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Writing For Games
Originally written: October, 2003. Most recent update: June, 2017 (deleted dead links, added a link).
NOTE: these lessons are primarily aimed at aspiring game designers, but many of the concepts described herein also apply to those who aspire to other types of jobs in the game industry. This lesson is subject to changes and improvements; reader comments are welcome.
I was attending the San Diego Comic-Con International (http://www.comic-con.org/) in the early 1990s. A writer I'd hired to work with me on a couple of Activision's Super Nintendo video games (X-Kaliber 2097 and Alien vs. Predator) was speaking at a seminar on his experience writing for video games with me. His name was Mark London Williams.
During Mark's talk, he pointed me out (in the audience) as his producer on these projects. So during the Q&A session following his talk, several of the questions got directed to me. It was kind of awkward. Not only because I was taking the limelight off Mark, but also because people would ask a question about "writing games" - but then it would turn out that one of them meant programming games, another one meant designing games, and hardly anybody was asking about what the speaker's talk was about - writing!
Mark is a screenwriter and a writer of comic books. He isn't a programmer, and he isn't a game designer. He's a writer.
I have gotten several questions lately about how to get a job writing storylines for games. So I decided to write an FAQ about it. And, um, I guess that's what I'm doing now (as I write this - not as you read this - I mean, how could you be reading it while I'm writing it, unless you're standing right behind me... Ahem. You can probably tell that I'm not a very good writer).
I think some people regard writing for games an easy alternative to, say, programming or graphics. "I'm no good at math, I'm not artistic. Hey, I know - I'll bet writing is easy!" That's not a good train of thought upon which to plan a career. Besides, as hard as it is to get a job at a game company these days, it's even harder to get a gig writing for games.
WRITERS AND GAMES
There are several different kinds of writing used in the making and marketing of video games. You're probably just thinking about Narrative Design (story writing and dialogue writing), but that isn't the only kind of writing used in games.
If someone at the game company has demonstrated brilliant excellence at storytelling and writing (especially if that employee has been published), then some producers might try that person out as a game's story writer. But it's a big risk. Most producers would rather hire someone with professional storytelling experience, either as a scriptwriter, novelist, or comic book writer, for instance. A degree in writing or literature would probably be a good way to prepare for writing game storylines as a freelance writer.
Writing words to be spoken by voice actors (or to be read on the screen as if spoken by characters) is a special talent. A degree in screenwriting, and professional experience writing for TV or film would probably be the best way to prepare for getting a freelance gig writing story dialogue.
Some game companies might hire technical writers to create the game design documents, sparing the designers to do their regular jobs (programming, producing, graphics, audio, whatever). And some game companies do hire technical writers to document the workings of the game engine - especially when the company plans to license the engine to other companies.
Game publishing companies have to write those manuals to be compact and informative. The game designer probably meets with the game publishing company's copy writer to discuss the essential information that goes into these.
Game publishing companies have marketing departments, which either have someone on staff who writes ad copy, or they hire companies who make their ads (including the copy) for them.
A game publishing company's website copy might be written by someone at the company's marketing department, or possibly by someone at an external website management company (or marketing firm).
Game Previews & Reviews
Writers to write game previews and reviews don't work for game companies - they work for print game magazines or online game magazines.
The copy that goes on the game package is usually written by someone in marketing - or at an external marketing firm.
Sell sheets are one-page flyers that describe a game to the trade. The game publishing company's sales department gives these to distributors and/or store buyers. Although these little flyers are intended to sell thousands of copies of a game at a time, they're much drier than a magazine ad and go into detail about advertising schedules, bulk shipment costs, and other stuff that the average customer couldn't care less about.
Those books you buy at the game shop, or DVDs we're starting to hear about, are written by professional writers who work for a book publishing company.
PREPARING FOR A CAREER WRITING FOR GAMES
Get a writing degree. Write a lot. Get published, or get your work performed. Collect tear sheets, reviews, credits, etc. and build a writer's portfolio. FAQ 3, FAQ 6, and FAQ 12 also contain valuable ideas and suggestions for you along these lines. Read all the FAQs, in fact. (Reading is a natural extension of what a writer does.) And explore the Game Biz Links page too; click the links in the nav frame at left. And play lots of games. Analyze the writing therein. Be prepared to discuss the pros and cons of lots of today's games from a writing stance. Read up on the difference between narrative storytelling and interactive storytelling. See FAQ 8 to find some good books.
