Here’s the good news: game studios are looking for writers. They’re looking for them all the time. I’ve talked to three colleagues this week from different studios, and they’re all actively searching for writing talent.
And here’s the bad news: there’s a lot of competition out there. Die Gute Fabrik, a Danish studio developer, recently opened up a Writing & Narrative Design internship position. And they had 4,000 applicants. (4,000.)
So there are a lot of writers that want to write for games. And there are lots of studios looking for writers. But not just any writer - they want writers who have the chops and can do the job.That's why a lot of those applicants aren't getting hired - they aren't making a convincing case that they're the right candidate.
How can you show these studios that Yes, you’re the writer they’ve been looking for?
Let's figure it out. Today, I’m starting a 3-part series in which I’m going to break down what, exactly, studios expect to see in an applicant - and how you can be sure you’ve got your ducks in a row when opportunity comes along.
What studios expect to see
When studios are ready to hire a writer, they’re looking for three essential skills. The first one is the ability to write. (Makes sense, right?)
So how do studios evaluate your writing skills?
Well, a lot of studios will give you a writing test. They’ll give you a description of a mission or a cutscene - or both - and ask you to write a script. It may include branching dialog or plot twists or other surprises.
(The term “writing test” is nerve wracking. A test suggests failure, ugh.)
So they give you the writing assignment. You go home and you stare at it. Where do you even start? How do you do this, much less do it well? These tests can feel confusing and overwhelming.
(It’s like that anxiety dream from college - you show up to class, and they’re giving out the final exam. But you missed the entire semester and you are totally unprepared. Ahhhh!)
Studios want to see that you can do the job, before they give you the job. That means they want to see a great writing test (and great writing samples, too, while you’re at it, please).
Even if you haven’t shipped any games yet.
ESPECIALLY if you haven’t shipped any games yet.
So you need to show you can write for games, but you haven’t written for a game. It can feel so chicken-and-the-egg...
Why we're not ready (yet)
Let’s break down the problem a bit, so we can come up with a solution.
Usually, we don’t develop our game-writing skills because we don’t even know where to begin. Maybe we think we can’t learn how to write for games until, you know, we’re hired to write for games.
Underneath this is often a feeling of confusion and overwhelm. And that can stop us in our tracks.
Let’s get unstuck.
How to get ready
Remember: one of the things they want to see that you are a good writer. And you don’t need a game in order to work on your writing skills. I know of at least two writers who recently landed their first game-writing jobs, despite the fact they had never shipped a title before. And one of the reasons they got those jobs is because they had great writing samples to share.
They did it; you can, too.
First, let's break the problem down into smaller parts. There ARE parts of game writing that you can work on, outside of a game.
How about dialog? Game writers write dialog all the time - and they have to be tight, compelling lines that players love to hear. Want to develop your ear for great dialog? You could start today. Get a book like Talk The Talk: A Dialogue Workshop For Scriptwriters. It has more than 80 dialogue-writing exercises. Sweet! (I use it with students in my workshops.)
How about characters? Game writers develop character sheets all the time, too. If you want to learn how to create great characters, you can start by analyzing YOUR favorite characters. What makes them great? And you can find books like The Anatomy of Story or writing classes that teach dramatic writing: they’ll offer great advice on how to develop these skills, and exercises you can use to improve your skills.
How about structure? A studio’s writing test will have some kind of beginning, middle and end. Do you know how to build a structure that keeps the reader interested all the way through? Again, this is a skill you can develop in a writing workshop or in a writer's group. (Game stories DO have structure, even if it’s bendy and twisty and crazy.)
Bottom line: start writing. Do a little every day. Develop the habit of writing, even if it’s just a tiny bit, like writing down a funny line of dialogue you overheard at the grocery store. Anything is better than nothing. That way writing becomes a habit. And when that test comes along, it won’t feel so scary. It will feel like just another writing day.
It’s like Austin Kleon says in Steal Like An Artist:
“You’re ready. Start making stuff.”
Here’s one last piece of advice that I wish someone had told me when I was starting out.
If you are serious about this, if you really want to make this happen, don’t go it alone. Writers (myself included) are notorious for starting things and not finishing them. If it wasn’t for deadlines and other people’s expectations, I would never get anything done. (Including these blog posts.)
If you’re the same way, here's my #1 tip: get the structured support you need so that the work HAPPENS.
This is where community really helps. Find a class. Join or start a writer’s group, and commit to sharing your work with each other weekly. You’ll learn from each other, you’ll help each other, and you’ll all come out the other side with a collection of samples you can be proud of.
Most importantly, you will have massively strengthened your writing muscle. A studio’s writing test won’t throw you. You’ll be ready to show them what you can do.
If you dream of becoming a game writer, this is how you make it happen: one thoughtful, courageous step at a time. Before you know it, you’ll be flying.
Come back next week, when I’ll share the second part of this three-part series on how to become a working game writer. What do you think the second skill might be? The clue is in the job title.
See you next week.
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.