Game Writing FAQ

A lot of people write to me and ask for advice about breaking into the game industry. So many people, in fact, that I decided I should post some general information here as a resource.  Here are answers to the most frequently asked questions about game writing.

First things first:

Who are you to be offering anybody advice?

Excellent question! I wonder about that all the time. I've been in the industry since 2004 and have worked for companies like Ubisoft, Airtight Games /Square Enix, Cyberlore, Hasbro, Nintendo, and ArenaNet. I attended (very) traditional liberal arts colleges, working my way through school as an academic editor and QA tester. After graduation, I started full-time work as QA lead at indie developer Pileated Pictures and worked my way up from there. I've been from one end of the industry to the other, so I have a holistic view of game development.

My LinkedIn profile 

My Twitter profile

anna business card_doctored.png

What do game writers do? How is that different from narrative design?

This is a trickier question than you might realize, but I’ll try to explain how narrative design and game writing differ. First, the disciplines overlap a lot. In fact, a narrative designer and game writer can perform the exact same work, only be called something different by different employers. Although I was a writer at ArenaNet, I did a lot of narrative design work.  As a narrative designer, I wrote a lot. The biggest difference, in my experience, is that narrative designers often look at a bigger picture than writers and need stronger tech skills. I know people who can barely turn on a computer, but who write like angels.  They would be ill suited for the narrative design roles, but would do great at my former writing positions.

The game-writing hierarchy generally goes something like this (in descending order): world-builders/loremasters, narrative designers, writers, editors/localizers, QA editors.  The world-builders create the game world, the story, and the overarching plot. They are likely to be the big names on a project and have the final say in how characters are developed and what happens in the story. The narrative designers construct individual story scenes along the story arc and do the actual nuts-and-bolts work of creating a working game script. Then the writers come along and flesh out the scenes with punchy dialogue and description. The final steps involve editing for clarity and continuity, translating text, and checking for errors. All of these roles interact with systems design and tech to present the story.

Game writing is collaboration. Period. Games are huge. Unless you’re working on a tiny project for an indie or mobile developer, you’re working with other people to realize the world. That means you are constantly compromising to make the game work. Even the people at the very top of the food chain, the world-builders and loremasters, have to compromise their vision. These days you’re very likely to work on an existing IP, so you’ll have little say in the game universe or character arcs. Sometimes technology will limit what you can do. And iteration can be brutal. It’s not just “kill your darlings” in the games industry, it’s often “watch the genocide of your darlings” when the entire script gets revised. You have far less control than you would have with a novel. Additionally, you have to think of narrative in a modular way sometimes, as players can progress through your story in a nonlinear fashion.

That covers the biggest differences between games and traditional forms of writing. However, I worked with a Hollywood screenwriter who had just made the transition to games and he said he was struck by how informational game writing is. Screenplays and movie scripts need only entertain, but game writing has to instruct, as well. The trick is to instruct while entertaining.

Is it enough to be a good writer? What other education or experience do I need?

Is good writing enough? The answer is (of course) yes and no.  Good writing skills are the baseline requirement. Anything else you can offer beyond that will give you an advantage in the industry. I know successful writers who can barely turn on a computer. I know narrative designers who never play video games.  I worked with a team of writers who were uniformly poor editors. They were all strong writers and HAD to be, to offset their lack of skill in other areas. I minored in computer science at school, and I have an editing background, so I qualify for a wider range of roles in the industry than people who “only” write. But you can definitely find work with only writing skills.

For education, you should finish high school and get some kind of continuing education. There are some cases of self-taught individuals doing well in the game industry, but those are exceedingly rare.  Most successful game writers have completed college and have some real-world writing experience.  Write game reviews, industry articles, or start a blog. Get your writing out there on the web.

I would recommend a traditional college education with a focus on English or creative writing. It’s not necessary to get your MA, but it’s helpful. Schools like Digipen offer game design courses and creative writing/game writing classes, so that’s also a good educational route.

Do I need to know how to program?

I asked a group of game writers this question yesterday, and they unanimously agreed that programming knowledge is helpful, but not necessary. The more you understand the underlying systems of whatever game you're working on, the better. But understanding how to write a good story is much more important. Pacing, character development, story arc—if these elements are in place, then the design is usually sound. Usually. Not always.

The player experience also depends upon gameplay. Ideally, story and gameplay fit together seamlessly, each working to deepen the meaning of the other. When these two elements are in harmony, you get a game like Journey. It swept the 2012 game awards for good reason. The lengthening scarf, the increased powers, the cryptic, limited conversation—all these gameplay elements work as metaphors for story themes. They are integral parts of the player's journey.

