EP6 – Screenwriting for Mobile Gaming with Ryan LaPlante


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Geoffrey: All right, welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here, we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry.

Geoffrey: Welcome to the podcast, we have on Ryan LaPlante, a fantastic screenwriter, and director. Ryan, thanks for being on the show!

Ryan: Thanks for having me!

Geoffrey: We wanted to bring you on because we were looking for an expert on a pretty cool field of writing: interactive content and mobile gaming, and I know that’s something you have a lot of experience in.

Ryan: Yeah, I’ve done both! So, to give the rough origin story of Ryan LaPlante, I’ve done screenwriting for a long time and I got hired by an interactive fiction company. That’s not really a term, but “Choose Your Own Adventure” is technically trademarked, so no one else produces Choose Your Own Adventure stories. [The company I worked for] does CYOE: Choose Your Own Ending, which is vaguely used because I don’t think anybody trademarked that. For example, Bandersnatch got sued because they referenced “Choose Your Own Adventure” by the CYOA book company.

Geoffrey: I had no idea, wow.

Ryan: So interactive fiction is the term. So I got hired for a mobile app that did interactive fiction stories, along with some visual content, but it was very much like a screenplay format. I ended up spending nine months to almost a year functioning as their head writer. I had written 17 different games of varying lengths; from stuff, you might play through in five minutes to some which were like four to six hours. The rough script length would go from 5,000 to 10,000 words, up to our longest one, which was 540,000 words, if you were to read every option of every script. That’s within 5,000 words of War and Peace.

Geoffrey: Oh my god!

Ryan: I will also give a shoutout, for a lot of our big stuff, I did write with Tom McGee who is a really great playwright, screenwriter, theatre person, all-around creative; and I also wrote with Brandon Hackett, who is an amazing sketch comedian, improviser, and writer as well. They were the core team along with the other people that we worked with. Way too many names. But I did that for about a year and I learned a lot because I was doing a lot of research into game development conferences, monetization, and how the audience interacted with the games. We were really playing around with the technical aspects as well as the narrative aspects. After that, I shifted into publishing with a site called Wattpad, which is YouTube for writers. That’s the simplest pitch [for Wattpad], they don’t use it, but they should. I think they tried not to have their brand based around the name “YouTube.” It’s quite good, they do a lot of online mobile publishing. I know a lot about the users, I know a lot about how people are engaging with interactive fiction or just with any sort of mobile fiction. I studied competitors as well as what we were doing the whole way through.

Geoffrey: Ryan is an alumni staff writer from WeFixYourScript.com where he teaches seminars for us at Script Summit. One of the reasons why I wanted to bring you on the show, it’s not just the fact that you’ve broken into this really cool subgenre of writing, it’s also because I like to present alternatives of where your writing career can go from screenwriting. I think interactive content is one [alternative], I think YouTube is another that is really starting to grow and build. When I first met Ryan, it was at a festival, an indie gathering type international film festival, which was fantastic. He struck me with how fearless he is in his writing and that really hit me. Because a lot of writers will write a big-budget film and then they hold themselves back, but Ryan refuses to do that. I respect that about you, and I find it inspiring. I think that’s what has led you into this career to break into new boundaries. Having that character trait can really pay off.

Ryan: Yeah, I will say that the way I got hired for this was a friend messaged me by text a four and said, “Can I meet you for a drink in two hours?” And I said, “What is this about?” Because he was like, “There’s a gig at six,” and I said, “Sure.” So I went to the bar and he said, “Hey, there’s this division that is desperately writing video games and they want to take one big swing. Nobody knows what they’re doing, can you start at 8 a.m. tomorrow?” And I just said, “Yes!”

Geoffrey: That’s what I’m talking about. If you were timid or worried, well for one you wouldn’t have met the guy in the bar at that time and hopefully not have ended up in a van with no windows. Let alone walk away with a gig. [Fearlessness] is such an important strength. I remember we talked about this interactive content before and you were telling me that it’s not like screenwriting where there is a set formula of how you do it. It feels like the interactive content, the way of writing it, is still very fluid. Is that accurate?

