Monday 8 April 2013

How to Hire a Games Writer

It seems like I've written a bunch of stuff on how to freelance and secure jobs as a writer, but very little about the other side of that equation - how studios can go about finding and selecting writers. If anything it's perhaps the bigger open question of the two.

Writing is still a new and niche enough discipline that a majority of the people who have hired me have been hiring a writer for the very first time - and they sometimes come across me in the most roundabout of ways. So maybe you're a one-man band looking for someone to write some short dialogues; maybe you're a producer on a AAA tasked with finding a narrative designer. Where do you start?

Where to Look for Writers
Most developers probably know and have worked with numerous freelance programmers, artists and musicians - but if you're hiring a writer for the first time, where should you look?

Online Databases
There are a bunch of sites which allow freelancers of all kinds to upload their details for your perusal, like this one. These are often hit and miss - some are out of date, most have no curation, and many still don't have a separate category for writers. Still, they're usually free for everyone, and a LinkedIn search is never a bad idea. You could also check out local writers' guilds, or the IGDA list - but at the end of the day writers have the same problems getting their names in front of you as you do finding theirs because the channels are so niche and distributed.

Recruitment Agencies
Generally recruitment firms aren't setup to deal with contract positions, but they do have large databases, including lots of writers, so it may not hurt to get in touch. There's a cost associated with advertising via a recruitment agency, but you should have the benefit of a wider reach and some degree of curation on the part of the agent. I was actually contacted by Interactive Selection the other week for a full-time position which I seriously considered, and I'd not been on their site in years, so the reach may work for you.

Writers' Agencies
An agent will represent anywhere from a couple to twenty-odd experienced writers - those ont he smaller side are often a small cabal of writers pooling their marketing resources. A good agent will have writers with guaranteed experience on their books, and be able to recommend particular people for particular jobs, provide a team of writers, or give you an opportunity to meet and assess some potentials.

The only agency with which I have any experience - and the only one I'm aware of of its size and experience - is Sidelines. It currently represents 16 writers (myself included), and frankly I was lucky to get in the door with only the Penumbra games when I did, because in their five years' operation the entry requirements have only gotten tougher. An agency will charge a small commission, which generally comes out of the writer's side.

Do Some DIY Headhunting
You might be surprised by how many games are written by freelance writers. While you can rule out a lot of AAA RPGs, games as diverse as Fable, Tomb Raider, Deus Ex and Hitman all involve freelancers one way or another. It can't hurt to get onto MobyGames, find out who did what on a game you reckon, and click through to their bio to see. Any good freelancer should have a few credits to their name and - if they're any kind of marketer - have their details filled out.

Email the IGDA Writers SIG
There are a lot of experienced writers on this list, and there are also also a lot of journalists and students. Treat accordingly.

How to Select a Writer
Once you've got some names in mind, what should you do? First, read this. That'll give you an idea for rates and standard engagements. Next you should get in touch with your shortlist and gauge their interest in the project. If they're game then - unless you've got someone whose previous work you're sure enough of not to bother - I'd suggest constructing and issuing a short writing test. I think out-of-context samples suck (at least watch a video of the game in action), and often enough the samples a writer has to hand will not sell them to their full. Samples tell you what a writer was able to do under different conditions. A bespoke test tells you what they can actually do for your project.

The test should ask the candidate to write according to a brief in keeping with the project, and should test each of the disciplines required for the role (eg dialogue writing, character design, prose, dialogue trees etc). For a short engagement ( less than 10 days), I'd say a few hundred words is reasonable. For a larger project you should probably stretch to a couple of thousand.

There is a general consensus between the agencies and writing guilds that writers should be paid for the time they spend on tests. I suppose there would be. The reality is that we're often not, and personally I will always take the chance to do a test for a game I'm interested in, whether it's paid or not. If you can afford it, or if you're asking for a big chunk of work, or multiple meetings / submissions then we certainly appreciate it. If not then don't let it put you off.

If you're not sure how to go about constructing the test and you don't have another writer on hand to do it for you, either give your candidate what they need to know about the game and let them take the lead (they should be more than capable of doing so) or get in touch with me.

Finally, get experienced second opinions on the tests. If possible meet your candidates in person, or over Skype. Make a call.

That's it. You've got yourself a writer.


  1. Ta for this. It's actually a handy resource for someone looking for writing work as well.

  2. I hope so!

    Out of all these I've certainly found 'DIY Headhunting' to be the most rewarding in both directions. It's great when a studio approaches you and is familiar with your work and is bringing you a job that fits.

    Has anyone hired / been hired any other interesting ways?

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    2. I got my first 2 video game writing projects via Elance, retaining one of the clients outside the platform. I wouldn't really recommend freelance job market platforms for full-time / professional freelance writers because of the quality of both jobs and pay, but, in my experience, these can help form long-lasting connections if you're lucky.

      Quite a rare thing, though, really.

      I got another job by stalking MODDB. Like Tom said, 'DIY Headhunting' (aka cold, personalized mails) seem to work best, though.


  3. I'm just starting my attempt to land some writing work in the games industry. Even though this post is for "the other side of things" it was still helpful.

    It was nice meeting you at the Writing SIG breakfast at GDC, Tom!