The Game Design of a Constructed Language

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I waved as I approached the Damocles‘ quartermaster. “Skusatsu mo. Sele ma pasu. Hildo spreku?”

She cocked her head quizzically. “Tak.” Thank god, I thought. At last someone who speaks Hilde. “Kep kereru te?” she asked.

Last Chance boto kapitana yestu me. Iltre siotusa haba ma pasu. Yarog, te butu uno?”

She shrugged. “Probleme yeta.” She disappeared into the open airlock, pushing out a moment later with a small box she tossed with the experience of someone who had lived a very long time in low g.

“Danku.”

World building, whether for a book, a movie, or a game, is all about the feeling of immersion.

You actually don’t want to bury your audience in detail – a little goes a long way. That being said, if the snippets you do show your audience aren’t internally consistent and don’t make sense at an intuitive level, while your audience usually won’t explicitly call you out on that, they will definitely pick up on any lack of internal consistency.

Thus, at the end of the day, the paradox of building an immersive environment is that the most straightforward way to build an immersive world is to construct all the details, and then proceed to only show maybe 10% of said details. The rest isn’t actually wasted, though, it lives in the implicit connective tissue of the world you are trying to build.

Constructed languages, sometimes called “conlags” have been put together for a number of different reasons ranging from attempts to bring humanity together linguistically like Volapük or Esperanto, to supporting the construction of fictional worlds such as Star Trek‘s Klingon language or J.R.R. Tolkien‘s myriad languages of Middle-Earth.

Video games have gotten into the action as well, and true to form, often in such a way as to slip beneath the radar of the player while at the same time deeply enriching the world. Skyrim’s Dovahzul.

c53e27226eb7353788723a89af6f19d0a98a79One of my several side projects is the development of a multiplayer logistics game called ORG. Set in a late 25th century where humanity has finally recovered from an appalling population crash to colonize even the farthest reaches of our solar system, I wanted to do more than make a generic science-fiction environment but to make something recognizably unique with depth that would allow for endless permutations, philosophical exploration, and narrative opportunities.

First, I started with mapping out in detail the over thirty distinct national polities that were to serve as the bedrock of a narrative milieu. In so doing, I also had the opportunity to explore the almost endless political and economic variations humanity has or might someday choose to try out.

These included everything from what might happen if you had an entire enclosed culture and state based on the often exploitive Human Potential Movement of the 60s counterculture to a society built on clone slave labor to societies where labor unions have triumphed to religious fundamentalists building a society living in terror of the possibility of technological singularity to fascinating exercises in pure democracy to…well, you get the picture.

(I admit it, I had a lot of fun seeing how many dystopic variations I could come up with. No economic or social theory was safe from my attempt to exaggerate it until its own victories would become the seeds of its own failure.)

Second, I began to explore some of the philosophical implications of a civilization like this. For example, what are the implications of culture when the frontier is dominated by a very small percentage of the human population, but the power is overwhelming maintained at home on Earth? What are the psychological and cultural implications in a society that exists in an artificially maintained environment? (Andy Weir’s novel The Martian and The Expanse series are both great fictional explorations of this.)

Org_Polities_HildasTriangleFinally, I got to the question of linguistics. Language is a peculiarly underappreciated part of social functioning. We’ve all heard of the languages that have multiple words for love (Greek) to the differences between gendered languages like French or Italian or languages without articles like “the” or “a” (Russian) or languages with minimal or no concept of tense or time (Amondawa).

While the idea of language defining how we think is in fact sometimes exaggerated to strawman-like proportions, the fact is the way a language developed does reflect the needs and foci of the speakers.

One of the unfortunate side effects of technological communication, transportation, and modern commercialization has been a rapid reduction in the diversity of languages spoken in the world today, a concept called “language death“. As the world metaphorically gets smaller by means of improved communication, transportation, and monoculture, the isolation that causes languages to evolve vanishes taking with it the losers in the memeplectic struggle for linguistic dominance.

But what happens once we (hopefully) escape the tyranny of our gravity well in colonizing force? The distances of space are vast, even when we are just talking about the distances between the Earth and the Moon – let alone the distances from Earth to Mars, or even more staggeringly, Mars to Jupiter, or the truly mind-numbing distances between the outer solar system’s gas giants and the dwarf planets of the Kuiper Belt. What happens when you are, really, all alone with just the people around you? How does the fragility of environmental security affect the way a language develops?

It’s not just the fact of isolation: language evolves to match the needs of its environment. Urban environments versus rural environments, arid versus wet, nomadic versus settled are all examples of the various axis that can influence and guide a linguistic evolution.

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All these factors, plus the expected improvement in capabilities of translation software (which, I should note from personal experience, is definitely not quite there yet) do suggest a reversal or at least slowing of the aforementioned trend of language death today.