Ryan: Yeah, this is not a clearly defined field in a lot of ways. There are structures that people are really attached to. If you want to look at the best interactive fiction, theoretically, that is out there, it is almost all in the videogame world. So, if you’re not a gamer, you won’t have seen it. And you can really tell when you look at the Netflix interactive specials, because they are 20 years behind a lot of videogames of now. [Those specials] are like, “What if it’s a CYOA where none of the story adds up, but it’s fun?” Even Kimmy Schmidt’s special was like, “Here’s a joke. You picked the wrong joke! Bad! Go back! Pick the story we wrote!” This is not what we wanted.

Even some companies have branched out, like Assassins Creed and Odyssey, the one that’s set in the Sparta version. It’s really funny because I played the game and I was like, “Ooh it’s interactive now!” The game says, “Which side do you choose? First you start with Sparta, okay! Now you’re going to switch sides no matter what choice you make, narratively. And now you’re going to switch back and change your mind because you were betrayed, no matter what you thought. Alright cool, that was interactive!” What are you doing?

Interactive fiction, because it is such a creative and expansive field, there isn’t even a lot of shared language that is agreed upon. Each company is going to create their own individual coding languages, their own individual terms, and have their own writing staff. So, it hasn’t quite gelled in the way where every story has a three-act structure. We have a lot of shared dialogue terms that don’t exist in interactive fiction, currently, in the public sphere. I’m sure UB Soft has their own terms, I’m sure a lot of the companies have their own internal terminology, but they haven’t been made super public, yet.

Geoffrey: I think you said you created a couple of systems.

Ryan: Yeah, we had gone through enough iterating and creation that we came up with our own internal terms to use for things that were based on things that were out there and were kind of simplified. And then we came up with narrative rules and principles for making satisfying interactive fiction for audiences.

Geoffrey: That’s some groundbreaking stuff right there, to just sit down and say, “I’m going to create a system of structure!” It’s impressive! For screenwriters who are interested in turning their work into interactive content, how would they know if it’s fit for that? How would they know that the concept or story they have is right for interactive media?

Ryan: I think, when you’re looking at creating an interactive story, adapting might be hard but possible, creating is also difficult. There are two things I would ask, which is (for an adaptation) is there more than one ending that is equally interesting? Because if there’s only one really good ending, you don’t want to have just one really good ending to an interactive fiction story and then have three mediocre endings. Because users are weird and will go down paths you didn’t expect. I can’t remember the exact number, but roughly less than 10% of users will actually go through your interactive fiction [story], again. Usually, people go through once and they walk away. So if you spend a lot of time investing in repeat people, you’re really investing in way less of the population that you can, and it’s a ton of work.

Geoffrey: Interesting.

Ryan: If you have two really great endings, that’s cool. But if you have one ending, then just do a traditional story. The other thing I would ask is, would people want to put themselves in the shoes of your protagonist? If you’re talking about film, there are two ways to play with the interactive fiction. One is you are the character, so you’re making the choices as the character, which is comparable to the Tell-Tale games: “You are Batman. What does Batman do?” Then you can have the fun of deciding, “Am I Batman or am I Bruce Wayne?” Or it’s the Bandersnatch method, which is you are outside the story and making choices for, arguably, what you want to see happen. I don’t like that.

Geoffrey: They experimented with that in filmmaking, I want to say, back in the sixties. They had some experimental films where you could sit in the audience and vote where the film should go. And I feel that it’s not as personal.

Ryan: I think it makes it an intellectual exercise: “What beat do I, as an audience member, think should happen in this story next?” Oh god, don’t make people choose that, make them feel things. The questions they have to decide because ultimately everything comes down to the choices, are those choices that a person would be interested in making or would struggle to make emotionally? And that is where you can get people. Because it’s “What If?” and if it’s an interesting “What If?” story for someone to be the protagonist instead of watching them, then it’s primo interactive fiction.

Geoffrey: It’s like the old Fallout games, where you had to do that. I played one of the old Fallout games and decided, “I’m going to play a bad guy. I’m going to go against my morals and play as a bad guy.” I got to this one part where they had captured kids and they were holding them in cages, and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to destroy everyone in this camp and free these kids.” Because I was at a point where I was thinking, “I can’t. You’ve got kids in cages, guys, I’m going to have to destroy this whole town now and free these kids. I’m sorry.”