IGN's Journey review

journey-game-screenshot-6-b.jpg

Now, compare that to Papo Y Yo. Personally, I love the game. I think it's moving and powerful, and I love the story. We need more autobiography in game design. But the gameplay got terrible reviews. Many people found it boring and the connection between moving cubes and the storyline wasn't always apparent. The IGN review is heartbreaking for such a good game.

IGN's Papo y Yo review

papoyyo for web.jpg

My point is that you can—and should—use gameplay to tell your story. The "show, don't tell" rule for games is "gameplay, not text." So the better you understand the game mechanics, the better you can use them to tell your story.

Every company will have different expectations of their narrative designers and writers. There's no tech standard for the job that I'm aware of, beyond being able to use email, MS Word, defect dbs, and spreadsheets. ArenaNet doesn't require any previous design or programming experience for their writers/narrative designers, but some places do. It depends on whether or not you'll be implementing the story yourself or not. A lot of places don't even have dedicated writers; the designers write their own text. That's why the quality of game writing varies so much. It’s not just a matter of good and bad writers; the text pipeline plays a major role. In any case, most large companies have proprietary software that you won't be familiar with. They'll train you on software, but can't teach you how to write. So, knowing the elements of good narrative is much more important than tech skills. 

If you do want to build your tech skills, you could learn Unreal or C++. I learned Python, Javascript, and Actionscript at uni, but I honestly never use them for work. They help me understand the behavior of the game and its limitations, but that's about it. Being familiar with screenwriting software like Final Draft or conditional storytelling software like Twine is also an advantage.

But generallly…read a lot of books and play a lot of games, and you'll be in good shape.

How can I break into the industry?

You probably already know the answer to this question: keep putting yourself out there and network like crazy. Most opportunities at development houses—for game writing, anyway—never get advertised. Everybody knows a friend who “would be perfect for the job.”  If you don’t have contacts at development houses, you are never going to know when positions come available. Plus, most places prefer to hire from within. When I moved to Seattle from the east coast, I started off in QA, just to get my foot in the door out here. Even though I already had years of game-writing experience, I was willing to start at the bottom and work my way up again if it meant working at a big gaming company instead of the indie companies I had been working for. When I started at ArenaNet, I used every opportunity to remind my employers that I had game-writing experience.  I introduced myself to the writers and made sure they knew I was interested in joining their team.  I volunteered to write the story bible for GW2 so that they wouldn't have to hire a contractor for that. When they needed to staff up, I was an obvious choice.

Later that year, the writing team went into crunchtime and needed some temporary workers. We never listed the job openings on our website, just looked through the pile of resumes people had submitted on the off-chance that something would turn up someday. Two of the junior writers we hired had no previous writing experience, but they knew someone who knew ArenaNet’s lead writer and had submitted their resumes. They got the jobs largely because of networking and luck.

So how do you make connections? You guys in the Seattle area probably know about East and West Side Industry Nights, where game company folks gather and network. It’s a good place to start. There are similar networking nights in any town with a major development house. Join IGDA and get involved with one of their SIGs. Write an article for Gamasutra. You should also write to designers and writers at companies where you want to work and ask them for advice.  The main point is to put yourself out there and keep reminding people that you can write and that you’re interested in doing the work. Opportunities will come your way, if you position yourself well.

For those of you looking to break into the industry, the traditional entry point is QA. That’s where the vast majority of people get their start. That’s where I started. Some companies expect tech proficiency and experience from their testers—most development studios do. But publishers like Nintendo and Microsoft are looking only for a love of games and a pulse. They’re not ideal jobs, but it’s a foot in the door if all else fails. Check with staffing agencies like Aerotek, Parker, and Aquent.

http://www.aerotek.com/

http://www.parkerservices.com

http://www.aquent.com/

However, using a staffing agency is not the ideal option. They’ll take a big chunk of your salary, and they are not interested in helping you get ahead.  They will help you get some industry experience under your belt and on your resume while you look for better opportunities. The ideal start is to find somebody at a dev studio willing to put in a good word for you, or to find an indie/mobile developer willing to give you a chance. The smaller the company, the more likely you are to wear several hats and get to do some design work right off.

Are there any resources I should check out to study game writing?

