Monday, 14 March 2011

10 Tips on How to Become a Professional Games Writer

It's the number one question we get asked. We talk about it in panels, in classes, in interviews, and in the pub. Even assuming you're remarkably talented and know everything that's everything about games, you're facing long odds - but you know that already. I don't claim to be any kind of expert at 'getting in' - after all, I've only done it the once - but for what it's worth, here's the definitive guide as I see it to becoming a professional narrative designer.

1. Be a remarkably talented writer. Frankly, like me, you could get away with being competent with a bit of personal flair, provided you also have a bit of luck and know games inside out. But if you're a naff writer - if you've not written for yourself, or braved honest critique with your work - that's your first stumbling block. Being fantastic will help lots.

2. Understand games. Playing lots of shooters probably isn't enough. You've got to think about games critically as any developer would - that's what makes you a narrative designer, not just a hired hack.

3. To those ends, play lots of games, read lots of books. Think about them. Write about them.

4. Keep trying, take anything, try everything. Build an indie game, write for a mod, write reviews, email devs, work in QA, build a portfolio.

5. Network. Doesn't matter what route you come into the business through, getting jobs - particularly writing jobs - isn't always a case of seeing an ad and sending in your CV. Go to events, buy people beer, bum a cigarette, blog, twitter, remind people you exist.

6. Network. Seriously. 70% of my work comes through networking and repeat custom. The rest is through my fabulous agency (who, I'm afraid, only consider established professionals). Can you guess how I got in touch with my fabulous agency? Networking.

The routes in... 
7. Be a professional writer in another medium. Sounds like a big ask, but look at it this way: every medium other than games is better equipped to recognise and reward writing talent. Books and comics in particular are far lower cost, and have more releases every year - and therefore have more demand for good writing. It'll still require excellent networking to make the switch, though.

8. Move roles within the games industry. Entry level positions in production, level design and QA are all realistic goals for a talented writer and, with some careful planning and a constant eye on opportunities within the company, can be converted into a writing role - either over time by picking up basic writing responsibilities, or as a direct move. Do note, though, that telling your seasoned QA manager that you're only there to get a 'proper job' is most likely a poor idea.

9. Get in with the indies. This was my route. Working on something amateur is very easy to get into (by comparison to, say, writing a novel). Do it enough and one of them might turn pro. Congrats - you've got your first professional writing credit! Now go network!

10. Learn from my mistakes.
DO email loads of devs (ideally smaller ones in less established territories like eastern Europe) out of the blue telling them how much you love their games (if you do) and how you think you can help. I must have sent hundreds of prospective mails before I got my break on Penumbra.

DON'T piss people off with spam.

DO keep trying.

DON'T keep trying if everyone (even your mum) tells you your writing is shit. It probably is. Play to your strengths.

DO realise that being a video game writer is one of the most sought after jobs on the planet because it's one of the most amazing jobs on the planet.

DON'T forget that if you're a fantastic writer you're already ahead of 90% of your competition.

***UPDATE 2***
This post remains the most hit page of this blog, so I can only figure a lot of you are landing here from google searches and whatnot. Hello, I'm Tom.

If you'd like more help and resources on how to get into this line of work do leave me a comment down below and I'll get back to you. I also recommend you check out the list of narrative design resources (design docs etc) listed on this very site!

You may also find some of the other posts on this blog of use. Some good places to start are the Development and Advice tags.

***UPDATE***
I went to a BAFTA games writing event recently at the ICA to have a meeting with my agent and Charles Cecil, and met a chap from the drama industry looking to break into games. I wrote him out some good places to start looking for small indie teams and while I'm sure a lot of my readers will be familiar with these already, they may prove useful for anyone referring back here in the future.

http://forums.tigsource.com/index.php Indie dev forums with lots of work-in-progress and volunteer request threads. Just be aware that most are ludicrous pipe dreams; steer clear of the one-man-MMOs.

http://www.gamasutra.com/jobs/ I've seen the odd small / cheap writing job go up on these boards, worth posting a profile at any rate.

http://www.moddb.com/ Home of work-in-progress mod projects, some really good stuff here.

http://www.igf.com/ Competition for the very best indies, should give you a picture of who's big at the mo.

31 comments:

  1. That's everything I can think of right now. There's probably more. Questions, comments, reminders? Let me know and I'll update the post as we go.

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  2. If the barrier of entry for games writing is so high, why do you think that the average quality of games writing is percieved to be so low? Is it a perception problem, or lack of sensible paradigms for quality games writing?
    Great article though!

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  3. Looks like my computer will need an upgrade before I can even talk to people about playing their games. I own nothing that can play Source games of any age, and even some early 2000 games stutter on medium settings.

