Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bad Family: Starting to develop a pitch

I need to figure out how to pitch and market Bad Family.

Andy Kitkowski developed a set of 19 questions to figure out how to market a game.

I'm going to fill in those questions as I get the inspiration and time. If you know anything about the game, I encourage you to help me in the comments.

The idea is to take the finished stuff to nzrag and gametime for further development, and then off to Story Games (the big leagues).

Here we go ...

Andy's Narcissist Self-Interview 20


1) Here is the name of the game, and how I came up with the name.

Bad Family.

I started with names based on the central mechanic of the game. So, it was stuff like 'Good or Bad', 'The Hand You're Dealt'.

Then I decided to focus on the family that is at the heart of the game, and at the same time introduce the idea that things will either go really well or really badly for them. So I had names like 'The Fortunes of the Joneses' and 'Lucky Jones'. That didn't sit well with me, and I began a search that may have lasted six months or a year for a name that worked better - and by better I mean I felt good about saying it out loud to other people.

Eventually I settled on 'Bad Family' - it's a riff on Bad Santa, it feels a bit current and catchphrase-y, and it clearly emphasises that it's about a family and that they may well do bad things to each other.

2) How would the "back cover blurb" for the game go? Imagine it being read by the "Movie Commercial Guy" ("In a World...")

Imagine your family - loving, complex, weird, and a little screwed up. Now imagine each of them having the worst day of their lives at the same time ... today. Imagine your family - you love them, hate them, and they're a little screwed up. Now imagine everyone in your family is having the worst day of their life.

Bad Family is the game about that day.

Bad Family: answering the question of whether you love the selfish jerks who are trying to stop you from getting what you want.

Alternatively, I have this:

Do you like animated sit-coms like
The Simpsons or Family Guy?

Do you like stories about dysfunctional families, like The Royal Tennebaums, or Malcolm in the Middle, or Married with Children, or American Beauty or pretty much any TV show ever?

That's basically what Bad Family is about: together we'll create an episode of an animated sit-com about a dysfunctional family.

You'll play one of the Family Members, and as part of the game you'll set up a goal your Family Member wants to achieve by the time the episode ends. You win the game by getting what you want before everyone else does. You can increase your chances of winning by creating horrible situations for the other members of your family. Horrible situations like you'd see in any episode of a sit-com.

3) This is a brief example of what play might look like, involving three players and no more than 10 "lines" of text.

Okay, we're back to your turn Elise. Now, if I remember right, your character's Want is to 'Prove he's not gay'. Where did we leave him, and what are you going to do next?

The party had just gotten started at my parents house, and all of my friends from school had arrived. So I think the music's loud, we're all dancing, and everyone starting to get drunk. And that's when Katie shows up.

I'll play her. "Lee, great party! I've never been to your place before - it's not as weird as they say at school."

"Thanks ... uh, do you want to have a look around?"

"I'd love to see your bedroom. I mean get a look at where you sleep. I mean -"

I'll there. So the best case scenario is that you go up to the bedroom, and - who knows - you might get up to all sorts of horrible embarrassing hijinks in the course of proving you're not gay. My worst case scenario, on the other hand, is that Brian arrives. And he chooses just that moment to get down on his knees in front of you, and Katie, and everyone at the party, and declare his love for you.

Oh shit. Okay, I'll draw a card ... Failure. Crap! ... Well I'm not going to let that stand. I'll spend a Bonus and redraw.... Failure. okay, okay ... I need to save my Bonuses for later so, crap, I guess Brian arrives and does his thing.

(in sympathetic embarrassment)

Do you want to spend a Bonus to continue the scene?

No. Guess I'll pass the turn to you.... Crap.

[Hmmm ... I'm not sure - does this come across as homophobic? It's based on a real moment in a playtest, and when we were playing it was awkward, sympathetic and felt true. I'm not sure how it reads, though.

4) This is my target audience.

+ People who want to play a comedy game.
+ People who want a complete game in an hour.
+ Board gamers, maybe.
+ People who haven't played an RPG before (I want Bad Family to be accessible and non-geeky).
+ Groups of friends who like to take the piss together.

This is a really important question and I need to put more thought into answering it.

5) These are other games, media, etc am I blatantly stealing from (or, what I am inspired by)

The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, and Angel. In fact, Angel was the original inspiration because I noticed that in the show was never about how skilled a character was - they either succeeded or they failed when they tried to do something. I wanted a game that would be that simple.

Primetime Adventures is an inadvertent influence - the game has turned out like a stripped-down version of PTA.

