Ever wonder how "canon" gets crafted? Join us this week as we speak with Story Producer Chuck Beaver about the concepting, scripting, directing, writing, and rewriting that goes into making great game narratives.
What's your name and job title?
I’m Chuck Beaver, and I’m the Story Producer for the Dead Space franchise.
What does a Story Producer do?
I'm responsible for seeing that all the elements that make a 90+ rated game story come into existence.
That involves knowing what those elements are, editing incoming work from writers and designers, and being able to articulate actionable direction back to them. And so that includes a somewhat bewildering array of deliverables across a long, painstaking process.
Want all the details?
Please. Walk us through the process.
So, it starts with pre-production, where we're trying to figure out what we're doing, starting from nothing or infinity, depending on which way you look at it. We are trying to answer the basic questions: Who is this story about? What are they trying to do? Who or what is stopping them from doing it? Also, what genre are we in? Horror, comedy, western, crime, action, pulp thriller?
Once those questions are "answered" – and I say that in quotes because the entire process is recursive, meaning every layer we complete has the ability to cause a re-think of previous work – if a great idea surfaces, we dig down and down into greater and greater detail of our story by layering decisions and choices on top of each other. For example, we may start with our protagonist wanting revenge on his father, but later discover that other details point to a better story if he instead seeks to redeem himself in his wife's eyes.
Genre is first, then the protagonist, and then you get into the world. World is the setting in which our characters find themselves. It’s a function of genre, and will ultimately inform who our character can "be." Are we sci-fi, near future, historic, on Earth, in a dream world?
As you answer these, you also have to decide on the politics of the world. What are the belief systems, philosophies, religion, etc.? And then you get into the fun question: What do we writers have to say about all this? What is our perspective on life that and how will that come out in our viewpoints, plots, and character journeys?
From there, you begin composing the cast and plot of the story you have started. Who is the antagonist – the person keeping the protagonist from getting what he wants? Who is the supporting cast and what is their relationship to the hero? What events in the world are conspiring to create conflict for everyone?
Then you start drafting details like game chapters and their flow. From there, you have to figure out where your story beats are happening in this flow, and what form. Are they cinematics, audio logs, scripted events? You install your story as beats into these forms, meshing the effort of level design with storytelling. From this mash-up you get a master list of scenes and logs you have to then actually write. But first, you discover you are way over-scoped and have to spend painful weeks reducing the scope of your work.
So what is the Story Producer doing during all this?
It depends on the person who’s in the role and their particular talents and training. For me, I know enough about story and have enough imagination that I contribute fairly heavily to the authoring and pitching of ideas in all the phases. I work with our Officially Trained Writer™ and our Creative Director to settle final decisions and move the product forward. If I didn't have these skills, I would be facilitating all these steps with creative people who would be doing the heavy lifting.
What comes next after scoping?
After scoping, you're ready to starting writing "the script," which is where most people think writing actually starts. They don't have any clue that the script is the rind on a very large body of prior work.
The script is the words the characters say that support all of your previous story design. Act structure, character arcs, crisis, conflict, resolution – all these things live in the medium of the words.
Scenes are themselves an art, and have a craft to them as well. Dialogue has to be clever, fresh, witty, and above all brief. There’s also storytelling done without words (i.e. the screenplay). As those scenes begin to take shape, my role is to be part of the writer team, keeping an eye on quality, wit, story structure basics, entertainment value, continuity, adherence to the high-level story, etc.
We "put scenes to bed" by finally gouging each other's eyes out and gnashing our collective teeth until we've anointed each word and phrase with our approval.
At first glance I thought you were just a writer, but it sounds like you're more than that. You're the string that threads everything together.
[Laughter] Yes! Way more than a writer. We haven't even gotten to the production of the story yet.
After the script is done, the real work begins. Performance Capture (PCAP) sessions – which are fancy Motion-Capture sessions where you record voice at the same time as body motion – must be planned and executed.
Storyboards must be completed prior to this. I work with the Animation Director to block out the actual choreography of each actor in the scene, "calling the shots," determining how the action plays out, and again overseeing the overall adherence to our high-level story goals. We hash out the final "vision" of each scene in the storyboard work, and then we're ready for the PCAP shoot.