    On judging whether you're skilled at writing:
    I've noticed in most of my writing classes that the very best writers wrote fantastic work that they were critical of. I was actually comforted somewhat when I wrote a story that didn't have a lot of action in it (to challenge a weakness of mine) and still received a good deal of positive feedback, even though I felt like it could've been a trainwreck.

    It's not a guaranteed barometer of success, of course, just a recurring theme.

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  4. P.S. Thanks a lot, Tom!
    P.P.S. That really should've been the first thing I said. Manners, tsk tsk.

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  5. @anon
    Good question.

    I think it's predominantly inappropriate expectations.

    Expecting filmic quality dialogue in anything outside of a heavily on-rails game is unrealistic. We have less (sometimes no) control over pace, less detailed visuals (think facial animation), often far larger scripts, and huge portions of necessary exposition (how to play the game and objectvies at the very least).

    Games can portray narrative in ways entirely unique to the medium, and to look at a game script and say "This isn't as good as an average film" is somewhat to miss the point: the average film's limitations mean it can give you a more polished experience, but it can't put you IN that experience. It can't make you responsible for that experience. And if it did, I'd bet you'd find the overall polish suffered accordingly.

    Of course, none of this is to excuse terrible dialogue in games. Just like any other medium there are 'bad' games writers (I don't believe writing is an objective thing, but we can probably consider a professional writer bad when he's borrowing heavily from elsewhere and when people don't like his material). Because story is of less priority (rightly so) than gameplay, and because it's developing as a craft far later than gameplay, bad writing slips through the net that much easier.

    For now. Bwa ha hah! etc

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  6. @Tom:
    You mentioned not having control over facial animation, but could you approach that in reverse by seeing it at work, then writing appropriately for the tech?

    Granted, some writing would become abysmal, but it sounds like an interesting experiment.

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  7. That's exactly the way it does work - you know what you're capable of technically and you write within that. Sadly while there are big steps being made in animation, you still need a sentence of dialogue where a good actor on film could have conveyed it with a glance.

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  8. I see. Perhaps the accusations of Bethesda's dialogue in Oblivion and Fallout 3 being stilted are more related to tech, possibly? The same goes for people's interpretations of Mark Meer's performance as male Shepard in Mass Effect. After all, Meer himself has received accolades for his comedy performances, but that kind of expression alongside Shepard's rather inexpressive face could be worse than keeping it low-key.

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  9. I'd second (8)

    8a) Learn to be a programmer/artist
    8b) Volunteer to do it when nobody else wants to.

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  10. Absolutely. I fondly recall my first job in QA on Black & White 2. The story really hadn't been given as much care as it had been in the original game, and a bunch of the QA kids - funnily enough myself excluded - went and pitched a very implementable concept to the designers. If it hadn't been post text lock I think they would have been in with a chance,a nd that would haev set them up beautifully.

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  11. There are several steps an older job seeker can take to make the most of their job search. First and foremost, take a career inventory. Make a list of all the positions previously held. What tasks were completed? What accomplishments were made? One of the biggest obstacles for older workers is that they may be overqualified for jobs they’re applying to, so try to narrow down experience to what’s really important.

    employment tips

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  12. Interesting look into the field. One gets the feeling (somehow) that word-of-mouth is a pretty big deal (game writers are few and must network a lot), and that ad hoc practitioners of the craft are a sizeable part of it (people going into writing without formal training, coming from other game-related tasks, etc.)

    I agree that movie comparisons aren't fair to games as a medium, etc. But it remains that much (big-budget) games strive to tack on Hollywood scripts to samey mechanics-driven AAA products, forcing the comparison.

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  13. "DON'T forget that if you're a fantastic writer you're already ahead of 90% of your competition."

    This was the clever bit. At least for those struggling who truly believe they've got what it takes, after a gruellingly realistic list of 'tips' that offer little reprieve or hope.. That line is just what they need at the end to give them a flush of positivity and a reason to smile.

    Worked for me. I strive onward. I imagine it would help if I could decide on writing, art or design - as trying to do all three is a bit exhausting.

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  14. In fairness that's kind of my policy in life. I've been on the other side of the interview table, and I'd say whatever job you're going for if you can string a sentence together without picking your nose you're ahead of 50% of everyone.

    There's often room for cross discipline in our industry. I would, as you say, recommend having at least one of those disciplines as a primary - demonstrating good work in one area is still better than average work in three I'd bet. And of those roles, art is probably the most accessible (to a talented artist).

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  15. TJ,
    I disagree that we can't achieve filmic quality (although why would we want to instead of our own quality) in games. Less detailed visuals don't seem to be a problem for animated movies, comic books, and novels (which have no visuals); larger scripts, while a real challenge to deal with, shouldn't be an obstacle when fiction writers such as George R. R. Martin (in fantasy) and more academically respected writers such as David Foster Wallace and James Joyce wrote thousand page epics of high quality; and I think in terms of pace, game writers need to make use of different literary devices than movies in order to achieve proper pacing.

