First Things First...
So you’ve done your homework: checked all the job sites, networked your fingers off, and followed up every opportunity. Finally, you find a job posting that sounds perfect. It’s your dream job! Yay! Now, how do you convince the studio to hire you?
The Job Post
First, look at the job description. Read it carefully. Read it again. Is this really the right job for you? Let’s look at Remedy’s ad for a writer.
The key section is "what we expect from you." These are the baseline requirements for the role. Looking at Remedy’s ad, a few things jump out:
- This isn’t an entry-level role. You don’t need to have the extensive experience of a senior writer, but you do need some experience writing games. Writing for AAA games involves unique constraints, and you should know them. If you’ve shipped an indie game or published a book, the burden’s on you to explain how that experience translates to AAA game development.
I encourage you to apply for any job you think you can handle, but be realistic. If you have no games or film experience at all, you’re unlikely to get a senior writing role. Even if you’re an amazing writer, you’ll be competing with other amazing writers who also have experience.
“But, Anna,” you say, “How am I supposed to get experience? All the jobs I see expect you to have it already!” Remedy recruiter Petteri Tuomimaa can answer that question better than I can. Hit him up!
- This is not a remote position. I know, I know. You’re secretly hoping that your work is so dazzling that they’ll make an exception and let you work from home in Kansas. I won’t say that never happens, but it almost never happens. Companies have good reason for wanting you onsite. For senior roles especially, you need to be at the studio leading meetings, driving, schedules, and coordinating with other teams. It’s almost impossible to do those things remotely. The ugly truth is that if they need an onsite writer and you can only be remote, you won’t get the job.
- Flexibility and teamwork are important. Being a team player, rolling with development changes, and being able to handle constructive criticism are non-negotiable parts of this job. Making games is a collaborative process. Narrative—especially in story-driven games—unites all departments, from programming to PR. You have to communicate your ideas clearly, accept critiques, and make needed changes without getting huffy or hurt. I’m not saying you’ll have group hugs with your team all day, but you need to get along with them and not be precious about your writing. If you don’t like working with other people, then AAA games aren’t a good fit for you.
- Write well. This is where most applicants have problems, but it’s the most critical part of the job. You must write well, in English, and be able to prove it. It’s cool that you’ve done a lot of design work, or you’re a master at production scheduling, or you’ve memorized every line from Alan Wake. How’s your writing? You must be able to demonstrate, through samples and a writing test, that you can write a compelling story.
Okay! So far, so good. You’ve looked over the requirements and they’re a good fit for you. What’s next?
Most game studios will ask for a resume and 2-3 writing samples.
- Resume: I won’t go into detail about the resume because that’s more a recruiter preference, but I will say this: focus on relevant information. If you’re applying for a job as a game writer, don’t send in the same resume you used to apply for your barista job. Make sure the experience translates to making games. If you mention taking CPR classes one summer, explain why that matters for game writing. If it doesn’t matter, why include it?
Here's some advice from another recruiter about what to include on your resume:
"Writer positions are one of the most applied to jobs, at least in my opinion. It's good to keep in mind that the recruiters will go through many, many applications. Keep your CV short and clear. If you have years of various work experience, try to pick only the relevant ones for your CV, keeping in mind the role you're applying for. Two pages is a good maximum for a CV. Remember to include a cover letter too, and please don't forget to attach the writing assignment /samples."
- Writing samples: These are tricky. The whole point of samples is to showcase your writing skills. Show your best and strongest work. Keep your samples brief. Nobody is going to take the time to read your 90-page manuscript. (Unless you’re Telltale and that’s what you’re requesting from applicants.)
Here’s a helpful thread about what studios look for in samples.
Okay, you’ve convinced the studio that you can write. Now what? The process is different at every company, but you’ll probably have a brief interview or phone-screening. Recruiters or HR reps will get a sense of who you are as a person and what your expectations are. They’re looking for obvious red flags like, “Does your company offer pants-optional spaces?” and making sure you understand the role requirements. Relax, be yourself, and you’ll be fine.
If your interview goes well, you’ll move on to the next step.
The Writing Test
Most companies will ask for a writing test, even if you have experience and excellent samples. It’s nothing personal. If you’re insulted by the request, then…well, maybe the job’s not for you.
When I asked on Twitter for advice from other writers, they all wanted to talk about the writing test. Everyone agreed that this is where they see the most mistakes. Why? Why do so many people go wrong here? Here’s what one writer said about the writing tests his studio received:
This sums up the biggest problem studios see. By the time you’re asked to complete a writing test, they already know you can write well. What they don’t know is if you can write the kind of games they make. That’s what the test reveals.
So how do you ace it?
- Do your research. Know what kind of games you’ll be writing for. If it’s a huge company like Ubisoft, check the news to see what projects are currently in development at the studio where you’re applying. Your Assassin’s Creed test will be different from your Just Dance test. If it’s a just-announced title like Remedy’s P7 and there’s no information about the kind of game it will be, look at their other titles. You can get a pretty good sense of Remedy’s writing philosophies from Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Quantum Break. Then write your test in the studio style.
