Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Item Descriptions: Your First Steps Into Madness

Vehicle VoltronYou’re a writer on a moderately-sized game studio. The world build is solid. Your lore bible is synergizing the shit out of people,  like Moses and MLK forming Voltron at a team-building camp. And those scenarios you’ve worked on with the LDs? Nobody will ever forget the Omaha Beach Bouncy Castle level.

Wait, what’s that creeping up the schedule? Surprise! GD’s got a collection of some 200 items ready for production. Grab your hammer, word smith, because it’s time to stamp out item descriptions, the hubcaps of video game writing.

1. What’s Your Word Budget?

Words per item. Figure this out. Live by it. Adopt it as your new god. Worship it above all others. Render the temple of your fathers to dust in the name of the word budget.

A word budget is not precisely word count. Word count measures the whole deliverable. How many words you have to play with for all the descriptions. The word count itself is determined through a lot of factors (memory, localization costs, etc.), but I’m assuming the larger word count was set elsewhere in the great chain of production.

The word budget is instead how many words you get to use for any given description. At the simplest level, you can figure out your budget with some magic middle-school level algebra:

Word Count / Number of Items = Word Budget

Let’s say you have a total word count of 30k to work with. With 200 items, that leaves you with a budget of 150 words per item. For most games, that’s pretty damn good.

Hamlet & PoloniusKeep in mind that, in a vacuum, the word budget is something that can be shifted around. Let’s say of those 200 items, 50 are super special death-spitting guns that GD wants to make sure get highlighted. So each of those are bumped up to 250 words. That leaves 17500 words for the rest, or roughly 115 words per item.

Most likely each individual item is going to shift a bit. Some will be a bit above, some a bit below. Just remember that when you use extra words in one, you’re really taking them from elsewhere. If you remain faithful to the budget, your work will look consistent and production won’t have an aneurism.

If all of your descriptions keep blasting past the budget, and you don’t make the cuts yourself, someone else is going to do the cutting. And if you make the boss man cut back your words, it won’t take him long to figure out it’s easier to just cut you.

2. What Information Are You Communicating?

Item descriptions can end up doing a lot of work. Generally speaking, there are about four common jobs: Quick Reference, Mechanics Explanation, Lore, and Cheap Joke.

Quick Reference

Just what the hell is this item? In an ideal world the name would cover this case. But even the clearest naming convention can get confusing for a player, particularly in a game with a lot of items. Sometimes the best thing for it is to slam in a bit of text spelling out what the item is.

“This is a gun. It can be used to murder people.”

Clint Eastwood with a gun

Sweet. Now the player knows this item can be used to murder. Quick, clean, direct.

If you have a particularly lengthy description, make sure this bit gets to the top. A player calmly looking for lore or to crunch the numbers on the stats will breeze past the quick reference without much complaint. A player frustrated and confused by your items will have no tolerance for your epic Jim Henson’s Storyteller bullshit. They’ll hate your game and you if you make them trudge through just do find out what the damn bauble he’s looking at is.

Mechanics Explanation

So we know what the object is, but what the hell does it do? Does it spit bullets? Does it heal you? Does it pop up when the turkey’s done? How many gold pieces is it really worth?

Many modern games now have magic UI elements spit most of this out with no authored words. Most MMO players are familiar with the now ubiquitous DPS stat on their weapon descriptions, as well as the usual array of stat bonuses. Check with your UI guys to see what’s being covered by the system. Retreading ground is sloppy, and uses up precious words. Words you can use on cheap jokes.

Louis XVISometimes the item has a mechanic that the generated stat block doesn’t handle. Take the Potion of Regicide. This diabolical poison is specially designed to only kill royal characters (i.e., it will instantly kill the quest target, but doesn’t work anywhere else, so screw you). So it’s best you put something appropriate in the text.

“Right-click to activate, left-click on target: Use this to instantly kill King Reginald. Will not work on non-royal characters.”

And hey, remember the UI guys? They probably have a style guide they’d like everything to follow. And it turns out mechanics should be in green. So play nice. Green it up.

Right-click to activate, left-click on target: Use this to instantly kill King Reginald. Will not work on non-royal characters.


Next Gen's Data and LoreLore in item descriptions is not a universal thing. Some games go nuts with lore info. Others play it conservatively.