    I don't believe that game writing has to be less polished than movie or fiction writing.

    Also, I'd add to your list that practicing with different forms of writing will help one's game writing. Dealing with poetry, vignettes/flash fiction, fiction, and even journalistic writing will improve one's talent in all of them including one's talent at writing for games.

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  16. This is a very insightful blog and I thank you for it. I haven't played Penumbra yet even though I should but I have seen people play it and the writing is very good. Seeing as how I am 17 and have written a book, I do think I am a little ahead of the game. Since I do consider myself an awesome writer (Everyone tells me that and I breeze by writing in school with nothing less than an A), I think that it won't be hard for me to get a spot on a team but its just time limitations and commitment. Also being under the age of 18 really doesn't help my position but that should end shortly. Networking is the best advice yet the simplest one to overlook. I should start now since its never too late to have connections. Thanks for the blog.

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  17. I thinks the explanation for bad writing in games is all that the TJ listed as most important skill: networking.

    There are plenty of good books out there because it only takes one man to make a finished product.

    It takes an army and millions to make a AAA game. And as with movies, whoever is investing in games wants his money back, first and foremost. So the plot, game play and narrative will follow case studies and statistical analysis more than a talent and a vision.

    when a talented writer, starts on a book, he's only got his own time to waste. When lead designer decided on the story/narrative he's got shareholders money, and strict goals on returns.
    It is very risky to get a game revolve around a decent innovative story. It's much easier, and cheaper to focus on other aspects and make story at most non intrusive with the game play.

    I'm afraid that as with movies we'll only see great stories in a obscure, low budged productions. (with exception of odd AAA titles that will never make money)

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  18. @Philtron
    Thanks for the counterpoint :-) Perhaps 'can't' is a strong word, but I stand by my argument.

    On visuals, I'd argue comics and literature still have more detail available to them. perhaps the images aren't as high fidelity, but you can still with ease portray a bemused grin in a comic panel or describe a melencholy, far off look in a book. The player's attention is far harder to guarentee in a game, and facial animation isn't much beyond happy, sad or talking quite yet.

    Certainly there are epic books written, but usually they're not having to cover the same one scenario from four different perspectives. On your average Mass Effect you need to allow each story to be told in a bunch of different ways and still be meaningful and dramatic. That's a very different demand to writing a book.

    Again with pacing, I agree that we need to develop new methods to control it. We already do some basic things in this area: L4D's director, locking players in rooms, triggering flavour dialogues if he hasn't done anything for a while etc. Ultimately, though, even as we develop these techniques there will be no fix for if the player decides to jump in circles around the NPC during the dialogue. There's no fix if he decides to train a machine gun on a corpse and watch it disintegrate for five minutes. Not unless, that is, you impose what I would consider unacceptable restrictions on his actions.

    We can never have - nor would want - the control that writers in other mediums have, and that is the crux of my point.

    @ArdentWriter
    Glad the blog's helping, mate. Cocky is good, keep working at it, but don't be surprised if when you come to securing that not-hard-to-find spot on the team you find yourself up against a whole bunch of people who breezed through English like you did ;-)

    @Anon
    I definately think there's something in this to the extent I suggested in point 7 above: games developers aren't as experienced in recognising good writing as your average literary publisher, and they're more risk averse.

    Of course, as you point out, it's not a dissimilar situation to movies, and keeping good writing in a more niche domain for the most part isn't the end of the world as we know it.

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  19. TJ,
    Point taken.

    However I disagree with your crux. I think it is a misconception that other mediums have more control than games. Quite the opposite, I believe that games have phenomenally more control than books, films, etc.

    Perhaps artists in other mediums have more control over their skills because they have a longer history of perfecting the craft, but game developers have much more control over the audience than anyone else.

    We can lock a player in a room or we can even lock their movement while talking to an NPC so they can't jump around. I don't think these are good things to do to a player but they are possible. Most importantly, game developers control when and how the player progresses through the game. I cannot skip to the end of Mass Effect and see what happens. I can read about the end, I can check out videos of the end, but in the context of the game the developer is controlling the circumstances under which I can finish the game. Books and movies can't do this. If I want to skip to the end of "1984" and read the ending, I can, and there's nothing George Orwell could have done to stop me.

    Authors and film directors can't control if the audience is paying attention to their work; they can't control if they approach the work in the right fashion (beginning to end). But a game developer can make sure that the player only gets to Planet B after he has completed Planet A and has completed it in the way(s) that the developer decides are possible.