Ryan: Yeah, or you can trap people with it. We did a horror title called Daughter of the Night, I think it’s still up; but it was great because horror wise, I was like, “I’m just going to force you into a lose-lose situation.” The rough plot of the game, because it’s always about “what ifs” and we knew we wanted to do vampires and horror, you are a young woman who is about to propose to her fiancé. You go to this bar, he meets you, you’re about to propose and he says, “we can’t do this, we need to break up.” Then two vampires attack you and it turns out your fiancé is a vampire. You have to join his vampire family and pass tests to become immortal. You then go through a series of worse and worse horror challenges that you have to decide, and if you choose not to do it, you just get murdered. It was also a lot of fun to set up a bunch of different murders, because there are certain options where you can do the right thing, but it gives you less political sway. You can do a gross thing and definitely win, but then your fiancé might not like you anymore. Then we had to write a couple of different endings at the end. Some of the fun of that challenge includes, “what do you want to see as the end to this vampire journey?” That includes: “Okay, you die.”

“Okay, you kill all the vampire, but you also kill your fiancé.”

“Okay, you become a vampire. You’re a successful monster who now rules the clan, but your fiancé hates you because you’re a monster and he leaves you.”

“You save him, you defeat everybody, but you turn into a giant goop monster and he leaves you. So you’re like a Dorian Gray painting monster left in the basement, having done the right thing, but you’ll never escape.”

We wanted to deal with those types of purest principles, so it was so much fun.

Geoffrey: Hearing it from an interactive content mindset, it sounds like a lot of fun to write. It’s like, “How do I come up with these crazy increasingly difficult circumstances with really satisfying endings?” It’s an opportunity to mess with people, I can see a lot of evil geniuses sitting down to write this stuff.

Ryan: It’s a lot of fun. It’s also incredibly technical, but it is a lot of fun.

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Geoffrey: I have no doubt. Did the mobile gaming company you work for have a lot of creative control? Or were you able to go through and make the story you wanted to make?

Ryan: Story wise, we got to go through and create the story we wanted to make. I would check in on titles, because there are weird questions you have to ask like, “How sexy do we want to be if we’re writing a sexy game? Or how violent?” At one point I think we had the Tap scale of sexiness, which ranged from Care Bears to Riverdale to Terminator, because we’re all old. Terminator will have a sex scene that’s justified, because it’ll have nudity but it’s not about sex. Then the scale goes from 50 Shades of Grey to porn. We settled on Terminator.

Geoffrey: There you go! I would have never even considered that.

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Geoffrey: Did you have to deal with demographics a lot, or consider who you were writing for?

Ryan: Yeah, we actually did a bunch of user testing. We’d write the first third of the game, then they’d bring people in to play it, we’d watch them play through it live, and talk with them while they were reading/making the choices and watch how they would react. We’d also track as much data we could on the choices players were making and the choices people were willing to pay to make, which was interesting.

Geoffrey: That’s very interesting.

Ryan: People really like picking outfit, which is weird. We had an outfit quota where they were like, “You need to include at least one outfit choice that is monetized in every chapter of the game.”

Geoffrey: That’s like free money.

Ryan: It’s like the cosmetic business model, which is true to a lot of the mobile games, where they want people to buy coins and use them for things. There’s one game where you’re going on a reality TV series with your figure-skating partner who’s hot but kind of a d****bag, and you meet a guy you had a crush on in high school, but he’s back and he’s an NHL player whose super built, super nice, and smoking hot. Day one [in the game] you have to do this polar challenge, where you have to jump into cold water because it’s all winter themed. This was the game that had the most technical requirements from the governing body. It plays out like, “So you’re there. You can either have a super-hot bikini that everyone will look amazing in, or you can have a ratty one-piece with a hole in the butt! Give us five coins to get the sexy bikini or you’ll have the one-piece with a hole in the butt.” That was the only game where they were like, “let’s see what happens if we’re a bit predatory.”

Geoffrey: Oh my goodness. So customizing a character is obviously important in interactive content, which I didn’t even realize. But now that I think about it, any online videogame that I’ve played, I always make the character bald and bearded like me.

Ryan: It’s also personalization. It’s just the ways people can feel that they’ve chosen something about the character that makes the character theirs.

Geoffrey: That’s a great note for anybody listening. Personalization.