People always ask me what books they should read to become a game writer. Answer: no idea! I asked around and no designer or writer had any books they thought were useful.  To a person, they said you should play games, read good literature, and watch movies. Take apart narratives that you think are told well and figure out how the writers made it work. One of my personal favorite things to do is rework fanfiction. I’ll take a medium-terrible work of fanfic, something awful but with potential, and try to fix it. Consider the existing story your raw material and rearrange/rewrite it until it works. That’s a very similar process to what you’ll do as a narrative designer. You’ll get bits and pieces of story and tech from other departments, and you’ll have to piece it together into a compelling story. Practice making narrative choices: is this scene more effective as a cinematic or as gameplay? How can I make this scene resonate given the tech limits? Is this a critical-path scene, or is it okay if the player misses it? How linear a narrative can I create? What if players encounter these scenes out of order? How much knowledge does the player/PC have at each step of this story? And so on. If you reeeally prefer having a text to consult, you can try Madison Smartt Bell’s Narrative Design. I haven’t read it, but I hear it’s a useful introduction to this (often hard to define) craft.

Would you be willing to look over my portfolio/read my work/submit a resume for me to your company?

I would love to look at everything you guys create, but that’s not possible. I simply don’t have time. Also, for legal reasons, I can’t look over your writing samples or design work. Sorry.

I strongly recommend joining a writing workshop to get some feedback. If you can’t find one in your area, there are some decent ones online. Getting another set of eyes on your work is invaluable. And you should start getting used to harsh critiques. You need a thick skin to survive as a writer in this industry.  There’s always going to be somebody who hates every word that you write and blames you personally for the game’s flaws. Yay.

Also, while I’m happy to pass along resumes for established writers, I can’t provide personal recommendations for people I don’t know and haven’t worked with. I’m sure you can understand why.

Final Note

Finally, I want to say something about writing for games generally. Game writing—and the game industry as a whole—looks like a lot of fun from the outside. People say that it looks like all we do is drink and party, play games, and (in my case) make up stories and lore all day. A lot of what we do is enjoyable, and I love my job, but there is a tremendous amount of drudgery, monotony, and sacrifice involved in creating games. The hours are long. The pay isn’t always great. Fans can be angry and abusive.  There is very little job security. And crunchtimes are an unending nightmare. Most people last only five years in the game industry before burning out. Five years. Sobering, isn’t it?

These QA horror stories give you an idea why people burn out so fast:

The Trenches 

the trenches nightmare.JPG

Even if you are committed to a career in the industry, there’s no guarantee you’ll find work.  Many games get canceled during production and never see the light of day. That can mean years of your work that nobody will ever see and that you have no rights to. Even if the game does get published, you might be laid off immediately after release. Finding another job can take months, even for industry veterans. Game writing is incredibly competitive, especially since there are so few positions available. 

I feel obligated to mention that the game industry is also still very much a boys’ club. The #1reasonwhy hashtag on Twitter exposed a lot of the underlying problems in the industry. There is sexism. There is homophobia. There is racism. If you are not a straight, white man, expect to work a lot harder for everything you get. If you are female or a person of color, expect to be the only person like you on your team. I’m not saying that these problems are unique to the game industry; I’m saying they are as much a problem here as they are elsewhere. It’s no utopia.

Almost every ad for game positions lists “passion for games” as a job requirement. There’s a reason. If you don’t love games, if you don’t believe in the work you’re doing and aren’t willing to make sacrifices for it, then you won’t last long. This is not a glamorous job. Often, it’s not a very fun job. If you can’t look beyond the grind of what you’re doing day-to-day and focus on the project as a whole, you’ll burn out in less than five years. 

I’m not trying to scare you away, but it’s important to have a realistic view of the development cycle. If you can tolerate all the problems I mentioned above, then the rewards are tremendous. Seeing the world you wrote come to life, watching people interact with your characters and quote your dialogue—there’s no greater thrill. Gamers can be the best, brightest, most supportive, and generous people out there. They are devoted fans and genuinely awesome people. Meeting fans of a project you worked on is the very best part of writing for games. It makes all the hardships worthwhile. 

And being a game writer lets you appreciate awesome bloopers like this:

GW2 uhoh.png

You can't catch them all.

I hope that answers your questions. If I left something out, or if you have concerns that I didn't address, please feel free to contact me.

_________________________________________________________________

UPDATE:

I received some questions about internships and game pitches that aren't covered in my FAQ, so I thought I'd include that information here.