A story-heavy RPG can use item descriptions to deliver great tomes of lore. That Glowing Sword of Pain-Stab? Turns out it’s the sword used by Grothar to kill the Old Gods, in the Time Before Dreams Ended. Kind of a big deal. But there’s no room in the schedule to get that worked into your VOed quests or any of the promo material. Cheapest solution is to write up some text and staple it right to the motherfucker. You’re up, writer-dude! Vomit forth many words!

By contrast, a sci-fi FPS can be relatively light on words. The Tridoclops Arms Sniper Rifle will have maybe fifty words. “This gun has a 20,000 inch barrel, and is used to assassinate moons.” Hooray! Back to shooty!

Depending on the project you might get a lot or only a little creative freedom here. An IP with a strict bible and a lot of hands in the lore bucket is probably going to have a quadrillion eyes on the item descriptions. Other games, particularly those with original IPs, may have the majority of their world build created through item descriptions. Just make sure you know which one you’re doing before you try to establish the tortured history of your primary trading town in the description of a vendor-trash trout carcass.

Cheap Joke

Despite its general uselessness, this is actually the second most common element in item description strings (after mechanics). It’s not terribly surprising. There’s a long tradition of one-line jokes attached to items, going back to Diablo, Magic cards, and D&D critters/items before that.

But the real reason—the super secret one that we all have to cop to if we’re pushed—is that we do them to entertain ourselves. We have 200 goddamn descriptions to burn through. Any writer left to his own devices long enough starts going to Silly Town (usually with their trusty sidekick, beer, in tow). If the writer isn’t being checked by a peer review or editor, the writer’s slow decent into madness will be documented well in the form of puns and pop culture references.

Mouth of Madness

That’s not to say joke descriptions are always a negative. World of Warcraft famously took the trend and made it a part of their style. Even EVE Online, the dark science fiction game of cheating your friends, has had some success with cheap jokes.

When EVE Content made an item called “the Device”, we were well down the road to Silly Town. One of our mandates at that time was to only create items that can be reused multiple times. The more generic, the better. So when it came time to create another item retrieval mission, one of our writers decided to poke lightly at both the policy and the whole MacGuffin structure to MMO missions. It commanded the player to retrieve an object, simply called the “Device.” Its description read:

This is a thing. It does stuff.

Now again, this was—at its core—a cheap joke on our part to amuse ourselves. But goddamn if players didn’t latch onto it. The Device developed its own following in the community. It has a facebook page. Its been used in trivia contests. A year later another writer came along and found the object, and decided to change the description to something a self-respecting professional would write. The fan outcry was so immediate that the text was reverted within a week of the patch note going out.

So yes, be careful with your cheap jokes. Maintain tone, and treat your property with the respect it deserves. But the occasional joke can be damned powerful.

3. What Are Your Narrative Tools?

This last part is seemingly simple, but its also the part that’s easiest to be inconsistent with. Just what narrative tools will you be using in your item descriptions? What voice are you using? What’s the style?

Dungeon MasterMost games just chuck the old D&D style description at things. Omniscient third, maybe with some second-person sensory stuff if you feel like it. And that’s perfectly doable. So many games come from the D&D mold that the GM-speak description seems natural. But if that’s the route you’re going to go, make sure its consciously.

Suppose you’re working in a spy property. Why work in generic terms for your item descriptions? Make the descriptions excerpts from CIA intel. Or what if your game is actually being framed by a storyteller character? Write the item descriptions in his voice, and let his personality seep in. In each case you’re not just conveying all the information you wanted, but your enriching the narrative of the world itself. This is double-awesome-win.

The Fourth Wall

Before I close, I’ll briefly touch the fourth wall issue. The odds are good that unless you’re working in an extremely jokey property or you’re otherwise working in a meta conceit, you do not want to directly remind the player he’s playing a video game in the fluff text.

The key phrase there is in the fluff text. Yes, keep your delicate world building and jokes and sagas in their appropriate mode, and don’t break immersion when you don’t have to. But if you’re trying to communicate something important to the player that could directly impact the way he interacts with the game, err on the side of clarity. Immersion is great, but the effect of breaking the fourth wall is too often overplayed for fear of taking the player out of the game.

Players know they’re playing a video game. They aren’t fooled by our bright flashing lights and loud noises into thinking they’ve entered some dream world.

Unless they’re epileptic.

But if it relates to a mechanic that it would be best the player has a clear understanding of, just outright tell it. If the game is any fun, the player will quickly get over the break in character. A mechanic obfuscated by fancy words or over-contextualization, however, will kick a player out of your world faster than any errant mention of mouse buttons.


In short, be kind to your player. Be clear.

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