Add onto this the existence of long space voyages by trained specialists who live in even more isolation and environmental insecurity than even someone who lives on a relatively safe colony on Mars or Callisto (other than, of course, the contemporaneously raging Martian civil war and Gallilean conflict) and one can readily see how such a language could evolve.

So that’s what I started to do.

ORG‘s Hilde, or “Spacer’s Cant”, is a classic example of what in linguistic circles is termed a pidgin, or in the authoritative words of Wikipedia, “a simplified version of a language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common. It is most commonly employed in situations such as trade.” (As the years go on, of course, it is starting to become a creole, or “a stable natural language that has developed from a pidgin.”)

I started with the historical background. I had decided that the natal location of my pidgin was going to be the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, specifically a polity centered around the asteroid Hilda in the fascinating Hildas Triangle.

In the milieu of ORG, the Collaborated Union of the Hildas Triangle was settled by a sort of successor state to the modern day real world European Union called Union. Unlike the European Union, however, Union grew out of Poland and Romania, with satellite states in the form of Germany and a sans-Siberia Russia.

Space Asteroid Mining sample rock

This meant the linguistic building blocks would be dominated by the phonemes (the sounds) and vocabulary of these nation’s languages. But this was going to be a pidgin, remember, so that meant I decided to make the grammar more like Esperanto – that is, incredibly flexible, very stripped down, and readily learned. There wasn’t going to be any gendering of nouns or even suffixed tenses. Word order was (almost) freeform. Years of learning French, Spanish, Japanese, and Portuguese in school came back to tell me what parts of languages made learning the language insufferably harder than it had to be.

On top of all of this, because this was intended as a trade language as much as anything, I tried to remove sounds that were hard to distinguish for speakers of the major language groups surviving in the 25th century of ORG. (This last I wasn’t quite able to pull off as much as I wanted to, but that’s why several phonemes don’t exist in Hilde, including f, v, and w. Vowels, as well, stick to a basic five with a notable absence of true diphthongs (where you mash together two vowels to create a new sound.)

Then came the vocabulary.

One of the reasons English has purportedly been as successful as it has been as a common language for aeronautical operations is that it relatively direct, short, and staccato, things that are very desirable indeed when piloting a massive 747. Spaceflight, one can logically reason, would have similar needs. Hilde, therefore, prefers short words generally framed on both ends by consonants.

The vocabulary, as well, reflects the needs of a spacer. There are a lot of words describing things like venting atmosphere (“atmosu”), docking clamps (“kleme”), velocity (“predkoso”), attitude thrusters (“aridiste”), and radiation exposure levels (“radso”).

In the end, constructed languages are not only immersive in the bold, obvious ways as they appear on a page or in a game, but also in the secondary effects where misunderstandings have narrative implications or the language’s constituent pieces indirectly implies history.

As a support to the narrative dictum “show, don’t tell” constructed language works by implication as much as it does by definition, and can be a useful pillar to pulling the reader, viewer, or gamer out of their own context and into a new one.

Blood Like Honey

My skin pulled taut upon the tanner’s rack
If that tanner were both sadist and tyrant,
And cords run raw in time to my bones’ crack
Make for a grey and grim reallotment

My veins filled full with liquid fire
Pain tantamount and testament to right,
And if ragged throat to song must retire
Then to a midnight glory will hope ignite

My eyes yet this revelation defy,
A pale blue no wolf could or would claim
And I would that human thread not deny
For in truth, these are but fleshly things renamed

So here, bend ear, and to the moon conceive
The taste of blood like honey for her love receive

Breaking In

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At some point in the career of most video game developers, a very particular, very familiar question will be posed:

How do you break in to the industry?

It’s not an easy answer, because in truth the video game industry is multiple, overlapping industries, each operating with their own spin and own culture. On top of that, the pathways into a job in the industry vary depending on the job you are pursuing.

Terms like “developer” and “designer” in particular get tossed around casually, and while their meaning is a lot more specific inside the industry than most people outside the industry realize, there’s still quite a lot of slush in how they’re used in practice.

Developer is sometimes used to generically mean anyone working directly on the creation of a game – designer, engineer, producer, artist, sound engineer, etc. Just to confuse things, sometimes it is also used as a synonym for programmer.

Engineer is probably the most common title most programmers hold as far as your job letter goes, though other variants exist – architect, programmer, coder.

Designer and Producer are even slippier. In smaller companies, or especially back earlier in the history of the industry, the titles were often interchangeable, or defined differently on a project by project basis. In modern usage, “producer” usually translates to either project manager, account manager, or general manager. Contrarily, “designer” implies generation of data based on the constraints and tools provided by the project’s engineers.

