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How can you design a story that branches into multiple directions? How does writing for games help with writing a novel? Ed McRae explains narrative design and the opportunities for writers in the gaming industry.
In the intro, ‘the inevitable decline of open platforms' [Seth Godin]; pros and cons of different print distribution models [Adam Croft; ALLi]; Canterbury: A History of England Written in Stone.
Do you need help with editing and cover design, marketing, or translations? Find a curated list of vetted professionals at the Reedsy marketplace, along with free training on writing, self-publishing, and book marketing. Check it out at: www.TheCreativePenn.com/reedsy
Edwin McRae is a freelance narrative designer for the games industry. He's also a game design teacher, and writer of nonfiction for authors, including Narrative Design for Writers.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- What is narrative design in video games?
- Why is gaming important to the entertainment industry?
- How writing for games differs from writing a linear book
- Creating many options for story beats and character actions
- Writing like a reader
- The skills needed to break into different areas of writing for games
- The increased opportunities for writers with gaming, AI, VR and AR
You can find Edwin McRae at EdMcRae.com and on Twitter @edmcraewriter
Transcript of Interview with Edwin McRae
Joanna: Edwin McRae is a freelance narrative designer for the games industry. He's also a game design teacher, and writer of nonfiction for authors, including Narrative Design for Writers. Welcome, Edwin.
Edwin: Kia ora Joanna, and tena koutou to your audience. It's really cool to be here.
Joanna: You should probably just explain that.
Edwin: I just said, basically, ‘Hello,' and ‘Hello everyone,' in Maori.
Joanna: It's because you're in New Zealand, right?
Joanna: Just so everybody knows.
Edwin: Yeah, it's quite nice. A lot of people here we try to use Te Reo, which is Te Reo Maori, in everyday conversation as much as possible these days. So, we're all gradually becoming bilingual.
Tell us a bit more about how you got into writing and what your job actually is like. What is narrative design?
Edwin: I'll start with the second part of that question, to discuss where I've got to.
Narrative design is effectively the design of story elements that then go into video games. I steer away from the general term of writing for video games, because often within the industry, the games industry, writing gets siloed into things like dialogue and flavor text. And the player-facing material that you would see in a video game.
Whereas narrative design, there's a lot more behind the scenes than that, creating the story experience for a video game, which I'm happy to elaborate on more what a story experience for a video game is.
I started out writing a novel, pitched that around, almost got picked up by HarperCollins at one point, but to no avail. And then shifted to doing theater for a while, and then studied screenwriting for film. And then on that course, which is at Victoria University in Wellington, I managed to get a work placement on New Zealand's soap opera, ‘Shortland Street.'
I ended up as a storyliner and script writer there for four years, which taught me a lot about churning out a lot of story and the best practices for that kind of fast-paced storytelling. And then I got to the end of my tenure with writing for soap opera, I wanted to do other things.
I started to hang out with some game developers in Auckland at the time, at a game developers meetup, met the guys at Grinding Gear Games who make the game ‘Path of Exile.'
They Facebook messaged me one day and said, ‘Hey, do you want to try writing some dialogue for us?' And then that kind of, the rest is history.
Joanna: It's so interesting. You've done lots of different types of writing, obviously. But I wonder if you would also maybe start by giving us more of an overview of the gaming industry, because I feel like there's a lot of misconceptions.
I'm 46, and a lot of the gaming I know would have been the really old games that were around 20 years ago when I watched my brother play things. But gaming is such a huge industry now compared to the author industry which is also part of entertainment, we're all part of that.
Why is gaming so important in the entertainment industry? Give us an overview.
Edwin: It's certainly become a large industry. It has eclipsed cinema as an industry. I was looking a few things up, I think cinema is around $110 billion, games are around $150 billion as an industry internationally, which you compare that to books.
Publishing still sits around over $200 billion, but of that, books I think are around the $120 billion mark. I would see games as a platform being as large as the books industry pretty much at the moment.
So it's certainly a significant thing out there. And interestingly, your average gamer, I was looking at, is apparently I think 34 years old, has children, and owns a house. So it's not the teenage stereotype that often is assumed with video gaming.
Looking at various stats it ranges…for instance in Australia, 80% of gamers are over 18 and the U.S., 70% are over 18. So it's actually, it's quite a mature audience, and perhaps more mature than people might assume.
