Codec Chatter: Assassin's Creed Scribe Corey May
For our first ever edition of Codec Chatter, Assassin's Creed II writer Corey May steps away from the hectic final days of production to discuss the writing process, juggling two careers, and his color-changing hamster.
From the outside looking in, the video game writing process seems to be very different than that of film or literature. How do they differ in your eyes?
On a really fundamental level, I wouldn't say the process is all that different. The writer writes something, hands it over for feedback, receives notes, cries (maybe this is just me...), revises, resubmits, and repeat until everyone is happy and/or you run out of time. Whether it's an outline, treatment, script, manuscript, advertising copy, musical lyrics - whatever - it's usually a collaborative process. And it should be. It's good to be questioned, challenged, and inspired. So there's a bunch of back and forth - and if all goes well the story is better for it. Things get a little different once it comes time for actual production. With a book, you (as the writer) don't have to be as concerned with the logistical implications of what you've written unless it's a crazy post-modern book. The cat sleeps. The cat explodes. If we're talking about a novel (for example), it's words on a page. You focus mainly on the narrative implications of what you've written.
In games (and films) you have to not only consider the narrative implications but the logistical implications as well. You want to film a cat sleeping? You've just added a bunch of people to your crew and thousands of dollars to your budget (assuming it's a union shoot with distribution and you don't want to get sued). Want to make it explode? You need a VFX supervisor, someone to create the explosions (either practically or digitally), etc. And in a game? Now someone's got to build the cat, rig it, skin it, animate it, light it, provide it with AI (if you want it to react to the player), code the explosion (if you're blowing it up), hook sounds to it, etc. AND ensure that none of these modifications suddenly cause the engine to inexplicably go out of memory when it comes to light someone thought the cat should have 10,000 bones and even more polygons... I guess the biggest difference is the amount of consideration that needs to be given to other people as every word I write creates more work for people. And this is before we even factor in gameplay - which is where games begin to diverge from films. Films are a passive experience (relative to video games). You have to consider the production implications of your work. With games you must consider production AND gameplay implications. But it's still the same process. There's just more of it. So in conclusion - the process is the same, I suppose. It's characterized by collaboration, iteration, and tears.
When the development process moves forward from pre-production, as a writer working in house are you privy to all the decision-making as it pertains to the narrative? Do you hear of proposed changes in a timely enough manner where you can fight for plot points, or is it more of a task-driven role where you repair narrative breaks as the gameplay strays from the core story?
I've been very lucky in that the people I work with are extremely collaborative. Changes are discussed. They don't come down from on high. I don't get a bunch of levels dumped in my lap with the mandate to "tie it all together". Consideration is given to the narrative - it's never discarded, ignored, or denigrated. It's a real team effort and the people I work with are extremely supportive. We all recognize that what each of us does impacts the other. So we're in constant communication - working together to make sure everyone gets what they want. There's always give and take. But I've been working with a lot of the same people for a long time now. So we know each other well. And I've TRIED really hard to be understanding of the production process. I consider the implications of what I'm writing and I think I've gotten better at anticipating what's feasible and what's not. Sometimes I'll be asked to cut or change stuff. We'll discuss it. If I can defend what I want, it usually stays. If I can't, it goes - and it should. If I can't justify the inclusion of a scene, additional lines of dialogue, a character, or an event, it shouldn't be there. It doesn't mean everything is sunshine and rainbows. But I've got no (legitimate) complaints.
Going into the last few weeks of development, what kind of tasks does the writer have?
By the last few weeks of development my work had better be done or there are big problems. I try and help where I can though. Sometimes it's just being in the office to provide moral support, answer questions, buy beer, play the game, look for bugs, etc. I'll get a couple of JIRAs about typos in subtitles or the instruction manual or in game text. Stuff like that. And then there's usually some press work to be done. I spend too much of my time anticipating the horrible things the people on Screw Attack and GAF are going to say about me and my work. I need to stop reading the f*cking forums. Very bad for my self esteem and mental health.
The Ubi Montreal team seems to be a close-knit group. Working long hours in game development, the team must go stir crazy at some point. What do you all do to cool down or regain your sanity in the office?
We play games. We go out. We drink. The usual stuff. I don't know. We're really lucky. Everyone really enjoys what they're doing. Some people play foosball. They call it baby-foot here, I think. Weirdos.
Do you pull pranks on each other?
Every day is “photoshop phriday” at the office. I've also seen some weird elaborate pranks - every now and then they build entire cabins around people's desks.
You see a lot of USC and Digipen grads moving into game development, but not many Harvard grads. How did you get into game development?
