Sunday, 10 February 2013

How I Got my First Job - Penumbra: Overture

Here's laziness for you. By far and away the most common question I'm asked by aspiring writers - after 'How do you be a games writer?' - is 'How did you get your first job?'. As much as I love hearing from and helping aspiring writers where I can, perhaps this post can save us all some time that we can then spend on nice things like writing tests, and reading RPS.

I got my first job, as narrative designer on Penumbra: Overture, at the end of 2006. I was 22, and halfway through an English & Philosophy BA at Southampton. I'd been reading books, playing games and writing stories for as long as I could remember. I'd been in the habit of sending sporadic bursts of emails to UK devs - at first looking for work experience (I didn't get any), then for entry-level QA and production jobs, which landed me a Summer's work at Lionhead on Black & White 2 the previous year. I don't know what spurred me to to switch from applying for actual jobs that existed to fantasy writing jobs that I figured should exist, but post-Lionhead I decided the smartest route into the industry was as a writer. After all, I was actually in the process of getting a qualification that would support my applications, and I already knew rather more about writing than I did about production or level design. Youthful naivety can be a valuable resource.

I recall one thing that happened at Lionhead while I was there that might have triggered my shift in focus. A few months before release a bunch of the other QA guys got together and wrote a short intro script that would frame the gameplay of B&W2 in a way more consistent with the mythology of the first. Frankly it was needed - any semblance of narrative progress that existed in the first game had largely been stripped out of the combat-oriented sequel, and it really didn't make much sense. In the end the idea didn't even get as far as being vetted - we'd hit text lock weeks earlier - but the image stayed with me. I realised that if Lionhead was approaching writing in so haphazard a way then maybe even a writer of my mediocrity could make a difference.

Luckily enough the indie game revolution was well under way by now. For the first time that I could remember the games I wanted to play weren't in the hands of the big corporations - everyone was doing it. Suddenly the people making the games were as inexperienced as I was. I started emailing small studios, new studios, eastern European studios... anyone doing something interesting that might be able to make use of a writer. No one replied.

And then I sent this email:

> Dear Penumbra,
> First of all, many congratulations on Penumbra - the physics based
> interaction interface is so intuitive it's a wonder it hasn't been done
> before.
> I read that you are embarking on a commercial project, and I wish you
> all the best with this, and wish to offer my services.
   The area that interested me particularly was the potential of the
> narrative to further enhance the atmosphere.  It's a promising start, but I
> think there's so much more that could be done with the actual
> implementation of the narrative, from the introduction, to the item
> descriptions, to the character's internal narrative during the game.
> I realise that Penumbra is currently a tech demo: obviously you have
> plans for the commercial release.  If you are currently looking for
> publisher financing, however, I would imagine that the tech demo is
> your greatest tool of persuasion, and as such, it would benefit from
> being as polished as it possibly can be.
> I am a UK based writer with a keen interest in the future of narrative
> based video gaming.  I have had a play with the config file for
> Penumbra, and I see that it is very easy to adapt in-game text, and I
> would love the chance to help write a more stream-lined, more engaging
> script and narrative for Penumbra.
> In case you are interested, I enclose below a re-imaging of the
> original introductory text, to demonstrate what can be done with the
> material.  If you enjoy it, please do contact me at the email provided.
> Yours sincerely,
> Tom Jubert

Despite addressing the email to the name of the game rather than the team, Frictional responded and offered me a volunteer position on the commercial project, with an unspecified offer of royalties on release.

And that is the story of how I got my first job.


  1. Hey Tom, thanks for the article, I just have a couple of questions regarding the mechanics of the application/ employment process. What kind of evidence of ability would developers typically ask of a writer? Would they be more interested in existing scripts, a completed game, or just an interview? I'm a final year game design student, so my only real asset will be a narrative driven game that I'll have completed by the end of the year. Also to what capacity can a writer work at a distance from the developer? I take it you probably didn't move to Sweden to work on Penumbra?

  2. I've almost always worked from home in London, with studio visists where necessary.

    Thing they will be most interested in, in approximate order:

    1. Completed games
    2. Existing scripts
    3. Interview