“I Want to Write Video Games”
Do you? Do you really? Be honest with me.
I mean, I don’t want to shoot down your dream. There are lots of people who’ve done the research, who know exactly what they’re getting into when they say this, and who spend years earnestly pursuing their goal. There are also lots of people who like the notion of getting into game development but figure they’ll never have any real skills like programming or art so this is their best bet.
Folks in QA get that a lot, and let me tell you: they love it. QA has the added indignity of people wanting to get into the field for the express purpose of using it as a stepping stone to something else. Writing doesn’t get that, at least, so I should be thankful.
We do get the people who have ideas, however. The ones who picture being a game writer as the one who gathers all the other developers into a room and pitches an outline which they will then fall in love with and go make, with the writer’s job being to make sure they keep on task . If that’s you, what you’re picturing is a Project Director. No, they don’t hire people to do that. You have to work in the industry for quite some time to get to that point, or start your own company, and short of that you’re going to have to work inside a box of a size which is smaller the further down the chain you reside.
But hey, I’m not going to tell you which one you are. That’s for you to decide. You’ll have to forgive me for wondering, however, because people tell me they want to write video games a lot. I mean, there are not many full time writing positions available in the entire industry, and yet I suspect becoming a writer is near the top of the “most common dev job wanted” list. It’s kind of crazy. Go be a level designer. Go be a GUI artist. Now that’s a dev job which offers some security.
No? Fine. Be that way. I’m sure there are articles on becoming a game writer you could track down with Google, but since people keep asking for my advice I’ll give some. It’ll be handy to have as a link the next time someone asks me this question, anyhow, and I deleted the last article like this I wrote.
First: What kind of writer do you want to be?
This is a more pertinent question than you think, as not all writing jobs in the industry are the same. The most complicated version is the narrative designer — which is a fancy way of saying “the person who shapes the game’s narrative, as well as the one who writes all the words”. BioWare has narrative designers because RPG’s need people who will come up with the design for all the quests you need to do, who plan out the arcs for the characters, who figure out not just what the story of those things will be but how the player will experience them as they go through the game. In fact, that’s the best description in a nutshell: a narrative designer is about designing the player experience.
A writer, then, is someone who isn’t involved in the design — or isn’t as involved in the design, I should say, as they’re often asked to create a story inside the context of a design which has been provided to them, and that’s still a kind of design if you want to split hairs. Like let’s say I give a writer the design for a quest. I tell them what it’s about, what the steps are and who the characters all are, and it’s then up to them to flesh it out from that point. They make fewer decisions, but they write everything within the context provided. Perhaps they only write cutscenes, or they only write hints and journal entries. Games have a lot of text.
Now, someone’s going to call me on this and say my definitions don’t hold true at all studios, and that is absolutely correct. They’re generally the case, but what you’ll find in game development is that there simply are no standards for what a particular job entails, and that goes double for designers of all stripes (which writers are still considered, even if they’re not officially narrative designers). Sometimes a narrative designer is just called a writer, and sometimes a writer is called a narrative designer because that sounds cooler, and that’s just the way it is.
“Yes,” you say. “One of those, please. I don’t care which one it is.”
Well! I like the enthusiasm, Miss Eager Pants, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, shall we?
Second: What does a video game writer actually do?
So what’s so hard about writing a video game? You come up with the story then you write it! I just wrote a paragraph and it’s awesome, see how easy it is? What more could there be to it?
Let’s see. Imagine how you think a story is created for, say, a novel. A writer puts together the concept and then crafts the story from a series of scenes — all centered around a protagonist who grows and moves through those scenes in a scripted fashion. The writer creates it from beginning to end, determining everything because the story is everything.
The story is not everything in a video game. Maybe this causes you to clutch your pearls in shock, but it’s true. A game writer has to bow to the requirements of gameplay and level design, as well as to the limitations of both technology and the schedule. Just because I can imagine the story taking a turn into a giant castle doesn’t mean the art team wants to build said giant castle. It doesn’t mean they have the time to build it on top of all the other levels even if they do want to build it. Even if they do have time, it doesn’t mean that design can fill up a giant castle level with everything else that needs to go along with it just so you can have a pretty backdrop to your precious conversation. And even if they can, maybe they can’t put a tightly-packed crowd into the castle’s great hall because the goddamn Playstation memory budgets won’t allow the engine to put more than ten actors on the screen at any given time even though the rest of the story said everyone in the kingdom’s going to be there. Or so the programmer is sadly telling you, and he doesn’t have time to fix that problem because he’s busy trying to make the game, you know, not crash when you press Play.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that game writing is largely about collaboration, and that’s not something everyone thinks about. The team works together, and every department has their needs and is contributing their piece to the whole exactly the same as you are. The writers do not get everything they want all the time.
