Ask Anna #10: What Education Do I Need For Games?

Here’s another student interview, this time about what education I recommend for aspiring game devs. As always, I’m posting the answers here in case they’re helpful to, uh…anybody at all. This advice works as a companion piece to Ask Anna #7: What About You, Anna?
1. What, if any, high school courses do you think prepared you in ways other than just education for getting your foot into the game writing industry?

When I was in high school, making games never crossed my mind as a possible career. I played video games, but it was just one of many hobbies. I was far more passionate about reading, writing, and drawing back then. I knew I’d be something impractical—like a writer or an artist—but I didn’t imagine a career in games. I simply wanted to get paid for doing something I loved. Like reading. I dreamed of getting paid to read books all day long.

So when my school required that we follow someone around at their job for a day to see what it was like, I spent the day with a copy editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. She was kind, but confused. “This is your dream job?” she asked, over and over again, as she showed me how to mark up manuscripts. Shy, 15-year-old Anna nodded. “Yes.” Well, it was my dream job until I saw how tedious it was. No dream could survive the fifth reading of a dense text about flywheels.

Read this text five times and you can actually hear your soul’s death rattle.

Read this text five times and you can actually hear your soul’s death rattle.

And that's how I became a bartender. 

In all seriousness, writers draw on everything they have learned to create stories. Obviously, English classes are useful for me as a writer. But I’ve drawn on my studies of history, politics, science, and, yes, even bartending to make convincing, well-rounded characters. Maybe someday I’ll be able to use my extensive flywheel knowledge in a game. You never know. That's the beauty of writing.

Anyway, advice: Study great literature. Read as much as you can. Take some basic programming classes if your school offers them. Having tech skills to back up your writing talent will give you an advantage and qualify you for a wider variety of roles in the industry. Study video games. That's not a parent-friendly euphemism for "playing when you should be doing real homework," either. Examine video games the way you would a text in English class. Play with a critical eye. Veteran gamewriter Richard Dansky goes into detail on that subject here: On Becoming A Game Writer


2. Have there been any connections (teachers, relatives, friends, colleagues, etc.) that provided you with specific tips or stories that impacted your decision to become a writer? If so and if you remember, could you share them?

 I can’t recall anyone helping me make the decision to become a game writer. I had the epiphany on my own while playing a game with terrible writing. “I could write better crap than this,” I thought. Then a lightbulb flickered on in my mind. “I really COULD write better crap.” The dream was born.

After I started studying English literature in school, people shared tips with me. It consisted mostly of links to terrible game dialogue with “LOL this is you” comments.

“Jill, here’s a lockpick. It might be handy if you, the Master of Unlocking, take it with you.”

Or they linked to long lists of writing tips that read like literary Highlights magazines. “Goofus gives every character a verbal tic so you can tell them apart. Gallant lets the substance of their speech differentiate them.”

(That’s an old-timey reference, so here’s what I’m talking about: My dentist had dusty stacks of those old magazines perched around his waiting room.)

As my education progressed, the greatest tips I got from teachers were about letting ideas take you where they wanted to go. When you first sit down to write, just write. Turn off the editor in your brain and let the words flow out. Don’t try to direct the path of the words, let your mind wander down whatever path it wants to go. This is the raw material that you will later craft into an elegant work. But don’t worry about making it pretty when you start. Get the ideas out there. Learning to let go and not be afraid of what your brain coughs onto the page can be the hardest part. Be fearless. Don’t censor your thoughts. There’ll be plenty of time to blot the blood off the page later on.

 3. Could you offer tips for success in the game industry for people that have not begun their journey into the field, relating to their goals and desires?

I refer you to my long-winded Gamewriting FAQ for information about getting a foot in the door. While my advice is tailored to aspiring writers and designers, any game industry hopeful should be networking their butts off. Start long before you enter the industry. Follow people whose work you admire on Twitter and Facebook. Ask for advice. Find out what their inspirations are. Let them know you’re a fan. However, and I can’t stress this enough, don’t stalk them. To all of you out there who silently added “There’s a fine line between devoted following and stalking”: NO. There’s not. The line is highway-wide and clearly drawn. But here are a few helpful tips to tell the difference.

  • Good: I’m a big fan of your games. 
  • Bad: You’re the hottest dev at that entire game company.
  • NO!: Thanks for the add!
  • Good: Can you recommend any good Twine games?
  • Bad: I sent you my game script. Can I get some feedback? I need it by Tuesday.
  • NO!: I wrote a story. It’s very special. It’s about…us. Here, take a look.
  • Good: I saw your tweet about reading Lumberjanes. How did you like it?
  • Bad: I was digging through your tweet history and saw you mentioned a comic 2 years ago…
  • NO!: I can see you reading Lumberjanes right now. I like that color on you.