- Follow the test instructions. This seems obvious, right? Why would you ignore the instructions? But so many people disregard explicit requirements. If the test asks for “no more than five pages,” don’t write ten. Brevity might be part of the test. If the test asks for a fetch quest, don’t write a long cinematic. Write what the test asks you to. Studios want to see if you can write within constraints.
- Don’t cheat. Look, we get it. Writing tests are time consuming. It’s tough to write a good, sharp script in the short amount of time allotted. You might end up tossing something together at the last minute because your careful planning went wrong. Game studios know this. Professional writers understand. But they want to see what you produce under pressure and how well you write to specifications. If you tweak an existing sample into kinda-sorta matching the test—or worse, outright send pages from a pre-written script—you’re not helping yourself. Studios can usually tell when you fudge the test. Do you think the job isn’t worth the effort? Are you lazy? Will you cut corners on your work if you get the job? Cheating raises questions, none of them good. Just take the test and do your best.
- Minimize Risks. Writing tests are your chance to dazzle the studio. This is where you show off your command of language, your genius for witty one-liners, or your tight narrative design. Tests are not the place to innovate or try to hit the “inverted hero’s journey” beats you saw on a fanfic site last month. Write what you know you’re good at.
- Have fun! No, I’m not joking. Most professional writers I know enjoy writing tests. Treat it as a fun exercise, and write something that entertains you. That way, even if you don't get the job, you'll have another sample for your portfolio.
If you make it past it the writing test, then you’ll most likely have another interview—or series of interviews—with representatives from various studio departments: art, design, programming, audio, etc. These are the people you’ll collaborate with if you get the job. I won’t offer much advice for the interviews, but try to demonstrate your understanding of the game development process. Be genuine and ask questions. This is your chance to learn more about the industry and that studio specifically. If you don't get the job, at least you've made some new connections.
And that’s it. The rest of the hiring process is like applying for any other job. You can handle that, right?
Q & A
Applying from another discipline?
An ND from Telltale games responds:
What tools should you know and use?
Something like Twine, where we can actually play your story, works best. But at most studios, you'll write branching dialogue inside a tool that mimics Word or Final Draft. We definitely want to see how you work with those tools, so have at least one written script sample in your portfolio. On the job, you'll mostly use proprietary game-writing programs, along with Word, Final Draft, Excel, Visio, and Perforce.
What if I'm a good writer with no XP?
I suggest making your own games. Make interactive stories in Twine, Inform, ChoiceScript, or other similar programs. See if you can join an incubator program like Pixelles. And don't be afraid to go for game writing jobs! Good writing is good writing. It's a lot easier to teach someone the game development process than it is to teach them how to write well.
What about applying for jobs in other countries?
Moving abroad is a big step—for you and for the company hiring you. Find out visa requirements to see which countries it's easier for you to work in and to make sure you qualify. Talk to the company early on in the hiring process to find out how much help they provide with paperwork and moving. Some companies (like Remedy) offer generous relocation packages, but I've heard that some other companies expect you to handle moving costs and arrangements on your own. This can be very expensive and complicated, especially if you have a family or pets. Make sure you know what to expect.
Also, make sure you can handle an international move. Culture shock is real. It can be overwhelming to start a new job, in a new country, with a new language and new...everything. If you don't like change or have trouble adapting to new situations, it'll be tough.
All that being said, do it! Working abroad is an amazing, horizon-expanding experience. You'll meet incredibly talented people from all over the world, gain a new perspective on your own country, and maybe learn a new language. If you're a creative person, you'll discover that adventure inspires some of your best work.
So get informed, plan ahead, and go for it! ^^
How do I show that I understand interactive writing? What writing devices should I use?
These are good questions, but studios expect you to know the answers already. If you're applying for jobs at the AAA level, you should be aware of interactive storytelling's unique demands and know how to demonstrate your understanding. As for which plot devices and twists to use, that's a matter of personal taste. Use your best judgment. Studios want to know what you think good writing looks like. There's no point writing a sample that's outside your normal style if it's not how you'll write on the job. Trust your skills, and write stories you like.
How do I break into the industry as a writer?
This question comes up a lot and, I'm sorry, but I don't have an answer for you. I got my start in QA and worked my way up, so that's the route I know. But you're right: that path doesn't exist anymore, not the way it used to. Some companies have internships now. Some people make their own indie games first. But I don't know if there's a defined route into game writing like there used to be. Does anyone have any suggestions?
Don't let this post discourage you! You should pursue your dream and try out for any job you desire. But go into the process prepared and professional. Who knows what might happen? I'll leave you with this thought from veteran recruiter Camilla Taipalvesi:
"Open applications are recommended. Don't be shy to apply even if you feel that you're not exactly what was described in the job ad! You never know if we have some not yet opened position to which you might be a perfect fit. Quite recently we hired a Junior Writer even though we did not have the position open!"