In yesterday’s guest post, Ubisoft director David Footman addressed the question: “What do game companies look for in hiring a writer?”
Today, here’s a writer’s take on the subject. Many thanks to Richard Dansky, David, and the Ubisoft Toronto team for taking the time to share their ideas.
By day, Richard Dansky is the Central Tom Clancy Writer for Ubisoft Red Storm, which means that in some way, shape or form, he gets his hands on the storylines and content of most Tom Clancy-themed computer games. By night, he writes the spooky stuff.
The most important thing to look for in a game writer is a game writer. Everything else is secondary. If the writer doesn’t understand that they’re writing for a game — not a movie, or a television show, or a comic book, or a novel or a tabletop RPG or a choose-your-own-adventure book or the underside of a Nantucket Nectar bottle cap — then nothing else matters. Game writing really is something different from any other style in terms of what it demands of the writer – it’s the only place where the writer isn’t telling their story, or the protagonist’s story, but rather the player’s story. Yes, the player takes on the role of the protagonist, whether that’s an avatar they create themselves or an established, iconic character like Sam Fisher, but the fact remains that everything that goes into a game is just possibility until the moment the player interacts with it, and thus creates their own story of what happened.
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.
For readers who’ve gamely clicked their way through all seven years of my “Making of Prince of Persia” journals online — and those who haven’t — I’m happy to announce that the complete saga is now available as a PDF and Amazon Kindle ebook.
The book isn’t free — we’ve priced it at US$7.99 — but at 300-plus pages, I hope it’s good value. We’re publishing it without any copy protection or DRM, so pirates shouldn’t have much of a challenge. Book sales will help defray the costs of this project and of maintaining the website.
The ebook contains the original Old Journals, plus never-before-published entries leading up to the beginning of The Last Express. You can download a free sample PDF of the first 40 pages, or the full ebook, here.
Thanks to Danica Novgorodoff for designing the book (Danica is the multitalented author of the excellent graphic novel Refresh, Refresh, and designer of many First Second books, including Solomon’s Thieves), and to David Anaxagoras, Ryan Nelson, and Aaron Simonoff for their hard work putting it together. It’s safe to say it turned out to be a lot more work than any of us expected.
How Prince of Persia got made — and almost didn’t
In the ebook, you’ll read what I wrote in my journal on the day I videotaped my kid brother running and jumping to model the prince’s moves; the day I gave up on the project; and the day I decided to finish it after all.
In the seven years from May 1985 to January 1993, Prince of Persia went from a few scribbles on yellow-lined paper to a published, best-selling video game franchise, and I changed from a callow kid into (I thought) a seasoned software entrepreneur. If you’ve read the journals, you know that it was a bumpy ride, and that the game’s eventual success was anything but a foregone conclusion.
Whether you’re a game designer or in another creative field, whether you had an Apple II in the 1980s or weren’t born yet, I hope you’ll find inspiration (or something else of use to you) in this story of how one game got made.
Check out the ebook here.
This ebook is an experiment in many ways. I have no idea how many people will be interested, or how well the non-DRM “honor system” will work. Either way, I’ll post once the dust has settled, and let you know how it went.
If you’ve enjoyed the Old Journals on the site, but don’t feel the urge to own the ebook, you can still support this project by helping us spread the word. Readers like you who take the time to post or tweet about the Old Journals ebook, review it on Amazon, or just tell a friend, will make a big difference in the experiment.
In today’s guest post, Yuri Lowenthal (who voiced the Prince in 2003’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) talks about the special challenges of voice acting, as opposed to acting on camera.
When Yuri, Joanna Wasick and I came together in a sound studio for the first day of voice recording on POP:SOT, we didn’t have animations, animatics, or even concept art yet. While the POP team was bringing the world and characters of the game to life on screen, two actors first needed to make them real in their imaginations. The Prince and Farah began as voices in darkness.
I cherish voice recording as a special, thrilling, and terrifying moment in game production. Having experienced it from a writer-director’s point of view, I asked Yuri for an actor’s perspective on the process.
Yuri Lowenthal is an actor who lives and works in Los Angeles. You may have heard/seen him in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Afro Samurai, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Ben 10. He is married to actress Tara Platt and easily stalked at @YuriLowenthal. And if you’re nice he’ll tell you the exciting story about the time he met Jake Gyllenhaal.
People often ask me: “What’s harder? Voice acting or real acting?” I’ve heard it so many times that I hardly get offended anymore. Almost hardly. I mean, I get it; the person speaking is really trying to say: “What kind of acting is more difficult, the kind where we just end up hearing your voice, or the kind where we end up seeing your face?”
Well, let’s break it down:
For on-camera acting, I generally get the script in advance, time to talk with the director about the character and what his or her vision is for the project, maybe do a little research, put on a costume, work with some props, walk around the set, rehearse with other actors, and take time to break down the script so that I can bring you, the viewer, the best performance I am capable of.
