HOW TO BREAK IN TO GAME WRITING AND SURVIVE ONCE YOU ARE THERE
The following represents my current advice on how to become a game writer, how to get your work out there into the world, hopefully to the point of gaining paid work.
It will be partially autobiographical out of necessity: my success so far in the industry has involved a degree of luck and privilege, and to suggest otherwise is disingenuous. However, as someone said to me in the heat of imposter syndrome: you can only take advantage of opportunities if you're actually ready to do so when they come along. So this is what this article hopes to represent: the process of becoming ready.
I will assume that you are, with the right guidance, capable of writing fictional characters and worlds to a degree that excites and entertains players. This first part of the article focuses on the initial arc of your career: getting from point A (where writing games is a vague wish) to point B (where you have a portfolio of titles and an array of collaborators and contacts).
PART ONE: BEGINNING
1. ACTUALLY WRITE GAMES
The main obstacle in the way of the majority of aspiring game writers is the failure to write any actual games. I should know, as I was just like this a few years ago: I went on and on about wanting to write games, wanting people to play said games, and getting paid employment in some kind of imaginary dream job, but I'd never actually finished anything.
So this is what you need to do: obtain Twine and write something in it, anything at all. It could be a short conversation, it could be a dramatic car chase, it could be barely interactive, it doesn't matter: make something that uses a game creation tool to tell a story.
You. Do. Not. Need. Coding. Experience. For. This. You do not need inspiration. You do not need years of reading creative writing advice or theories on gaming. Read the initial tutorials on Twine in the Wiki and play around with it. That's it.
Do not worry about how ambitious or great it is. Do not worry if you're more used to other media and therefore view yourself as somehow lacking the knowledge to write games (you don't lack this knowledge). That isn't the point. The point is to break past that hurdle from a vague wish to start a craft and actually practising it.
Congratulations, you're now a game writer, if you've followed this advice. The majority will not.
How I did it: For NaNoWriMo 2011, I wrote a 30,000 word horror novella. When I learned about Twine, Ren'Py, and all those tools, I kept coming up with more and more ambitious ideas to create vast fantasy games or social commentaries. In the end, I rewrote the first 5k of my novella in Twine and showed my friends. I did not share the results online, I did not write much more of it, I did not even think it was that good, but the attempt itself taught me so much.
2. GAIN TEAM EXPERIENCE
My next recommendation is to collaborate with others in producing your games. Even if you intend to write your own games as a one-person band without any kind of ongoing collaboration, you will still benefit from joining a team and learning about the roles other people play in games development, and you may even decide to abandon your previous intention to go it alone.
There are many benefits to this advice, but three will be most relevant for those reading this article:
1) You will almost certainly be able to produce higher-quality games with the help of others than you will alone, even if you are intending to mainly produce interactive fiction. Music, art, interface: all of these are disciplines that can and will enhance your work, and there's nothing quite like listening to a musical composition set to your words.
2) You will make contacts with other developers who may, at the very least, act as a kind of support network in the pursuit of artistic creation, but who may also become future collaborators, clients, or even gateways to recommendations for future paid work.
3) You will be able to demonstrate in an interview and/or on your CV that you have worked in a team to successfully produce a finished game.
Now, you may wonder, how do you go about meeting people to develop games and join teams?
I would suggest attending game jams. Typically 48 hour events, game jams represent a kind of microcosm of the whole development process, with programmers, artists, sound designers, and other development roles all combining forces to create short and often wildly experimental games to meet a particular theme.
Writers are particularly rare at these events, probably for two reasons: that they do not believe they would be able to contribute much, and, most likely, that many games made at game jams do not seem to need much narrative content.
So it's up to a writer attending a game jam to help shape the game they're working on, from the very beginning, to involve at least some kind of narrative component. This may involve working for multiple teams at a game jam, writing small amounts of text for everything, or working on one really narrative-focused title at a time.
I would also strongly advise being prepared to work on a solo Twine game in addition to the above at a game jam - you can still collaborate with others (such as artists and sound designers) but you'll have a backup plan to make the best use of the jam and still produce a collaborative finished piece.