Once we're at the shoots, I'm there on set providing story context for every shot, since they're shot out of order. The Director relies on me to provide an understanding of the energy level of the scenes: what's happened just before, what's happening next, why characters are saying what they're saying, where they are in their character arcs, etc.
I also communicate all the explosions, monsters, shaking ships, etc. Everyone is standing in a large empty warehouse wearing ping-pong covered spandex suits. I'm telling them what imaginary world is swirling around them when the Director yells “Action!”
I work with the Creative Director, the Executive Producer (EP), the Animation Director, and the Shoot Director to say when we've "got the shot" and can move on to the next one. All this applies to the Voice Over (VO) sessions as well, where we're just using a sound booth to capture voice recordings for audio logs and any other non-motion needs.
Once all that is done and the assets arrive home, we sift through them with the EP showing him our two or three best takes. He selects the "A" take, and that's what we put in the game.
At this point, all hell breaks loose and the whole dev team gets involved.
It sounds like you're involved with the game from pre-production to post. Is there anything you're not involved in?
Nope. The Story Producer is there from before the beginning to the final day we go into CQC.
After the assets arrive in house, animators clean up the data. We have to review it constantly to see how it's shaping up in terms of quality, and make sure the intent fits to the scene. Then, the Level Designers have to plug the data into the levels themselves, and we finally start to see the scenes in-game. Now everyone else can start playing, and the audio team gets involved, as do the Lighters, VFX artists, and anyone else needing to monkey with the scene.
Meanwhile, I'm helping oversee all this activity, making sure everyone knows the intent of each beat of each scene as we review them in dailies with each discipline lead present. Everyone has to be on the same page, or we'll get something we didn't design.
Of course, once something shows up in-game, that's where most of the comments come from, and if there are any re-writes (and there always are) the whole process starts over again.
Once we've done that for every syllable of the game, we're done!
How long have you been at EA in this role?
Since the original Dead Space, so about five or six years. It’s hard to be more precise. Time is weird when you’re making games.
What was life like before Dead Space? What were you doing before this?
Well, I did something similar on the James Bond games: Everything or Nothing, then From Russia With Love. Before that, I was the Localization Producer on James Bond 007: NightFire.
So how did you manage to get from Localization Producer to doing more story work?
Everything or Nothing was going into pre-production, so they assigned me as the Producer on that. Back at that time, pre-production was a new concept for our studios, so no one grasped the significance of the role. I was able to grow, along with the studio, in the understanding of it.
Do you see there being a point where story is more important than any other piece of the puzzle? Where everything can suck but the story?
Not really. Games are games first, and need to engage on that level. Story is a giant competitive edge to add to your offering, but pure story can't rescue craptastic game design. For instance, look at Tim Schafer's career. He's literally brilliant, but he needs a strong game designer backing him up.
Can story ruin a game?
Story can only ruin a game for those people who care about story, so it's a conditional answer. For instance, Gears of War. It contains atrocious, offensive violations of story basics. Yet it doesn't seem to ruin it for many, many people. It's literally the worst writing in games, but seems to have no ill effects.
On the other hand, you've got the Portal series, which, to me, succeeds at least as much on its writing as its masterful platformer level design.
I guess it's really all about the fun factor.
Yeah, that and the same filter you would apply to movies. Does everyone hate Transformers? Some yes, some no. Some people like brainless Michael Bay stuff, others hate it. The same thing will apply to us.
Where did you go to school and what did you study?
I went to the University of Oklahoma and studied Finance, because my dad didn't support my artistic aspirations. I believe the exact phrase was, with disdain, "You can't make any money as an artist!"
Did you know at that point you wanted to work in the game industry?
Hmmm. I think right as the Internet boom of 2000 was disintegrating (which I rode to a job out here in San Francisco) I realized, “Hey, maybe you can make money as an artist.” Plus, I was playing PC Star Wars games at the time, freshly discovering the joy of gaming. I skipped the original PlayStation cycle because I was busy partying.
How did you manage to get into EA?
