independent like I do, there are literally no more gatekeepers. We ran them all off. Or someone else did, anyway.

Read and stay curious. Find your peers. Reach out and ask for help. But mostly, just start building stuff.

What's in your future? Where do you see yourself going next?

I'm planning on becoming an extravagantly successful artist, and using that success to develop our label Ice Water Games into a sustaining life force for my medium. I'm thinking I'll outlive capitalism by at least fifty years and die having just completed my most-recent magnum opus at the age of one hundred.

I want to collaborate with more people. I want to find a mentor and a mentee, help maintain a better chain of knowledge in games.

I'll probably make another strategy game next. Or maybe an action RPG would be cool.

Finding Family in Dragon Age: Inquisition

Editors Note: Emma Osborne introduces the September topic for Dream Foundrys Official Media Exploration Club. Please stop by and say hello on the forum, and let us know what your thoughts are regarding our September discussion topic, Dragon Age: Inquisition. We look forward to seeing you there!

Video games provide a unique way of both telling stories and of exploring families and character dynamics. Games embed players in worlds filled with cities to explore, people to meet, quests to pursue. BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition is a game rich with history, with culture, with politics, and of course, with many forms of families.

One of the beautiful things about games is that the player can make active choices in order to discover aspects of the world and the narrative. Story, within the game, can be short and impactful (for example, the Twine game queers in love at the end of the world by anna anthropy), or as is the case with many AAA games, it can span 70+ hours of play time. This provides a staggering amount of room for richness and detail. Dragon Age: Inquisition provides enormous scope for exploring the characters and mythology of Thedas in an active way. The player often learns by doing—by exploring, talking, completing side quests, or working through the main narrative quest. There are also personal quests for the major characters, with satisfying B plots and miniquests tying back into the main narrative.

Dragon Age: Inquisition was selected for discussion in large part because of the complexity of the relationship dynamics within the game. There are many races and classes, e.g. humans, the Qunari, elves, and dwarves, but even within the elvish and dwarven cultures there are nuanced and defined groups. For example, the elves are represented both by the nomadic Dalish elves, but also by servants seen in the Empress’s Winter Palace. We see elvish gods, elvish magic, and even elves who don’t adhere to any particular aspect of elvish culture. When it comes to dwarves, we see the somewhat outcast surface-dwellers versus dwarven traders, miners, and guilds.

Mages are also marginalized within the game, but we see various examples of their status—Dorian is noble and foreign. He hails from Tevinter, where mages are the ruling class. Solas is an elf and a non-Circle mage (a “rebel” mage) but also does not fit within what we know to be the standard elf experiences (not a city elf or a Dalish elf). Vivienne, the most powerful mage in the game, is rich, aristocratic, and part of the “accepted” Mage class (i.e. a Circle Mage) and carries strong political influence in both Thedas and Orlais.

The characters have many different experiences and histories but all work together to close the fade rifts and stop demons from attacking people. The characters learn from each other, argue and disagree in ways that families often do. Many of them have established relationships from earlier in the games’ history, e.g. Cassandra Pentaghast and Leliana are the former Left and Right Hands of the Divine—the lead warrior and chief spy of the game’s Pope character.

Aside from the main group, which is definitely a family, there are many smaller “families” within the game, such as Bull’s Chargers, a mercenary group who look out for each other and fight together. The Iron Bull, their leader (and a Qunari spy) saved Krem (a landmark transman character) in a tavern brawl and lost an eye for it. The Chargers are a diverse group made up of elves, dwarves, and humans.

The Seekers of Truth—an elite order of Templars—are another family within the game. Seeker Cassandra retains immense loyalty to the Seeker Knight Commander, when in her personal quest, she must root out corruption in the ranks. Dorian and Tevinter mage Alexius are a family of sorts, with Alexius mentoring Dorian in his mage studies. Sarcastic elf Sera has her crew of Red Jennies, who combine intelligence from the unnoticed workers of the world. They’re an informal group but are nevertheless united as many small cogs in a vast machine. Varric and Hawke have a family relationship that carries over from DA:2.

There is also an undeniable queer element to the families in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Many of the main characters are queer—Dorian is a gay man, Sera a lesbian. The Iron Bull is pansexual, and Leliana was able to be romanced by any gender in Dragon Age: Origins. In the real world, queer and trans folks have a way of finding each other, of seeking out people who become their family throughout their lives. The Dragon Age games reflect this beautifully, with the characters forming bonds out of a common goal, but also with genuine affection for each other, which can often be seen in the banter the characters engage in when out in the field.

