Ask Anna #7: What About You, Anna?

A student and Guild Wars 2 fan asked several ArenaNet devs to answer some questions about game development for a project he's working on. I thought it would be easiest to treat the questions as one Ask Anna post. So here it is:


What is your position?

I write for video games. That makes me a writer, a game writer, a scriptwriter, or a narrative designer, depending on where I’m working. I was a writer at ArenaNet, a narrative designer at Airtight Games, and now I’m a scriptwriter for Ubisoft. The work involved is all very similar, though, no matter what my title.

Artwork by  Shelldragon

Artwork by Shelldragon

How long have you worked for ArenaNet and how long in the gaming industry?

I started work in the games industry in 2004, which—wow, I just realized that means I’ve been working in games for ten years now. How did that happen? I must be crazy. I worked at Arena Net for almost three years while Guild Wars 2 was in development. After the game was released, I left for another project with Airtight Games/Square Enix. Then Ubisoft. And now I'm working on a personal project.


What has been your greatest challenge? What is the most challenging part of your job?

I've had some personal challenges that stem from being a woman in tech. Our industry is starting to grow up and become more welcoming to women, but the road here has been…rough.  Sexual harassment, biased reward systems, stolen credit—I've had trouble with all these things. Fortunately, the games industry is home to some wonderful people, too, and they've supported me through all of it. I think the main reason I've lasted this long in the industry is because of the amazing, creative people it attracts.

Every writer I know uses this system.

Every writer I know uses this system.

As for the work itself, the hardest part for me is letting go. Games are an iterative process. You can spend months creating solid content, with writing that sparkles and characters you love, and then come in to work one day and learn it’s all being scrapped. The game concept has changed, or there’s no budget for your missions, or it simply doesn't work. Letting go of what you've created and buying in to the new direction is difficult. But that’s the nature of game development. Games are collaborative and iterative. You simply don’t have the same amount of control over your work in games as you would over a novel or a screenplay of your own. That’s not a bad thing. Collaborating with creative people who feed off each other’s ideas can elevate your work, making it better and more imaginative than anything you could have realized alone. But to get there, you have to relinquish control and embrace a communal process. And that’s the hardest part for me.


Best advice when attempting to become a game developer?

Cultivate patience. Seriously. Games are a competitive industry. It’s hard to get that first break. Be patient, keep trying, keep building your resume with related work or content, network your butt off, and you’ll make it. I wrote an FAQ for game writers that has a lot of general industry advice it. You should check it out.

Shameless self-promotion also helps.

Shameless self-promotion also helps.

 What made you want to get into gaming/gaming industry?

I've always played video games, but I never thought of myself as a gamer until recently. I'm a writer. It never crossed my mind that there was a place for someone like me in the industry. Even when I played games like Myst, which drew clear parallels between game worlds and literature, it never occurred to me that I could be part of that. 

Myst wasn't exactly subtle about the link between games and literature. ( source )

Myst wasn't exactly subtle about the link between games and literature. (source)

In 2003, I was bartending. I enjoyed the work, but the service industry will burn you out right quick. Looking at my future, I wanted more for myself than slinging drinks until I was old and bitter. I tried to imagine what else would make me happy. What work could I stand to do every day for the next forty years or so? And making games popped to mind. I didn’t even know for sure that “game writer” was a real job. When I told people I wanted to write video games, they looked at me doubtfully and said, “I think you mean design them.” Which was a fair point back then. Game writing opportunities have grown tremendously in the past decade as the industry has recognized the power of good narrative, but back then designers wrote most of the story. At some studios, they still do. But I persevered and went back to school to get the right education for my goal. I started out as a QA tester and worked my way up until I was a writer. And now I can’t imagine doing any other kind of work. I love it.


How long did you go to school for this and what degree did you get/pursue?