How I did it: After moving to Guildford for reasons entirely unrelated to its strong games industry presence, I was persuaded by my partner to attend the Global Game Jam there, an annual international event held in January each year. I was terrified and felt I'd be laughed out of the building.
When I arrived, I was still wearing my suit from work (definitely not games industry clothing) and went around sheepishly asking if any groups needed a writer. It turned out one group did... a team from Lionhead Games.
Now game jams are imperfect, almost athletic sprints: the titles you produce on them are rarely finished and almost always have some major feature that does not work. But by the end of that weekend, I'd made a game with frickin' Lionhead. By the same event in early 2017 I'd collaborated with devs from Rare, Media Molecule, and a tonne of other studios and indie devs.
I made friends for life with some of these people, I made actual games with gorgeous graphics and art, I met people who I'd end up working with professionally and who I'd hire for my own titles. This, more than anything else, is what made me feel like a real actual game writer.
Below, I've featured two of the Global Game Jam titles I worked on in their original, incredibly broken form so you can see the progression:
3. Make a WEBSITE TO HIGHLIGHT YOUR WORK
So by this point you've hopefully been writing your own solo Twine games and collaborating with others, whether in game jams or online or even with friends. You've hopefully been forming some kind of body of work, however imperfect or provisional.
What you need now is a website.
There are plenty of ways of making one - Squarespace and other services are fairly popular - but you need a way of displaying all of your projects, your role on said projects, a download link or video for each one, and an About page to tell us more about yourself.
This is as much for your view of yourself as a writer as it is for potential employers, collaborators, or fans. One day, some of these unfinished projects may no longer be on your site, replaced by work you feel better represents your skill. For now, these are your proof to the entire world that you are in fact a game writer capable of producing material in this medium.
You should, to this end, preferably name your website after your actual full professional name and, if you can, obtain the matching domain name. You should then put this address on every single piece of documentation you produce: your actual games, your Twitter, your CV, your business cards, everything.
Your main objective is to produce new pieces of work that build upon these old games, publishing them online (itch.io is a great site for distributing work) and sharing them on your site and other social media channels.
If you've been going to Game Jams and collaborating, then surprise, you've already been networking without realising it! Show these people your titles, get their valuable feedback, and if you improve and improve at what you're doing, the likelihood of people wanting to work with you or passing along your name to people who might will increase.
4. POINT B
Now, at some point, if everything is going well and with a little bit of luck, you may produce a game or gain an opportunity that catapults you from the realm of 'trying to get noticed as a game writer' to having the attention of the industry. This is not something you can plan for, just as novelists cannot purposefully produce breakthrough books. All you can do is work on your craft and place yourself in the right scenarios to get noticed when the time comes, hopefully with a really kick-ass portfolio and an excellent game to show the world.
My own version of this was Paper Brexit, a 15 minute game I released shortly before the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Now this game is flawed beyond words: I really really dislike some of my artistic decisions here, I can't stand the sound of my own prose, and I think it could be way better. But, of course, as I write this, I'm over a year on from the original release, I've grown in my abilities, and what writer doesn't hate their own past work?
It was an incredibly important title for me in that it represented the first full non-Game Jam project that gained discussion and coverage online. Starting with Kotaku, it was covered by a spread of websites, people started talking about it on Twitter, and enough people engaged with it that it became my literal calling card (the back of my business card literally contains an image from the game).
Beyond gaining the notice and attention of those around me, it shaped my future direction: people liked and enjoyed this kind of content, I was good at it, and it would not be such a bad idea to continue trying to work on stuff like this.
So being the fool that I was, I started writing a Persona rip-off in my spare time. Several months later, at a barbecue in suburban Guildford, I drunkenly described an idea I had for a game about the American election, and everyone told me to do that instead. This led to Paper Drumpf, and with it, the start of my paid employment in the games industry. Now I’ve been in the industry for three years and have written 20+ titles across AAA, indie, VR, and mobile, including the 30 hour story update for No Man's Sky!
