As those of you familiar with this blog know, my day job consists of designing video games and writing their story. The bulk of my company’s work is to develop games with other people’s brands (or Intellectual Property (IP) as we call it).
Chief among our clients are TV shows, closely followed by toys. I have personally worked on projects for Nickelodeon (SpongeBob, iCarly, Wonderpets – to name only a few shows I’ve designed game for), Disney Channel (last year’s summer games), MTV, Hasbro (a Transformer game for which they sent me toys!), Mattel (for the Hot Wheels franchise) and probably a few others I can’t seem to remember right now. I have also worked for game publishers who have developed a few games themselves and are now subcontracting the sequels, such as PlayFirst’s Diner Dash and Wedding Dash series.
I’m listing all this so you can fully grasp that I know what it is to work on someone else’s IP. And you can be sure that the someone in question will defend its baby.
So today, I wanted to tackle my writing process when I work a subject. The lack of preposition in this post’s title is not a mistake.
I don’t work on a subject. I don’t work with it.
I. Work. It.
My opinion is that the first mistake one can make when working with someone else’s idea is considering said ideas as constraints, to visualize it as a prison. If I start with that in mind, I can assure you my work will suck. It’ll take twice as long to produce and won’t be half as good. That’s a fact.
Now, if I consider the IP as an interior trampoline, it’s a whole other story.
Know the trampoline
When working someone else’s IP, the first, and the most obvious, step is to research it. I need to know what I’m talking about: what does the IP stand for, who are the characters, what is the tone, where has it been/where is it going story-wise, etc. All these facts define my trampoline. I’m walking it, getting a sense of its limits and bouncing potential.
More importantly, during my research, I am looking for the thing that’ll make me tick. It might not be a dominant aspect of the IP. It might go as far as to be a little known fact. It doesn’t matter. I’m looking for the thing that will grab my passion and throw it into my work. Think of as finding your favorite spot on the trampoline. It can be your favorite for an array of reasons: best bounce, best view, next to that girl/boy…
I need to know where I get to bounce and what will keep me bouncing.
I might not even like trampolines but by searching for my favorite spot I have at least found something that I like about it and, hopefully, it’ll be enough to keep my heart in the project.
Know the Gym Monitors
Discovering my playground is step one of working my subject. Step two is to get to know the safekeepers of the subject in question and the rules they hold dear.
Again, most of this can be discovered through research but some details are going to come up by talking with the client. The way I perceive the IP is from the point of view of an outsider. Sometimes it’s the same as the insider’s and sometimes, it isn’t. I need to get a sense of how exactly my client defines what works and what doesn’t work for his IP. And he’s not always going to be able to voice it so I need to read between the lines a little.
It’s a bit like learning the safety rules of the interior trampoline. If you misbehave, the gym monitors will scold you. If you misbehave too much, they might take you off the trampoline.
I need to know what are the rules of my bouncing around and how much fun and creativity I’m allowed to have.
I know my trampoline. I know the rules of the gym where my trampoline is. I can now start jumping.
From now on, the process is similar to my normal process. The difference is that I don’t have to find inspiration to push me forward. I already have it! I just have to step on my favorite spot and start bouncing.
The gym monitors might ask me to move around. They might ask me to try jumps I don’t like but I’ll always be able to jump back to my favorite spot to rally before another round.
I am bound to use the trampoline. I am bound to follow its rules but I jump with my own muscles and my own creativity. So somehow, I work the trampoline. I own it for as long as I have to jump.
In a nutshell, you have to learn to know and love the trampoline you have to use. If you jump outside of it, you’ll break your neck. If you do the forbidden backflip, the gym monitors will whistle your ears off. If you barely use your body because you don’t like trampoline, you’ll be bored and every kid will think your jumps are lame.
Working a subject is exactly the same.