My college career is not typical, so I don’t want to hold it up as an example. I was in school for seven years at three colleges, and I’ll be paying off those student loans until time ends. I don’t want to encourage others to take that path. You don’t need a fancy degree to get a game writing job. You need to know how to write. Definitely get your BA. Get an MA if you want, but it’s not a requirement. Read. Write. Get your writing out on the web where people can see it. Play games. But don’t think education is the magic wand that will open all doors for you. You’ll submit samples or take a test (sometimes both) for most jobs, so what you can do is the most important thing.


What has been the most rewarding aspect of your job?

The fans, the fans, the fans. There are few media forms that allow you to experience your creation along with your audience the way games do. When we opened the gates to Shaemoor Village in Guild Wars 2 for the first demo, and players rushed in to the world we’d created and started interacting with it…wow. It was one of the high points of my career so far.  Seeing players react to dialog, comment on it in chat, write about it on the forums…amazing. And getting to play along with them in an event I had written? To watch as they experienced a moment I’d hand-crafted for them? It doesn't get better than that for me.

A typical fan letter.

A typical fan letter.

 What is a typical day like?

Well, it varies a lot, depending on where I am in the production process. My typical day could involve brainstorming missions for a map or talking to designers and artists about how best to realize a story element. I could be writing a script for the mission. Painstakingly tweaking UI text. Entering VO lines into a spreadsheet. (Game writers spend more time in spreadsheets than people realize.) Or I could be gathering feedback from a playtest. Or mapping dialog trees. Or I could be in the recording studio with our VO talent, explaining the story to help them deliver their best performances. Or I could spend the entire day in a meeting to debate a tricky story element. Even the smallest details take time. It took the writing team two hours to name Tequatl. And it took weeks to name Ronan O’Connor. But, then again, I once rewrote an entire AAA-game script in under a week. (I don’t recommend this.) You never know what details will need your attention on any given day. Variety makes the job more interesting to me, but I see how it could drive some people crazy. I get bored with routines, so I like the kaleidoscopic nature of game development schedules.

I might also spend a little time on Twitter, talking to fans. It's been known to happen.

The Murdered writing team reenacts the game's explosive introductory fight scene. All in a day's work.

 What attributes does someone need to have in order to be really successful in this field?

Patience. Persistence. Passion. You spend most of your time doing un-fun tasks. Updating docs and spreadsheets. Writing UI text and objectives. Revising and revising and revising. If you can’t look past the day-to-day drudgery of the job and see the grand vision, you’ll be miserable. You have to love games. Obviously, creativity and a good work ethic are also critical.

Knowing when not to panic is also good. This was an actual entry on our assignment whiteboard.

Knowing when not to panic is also good. This was an actual entry on our assignment whiteboard.

 What is your favorite aspect/thing/event/whatever about Guild Wars 2?

Funny, I was just talking about this the other day. What I like as a writer is different from what I like as a player. As a writer, I enjoy the more challenging assignments. Like the skritt. Because the skritt have a hive mind, their intelligence level varies depending upon how many of them are together. When you’re writing a skritt character, you always have to be conscious of where they are in relation to other groups of skritt in the game. There’s an event I wrote where the player encounters a lone skritt in a remote village. The creature begs for help, and the player accompanies it back to a major scratch (skritt village). So the skritt starts off pretty stupid when you first meet it, but gradually grows in intelligence as you draw closer to the scratch. Soon, it’s so smart that it almost doesn’t need your help anymore. Trying to convey that mental transformation convincingly, while keeping the skritt in character was not an easy task. But it was a lot of fun to imagine and to write.

My favorite element of GW2 as a player is the sheer beauty of the world. One of my favorite things to do as a player is just walk around, drinking in the sights. I like standing on the clifftop by the treehouse in Shaemoor and watching the sun set. Or watching The Grove glow in the twilight. Or finding little hidden details, like a cat stretching on a bed in the mill. Or a conversation in a far corner of the world that only happens at a certain time of day. It’s a gorgeous game, a real labor of love, and I enjoy seeing the personal touches that everyone folded in as we were making it. Seeing how everybody’s ideas come together to create a living, breathing world—that’s what making games is all about, for me.

A fan made video about how pretty the world is. 

Some timelapse video of the living world. Breathtaking.