PART TWO: BUILDING A PORTFOLIO
WHY YOU NEED A PORTFOLIO OF WRITING SAMPLES, AND COMMON MISTAKES MADE IN ASSEMBLING THEM.
When game studios hire people, they will not only ask for a CV and an interview, they will usually ask for a portfolio of writing samples also to demonstrate how the writer has worked in the past.
By portfolio, it is important to note here that I am referring to PDFs containing writing samples from games you have worked on, NOT your body of work as a whole or your website (which is a whole other kettle of fish).
As someone who has advised writers and hired writers, I've seen some of the following issues in early career portfolios:
1. TOO MUCH PROSE WRITING
Frequently, early career writers are advised to complete Twine projects in order to learn their craft (as I have advised writers myself). However, interactive fiction text-based projects of this kind often lean heavily into long paragraphs of flowing prose writing in a manner which is utterly unlike the majority of paid game writing positions (as I will explain shortly).-Some- samples from such projects can be great in portfolios; they're great for getting your name out there; they're great for learning your craft; and they're great, above all, for creating interesting projects, but most people will need to work on more than this to get bigger gigs.
2. SOMETIMES SO MUCH PROSE WRITING, THAT THE PORTFOLIO ACTUALLY FEATURES SHORT STORIES:
I made this mistake early in my career, and have seen others make it since. Do not, do not, send short stories as part of game writing portfolio PDFs. They are rarely relevant for the majority of game jobs, and even when the job is primarily text-oriented, there are still better ways of demonstrating your skills. Even if the short story is great, a) the sheer volume of applications most jobs receive will mean your brilliance will probably never actually get read due to its length, and b) it will suggest you don't have sufficient game-specific samples to demonstrate your writing (in which case, this raises the question: why not?)
FOOTNOTE: Some have responded to this by saying their (often very narrative focused) studio loved their short story or they got hired on the basis of a short story and I’m really happy for these people, I am. It doesn’t change one iota of the advice here, however. More often than not, if not asked for, it’s a bad idea and you are unlikely to be the exception to this rule.
3. TOO MUCH INTERACTIVITY
You want your game writing portfolio to be readable and easily followable - the more branches present in your sample and the more ways the story can progress, the harder-to-read it will be. This might also raise another problem in the mind of your potential employer: a sense that you might be naturally inclined to branch stories in a manner that might cost the studio a huge amount of time, resources, and money to achieve.
The truth is that the majority of branching dialogue conversations exist in games to allow the player to determine their character's personality as opposed to altering the story in huge directions (although some such choices do). Being able to show you're comfortable with this, and having small branches that join up to the same critical path in conversations, is a useful skill, as I describe in my advice below.
4. SAMPLES THAT FEATURE TOO MUCH OBLIQUE OR OVERLY 'ARTY' WRITING
By this, I mean many writers will feature dialogue which might be better suited to an independent art-house film than the majority of paid video game gigs. This does NOT mean you shouldn't try hard and have great writing in your portfolio. Just that there is great writing aimed at an indie niche, and great (accessible) writing aimed at a wider audience.
If you want a little of the former kind of writing in your portfolio, this is fine (especially if drizzled throughout, or featured primarily in lore or item description sections), but you need to make sure you can demonstrate your ability to write scenes where it's very clear what's happening if you want to get jobs on more commercially-oriented projects. This may mean many different things depending on your body of work, but in the following section, I'll set up a few writing types which are great to demonstrate for this purpose.
If you are uncomfortable doing much of this sort of writing - heavily dialogue-driven scenes; accessible character-driven dialogue that also communicates gameplay objectives and goals; conversations with limited scope for interactivity - you may need to ask yourself whether a career in writing games freelance for other companies is for you, or if you'd be better suited primarily developing your own games (with perhaps a limited amount of freelance work and consulting for projects which do fit your particular interests and design aesthetic).
All of these skills can be learned to various degrees, however, if you've got a decent level of writing ability in general - so don't despair if you're trying to write in this way and have not succeeded yet. The sentiment of 'consider if this is the right path for you' is more aimed at those who feel they actively dislike the kinds of writing I'm advising here, or who may view themselves as somehow above it.