6) Here is one single sentence which describes 1-2 things about my game idea that other games don't currently offer (to my knowledge).

I totally don't know how to answer this. I don't think there are any other games that aim to create animated sitcoms. Cartoons, yes (Toon, Cartoon Action Hour); sit-coms, no.

7) Here, in no more than three sentences, is what the game is about in general.

Dysfunctional family.
Worst-case scenarios.

Obviously that's more than 3 sentences but I'm happy to brainstorm on this one and then winnow it down.

8) Here are one to two vignettes about the game's setting.
Depending on the group, the setting can veer all over the place from realistic to totally surreal. Occasionally I've had playtesters who think this is a problem - but over time I've grown to see this as a feature; each group sets up a particular tone for their game.

On the realistic end of things, one player wanted her character to be a teenage boy who was struggling with whether or not he was gay. He ended up at a party, with the girl he was interested trying to lead him upstairs to a bedroom - while at the same time his best (male) friend from school gatecrashed and declared that he loved him in front of everyone. It was an extremely awkward moment in the story that made all of us cringe in sympathy.

Towards the more surreal, I've seen a grandmother character stoned on peyote, stripping off all of her clothes under a hot sunny day while cycling to her weekly bridge game. And one young kid accidentally invented a time machine when he tried to soup up his bicycle with some spare parts stolen from a local army base.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Elements of Persuasion: Summary

Recently, I did a bunch of posts summarising a book called The Elements of Persuasion, which is about how to construct stories that people will pay attention to and agree with. I felt that those posts got a bit caught up in the details, so I wanted to create a summary of that summary. Which is what you're about to read.

According to the book, there are five elements of persuasion: Passion, the Hero, the Antagonist, a moment of Awareness, and the Transformation into taking action. Here's a bit more about each of those five elements:

How do you get other people to care about the idea or cause that you care about?

To begin with, you need to be personally committed; it needs to be your passion. So before you tell your story, you need to ask:
  • Do I really care about what I'm about to say? Do I need to tell this story?
  • It is true?
If the answers are 'No', you should pick another idea to talk about.

Your Passion is the key to making anyone else care about your story. If people aren't connecting with your story at an emotional level, if they aren't feeling your Passion, then you're telling the wrong story.

What are the advantages of Passion?

Passion cuts through all the competing demands for an audience's attention and makes them listen to you. Check out this presentation by a 13 year old girl to the United Nations:

Passion is communicable. If your story connects with people emotionally, they will spread it for you because it's fun to tell.(*) At the start of this talk, Seth Godin shares an example of a story that spread - a story about a man who worked for the SPCA in San Francisco.

Speaking with Passion has a few more benefits:
  • Passion gets your audience ready to want to listen to you; it warms them up

  • Passion makes your story seems more vivid and more real

  • The more passionate and personal your story is, the easier it is to overcome stage fright; Passion helps you tell your story in a way that makes you appear natural and relaxed
Apparently, stories that are personal and told with Passion are easier for people to remember, and that it the first step to persuading them. Personal stories also increase your likeability and show that you're authentic (because you're talking about something that means something to you).

The Hero
The Hero personifies the story and shows us how change our lives.

Heroes are changed by living through the story, and they take different actions because they've been changed. That means heroes show us how to change our own lives, and live according to the values in the story.

To use this idea when you're writing your story, start by reducing your story down to its central concept. Then transform that concept into actions. Finally, choose a hero who demonstrates how to take those actions.

It's vital to find the right hero for your story, and if you want to change people's minds and lives then it's best if your hero is real rather than fictional.

One final advantage of having a hero is that it allows the storyteller to unify the audience. By 'unify', I mean that the audience all see and interpret the events of the story through the same point-of-view.

The Antagonist
Antagonists keep the Hero from achieving their goal.

Antagonists don't create conflict; they "clarify what the conflict is about". (I wish I'd taken more notes on this point, because it seems profound!) At the moment I interpret it to mean that stories aren't about 'defeating' the Antagonist, they're about us discovering what we need to change in order to defeat it.

If you're going to persuade people, then they must remember what you've said. Memory and recall are improved when you experience strong emotions. Think about how much you love to hate the villains in Die Hard or Star Wars or [insert a more topical movie reference of your choice here]. Using an Antagonist lets you easily generate strong negative emotions, but at the same time audiences will associate those the negative emotions with the Antagonist - which keeps your Hero sympathetic. And the audience's dislike of the antagonist will get them on the Hero's side.

Choose the 'right' antagonist. One that can be overcome, but not one that's a straw villain (either imaginary, or whose threat is overinflated). And don't demonise the Antagonist - instead, give the hero and the audience a change to learn from them.