Are their other Harvard alums you know working in the space? I got into games totally by accident. In addition to my work at Ubisoft I also have a film production company back in Los Angeles. We met with Ubisoft about eight years ago to talk about licensing one of their properties for television and somehow that conversation turned into "come up to Montreal and meet the teams... see what happens". So I did, and I've pretty much been up here ever since. I love games so it wasn't hard to convince me to get involved. And I did have some experience in the space. When I was in college I actually worked for the Total Entertainment Network (which later became Pogo) writing (and “producing”) interactive soap operas for their MMO (does 500 player cap count as MMO?) Dark Sun Online: Crimson Sands. I think some of the guys I worked with went on to work for Asheron’s Call and Dark Age Of Camelot. To answer your second question, I had a friend from Harvard who worked as a programmer at EALA for several years, but that's about it.
You also have a career outside of video games, working as the executive producer of the 2006 horror flick The Plague, starring James Van Der Beek. How did that come about?
As I mentioned, I've also got a film production company back in Los Angeles. We've set up a bunch of movies at studios around town - mostly as producers though we've written on a couple of things as well. They're all in various stages of development. The whole process takes forever and sometimes it makes me really sad that I'm not in LA working on the projects more actively, but I do what I can from Montreal and I love games too much so I try and do both. It's like having two jobs, but I love them both so it's all good. It's three hours earlier in LA so on a good day, I'll get home at 7pm in Montreal and it's only 4pm in Los Angeles so it gives me a few hours to make calls, read scripts, send notes on projects, etc. Generally speaking, it takes a LONG time to get a film made. One of my favorites is an adaptation of the novel The Dogs of Babel. Look that sh*t up. It is dark as f*ck and heartbreaking. The writer did an AMAZING job. I hope that gets made. We've also recently branched into commercial production. We did a spot for General Motors last year and we're in post on a spot for Coca-Cola right now.
We actually tried three times to set up games as films. Once with the first Fallout, but this was when Mad Max 4 was supposed to be going into production the first time so everyone passed claiming they were too similar. I remember emailing Chris Avellone and getting all these awesome Fallout design docs and feeling special. It's too bad. The take was super true to the story of Fallout 1. Opened the same as the game. WAR NEVER CHANGES. It was all there. The water chip, the master, Dogmeat, too. No need to reinvent the wheel. Maybe that was our mistake. But I feel that too often when people try and sell games as films they only look at sales figures - not at WHAT makes a game special. And for Fallout - yes the gameplay was awesome - but the world, the tone, the story, the characters... It just worked. We wanted to share that with people. Pretty much as it was. Not take the license and f*ck it all up. This was back before games were HIP AND COOL and MAINSTREAM. The term CASUAL GAMER didn't exist. I'm still bitter. Fallout 1 as a movie would be AMAZING – f*ck the haters.
As a writer, what are some of the things other writers are doing in the game space that you think are interesting?
I'm fascinated by Team ICO's ability to create these incredibly compelling characters and moving narratives with such simplicity and elegance. It's an art form. It's magic! They've turned gameplay into a narrative device. They're amazing. The guys at Rockstar, Blizzard, BioWare, Bethesda, and Obsidian - they create worlds like nobody's business. And then the work at Valve and 2K... Portal and BioShock are two of the best games I've ever played. I don't know. I could go on and on. I think so many people are doing so many interesting things.
What’s the best video game story of all time?
Martian Dreams. The second Ultima: Worlds of Adventure. Maybe it's nostalgia. Maybe it's that I love Mars. Either way, the Ultima games in general... Ultima VII (Black Gate & Serepent Isle combined) is probably the greatest video game that will EVER. BE. MADE. The Guardian is the best villain ever. Shodan is a close second. Now I also feel like I need to give props to Phantasy Star 2. Holy sh*t. Whatever with the Final Fantasy VII and OH NOES AERIS. When Nei died... I remember literally thinking YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO DO THAT. Never mind the dude that kills his daughter or the F*CK YOU, YOU LOSE ending. Amazing. And for the time?! Mind blowing.
What are your closet gaming passions?
SSI's gold box games and old school first-person RPG's like FTL's Dungeon Master (one of the best games ever made), and all things Might & Magic (especially World of Xeen!). Ubi has the Might & Magic license. I drive them crazy about it all the time. I'd love to see a new Might & Magic RPG in the old school MM tradition. Between that and Phantasy Star, I think I just have a thing for period action meets sci-fi.
You have an interesting relationship with your cat and hamster. Discuss.
The cat is pretty chill. He just sleeps. Sometimes he plays with shadows. The hamster, however, is magic. First, she is feral and bites the sh*t out of anyone who goes near here. When I bought her, the lady at the pet store warned me not to, which meant she was the one for me. I put her in a hamster ball the other day and she went straight for the cat - trying to attack him. She's nuts. But she changes colors. She's a Winter White. Look it up. In the winter she goes completely white. In the spring she suddenly develops black stripes. It's badass. Bet you didn't know hamsters could change color.