SO, WHAT SHOULD YOU CONSIDER FEATURING IN YOUR PORTFOLIO? I'D ADVISE INCLUDING SOME OF THE FOLLOWING TYPES OF WRITING:
A) A LINEAR BUT ENTIRELY DIALOGUE DRIVEN CONVERSATION OF ABOUT A PAGE, WITH VERY FEW STAGE DIRECTIONS IF ANY
This may even resemble a film or TV-style script. You want to demonstrate your ability to execute character-driven cinematic dialogue well. It's a fallacy to assume game studios are only looking for interactive dialogue - only around 50% of my game writing gigs involve this, and it's a good idea to demonstrate skills agnostic from a particular branching dialogue method regardless of the role.
B) FEATURE SOME BARKS OR ONE LINERS SOMEWHERE
By barks, I'm referring to one-line dialogue (often repeated) that usually occurs outside of the main storyline and populates the game world in order to support various gameplay features. The archetypal bark can be found in first person shooter games: "Grenade!", "Get down!", "Reloading!" etc, but may also be found in one-liners from NPCs or any number of gameplay systems. When you select someone on a Character Select screen, for example, and the character says a little phase, this is a bark.
Barks can be exceptionally difficult to write despite their apparent simplicity, as often such writing requires dozens or even hundreds of variants to account for the many, many times players will encounter such lines in gameplay. It's great to demonstrate half a page to a page of such lines to show that you're able to carry out this essential task.
(As a bonus component for your portfolio: item descriptions would also fit quite well!)
C) A LORE ENTRY / SOME PROSE OF SOME KIND. HALF A PAGE MAX PER GAME
[-UNLESS- YOU ARE APPLYING FOR AN INTERACTIVE FICTION GAME, IN WHICH CASE ATTACH A 2-3 PAGE SAMPLE + A PLAYABLE TWINE DEMO]
Despite what I said above, there is a place for your flowing prose writing in these game writing portfolios, just not a) for the majority of applications, and b) in limited form when appropriate. Lore entries, in-game journals, letters, etc are a great way of demonstrating these skills, but try to select passages which are exciting or intriguing in some sort of way, and which do not run over half a page per game (and in a 10 page portfolio, I wouldn't have more than one or two instances of this sort of material). You want to give the people reviewing your writing a chance to engage with your material, and if the prose section is too long, even if it's great, you're just going to slow them down.
D) A BRANCHING DIALOGUE CONVERSATION WHICH DOESN'T BRANCH TOO MUCH:
As explained above, you want to highlight your ability to write interactive dialogue but you do not want to suggest such interactivity will heavily increase the complexity and scope of what the studio in question is trying to produce. Maybe feature a choice every 5 lines or so, not too complex, just showing a branch in the conversation that then joins in on itself - i.e. a choice to be happy, sad, or angry about something, which leads to variant sets of 5 lines or so, all of which join up at the same point and become a unified linear conversation once more for a period of time. If you do feature a major moral choice in your writing sample, this is great, but try and either do so in a way where the ramifications of that choice would be delayed or where it comes late in the sample.
FINALLY, I'D ADVISE FEATURING DIFFERENT TYPES OF GAMES FROM DIFFERENT GENRES
If you haven't created them, keep participating in game jams and in interactive fiction projects as I recommended in the articles linked above, and take your samples from both until you can replace them with professional portfolios. If you can demonstrate well-written variety, you show your flexibility and your ability to participate in a number of projects.
You should, if possible, target the writing samples you send for particular applications towards the kind of writing that project would need (i.e. if it's comedy, send mostly comedy samples; if existential space sci-fi tragedy, then forms of writing which relate to this in turn!). However, it can still be a good idea to send additional samples if you can from other projects in order to demonstrate your ability to write in diverse ways. Especially if these samples just present particularly good instances of quality writing.
PART THREE: YOUR MINDSET
So you’ve followed the advice of this article up till this point and you’re either getting your first gigs or in the process of trying to get them. Indeed, most articles of this kind end at this point. But your journey isn’t over, and that’s part of the point of these next few sections: the consistent work you need to do throughout your career, beyond writing.