Ryan: I think a lot of screenplays suffer from a hollow protagonist, who exists to go through the story and have whatever happen to them. With interactive fiction, you kind of want to start with a hollow protagonist. Not that they don’t have a backstory or things that will influence choices, because you don’t want to open it up so wide that people don’t know what the character is supposed to do. Tell-Tale games are honestly probably the best example of interactive fiction. Their Batman game is super well-structured because it introduces Bruce Wayne/Batman and his guiding principles vaguely and then you make decisions moving forwards. They also did The Wolf Among Us, which is based on Fable, which I was not aware was a comic book. With that, you start as a sheriff who’s the big bad wolf, and I couldn’t tell if I was supposed to be a bad person or a good person. It was too broad.

Whereas, if you start with hollow protagonists and let people make a couple of choices, they decide where the protagonist stands. Personalization choices, to put it brutally, are superficial: “You meet your boss, they fire you. Are you polite on your way out? Do you take it and say nothing? Do you say a snarky thing? Are you really mad at them or are you smart and get out of the room with a reference letter?” And if that’s the first choice you give people, they’ll choose one and that’ll say a huge amount to them about their protagonist.

Geoffrey: So basically, you’re allowing the person whose playing the game and experiencing the story to choose the moral compass of the character. “Am I the guy that’s sassy or am I the guy that just wants to keep his job and get a reference letter?” You provide them with the moral value of the character.

Ryan: And on an ongoing basis, as long as you give those options, it’s not something you have to steer people towards when it comes to the choices. Every time there’s going to be the smart response that’ll get you through the situation, there’ll be something funny, and there’ll be something kind of rude. Just always give those three in the same order, and people will play the entire game as a funny person, a smart person, or an angry person. And because [the player] wants the story to make sense for their character, if they’ve been pretty rude to someone previously, they’ll be rude to them the next time. You don’t have to track that whole continuity, necessarily. In one game, we actually had them fill out a psychological test about themselves to apply for online jobs. None of those answers actually carried through the rest of the game.

Geoffrey: It would just help inform it.

Ryan: It would help choose an emotional state and then they would lock in their characters for themselves and then make choices that matched it. So if they saw the evil lady they’d always either be snarky with her or be mean to her or play it smart, and the dialogue almost always makes sense for them. People don’t go into these, unless it’s Black Mirror, where they’re trying to break the game. They want you to tell a good story.

Geoffrey: That’s so interesting! I really like the idea of starting a game with a psychological evaluation. It informs you of how you’ll be playing that character.

Ryan: I will tell you that it user-tested very poorly. They didn’t like that section of the game, but they loved the actual game.

Geoffrey: So they didn’t like know the person they are, at least in that moment.

Ryan: It was an interesting idea. The objection to it was it wasn’t terribly exciting, which came back to it not being a good “What If?” What if your character filled out an online quiz and you were them? Who the hell wants to do this? We played with principles of film and they didn’t like it. It was fascinating to see with younger folks because we were focused on 18-24-year-olds. So we opened a rom-com with [your character] getting fired, your mom’s sick, and you need to apply for a job but all the jobs are terrible. We actually had a large number of users say, “Why did I get fired?” They took it so personally, “I don’t want to get fired! I don’t want to look for a job that sucks! And my mom’s sick?!” They bought in so hard.

Geoffrey: That’s awesome!

Ryan: We also discovered something that the company hadn’t thought of, that I’d lean into really heavily, which is people will either pay to see a funny thing or to be funny. It all came down to, and I really fought to keep it in the user test, this situation where you get fired then go out into the rain to buy a hotdog with your last dollar and then a mugger shows up who demands all your money. Your options are to say something snarky and still get robbed, give him the money, or the third option was to make a hotdog wallet. I told them to put a coin price next to [the hotdog wallet], and that’s all it says. “Do we need to explain it?” No, I told them don’t explain it. It’s a funny idea and we put it in. Then every single person bought a hotdog wallet, and the result was that you take your wallet out and you just fill it with mustard and ketchup, then you give it to the mugger, and it ruins his gloves. Then he gets mad and leaves. People loved it! They loved hotdog wallet. People loved getting to say the witty retort to the high school bully. It’s a lot of fantasy. If you get to click the Robert Downey Jr. answer and be Iron Man, “Yes, I would very much like to be that person in real life. Please let me do that in fiction.”