Joanna: And what about the gender split? Because there used to be this sort of thing that it was mostly guys.
From what I've read now, a lot of women are gaming, a lot of women getting into game design and things. And also there are educational games, it's not just shooting, is it?
Edwin: Oh, absolutely. That's the curious thing with games. It's almost like referring to a game is the same as referring to a book, as a book can be anything from a thriller to a dad's joke book, could be horror to a kid's picture book.
It's the same range with games, it can be everything from yes, your ‘Grand Theft Auto' and your ‘Call of Duty' shooters back right to…for instance there's a company here in Dunedin, Runaway Play, that makes effectively nature simulation games and games about cat cafes, and games about dog refuge centers.
There's a full range within the type of games that are out there, there's really something for everyone.
Joanna: There are obviously the high-end games where you need whole consoles and things, but then you see people playing games on their mobile phone.
What kind of devices are people using now?
Edwin: Exactly. And actually, I've realized I missed the gender question is that, but especially with mobile phone, the gender split is 50/50 in many countries, in fact, in most countries. So there is no bias either way with gaming.
I think with mobile especially the female audiences is significantly larger, 60%, almost to 70%.
Joanna: I find it fascinating, and definitely think things have changed. As you mentioned there, people, the ‘average' in inverted commas being 34 with children and a house, we're talking about people with money now.
Some of these games, I would say they don't sound expensive. You might pay $70 or something for one of these really premium games, but then the amount of hours you can play that, it actually seems quite good value. There's obviously the cheap ones on the mobile, isn't there?
The games I hear people talk about are these quite immersive ones.
Edwin: They're the ones that get the most press is the really big ones like ‘Cyberpunk 2077,' or ‘Witcher 3,' or ‘Skyrim,' big games that you can explore for up to, oh gosh, 100 hours, 200 hours, 300 hours for some. But those are your larger titles that cost between say $50 to $100, $120.
But then especially in the indie game dev scene, you'll get games that are anywhere from $2 to $20. And even in those, you'll tend to have a good 10 to 20 hours of gameplay in those. Again, it can be on mobile, it can be on PC, it can be on console.
There's that epic, massive series that you can explore, there are short stories, and novellas in the game scene as well. So, again, it's a full range of experience on offer.
Joanna: That is a really great overview. And as you said, a full range of experience. I think this experience idea and this idea of entertainment, I think sometimes we forget that as authors, we get into the book we're doing and we forget that out there people want entertainment, education, inspiration, and sometimes it doesn't matter what medium they get it from, and so I often feel that it's just a very different experience.
Let's talk about writing then. Obviously, we can't talk about every different type, but it feels like it's a very different thing writing for an experience than it is for a sort of linear book.
How does writing for these games differ from writing a linear book?
Edwin: It absolutely is. I've written novels myself, and the experience I would liken it to is that it's almost like you're designing a sideshow ride, like if you were going to do like a horror themed train ride for a sideshow, that would be closer to what say a narrative designer does.
So you're not necessarily writing a plot for the people to sit in the train and experience. It's more like you're thinking about what is the overall emotion I want them to experience? And in that case, it might be fear, shock, things like that.
Then it's thinking about how can I create a cohesive world that these people can ride through and get a sense that everything fits together on this horror train, all the pieces work together to create an overall experience?
In there are elements of story, there will be characters, there will be settings, there will be little bits of dialogue, there will be images and all sorts of elements that go into there. But the narrative designers job is more of that thinking of how do all these different pieces fit together,
I guess I realized with the train example, that's actually, that's still linear. So in many respects that's still quite similar to say writing a novel; you're doing all of those things with writing a novel as well. You're thinking about setting, character, how you're going to describe the environment, the characters are moving through, how you describe the action and all of those elements.
The tricky thing is then when the train starts to branch off into 10 possibilities, when the players get to a junction and go, ‘Okay, I've got 10 options here,' and somebody has to write each of those 10 options and what's going to happen in those options that's where it starts to get tricky and much more gamer like.
Joanna: That's what fascinates me, because I did the ‘MasterClass' with James Patterson, have you seen that?
Edwin: I've heard of it.
Joanna: It's very, very good. Because obviously James Patterson being one of the top sellers in the world and whatever people think of his writing, the dude is obviously very successful.
