Archive for January, 2013

Project Story Outlines 2

Following on from my previous post I present – part 2!

In these story outlines I’ve tried to focus on making the organisation as the main character, by which I mean the organisation is the thing which is changed by events, for better or worse.  It was surprisingly tricky – I’ve never really played around with non-living things as characters before and I found it awkward to put write from that position.  In the end I think they get my point across and I think these are by far the safer options if you’re going to be writing a project story for any kind of official audience.

Option 3
Type – How the organisation has changed
Events – cross-department communication, preliminary work begun, progress made on improving current systems to a point where they could feed into a system in the future.
Message – Change is happening (and more needs to happen) even if there are no concrete results yet.

Scene – Organisational context for project, the need, desired outcomes etc.

Development – Existing issues are uncovered that need to be dealt with first.  Work begins on the fundamental issues in each department.  Chanels of communication are developed slowly between departments.

Crux – change doesn’t happen quickly enough to warrant continuing with the project

Outcome – Some new channels of communication now exist which will facilitate all cross-department project work in the future.

Option 4
Type – Lessons learned
Events – learned things the hard way
Message – Acquired knowledge for the organisation

Scene – Organisational context for project, the need, but also the barriers that exist from the start.

Development – Project vs management structure difficulties are quickly an issue as are communications between departments and interfaces between technical systems.

Crux – Becomes clear that it would be more beneficial to try to resolve some of the fundamental organisational issues first.

Outcome – Project highlighted important weaknesses in organisational attitude towards projects and existing CRM and technical systems.  This will inform future work to streamline processes and systems.

Option 5
Type – Promotion of the outputs
Events – what the outputs will do for the organisation
Message – Something good has/will come out of it

Note: this is the hardest type to do with the scenario I’ve picked and would work better with a project that actually had even relatively successful outputs (what does that say how about how likely I think it will be that projects will be successful? o_O)

Scene – The project – how it failed and what the lessons learned were.

Development – plan for integrating the lessons learned

Crux – the direct affects of this

Outcome – how this will improve the organisation as whole and help going forward.

These outlines I think are more platable that with the PM as the main character, but minimising or ignoring the place of the actual actors has it’s own pitfalls which I’ll have a look at in my next post.

January 31, 2013 at 1:58 pm Leave a comment

Project Story Outlines 1

Following on from the types of message project stories might have from my last post, I’ve decided to work them up into story outlines.  The plan is that I’ll take the same setting for each story and show how they come out differently (assuming that they do).

I’ve decided to go for a four step story structure in each case.
Scene – Introduction to the setting and characters.  Room for foreshadowing
Development – how events and characters developed over time
Crux – the exciting climax
Outcome – epilgoue/resolution.

I’ve also include a note on the events in the story and the specific message of the story (as well as the general message type) to try and highlight how what happens in a story is different to what the story is about.

In this post I’ll just be concentrating on those types with the Project Manager as the main character.  Next post should be the ones with the organisation as main character.

Note: the following setting, project, people and organisation are all completely fictious.  I’ve made an effort to try and make sure it doesn’t reflect any project I’ve ever been a part of, though, as many projects share similar issues, hopefully there should be some aspects that resonate.

Setting
The Townsville Software Co has decided to implement a new Customer Relationship Management System.  Currently account managers manage contact with clients individually on a variety of systems and non-systems.  This project involved a cross-department project team including, marketing, sales, IT, as well as a project manager and officer from the company’s project office.  It was expected that an external system would be bought in, with bespoke modifications as necessary.
At the time the story is submitted, as part of the final report, the project is over deadline, has failed to deliver and the project team has disbanded.

Option 1
Type: Full disclosure – what the PM took away from the project
Events – The so-called project team refused to do anything towards the project.
Message – this team/organisation can’t work together!

Scene – Introducing each of the team members and their hang ups/the roadblocks they bring from the very beginning.  Also all the issues that were just mounding up waiting to happen.

Development – how it starts to go wrong: team members not showing up, not doing what they are asked, deliberately being argumentative and making things difficult.  Also there technical issues, but the focus is on how impossible it was to get anything done.

Crux – Got ridiculously over deadline.  Project meeting with only one project member aside from the PM meant time to call a halt to the project.

Outcome – This team cannot work together – PM gives up!

Option 2
Type: Promotion of the Project Manager
Events – The PM tried to hold it together as long as possible and worked really hard.
Message – The PM is great even in adversity.

Scene – PM does as much as possible to get the project team together (light on the specifics of how they do this apart from sending reminder emails) and starts what bits they can on their own.