Geoffrey: Fantastic, that’s brilliant! So you got your break-in to interactive content through networking, which we’ve talked about several times on this show. I’m a big proponent of it.

Ryan: It’s the only way you’re going to get work.

Geoffrey: Are there conferences or places to go where writers can make that connection with people?

Ryan: Yes. For me, festivals have been the most successful way to do that, for two-fold reasons. A lot of people think that the work is going to come from the festival, and that is not true. Dear god, don’t go to a festival and talk to every producer and director. I say this as a producer and director. I did it, people hate it. I stopped doing it because I stopped being stupid.

Geoffrey: We all had to learn.

Ryan: Right now, we’re in the era of the writer-director. In low budget, medium budget, even high budget films, the directors are also writing or rewriting the scripts for themselves. Going to festivals and being there and winning awards; it doesn’t matter how big the festival is, everybody thinks that’s going to matter.

Geoffrey: They’d rather have the top ten.

Ryan: They’re worth entering if you’re there. Honestly, for your first few years of

screenwriting, save the exorbitant fees and spend it at low-level or mid-tier festivals that you can attend. If you can’t attend, it’s not going to help. If you can attend, the important thing is social media. I hate social media, anyone who follows me on twitter knows I only post for a week, then I’m gone for six months. It’s because I just post when I’m at festivals. It’s the promotion of what’s going on and staying positive. The reason I got the job is because my friend knew I was writing and knew I had enough festival success that he could turn around and pitch that to the company he was working at and show them that I’d won these awards and been at these festivals. Were any of those top ten? Hell no. Were they low to mid-tier, abso-frickin-lutely. That was the selling point. A lot of the times, people in videogames and other organizations need a writer, and the gigs you get when you’re starting out are always going to be, “I need a writer tomorrow for not enough money, or a little bit of money, and I need them right away. Cool, you’ve won five awards, you were at these festivals, let’s go!” They don’t know the awards or the festivals, but they just need someone fast. Being able to book those gigs is how you will build a rep.

Geoffrey: I think submitting to these festivals that you’re going to attend, it’s good because it carries a little bit of weight. It may just be nickels, but that’s fine. It’s still an award, and if you win, great! It’s a measure of where you compare overall with your peers. That’s all it is. It looks good on a resume, sure, but there are people who don’t submit to the lower festivals. I say you’re shooting yourself in the foot because you’re not networking and you’re not getting [your work] out there. It’s like you said, a win is still a win. Whether that festival is able to help you find a manager, like Script Summit can, or not, it still holds a little bit of weight. I think it’s definitely worth it.

Ryan: I don’t submit to those festivals because I think those festivals are going to get me things. I submit to those festivals so I can go and talk to other professionals and build a network. That’s the win at a festival.

Geoffrey: Absolutely. You’re not going there to sell the script of your winning screenplay. You’re going there to say, “I’m a finalist.” “I’m an award winner.” “This is the level that I’m at.” That carries some kind of value to somebody. That’s how I’ve landed gigs. I’ve gotten gigs from people I’ve networked with who saw these awards and read scripts I’ve done and said, “Okay, you actually know how to write.”

Ryan: Be nice, be smart, be talented, and most importantly be tactful. You cannot be rude to people. You need to be the person they want in their corner to tell their story. That’s a large part of screenwriting.

Geoffrey: I love it when a producer tells me exactly what they want, even if it’s a narrow choice, I love the challenge of how to make that fit in the story.

Ryan: I got hired at one point to write a script where they had an entire script written, which they couldn’t get the budget for, so they wanted me to write a children’s film that used all the same sets and locations.

Geoffrey: That sounds impossible. I love it.

Ryan: So the requirement was it had to include every single element of this film in a brand new film.

Geoffrey: Please tell me this was originally a horror script set in a dark cabin, and they said, “Make this a kid’s film!”

Ryan: If you change “dark cabin” to “underground mine full of monsters,” you are correct.

Geoffrey: Oh my goodness. But you did it. I’m assuming you knocked it out of the park. Right?

Ryan: They were very happy. I wrote a version that was there, and they said, “Nope, we don’t like the whole concept of it. But we want you to keep the whole plot except for this thing that ties the plot together.” And I was like, “Okay!”

