Digital heroes

Date: 18/12/11  |  Author: Peter Davison
Tags: writing, video games, how to, career, advice

Why you should be writing for video games

So you think Video Games are a juvenile waste of time, do you? Yes, I’m talking to you, the one with the thumbed copy of Ian McEwan’s “Amsterdam” beside your monitor for inspiration. You who gets that look when anyone mentions genre fiction. You know who you are. Well it’s your loss, because there an awful lot of opportunities just waiting for the right writer.

Let’s take for instance the recent title Skyrim which features a unique selling point; “Radiant Storytelling”. Based on who you’ve met and what you’ve done to that point, the game engine produces random events based on set parameters but tailored individually to how you’re playing. In theory no two games will ever be the same, and in order to create such an open world the development team have had to write hundreds of hours of dialogue, characters, scenarios and interactive in-game books. That’s hundreds of hours where someone has been paid to sit down and craft dozens and dozens of stories, and for someone with a great love of narrative that term “Radiant Storytelling” has struck a resonant chord with me. It’s as if the language of the industry is changing to encompass the writer. In other words, we’re becoming more important!

Yes, ok, so there are some less than stellar products out there, and in the past some of the writing for games has been shocking, but there have also been some absolute gems, ones that, despite archaic technology, have stood the test of time, been rereleased as Apps, and gone on to become bestsellers even in today’s crowded marketplace.
Because technology is at a point now where, unlike TV and film budgets, games have very few limitations (not always a good thing, mind), productions are naturally becoming more and more epic, yet at the same time they are realising the importance of the intimate. Developers are beginning to invest in characters and emotions to the point where titles such as “Uncharted”, “L A Noire” and “Heavy Rain” are being heralded with the sort of critical praise and fervour previously reserved for movies. According to a recent interview with Doug Mitchell of Team Bondi in The Australian Financial Review the gaming industry is proving to be even more lucrative than film in the current financial climate;

“They’ll make 10 films where they used to make 20. So, instead, people are drifting to game acquisition because of the budgets. The cost of a film may be $170 million – twice that to market it – whereas the basic cost of making a game might be 10 per cent of that. Look at L.A. Noire, they sold about 3 million units in a week, about $US135 million ($130 million) net revenue, off a cost base which was infinitely lower than even your average low-budget film.”

With the recent boom of narrative heavy titles attracting high calibre writers such as Alex Garland, gaming is no longer frowned upon in quite the same way that it was, although it still has some way to go to convince the sceptics. However, companies can be a little reluctant to hire freelancers, but they are slowly warming to the idea and writers such as Rhianna Pratchett, former journalist for The Guardian, has found a niche as a “Narrative Paramedic”, hiring her expertise out to companies whose scripts may benefit from an objective eye. Rhianna states that “Her aim is to help developers embrace story-telling in games and improve the ways in which interactive narrative is defined, integrated and received”. Her work on “Overlord” lead to Rhianna winning The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s Best Video Games Script Award, for which she’s been nominated several times.

If you’ve got it, flaunt it

In a recent job advert for a reviewer, online gaming website IGN said that if you haven’t kept a blog for at least a few years then don’t even bother applying to work for them. Now this might not necessarily be true, but if you are intending to work in the gaming industry then you’ve got to appreciate the web as a medium and embrace the opportunities available. Create a Word Press, Tumblr or Posterous profile, connect it to your Twitter and Linked In accounts, add Flavours for good measure and make a point of writing often. It doesn’t have to be daily, it doesn’t have to be weekly, but make a point of creating new content at least once a month. This doesn’t even have to be about you – one of the first rules of networking is to become a good source of information for others, so why not use your blog to do this? Valuable content must be entertaining, educational, useful, thought provoking and original. People are much more likely to keep on visiting your page if you’re giving them something that will help them, rather than just bragging about yourself. Don’t believe me? Well check out Seth Godin’s strategy for his bestselling book “Unleashing the Ideas Virus”. By giving it away for free as a PDF and then offering print on demand copies, the book not only became an international bestseller, it became the number one E-book in history!