You want to create a moment of Awareness in the audience where they see the problem for what it is and the actions they need to take to fix it.

Hopefully by this point you'll have also created the Passion to change things and given them a role model of how to change (the Hero). Awareness applies both to the Hero and to the audience; ideally, the audience should share the Hero's realisation that something needs to change.

Taking action and changing things transforms you and the world around you.


Here are the links to the rest of my posts on the Elements of Persuasion.

The First Element: Passion.
The Second Element: The Hero.
The final three Elements.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Lost: Second Impressions II

I'm rewatching episodes of Lost, Season 1. Just gotten through eps 6 to 12.

The pacing of the show starts to seem a bit off from about episode 6 (the Sun flashback). All of a sudden the show stops watching these characters, and starts forcing them to make decisions, such as 'Stay on the beach or go live in the caves'. It's a huge plot point that gets rushed through - whereas, staying true to the tone that the show's set up, it should take at least an episode to work through.

That's followed by Charlie's episode (saving Jack from the cave in), which feels very traditional in a 'Here's the plot, and here's the metaphor' kind of way.

Basically the pacing of episodes and character motivations in the stories have become faster, more traditional / conventional. Sort of treating the characters and plots like playing pieces in a game to be shifted around into more interesting positions.

For a while I found it less satisfying, but then I started getting into the accelerating pace -
as if the first 9 episodes were an overture. Now we've been hit by the plot - three seemingly separate events that are in reality closely related:
  • Clare is kidnapped by someone who was already on the Island
  • Locke and Boone discover the Hatch
  • Sayid finds Rousseau and learns that there are Others, whispering in the jungle.
There have also been a couple of good character centred episodes (Sayid, Clare). Clare's episode, in particular features three moments of note:
  • Her psychic has a baffling change of heart, expanded on in this post
  • An amazing dream sequence that features Locke with white and black eyes (significant given Season 5).
  • The statement that Aaron is a significant figure in the destiny of the Island.
Jack and Kate are still central, and Kate is still fantastic - highly involved in everything, taking charge. Sawyer is, at most, an amusing annoyance.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Lost: Second Impressions I

The rewatching of Lost has begun. An opportunity to compare my early reviews with my memories of the first season's episodes, and filter all of that through my understanding of what's going on up to the end of Season 5.

Surprisingly, the first three episodes actually aren't as 'reality' based as I remembered. They've set up the basic structure of the show: that there are big questions to be answered and weirdness to be understood - the monster and the polar bear are chief among them. Rousseau's distress message that's been playing for 16 years is another.

Lost is also quite sophisticated in the way it reveals some of these things: 'The Island can heal' has huge ramifications, immediately establishing that the show is 'not quite real', but it's totally implied - never stated explicitly - in Locke's episode: Walkabout

There's an emphasis on Jack and Kate in these early episodes that seems ... disproportionate to where the show ends up going. Two things that come out of that though are that Kate is great in these early episodes - proactive, gung-ho, involved with everyone. I really want to know when she lost her energy as a character.(*) Also the first meeting between Jack and Kate, when she sews up his wound, is played in such a delightfully off-beat way that it actually set up the possibility of a time loop, that she's travelled back in time to re-experience this moment ... which was the first of several exciting 'Did the writers know what they were doing right from the start' moments in these first 10 episodes.

(*) It's an energy that the writers seemed to want to restore to her, halfway through Season 5 when we learned why she actually went back to the Island.

For instance, there's an enormously interesting moment between Locke and Walt, where Locke explains backgammon to Walt. That there are 2 players - one light and one dark. The significance of this is huge, given what we learned in the last two episodes of Season 5.

Here's what I said originally about the third episode
Later eps of Lost feel like a TV show. This feels like just watching interesting stuff happening. It's not doling out too many plots twists or starting to over-dramatise more than a few characters by involving them in soap-opera issues. The show's just letting people be people.
There a joy in seeing these characters are going to evolve. Michael (who in about 10 episodes time will reveal himself to have a satisfyingly consistent attitude towards Walt). Rose's faith that other people have survived the crash. It's also odd to see so many characters established who disappear in later episodes: Charlie, for instance, and Boone and Shannon (who are both playing much better for me now)

There's also a joy in reconstructing the history of the characters and the objective timeline of the show. For instance, Locke's insistence that he has a destiny, that he HAS to go on the walkabout actually comes from an episode (in Season 4?) when Mr Abaddon visits Locke in the hospital.

