By Almitra Clay
You know how you tell someone you’re a writer and they say, “oh, I have this great idea for a novel,” and you have to keep a polite look on your face? The same thing happens in the computer game industry. I worked on games for a decade. The “great idea” line was a standard response I got when telling people what I did for a living.
I’ll tell you right up front: I never worked in the games industry as a writer. I’m not qualified to tell you about the full range of jobs that are available in the industry to those who can write. But I can tell you a little about what I saw while I was there.
Here’s how writing for a big game at a big company is most likely to pan out. Somebody near the top of the company hierarchy decides on the overall theme of the game. The overall story, the overall objective, the overall fun. The Intellectual Property. Sometimes that “IP” is created in-house; sometimes it is brought in from elsewhere, such as when a company makes a game based on Harry Potter or Alice in Wonderland or what have you. Writers are then needed to craft elements of the game within that framework: the story arc of a game expansion or a specific dungeon, the narrator voice-overs, the screenplay of cut-scenes, the endless lines of non-player character dialog. But these writers aren’t likely to have the job title of “writer.”
I began as a 3D artist with a background in illustration. No real writing background. After some years at my company I moved into the role of level-designer, which meant I was taking my art and other peoples’ art and assembling it like Legos into a finished location. Usually I was given an elevator pitch to work with, i.e. “the player has to find Big Robot and smash it.” It was my job to expand that elevator pitch into a story-arc, using 3D art and lighting and triggered events in place of words.
I did not think of my job at the time as writing — after all, my medium wasn’t words. I might exchange a few emails with other team members. I always sketched out flow-charts and crude maps detailing what would happen as the player progressed through the space. Post-its and whiteboards were used. There were meetings in which we made sure our individual game levels all fit together to tell the larger story-arc, which itself fit into the overall game. But not much writing.
But in retrospect, the planning that goes into the early stages of a game level bears much resemblance to outlining a novel. It’s the stage at which you’re lining up all the big story elements, making sure they work together, making sure the characters work, making sure problems are identified and fixed before they explode into weeks of rebuilding or rewriting.
Since my background was in the visual arts, I always worked in tandem with someone else who handled final written elements, such as dialog and voice-overs, and who handled the elements that had more in common with programming. But the longer I worked in the industry, the more I branched out. I took on lighting, behind-the-scene elements like “invisible walls” and managing the number of polygons in a given area — too many of those will crash a player’s computer! I tried my hand at scripting, which isn’t programming, I am told, but it looks similar. I directed other artists to make modular sets of architecture for me to work with. I played the game to test it. If you had told me in college that my illustration degree was going to lead to all of those niches, I wouldn’t have believed you.
There was one real writer on my team: a published author whose novels were based on the IP that our company was using. Ultimately his role and mine ended up quite alike — we both crafted game levels. Like me, he branched out into areas that I bet he had never planned on getting into. Writing became just one facet of what he did, and in many cases that writing was lightyears away from the word-processor: think endless lines of dialog in spreadsheets, with accompanying techno-babble documents that direct the game to cue up the right line of dialog at the right moment. And endless testing to make sure the dialog played when it should.
I would be surprised if any writer were hired to work on a game exclusively as a writer — after all, game artists are rarely hired to draw pictures. Even on a large team there are more jobs to be done than there are slots for full-time employees. Somebody always has to “take out the trash.” Those invisible walls I mentioned? I became the team expert on ridding our game of places where player characters could become trapped. It is the sort of tedium that nobody on a team wants to do, but without it a game is an unprofessional mess. It’s the game equivalent of fixing grammar.
Chances are, if you enter the games industry as a writer, you will end up doing some similarly unexpected work. The smaller the project, the more niches you will need to fill.
I know of one other fellow whose games career has led to writing. He started out as a manager. He had a knack for crafting those imperious edicts that companies use to communicate to their customers when a nasty bug is discovered, or a game expansion goes live. He has since come into a role in which he writes traditional short stories for his company’s website, stories that expand on the game’s themes. It isn’t all that he does — his managerial skills are still being put to good use — but it is without a doubt a regular, paid writing gig. With health insurance.
There may be freelance opportunities to work for game companies, too. I’m afraid I don’t know. At any rate, I hope this glimpse into the industry helps to dispel some of the mystery.