I was lucky enough to attend another panel at Dragon Con 2014, which was titled, “So You Want To Be A Video Game Writer?” Many people I’ve talked to on twitter and online in general have talked about wanting to get into the game industry, more specifically in writing roles. Some of the most common questions I come across are related to how one gets into the gaming industry as a writer. Because of this, I felt this panel was vital to attend. The panelists in attendance were: Randy Begel (Writer at Riot Games), Bill Bridges (Writer for White Wolf and Fading Suns), Ian Frazier (Lead Designer at Bioware Montreal), David Haddock (Lead Writer for Star Citizen), and Ann Lemay (Writer at Bioware Montreal). Tracy Hickman (Dragonlance Author) was also originally supposed to attend, but due to the massive crowds filling the Atlanta streets for the Dragon Con Parade, he arrived too late to participate for very long. Though his few minutes with us were rather humorous and entertaining.
The panel flowed well from the beginning and was guided by questions from the audience. The first question asked was, “What do you focus on when writing? What should people expect if they come into a writing position?” The panelists took turns answering back and forth, stressing that with game writing, while many features of writing depend on the type of game you’re writing about, the primary focus should always be the player, first and foremost. Many writers take pride in their creations, but with game writing you have to be able to detach yourself from the story and characters enough to see it from a player’s perspective. It’s very different from prose writing. Often times you may find yourself just putting the “icing on the cake” with pieces of the story. There are many limitations with video game writing that you have to work with and around to make it all come together. Collaboration with design, production, art, and everyone else is highly recommended when time allows, so that any rough edges can be smoothed out and to keep everyone on the same page.
The next person in the audience asked, “How do you get in? What failures should you expect?” Here the panelists were very open and honest, stating that you should expect a lot of rejection, but to never give up. One panelist joked about how, for a few years, he wallpapered his apartment with rejection letters, but he never gave stopped chasing the dream. He just continued to write, continued learning more about how video game writing works, until it finally worked out. Even when you’re in you can still experience failure due to cancellations, which also happen often. They mentioned that a good way to get a lot of experience that is highly appreciated by those looking to hire writers is to work on game modules, or write your little hearts out on Twine or StoryNexus. They also noted that they really like to see when someone has listed D&D or table top RPGs under their skills, especially if they were the DM, because that immediately tells them that that person understands how storytelling with players should flow and function.
Don’t be afraid to show your passion for writing; be tenacious. Send out resumes to everyone and make sure to only include your best work. Quality of work is more impressive than quantity since most writers looking to hire don’t necessary have the time to read through every story they’re sent, so put your best foot forward. As for how to get in, they basically just say to network when the time allows, build a portfolio of your work and include your best on your resume. Try to get in with a small, indie game maker first. They are usually 1-2 man jobs, so getting experience with the actual process is priceless.
They were next asked, “What is the best part of writing?” They all agreed that seeing their work come to life is a great high. When their writing comes together with animation, music, voice acting, and everything else, it’s a pretty surreal moment to have that creation alive before them. The close second to that is the excitement from the fans, since that is whom they are ultimately doing all of this for.
“What resources do you use?” came up as the next question, which is an especially good question when it comes to the sci-fi, technologically driven games, like Mass Effect for example. Most said that they look into modern day science news and technology to try to make sure that they are as accurate and believable as possible. Of course, there will be some space magic thrown in, but you want the technical side of things to be accurate when possible. Keep track of all of your sources so that if you need to research anything you’ve already done you can easily retrace your steps. New Scientist Magazine is a very popular source used by many, as it not only provides up to date science information, but it also likes to push boundaries and broach new theories to keep science moving forward. They stated that it’s also very useful to pull from art history and mythologies to tie the science fiction to the past, utilizing that fusion to create a sense of attachment between the unknown and known.
The next audience member asked how they balance fan service with originality. They responded by saying it can really vary per project; some stories allow more room to try to cater to their fans (or mess with them), but they know the reality of it is that you can’t please everyone. They try to look at the main source of fan requests, and if they’re able, they’ll use it as inspiration to try to build from it to include, if it fits the story.
Someone followed up by inquiring if they write primarily in chronological order, or if they tend to skip around? Once again, it kind of depends on the project, but the most important piece of any writing is to have a strong outline. Writing chronologically is ideal when you’re able, but more often than not, you’re having to work around production or collaborating with others. As long as you have a strong outline in place you know what you need to work on, and you can smooth things out when the pieces begin to come together.
They brought the panel to a close with some important tips to remember if this is the career you seek. Write, Write, Write! Build a portfolio and try out different writing styles, learn the mechanics of writing, and learn how narrative writing and video game writing differs from prose writing. Write non-linear stories that put the player first. Learn script writing or take your favorite scenes in a game and break down how the writing forms those scenes, storyboard it out to learn how it functions, or create modules of an existing story, modifying it with a new twist. And most importantly, “Don’t be afraid to learn. You don’t have to be a AAA writer going into it.”
Did you find any of their tips useful if this is a career you’re seeking? What questions would you have asked if you were there? Perhaps I can pose them in a future interview if allowed a moment with one of them. Let me know below and make sure to follow us on Twitter @APGNation for more gaming updates and news.