I look forward to exploring the nuances of Dragon Age: Inquisition, and discussing the elements that resonate with folks on the forum!

Editors Note: Interested in commenting? Tell us your thoughts are regarding our September discussion topic, Dragon Age: Inquisition, on the forum. We look forward to seeing you there!

Interview About Magpie Games

To start with, what made you and Mark Truman decide to start up the studio back in 2011?

Mark and I met at a local gaming event in 2008 and much of our spare time was spent playing and running tabletop roleplaying games for friends. But the Southwest was a bit isolated from the happenings and going-ons of the indie games community, and many of the mainstream games we were playing didn’t feel like they were really about storytelling. We wanted to tell collaborative stories without putting an enormous burden on the players at our table, and we didn’t know of any games that did what we wanted to do. Our experience wasn’t unique: many gamers create amazing homebrews that do the job of opening those doors.

For the two of us, we knew that making a game for our homegroup wouldn’t be enough to satisfy our desire to create. We wanted to make products with the potential to expand the tabletop gaming library with quality gaming experiences that speak to a larger audience.

So we started our company, Magpie Games, and in 2011 we began our journey of creativity and learning. Mark and I traveled around the United States to different conventions, met some folks in the indie publishing community, entered contests, and got to work!

What kinds of challenges did the studio face in early years?

We had never published anything before, we had no budget, and we decided to launch our first couple of projects just before moving to a new state—Mark was starting a grad program at the Harvard Kennedy School and I was finishing my undergrad at UMass Boston. We had a few hurdles to overcome, but our skills complemented each other well and that teamwork helped us get through some of the more traditional publishing pitfalls, like art costs and project budgeting. And for the skills we didn’t have in house, we found partners and hire experts in the industry who guided us, folks like fellow game designers Brennan Taylor, Daniel Solis, and Will Hindmarch.

One of the things we decided to take a chance on was Kickstarter. The website had just launched in 2011 and seemed like a great way to bring our first game to a broader audience. That decision helped us to reach our funding goal and became a foundational pillar of how we think about releases. We’ve only released a handful of titles since without using Kickstarter to market, promote, and fund them!

Are the challenges different eight years in?

Absolutely! The challenges are different today because the industry is different today. And while some of the issues of funding still remain, what is at stake has changed. Today Magpie Games employs eight part and full-time employees and many more freelance contributors. Failure carries a much heavier burden when so many people’s day-to-day relies on success and progress.

We do what we can to stay ahead of the curve, continuing to try new things and take risks, but even with thirty-five+ products under our belt, every day is a hustle. We’ve built something strong and unique—a minority-owned, award-winning roleplaying game studio—but we have to keep breaking boundaries to make it last.

I’ve personally had the experience of playing a game that, while marvelously intricate and fascinating, took so much time to set up and read through the starter guide that by the time we were done, my husband and friend and I decided we were too tired to actually play the blasted thing. How do you balance role-playing and in-depth story and mechanics in the creation of a game against the time commitment involved?

To make an experience that is as fun and rich as possible without requiring players to spend countless hours learning the rules, we focus on player experience at every step in the process. First, we know we need to catch their attention with the cover dress, then we have to reach them through our layout and writing, and we have to keep them coming back through our quality and design. Including making sure they actually can play the game the first time they sit down to try it!

The "how do you balance" question is dependent upon the exact game and what experience we expect it to deliver. Each game we design has a very different system because at some level, we believe different kinds of fiction require different systems. Some games require a larger investment of time; some games can be played in ten minutes!

Urban Shadows, for example, is a deep game that really sings after you play it for many sessions, while Bluebeard’s Bride is short, potent, and well suited to one-shot play. I would be doing Urban Shadows a disservice by trimming it down to something like Bluebeard’s Bride and vice versa.

Regardless of the ultimate goal of a game, we want to make products that are accessible. So while most of our games require our team to pour a lot of blood sweat and tears into the design and presentation, we hope that the players can focus on bringing their interesting perspectives and imaginations to the table.

Which of your currently-existing games is your favorite, and why?

My favorite Magpie Games tabletop roleplaying game to run is Urban Shadows, an urban fantasy roleplaying game set in a politically-driven city. As I mentioned earlier, it is a deep game that lends itself to a multitude of amazing stories and perspectives. Urban fantasy is a gateway drug for tabletop roleplaying games. You don’t have to know the physiology of an elf or the ancient history of some lost kingdom, instead all it asks is that you imagine your everyday life and then some. There are so many tropes that both me and my players can easily tap into and expand on.

