In need of some excellent wordsmithery to make that random assortment of letters sound good? Luci Black is your gal! Our resident walking spell checker makes sure that all of these articles we pump out for you are grammatically correct and 100% accurate (so if you see any typos, you can blame her). But there's so much more to her job, including in-game text corrections, writing guides on complex topics, and keeping that Mm tone consistent and lovely. She's like an MOT for your writing! Here, we chat to Luci about beating her brother at F-Zero, helping to bring the jokes to Tearaway, and what it's like working on every Media Molecule title.
Hi Luci! What do you do here at Media Molecule?
I'm a UX Writer at Media Molecule. I've been here for getting on for, blimey, it’s gonna be 15 years in May. I didn't even know what a UX Writer was until I became one and it's still quite niche, but what it means is that I write all the tooltips and the names of things, all the texts that you interact with on the screen, I do all that stuff. But that's not all I do, because most of the text that goes out to the public goes through me first.
So you’re like both a Dreamiverse dictionary and spell checker?
Yep, pretty much. There's a few different aspects to my work. First, there's straight-up editing jobs for text like web pages, that I'll just go over and make sure they’re in the Media Molecule tone, that they’re grammatically correct, and the punctuation and spelling is correct and so on. But then we also have things like the tooltips which involves me asking the creators of the in-game tools, usually programmers, a whole load of questions. Some of them will be stupid, some of them not so stupid, and I'll just keep at it until I understand exactly what it is that each tool or option is supposed to do, or what sort of name it should have. I'll also try and mess around with them as far as I'm able so I know what things feel like. And then I just write them up.
Then there's stuff like Ancient Dangers: A Bat’s Tale, where I get given a game which has the bones of a story in it, but doesn't have a tone or a characterisation yet, or there might be some jokes missing. So then I'll just sit and play the game and I’ll try and make that story sing. I did this for both Ancient Dangers and the first Tearaway.
How do you come up with all the bizarre and funky names for the different tools in Dreams?
Sometimes it's a case of the person who made the tool or the designer who was influencing the making of that tool already has a really great idea for what the thing should be called, and I'll just go with that. Some of them come from LittleBigPlanet, as why should we bother to reinvent the wheel if a name still works? And then the funky and creative ones tend to be because either I've just come up with some idea and looked through a thesaurus, or researched some stuff to see what works. Like, on Ancient Dangers I spent a good while looking at online articles about ancient monster myths and stuff. And I sometimes find myself researching colour blindness or angles maths or something. I’ll come up with some options and put them in front of the programmers and designers so everybody can tell me what their favourite is, basically.
But with some of them I got really creative, like Impasto. That's one of my favourites. It’s the tool in Style Mode where you can inflate the flecks and puff them up. It just reminded me of actual impasto, which is a painting style where they build up paint and it's really three-dimensional. And I said this to Kareem and he loved it. I do have rules, though. Sometimes it may not always look like it, but I do have rules. For example, unless there's absolutely no way around it, things have to say what it is they're doing. It can’t be completely random.
And how do you go about trying to craft story text for Media Molecule games?
Well, so here's the thing. I'm not a narrative writer. I don't write stories, right? That's not within my talent. Other people come up with these ideas and structures for the stories, and then it's down to me to communicate that to the audience. So for Ancient Dangers, Richard [Franke, Lead Designer] had put in placeholder text in the speech bubbles, and they gave me a document which had the key story beats to it. And my job was then to give Herb a tone, which at the time was supposed to be “New York taxi driver”. Jen Simpkins actually helped me out with that because I was just having a bit of a brain fart at the time, so she gave me a line or two and it clicked in. And in Tearaway that was different again, because the team had this vision of what the story was, but it was harder because there wasn't that placeholder text in there already to work with.
So I had to literally sit down with my colleague Rex [Crowle, creative lead on Tearaway] at my side and play the game and he'd say “I want it to be something like this”. You know, “I want some kind of joke about that, or I want this sort of a tone”, and I'd have to just take notes and then go in and write up these speech bubbles. And then we'd do it all over again, with the text that I added, so that was quite hard. But it was fantastic fun. I absolutely loved doing that kind of thing, but I love writing the tool descriptions as well. I've got a passion for explaining complex ideas in a simple way. I love trying to teach people what something is and do it in a way that's not gonna be completely over their heads.
Across all the projects that you've worked on, what is your favourite particular task to do?
I was thinking about this before the interview, and I really can't choose between doing the story stuff and doing the tooltips. I really can't. I love both of those things and when I get into them, I'm just in the zone and the sense of achievement is huge, so it's really, really hard to choose. I suppose the story ones are more... the writing is more fun, you know, and I can have a laugh to myself, whereas the tools stuff is harder, but then the sense of achievement is massive. So it's really, really difficult to choose!
So how did you get into UX writing?
