Five Steps To Take Toward A Career In Game Writing

October 13, 2014

Although the role of ‘game designer’ is one of the most sought after careers in the industry, it’s safe to say that “game writer” is up there as well. Of course, a development company can have several game designers working on their projects but only one writer, making it a rarer position in the industry.

As David Gaider from BioWare put it, “[…]there isn’t a lot of call for dedicated writers in the game industry. There are only a handful of companies that actually have such a beast, and BioWare no doubt has the greatest chunk of them.”

Even so, you’re determined to land a gig that allows you to write characters, stories, and worlds that are as memorable and engaging as the ones that made you a gamer in the first place.

You Should Probably Be Good at Writing

This is, of course, the most obvious tip we can provide, but important nonetheless, mostly because there are tons of writers that think they’re good when they actually aren’t. If you think that sounds harsh, here’s what Stephen King has to say about writers in his book On Writing:

“While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”

In other words, not everyone is born with the talent of great writing, and those that are must work hard to make sure they make good use of it.

Do people actually enjoy your short stories, or do they think they’re merely OK? Since ‘game writer’ is such a sought-after and rare role, you better be a darn good storyteller if you hope to make a living writing for games.

Get a Writing Degree from Somewhere, Anywhere

Although someone can definitely become a tremendous writer without ever setting foot in an a college classroom, it doesn’t hurt to get a college degree to prove you’re serious about the craft.

The ability to put together an engaging, coherent story is a skill that can be trained. And the best place to do it is where other writers are striving to improve their talent as well.

Worth mentioning is that most developers won’t even consider looking at an application for any of their roles (except maybe testers and concept artists) unless they have a college degree, and this is likely the case for writers as well.

Are there writers currently working at a game studio that never went to college? Probably. But getting a creative writing degree will no doubt set you apart from those that don’t have one when going after the same gigs.

Play Lots of Games

It’s surprising how many writers say they want to write for games, but can’t even name five story-driven titles they’ve recently played.

Although there are some similarities with movies and novels, games often tell a story in very unique ways. This makes playing them all the more important. If you want to learn how to write for interactive media, you better spend a good deal of time playing them.

For instance, it’s impossible to get good at writing branching dialogue trees and choice-driven storylines by watching Hollywood films that feature no interactivity whatsoever. Instead, play games like the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series to get a better feel for interactive dialogue where your choices can affect the game.

Get Involved in Games

We’re currently experiencing an amazing period in the industry where hundreds of indie developers are creating games without the restrictions of publishers. This means that there are tons of games being developed right now that probably have a programmer or two, an artist, a game designer, but no dedicated storyteller.

If you really want to get involved in these projects, start shooting these developers emails inquiring as to whether they are in need of a freelance writer.

This is especially effective if they have released videos or early builds of their games and their dialogue or story line is mediocre, giving you the chance to explain how you’d improve what they currently have and encourage them to let you join.

Write Other Stuff

Developers like to hire writers that have demonstrated success in other fields.

In fact, most of the well-known writers and developers started out doing film and other media before hopping into games.

Ken Levine, co-founder of Irrational Games and creator of the acclaimed Bioshock games, started out in Hollywood writing screenplays before joining Looking Glass Studios. Marc Laidlaw started out writing science fiction and horror novels before joining Valve where he would serve as the sole writer for Half-Life and Half-Life 2.

If you can’t break into the game industry, try building your list of experience somewhere else; film, journalism, television, anywhere that allows you to sharpen your writing skills and prove that you’ve got what it takes to create captivating characters and worlds in interactive media.

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