Go the extra mile

Lucasarts produced some of the most iconic games of the 90’s, and when Tim Schafer applied for an interview he nearly fluffed getting the gig before he was even through the door. During his initial phone interview, when asked what games he played he accidentally let slip that he had been playing “Ballblaster”, an illegally pirated version of “Ballblazer”. To offset the damage, rather than sending in a CV he drew the plans to an adventure game of him landing his dream job with the company. Tim went on to produce, amongst others, the “Monkey Island” series, “Day of the Tentacle”, “Grim Fandango”, and to form his own company, Double Fine.  His wonderful application, along with a few rejections letters, can be seen here. And as Tim says, if he could get the job of his dreams, woefully under qualified as he was, then why can’t you? Make sure you stand out from the crowd. But for the right reasons!

Make your own luck

Ask anyone in the industry, but nothing speaks quite like experience. Take for example the amazing success of a group of students from the DigiPen Institute of Technology in 2005 who, whilst studying, produced a freeware game called “Narbacular Drop”. Robin Walker, a developer at Valve, happened to be attending the Institute’s annual careers fair and saw the game in action. This culminated in Valve employing the entire team to redevelop “Narbacular Drop” as “Portal” which has now sold in excess of four million copies, spawned a bestselling sequel and merchandise. Not bad for a student project, eh?

Write something, just write anything

If you want to get a position scriptwriting for a TV series then you write a script and submit it to the writers’ department, right? So what do you do when you want to write a game? If C++ seems like too big an initial leap then maybe Mods are for you, user-generated software developed from existing game engines and published online. Add-ons, such as new items, levels, weapons, characters, etc, are known as Partial Conversions, and new games based on existing software are called Total Conversions. Typically these are formed from PC games, usually role-playing or first person shooters, though a very user-friendly system has been developed for “Little Big Planet” on the PS3 (and it has Stephen Fry narrating, so what else could you possibly want?) Publishers with good Mod communities include Bethesda, ID Software, Valve, Epic and Crytex. There are many, many how-to books and blogs offering advice on creating good and intuitive software, and once you’ve got to grips with these, link your creations back to your website, portfolio and CVs so prospective publishers can see your work. The downside to Mods is that both you and the player have to already own a copy of the host game in order to use the Mod, but it’s a small price to pay in order to get something on your CV. Just look at it as research!
Incidentally, since the 1980’s people have been using Mods in order to create art known as “Machinima”. Just goes to show, some people can make art out of video games!

Do your research

Want to know who’s who and who’s recruiting? Well here are a few starter websites for you:

Venture Beat
Games Industry 
Euro Gamer 
Game Press 
Games Jobs Board 
And if you want to form your own company get out to a TIGA or BAFTA networking event. Who knows who you’ll meet?
If you’re worried about going it alone then there are a handful of Cooperative Agencies, where writers have banded together to source work and promote themselves as a company. For one such example see The Mustard Corporation
It’s not all fun and games

You want an in right? How about approaching publishers from a different angle? Try offering your services writing marketing copy, completion guides or fan fiction. There are thousands of online wikis for you to contribute to or start your own, and some video games have such a devout following that fans are eager and willing to part with their cash for associated stories set in their worlds. And for those more creatively inclined, why not try follow the latest trend by making a web series based on popular gaming franchises? For a couple of recent examples check out Mortal Kombat and Dragon Age.

Learn your craft

The ideal thing to do, if you are really interested in pursuing a career in the video games industry is to study on an accredited course at a University whose students have gone onto produce quality work or to form reputable companies (but remember now everyone, self employment isn’t a viable statistic for the Tory/Lib-Dem Coalition!) Many Universities run specialist video games courses, but if you are put off by the rise in tuition fees then maybe Train to Game is the option for you.  These courses are recognised by TIGA (the trade body for the Video Games industry in the UK) as being industry worthy, and according to one Educational Advisor, are the equivalent to about two thirds of a degree.

As a final point, and forgive me for this being blatantly obvious, but if you want to write for games then you have to play them. If you’re lucky enough to get an interview with a developer then you need to be able to tell them what you’ve played, what you are playing, who you admire and why.

I’ll talk a bit about the challenges and logistics of scripting for games in another post, but in the interim, and for an honest opinion of the industry, check out some bitter ramblings from the legendary Ron Gilbert. I especially like his rant with Steve Jobs.

If you’ve had any success stories or have any suggestions then please sound off in the comments section.

Until next time.



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