On Becoming a Game Writer

On Becoming a Game Writer

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is How do I get into game writing? Now, this isn’t the same as How did you get into game writing? Ask ten game writers that question and you’ll get twelve different answers. No, what people are looking for is the clear and well-manicured path into the profession – a certain set of steps to follow that, once completed, will yield a position as a game writer.

This is a perfectly reasonable question to ask, and in a just and fair and logical world, it would have a simple and concise answer. Unfortunately, we are not living in that world. There’s a reason every game writer’s journey is different, and that’s because different companies are looking for different things in a writer. Some embrace the role and smooth the path, some have very specific needs and wants, and some aren’t quite sure what exactly they’re going to do with a writer, but they’re pretty sure someone needs to be generating some text assets for their game right about now. There is no one true way, and anyone who tells you there is, is most likely trying to sell you something they’ve written about how to become a game writer.

On Becoming a Game WriterThat being said – and bearing in mind that I am not, in fact, trying to sell you anything – there are a few things you can do to advance toward game writing. They’re not hard and fast, there’s no achievement unlocked after accomplishing them, and they may seem a little counter-intuitive in places. But in 14 years of doing this, I haven’t found anything better. So, if you want to be a game writer, here’s what you’ve got to do:

Check Your Ego

If you believe that you are going to walk in the door as a writer, elucidate your grandiose vision for the story you want to tell and have the development team magically transmogrify into Oompa-Loompas who are there to actualize that vision, you may find yourself sadly disappointed. A writer is part of a team, there to mesh harmoniously with folks from other disciplines in order to create the player experience. Fail to understand that you are part of a team – that you are creating assets and providing deliverables, not cavorting through the fields of the Swiss Alps in a smock whilst declaiming Romantic poetry that the rest of us are privileged to hear – and you will probably also fail to understand why nobody wants to work with you.

Play Games

If you want to write games, play games. To write for any medium, you need to understand that medium’s unique form and demands. The best way to acquire that knowledge is to consume that medium, and by consuming that medium – or as we call it, “sitting your butt on the damn couch and playing some games” – gain both experiential and instinctive knowledge of what works.

It’s not the only thing, of course. You don’t sit through twelve hours of Dynasty Warriors 8 and emerge with the knowledge of how to write meaningful systemic dialog chewing its way out of your head like a particularly hungry Athena.On Becoming a Game Writer You do, however, walk away with a pretty decent sample size of things that worked and things that didn’t work, and you can start putting that knowledge to use in your own work.

Observe Games

Of course, when I say “play games” I don’t just mean “play games.” Racking up body count in adversarial is cool, but if you’re focused exclusively on optimizing your play, you’re missing the chance to observe game writing in its natural habitat.

So play as a player, but also play as a writer. Listen to the dialog. Observe the visual storytelling. Look at the text that gets used, and ask yourself why those choices might have been made. See if you can reverse engineer – and thus understand – the narrative design.

Do this, and you’ll get a better grasp of how game writing works when the rubber hits the road. It’s not just the words, it’s when the words get used, and how many, and to what end, and where there are no words at all. Watch the game as you play it, and learn.

Make Games

The best way to learn what works as writing in a game is to get your writing in a game. Luckily, we’re in a place in the evolution of the industry when it’s possible to get your writing in a game even if you’re not working for a game company.

Go find yourself a Game Jam, or haunt a local college’s CS department bulletin boards to find groups that are making games on their own. Offer your services as a writer, even if all they need is menu text. Grab a tool kit and make something with your words in it. Get your stuff in a game and see how it plays.
On Becoming a Game Writer
And I’ll be honest here – odds are your first few cracks at it aren’t going to be great. That’s OK. This is the space where you can learn, and you can get better without your employment being on the line. Because the more games you write for, the better you’ll get at recognizing what does and doesn’t work, and the quicker you’ll build the habits of good work you’re going to need.

Besides, it doesn’t hurt to have actual, honest-to-Murgatroyd games in your portfolio.

Tweet

And by tweet, I don’t mean HAW HAW CAT VIDEO LOL. One of the things Twitter does is force you to phrase complete thoughts in a constrained space. This is entirely akin to writing for games, where you must on occasion phrase a complete thought in a space that is entirely constrained by the number of characters the German localization is going to require. Or, more likely, constrained by the fact that you don’t want your dialog to ramble, potentially interrupting gameplay in the process.

So tweet, and tweet smart. Learn how to write short, pithy sentences that communicate a point. And lay off the cat videos.

Talk With Game Writers

The best way to learn about the job is to talk to people who have done the job. This is not a surprise, nor is it unique to game writing. So, if you’re interested in the role, find ways to interact with people who are doing it. Go to conferences where game writers are speaking. Follow them on social media and engage – respectfully. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions goes a lot further than Why did you make that incredibly stupid decision in your last game? Look to the IGDA Game Writing Special Interest Group and get on their mailing list. Make a reputation for yourself as someone who can engage cogently and professionally, and who has interesting things to say about the subject matter.
On Becoming a Game Writer
Also, don’t be a jerk.

If you do these things there’s a better shot that when someone has an opening and your name gets floated as a possibility, you’ll get a positive response. As opposed to, say, slagging a writer on your blog and then turning around and asking them for work. Because that always goes so well.

Taking the Next Steps

Will doing all these things get you a job as a game writer? No. Knocking on doors, sending out resumes, applying for gigs and presenting good work in your portfolio will actually get you the job. But if you do these things, you’re in a better position to be ready to knock on doors – and to be prepared to seize the opportunity when somebody answers.

For more of Dansky’s advice for writers, check out this post:

Tips for Writers

The Author

Perhaps best known for his brief stint as the world’s leading authority on Denebian Slime Devils, Richard Dansky has been with Red Storm/Ubisoft since 1999. His first game was Shadow Watch and his most recent one is Splinter Cell Blacklist. In between he’s served on the advisory board for GDC’s Game Narrative Summit, helped found and develop the IGDA Game Writing SIG, and appeared on Gamasutra’s list of the top 20 game writers in 2009. He has also published six novels, one short fiction collection and a ton of tabletop RPG sourcebooks, which is why you should never tell him about your character. For a tantalizing taste of Dansky's inimitable insights, read his recurring column on the UbiBlog ("The Write Stuff") and follow him on Twitter: @RDansky