(And, just to make your head spin even more, all of these have countless gradations from associate, junior, senior, director, gameplay, systems, architect, assistant – and the exact authority, pay grade, and responsibility is by no means a clearly defined matter across the industry.)

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The broad development roles are:

  • Art
  • Engineering
  • Design
  • Audio
  • Production
  • Quality Assurance
  • Marketing
  • Community Management
  • Customer Service
  • …and others I am forgetting

Within each of these lie numerous sub-disciplines. Depending on the type of video game being developed, not all of these roles will be necessary. In smaller projects, developers are more likely to wear multiple hats, whereas on larger projects the specializations can become even more discrete.

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For example:

  • Art
    • Character Modeling (modeling the heroes, villains, NPCs, etc.)
    • Rigging (giving the characters bones for the animators to animate)
    • Animation (making characters move)
    • Environment Modeling (cliffs, buildings, sidewalks, cars, tables, etc.)
    • 2D (hand drawn concept art, icons)
    • User Interface
  • Engineering
    • Gameplay
    • AI (Artificial Intelligence)
    • UI (User Interface)
    • Internal Tools
    • Server Architecture
    • Client Architecture
    • Platform
    • Database
  • Design
    • Systems
      • Combat / Moment-to-Moment / Powers Design
      • Systems Design
      • Player Investment
    • Content
      • Mission / Quest / Content Design
      • Level Design
      • Writer / Narrative Design / Story
    • Itemization (sometimes placed under Systems, sometimes Content)
    • Achievements (sometimes placed under Systems, sometimes Content)
    • User Experience
    • Technical
  • Production
    • External Relationships (dealing with licensing interactions such as Marvel, or outsourcing providers)
    • Build Management
    • Internal Process (making sure that the eighteen-jillion steps something has to go through to reach the final build happen)

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Some of these sub-disciplines are fuzzy, and don’t have dedicated people on them or have varying roles depending on the company or even project. For example, the distinction between Mission Designer and Narrative Designer can be very debatable on some teams, and a particular designer may jump between Itemization, Systems Design, and Mission Design all on the same project. On the other hand, other sub-disciplines such as Level Design are much more specialized.

Depending on the project and the role there will be more or less position available, and this, combined with skills (or claimed skills) means that some roles on a project are much easier or much harder to get onto. Dedicated writing positions are a good example of this – only the largest RPGs tend to have more than one – if even that – dedicated writer, such that on many projects if you are not a published writer your chances of landing one of these positions is vanishingly small.

For Engineering, a Computer Science degree is pretty much a must. At a junior level engineers are rarely expected to have specializations, but by the time an engineer has reached the senior level it is likely they will have specialized in one or more sub-disciplines.

For Art, school is much less important, but you categorically must have a portfolio, and an awesome one at that. As with dedicated writers in design departments, 2D art positions tends to have a lot more people applying for relatively few spots. Unless you are impassioned by 2D specifically, 3D is a much more in demand, albeit technical, career path. Photoshop and Illustrator are pretty much assumed for almost any art position, and for 3D, familiarity with and proficiency with Maya, 3D Studio Max, Zbrush are among the tool sets you should target. Fortunately, most of these can be acquired relatively easily with student or non-commercial licenses, and most are as well taught in numerous academic courses.

For Design, you can sometimes get a leg up from taking the various design programs; they weren’t around when I was starting, and have since then gone from being an awkward joke to actually being pretty good in a lot of cases. In my experience most designers coming into the industry still do not come from the various design programs, but a significant chunk do. Even so, what the hiring manager will look most closely at is not what school or program you were in, but what you did there as a project.

Other routes into Design include starting in QA or Customer Service, or, sometimes simply being that rare individual who is both a fan of the particular game they are applying to and having the ability to think abstractly and innovatively about that hard-to-pin-down thing called “fun”.

Whether you are an engineer, artist, or designer, if you at all can, find a game, or use Unreal, or Unity, or anything else that has the ability to create a game experience or mod and make something. Preferably several somethings. Release it. Iterate on it. Support it. Talk about it. Figure out what you did wrong the first time and either fix it or make it work better the next time around. Doing this well is probably the single best thing you can do to break into video game development in a professional capacity.

For Production, routes in are much like Design, but the design program part is obviously less important, and Customer Service is probably somewhat more likely a route than QA (whereas with Design, the reverse is true, though I have seen exceptions for both).

Quality Assurance or Customer Service are, in the game industry, usually entry-level positions. Both studios and publishers will usually maintain QA groups. Some studios (such as Gazillion) are also their own publishers. Getting into a studio QA group is generally better in the long-run if you want to get into Design, but you can also leverage experience in a publisher QA group (e.g., Sony, Capcom) to parlay yourself into something closer to the action – this is, in fact, exactly what I did. (Most publishers as well maintain their own studios in addition to any third party studios they work with).