Urban Shadows was also a formative text for many people who were looking for advice on how to create their own moves and homebrew designs in the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) genera of gaming. Specifically, the master of ceremonies (MC) support sections of the game gives players clear and concise advice for running and designing within the system.

Let’s talk about your newest game, Wizard Kittens, which was funded on Kickstarter in just one day. Can you tell us a little about the development process you go through in putting together this game?

From development to gameplay, card games are a very different animal than our typical tabletop RPG product. For example, we can put a tabletop roleplaying game up on Kickstarter and adjust how the product is structured based on the response and stretch goals, but a card game needs to be completed regardless of the initial response.

Initially, Wizard Kittens production was slotted for later in our schedule, but due to the delay of another project we bumped it up to early 2019. My team and I worked tirelessly to turn the idea of Wizard Kittens into a reality.

In our normal fashion, we designed, mocked it up, and playtested the game, and once we had something really strong, it was time to make it a reality. We worked with artists to solidify a style and a cover along with commissioning enough pieces for a demo version of the game. While we constructed the Kickstarter page and looked for marketing partners, the game was sent off for more playtesting and reviews.

Luckily, it was a huge hit! The Kickstarter went on to raise over $165k and we have been thrilled by the overall response to Wizard Kittens thus far. All that work paid off!

I love the idea of what you call “ashcan” games – games that are out in beta testing, but not quite ready for full consumption. Can you tell us a little about how you learn from these games?

For those who are not familiar, the term “ashcan” came from the comic book industry where a preview version of the comic would be released without color. At Magpie Games, we use the term ashcan very similarly! It is a softcover preview release of a game that has everything needed to play. You can pick up a copy, try out the game, spread the hype, and even give design feedback before the final version is released.

Feedback from these preview releases is a wonderful way to engage audiences and gauge what excites them about our new designs. We also use these ashcans to help and guide new designers through the process of publishing a game with all the support and funding of our experienced staff. Through the ashcan program we are able to team up with enthusiastic designers who are still finding their voice in the industry. We strive to support their work with the hope that after they go through the process of publishing with our direct support they will be better equipped to move forward with their own games, publishing companies, and careers.

What are some lessons in game-creation that you’d like to share with newcomers to the field?

Know what you want. There is a lot of reward from designing something for your home group and calling it good. But if what you want is to start your own publishing company, then do it and do it hard. To succeed you are going to need to keep pushing forward, even when it is painful, heartbreaking, and no fun. But the day in and day out of creative work alongside a badass team is invaluable.

If you’ve got the passion and the team, you’re on your way. Game design is about giving people the tools to tell stories but like all product design, the devil is in the details. Be ready to kill your darlings and keep working on your game long after you are tired of it. It’s a hard and rewarding process.

But also be thoughtful about whether you even want to own a publishing company. Many people we meet just want to make a game. Don’t create a whole business just to make your one game; seek our partners who can help you make it a reality and leave the shipping, marketing, and publishing to folks who know what they are doing.

What do you wish you’d known when you started out?

Time will fly. You’ll bleed for this, but take the time to stop and smell the roses before they die. Be grateful for your successes; they will always seem fleeting.

Inside the News

Industry News, June 2019

Jason Sanford's publishing news will return in July, but for now we hope you'll enjoy this shortened edition of the news from around the speculative arts community.

Video Game News

FromSoftware Announces New Game in Partnership with George R. R. Martin

As reported in The Verge, the makers of Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, FromSoftware announced at E3 that they have teamed up with George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire book series , in making a new game titled Elden Ring, which will be published by Bandai Namco and available on Xbox One and PC. No release date has been announced at this time, but a teaser trailer from E3 is available, and has been raising a lot of speculation.

You Can't Catch Them All

NintendoLife reports that, based on information revealed by a game developer during a recent Nintendo livestream, it will not be possible for players to acquire a full set of all available Pokémon in their new game, Pokémon Sword And Shield. The game will feature a completely new set of Pokémon as well as some old fan favorites, but only monsters from the Galar Pokédex can be ported over into the new game via the new cloud service that will allow transfer of monsters from previous games.

Video Game Fashion

Kitfox Games' Victoria Tran discussed fashion in video games -- and how it could be improved -- in a 2019 Game Developers Conference talk now available on Gamasutra.