For voice acting, I generally show up the morning of the recording, am handed a script, and after about 5 minutes (if I’m lucky) of discussion with the director (or sometimes writer) about the project, we get down to business so that I can bring you, the viewer/listener/gamer, the best performance I am capable of. Will my performance be judged less harshly because I didn’t have the niceties that an on-camera or theatrical situation can afford? Absolutely not. Continue Reading
Today’s guest post comes from KlickTock founder Matthew Hall, creator of Doodle Find and Little Things.
I can identify with Matt’s feeling that he came to the industry too late — that the “golden age of the bedroom coder” had passed him by. That’s exactly how I felt in 1982, when I’d had my Apple II for four years — since age 14 — and still hadn’t managed to get a game published. While other programmers produced hits like Space Eggs and Alien Rain, I could feel the window of opportunity closing, and kicked myself for having taken so long to get my act together.
As Matt and I can both attest, the brass ring comes around more than once.
I met Jordan at GDC earlier this year. I’d recently attended his postmortem of Prince of Persia and ran into him in the halls. We talked about developing games at that time and our own game development histories. However, given Jordan is quite famous and you probably have never heard of me before — what went wrong?
I am only a few years younger than Jordan. Just like he received his first computer, an Apple II in 1978, I received my Commodore 64 in 1983. I programmed games throughout my childhood, but by the time I was able to produce a professional quality game — the golden age of the bedroom coder was over. My 8-bit heroes had moved onto 16-bit and found themselves struggling. The industry had passed to the hands of those with big cheques and bigger teams.
Instead of producing a hit title in my bedroom — as I was always hoping to — I developed homebrew titles for the newly released Game Boy Advance. Nintendo would never allow garage developers like myself access to their development kits, so I used one of the many “flash-kit” solutions available on the black market. As an unlicensed developer I had to release all my titles for free; hardly untold riches! Regardless, I am proud of my titles even if only a handful of people were ever able to enjoy them.
My portfolio of titles and expertise in new hardware allowed me to get a professional game development job. But after 8 years of doing thankless work-for-hire, I eventually came to the conclusion that I had to leave my paid jobs and strike out on my own if I ever wanted to make a game I was truly proud of. I left my job just as the App Store was launching, though I had no idea it was going to change my life.
Little Things was released a year later. Though it was initially a failure on PC, it was featured by Apple as the iPad App of the Week and I’ve had similar chart-topping success with my other iOS games.
Finally the games industry had come full circle, once again empowering a lone developer with a stable platform, low cost of entry, excellent engines and tools available on the market, and a direct line to customers hungry for more games.
So I have a few pieces of advice for those with a passion for games and a notebook full of game ideas: Continue Reading
A number of readers have written to ask: “I want to make games for a living — how can I get started?”
Here’s advice from someone who crossed that bridge a lot more recently than I did: Adam “Atomic” Saltsman, creator of the phenomenally successful indie game Canabalt.
Today’s aspiring game designers can tap resources we couldn’t have dreamed of in 1980. But as Adam emphasizes, the bottom line is still the same: Don’t wait. Start making games right now.
Adam ‘Atomic’ Saltsman made Gravity Hook, Fathom, Flixel, and Canabalt. Adam also helped make Paper Moon, Cave Story Wii, FEZ, the Game City Idea Bucket, and the Flash Game Dojo. He lives in Austin, TX with his wife Bekah, his son Kingsley, and a couple of pug dogs, where he makes iOS games at Semi Secret Software.
When I graduated from high school in 2000, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life: make video games. There was only one serious video game curriculum at the time, offered by the DigiPen Institute, so competition for admission there was pretty intense. I didn’t even apply. The programs at Carnegie-Mellon and MIT were still in their infancy. GAMBIT didn’t exist yet, but they had some other programs that looked interesting. I couldn’t afford the out-of-state tuition, and the enormous in-state college I decided to attend offered a single, solitary 4-credit course on the subject.
Times have changed; finding a satisfying career in video games isn’t the impossible joke it used to be. However, the chasm between “I want to make video games!” and actually making video games still intimidates a lot of people, regardless of age, gender or background. If you find yourself on the wrong side of this abyss, don’t panic! Crossing this gap is a lot less complicated than you might think.
Before we start figuring out how to make our dreams come true, though, let’s clarify what that dream is. Contrary to the funny comic above, what we’re talking about is making games, not playing games. Hopefully this doesn’t surprise you, but these are wholly different activities! Just because you enjoy playing games does not necessarily mean that you will love making them too. There’s only one way to find out, of course, but now is a good time to seriously consider whether you really love the act of creation. There is no position at any company in the world that involves just playing games for fun. Seriously, ask a video game tester how much “fun” it is to play the same level 6000 times…
But our game-making dream still needs a bit more clarity. After all, a significant portion of the modern video game industry revolves around pumping out rushed, under-budget game versions of cartoon franchises to whatever console happened to be left over during publisher negotiations (this is not a slam on folks that do that work for a living; their dedication and resourcefulness impresses the heck out of me). So our dream is not just to make any old games, but to make satisfying, interesting games that reflect our passions and interests, whatever those may be.
So how do we do that? How do we escape from our IT/retail/food-service gig and start making games for a living? Continue Reading