I did his ‘MasterClass' and that's one of the things he talks about. He's a plotter and an outliner, and does a lot of co-writing. But with every single thing, he comes up with several different ways that character could go and writes down those different things. So he'll be like, okay, like you said, call a junction point that might be does the character go this way and fight this person or go this way after this particular thing?
It's fascinating to me that kind of planning, because I don't do that. I'm a discovery writer and in my head, there is only one line. I've heard Lee Child say this actually, it's like, this is what happens. And if he's told to make changes to his book, he's like, ‘No, that's what happens. There's only one way it happened and that's the way.'
It's so interesting to me because what you're talking about is this, you have to write the 10 different options, and then the character gets to choose which way to go. So I guess my question here for you would be, so how do we come up with 10 or even 3 different options for each of these decision points?
What are some of the tricks you use to come up with the different options?
Edwin: It depends on the sort of game you're working on. I worked on a game called ‘Guardian Maia,' which is a dark fantasy, interactive fiction game that you play on a mobile device with a wahine, a woman, she's a warrior, Maori warrior, and you help her basically go through the story.
But there are a lot of choices in that that you can make for Maia that will then alter the story. And so, the trick is always working out scope. Scope being how big do you want the story to be and how much writing do you actually want to do? And how much writing can the production team afford to pay you to do?
At each decision point, what you do is you work out, ‘Is this decision going to be a massive decision that's going to change the world?' If so, then I need to think about how is it going to change the world, and then start to think about how much of that I'm going to show the player.
But then you've got at the other end of the scale, if you want there to be decisions but them not to be earth-shattering, to completely change the world and therefore require a lot more writing, you can start to play around with tweaks in behavior, and tweaks in reactions from the world.
For instance, in ‘Guardian Maia,' we had a thing called a mana counter. So mana being the Maori concept of self-esteem plus the esteem gained from others of respect. If you chose to interact with the characters in the story in generally positive ways, you tended to build mana.
And then what I would write in is reactions from the other characters based on what Maia's mana score was at that time. So if it was high, they would treat her quite respectfully. If it was low, they might treat her with suspicion, they might be wary of her, they might be a little bit sarcastic with her.
I could do that with, small, single lines that would change depending on what that mana score was. I did all of that in a tool called Ink Script, which for me is my favorite narrative design tool because it still feels like writing when I'm making things like that.
So that's one trick is always thinking about how big an effect I want this option to have, and then thinking about the scope of the story as a whole. If I make this change, is it going to be massive? Is it going to require a lot of writing? Or can I make small tweaks that still have the world reacting to the player, but not necessarily having to write millions and millions of options.
Joanna: That is interesting; a scale of how big the change is, because of course if you go this way and you kill off a character that makes a big difference to the rest of things.
I've definitely written myself into issues where I'm like, ‘This character dies now.' And then I'm like, ‘Now what do I do?'
Edwin: I've done exactly the same thing in my novels, because I'm also a discovery writer when I do novels. I think it's because I like to take a holiday from all the heavy planning I have to do with narrative design.
But what's also quite cool is when I'm being a discovery writer, I feel like I can put myself in the player's position. Because, again, as a narrative designer, you're thinking about what do you want the player to discover? And it's the discovery that's enjoyable for the player a lot of the time, like ‘What's next? What am I going to experience next?'
I listened to your episode about Sudowrite, and about this guy being in a laboratory, so, what you can do is as a novelist you can write out, and you can describe that whole laboratory.
Now, when your character interacts with that laboratory, let's say there's a fight in there and you need to know things like, ‘What beaker is the hero going to smash over the villains head?' That kind of thing, or ‘What elements of the room are you going to use?' You can just write that through.
But if you describe the entire laboratory, what you're doing is you are then setting it up so a player can explore all the elements of that laboratory without you having to guide them towards any sequence of how they do it or try and draw their attention to any paths. So it's that same sort of process when you go in and you've got to a setting you describe the whole thing.
And then, of course there are constraints when you're working with an app theme or production budgets, like how much they can actually make, but as a principle, that's a good way to approach it.
Describe the whole environment so that then the player has the option of discovering what they want to discover in that room, rather than specifically what you might want them to discover, if that makes sense.
Joanna: I feel like when we write a book, a lot of the time we are just writing for us. But with a game, obviously, it's a business from day one. It's a company. I know you have some independent game companies and things, but people are thinking of the gamer, the person who's experiencing the game, from the beginning. So you almost have to keep that mindset.