 I hope we’ve all learned something today. I know I have.

Okay, I’m obviously being a bit tongue in cheek with this advice generally, but I’m serious about this issue. Also, be mindful of your online presence. Future employers will google you. Curate your search results so that you’re projecting the image you want. To that end, put work out there that will show up with a web search. Write interesting, game-related blog posts. Create some Twine or Inform7 games. Create an online portfolio. Get your work out there where people can see it. And keep adding to it. It’s good practice, in every sense.


4. I have notice that many jobs listed for game writing are looking for Senior Game Writers (5+ years in Game Writing). I am wondering if there are exceptions to this that you have experienced/noticed? And how does one get to this level of recognized experience in this specific area? Unless it means doing QA testing or game reviews for a magazine?

Ahhh. Welcome to old catch-22 of the industry: you can't get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. The brutal truth is you’re unlikely to get a senior game writing position without experience as a writer in some field: games, film, TV, something. They're not going to look at your Twine game, say, "This kid's a star!" and put you in charge of a multi-million dollar project. People in senior positions have demonstrated on other major projects that they can handle the stress and know what they're doing. The traditional route to that role is to work your way up from inside. And yes, QA is a reasonable starting point. That’s where I started out.

Companies often prefer to hire from within because they know what they’re getting. Candidates are familiar with the game and the development pipeline and can usually be brought up to speed quickly. Many of these low-level writing jobs are never advertised because it’s so easy to find qualified candidates already on payroll. Or the writers tell their friends who are also writers. Right this very moment, I know of three writing jobs that are not advertised on the game companies’ websites. And they will be filled without the general gaming public ever knowing the slots were open. That’s why networking is so critical. You need someone on the inside.

Some writers (heatedly) dispute my next suggestion, but I recommend sending out inquiry letters to companies you want to work for. Let them know you’re interested, maybe include a link to your website or resume, and see what happens. I know many people who got jobs that way. You might never hear back. You might hear back months later. You might hear, “We’ve got nothing now, but we’ll keep your resume on file.” It’s worth a shot.

As for required experience, look closely at one of those ads. Here’s a currently available writing position at Bungie: 

When you say "scribe," you mean in the real world and not a game, right? 

When you say "scribe," you mean in the real world and not a game, right? 

Let’s translate their required skills:

  • Someone must like your writing enough to have paid you for it. For years.
  • Must be able to kill your darlings and keep creating.
  • Must like video games. Must know this genre.
  • Must play well with others.
  • Must show proof that you know storytelling basics and have time management skills.

Pretty simple, right? The ad weeds out unqualified candidates. That’s its purpose. But keep in mind that they’ll want writing samples, too. That’s your chance to show them what you can do. And if they like your samples, they’ll have you take a writing test.  Another chance to dazzle them. All of those advertised requirements are negotiable if you can write well. Talent and skill trump everything. 

Many companies will accept comparable experience. Maybe you don't have three years' experience in the games industry, but you were managing editor of a high-traffic review site. That helps a lot. It shows you worked with writing content and deadlines, understand digital media, and successfully managed a team of people to get your product out the door. That's very close to the game development process. So when companies ask for experience, think of how the jobs you've had would translate to games. At the end of the day, the company wants someone who can do the job. Period.
5. As my final question, what has been the most personally satisfying decision that you have made in the past five years for this career? Has this decision affected other parts of your life other than just your work?

This question, oh my. I’m smack in the middle of fallout from a major career change this very second. I’ve spent the last ten years slowly working my way up the AAA ladder. I started out doing QA on small titles and gradually worked my way up to my dream job of writer on major AAA titles. I’ve moved all over the continental US for jobs and uprooted my life several times—with three transcontinental moves in 2014 alone. It was worth it. I‘ve had fun, made friends, and faced challenges enough to keep my brain in shape. But my experiences along the way, combined with the recent industry turbulence, changed my dream. I realized that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do anymore. So I left AAA and decided to work on smaller titles. Or even to create my own game. And now I’m pitching games to studios and trying to figure out what my next step will be. It’s terrifying. But it’s exhilarating. I’m closer than I’ve ever been to creating games for my chosen audience. That’s satisfying. That’s every writer’s dream. Well, that and a built-in donut dispenser for their desk. 

No, I meant a machine that dispenses donuts, not a donut that…ah, forget it.

To translate my recent personal decision into general advice, I'd say that you should always remember why you got into the industry and make that your true north. If you got into the industry to make games, then do whatever it takes to keep making games. Even if that means moving at the end of every project or working on games that you wouldn't want to play. If you got into the industry to make your own games, then do what you have to do for that. You might end up working for indies. Or learning to code so you can create a game from scratch. Or launching a Kickstarter. Go wherever that dream takes you.