TRIBES 2 Universe Interview with Blake Hutchins

Tribes2Players recently conducted this exclusive in-depth interview with Blake Hutchins, TRIBES 2 writer! He took time from his tremendously busy work week over the course of many weeks to vividly answer our questions (You da man Blake!). Check out the nitty-gritty on what he does and see how its a crucial pillar in making this awesome game!

T2P: How long have you been working at Dynamix, and what led you to your current profession?

Blake: I've been at Dynamix for over two and a half years now. Prior to coming here, I practiced as a criminal defense lawyer for a couple of years, and before I went to law school, I'd been a public school teacher. I'd always been writing on my own, and I've wanted to be a writer since I was a child. Unfortunately, I never took myself seriously, so I kept going into "respectable" professions. *laugh* Anyway, when I heard from a friend at Dynamix that the company needed someone to flesh out the backstory for this game called Starsiege, I sent in a portfolio. The Starsiege guys liked my stuff, obviously, and I did a few stories by contract. When those turned out to be well-received, I offered my services full-time. Aside from the dream job aspect, I wanted to move back to Eugene, where Dynamix is located and where I'd gone to law school. Dynamix made me an offer, and the rest is history, clichéd as that sounds.                           

I feel very fortunate to be here. Many, if not most, writers don't get paid much for writing, much less enough to earn a living. I have a lot to learn yet, and I still think of myself as a novice who is learning the craft of storytelling. The response of the fans to my work has been incredible, and I wish I could express how much I appreciate the support and the feedback. Sometimes I have to quell the urge to look over my shoulder to see whether there's a real writer standing behind me who should be taking the credit.

I mentioned that I didn't take myself seriously as a writer. It's easy to become discouraged. Writing can be a pretty solitary act, and it takes a lot of work. I've read a lot of how-to books, worked hard both reading and writing, and I'm a member of an awesome writing group here in Eugene. I'm not nearly where I want to be in terms of skill. Anyone who's ever tried to write a story has felt the same lack of adequacy at some point. Don't give up! If anyone has a dream of becoming a professional writer, the best advice I can give is: Just do it, and keep doing it day in and day out. I know that doesn't sound like much, but it's really THE secret, if there is any secret to this business. Do it because you love it, not for the money. You may be surprised at the opportunities that open up.

T2P: What have the needs and objectives been in constructing the TRIBES 2 universe?

Blake: The overall goal has been to create a well-defined fictional setting in which we can stage our games. Initially, Dynamix envisioned using the TRIBES and Starsiege Universes for games, fiction, possibly even toys and movies (I'd love a Blood Eagle action figure!). In computer games and roleplaying, players want to be heroic, so we want to craft an compelling background and epic storyline that draws players in and gets them involved as heroes. To be immersive and dramatically credible, we're shooting for original content and internal consistency.

In terms of needs, we're a multiplayer team game, so the setting should appeal to and have room for a lot of different tribes. The rivalries and alliances of real-life player groups and the political complications of the fictional tribes should keep the pot boiling and support compelling stories. Since combat is the focal point of the game, there should be a great conflict looming in the background. All standard ingredients for a good fictional game setting.

Plus the Universe has to be a living thing, dynamic enough for the storyline to evolve in exciting directions.

At the same time, we stay pretty cautious about locking down certain aspects. Some areas may have potential for future games, and some existing game elements just can't be explained without getting ridiculous or drastically warping the Universe setting. Space combat, for example, is something we've kept vague because we don't want to foreclose the possibility, however remote it may be, of a TRIBES space sim down the line. When we make the decision to lock down the look, feel, and rules of space combat, we want to be sure we won't need a massive revision to fit with gameplay needs. In an example of the other category, we don't bother to try to explain respawning in terms of the Universe. Any rationalization of respawning, from cloning to time travel to instant nano-regeneration, would have a profound effect on the "rules" of TRIBES technology and social culture, enough to distort it completely from what it is now.