GETTING WORK WRITING FOR GAMES
Take your four-year (minimum) writing degree and your outstanding writer's portfolio to a variety of game companies. There are probably precious few writing jobs at small game development houses, but you certainly ought to include those in your job search, at least for networking purposes and to build your contacts. Producers at publishing companies might be a better bet. Or marketing companies who do work for game companies (manuals, ad copy, package copy, web copy) - do your research to find the right kind of companies for the sort of writing you do. If you want to write strategy guides, one way to start is by contributing to GameFAQs.
If you want to write game story or game dialogue, get experience in TV or film, then take your impressive credentials to game producers and let them know your services (most likely freelance) are available. One problem is finding out who the producers are. The solution? Get some games in the genre you want to write for, and find their names in credits. Then phone the companies where these producers work and ask to speak directly to the producer (by name). The phone receptionist (if they have a live one) may make it difficult to get through to the producer if you don't have a professional telephone manner.
Some AAA game companies (developers or publishers) have full-time jobs for writers (also called "Narrative Designers"). Before you can be hired as a narrative designer, you'll probably have to get some gigs as a freelance writer. And freelancing is not for raw beginners or the hard-work challenged. It will take a lot of
hard work to market yourself into that kind of gig. But if you want to be a writer, all writing jobs (in or out of the game biz) are like that anyway.
This Lesson was spurred by a spate of posts about writing, on the newsgroups and online forums. This post in particular is apropos:
Subject: Re: Game Developer Program in LA
Date: Sept. 1, 2003
>> if you
>> are serious about writing for games, it would be wise to
>> learn more about the games industry,
From: email@example.com (Walter Geist)
>Exactly! Which is why I started this thread asking about a game
>developer program in LA.
What I advised, Walter, is that there are two paths to becoming a game writer -
(1) by first polishing your writing craft in film or TV (or other story medium like comic books) to establish your credentials as someone game producers will want to hire for their game projects, or
(2) by polishing your writing craft in a writing degree at college, then getting a job in the game industry while continuing to hone your writing craft in your spare time. By dint of the fact that you have your foot in the door, as you show your writing around, you can wangle a position in writing for games that you work on.
>I was very surprised when one of the Tom's
>said "get a writing degree".
I'm surprised that you were surprised. If you want to write, should you not study writing? If you wanted to program, would you not expect to study programming?
>I seriously doubt whether any writing
>programs even touch on the issue of video games.
I do too. So what? If you want to establish props as a writer, you have to know writing really well. What better way than by studying it seriously for four years?
Other thread participant wrote:
>> Don't take this the wrong way, but a writer with no games
>> experience coming into a game development studio talking
>> about writing for games is likely to be laughed out the
>> building (perhaps with the exception of some really big
Not necessarily. For several of my video game projects, I hired a comic book writer to jazz up the story. Mind you, these were games that had already been created in Japan - we got the translated text and the translations weren't that strong. We needed a pro's touch. The writer didn't need to know how games are made. He only needed to know what I needed from him.
And then when I did Shanghai Great Moments on the PC with Rosalind Chao as emcee, I hired a TV writer (one of the writers from Friends, in fact) to write her dialogue. The writer didn't have to know how games are made - she only needed to know what I needed for my game.
NOTE: Those writing jobs were both temporary writing gigs. NOT full-time writing jobs. There is no such thing as a full-time "game story writer" job, or if there is, there are very few openings (and are probably limited to the very largest game companies that do development internally - or developers who specialize in story-intensive game genres).
>> However, if he (or she) can show that he _actually_
>> understands games, it's likely things will be different.
>I would think the same would be true for a writer walking in waving a
>writing degree too.
If you want a full-time job working at a game company, you do most certainly need more than a writing degree. You also need to have skills that will get you hired. Because your job position won't be "game story writer," as explained above. You could get into the game biz as a programmer, an artist, a producer, a marketer, Customer Support, Q.A., or anything. I know one guy who rose from game warehouse forklift driver to become president of a big game company. So anything is possible once you get your foot in the door. And yes, you probably won't get hired full-time at a game company with just a writing degree.
>I predict there will be a real niche for
>developers who can also write.
It's kind of silly to predict something that has already occurred! (^_^)
Join conversations with other game writers at the GameDev.net "Writing for Games" forum.
The IGDA has a lot of information to those who aspire to write for games. Go to http://www.igda.org/writing/. Not a member of the IGDA? WHY NOT??
See this website's Game Biz Links page to find sites where game jobs are advertised.
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