It's interesting that you're a discovery writer with your own novels.
What tips do you have for authors that you've learned from gaming that you put into your novels?
Edwin: That's a really interesting question. I've been mulling that over lately. It's like, I bring up this kind of experience design principle again. It's something that I would like to employ more when I'm actually writing a novel. I'm going to on this next novel I'm just starting work on.
We are, again, thinking about the player, or in this case the reader, and you're sorting out, not the actual plot, not the actual storyline, but what emotional experiences you want the reader to have as they consume your story.
So it's almost, again, thinking like a player, like, what route? If I go into this room, what things do I want them to be able to interact with in their own time and enjoy and get a fright from potentially, that kind of thing.
The same thing when approaching a novel, if you are writing a scene is thinking about what is the key emotion that you want to evoke with this scene? Is it anxiety? Is it excitement? Is it a sense of fun?
Whatever the style of story you're writing, whatever it pertains to, it's thinking of experience first.
What do you want the reader to emotionally experience from that scene? And then work up from that. As opposed to maybe the approach of what's next on the plot. What part of the story do I want to deliver?
Joanna: I think that's really important. And this idea of what you enjoy has to come into that too.
For example, when you're talking about discovering what's in the lab. For me, curiosity is a really big driver for why I read books and why I want to learn about things. So that's what I have in my books is interesting settings, and interesting things that are actually in the real world because I enjoy those things and my readers do.
And that's not for everyone. So you do have to find the things that you want to do, and then go ahead that way, which I think many readers, or many writers even might shy away from, because they're worried about what they like, or they think x will sell better. But what you're talking about there is experience first.
It's definitely the experience for the reader and based on what you love, which I think's super important.
Edwin: Exactly. As I mentioned, this next novel I'm going to delve into, which is a horror Western, the reason I'm writing it is because I can't find enough good horror Westerns out there to read. So I really am treating myself as the ideal reader.
When I go on to create a scene I'll be looking at what emotion do I want to evoke in that scene that I would enjoy? Would I enjoy being frightened at this point? Would I enjoy being intrigued at that point?
So, again, it's a very different process for me when I am tackling my novels as opposed to when I'm working on games, because it's a business. You have to always keep the audience in mind because at the end of the day that's the audience you're selling to.
If you've got your player profile right, and you've tailored your game to that profile, then chances are it'll do well. If you've not hit the player profile, then things get a little squiffier.
Joanna: It's so funny that you're not writing LitRPG, which to me would be obvious because you know this world so much. But clearly the horror Western, as soon as you said that, in my mind, I thought about ‘Westworld,' which I know is sci-fi, but it's sci-fi horror Western.
Edwin: I love the first two seasons of ‘Westworld.' They're just amazing.
Joanna: I only watched the first two as well.
Edwin: I wouldn't advise to try the third.
Joanna: There's definitely a niche there.
Coming back on this software, Ink Script, and also the fact that you don't sound like you're a programmer.
If someone listening wants to get into writing for games, how would they go about that? And is this software Ink Script something that's important?
Edwin: Ink Script's a great place to start because it's open source for a start. So the company that created it, Inkle, they have been doing interactive fictions for a long time now, they do really sophisticated, fancy ones.
'80 Days' is a mobile game where you, is it Phileas Fogg and Passepartout, and you basically have to get around the world in 80 days, but it's in a slightly alternative steam punky version of the world. And it's all done on text, a thread of text, and Ink Script is what runs underneath.
I would say as far as writing tools go, it's an accessible one, because like I said, it still feels like writing, especially if you're a discovery writer. I think that's important to still have that sense of, ‘Hey, I'm actually…as I'm creating this game, I'm still writing this game.'
There are other tools for those who are more a good planner type writer, articy draft is a really good one, which allows you to plot everything out in a really visual style, and also allows you to do all of your different branches about how the story might go. This way if the player makes choice A, or this way if the player makes choice B and C and so on.
You can do it all visually in a nice big kind of map. And they also have cool tools in there. You can even create literal maps of your world and then tie your story to the world, so you can see how the player might be exploring the physical landscape at the same time as they're exploring the story. It's got lots of cool features to it.
But it really, again, depends what sort of writer you are, and how you approach story.
