A little while ago I posted a question I got emailed by a game writer just starting out. She wanted advice on making a game for a games writing portfolio: should it be purely text-based or should she aim to put a polished visual experience together? I posted my reply, which was by turns gloomy and (hopefully) encouraging. Read that first response here.
We’ve been chatting further by email, and I thought it was worth posting some more of her story, which I reckon shows just how tricky it is to get off the ground as a game writer at the moment – but also, how determined she is to keep going. I’ve also put in my follow-up responses with more advice/rambling.
So, here’s how game writing looks from the internship end:
Just because you did say you were interested, I will briefly let you know what things look like from my end of the business (or non-business, to be more precise): Internships for game writers are, at least from what I gather, difficult to get. Even if a studio does have a professional writers’ room, they do not always offer internships; if they do, these are usually aimed at grad students involved in a practical game studies programme. This is lovely for anyone going to uni or college in the States, but it is a little less convenient for the rest of us. Particularly in Germany, where I am from, there is not a single university that offers game studies, game writing, game design, or anything game related as a degree. I know that the situation is similar in France.
So, coming back to your original question: From where I stand, the process of becoming a game writer is so unprofessionalised at this point that it seems very difficult to get there without stumbling across and seizing an opportunity that comes up rather by accident. There are no degrees out there, and I have yet to read a single internship description aimed explicitly at writers.
I thought that your idea of getting involved in an indie game is a very interesting one. If you ask me, it is alright that writing is not always at the very top of the hierarchy; when we were making the movie, it was an absolute joy to see how the actors and director transformed my text and turned it into something bigger. Sure, lines got changed, scenes got cut, but the movie turned out the better for it. Would there be a place that you would recommend specifically to go looking for indie projects?
Thanks so much for the reply – it’s really interesting, and more than a little depressing, to hear how things look from your perspective. You say that it seems really hard to get off the ground without stumbling upon an opportunity – and as someone who stumbled upon his first opportunity, I do agree. (And it brings home how lucky I am.)
You make a good point, and you’re absolutely right to talk about your experience making a movie – getting a game made with a team is just like watching actors take on your words and do cool stuff with them, things you never expected. It’s a really good sign that you have that attitude of collaboration, and I think your film experience will actually be of some value when you talk to game people – if only because game people are still kind of intimidated by the film industry! It’s certainly a good indication that you can work in a team without being a ‘diva’, which is what most Producers fear the most. (I speak as a recovering diva myself).
When it comes to indie projects, I would suggest that you look into these:
a) Kickstarter and Indiegogo. There’s perpetually dozens of game projects on each of these sites; many of them do want to tell a strong story, and many of them kind of – let’s face it – could do with help. There’s usually a contact email posted, and you could do worse than just emailing to offer to help, for free or for a consideration or – even better – for a small percentage of royalties. You’ll either hear nothing, or you’ll get as much as you can handle given to you immediately. Just bear in mind that if a project has been posted on Kickstarter, the creators probably have some kind of story in mind already. They might not be looking for a ‘writer’, but if you can offer to copyedit/dialogue script/narrative design, then they may well gratefully accept you into the team.
b) Game design/development courses. As you say, there aren’t any degrees in game writing, as far as I know. But there are a lot of game dev courses, and there are all sorts of ways you could get “unofficially” involved. Email the professors and see if they’d be interested in having you come in to talk generally about story development – especially as your own writing credentials are impressive. Or you could offer to come in and work with any students who specifically want a story to work from, or just to review and edit any scripts for final projects – it might be a way to establish relationships with people who go on to make games.
c) hang around game jams, being a writer.
However you meet bedroom developers, you just have to use your judgment as to whether they are serious and decent people. Don’t work on any projects that you don’t genuinely think are interesting, and don’t put up with jerks under any circumstances.
As you say, there’s always that debate between ‘make what you want’ and ‘make what the market wants’. Neither are really reliable routes to success. I wouldn’t necessarily say that ‘make what you want’ NEVER works. Look at Christine Love, who seems to make a decent living making games which have a niche interest – like ‘Digital: A Love Story’ and its sequels. Thanks in part to Steam, some niches are now pretty large, and you can make a decent living making something which a few years ago would seem to be incredibly obscure.
I would say this: that you need to be ruthless one way or another. If you want to make market-oriented products and work in the AAA market you need to be ruthless with yourself and make yourself very market-able. If you want to make your own personal project, you need to be ruthless to keep making in the face of discouragement, and you need to be ruthless in self-promotion, or it won’t go anywhere.
And that, folks, is the benefit in GIVING advice rather than TAKING it: you can say all sorts of things that you don’t quite ever fully live up to in your own life. You just keep chugging along making the best things you can, same as everyone else.