    I also wanted to say something that I forgot to mention in my previous comment:
    I really did appreciate your ten tips, especially the one about networking. Whether someone "makes it" in their chosen field is greatly dependent on their access to networks, even more so than their talent, I believe.

    @ArdentWriter
    I concur with what TJ wrote to you.
    There are a lot of talented writers out there. My advice is to try and get into a good university. Being around like minded peers will challenge you and hone your skills. It will also provide you with a new network to rely on.

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  20. As someone who's been a professional writer in the game industry for 28 years, I'd like to chime in with a few thoughts:

    * Interesting blog posts.

    * One route into any developer position is via the tester pit. Many, many examples of folks who got themselves a low-level tester position, let people know they were interested in more, worked hard and impressed folks, and then moved up into design, writing, production, audio, etc. positions. I could name a dozen people like that off the top of my head. The guy who just became president of Volition (dev studio in Champaign, IL) with Mike Kulas's recent resignation was a tester on the first game I ever did design work for.

    * I believe the highest barrier to quality writing in video/computer games is the near-complete lack of a quality review and revision process. Many games come out with the dialogue never having been reviewed by someone competent to critique it. The writer was left to critique and revise his own work, which is far from the optimal situation. Much of the writing you see/hear in published video games should be considered first draft, as a review-and-revision process was never done on it.

    Imagine movies being released with the dialogue taken verbatim from the script's first draft (have you seen how bad first drafts of movie scripts are? They're much worse than video game writing.). Or the first draft of a book published with no editorial pass. Those things never occur except in self-published, vanity works. Those would be awful movies to force yourself to sit through and books you'd poke your eyes out rather than finish. Yet that's the equivalent of the state in which video game writing is published. IMO, it's not the writers' fault, it's the process's fault. Only when dev teams have more than one person who can write, so that someone at least semi-competent can review the writing and provide helpful feedback, will we get better writing in games.

    FWIW.

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  21. One other comment that might be of interest: When I was at a studio other than the one I work at now, I took a survey of every designer at the company. This included writers, level designers, gameplay designers, and creative directors. Only 40% of those folks had college degrees, which shocked the hell out of me. The ones who didn't have degrees mostly came up through the tester pit, never having gone to college or having dropped out at some point.

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  22. You make a strong and undeniable point when you emphasize the importance of networking. You could be writing the Shakespeare of video game criticism and posting it to your blog and no one would know it because your name isn't out there.

    Go out and meet people!

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  23. Thanks for this article! it's very useful. But i've got a question, english isn't my first language, is that a big problem? i'm planning to study in england, so it shouldn't be a problem but some sites say game producers only hire native english speakers.

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  24. I shouldn't worry about actually being a native English speaker, but to take any development role in the UK they will be looking for a 'native standard' of English, or at the very least a basic level of English communication. This is perfectly achievable for foreigners. If you're looking for writing roles in particular then it will absolutely have to be the former - you're competing with a lot of other writers you have been using the language since birth!

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  25. And by 'the former' I mean the native standard!

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  26. Thank you so much for this blog, it was great info for my degree final project. Unfortunately a degree in creative writing doesn't guaranty anything. I wrote a synopsis, flow charts, maps, descriptions with mood-boards and about 20 or so pages of script, as my final year project but I have no idea what to do with it. Where I am living at the moment there are very little to no contacts to be made.
    Do you have any ideas on how I could bring this project to be even coincident by anyone in the industry Indie or AAA?
    I'm sure you probably answered this question somewhere, but I can't find it, this being a very specific question.
    Thank you again for writing this blog and that you for your time.

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  27. Hi Charlotte,

    I'm not sure what you mean by 'bring to the attention of'. If you mean 'How can I get someone to make my idea into a game?' I'm afraid the answer is that you just won't.

    If you mean how can you use it to get a job, I would take a few sections out of it and use them in my portfolio. Very unlikely anyone is going to go through 20 pages of script + mood boards et al. Then you just need to email everyone, and if anyone replies asking for portfolio, send it off!

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  28. I've always wanted to write for games. However, I'm starting to doubt myself, since I know that most companies only hire experienced (or Japanese only, Nintendo) people to write for them. I have no backup plan except for writing books...

    I'd just like to ask how one might get started or well-known, especially if you are simply a random person asking for a chance. I have a lot of feedback from friends who won't stop clamoring for me to become a big writer, but that's about it. I have quite a ways to go before I MUST make a decision, but I really want to know how one might be able to start. Thanks for your time, and good day.

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  29. Hi Katie. You're right that the big players only hire experienced writers; but if you follow the tips listed above you stand the best chance (IMHO) of getting your portfolio in front of people who are prepared to give newcomers a chance: the indies, the mod-makers, mobile studios etc.

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