FOR PEOPLE TO HIRE YOU AS A GAME WRITER, YOU NEED TO PROVE YOU CAN WRITE GAMES.
THEREFORE THE BURDEN OF PROOF IS ON YOU. YOUR STRATEGY SHOULD BE ABOUT BUILDING IT.
None of what I am about to argue means anything if you're not willing to promote your work and get the word out there about your game writing.
This is why you need to ensure you have some projects you can publicly talk about. For all games I work on, I now insist that my contracts will allow me - once a game is released - to identify that I worked on a game, that I can feature it my portfolio, and that I can use samples for future writing applications.
Ideally, studios will allow you to identify your involvement before release, but your mileage may vary in this regard.
Now: depending on your background, you may feel nervous or discouraged about the idea of promoting yourself, as if there is something wrong with that; be aware that those who argue against it frequently come from a position of privilege and security. Also know that as a freelancer, you are outside the normal marketing channels for a games studio and that you may be more limited than others in what you can talk about.
However, how can you possibly get the jobs you want to get if no-one knows what projects you've been involved in? Be careful and always err on the side of caution (and definitely do not break any NDAs), but make sure you get the word out there when you're able to do so.
More than this, support others in their own self-promotional efforts. Like, retweet, reply to, signal boost, etc, the work of those you enjoy. We're all in this difficult world together.
2. CONSIDER WHAT A GAMES STUDIO IS LOOKING FOR
A lot of getting hired as a game writer has nothing to do with pure writing ability.
Sounds strange, doesn't it? But if you consider the perspectives of those hiring you - who may not really be involved in ongoing storytelling efforts at their studios or who may not have a narrative background (that's why they need you!) - you need to think about what a company wants out of a potential writer/narrative designer.
Among other things, two elements are worth highlighting here:
A) TEAM SKILLS
- Prove you understand the collaborative nature of game development
- Prove that you understand the different roles and processes you will be working with.
B) STUDIO SKILLS
- If the team is remote or you'll be working from home, prove that you can do so and that you understand the pressures of this kind of work.
- If you're going to be working in-studio, prove that you would thrive in that kind of environment.
Now, how do you do these things? If you read my previous article, you'll know that game jams are incredibly useful for building a basic understanding of section A (and transferable skills from previous jobs, even in other industries, can be used to great effect here, particularly if they're from creative endeavours such as the theatre).
For B, much of the way you can do this is to actually target and try and obtain positions in this manner, even for lower pay than you might initially desire, so that these studio types are then on your CV and portfolio. The same applies for different game genres and different levels of seniority; anything you can do to learn more about your craft and prove to others that this initial breaking-in process has occurred for you.
1) Attend game jams
2) Create and continually update a portfolio website
3) Seek out projects that build your profile and your proof
4) Arrange multiple projects to mitigate risk and improve your processes.
NOT ALL GAME WRITING EXPERIENCES WILL PRESENT YOU WITH THE SAME NARRATIVE OPPORTUNITIES, BUT EVERY PROJECT YOU ENGAGE IN SHOULD TEACH YOU SOMETHING AND FURTHER YOUR CREATIVE GOALS!
3. INSPIRE YOURSELF
None of this is of any use if you are not happy; you likely came into this profession because you love storytelling and you love games and you see the potential for how such systems of thought and emotion might interact in meaningful and fulfilling ways.
So it's worth considering:
1) Why do you want to write games?
2) What are the markers that, for you, would mean you are doing it well and improving?
Structure your career around the principles above! For example, I am interested primarily in generating emotional culpability in players - the way in which participation in a game storyline can lead you to interrogate your own feelings and personality, perhaps even changing the way you think and act going forwards (whether in future game/narrative scenarios or indeed, in rare cases, in real life). My PhD thesis explored this in an academic sense, and I've tried to continue this pursuit where I can in my games writing.
Not every project presents the same opportunity for you to fulfil your interests in this way, but if even some do, the rest will give you other things: at their best, the opportunity to try something new and learn about the form and about storytelling itself.