Q:  

I love games as much as I love story telling, and so I hope to combine both and, maybe someday, write the script or be part of a writing team that works on a game! My question is though: Where does one begin? I'm sitting on at least two or three game related projects, and I'd love to pitch them to SOMEONE. Do I write them as scripts or a piece of short fiction? Do I bundle the work with a presentation on how big I think these games could be?

Currently, I would absolutely love to throw my hat into the ring and be part of a creative team on a larger IP (we all have to cut our teeth somehow, right? And I have experience in the past with these sorts of enterprises!). I'm also confident that I can put on a good spiel and wow a group with my INDIVIDUAL ideas too.

[Specifically, I need to know this:]

- HOW EXACTLY should I breach into the industry? 

Given that I have no contacts within the industry itself, I'm guessing Internships? Or maybe I should just (politely) hunt down key individuals and organise a friendly chat about it?

Generally speaking, would having work published in OTHER fields be a plus?

I have JUST finished University (A Bachlelor and Masters in the Creative Writing fields) and I'm getting around to submitting work to various journals. I'm also setting up my own blogs and websites and creative connections to show off and provide commissions/requests. If my work were at least easily access and perhaps recognised by some notable institutions, this would add to my chances of being noticed, right?

 

A:

I offer some tips for breaking into the industry in the FAQ above, but the main point is to get your work seen. That means starting a blog, writing articles, publishing stories, or working in a game studio and writing any kind of text they need. Write game reviews. Write fan fiction. Put up a portfolio website. Make sure that prospective employers can see your work. 

If you can't find an entry-level game game writing job, then an internship would be great way to get your foot in the door. I know so many people who say, "I'll work for free! I don't care! Just let me see what you guys do all day." I applaud their enthusiasm, but the days when unskilled interns fetched fresh Monsters and snacks for devs are long gone. Game internships are rare these days, now that interns earn a decent wage. If studios are going to spend budget on a worker, they're most likely to spend it on someone experienced. The good news is that it means interns are no longer glorified gophers. They perform tasks related to the career they want. The bad news is that intern spots are highly competitive. 

Many major game companies offer internship programs. 

EAhttps://careers.ea.com/students/intern_and_co-op/
Biowarehttp://www.bioware.com/en/careers/#recent-graduates
Ubisofthttp://montreal.ubisoft.com/en/video-games-jobs-my-career (Alex Danino handles internships.)

Some smaller studios also have internship spots, like the positions listed on ArenaNet's career page: http://www.arena.net/  If you're interested in working for a particular studio, contact them about internship possibilities.

I'm concerned that you mention being a writer for a major IP as a job we "cut our teeth" on. The writers I know who work on major IPs are industry veterans. They have paid their dues and usually have years of published work on smaller titles or other comparable writing experience. Game writing positions for a major studio are highly prized and fiercely competitive.  I would be extremely surprised if you were able to land a position like that right out of school. I'm not saying it NEVER happens, but it's a lot harder than you seem to think.

It sounds like your true dream is creating your own game, though. That means producing it yourself or pitching it to a studio. As I have no experience with pitches, I asked John Sutherland (www.vidgamestory.com) for his advice. Here's what he said:

First, let's straighten out a fact of the industry: Writers don't make pitches; studios do.

When a publisher is looking to make a certain kind of game, they put out a Request For Proposal (RFP) to independent development studios. The studios then pitch their ideas, which somehow fit into the larger frame that the publisher has established. Sometimes that can be very specific (we want Zoo Tycoon, but for Windows Phone), or a little more general (we want some kind of music game to compete with Guitar Hero). I'm using old examples on purpose, because these things have actually happened.

But if a writer approached a publisher, or even an independent studio and said "I have a great idea for a game," they'd be ignored. Why? Because they are already busy with their own projects, and because there are about a gazillion people in the world who have a great idea for a game.

So what do you do?

You make your own. Is it studios that pitch ideas? Start a studio.

That's what I did when I had an idea for a game. I did pitch it around at first, and some people said they wanted a playable demo, not something on paper, even though what I had on paper was awesome. One studio did want to work on it, but that was an exception, and would not have happened if I hadn't had a solid relationship with the owner. Even then, it just happened to fit into a content need he had for an experimental platform he was building. 

So, if you're a writer, get to know artists and programmers. You need more than ideas; you need finished products.

The good news is, if you get other skilled people interested enough in your ideas, no one can stop you from making them happen.

Thanks, John!

I hope this answers your questions. Above all else, don't give up. Your enthusiasm and love for games might be tested as you try to break into the industry, but opportunities do exist. Best of luck! I look forward to playing your stories someday.