Development – PM continues to get no help from team.  They try and try to get team together to no avail.  They start to do what work they can themselves even though it’s not their job.  Technical issues start to appear, but those were outside of the PMs remit.

Crux – PM tried did their best, but they are only one person and couldn’t keep up.

Outcome – PM has proved they are good at what they do so should continue to be put on to challenging projects.

Next post: How the organisation has changed, lessons learned and promotion of the project outputs.

January 27, 2013 at 2:03 pm 2 comments

And the moral of the story is…

Every story needs to be about something.  Not the events that happen, but the purpose behind the story, the reason why the reader should continue and the message they will take away from it. The problem with writing a story about a project, as I’ve mentioned before, is they are generally messier things than you want to admit to bosses or clients.

I had been thinking of the Project Manager or the Project Team as the main characters of a story about a project, but, arguably, the point of a project is to produce the deliverables.  So if the deliverables are what the story is about, then that makes the organisation itself the main character as it is what is going through the change.  Interestingly that probably makes the project manager (and team) the antagonist who is forcing this change…Kind of an anti-villian rather than an anti-hero – an antagonist making the main character change for their own good…

But what is a project story about?  I reckon I’ve thought of a few basic types of reason for a project story.

Full disclosure of what you will take away from this project

Main character: PM/Team

You give the full account of the personal, professional and technical demons faced, what you will take away from the project.  This has the virtue of probably being more exciting the more difficult the project was, but would need to be handled carefully.

Example: “Should not have tried to engage with X department/person/organisation and done their work myself from the beginning”

How the organisation has changed

Main character: Organisation

The purpose of any project is change and as long as you’ve succeeded in some part of it something must have changed.  Focus on before and after, the changes your organisation has gone through, rather than what was supposed to change or how difficult it was for the team.  What did the organisation have to go through to make that change?

Example: “A change in a significant system is not fast, but the organisation is now more efficient.”

Lessons learned

Main character: Organisation

This is sort of a way to get away with Full Disclosure some reduced risk.  The point is to tell how  the organisation have learned lots of new things that will make project run smoother in the future.  You may have learned these through interesting means, but by focussing on the change in the organisation you might be able to make it a bit less personal.

Unfortunately higher-ups will probably want to know more than just the lessons learned.  This would probably work best for a experimental/pilot project or a failed project.

Example: “Failures in process highlighted and process changed for next time.”

Promotion of the PM/Team

Main character: PM/Team

Self serving, but in some respects relatively safe.  Focus on how well you/your team did rather than how anything was bad.  Likely to be dull and most project directors will see right through it, but I’ve known managers at previous jobs who’ve got away with this approach.

Example: “We are just that amazing that everything went perfectly.”

Promotion of the outputs

Main character: Organisation

This is a bit more like a scenario – instead of reviewing the project at all just look at the future and tell the story of how the outputs will effect the organisation.

Example: “These great new things will cause these great effects”

There’s got to be more types of purpose for a project story – would love to hear any anyone else can think of.  Although I think I will have a go at writing up some story outlines to go with these next.

January 17, 2013 at 1:25 pm 1 comment

Detracting from storytelling and Guitar Hero

Extra details detract

I read two very interesting blog posts over Christmas (well more than that, but I’m going to mention two here) related to storytelling.  The first was on the Quest site (Thoughts on Interactive Storytelling and the Hobbit).  The Hobbit part really interested me.  If you’re not interested in reading the post, the writer talks about how the Hobbit has been produced in ultramegasuper spec (admire my technical filmmaking knowledge!), which is just fine and dandy except for the fact that it actually detracts from the film.  There’s no need for it – it doesn’t add anything to the story or the characters.  In fact this new form takes enough extra brain power to process the ultramegasuper realism that actually we have less left for the story.

A classic phrase any writer will probably be familiar with is “murder your darlings” (I’m not sure where it is from – feel free to let me know in the comments if you know).  It signifies the process writers (and presumably other artists/creators) have to go through to get to what the essence of the story is. You often need to cut a lot before every single word of your story has a purpose.  It’s why I fail to understand sometimes how “We need to talk about Kevin”  is so critically acclaimed – it’s a real “why use one word when three will do” kind of book.

Back to the point – anything that doesn’t guide your reader through the purpose of your story detracts from it.  So how does that relate to interactive stories where you have multiple routes through?  I would argue that each route should still have a purpose, but I have been finding it tricky to decide what to cut and what to keep in.  I could easily provide an avenue for every single decision in the story, but not only would that make the story cumbersome to go through, I think, like the fancy filming, using too much brain power on unnecesary bits that will ultimately have to lead to dead ends could easily detract from the point of the story as a whole.