As far as getting into the industry side, I think there are two very distinct roles. There's game writing and then there's narrative design. So as I mentioned, the narrative design is more of the experience design behind the scenes kind of stuff, whereas game writing is the literal writing of dialogue, flavor text.
Flavor text is the text that often comes on small items that you pick up on the game or other bits and pieces in the game if there's like collectibles in the game and might have little pieces of poetry on it and so on.
There's barks, which have another thing. So that's all the sort of game development terminology which takes a while to get your head around. But barks are all the things that the characters will say as you're moving through the world.
So for instance, on ‘Witcher 3,' you are Geralt of Rivia and you ride your horse through all of these villages and all the villages have things to say to you. Those are called barks.
You can imagine that world is so big and so populated with NPCs, non-player characters. You can imagine how many lines of dialogue one would have to write in bark. So, there is a demand for writers to get in and write a lot of stuff.
Especially if you've got a background in poetry or short story, and also script writing and I would say especially for theatre, because you already understand the base relationship between story and audience from theater, then that's a good place to start, is freelancing, writing, dialogue flavor text, cutscenes which are when the game stops and basically plays you a mini-movie.
That's often a good starting point for screenplay writers in fact, or anybody from the movie industry wanting to come in. They'll often start writing cut scenes. There are a lot of different elements to games that you can start on without any technical skill whatsoever.
However, if you want a bit more control over your work and you want to be a bit more involved in the development process and be the champion of story and the development of process, then it does pay to have some technical skills, and that's one of the reasons I learned Ink Script, which does involve things like wrangling variables, and states, and programming stuff.
I've also started learning how to use Unity 3D which is a game engine and has a scripting language called C#, although that's been quite a steep learning curve for me. But I think if you want to future proof yourself in the games industry as a writer or narrative designer, I think having at least the willingness to learn the more technical tools would be really, really helpful.
Joanna: It's interesting, this future proofing is something that I think about a lot obviously, and I talk about on this show, and one of the things that I hear talked about a lot at the moment is the spatial web, which is this kind of future, when I say future looks like the first headsets.
Obviously, at the moment, there are gaming headsets, Oculus and stuff like that, but if Apple comes out with their VR, AR glasses, or whatever they're going to come out with, we could see this spatial web 3D world moving into more of the mainstream. And it feels like that suits gamers completely.
What I've heard people talk about in this new web 3.0 or whatever people are calling it, is experience. And you said experience first; you're designing experiences and that's the way we need to think.
Where do you see gaming going with the rise of essentially putting a screen on your face? We had ‘Pokémon Go' a few years ago. But I'm certainly very interested in how these experiences could work.
Where do you see gaming going?
Edwin: It's interesting that the spatial web space, especially virtual reality and augmented reality have been a lot slower to take the main stage of the games industry than a lot of people have thought. It has been because the technology hasn't been ready.
A lot of people steer away from VR because they get motion sick when they try and use it. I've not experienced that myself, I've actually found VR extremely immersive. But it's also interesting, as soon as you place someone in a virtual environment the intensity levels, I think, go up.
It actually becomes hard work to be in there because suddenly your brain is just processing like crazy with that new world that you've just been dropped into. And it means that, I think play sessions for virtual reality tend to be a lot shorter, because the player just gets tired more quickly. Much more tiring than say, reading a book or even, you know, playing a mobile game, or even playing a console game.
So the cognitive load on the player has been a real challenge with virtual reality. I've just seen for instance Unreal Engine I believe 6 has just, I don't know if they've released it or it's on its way. Unreal is the go to engine for creating virtual reality and enables you to create super realistic environments relatively easily using a lot of AI rendering tech behind the scenes.
I think as virtual reality gets closer to reality, I think that will ease that cognitive load on the player and make it easier to actually be in that space. Because that moment, literally, you're throwing a person into a completely alien environment. Even if it looks kind of like the real world, your brain is also processing the fact that it's not at the same time. So, I think that's an interesting challenge for VR to overcome.
Joanna: Coming back on the motion sickness, I feel like that was some of the earlier iterations whereas with some of the stuff that they're doing now that's moved on.
You mentioned Unreal Engine. I heard the CEO talk about that these aren't just virtual worlds for gaming, or that they might have started out as gaming but like Roblox for example, there are virtual concepts in these spaces, and these may be the type of spaces where we go to do our work for example or have these types of conversations and so that they're the worlds that were originally being built for, I say ‘just games' in inverted commas, may also be platforms for other forms of I guess commerce and relaxation for example.
