Microsoft Games Studio Writer John Sutherland – from Pong to Kinect

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‘Softie in question: John Sutherland

Job title: Writer – Microsoft Game Studios

Could you explain the role of the writer in game development?

The writer develops the story and collaborates with the designer, who is often the game’s director. Sometimes we work with an outside developer who may have as many as four staff writers on a game. In that case, I work as the story doctor and oversee the writers: I help with story structure, pacing, and trimming their dialogue down to a manageable level. Other times, we work with developers who don’t have any staff writers and I’m the sole scriptwriter.

How did your career start off at Microsoft Game Studios?

I was working as a technical writer for Microsoft on error messages for Office 95 and telephony projects and that sort of thing. But, like a lot of technical writers, I had a secret life. When I wasn’t at work, I was busy as a screenwriter.

I started working in games in 1996 when a former copy editor of mine from Office asked me to create an online help system for Mind Aerobics, a new puzzle game by Alexey Pajitnov – who invented Tetris. In many ways, my first game writing job was still technical writing.

Had you already been a gamer?

Oh, sure. In this department, we’ve all had varying degrees of fanaticism. I remember when gaming meant getting a roll of quarters from the bank and blowing it all on Pong.

How’d you make the jump from technical writing about games to actually writing the games themselves?

Games evolved and needed a greater degree of storytelling. The studios woke up to the fact that there was this population in their very midst who were already well trained in storytelling and could be valuable to the progress of gaming. Our backgrounds, with all of the novels and screenplays and comic books that we were writing on our own time, started to support our day jobs.

Now, when we hire game writers, we look for gaming experience and knowledge combined with good creative chops and proven storytelling success, often outside of gaming .

How do you see Kinect and the Natural User Interface changing gaming?

With Kinect, what I see coming is that you’ll get to immerse yourself in a storyline with your whole body. I can’t say much about in the games we’re preparing for launch, but I can say, it’s just going to get better and deeper.

So, yeah, we are quickly approaching the holodeck. The mind and body are much more connected than most people realize and when we get to the point that you are standing up and walking through a world and moving and physically reacting to all that’s around you and not just participating in it with your cerebrum and your thumbs, you’ll be in for a real trip. It’s perfectly normal for us to not be at that level of game right away – but it’s coming.

Do you see gaming not being called gaming in the future?

It will probably be called gaming for a long time, but what we call gaming is really broadening.  We have to think about these things as interactive entertainment.

Will gaming replace movies and TV as our main entertainment?

Anytime there’s a new form, the first step is that it’s considered a toy. This happened with gaming and happened with movies too.  A hundred years ago, they only made little thrill movies of a train coming right at the audience and used it as a gimmick to freak people out. Eventually, they figured out film as a story form – and that delivered film to a much broader audience.

About five years ago, I wrote an article in Gamasutra  – the main online game development publication. It’s about how story works in gaming. A lot of game companies are still figuring it out.  Learning how story works best for video games opens a whole new set of questions. And just like movies couldn’t fall back on plays to answer everything, we can’t fall back on movies.

I think that video games are really just crawling compared to where they’re going. We’ve learned to crawl. Soon we’ll be walking. We’ll learn to run. Eventually, we’ll learn to fly.

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