Pictures are another related issue.  If pictures are abstract (there just for something to be looking at) rather than illustrative will they detract from the story?  I would argue probably yes.  But would the gamebook format look bare without them?  Probably also yes.  The easy answer would be to make sure all of the pictures are illustrative so that they add meaning and understanding to the story, but the scenario I’m working on at the moment is talking about potential future processes and systems…I will need to do much more thinking about it before I can come up with pictures that can illustrate that…

A Musical Analogy

The second was on the inklewriter site (A Musical Analogy) was linked to the idea of how to structure an interactive story.  Inkle has been exploring some quite adventurous means of storytelling.  One of their projects “First draft of the revolution” where you get to re-write the character’s personal correspondence to each other to change the outcome of the story.  I had a go and I can see why they’ve had some comments that it feels quite constrictive – it doesn’t feel like you can change things very much.

The Musical Analogy blog post likens interactive storytelling to Guitar Hero to explain this.  Guitar Hero doesn’t give you limitless possibility to create fantastic music, you play along with the songs it has.  Similarly interactive stories aren’t providing the reader a way of creating fantastic new stories, just a way to play along.  I think where the problem comes is managing the expectations of the reader.  In First Draft it feels like you should have total free reign so when it pushes you down certain paths you can get irked.  Whereas the majority of the adventure games I’ve played have only got one ending and yet you don’t feel like you’re been shoved in that direction all the time.  You’re following and picking up the pieces of the narrative so even if you do things in a slightly different order or in a slightly different way from another player you still feel like you’re a part of the story.

In that way it’s kind of a matter of perspective.  Is your reader a part of your story or are they the narrator?  If they are a part of it they follow a character, see their options and direct them, and as  the storyteller you can tell them what their options are and guide them down the route of the story without making it look like you’re forcing one route.  If they are the narrator then they feel like they should have control over everything, so when they can’t do what they want it jars them out of the emersion.  I guess in theory this could restrict your reader to one point of view, but as long it is clear when you switch POV and that the reader switches completely to become that POV I think it could still be done.  Dreamfall: The Longest Journey is a good example of a point and click adventure with multiple POVs that works well.  Each time you switch your motivations, abilities and options completely change so you’re completely invested in that character until the next switch.

Definitely going to have to be clear in the scenarios what point of view I’m in at any one time and not be too generic.

January 15, 2013 at 4:27 pm Leave a comment

Bradford Scenarios – First steps

I’ve mentioned before that I’m planning to tackle some scenarios we are writing for University of Bradford as an interactive gamebook.  To explain a bit further: these scenarios are being written as part of an extended portion of the University of Bradford Course Data Project – part of the Course Data Programme funded by JISC which involves the implementation of XCRI-CAP in the University.  In case you don’t want to go to all those links, in its simplest form the project is about applying the UK standard for course marketing information in the University so that it can be more easily shared (which, after all, is kind of what you want to do with marketing information) particularly for “hard to find” courses which includes just about everything that is just bog-standard undergraduate courses goign through UCAS.  Projects in the programme are encouraged to review their processes and systems around course marketing information as part of it and approve where possible/necesary.

The University of Bradford project has taken the opportunity to go a step further and look in depth at a possible overall of all their courses information systems and processes, not just marketing.  Anyone familiar with Universities will know that this is something of a large task, but it’s just the kind of meaty project that APS Ltd like.  A chance to really get into the nitty gritty of processes, talking to people from across the university (anyone who touches courses information at any point) and pulling it all together into something coherent.  And I have to say that Bradford have been a joy to work with.

We have provided a formal statement of requirements and process diagrams, but for those not from a systems or information management background they can be quite abstract and difficult to tell what might change and how those changes would affect individuals’ day to day work.  And so we are writing scenarios to go with them which take a fictional character (in this case Dr Smith) and follow her as she works her way through the processes we are recommending using the proposed new electronic systems with its recommended functionality.

What’s handy about tackling these scenarios as digital stories on the blog is that they shouldn’t be influenced by political or commercially sensitive factors.  We are not recommending any particular software: only what the system must be able to do.  Similarly the scenarios don’t go into any processes that currently go on in Bradford, just processes that may happen in some form (like this or modified) at some point in the future as yet completely undetermined.

Currently our scenarios only describe Dr Smith doing everything correctly: illustrative, in one way, but limited.  I’m hopeful that using an interactive format will not only mean that we can show it from many more angles, but also be more engaging that just a read through.

So far in my gamebook Dr Smith can’t even start entering data for Phase 1 approval and this has taken 10 gambook pages and about half a day of fiddling with it.  The new Bradford processes we are recommending do have a phase before phase one, but it wasn’t nearly as long or as fiddly to write in the prose scenario, taking a few minutes rather than hours.