New and Upcoming

Continuing the long-running Zelda series, Gamasutra reports that Nintendo is working on a direct sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The trailer revealed a darker direction and more open world that should be an interesting departure from what fans have come to expect from the series.

Meanwhile, according to io9, a Dark Crystal video game will be coming to Nintendo Switch, intended to tie-in with the upcoming Netflix TV series that will release on August 30. The title of the game, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics, reveals that rather than being an open-world concept, this title will be borrowing heavily from the style of Final Fantasy Tactics.

TV & Movie News

An Animated Pratchett Possibility, and a Petition Faux Pas

Following on the success of Amazon's Good Omens miniseries, showrun by Pratchett's coauthor Neil Gaiman, Variety reports that The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is now set to be the first of Terry Pratchett's novels to become an animated feature film.

In other Pratchett-related news, apparently a number of conservative Christians were upset by Good Omens. So upset, in fact, that, according to The Guardian, they addressed a petition to cancel the series to Netflix, which had nothing to do with its production or distribution. This author can only think that such a mix-up would have delighted Terry Pratchett just as it has visibly amused Neil Gaiman on Twitter.

More Nostalgia Fear is on the Way

You might have thought that the upcoming third season of Stranger Things was the most terrifying bit of nostalgia headed your way, but there's more where that came from! Per Deadline, Nickelodeon has announced the cast for their upcoming limited series reboot of Are You Afraid of the Dark? which scared the pants off many 90s kids back during its first iteration. This time, the stories that torment the Midnight Society will be coming to life in their world over three episodes, so we anticipate even more terror than before.

Dune: Sisterhood is Coming to TV, and Dune Back to Theaters

According to Hollywood Reporter, Denis Villeneuve will direct the pilot for an upcoming female-focused take on the Dune universe, based on Frank Herbert's novel, as well as writing and producing the new take on the main novel that is slated to premiere 2020. The TV series will be released on WarnerMedia's upcoming but as-yet-unnamed streaming service, and will follow the machinations of the Bene Gesserit through the complicated politics of the Imperium.

More Streaming Horror Strangeness

In a new quirk on streaming, Variety reports that Stephen Spielberg is writing a horror series for Quibi that viewers will only be able to watch when their phone detects that it's dark outside. "A clock will appear on phones, ticking down until sun sets in wherever that user is, until it’s completely gone. Then the clock starts ticking again to when the sun comes back up — and the show will disappear until the next night." Spielberg has reportedly written five or six of the "chapters," as Quibi refers to its shorter episodes, so far.

We Just Can't Have Nice Things

As reported in io9 and on producer Ben Edlund's Twitter, the comedic superhero adventures of The Tick are once again without a home or hope for immediate continuation. As Edlund said on June 14, "We will look for other opportunities to continue this story with this cast, but the current series must I'm afraid come to its end."

We want to hear from you! Let us know what you think about the news of the month on the forum post for this blog entry.

Creating Realistic Non-Humans

If I don’t like a piece of science fiction media, I often
find myself saying that it was too focused on the humans. I get enough of that
in real life. Give me the aliens.

Obviously this a little bit of a joke… but not entirely. For whatever reason, throughout a long life of sci-fi and fantasy fandom, I’ve been drawn to the outsiders and the non-humans. I got a degree in anthropology in part because of my obsession with learning about other cultures, and in sci-fi and fantasy I get to indulge that love in reverse: I get to create them from the ground up, with none of the rules of history and specificity that Earth cultures have. But I’m often disappointed in editing or watching or reading other media by cultures that are cliché, shallowly developed in ways that often don’t make sense. So I’m here to help you with that.

Start With the Basics

You probably have some concept of what story niche you need a
creature to fill. Are they a mindless devourer, a haughty warrior adversary, or
noble-but-distant ally for your heroes to cautiously rely on? How many of them
are we going to meet in the course of the game or story or script? Are they
potentially playable or POV characters, or only enemies, set-dressing or NPCs?
The more time your story spends with these people, the more detailed you’re
going to want to get about who they are, and the more you’ll need to embrace
the fact that these people are individuals with their own attitudes, ideas,
talents, and personalities. Which brings me to…