The most important objective? Make it FUN!

T2P:Your job involves construction of a technical universe that is intertwined with the historical, political, and cultural universe. The game designer handles weapon and vehicle invention and play balance. The art director handles drawing, model, and texture design. Both of those areas are integral parts of the technical backstory.

Do you provide input into the process of what they do, or do they finish everything and then give it to you to incorporate/justify technically through writing? In other words, what is the pecking order of who does what at what point? Do design, artistic, or story-oriented goals take priority when things overlap, like with the technical universe?

Blake: Gameplay is King, baby. Technical or gameplay issues dominate our priorities. You can have one of the most engrossing stories ever written in your game, but if the game isn't fun, it hits the market like a bowling ball dropped in the deep end of the pool. Bloop! Straight to the bottom. Consequently, story-oriented goals always take second place to gameplay design priorities. In some game types, like RPGs, story effectively becomes an element of the gameplay and thus becomes a lot more important, but even then, the basic game has to be fun or people won't play through the story. Most people play TRIBES as a sport rather than a story or milieu-driven game. That said, there's a ton more backstory in TRIBES 2, an evolution of the setup from TRIBES 1.

I contribute ideas to design and art, but mostly I try to champion consistency with the fictional setting wherever feasible. The art guys have their vision, the programmers and designers have theirs, and I have mine. There's a give and take, but I always have to keep the big picture in mind: Gameplay is King. It's not a bleak picture, mind you. A number of the artists drop by to get some ideas or bounce their thoughts off me. They want to mesh the art with the background wherever possible, and I love working with them. The programmers have touched base with me, too, though our tasks really don't intersect much.

T2P: What has been the greatest challenge in your work with TRIBES 2?

Blake: LOL Tough question. Probably in shaping a Universe that continues to revolve around powered armor combat while including enough detail about the non-military side of things to support compelling adventure stories of clashing cultures and political intrigue. Everything that's "off the screen" has been my responsibility - though I really want to plug the inspiration and assistance provided by the roleplaying community that grew up around TRIBES. They've absolutely had an enormous impact on the shape of what I call the metaplot and in fleshing out the details of the setting. I owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for their continuing expansion and development of the Universe and storyline. Check out www.tribesroleplayers.com to get a look at the cool material these folks produce. It just totally blows me away.

The bottom line thus far has been that the story and the game moved in different directions in TRIBES 1. With TRIBES 2, the backstory still won't play a great part of actual gameplay, but there's a lot more of it present in the background. The story web, for example, has a dozen or so characters moving through various subplots, and getting them all to weave together the way I envision is definitely a challenge.

On the other hand, I'm also responsible for spearheading creation of the sound effects and the pre-recorded voice files in the game, as well as writing all the lines for the voice binds and the single player game. That's a lot of work, and it all brings its own challenges. For example, we went with a studio in Los Angeles to do sound effects. Great folks who've done a fantastic job. They did the SFX work on Blade, Total Recall, and Robocop, to name a few, so the audio environment of T2 will be vastly more immersive than in T1. Still, with all the crunch on our end, communicating to the studio took a lot of time and effort. The result has been totally worth it, though.

On reflection, though, I'd have to say the biggest challenge has been to put in the heavy hours this summer while I have a baby girl at home. That definitely qualifies as the toughest part of this job right now, without a doubt. Fortunately, my wife's been awesomely patient and supportive.

T2P: (Long question--*brace yourself*) The structure diversity and possibility of story building has changed with modern media. Dating back to the era of Sumer, story building has been a linear process that follows sequential space in physical media like scrolls and books. Now, with hypertext crosslinks that can be an integral part of text with no regard for physical space, the craft of writing and experiencing that writing has changed in just the past five years.