Page in the game

Page in the game

Settign up the gamebook is straight forward

Settign up the gamebook is straight forward

Writing a page

Writing a page 

Current issues:

  • Cutting the text down to manageable chunks for the gamebook pages

The gamebook pages seem to work well if they are fairly brief and stick to exact things that happen and the choices that are involved.  This means editing fairly heavily which so far has stripped out much of the extra explanation we had worked into the scenario.  Also I think that working from an existing document means that I may be cutting too heavily to make it look right, rather than read right to someone who had never seen the original version.  I’ve read through it so many times, my brain is filling in any possible blanks I’ve made by trying to fit it into this format.

  • Finding and editing appropriate pictures

I am not an artist.  Nor am I a particularly visual person – I like words, it’s why I like writing.  Since this is mostly just a proof of concept exercise I’m trying not to spend too long on looking for appropriate pictures, but even then I find it’s taking me longer than I expected.  Interestingly it is also the pictures which I now find myself tip-toeing around, rather than the political ramifications of the text.  Will images from the Bradford Schools make it look like those Schools endorse this?  Will the wrong choice of pictures make it look amateurish and distract people from what is actually being said?

  • Explosion of size when adding in multiple options

The more options there are the more pages need to be created and pictures found and there are potentially hundreds of choices and outcomes to consider.  It’s a balance to get enough choices for the story to feel interactive, but not so many that it takes forever and a day to put it all together.  Of course some options will result in the same dead ends, so won’t need new pages written wholesale, but the links still need to be created.

January 6, 2013 at 5:18 pm Leave a comment

Interactive storytelling

Wikivic on my first post about digital storytelling gave me some great links to all types of interactive stories.  I mentioned these briefly in my previous post, but I thought I would go over them in a little more detail.

Choose your own adventure

Available through an online tool called inklewriter, you can create your own story where at intervals the reader can select which path they want to take.  The stories created on their sitecan be downloaded to ebook formats, and there is an Apple app, but otherwise they seem to only be available online.  From a cursory glance the writer interface looks a little clunky and unstructured.  Sections are created automatically and can only be renamed or removed. You can jump around between sections a little, but the contents lists out the section without any kind of tree structure to show what goes when.  There doesn’t appear to be any way to add pictures, but it has a good looking interface and reading the story only a paragraph or two at the time makes it easily digestible on the screen.

One of the advantages of this is that you can also get the reader to select the point of view they want to read from and write different branches from those points of view.  The first thing that came to mind for me when this was pointed out to me was senior management engagement.  If you can get senior management to navigate through the thought processes and issues that people on the ground face it could be a fantastic tool for communication.

Text-based adventure game

Quest has a relatively simple tools for making text based adventure games.  Having grown up with Wikivic constantly playing the things (and me constantly failing to do anything every time I tried to play) I find them hard to describe.  They’re a type of puzzle game in a way, in which you have a number of objects, rooms and verbs and go around, looking in all the rooms, and verbing the objects you find. Often talking and verbing objects with characters you find there as well.  They are heavily story based: there generally isn’t any fighting and your character can’t level up, but the stories often require you to do odd things such as trying to pet a unicorn to make it angry so that it will knock you into a tree, from which you can get to the next area.

Text-based adventures come from a time when few people had computers so many people aren’t familiar with the type of gameplay, and while the basic mechanic is in theory relatively simple I find them quite frustrating as there is very little guidance on what it is possible to do.  The interface is quite dull and difficult to get your head round if you don’t have a map of where you’re exploring and I can just imagine how off putting it would be for people to be told they have to learn a new system just to work through a story.  You also only play as a single character which narrows the options somewhat.

Gamebook

Quest has another form of text based game which they don’t advertise as much on the site (the help wiki even doesn’t seem to cover it much): the gamebook.  This is very like the choose your own adventure style like inkelwriter: a simple paragraph of text is followed by links which will take you to other sections of the story.  The gamebook also has the option for a pictures, sound and video for each paragraph, but the real advantage from my point of view is how you write them.  The Quest software can be downloaded and so you can create them offline, but also has more options, a more straightforward interface and clearer structuring.  This may be a personal preference thing, and arguably the final result doesn’t look as slick as inklewriter.  Still, I think I prefer to read the gamebook style and prefer to create with it.

Finished gamebooks can be uploaded to the Quest site for access anywhere, and unlike inkelwriter, it can be marked as unlisted so that only people you give the link to can see it.

January 2, 2013 at 10:13 am 3 comments


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