Avoiding the Planet of Hats Trope

The Planet of Hats
is a world where every single inhabitant shares a certain trait. They’re all obsessed
with gangsters, or effete artistic types, or hardened warriors. I won’t point
fingers, because just about every sci-fi franchise and most fantasy series has
this going on. It’s attractive shorthand – and didn’t I just say you needed to
start out with what story niche you need these people to fill? This makes it
easy! All of these people are noble-but-distant allies or haughty warriors or
whatever. But… it also makes them feel very samey and unrealistic. If everybody
in this society is a scientist, who’s making dinner? Who’s cleaning up the lab
at night? If they’re all warriors, how is the laundry getting done? Even the Spartans
had traders, and pillaging was more of a seasonal job for the Vikings than anything
else – they went home and were farmers or traders and so on the rest of the
year. No society can function on just one kind of work. They may try, but they’ll
inevitably become unbalanced, which usually leads to revolution of some kind.
If you want to show a culture teetering on the edge of that kind of upheaval,
by all means go for it! But be aware that otherwise, someone needs to be growing
food and washing the floor and changing diapers while everyone else is talking
about art or philosophy.  

Examine Your Assumptions, and Think About Subverting Them

If that last section sounded like I might be talking about
gendered jobs, consider who you automatically assumed would be doing the lower-status,
domestic work… and consider whether or not maybe some or all of those assumptions
might be different in this strange new world you’re creating.

Get Down to Biology

Don’t be scared – you don’t have to have a doctorate in biochem
to do the kind of biological work that I’m talking about. You just need to have
a little curiosity, some mental flexibility, and an internet connection. Let’s
say you want to have a reptilian society like I suggested above, and you want them
to hatch out of eggs. Great! (I hope you’re not thinking of giving your female
reptilians breasts, though, because if they don’t nurse, there’s no reason for
them to have mammary glands. Please don’t do this.)

Since these people are reptilian, let’s also assume that
they have some of the other
traits we would expect from non-avian reptiles on Earth
– let’s say they’re
cold-blooded and have what is scientifically called a “horny epidermis” (scales,
for us lay people). They’re going to need to shed their skin as they grow, then,
and not be active in cold temperatures due to a lower metabolism that’s reliant
on heat. I’m guessing their cities aren’t big on nightlife, given that second
fact, and, given the first, they probably have to take time off from whatever
they’re doing (work, making war, etc.) when the time to shed comes on them. Or,
at the very least, they’re going to be itchy, irritable, and distracted during
those times. How could the daily and yearly patterns of their culture and their
lives be set up to accommodate  those traits?

What else? They might have infrared (heat-sensitive) vision
like some snakes, which could be interesting. Think about how different the
world would look to you if you could see the visible color spectrum and also
heat. Now think about how useful that could be in certain professions. An engineer
with that kind of vision could find leaks in engine construction at a glance,
and I bet a blacksmith with that kind of skill would be in high demand –
particular if she’s highly adapted to hot temperatures. Maybe they can see when
the human characters are sweating or have a fever.

How does being an egg-layer change their society from what
we mammals would think is normal? They might be significantly less attached to
their young, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re heartless – it just
means they’re different from us. (If you’re interested in this idea, take a
look at what Becky Chambers does with the Aandrisks and their social structure
in The
Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Consider Working Against Type

In general, if a piece of media presents us with insectoid
or reptilian creatures, they’re going to be evil, while if the creatures are
fuzzy, big-eyed, mammalian, or all of the above, they’re almost certainly going
to be good guys. There’ve been a few counter-examples over the years (District 9 being an obvious
one), but if you’re interested in doing something unusual with your creatures, working
against audience expectations in this way can be a great way to break out of
the mold and do something that will surprise, and therefore interest, your

Worried about alienating your audience with creatures who
don’t look like what they expect? This can be trickier in visual media than in
written media where you as the author have more control over what adjectives a
reader associates with your creatures, but if you don’t believe me that it can
still work, look at what Mass Effect
did with some of their species. The horny-toad looking Krogan are rough and
tumble, for sure, but they’re not baddies, nor are the Turians (who are a lot
harder to classify but are definitely not fluffy), and they are generally (but
not in all cases, because individuals!) allies and friends.

Of course, you don’t have to stay within the classic bounds
of insectoid, reptilian, cat-people, and so on. Stretch yourself! Combine
traits from different classes of Earth animal, or use more obscure creatures.
Make sentient species based on sea stars or jellyfish, anemones, or slime
molds. What about an intelligent culture whose people go through something like
the chrysalis process that moths and butterflies do, or who carry their homes/defenses
around with them like hermit crabs? What would that kind of culture look like
by the time it developed cities or became spacefaring?