Geoffrey: You took that note and you put a ton of work into it.

Ryan: I put in more jokes. People will forgive a plot not making sense if there are jokes.

Geoffrey: Especially if they acknowledge the plot’s not making sense in the script. Is there any other tips or anything that you could recommend for writers looking at potentially branching out into interactive content on mobile gaming?

Ryan: If you want to look at interactive content and mobile gaming, one thing I would actually suggest is the Gamer’s Developing Conference (GDC). They have a subscription version where you can see recordings of every lecture given at every game developer conference. There are three every year, there’s one in San Francisco, Australia, and Hong Kong.

Geoffrey: Can anybody attend or is it invite only?

Ryan: I’ve never actually gone to the event. It’s like Comic-Con, you can just by a pass. But the online stuff is great because you can watch a talk from this specific mobile developer in 2017. You can watch the two people who wrote the Minecraft interactive special for Tell-Tale talk about the difference between narrative design and a game design, and how they went through that process. I found that to be the most educational resource because there are also a ton of free ones on YouTube that you can look up. The term for it in videogames right now is narrative design. Narrative designers are the ones who chose where the story arcs go, how it branches out to create different plots, and how it comes back together. There are a lot of game writers, but writers can just be assigned a scene.

Geoffrey: Like a staff writer.

Ryan: Whereas a narrative writer is like the head writer of the series. They’re the EP. If you can look into narrative design, the weird thing is, I would actually suggest you only watch videos from people who have a serious credit behind them. For me, it’s always about seeing where you want to go and learning from the people who got there.

Geoffrey: I know that you’re podcasting like crazy right now, aren’t you?

Ryan: You are correct. I do five weekly shows and three event shows that are all podcasts in various formats. The company is called Dumb-Dumbs and Dice. If you want to talk about narrative choices and interactive fiction, we’re the place to go! It’s all tabletop RPGs and Tom, who I mentioned, is our dungeon master for a variety of different games. We play Dungeon & Dragons, Vampire the Masquerade, the Star Wars role-playing game, Call of Cthulhu, which is Lovecraft based, we also do one-shot RPGs. We’re launching two more shows and a second D&D show. It is voice-over actors, improvisers, and performers playing RPGs. It’s a fully improvised story on an ongoing basis where we use the dice and the games themselves to essentially prevent us from being flawless improvisors who get everything we want. And we create a fully original story. We’ve got Dumb-Dumbs & Dragons, which is a fantasy story. [We have] Blood and Syrup, which is modern-day Montreal vampire-noir. We’ve got Mythos Mysteries, which is 1930s small-town Cthulhu, it’s like if Stephen King wrote Scooby-Doo in the 1930s. Dumb Scum and Villainy is a crazier version of what we all probably wanted from Solo, which is the wildest improvisors we could find as smugglers in Star Wars. And then there’s a couple other games. All of our stuff is under Dumb-Dumb Dice, which is on Instagram and Facebook. We have a Patreon and we run all our shows out of there.

Geoffrey: It’s a good show.

Ryan: @theryanlaplante, on Twitter. I don’t post a lot, but I try to reply.

Geoffrey: Ryan was on Second City, he is a professional actor and improvisor, like a lot of the guests you have on [your show]. I can say, just by listening to it, it’s legit, they are absolutely hilarious. It’s not just a couple of guys recording a D&D session and hoping for gold. These are pros that know how to take improv and do it in a long form. I definitely suggest you watch it and listen to it.

Ryan: You can watch it on YouTube now. We started doing everything over Zoom and we’re going to keep that going. There’s this really talented guest we had at this one point named Jonah Calhoun.

Geoffrey: Yeah, you guys had on my son, Jonah on your show, he was 10 at the time. He was little. He played Mr. Mittens.

Ryan: Yeah, Mr. Mittens! A cat-person!

Geoffrey: So adorable, it was so fun. Thanks for having him on, by the way.

Ryan: Thank you, too! It was perfect for us.

Geoffrey: He’s 14 now, I got him a Mr. Mittens t-shirt for his birthday, and he thought it was the coolest thing ever. Alright Ryan, real pleasure having you on, thanks a lot!

Ryan: Thanks for having me! Pleasure to be here!

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