Or maybe you think that’s backwards and that writers should get to dictate to the rest of the team what their priorities are, because everything in a game should be subservient to the story. In which case I say that you should definitely be put in charge of the universe. Because, yeah. Not the case ever.
And then there’s the rest of your job which is what comes after you’ve done all the collaborating — and that’s the implementation. That is 80% of your job. Figuring out how to make the story work inside a video game. That level you wrote? You will re-write it at least three times, trying to make it suck a little less each time. That other level? It got cut because, even though it was really fun, the art team is behind schedule and the level it was in now doesn’t exist…and it falls on you to fix the surrounding story now that the middle piece isn’t there any longer. The reason this is 80% of your job is because you will spend the majority of your time fixing shit.
And you will do it with a smile, because it’s your job to make it all come together like it was meant to be that way from the beginning and not be a princess about it because the story you pitched in Pre-Production and which everybody liked is now half the size and parts of it don’t really make sense and let’s not even talk about that ending level and someone’s going to write a blog about how you’re a crappy writer because who would ever write a story like that intentionally? If any of that’s a problem for you, then go write a novel and be happy.
No? That’s good, because despite all that you can also do great work and end up with something really rewarding — something you share with your entire team — and I can safely say that nothing feels better. So let’s talk about getting the job.
Third: Getting the job
Just so we’re clear, right up front? The chances of you getting any writing job in the game industry are not good. It’s not necessarily because you suck, it’s because of two main things:
- There aren’t many writing gigs to be had. Many game developers who need writing will outsource, meaning they bring in a writer late in development and go “See this story-less game we have here? We want you to wave your magic Writing Wand and give it a story. Yes, I know games that really care about story will have actual writers present in early development, but we have neither the time nor money for that”. Others will have the writing being done by someone who’s also doing something else on the team, like a programmer, because they just have to. And most of everyone else? Their game doesn’t have much call for story, period, because they’re just not that kind of game.
- Writing is a hard skill to show. You could be a genius at narrative design, but proving that you’re a genius? Really hard. More than that, the people who are hiring writers have a really difficult time in figuring out who’s capable. It’s not like a 3D model you can look at and objectively say whether whoever made it has the chops or not — we’re talking about an inexact science, and there are no degrees in, say, Interactive Branching Fiction. So you make do writing your submissions and trying to stand out among all the other submissions.
But you’re good with the chances? And you’re tired of me spending my time trying to dissuade you and just want to hear the brass tacks about how to improve your chances? “Jesus Christ, Gaider,” you mumble. “Do you ever get to the goddamn point?”
Rude. I mean, sure, fair, but rude.
With the caveat that I’m only talking about the sort of writing jobs one gets at a place like BioWare because that’s the only type of place for which I’ve hired (I’m sure people get hired to write games like the Last of Us — call me! — but I’m not certain what their criteria for that would be other than to, you know, be Neil Druckmann, and that’s harder for some folks than others), here are some things you should try:
- Learn — on one hand, this means you need to play games. All types of games, not just the ones you enjoy the most. You need to look at different stories and think about what they did narratively, good or bad. If it was good, consider how they managed it. If it was bad, consider why it might have been done that way and what could have been better about it. One of the most common questions we ask in an interview is what a writer thinks about the narrative in games they’ve played…and specifically what they didn’t like and why. Being able to critique is one of the skills you will absolutely need, not to mention showing that you’ve an interest in game stories that goes beyond enjoying a single game that developer made. Also? Read. As in books. And if you’re still in school (or planning to go), consider what courses you’ll take. My suggestion? Anything. There are no courses which will teach you how to be a better game writer (though there are courses which will teach you how to be a better writer, period, and that’s a good foundational skill to develop), but you can learn about things which you will need to draw from if and when you do start writing: history, literature, political science, philosophy, sociology…I list these things because they are actual degrees held by writers I have hired, and I know about them because those degrees have come up and been useful during the course of work.
- Practice — yes, this is a skill you can actually improve and develop. A lot of people think writing is solely a talent, but that’s only part of it. I’ve told people they should try modding, but creating a mod involves a whole lot of other skills many people just find too daunting to contemplate learning (I don’t fault you for that; when my computer stops working I paw at it and make keening sounds until IT shows up). Joining a mod team is easier said than done, so your best bet is to grab a program like Twine. It’s purely writing-based, it will allow you to wrap your head around the idea of branching, and you’ll produce something you can not only show later but which will also demonstrate you’ve taken the time to learn the simple scripting a program like Twine requires. “I possess enough technical capability to learn how to use a conversation editor” is fantastic and will make you stand out.