My major concern so far is that there's no subtext no story happening below the surface (the stuff that I enjoyed so much when I rewatched Buffy Season 3 recently.) There is a grand game happening below the surface of the episodes, in the background, and in the past ... but I'm not sure that's enough to keep me rewatching. My fear is that, basically, Lost will turn out to be a story about interconnections and conspiracies and grand philosophical ideas ... and maybe not so much about people ...

Previous Lost reviews

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Play: Tim Brown on 'Serious Play'

Another TED talk, this time at the Serious Play conference in 2008.

In this, Tim Brown talks about how fearing the judgment of our peers represses our creativity and prevents us coming up with wild ideas.

He explains that when adults experience a new situation, they want to CATEGORISE it very quickly. They don't want to play with it or explore, they want to fit it into the world and uses they already know.

On the other hand kids ask: What is it? What can I do with it?

Brown discusses how to create environments where you can play. Play isn't anarchy; it has rules about how to play and when to play. Brainstorming environments, for instance, need rules in order to help us break the rules effectively - the most obvious example of that is the brainstorming principle of defering judgment on ideas until you've finished.

He observes something I'd never thought of before - that sometimes our desire to be original can be a form of editing. We stop ourselves from getting into a groove (or a rut) with something we're enjoying; even though that groove might be fun or playful, we judge it harshly simply because it's not 'original'.

You need trust, says Brown. Create a place where you have the security to take risks and play. At his company, IDEO, all the employees are hired because they are best friends. Friends are a shortcut to trust and playfulness.

The other principles he suggests are:

1. Build something. Create something tangible to comment on, and once you have that prototype, keep refining and challenging it.

2. If you're creating an environment or a situation, role play it - act it out to create empathy with the users, and to see how it'll work.

Be playful and create real stuff.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tip: Play

the thing is, if there's a problem in my life it's up to me to fix it. And I'm talking about writing here: if I'm not happy with what I'm writing, or with the amount of writing I'm getting done, I'll have to change my life in order to get happy.

I realised this somewhere around Day 2000 of writing The Limit. I was 5 and a 1/2 years into writing my script (it turns out that criticism of my previous film + perfectionism + no job = a pathological number of rewrites), when I had to acknowledge to myself that I was stuck, I was bored, and my brain wasn't fresh.

That's important: my brain wasn't fresh. While my writing was varying in its usual way (*), my mind had been focused on writing the same intense dark thriller material for way too long.

(*) My writing schedule varies between procrastination, not flowing, insights, and enjoyment, and then back to procrastination again once I feel I've done enough to rest on my laurels, or that I've hit a benchmark where I can tell myself I'll stop writing for a while so I can come back and look at the script with 'fresh eyes'.

So, that was the problem: non-fresh brain. It was up to me to find a solution and fix it.

Thinking about it, I realised that all my writing was being done under pressure. Pressure I was putting on myself. I certainly wasn't being playful. I wasn't writing just for the sake of it. I wasn't taking a look at any of the many, many ideas that were building up in my filing cabinet as I struggled to finish The Limit.

So, I created something I call "PLAY".(*) I decided that every two months, after working on a single project, I would take two weeks off. During those two weeks, I could PLAY with any project I wanted. Anything that inspired me or that took my fancy. I'd pull out my folders of TV ideas, skills I wanted to learn, blog posts I wanted to write. ... And then I'd just do it.

(*) Yes, for some reason the all-caps are important to me.

I'm in the middle of PLAY right now, and I'm working on "a game to change the world", and a pitch for a TV show (that I'm also going to use to learn a layout programme with). I've also varied when I PLAY a little: it turns out that 2 months was just a little bit too long. I'm now on a six-weeks of focused writing followed by 2 weeks of PLAY, which seems to be a better ratio for me.

PLAY has changed my approach to writing. It's a reward for hard, focused work. It's an opportunity to get inspired about stuff I might do next. It takes the pressure off me to create 'good' stuff, and instead lets me explore.

So there you go. Identify a problem in your life. Try a solution. Don't be afraid to make radical changes. This why I admire Matt trying out different schedules; and Jenni for taking Wednesdays off to write. It's the sort of stuff we need to do; as writers, we need to create a life that works for us (and the people around us).

(This was previously posted on Jenni's blog.)

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Movies: Film Festival mini-reviews

Soul Power covers the 1974 concert in Zaire that took place at the same-ish time as the Ali-Foreman fight. Lots of great performers including James Brown, favourite-bluesman-ever BB King, and new favourite singer Bill Withers. For me it's a movie that really illustrated the joy of playing music, and the satisfaction of playing music yourself rather than receiving it from some 'star'. Great stuff.