The universe is your petri dish, my friends. Go out and
design interesting nonhumans to fill your worlds.

What do you think? Share your tips and tricks for writing realistic non-humans on our forum!

Learning How to Make Your Own Video Games

If you want to get into game development or design, it might
feel like you need to go back to school or take an expensive online course. The
reality, however, is that there are a ton of resources on the web for free (and
a few more that you would have to pay for) that you can take advantage of to
learn how to make your own games.

Disclaimer: The author of this post is not a game designer. She is, however, married to a software engineer and game developer, and it's impossible not to pick up a few things over more than a decade with someone. Many thanks to @ninjascript for years of love, support, and giving me some pretty good ideas of how all this awesome stuff works.


  1. Ask Reddit. No, seriously—r/gamedev created
    a fabulous wiki on how to get started in game development
    , and it’s
    a great place to start if you’re new.
  2. Get an overview and some tips, from idea to
    marketing, from the Free Code Camp by Medium’s article “From
    Zero to Game Designer
  3. Watch some of the “Free” section of videos from the Game
    Developer Conference
    (or if you prefer, the archive on
    their YouTube channel
  4. Check out Khan Academy’s classes on computer
    and computer
  5. Learn about writing
    for games
    , game
    , monetization,
    and more from Extra Credits.
  6. Take part in a game jam like Ludum Dare, and
    make sure to review other developers’ games and see what feedback your game
    gets from the community.
  7. Take advantage of Ctrlpaint’s free videos on
    digital art or browse through the Technical Art: Game Art Tricks
    in-depth analyses of the digital tricks used by existing games.
  8. Brush
    up on your mythology
    with PBS’s Crash Course series to learn about
    the classic stories that millions of game developers before you (not to mention
    authors, screenwriters, and others) have based their storylines around.
  9. Learn while you commute by adding some of GameDesigning.org’s
    10 favorite podcasts about game design
    to your rotation.
  10. Find more resources on Medium’s
    list of top online tutorials to learn game development using Unity

Available for Money:

  1. Take courses from Udemy like Unreal
    Engine 4
    , 2D
    Game Graphic Design in Photoshop
    , Android
    Game Development for Beginners
    , and more, or Coursera courses like Principles
    of Game Design
    or Game
    Development for Modern Platforms
  2. Get specific with courses like Learn
    to Code Trading Card Game Battle System with Unity 3D
    or Learn
    to Code by Making a 2D Platformer in Unity
  3. Read up! Check out GameDesigning.org’s
    list of the 10 best game design books to find a place to start.
    list includes everything from theory to programming and a book of practical
    challenges to help you improve with every project you work on.
  4. Interested in how artificial intelligence is
    used in game development? Go deep with O’Reilly’s AI
    for Game Developers

Do you have any other resource suggestions we should include here? Want to share with our community about your new game, or seek out collaborators to share the process with? Join the conversation on our forum!

Luanaheim by Johanna Taylor

Interview with Illustrator Johanna Taylor

Dream Foundry Content Manager Jen Grogan sat down with Johanna over email recently to chat with her about illustration, story boarding and composition, and crows.

You can see more of Johanna’s work at johannamation.com.

How did you start out as an illustrator?

I actually have
video games and RPGs to thank for that. I played a lot of Nintendo as a kid,
and I loved creating my own characters to fit into worlds like Hyrule, Kanto,
and Tellius. I also played a bit of Dungeons & Dragons in high school and
throughout college. I drew in the margins of my homework for many years, but I
never realized it was something I could realistically do for a living until
halfway through college, when indie games and 3D animated films started
becoming popular. I originally set out to be a graphic designer, but I fell
deeply in love with animation and the way art can tell a story, and I knew that
I wanted to be involved in that process, so I worked at getting better every
day and got accepted to the BYU
Animation program
. I was one of those students who wanted to learn and
master everything, and took classes for digital painting, character design,
storyboarding, 3D modeling, and animation.

After I graduated
from the program, I applied for a job with an independent video game studio
called Apocalyptic Games. I
became the creative director on a game, and was in charge of designing the
characters, props, environments, and even helped with the level design and
learned lighting and composition in Unity. Since then, I've been a freelance
illustrator and have contributed artwork for several indie games, children's
books, and comics publishers.

