Get into games writing

od of War written by Spanner SpencerThis week’s guest post comes from games writer extraordinaire Spanner Spencer.

In every other form of fiction writing, the writer is the only one who starts with nothing. It all begins with the writer, and everyone else involved builds on the foundations of a script, or story, or manuscript, or feature, or whatever kind of bricks the writer laid down.

Not so with games, and that’s a hard pill for writers to swallow. It’s a genre that doesn’t really care for the writer, and does its best to manage without one altogether. You’re not quickly welcomed onto the creative team, and even if you are, the invitation generally doesn’t arrive until the stone of the game has been cut.

Oh, and half the time, when you apply for a “script writer” contract with a game developer it’ll probably turn out that they were looking for a Java programmer anyway.

Being a games writer doesn’t sound too appealing, eh? Admittedly it’s a creative outlet with very few, well… outlets, but if you can edge your way into a production you can find yourself having a damn good time.

Grasp the fact that no one writes a game

Seriously, no one really writes a game. Not even the writer. A game begins with a producer, who looks at what their team is good at and what kinds of games are likely to be popular over the next year or so. They look at new hardware, and new opportunities; new ways to reach gamers, and what sort of games those new markets will want. The first decision is therefore one of genre, and the development team is tasked with coming up with ideas for a new driving game, fighting game, strategy game, action game, touchscreen game, social game, puzzle game or whatever.

Portal written by Spanner Spencer

It’s not unheard of for a writer to be invited onto this brainstorming panel, but it’s certainly not a prerequisite. More than likely a writer will be approached once the producer has decided what kind of game they’re making, and chances are there’s already a very early game (or proof of concept, at least) in production by the time you hear about it.

So the writer is brought on board to begin filling in blanks. “We need a main character who can do this, this and this,” or “There’s a war zone level, an abandoned hospital level and a zombie outbreak level. Wrap a story around them, old chum.” This might not sound like the best way to structure a story, and it isn’t, but that’s just the way game development goes.

Make yourself useful

It’s important for a writer to make themselves useful. I recall seeing a documentary about the making of the Lord of the Rings films, and some of the concept artists wanted to be kept around after their pre-production work had completed, what with it being such an exciting project. So they offered their services painting sets, decorating armour, and generally applying the artist’s craft anywhere it could be useful. Often this was for jobs well out of their original remit, but it’s a lesson worth learning in game writing.

An early press release might be required, or a bit of blurb for the official blog, or a listing for the iPhone App Store. Make yourself useful and ease the burden of a programmer who’d otherwise be tasked with these chores and you’ll become quite popular. Popular enough, we hope, that your opinion will be sought earlier and for longer and for more important decisions when it comes to the actual development of the next game.

Also learn to fit in with the development team’s creative process. There are no standard sets of tools or script formats, so offering up a Final Draft feature film-formatted screenplay won’t be much use. When it comes to the dialogue and in-game text (that players will see and hear during play), chances are you’ll have to write those in an Excel spreadsheet and even include special characters and formatting that only makes vague sense to you, and more sense to some nebulous piece of software that’s essentially your boss.

But this all fits with making yourself useful. If a programmer can take the text straight from you and plug it into the game, you’ve done a great job. If they have to transfer it all into a format that computers can use, it’s an extra job for the team – and there are enough of those already.

Find your place in the game development hierarchy

The writer is a good few rungs down the game development importance-ladder than in any other medium. A game needs a programmer, an artist, a designer, a producer, a level designer, an environmental artist, a 3D modeller and a hair stylist more than it needs a writer. At least, that’s the general opinion within the industry.

World of Goo written by Spanner Spencer

Looking at it from the developer’s corner for a moment, we should appreciate the fact that people are going to university to learn how to design games. They spend several years becoming 3D modellers, and graphics are more important than gameplay these days (sorry to say that, games industry, but you know it’s true), so artists are given crowns to wear while sat at their diamond-encrusted desks.

But what does a writer know about designing games?

And that’s a very fair question. There’s no standard for this form of creative writing. It has no precedent, no college courses, no typical toolset or script formatting. As we’ve already discussed, you’ll spend more time writing in Microsoft Excel than you will in Word, and that’s the literary equivalent of chewing tin foil.

So what qualifies a fictioneer to write a game? Exactly the same skills used in writing a book, film or a short story. Great character development, solid structuring and lots of cool ideas. Games need these, and need them a lot more than most game developers realise.