- Target studios individually — meaning if you’re going to send a writing submission to a studio, make it the kind of writing they specifically already do. If you want to become a writer for Obsidian, you need to play Obsidian’s games and actually look at how they write their dialogue. How many player responses do they provide, and what kind? How long are their individual lines? There is no secret to it; all the writing is right there, and you’ll do yourself a world of good if you show that you’re capable of being analytical and piecing together what lies behind what you’re seeing. Also? Don’t write a submission for Obsidian that takes place in Lord of the Rings or your own homebrew world, write something for Pillars of Eternity or Tyranny and show you already know what those are and how writing is done for those games. If one of their games has modding tools available, consider using those tools to make something. It doesn’t have to be a full DLC-length story, just something. We once had an applicant submit a module via Neverwinter Nights which was solely characters who spoke their dialogue and who each stood next to a sign that explained the plot points — no scripting at all. And we hired them.
- Make a submission — if you’re lucky, a studio’s going to spell out exactly what they want in a writing submission. Beamdog did when we recently hired three narrative designers; I specified exactly what I wanted the submission to include, how long I expected it to be, and the skills it had to prove. Unless a studio is actively looking, however, they’re unlikely to provide that. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply, however…or, at least, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a submission ready to go. Keeping in mind the “target studios specifically” thing I mentioned above, put together a writing sample as if you intended for it to be inserted into one of their published games. Keep it simple. Don’t write a story which would require an entire Dragon Age sequel — you will not be hired to do that — but rather write a small Dragon Age quest or a single character scene. Make the lines clever, or have a single twist, without trying too hard. And most of all? Don’t make it too long. If someone has to spend more than 30 minutes reading it, they just won’t. My personal advice is to make sure you put your best work up front — if you’re writing a single dialogue, have something really clever in the first few lines. If you’re writing several, make sure the first showcases your skills the best. If you’re providing an outline for a quest, make sure the premise is what grabs me or that the first part of the quest is the most interesting. It’d be nice if we lived in a world where I gave your submission all the way until the end to be impressed, but we don’t. I’m impatient and tired and my attention wanders pretty quickly, and I doubt I’m the only one.
- Be persistent — yeah, yeah, you hear that a lot, I’m sure. Thing is, you’re unlikely to get feedback on your submission even if they’re currently asking for submissions. At best you’ll get a polite turn-down email, if you get anything at all. Usually places will have a period of time before you can apply again, and if they do then wait that time and try again. Figure out what you did wrong with your last submission — self-evaluate — and try again. If they don’t reply, then give it some time (six months? a year?) and send something in again. If you eventually get a reply which is “for the love of God please stop sending these” then, okay, stop…but otherwise? What’s the harm?
- Things not to do — do not send in your fanfiction, not unless that’s what the studio is asking for. Also do not send in a submission that reads like fanfiction, even if it is in the format the studio is asking for…meaning that it’s possible to analyze the sort of writing style Uncharted has without having your submission be a scene where Nathan expresses his ardent love for Chloe and they end up together. Why? Because whoever’s evaluating it will end up not looking at your writing skill but rather will be judging how well you’ve emulated those characters’ voices…and that’s a really high bar if it’s whoever wrote those characters (and it very well may be). Don’t make your job harder than it already is. Also? Don’t make your submission a critique, and don’t make it about your ideas…make it about your skill.
I suppose someone could wrinkle their nose at all that and wonder if there isn’t perhaps an easier way. “Couldn’t I just become friends with someone at the dev company on Twitter? Don’t a lot of people get jobs by who they know rather than what they know?” I guess that’s true. Technically I did, way back in 1999, when a friend of mine worked at BioWare and recommended me for a writing position (which I then had to prove I had the chops for, though I wouldn’t have received that chance in the normal course of things…mainly because I never applied or intended to become a game developer at all, but that’s a completely different story). If it’s your plan to somehow get in the good graces of a dev in the hopes of influencing them, good luck. I’d suggest at least not being an asshole. You’re better off developing your skills, if you ask me. That just seems less stalker-y, but maybe I’m old fashioned.
The most important advice of all, I suppose, is not to be discouraged before you even try. Consider alternatives, if you can. Maybe you’re not meant to get onto BioWare’s small writing team. Maybe you’re meant to join some startup which grows out of the modding team you joined in order to get the skills you thought BioWare was looking for. Maybe you’re meant to publish your Twine game and become an indie dev who never intended to be that because you only wrote it to get noticed by a studio. Maybe just putting yourself out there and putting your writing out there will get you further than you think. Maybe you’ll discover some other part of game development you never considered, or discover a type of game writing I myself haven’t considered.
Prove that people like me who give advice don’t know much about anything other than our own little worlds, while the real one is so much bigger and more varied. Go claim your place in it, through sheer force of will if you must, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.