Getting Hired as a Game Writer

David from San Francisco asks:

I’ve always leaned toward writing and storytelling, so I was wondering what companies look for in hiring for those positions. I have an idea of what’s in an artist’s portfolio, but what does a writer’s portfolio look like?

Since I’ve never actually hired a video game writer (other than myself), I passed this question on to David Footman, Scripted Events Director for Ubisoft Toronto. David generously took a break from making the next Splinter Cell to offer his advice in today’s guest post.

Disclaimer: While I agree with almost all David says, I don’t share his belief that familiarity with the teachings of Robert McKee (or Syd Field, or Bob Truby…) is an indicator of a writer’s skill or craftsmanship. I say this although I’ve taken their courses, bought their books, and (almost) always came away feeling I’d gotten my money’s worth.

I’ll add my two cents on screenwriting gurus later — but first, here’s David, with a game director’s perspective on what he looks for in a game writer:



I think there are two “schools” when it comes to scripted event direction in video games. People who move into this role from animation or art direction backgrounds make up the first school. The second school have a background in TV and film. I come from TV and film, and this informs my choices and processes in games. Creating the story for a AAA game needs two types of writers — an experienced game writer, and an experienced screenplay writer.

Writing for games is different from any other genre. The interactive nature of the story demands that the writer fully understand the term “Gamer Experience.” In the last five years, I’ve heard this term come up in game story discussions more and more. It’s a powerful concept, and once understood, it not only changes the way a writer approaches narrative, but the gamer experience can change depending on the genre of game you’re working on.

My first video game project was an RPG, Lord of the Rings: 3rd Age. RPGs are the extreme example of how a game story can be unique to each player, but even on RPGs we don’t have the money or time to build more than three or four splines for the story. In a linear action adventure game, the degree of “unique experience” is much less. Still, every player wants to feel like they’ve had a unique experience. We don’t just provide an illusion of this — we now have systems in place that make this a reality, like systemic scripts, dynamic dialogue systems, and perhaps most importantly, user-created experiences that abound in multiplayer, co-op and social games. A good writer must be focused on creating narrative systems that tell the player’s story, not their own. It’s an important distinction.

As a scripted event director, I’m not always involved in the broader aspects of the game story. Often I shoot the scripted events, direct the performance capture and audio sessions, but have little say in how it’s all assembled within the game. Many movies are “made” in the editing room –- the tempo, style, and tone are established there and nowhere else. It’s the same with video games, but you have level designers and a myriad of other artists, scripters and programmers (which is why you’re now more often seeing the role of Narrative Designer, a job that didn’t exist five to seven years ago). Over the last few years, I’ve broadened my scope to help design all of the game story elements, not just scripted events.

When it comes to purely cinematic scripted events, on top of working with a game writer, I really value an experienced screenplay writer who’s had at least three scripts produced. Seeing your work on-screen is the best way to learn, and the craft of writing for film takes an enormous amount of talent and skill.

“The camera is the dread X-ray machine of all things false” — Robert McKee

When it comes to writing for the screen, the camera is the ultimate lie detector. Characters and dialogue stand naked before its powerful magnifying lens. Scenes that contain truth, conflict, revelation, and reversals provoke and capture audience imaginations. I look for writers who refuse witty dialogue, cute setups, and phony interactions, and instead look for dramatic structure in all of their written scenes.

If you can’t already tell, I’m a big Robert McKee fan. I love his approach to writing, and any writer who has studied under him already has a shoe in my door. You’ll hear “keep it simple” a lot nowadays, and it’s a great term for writers, directors and actors. Good dialogue comes from a good understanding of characters and the world around them, and first drafts always suck –- just accept it. Writing is about understanding that a great story needs to be boiled down to its essence and re-written over and over again until it contains only the purest of elements. I look for writers who get their work out in the open, and who aren’t afraid to take risks.

Writing can be a vulnerable job, constantly putting your heart out on the page, critiqued by everyone on the team, misunderstood by actors. You get bossed around by directors and producers, and in the end everyone wants to blame you. I look for writers who can collaborate, but who can also stand up for their convictions. Just as everyone who gets dressed in the morning thinks they’re a costume designer, everyone thinks they can write — and nothing could be further from the truth. The writer is the nucleus of a game, and even if you have the best development team in the universe, your game doesn’t stand a chance without a talented writer.


(Jordan in) Roger that. Now, about those screenwriting gurus:

(I posted a while back about my own McKee experience, here.)

I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from taking McKee’s course or reading his book. They’re great. But they are no more a shortcut to becoming a professional writer than, say, reading books and attending lectures about soccer are to becoming a professional soccer player.

It’s all about the hours on the field. The ten thousand hours, if you’re a Malcolm Gladwell fan. For a writer, that translates into hours spent writing, getting feedback on your writing, and rewriting.

The danger of gurus to an aspiring writer (or an aspiring anyone) is that they can lull you into thinking you’ve saved yourself a few thousand hours of hard, apprentice work. Whereas in reality, all you’ve done is added a few more tools to your toolbox, which is (or should be) already full of tools. So go ahead and try their wares. Just don’t be a sucker. Especially, don’t fall for the idea that anyone’s book, course, or paradigm is “necessary,” or that it supersedes what you can figure out on your own by paying attention when you read fiction, play games, or go to the movies. Even Aristotle’s Poetics doesn’t make that claim.

