Writing for the Gaming Industry

by : Melissa K. Brewer

Several months ago, I worked on an interesting project for a client looking to break into writing music for the video game industry. As the project progressed, I found myself fascinated with the art of interactive entertainment, and began to take "side notes" on what it takes to write for the gaming industry. I made a host of wonderful contacts and learned a great deal about how tough --- and rewarding -- it can be to become a part of the development of some of the most mainstream and high-tech forms of entertainment today. (One out of every three American households has a video game system and the fastest growing market for video games is in Europe. ) There are also many opportunities for freelancers to "break in" to the gaming industry through offline and "lower-tech" mediums.

Honing Your Skills: What It Takes to Make It

A common misconception about working within the video game industry is that workers are usually young, immature, and inexperienced. While this may have been true in the early days of Nintendo, the technology, interactivity, and the average age of "gamers" (the people that play the games) have matured at an incredible rate. The Playstation 2 has a host of games that are rated "M" for mature; the target demographic for these games are men -- and women -- over the age of 17. As gamers age, the complexity of both the plot and the theatric elements tend to resemble short skits along the lines of "Godfather," leaving the days of Super Mario Brothers long lost in the dust.

One skill that is crucial, besides writing ability, to success in the game industry is passion. If you don't enjoy games or are unfamiliar with the latest technology, then you'll find the gaming world unfriendly. If you want to learn more about video games, buy or rent a console and a few game magazines. Don't try to break into this industry if you're simply looking for work; most video game writers take the jobs , first and foremost, because they enjoy the work. A beginner's pay is, at best, enough to pay some bills. The "real money" comes with success and hard work , i.e. LATER!

Fantasy writers, science fiction writers, and scriptwriters all have an advantage in the gaming industry. Writers play many different roles in video game development, including:

  • Plot, Setting, and Character Development: Writers typically write the setting, character sketches, and general plot based on the game developer's idea. Many science fiction and fantasy writers have found success in video game development because of their ability to create new and complex worlds. Every word in the development of games should be chosen carefully and specifically. In-depth description is crucial for game designers -- writers need to be able to describe every element to allow the graphic designers be able to portray them accurately. In addition, the game manual should be able to guide the reader through the "How -to's" as well as the plot. The manual typically is created by the initial development writer.

  • Storyboards and Scripts: Depending on the game type, most have "cinematic" sequences that move the game along as the player progresses. ?A typical storyboard includes a rough sketch of each screen or level (done by the graphics department).?. (How will they look, act, move, and sound?? What, if any, interaction will each character have with other characters in the world?)?A brief explanation of every action should appear on each panel of the storyboard.

If this all sounds like Greek to you, you can find out more about the video game-making process at: http://www.howstuffworks.com/3do2.htm

For how-to's on writing storyboards and scripts for games, an absolutely essential resource is Paul Garrand`s Writing for Multimedia and the Web, available at bookstores, and of course, Amazon.com.

Getting Started, Getting Connected

Most game writers don't simply "jump into" the field without industry experience. Many of them start out as fans that write ABOUT the game industry. You'll want to network as much as possible with the game development field -- you can do this by finding out about trade shows and association meetings. "I cannot stress how important it is to go to these and network! Bring samples of your work and collect as many business cards as possible!" says Sarah Stocker, a full-time writer for Stormfront Studios. Be sure to follow up with work samples and thank you letters. She also notes that smaller publishing houses are more receptive to newcomers; it is important to keep in touch. (http://www.Gamasutra.com is a resource that lists trade events)

Many writers start "small" in their quest for work, usually by writing articles and reviews for gaming-related publications. Most game magazines hire freelancers for reviews of games and expect thoughtful, knowledgeable reviews. Normally reviewers are asked to send in a sample game review. You should treat video game magazines as you would any other magazine; get a copy and study what they publish! (Did I mention that video game reviewers normally get scores of FREE games -- they make great presents!)

Video game reviews normally take up at least one page. (If the game is good, if not, then reviewers don`t bother!) and include: Game Name, System, Developer and Publisher, Release Date, Age Rating (ESRB, RASC, SEGA)Overview, Plusses , Minuses, Graphics, Play Control, Game Design, Satisfaction, Challenge qoutient, Sound, Originality, Replay Value, Overall review score

You can find writer's guidelines through Writer's Digest or by performing web searches for "Video Game Magazines". (Web searches are more up-to-date and will yield better results!)

Many writers also break into video game writing through writing game guides and RPG books. (Remember Dungeons and Dragons?) Burning Void has an excellent page about writing for role playing game markets and many resources to help writers find a niche in the RPG Industry.

What it's Like to Freelance Write for the RPG Industry http://www.burningvoid.com/users/heather/roleplaying/resources.html

Getting the Job

Many small video game publishers and PC game publishers actually post their writer's guidelines on their website and typically require a sample script with character development. (Usually 8-15 pages long -- by the time you get to this point, you'll want to be sure you're serious. A well-crafted script reads like a story and the characters are easy to visualize.) While small game publishers are more open to newcomers, they also tend to be unable to pay up-front -- which means royalties, or a lack thereof, for writers. Of course, the experience is valuable, and you'll have a game to pass on to your nieces and nephews with your name in the credits! You'll also have something to put on your resume when you apply for a writing job at a "big" game development company.

Competition is stiff, but with experience often comes success, and you can have a lot of fun along the way if you decide to give it a try!

Here are a few places that post video game writing jobs regularly:

Help Wanted at Game Developers. net


Game Jobs


Database of Game Development Companies (US & UK)


Add yourself to the RPG Industry Directory


Good luck and good game -writing! Many thanks to Sarah Stocker of Stormfront Studios and the PR Department at Sony of North America for their help with this article.