I had a friend who worked here, who turned me onto an Art Manager internship job for Freekstyle. I managed to land that, and later turned that into a full-time position as the Localization Producer on James Bond.
Prior to that, did you have any experience as a writer or anything that would help someone in a role like yours?
I was a consultant for several years, so I had extensive business writing experience from that. It's a stretch to say it overlaps creative writing, but there is a basic skill to writing that applies: clarity of thought, concise verbiage, grammar skills.
What advice would you give to a recent high school grad who wants to be a Story Producer?
I would say practice, practice, practice. Write entire stories for mods on any software you can, and implement them using something like Half-Life's source code. Oh, and buy and devour Robert McKee's book called Story. It is the fundamental bible on how to write.
Other than that, you need to get in the door as a Producer, so take internships as a Production Assistant in game companies. Learn the ropes of project management, working with creatives, and game making in general, so you can apply your writing training appropriately.
Is there any major that lends itself to this line of work?
Whatever is aimed at audio/video production, or cinematic production. I don't think the game courses in colleges have gotten advanced enough to teach Story Production, but film schools certainly have.
I would also take game design courses, so you can know what you're talking about, know the medium you'll be managing, what its limitations are, etc. That is critical.
So, game design and creative writing, with a side of film production?
Is it important to be a gamer?
Absolutely. The logic flows asymmetrically here. A person who plays every game on the planet is not necessarily equipped to produce, write, or make them – he is simply well-read. But a person who is trying to produce, write, or make games must at least be well-read in them.
What games are you playing right now?
Mass Effect 3. I’m trying to figure out if I'm going to finish Batman: Arkham City, and I’m definitely going to finish Infamous 2. Then I’m cracking open Call of Duty and Battlefield 3. And in my fantasy world of luxurious time, I'd start Skyrim.
Where do you get inspiration and ideas from?
It's funny. It's a weird place in my head, almost a feeling. Like an experiential Zen thing? It used to be very hard to conjure up, but now that I've been running it non-stop for a few years, it obeys pretty well.
It's sort of a place where you let your imagination run free, like daydreaming, with full-on free association. You ask, "What would be cool?" and let ideas and answers flow, grabbing at ones that, well … seem cool. It's very similar to the first time you saw Star Wars as a kid, and your head exploded. That place? That's where I go. And I bring things back from there.
I used to run a Gamma World campaign (mutant post-apocalyptic cousin of D&D) and my job now feels very much like my life then – as a dorky 12 year old outcast, living a fantastic life in his own head.
Any games in particular you think have a great story? I know you already mentioned Portal.
Uncharted, of course —2 more than 3. Everything else seems to struggle a bit. [Laughter] I guess I'm pretty picky.
Do you look back at Dead Space or Dead Space 2 and think... eh?
[Laughter] Oh yes! We knew so little about story back then, and overruled our writers on a lot. Dead Space was just a simple haunted house story that we later pasted a personal aspect on top of – a lost girlfriend who is really dead.
Dead Space 2 was a huge challenge. All these elements from the original game that were poorly thought through, like the Marker Lore, Necro ecology, etc., had to move coherently forward into the next narrative. The first story we had was a wreck of unrelated events and broken structure, so we cut our teeth getting that into shape, and didn't fully make it.
Plus, we got lost a bit in complicated lore and plot elements that didn't come through. And don't even get me started on the final boss sequence that they put in without me in the meeting! That was fun.
You say "we." Do you have a team of direct reports?
No, I'm part of our "writer group," composed of our Creative Director, Ben Wanat, and our Writer, Jay Turner, from BioWare and Dragon Age fame. And then of course we all report to our EP, Steve Papoutsis, who has final adjudication.
Actually, the game itself reports to Marketing for product positioning approval, and of course Patrick Söderlund, then Frank Gibeau, and finally John Riccitiello himself, all of whom have had significant input on the story design.
Alright. I think I've got all I need. Thanks Chuck!
Is there a specific video game job you'd like to know more about? Let us know in the comments! Plus, check out last week's interview with our Senior Director of Business Systems and Technology, Jeff Bradburn, for more insight into the industry.