I started working in the games industry in production at a company that both Siobhan and I worked at, and then I went to work at Creative Assembly to do the Total War games, in production as well. And my first big task, where I really started getting into the job, was sorting out the localisation on Shogun: Total War. In doing that, there was a lot of text stuff I had to finish off as well. Jump forward to when I joined Media Molecule - I wasn't working at the time as my daughter was very small, and Siobhan wanted someone to come in and handle the localisation and finish off the text for LittleBigPlanet. So I came in to do that as a contractor. The fun there was sitting with Kareem and Kengo [Kurimoto, LittleBigPlanet lead level designer], and writing speech bubbles for all those silly characters.
We had such a laugh doing that. I ended up becoming a producer at Media Molecule and I did that for quite a while. Mostly what I handled was the localisation coordination because I’d done it before. But while we were working on Dreams, it got to the point where we had this massive range of complex tools that needed explaining. And I was finding production hard, and wasn't sure it was suited to me. So I said, 'I can do that, I can explain these tools'. And ever since I've never been happier in my entire career, basically. All that time in the industry, I've always had something to do with text, and it's only in the past few years that I've made it actually become my role.
Did you do any special courses to get into the industry?
So I actually did a software engineering degree! I did that at Abertay Dundee as a mature student. I'd met my previous partner, who loved games and wanted to get into the games industry. I, meanwhile, hadn't got a clue what I was gonna do with my life at that point. I was undereducated, I'd left school at 17, so I decided to go and do a degree in software engineering, thinking vaguely I'd get into games. But it wasn’t for me: my code was really nice, but it took me ages to do it, and some of the bigger concepts I just couldn't get my head round at all. But yeah, it helped me get that first job in the industry.
How does working on Dreams compare to working on the other Media Molecule titles like Tearaway or LittleBigPlanet?
It's just been so different, you know. All the other ones that I worked on had the end goal of 'put it in a box, and it's done'. Whereas Dreams has just been this continually evolving, living thing since then. I struggled to understand what on Earth we were making to begin with, to be honest, but as soon as those tools were put in front of me, I was like, 'Oh right! Of course!' It's weird because we've been developing Dreams for so long - we've been working on it for most of my time at Media Molecule - but for an awful lot at the beginning of that, I was on Tearaway and Tearaway Unfolded while the team was bubbling away in the background working on Dreams. But Dreams is entirely different. We’ve got a communication with the coMmunity on a whole other level than we had with LBP.
What's been the most exciting Media Molecule product that you've worked on?
It has to be Tearaway. Although I suppose Ancient Dangers gave me something of the same kind of feeling. Tearaway was an emotional game, and everybody who worked on it got so deeply invested in it and it was a very magical experience. The whole story was just so magical and sparkly and showered with confetti that you just kind of got sucked into its little world. We were doing stuff that was completely mad, like pushing your finger into a console and all of that sort of stuff. Nobody had done that sort of thing before as far as I'm aware.
Do you have any tips or advice for anyone that might be looking to get into UX writing?
UX writing is still fairly niche and I certainly didn't take a direct path there. I think something that's key for many game dev roles is to make stuff. Or improve on it - like, if your friend has made something in Dreams or some other creative game, can you make it better with your text? Can you get in there and help them make the text sing? The only way to show you're really into something is to show people what you've been doing and get your foot in the door any way you can. By all means go to university and do a games-related degree. Get into games in any job you can, and don't sit there thinking, 'This is it, this is what I'm going to do in games for the rest of my life'. Maybe it won't be. I genuinely did a programming degree thinking I would be a games programmer. Then I entered the industry in a production role. But I've ended up doing something very different. So yeah, get in the door. Show what you've got to offer, and be passionate about it. I mean, one of our best artists started in QA.
Mm staff seem to have a lot of interesting items on their desks. What's on your desk at the moment?
My desk is quite tidy here because I'm at home, so anything really interesting has migrated into the rest of the house. If I was at work it would be piled with stuff. But I've got these three little silicon eggs - you squeeze them, and they strengthen your grip, which you need when you get to be an old lady like me. And I've got an angry Sackboy bobblehead which I've had for years and years and years, and I'm very fond of. And I’ve got this dandelion head in Perspex. Alex Evans had that on his desk and I nicked it, entirely with his knowledge. I had to, because I just stare at it and think, how did you do that? Get a dandelion head in Perspex, I mean. I don't know how the heck you do that. It's amazing.
What are your favourite things about working for Mm?
When I look at Dreams now, three years in, the level of talent is absolutely out of the stratosphere. I hope more of the people in the Dreams coMmunity get jobs [in the game industry], because they bloody deserve it. You know, it's always been the great thing, since LittleBigPlanet, the absolutely brilliant thing about working on Media Molecule games is that they bring people into the industry. Whether [our players] get jobs with us or not, they've got something that they can use to show what they can do to other people and they get jobs through that.
When I think about the games that got me into games back in the day, it was games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and F-Zero, but now people have things like Dreams where they can create their own games really quickly! By the way, I used to be really bloody good at F-Zero. Really, really good. I always beat my brother and he just couldn't handle that. But I still just feel incredibly lucky that I've got this career. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to remind myself I’m not dreaming!
The Dreams User Guide is a work-in-progress. Keep an eye out for updates as we add more learning resources and articles over time.