Moon is impossible for me to discuss without talking spoilers. So, I'm talk about it at the bottom of this post.

2009 was a middling year in terms of the number of movies I missed that were on my must-see list: In The Loop (scheduling conflict with Moon), Rachel (got the start time wrong), This Way of Life (couldn't be bothered, on the day). Far more impressive were the number of movies I missed that I only really really wanted to see: Mother, Afghan Star, Rough Aunties, Visual Acoustics, Thirst, and The First Day of the Rest of Your Life.

It Might Get Loud was the last film of the festival for me, and definitely my favourite. I am the target audience for a movie about how Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White became guitarists.

OK, back to Moon. I guess all I really wanted to say is that I have a brain that can't help but try and guess the twist in a movie. As much as I try to shut it off, it keeps ticking along - adding new information into my working theories about what's really happening. It's ruined the full effect of a few movies for me (Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects, in particular).

Moon doesn't really have a twist. As a story, it plays pretty fair - and actually reveals what's happening very early on. My problem, though, was that the reveal implicitly establishes a few things that need to happen. Two characters have to come into conflict. There has to be an investigation. Certain people have to respond to events that occur early in the movie. That sense of inevitability bugged me.

On the other hand, I was anti-bugged by Sam Rockwell's performance, the look and feel of the film, and the Clint Mansell soundtrack. These things were extraordinary.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

New Thing: The Long Range Game

I've started a new game project based on the thinking I've been doing about planning and visualising the future. I get a little frustrated with myself - I care about the world; there are problems that I want to solve. But I don't know where to start.

So I'm writing a game about figuring out where to start, what could happen next, and what to do about it. This is a game to help me visualise the future. This is a game that will hopefully make planning fun.

I've given myself three restrictions:
  • Must be under 3000 words
  • Must not use randomisers like dice or cards
  • Must be playable online.
I suspect it'll draw off Morgue's work with Small Group Action (pdf) a little bit.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Dip: The Big Picture

You'll remember this series on the Dip started out with Jenni's story. She engaged in a long battle with her Inner Critic over whether her latest book was worth writing or not. Eventually she decided to quit writing the book that she had so many concerns about, and started work on a new one that she enjoyed more (and finished quickly). She did this despite being concerned that she might develop a bad habit of quitting things that seemed too difficult.

Said another way, Jenni was faced with the eternal question that faces writers (and everyone else): should you abandon this project (or person or product) and start working on another one?

In The Dip, Seth Godin says that if you're considering quitting, you're probably trying to influence someone or some thing (like a book you're writing, or a song you're trying to finish, or a work role you're trying to master). Whatever (or whoever) it is, if you're considering quitting, then you're probably failing to influence it.

So Godin looks at what you're trying to influence in two ways:

The little picture is the project you're working on right now, trying to make progress on.

The big picture is the market you're trying to influence with this project. To illustrate this little picture/big picture (project/market) relationship:
  • you can write a book, but you're trying to create an audience for your books
  • you can write a song, but you're trying to become a better songwriter
  • you can work at a particular job, but you're trying to earn a satisfying living.
So, in a way it doesn't matter what the specific project is that you're working on, as long as you're still trying to make progress in the bigger market.

And this is the answer to Jenni's dilemma, which (unlike me) she figured out without having to read through an 80-page book:
  • If your new book turns out to be crap and you quit it and start a new one, you're still trying to be a writer
  • If you don't like this song, you're still going to keep figuring out what sort of songs you like to write
  • If you hate your job, you can quit it but that doesn't mean "quitting your quest to make a living or a difference or an impact."
The key is to be clear about why you're quitting - that you're still committed to overcoming the Dip in your market, and that you're certain the project you're working on isn't worth continuing at this point.

If you quit your market simply because you're in a Dip, then you've wasted all of your time. I don't want you to waste your time. I want you to succeed!

The value of not quitting, the value of persistence, comes from being firmly committed to the market that you're trying to influence. If you're 'market-committed', then you can change tactics, try different projects, quit a book or a band ... as long as you're confident you're making progress in the big picture.

So figure out what you're committed to, and work your way through the Dip!

--- --- ---

As always, The Dip is available at Wellington Library.

Seth's blog dedicated to the Dip is here.

... and that's it. Hope you've enjoyed this series. It's been tough to write, but it feels useful to me. Here are a few questions to finish off:

Is there anything you want to quit? And if you quit, will it give you more time and energy to get through the Dip on something more important?

If you're in a Cul-de-Sac, do you think it's possible to change it into a Dip? How would you do that?