Learn to write through playing

One game design qualification you can acquire sounds like a bit of a cliché, and is so obvious I’m loath to point it out, but (deep breath) play lots of games. Yeah yeah, big secret, I know. But play them from a writer’s perspective. Look at how (or more likely if) the games tell a decent story. One advantage we have right now is that very few games manage to tell a decent story, and that’s one of the weapons a writer can wield in the game development arena.

It doesn’t have to be an epic story, mind you. Look at games like Portal, World of Goo and God of War. Not especially profound, but they have characters we care about and the story grows as the game progresses.

Developers are half switched-on to the idea that a game can be improved by telling a good story. Oh, most of them have a great main character, but they go through little or no development other than upgrading their weapons or taking on increasingly difficult antagonists. So examine your games and see how they could have told a better story, because gameplay aside, they probably had quite a lame progression and absolutely no story structure.

Don’t expect everyone to see the value of storytelling

I won’t mention any names, but I was at a mid-sized game development studio once, and they were gearing up to launch a new sci-fi trilogy for the Xbox 360. They showed me the game, as a reference for the work I was there to do.

“So did you put much emphasis on story in this game?” I asked the producer as we played a few levels together.

“We didn’t want to distract players with a complicated story,” he explained, pointing out a significant fear game developers have of storytelling in games, which is admittedly quite justified, “but it’s there if you want it.”

“Great,” I said, inwardly suspicious, and not a little smug that he’d falling into my cunning wordsmith’s trap. “I want it. Where is it?”

A long silence. “Er, well, you know. You’ve got to… like, look at what’s going on and that. The environment, I suppose. Stuff that’s in the levels.” I suspect this was the first time the development team (which had no writer, I might add) had actually considered “where” the supposed story was.

So, your first job is to convince them of the value of storytelling

The problem is, no one actually sat down and written this magical, ethereal, appearing and disappearing non-story. Rather, the team had inadvertently avoided the subject with this “there if you want it” catchall, and only just realised it wasn’t there at all. One-dimensional main characters were running around a three-dimensional game, shooting aliens for no particular reason.


I tell you this tale because, after reading this feature, you might be close to believing what too many programmers and designers believe: that there is no place for writers in the games industry. The characters in the sci-fi game had no motivation, making them impossible to care about – and that’s something that game designers do think is important, even if they don’t appreciate the fact that a writer is the ideal candidate to deliver that depth of emotional participation.

Even though players might not be able to vocalise exactly what their problem is with a game — why they “can’t get into it” — it’s often because they don’t really care whether the characters die or make it to the next checkpoint. A writer would have considered the character’s journey and motivation before the first pixel exploded on the screen, and this kind of user interaction (which we might think of as audience empathy) is acknowledged by the industry as being increasingly essential to crafting a great game.

The games industry badly needs writers for this task alone. The only difficulty is that many people working in the industry don’t know that a writer would inherently fix such structural, motivational problems. They don’t understand the intricacies of character development anymore than we understand the intricacies of C++ coding. Until the developers understand why this specific problem even exists, it’s going to be a bumpy entry path for the writer.

Get to grips with nonlinearity, interactivity and all the other “ivities”

You’ll hear a lot about ‘branching scripts’ and ‘interactivity’ when trying to break into the games industry, not to mention the ultimate game design chestnut “non-linear narrative.” This latter phrase must be spoken by someone on the development team, by law, at least every three minutes when talking about a game’s story, or the Internet will implode.

Just nod politely and agree about how important these things are, whatever they are. There’s a notion that writing for games requires a vastly different tool set, but that mainly stems for the lack of standardised methods.

Writers don’t write stories in a linear fashion anyway. You outline, you write character bios that fit the outline, you rewrite your outline because the character bios changed it, you change the hook as the outline evolves, and you plan alternative plotlines that are going on in the background. Writing a book, film, comic, game or shopping list isn’t a linear process, but appearing as “non-linear” as possible definitely won’t hurt your rep with the game design crew.

Personally, I don’t believe that writing a book is any different to writing a film, for example, or a comic any different to writing a game. We format these types of fiction differently when the first draft eventually goes down on paper, but the development process – the really really important bit – is always the same. It’s about structure, character, audience awareness, narrative (linear, nonlinear or nonrelativistic quantum mechanical) and applying the writer’s craft to building solid foundations for a great story.

Writing a game is no different.

Spanner_SpencerAuthor bio

Yes. Spanner‘s his real name, and he’s already heard that joke you just thought of.

Although Spanner’s not very good, he’s quite fast, and that seems to be enough to keep him in a regular supply of free games as he writes for various videogame studios, and helps keep him away from the depressing world of real work.