"They want twice as much content in the same amount of time," said Steve Jaros of Volition, referring to the demands made by game producers of freelance "franchise" writers. "That core vision has already been established before you even show up." Which, contrary to reality, makes producers think there's less work involved.
The panel "Franchise Players" featured three veteran franchise writers - Jaros, Tom Abernathy of Pandemic and Micah Wright - and was moderated by veteran freelancer Armand Constantine.
"Finding the sweet spot between what players loved about the first game and things you'd like to do differently" is the key to making a franchise title work, explained Abernathy. "My impulse is always to think, 'Where do we go next?'
"When you spent two or three years working on a thing, you don't want to do the same damn thing for the next two years. The problem is that the market is a fickle creature and game players are notoriously picky, and if you go too far afield, then you may well alienate them. On the other hand, if you do something too similar to what they got the first time, you'll get a lot of comments about how it's not worth anything."
Wright explains the troubles he ran into writing for Destroy All Humans 3 and 4: "Had I known there would be two games set in the '70s, it might have been different. As it was, it was a bit of challenge."
Wright had written and entire story for what was supposed to be the third game in the series, when the game's producers asked him for an earlier chapter that would take place between installments 2 (which he did not write) and 3, which he had just finished. Then they told him he wasn't able to change anything he wrote for installment 3.
"We had more fun writing the throwback game (episode 3) than the larger next-gen game. We had two different studio heads telling us to do two different things. Neither one of which was compatible with what the other wanted."
Abernathy, discussing the same series, described the troubles he ran into trying to sell installment 2 to the big wigs at Pandemic, including his new boss, Bono.
"People kept saying, 'Where,s the theramin?'" he said, referring to the creepy mood music stolen from 1950s sci-fi movies and used extensively in the originalDestroy All Humans. "It became clear that the choice we had never thought to question was something we should not have done so hastily. It never occurred to us the setting in the '50s was a big part of what hooked people. It never occurred to me that the main vein of humor that I'd mined in the first game ... that stuff didn't exist any more. In the '60s there was no subtext - it was all out front. The things we take for granted; what we love about what we do versus what the people who receive what we do love about what we do."
Jaros was asked, in reference to his work on Saint's Row 2, if a sequel's developers lent his views any special weight since he'd penned the first installment of that series. The answer: Not really.
"I'm a service to them," he said. "They were very receptive to ideas, but they didn't give a shit about [the first game]."
"Some people feel a game writer is just a scripter," says Wright. As an example, he pointed to his work on the Dukes of Hazzard game, for which he was asked to script a complete story for a game designed without none. "So they're chasing Cooter to the farm ... why? 1Up said they hated the game, but wanted to keep playing to see how the story ends. To me that's the highest compliment."
The other process, he says, is being involved with the game's design from the beginning, and working with developers to design both side simultaneously. "That works a lot better," he says, "and results in a better game.