For a fuller discussion of “Screenwriting Gurus and So-Called Experts,” check out this podcast from two highly accomplished, in-demand, working screenwriters, John August and Craig Mazin. Craig’s views are harsher than John’s (although if you know Craig or have followed his blog in the past, you can tell that John softened him up a bit for this podcast). Here’s John in one of the podcast’s more pro-guru moments:

Syd Field is — if you’re going to read one book, you should probably read Syd Field, just because everyone else in this town has read Syd Field. People will talk in, sort of, Syd Field terms whether they’ve read the book or not. When people talk about Act I, Act II, Act III, mid-act, climax, worst of the worst, those are all kind of Syd Field’y terms.

Everyone’s going to talk those ways, whether you actually believe in them or not, development people will talk in those ways. By reading Syd Field, you’ll understand that everyone thinks that there’s a first act that ends at about page 30, that there’s a reversal that happens at about page 60, that there’s a second act break that happens at page 90, which is the worst of the worst, and then the movie resolves itself in the third act, which is the last 30 pages or so.

Everyone sort of uses that as a template for thinking about stuff, even though that’s not the way most movies actually happen. The danger is people use that as a template to try to shoehorn any given movie in to fit those beats and fit those page breaks and that idea that this is exactly how a movie has to work, as if there’s one magic formula, or that the architecture of screenwriting is quite literally architecture or engineering — that if you don’t do these things exactly perfect, the entire movie will fall down and collapse on itself.

John’s point applies equally to video game writing. If you think of McKee, Field, Vogler, et al. as frames of reference that other writers and creative execs at film studios and game companies are likely to share, that in itself is a good argument for being familiar with them.

End of guru-related digression. The points David makes about game writing are absolutely valid, and reflect important realities of game development that any writer interested in working in games should know.

Tomorrow: A writer’s take on the question, from a game writer who works with David: Richard Dansky, lead Tom Clancy Writer for Ubisoft Red Storm.

Posted on Jan 24, 2012 in Blog, Film, Guest Post, Making Games | 10 comments

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10 Comments

  1. 1-24-2012

    Nice inside view. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  2. 1-24-2012

    I love that title, Narrative Designer. It has an appropriate broadness that fits perfectly for a writer of videogames.

    The writer in me can’t help wondering if Narrative Designers ever function as the catalyst of projects. Much like Pixar works out their next blockbuster by locking writers in a room to beat it out in storyboards, is that ever the way videogames are created?

  3. 1-24-2012

    Thanks for the insight. I wonder if future game writers will continue to reference story theory from a screenwriting perspective, or if a video gaming branch of story theory will eventually evolve (and spawn its own set of “gurus”).

  4. 1-25-2012

    This is great information for a guy writing fantasy and science fiction, who has a passion for games. I have McKee’s “Story” but it’s still two back in my TBR pile.

    What does one really need to break in, pro writing creds, game dev experience? I blog about storytelling in movies, comics, and games and I just started writing for an amateur dev group. Otherwise, I’m not sure how else to get into the business.

    Thanks for the great post.
    Cheers,
    Dave *back to novel revisions*

  5. 1-25-2012

    I’m a game writer. I agree Syd Field is handy, but three act structure poses a problem in a game. You don’t have time to spend 10 minutes establishing the character’s backstory before the inciting event occurs. Player needs to be acting from the get-go. Some games, you could argue, are entirely an Act III, with Act One set-up happening in flashbacks.

    Games can and often are non-linear, so going by the letter of the book can get you in trouble. Still, the principles are there, buried. I love, though, that you can make five people watch a movie, and they will argue about where the 2nd Act break is. It’s not an exact science.

    As for those asking about getting hired, I have been in a hiring position. When I would get a script written in screenplay format, where the player just was supposed to sit around and “watch” what was happening rather than play, that told me all I needed to know.

  6. 1-31-2012

    McKee’s “Story” has only a few relevant insights. Kal Bashir’s 2000+ stage Hero’s Journey/New World/Transformation model has lots of them.

  7. 2-3-2012

    “The writer is the nucleus of a game, and even if you have the best development team in the universe, your game doesn’t stand a chance without a talented writer.”

    I’m sorry, but I feel like this is very much a context sensitive issue. There are hundreds of games that are amazing because the core mechanics and the interactions the player has are fun.

    Not all games have amazing narrative or are even defined by narrative.

    Look at Borderlands, that game was amazing and its draw was the system of weapon generation and how varied the treasure could be. It had a lot of fun areas and boss fights. I will admit that many of the character portrayals were very witty, but when you break it down the story itself wasn’t that impressive.

    I was looking for some kind of great treasure at the end in a secret vault and instead I am dealing with some kind of inter-dimensional monster which prevents me from ever getting to the loot.

    There are plenty of other games where the main mechanic is the story I will agree and the writing plays a huge part in the strength of the game, but I am going to have to disagree with that idea.

    Sometimes games are just ridiculously fun and it isn’t the story that the player is focusing on.

    • 7-5-2013

      I agree but disagree. The game dynamics is essential: as who wants to play a game that’s clunky and hard to control? But writing isn’t just about the characters and story-line. Narrative includes everything. You’re looking for some great treasure at the end of a vault? That’s core level narrative structure. And the writer needs to be able to recognise and understand that structure in order to know the goal and fuel the characters around that goal appropriately. Narrative in this broader sense makes the game, just as game mechanics helps provide user-experience. I believe they go hand in hand with all games: whether that’s an android app or your newest chart hit on a console.

  8. 3-28-2012

    Solidus is always looking for video game journalist who need a place to start. The position is 100% volunteer, but the experience you get with us can be used and applied to later positions.

    If anyone is interested, head over to http://s.olid.us and hit the RED APPLY button.

    Thanks and have a good day!

  9. 10-18-2012

    nice to met u :D
    MY dream is to work as freelancer writer game

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