SWAPping Comics for Video Games
You know what’s pretty cool? Writing dialogue that’s going to be voiced by Patrick Warburton.
Warburton provides the voice for Flynn, one of the primary characters in the “Skylanders” game franchise. And I got to put words in his mouth.
In 2012 and early 2013, I spent a couple of days a week at Albany-area game developer Vicarious Visions, an Activision Blizzard subsidiary. I wasn’t on staff, I was on a freelance contract (and under a Non-Disclosure Agreement, of course). I was brought in to write for “Skylanders: SWAP Force,” the third console installment of the franchise, which released this week.
“Skylanders” is a genius combination of video game and collectible action figures. You buy the figure, and you can play that character in the game. Even before “SWAP Force” debuted, “Skylanders” had sold well over a million toys, and generated more than $500 million in revenue. It also seems like a natural to make the leap to comics, but that’s another discussion.
I’m not here to tell you about the game itself. There are plenty of venues where you can find that story, and plenty of reviews (which seem to be overwhelmingly positive). Short version: it’s fun and it’s beautiful, with visuals approaching the richness and complexity of an animated film.
Working on “Skylanders” was a vastly different experience than working on a comic, even though both jobs are ultimately about story and character. I’d previously worked for Vicarious Visions writing gameplay dialogue for the “Spider-Man 3” and “Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2” games. Both of those opportunities came about through former Marvel editor Evan Skolnick, who was working at Vicarious Visions as a producer (thought he’s since departed for Lucasarts). Evan contacted me out of the blue one day after bumping into Albany artist John Hebert, and finding out I’d moved into the area. The Spidey and “MUA” gigs were mostly done from home, about 30 minutes from the Vicarious Visions office, and I was paid by the line of dialogue.
But the “Skylanders” gig was different, and frankly better because of it. I worked in the office, was paid an hourly rate, and worked with my friend Dave Rodriguez, whose official title at Vicarious Visions is Design Specialist. I’d originally met Dave at a Wizard World Chicago con back when I worked for CrossGen and Dave worked for Chicago-area game developer High Voltage. Not long after, Dave and I ended up working together on CrossGen’s Digital Comics, which I “directed” and High Voltage generated.
A few years later, CrossGen was gone and I’d moved from Tampa back to upstate New York. One Sunday morning, I was walking across a parking lot to head into the Albany Comic Con. I saw a guy heading for the entrance and thought to myself, “Wow, that guy looks just like Dave Rodriguez. But Dave lives in Chicago.”
Turned out that guy looked like Dave Rodriguez because he was Dave Rodriguez, and he didn’t live in Chicago anymore, but in the Albany area, because he’d taken a job at Vicarious Visions. Dave also has a comics career into addition to his video-game career, writing the terrific all-ages series “Finding Gossamyr” for Th3rd World Studios.
Last spring, Dave called and asked if I might be interested in chipping in on “Skylanders.” At that point, I had only a passing familiarity with the franchise, but the concept looked like fun, and I was intrigued by the idea of actually working in an office, something I hadn’t done since CrossGen crashed and burned.
Comics are produced by a creative team of just a handful of people — sometimes even one person — most often working alone in disparate locations. In comics, there’s an almost direct conduit for the creative team’s vision to reach the reader, editorial layers notwithstanding. The stories I write, creator-owned or work-for-hire, are very much “me.” Most of my writing is produced in my office at home, on my schedule, when I’m wearing a holey pair of jeans and a ratty sweatshirt.
I did a bit of my “Skylanders” writing at home, but a far greater portion of it was written at the Vicarious Vision offices, which are housed in a refurbished Montgomery Ward warehouse center. The design is a mix of sleek high tech (obviously) and exposed vintage brick and iron work. It’s a welcoming, comfortable space, with a big kitchen/lunch room that has a pool table and a foosball table. It’s a place where people come to play as well as work, and most of all, to create. I was fortunate to be present for a number of celebrations to buoy morale and thank the staff, complete with catered food, bakery delicacies and local craft beers. It actually reminded me of the best times at the CrossGen office.
It was a nice change of pace to make myself presentable and get out of the house a couple days a week, interact with other people, maybe grab a burger and a beer after work. I love working at home, I love not wasting time on a daily commute. But seeing the same four walls every day — even if those walls are adorned with original art by Bernie Wrightson, Jim Starlin, Kevin Nowlan, Bart Sears, Luke Ross and others — can get stale.
The majority of my work for “Skylanders: SWAP Force” was gameplay dialogue. I’d sit with a level designer, who would play me through the level (under construction, of course) that he or she was creating. They’d suggest necessary dialogue — quips, fight banter, clues to help move the narrative along — and then I’d write a complete first pass on the dialogue and hand it off to Dave Rodriguez, whose official title on the game was Narrative and Systems Design Lead. Dave would add his tweaks and pass it up the chain. Eventually the dialogue would go to voice recording, and I’d get to hear some of it, a pleasure I never have in comics.
Sometimes the design of a level would be partially or even wholly revised, meaning my dialogue would be revised and/or completely tossed out, and we’d have to do it all over again. The revisions were always in pursuit of making the level better, making the overall game better. For a good part of its gestation, a game is a malleable thing. Parts are reviewed, revised, repaired and even completely replaced. It’s not unheard of to scrap weeks of work by multiple people.
That’s a stark contrast to the monthly grind of comics. Yes, scripts are revised, sometimes multiple times. Once in a while, an art patch is done. But to great extent in comics, once a page is done, it’s done. The ever-chugging deadline train demands a determination of “good enough,” and then you move on to the next page. There was no “good enough” for “Skylanders,” only “as good as we can possibly make it.”
In comics, you’re paid for your finished product. You get paid the same for a 20-page script whether takes you three days or three weeks to write it, and that includes revisions. Part of being a professional is working within the editorial structure, meaning you’re expected to make reasonable revisions. Once upon a time, there would be additional compensation if the revisions were due to factors beyond the writer’s control, things like changes in editorial plans or schedules. But it’s becoming more common, maybe even commonplace, for rewrites of any origin to be done without compensation. If a different and unexpected direction is suddenly required, freelancers pay the price for it in time and effort.
On “Skylanders,” whole days of my work ended up unused, and it was not a completely unusual occurrence. But I was being paid an hourly rate. I was paid to write it the first time, I was paid to write it over again. I was paid for my time in meetings, I was paid for my time researching. It was refreshing to have the feeling that there was value to my time, not merely the finished product.
Which is not to say you ever truly enjoy having your work set aside. But the very nature and scope of a video game engenders a sense that you’re part of much bigger team, striving toward a bigger goal. The individual “me” of it is very much secondary. There are lines of my dialogue in the game, lines of dialogue by Dave and by others, artwork by dozens and more likely hundreds of artists (including some storyboards by my friend and fellow Albany-area denizen Matthew Dow Smith).
I love writing comics. I tell pretty much anybody who will listen that I have the best job in the world. It allows me to tell the kind of stories I want to tell, and more often than not, in the way I want to tell them. But being part of the team telling the story in “Skylanders: SWAP Force” was just as satisfying, albeit in a different way. “We”… not “me.”
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts” and “Ravine” for Top Cow, “The Protectors” for Athleta Comics and his creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.