Edwin: Absolutely. This is an anecdote that just popped in mind about a company. They were having staff meetings in one of the online games, it might have been ‘World of Warcraft' or one of those. So they were already starting to use virtual environments as conference rooms so that people could dress up as their favorite avatar and hang out in a familiar, comfortable space to them, and while they're working. I think that side of things is also heading into some really interesting spaces.
And particularly, I think, the more that virtual technology can create spaces that people can join together and inhabit together, and they're comfortable. That again, it's future-proofing against things like COVID, where if your office gets shut down because of a pandemic then you've already got systems in place where you can hang out with people, communicate freely from the comfort of your own home. So, I think there's a lot of potential on that space.
The AR side of things is also interesting. Because again, I think it's been slow to take off because you've had this phone in your way. When even say games like ‘Pokémon Go,' you're going into an environment and you're using your phone to look through the phone to find the Pokémon. But you still have this barrier of a device and a screen in front of you.
I think yes, once the glasses become where it's a lot more comfortable, easy to use, and you can ignore it, the better those experiences are they're going to become so that reality truly does feel like it's augmented, you've got added bits that you want to be there, but you're not feeling like you're missing out on the world because you're holding up a screen still in front of your face. At least that's how I feel about it.
Joanna: Me too. And personally, I feel more attracted to the AR, the augmented reality side of things. We all wear glasses at different times, either for seeing or sunglasses or whatever. So I feel like that is going to be more natural.
And also, we look down at our phones too much. If this screen is the world in front of you, then I think that's really interesting.
But for people listening, neither of us are experts on all this but I don't think it's too futurist now, I think we're talking 3 to 5 years as opposed to 10 to 20 years. Especially if Apple come out with a device like they did in 2007, the launch of the iPhone, within a couple of years the whole mobile economy changed. New app store and all this kind of thing.
My encouragement with this and talking about gaming is there's loads of different writing work. And there's loads of different ways of telling stories. You can license as well, I feel like there's a lot of licensing possibilities into gaming. To me, this is a real positive move.
It just brings more opportunity for writers, because all these people want writers, right?
Edwin: Absolutely. And that's the thing. There's a remarkable amount of writing that needs to be done still in so many of these games, and the larger the game, the more writing is required.
Also the licensing is really interesting, because a very description-rich novel can be more easily translated into a virtual environment or an AR environment because all the elements are being described and the experience is being described. So it makes it easier for development team to kind of take that and then thread it into a visual interactable environment.
So, I think there's scope, A for writers to have their work gamified as it were, but there's also, these projects are so big and involve so many millions of words that there's plenty of work going.
Joanna: Of course you mentioned AI rendering with like Unreal Engine, and I feel like in gaming, AI voices have already happened, they don't necessarily have actors doing all the voices of the characters now, there are lots of different AI generated voices in gaming, so they're kind of ahead of that.
I don't believe they're going to replace humans, obviously, but I do think we all have to work with AI.
How else are you seeing AI being used now and moving forward? How much will you have to work with these tools?
Edwin: Yes, in the games industry, we're working with AI all the time and have been for a while. For instance, if you look at say a fantasy game, where you are exploring a fantasy world, and let's say you are involved in combat quite a bit. So you are battling goblins and orcs and slaying dragons, and that kind of classic fantasy stereotypical stuff, then those enemies have always had a certain level of AI behind them.
That could be really simple stuff as in, for instance, it's relatively simple to go into Unity and then program what's called a patrol loop. Let's say you have a werewolf, and you want them to patrol a certain part of the forest, you can set them going on there and they will do that, and then you can set some parameters to say how far can the werewolf see? How far can a werewolf hear? How far can it smell?
As the player comes in, then you can trigger certain responses from the werewolf based on whether they've smelled them, heard them, or seen them. And that's gotten quite advanced in games like ‘Dead Cells' for instance, where it's all centered around battling these massive, hideous creatures. The behaviors for those creatures respond to what you do.
And so if you can think about that, there's AI in all sorts of elements in games now that are reacting to the player's actions. So this stuff is already happening. And, for instance, specifically the indie publishing scene like what I've been playing around with, is a website and system called Replika. I don't know, have you heard of that one Joanna?
Joanna: Yes, I have. Yeah. It's replika.ai I think.