Dark Dicey by Johanna Taylor
Dark & Dicey by Johanna Taylor

What’s something you didn’t know about the field before you got into

Freelancing is just as valid in this field as a full-time job at a major studio. As a student, it's easy to feel like being a freelance artist should only be a last resort if you can't find a "real" job in the industry, and it was discouraging when I applied for studios only to be turned down and feel like there was no other way for me to make a living doing what I love. A lot of studios and publishers reach out to freelance artists for projects if they have a style that matches their need, and I've been privileged to work with a few of them. I've also discovered that art is a marathon, not a race: there is no time- or age-limit for when you need to hit your big break in order to be considered successful or a "winner," or if you even need to hit a big break at all. A successful art career is a series of small breaks over a long period of time that build on each other. Like a marathon, which path you take, and how long it takes you to get there, aren't as important as staying in the race, making as much forward progress as you can.

What’s your favorite kind of job to work on, and why?

I really enjoy
character design, environments, and prop design, but my favorite has to be
fantasy illustration or character design with an epic, high-fantasy vibe. That
genre has always spoken to me, and I'm so happy to see it making a resurgence
in popular culture.

Two concept sketches by Johanna Taylor
Two concept sketches by Johanna Taylor

What’s your least favorite?

It's hard to work
on projects where the objective isn't clear, or the expectations aren't
communicated well. Communication is hugely important to me, and if contract
clients aren't timely with their feedback, or change their minds on major
design points too late into the project, it's frustrating to have to scramble
to satisfy their needs.

Tell me a little about your process—how do you decide what moment to
portray when you’re planning an illustration piece or a comic panel?

I think a lot about
what makes an interesting composition: what moves my eye through a piece, and
trying to answer the question, "What does this person's life look like and
how do I show that?" I also think about the character as though I've just
passed them by on the street and had about a minute to figure out who they are
as a person. What they're wearing, what they're doing, what they're thinking
about, where they're going; I treat the illustration like my elevator pitch for
that character's story, communicating as much detail about them as possible in
the simplest, most relatable ways. A lot of story can be gleaned from looking
at a character's posture, their clothes, their expression, and the way they
treat the environment around them.

Is the process of finding the dramatic moment to show similar to
planning out a storyboard, or is that totally different?

I think it's pretty
similar, actually. Composition is hugely important in storyboarding, because
you have to make sure all of your character's actions are clear enough to
communicate what they're doing and what they want, otherwise the audience will
be confused. But where storyboarding or comics have several panels to tell a
story, an illustration only has one. To me, the most interesting illustrations
are the ones where the staging is clear and dynamic as though someone took a
storyboard panel and painted it, but are comprehensive enough to tell a
complete story by themselves.

Peter Pan by Johanna Taylor

What do you think would surprise people about your day-to-day routine
as an artist?

A huge chunk of my
job is self-promotion and financial preparation for conventions. I do draw
primarily for clients, and even get time to draw just for myself sometimes, but
I have to spend a lot of time networking on social media, creating and keeping
up with a personal production schedule, checking out which conventions have
open applications, and planning how much money to spend on printing, display
setups, and merchandise for those conventions. Freelance artists have to deal
with a surprising amount of math, accounting, and economics!

What’s one piece of advice that you would give to younger artists who
want to get a start in the industry?

If you have fun
drawing it, people will have fun looking at it. Drawing as a job is great and
should be fun by default, but a LOT of art jobs and freelancing will be spent
drawing other people's characters, worlds, and props. If you're asked to design
ten different chairs for a robot pirate, even if you absolutely hate drawing
chairs and robots and pirates, find a way to make the chairs fun for you to
draw. What kind of details can you add that make them the most interesting
robot pirate chairs you can possibly design? People can tell the difference
between art someone had fun making and art they hated every minute of making.

I noticed you list some of your hobbies as cross-country skiing and feeding crows—how did the crow-feeding start? Do they recognize you now?

Crows have always been my favorite animal. They're intelligent, family-oriented, and bursting with personality. I started out feeding seagulls regularly with my family (Utah gets a lot of seagulls), but over time more and more crows started cropping up. There was a murder of crows that hung around my college campus and I fed them any time I encountered them. They did start to recognize me after a while and would even bring me twigs in exchange for the nuts and granola I gave them. There was also a murder as large as 100 crows in the north where my mom lived, and feeding them was absolute madness! I used to keep track of where they migrated to, but they moved around so often that I no longer get to feed them as regularly as I'd like. I do keep a little granola in my bag just in case I run into some, though!