Entertain! Learn! Have fun and improve your skills! The opportunities will come, and if they don't, make your own!
4. MISCELLANEOUS BORING BUT NECESSARY PLANNING STUFF TO REDUCE STRESS!
1) Calculate the figure, pre-tax, you need per month.
2) Think of work in terms of ‘months ahead’ – aim to be in a zone of 1-2 months’ worth of money ahead of the present.
3) Track this work via Toggl.com or something similar – aim for contracts where you can accumulate time, not set week days, for maximum flexibility in both yours and the client’s interest.
4) Use games, movies, songs, art, etc, that inspire emotion in you to quickly get into writing flow for different kinds of projects.
5) Use story telling models such as Dan Harmon’s Story Circle to break through writer’s block or troubleshoot ideas in-progress.
6) If absolutely blocked, divide writing tasks into grids, writing the brief for each element in the top corner of a box. Organise your time into the completion of each grid box, typing them up and editing after the fact. If any box is overly difficult, abandon / change the brief.
PART FOUR: WHAT TO DO WHEN WORK SLOWS DOWN
Without fail, at some point in every freelance writer’s career, work opportunities start to slow down for one reason or another. The main thing to do in these circumstances is be proactive and preventative. This mini-list gives a guide for a few things to do:
1) Some of the best opportunities you’ll find will be on Twitter
Here's how to locate many of them. If you're diligent and willing to comb/refine lists of tweets, some starting points:
Essentially, you need to reverse engineer search terms that will generate lists of employment opportunities. The above are just some examples, BUT, will generate a lot of crap also.
So, have your high priority, often-very-useful search terms, and your lower-tier terms that may find rarer phrasings but also get a lot of rubbish. When you see job tweets, create new phrasing to try and capture those tweets in future.
This method is not for everyone and can be VERY difficult, often weeks without useful results. But, this has gotten me out of a few pinches and while it's been less useful throughout 2018 as I've found other opportunities, it's still something I'd recommend. I would also encourage those who go on to use these and refine them to give back and share any new discoveries (or automated feeds) with the community.
2) GATHER SOME TESTIMONIALS
Consider having a testimonials page where you feature quotes from people you have worked with. Example: http://www.gregbuchanan.co.uk/testimonials This is great proof for future clients AND will help your own self esteem.
3. NETWORK AND PARTICIPATE IN WRITER GROUPS AND COMMUNITIES
Start scouting out dev groups and meetups nearby and start networking. Look out for conferences and send in proposals. Get your name out there (again) and do all the career dev stuff you didn't have time for before.
For writing groups, I would particularly recommend:
4) consider starting a solo project or small team project.
You’ll get another portfolio piece that may diversify your output, you'll keep busy while looking for work, you’ll hopefully be fulfilled artistically, & if you tweet about it & share work, it will help things stay positive.
5) positivity is a tricky issue here.
Hiding your need for work is unhelpful, but plastering FOR HIRE for extended long periods of time may be equally unhelpful for your cause. Remind people whyyy they should hire you. Remind people of your greatest hits, your passion, your USP.
6) Keep a log of potential opportunities
Don't be afraid to chase up with a polite friendly email. You may sometimes misjudge and you'll gain a sense for it, but in my opinion if people dismiss you for sending an email a fortnight after first, they’ll be unlikely to hire you anyway
7) BE PROACTIVE IN ADVANCE. HOPE FOR BEST AND PREPARE FOR THE WORST.
The main thing to do here is be proactive when you DO have a gig. When I get close to 2 months worth of contract money being lined up and no more, I start doing everything on this list and more. Sometimes no matter what you do though, there will be a gap, that's the nature of freelancing. This section is as much about generating new jobs as it is psychologically surviving that gap.
Anyway, that's a wrap for now! Let me know if you have any queries or comments on my Twitter (click the bird below) and/or subscribe to my newsletter below for monthly interviews with other writers in the industry.
Finally - use your own judgement on all of this. It's worked for me and may not work for everyone else. Hopefully it helps, in any case.