Whereas a game in the early 90s might have had separate self-contained backstories for each race without much cross-content integration, for TRIBES 2 you have in part adopted a system of non-linear 1st and 3rd person narratives that link to each other in an intuitive and exploratory sense to form a cohesive whole. There are many seamless lateral movement paths from one culture and circumstance to the next. (Examples of this are at Tribes2.com). When you go about writing for this 3rd structural dimension, how does it compare to writing a standard linear work of fiction?

Blake: Wow. What a lead-in. *laugh*

I don't think we're really taking full advantage of the non-linear potential. At its essence, this is still a linear story with linear subplots. To achieve a truly new kind of structure, it'd have been better not to have as much continuity for each character, but to produce a mosaic rather than a tapestry. By "mosaic," I mean not following particular characters, but starting with a small set and continually adding to that set through the supplementary packets. Ideally, we'd have a much tighter fit between documentary pieces, some of which would be first person journal narratives, others intelligence reports, and others miscellanea like intercepted transmissions. Right now, there's a tendency for the links to come up via a mention of a keyword such as "Firetruce." Unfortunately, the mosaic model takes even more planning than a regular story, so due to time and writer bandwidth constraints, what we have is essentially a short novel with a lot of characters and a structure that allows the reader to follow it in a somewhat non-linear way. Of course, each new supplement will follow the previous one chronologically, so you can see the persistent linearity. Next time around, I'd love to experiment more with the mosaic methodology, maybe even working toward alternate endings depending on how the reader navigates through the text.

In the end, it's not terribly different from writing a regular work of fiction, except that I can't rely on the reader following a certain sequence in a particular set, so no "chapter" ends in a way that mandates which chapter must follow. For the same reason, I've left off definite dates and times, because I don't want to prejudice the reader's expectations.

T2P: Are there any plans to provide a system of official classification or status-marking for qualifying works of fan fiction in the Tribes universe? (E.G. a clan could submit its backstory to become a subset of "official" fiction). Lots of people dream of getting their work included in the game or formally recognized by Dynamix.

Maybe the new Tribes2 clan registration system could support a form of displaying a registered clan's backstory with other in-game info?

Blake: No. None whatsoever. It's a cool idea, but unlikely to happen right now. The time required to read, edit, and coordinate story submissions really adds up fast, and those hours represent time not spent making the game. Right now, what player material I use is pretty arbitrary on my part. I read stuff and borrow what I like. I have to police the look and feel of the franchise, which is why I'm a stickler about what becomes "official" and what remains "unofficial."

Right now, I think the in-game web material has character limits that would preclude more than adding links to sites like tribesroleplayers.com and various player sites.

T2P: Do you have any further statements or GOD (Guy Of Dynamix) benedictions that you'd like to add? :-)

Blake: I'm a little uncomfortable with the "GOD" appellation. *laugh* I generally do have something to say (curse of being a lawyer-writer type), so let me end with this: This is a great game, but the outgrowth of interest in the story has been completely unexpected. I can't say what will happen in the future, since the overwhelming majority of our players are in it for the FPS and not the story. Regardless of the numbers, the story-based community members have been vocal and incredibly positive. Their participation has made composing the storyline extremely rewarding for me - especially given all the nifty ideas and original contributions they make.

Finally, I'd like to thank all the people who followed Starsiege as well as all the folks who support TRIBES. I've learned a lot from you all, especially the Sons of Thunder and the TRIBES RP regulars. You guys are awesome, and I enjoy the collaborative effort you've brought to shaping the TRIBES Universe. I hope the story continues to meet your high standards as we go forward. THANKS!

T2P: Thanks for doing this interview Blake!

Blake: Thank you!

Editors note: I'd like to extend my personal thanks to Blake for doing this amid the intense organized chaos of finishing TRIBES 2. He put up with me chasing him down over the course of two months and the obvious investment he made in this is really appreciated. -Sparkplug

Post responses to this interview in this thread on our Fan Fiction forum. Or you can E-mail Sparkplug and it may be featured (with your address) in a future update.


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