Note, as well, that the video game industry uses the term “Quality Assurance” where most of the computer industry would use “Test”. What most of the computer industry refers to as “Quality Assurance” is only sporadically present as a separate entity in the video game industry in the form of “Subjective Testing” or “Design Support” teams.

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It is also very important to recognize that the type of game matters a lot. Studios generally make games within a particular type – mobile, console, MMORPG, ARPG, exploration, FPS, etc.

As a general rule, play the kinds games you want to develop. If you don’t play MMORPGs, don’t expect to easily get a job at a studio focusing on MMORPGs.

Studios – even departments within the same studio – may weigh differently such factors as how much of a fan you are for a particular game, a particular genre, communication skills, etc. It can be a bit of a crapshoot, so keep trying. Some studios won’t even look at you unless you’re a dedicated fan of their particular game, others are more interested in your industry experience (if any), while others focus more on your paper design skills.

One concern many people have about working in the game industry is stories of substandard working condition.

Personally, I have found this varies a great deal depending on the studio in question. In general, poor working conditions seems to have been much more of a problem in the past than it is today.

It’s true, I have my own share of 20 hour a day workday stories, one particular run of which landed me in the ER with viral pneumonia. Not fun.

That being said, as the years have gone by, and exposes like the famous EA Spouse incident have arisen, and, frankly, as the average age of game developers has risen and more people have gotten married, had kids, and so on, the industry has eased up considerably as a whole. The ability to patch has also probably contributed a lot to easing the infamous pressure on the Goldmaster cut.

When I started, death marches lasting months or even more than a year were not uncommon. These days, periods of overtime are rarer, and when they do occur more often closer to a few weeks, and instead of being 20+ hours a day are more like 10-14 hours a day.

Obviously, this still varies a lot depending on the studio, the game you’re working on, and the financial straits of all involved. Abusive overwork does sometimes happen, but is much rarer.

On the plus side, game studios have some benefits that are very nice indeed, including relatively flexible hours for most disciplines, casual work environments, and probably most importantly of all, getting to work on something you can be passionate about.

As with any industry, there is definitely room for improvement, but I think the general trajectory has been positive. If you have the passion, it is definitely within the realm of reason to break into.

Gates of Ivory, Gates of Horn

I cannot even breath for drowning
In the cloying irony here
That is all that is left behind
Of that which passed through ivory gates

My murder bides mutely upon
White walls of callous concrete truth
Still against the hour of my troth
That paroled hope to there unwished

But if those lies march boldly forth
Through ivory gates that gleam like bone
Then girded thus with flights of horn
Comes black murder out of the grey

So comfort me as is your right
Acquitted not to me but paid
Tomorrow as your potter’s price
For when you hear the sound of wings

Turn Away


Verse 1
E|--------------------------------------
B|--------------------------------------
G|--------------------------------------
D|--------------------------------------
A|-----5--3--------------------------2--
E|--7--------5--3--3--2--2--3--2--0-----

Why do you stare at me as if I’d done some wrong?

Verse 2
E|-----------------------------------------------------------
B|-----------------------------------------------------------
G|-----------------------------------------------------------
D|-----------------------------------------------------------
A|--0--------------5--5--3--3-----------------------------2--
E|-----3--5--7--7--------------5--5--3--3--2--2--3--2--0-----

So turn, turn, turn and see that nothing I’ve done here is your failure or your fault

Verse 3
E|-----------------------------------------------------------
B|-----------------------------------------------------------
G|-----------------------------------------------------------
D|-----------------------------------------------------------
A|--0--------------5--5--3--3-----------------------------2--
E|-----3--5--7--7--------------5--5--3--3--2--2--3--2--0-----

So turn, turn, turn to me and forgive me for leaving you here all on your own

Verse 4
E|-----------------------------------------------------------
B|-----------------------------------------------------------
G|-----------------------------------------------------------
D|-----------------------------------------------------------
A|--0--------------5--5--3--3-----------------------------2--
E|-----3--5--7--7--------------5--5--3--3--2--2--3--2--0-----

So turn, turn, turn ahead and don’t look back and leave me here to die on my own

Verse 4
E|-----------------------------------------------------------
B|-----------------------------------------------------------
G|-----------------------------------------------------------
D|-----------------------------------------------------------
A|--0--------------5--5--3--3-----------------------------2--
E|-----3--5--7--7--------------5--5--3--3--2--2--3--2--0-----

So turn, turn, turn aside from the pain and futile regret I have left you with

Verse 6
E|--------------------------
B|--------------------------
G|--------------------------
D|--------------------------
A|--2-----------------------
E|-----3--5--3--3--2--2--0--

So turn, turn, turn away and live.