Edwin: I think so. I've had to play around with some of their voices, and some of them are just fantastic. And their ability to render quite natural sounding speech very quickly I think is a really interesting place.
Again, I don't think it's going to replace voice actors anytime soon, but it's not a bad second best as far as the enjoyability of listening. It does require a different type of writing though, because you almost have to iterate with the AI.
So you'll write your paragraph, it will say it back to you, and it will invariably get some words wrong. And you almost have to start to alter your spelling to, and almost spell things wrong to get the AI voice to actually say it properly. Don't know if you've had that experience with some of your AI voice.
Joanna: It's really funny because even AI itself like the letter A followed by the letter I, actually had to spell that out. A-Y-dash-E-Y-E or something.
Edwin: I almost want to ask, ‘Whoa, who's programming who here, robot?'
Joanna: That's exactly the point, iterating with an AI tool, learning to work with AI tools, that's exactly what I think our future is. It's working with these tools to achieve more than we could do alone. I think this is super exciting.
We could talk about this all day. I do have one more question for you before we go which is, you have a family, you have a day job, you're a busy guy and I have heard from many writers that they either have to give up gaming as enjoyment because it takes too much time, and also people who feel guilty about their gaming time for example, if they have kids and they're worried about this, that and the other.
How do you manage your time with gaming given that it's your job, and also fun, and also presumably inspiration?
Edwin: It is interesting. One thing that happens whenever you make a job out of something is that the enjoyment can unfortunately come off the thing that you're working with every day.
It's almost like the time I spend helping to make games has colonized some of my time that I used to spend playing games. And that's just an occupational hazard of working in the games industry. So I guess that would be one piece of advice I would have to writers looking at the games industry, that if you really, really, really love games, just be aware that if you make it your job, you may not love games quite as much as you used to. But that's it. I do still play games.
With regards to with family, what I tend to do, especially my youngest is quite the gamer. I've spent many hours of ‘Roblox' time with her, especially online. We have tended to go on ‘Roblox' adventures together. So playing games with your kids is a great thing.
And two, what I'll tend to do is if I am researching a game, and it is, you know, kid friendly. So, Necroes, who's my eldest is now 15, middle one's 13, youngest is nine, that depending on what game I'm playing I may share that with them and we can, again, experience that game together and they can let me know what they think about it.
It's often really nice to get a totally different perspective. But three girls, they bring a very different perspective to the games that I'm playing than that I might have. So yeah, definitely, it's a cool collaborative thing to do.
And I guess the other thing too is I no longer tackle massive games that I know will take 100 hours to even just scratch the surface of. I actively look for games that are in the 2 hour to at most 20-hour mark, and even then that's getting a bit much these days.
But I guess then if I think about it, it's like, well, actually a 20-hour game, what's that? Is that even two seasons with ‘Peaky Blinders?' I don't think it is. It's often not as much as you would think. So I would hasten to assure people that no, gaming can be a very managed and sustainable part of your life.
I heard that Jane McGonigal, she does a lot of research into the positive effects of video games. And she said 23 hours per week is the cutoff point. This was done with high school students. Up until that point, gaming seemed to actually improve their performance at school. After 23 hours per week, then there was a definite drop off.
So, it's all about healthy gaming. Just as you've talked quite a bit about healthy writing, I would suggest healthy gaming. Be careful about the games you pick to play and just manage your time that way and play with others as much as possible.
Joanna: It can be a lot more active than say watching just back-to-back TV, hours of boxsets. Jane McGonigal is a great example. I've definitely linked it to her. She's got a couple of books as well on gaming.
I think the other message is, there's a lot more out there than you think. And there's educational stuff, and there's lots and lots of variability as you mentioned at the beginning. I think this is a very exciting space. So thank you so much.
Where can people find you and your book and everything you do online?
Edwin: Everything is on my website, which is www.edmcrae.com.
And for tracking down my books, I publish wide. I followed your advice Joanna and Rachel handles all the publishing side of our small press. So the books are available pretty much everywhere. And, but specifically on the website is just the www.edMcRae.com/books. And yeah, that's where everything is.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well thanks so much for your time Edwin, that was great.
Edwin: Thanks, it's been awesome Joanna. Thank you.
This was a great episode to hear about as someone who has worked in gaming media for 13 years. I was always curious about the writing process during the development of games like Skyrim, Dragon Age and Mass Effect.