Andy before he started looking… err… distinguished.
A few times a year I get asked through LinkedIn or Twitter about how to become a writer in video games. More often than not, I don’t have time to give a comprehensive answer but a couple of months back a friendly chap by the name of Kyle approached me and for once I obliged. After writing the answers to his questions I thought they might make a good blog for other budding video game writers and so, lacking a website of my own, asked Gav if he’d like to publish it on his corner of the internet… and here we are. So enough preamble, let’s get stuck in.
Today I have something a little different, a guest post from Andy Hall. Andy currently works as a writer for Creative Assembly, the studio behind the brilliant Total War series, as well as freelancing gigs (you might have seen his recent Blood Bowl work for Black Library). Before then he worked on White Dwarf magazine, and as writer and editor in the ‘Fanatic’ department of Games Workshop bringing the Specialist Games to the masses.
As I like to point out to him at least once a year, my first contact with Andy was back in the days when I was on the team putting together the Citadel Journal. I received a letter that included some new Blood Bowl rules, entitled ‘He Plays Like a Daemon!’. The article was good, so we published it. That letter came from Andy, so I like to think that I gave him his big break in writing and he owes all subsequent success to me… (Perhaps his hard work and motivation had something to do with it too, but blahblablah.)
So, here is Andy Hall’s advice on how to become a writer in the video games industry.
So, You Wanna be a Writer, eh?
First things first, are you sure you want to write for video games? Which may sound like a terse question but it’s worth informing you what a video game writer actually does, especially in a more junior position.
In 80% of cases it’s not writing an epic story.
It certainly isn’t starting with a blank piece of paper or empty screen and writing a sci-fi masterpiece, a grand fantasy or any kind of genre tale and then expecting a team a hundred-plus-strong to turn your words into a triple-A computer game. That isn’t going to happen unless you’re Ken Levine.
If that is what you’re after, then you’re better off writing in another medium, perhaps as a novelist or screenwriter. A junior games writer is probably going to be writing tooltips, lots and lots of tooltips. If you’re not sure what a tooltip is they’re the short instructions that often pop-up when you hover a curser over an item or symbol in-game. As well as tooltips there will be tutorial pages to write, in game guides or encyclopaedias to fill out with descriptions for hundreds of items. “We need a two hundred word description for a chicken coop” Why two hundred? Because that’s the format! More experienced writers may get a chance at dialogue and other voice over areas, and even full-on script writing.
Powerful stuff, huh?
Know Your Role
I think at this point it’s worth pointing out the very subtle distinction between a writer and a narrative designer. The latter will get to shape the overall story of the game, writing quests and missions and maybe even outlining the grand narrative the game director needs to hang his whole game on. In some studios the writer and narrative designer are one and the same. In others, the two may well be very separate roles. Of course, not all studios have game writers. Many work freelance, and most developers will use the same proven writers over and over, so it’s always difficult for fresh blood to get a look in.
Anyway, I’m already getting sidetracked; let’s get back to Kyle’s questions…
What three tips would you give to new writers wanting to break into the industry?
- Writing is a craft, and like any skill you need to put the hours in to temper your expertise. I think it was Ray Bradbury that said you need to write a million words to get competency, and I agree with that. I was lucky, in that I had a modicum of talent and then spent five years in a Design studio and another six on White Dwarf magazine, honing that skill and writing my way to well over a million words. So, write loads. Write every day. A good area to practice for video games is screenwriting – learn how people chat, how conversations typically work and then realise that’s not how they talk in movies and TV; it’s an abstraction of what a real conversation is… (Probably another subject for a different day, but interesting nonetheless.)
[See my Realism is Fake blog post for starters – Gav]
- Write to brief. Simple one, but when freelancing – as most writers are – especially in the video game industry, you need to make sure your work follows the strict guidelines requested by the client. In games development this is particularly true where memory budgets, word counts, paid actors’ sessions are always a factor.
- Be succinct (ironically, unlike this article). In video games writing concision is key. As annoying as it is for a writer, the fact is, if you throw a massive amount of text on the screen the vast majority of players are going to skip right past it… and this from the guy that wrote the quests in Total War: Warhammer and Warhammer Quest. Yes, some players love lore and story and will stick around, but for the good chunk that won’t, your message needs to be economical – whether that’s narrative based, a tooltip or cut-scene movie script. All your sentences have to work extremely hard! Look on at prose authors with envy at their 80,000 word counts and descriptive paragraphs; you need to tell a story in ten words not ten thousand (admittedly we might have some very pretty visuals to help us).
How did you get your start as an industry professional?
There was no magic formula, just a mixture of luck, fate and perseverance. I worked in the Games Workshop design studio for over a decade, which was (and probably still is) one of the most creative places on Earth; this gave me a good grounding. And when I left, I managed to leverage that skill and experience in the video games industry… which pays better.
As to how that helps you, it probably doesn’t! My tip is to get published – doesn’t matter where, in a short story anthology, a fiction blog, magazine. A published writer has much more cache than someone that isn’t, and so game studios will be more interested.
Some in-house writers come up through QA. So you could get a job on the lowest rung in the industry and then make it known that you’re a writer, you may get a shot should a role become available. It’s a sad fact that for a studio it will be much cheaper to recruit a QA person internally, so that is obviously appealing to management. Another possible direction is games journalism. A few writers in the industry used to be game journalists who developed contacts and then got jobs at a favourite studio that way.
You’ll need to forge your own path, and it won’t be easy. Narrative design/video games writing is still in its infancy and so there are not many vacancies for it – although more and more studios are cottoning on that narrative and lore are important factors for any IP. Even so, there are a lot of people that want to get paid to write about goblins and interstellar warriors for a living, so competition is fierce.
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A little addendum from me, based on my experience and building on what Andy said at the outset – in video games writers are usually quite far down the pecking order and priority. Mechanically and culturally the video games process is not kind to wordsmiths. For most studios, and in most projects, they are literally the guys and gals brought in to write the words around a game that has already been created. You are the provider of word fodder to supplement the design vision, nothing more.
Narrative design jobs offer a little more scope for creativity, but it’s important to remember the distinctions between narrative design and games design. The first is always subordinate to the second. Words can be changed with relative ease, but a whole build or level design cannot.
But there are studios and publishers out there cottoning on to the idea that good stories sell games; that strong narrative is as important as visuals and gameplay to the modern audience. Not to mention the financial benefits of a solid IP to exploit in other media like cinema and books.
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