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Comic-Con 2006: The Challenges Faced by Game Writers

Comic-Con 2006: The Challenges Faced by Game Writers

July 21, 2006 | By Frank Cifaldi

July 21, 2006 | By Frank Cifaldi
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At a Thursday morning panel at Comic-Con International entitled "Writing for the Computer Gaming Industry," Anne Toole of Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment, currently doing pre-production work on the Stargate Worlds MMORPG slated to coincide with the television program, was frank about the lack of writing positions at game developers.

"I went to a Game Developers Conference," said Toole, "and while I was there, I learned that while everyone wanted writers in games, nobody wanted to pay for them."

Toole, at the time a freelance writer with experience in daytime television, found a backdoor into her position. After heavily networking at events, conferences and parties, Toole got a call out of the blue, asking her to rewrite a game script over the course of a weekend. From there, staying in the games industry was cake; getting in is the hard part. And for a position as against the grain as an in-house writer, finding work is often a great deal more complicated than simply applying for a job.

These backdoor methods of waiting in the shadows for someone to become desperate seem to be the norm for getting a job as a game writer. Even Chris Avellone of Obsidian, designer and writer on games heavily praised for their writing such as Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Knights of the Old Republic 2 and now Neverwinter Nights 2, offers similar advice at the panel, advising that would-be game writers get their names (and business cards) spread around, network a whole heck of a lot, and wait.

"Be absolutely persistent," he said, "and then wait for someone who very desperately needs a writer."

Getting there, finding employment as a games writer, is only the first challenge; for most any writer, adapting to the unique structure of a game is an entirely unique writing experience that requires one to think differently about their craft.

"You have to start divorcing your ego," said another panelist, Neal Hallford, a contractor most known for his work on Betrayal at Krondor and the Dungeon Siege series. "I went off to college and I was studying proper story structure and all this good stuff, and where a lot of this broke down for me was when it was like, 'Hey, that's a wonderful dramatic scene, but you're tying a rope around the player's neck and dragging them through cutscenes.' And that's not what they're playing for."

Hallford relates writing in most other media to being a drill seargant, taking complete control, but for games "it's more like 'Hi, I'm Julie, your tour director! Let me show you what's going on over here today!'"

In addition to would-be game writers facing a new way of thinking, there's yet another challenge - one of quantity. Because of the nature of the medium, and because players are not roped in to one continuous experience, game writing requires a great bulk of, well, writing.

"What we try to do is make sure that every character has three or four different stories going on at once, but that experience might be different depending on your play style," explained Avelonne. "You actually have to include three or four branching plotlines that might change. It's like a 'Choose Your Own Adventure' book, but a lot more complicated and detailed."

Toole solidified this need for quantity by drawing on her daytime television experience. "We had to write five hours of dialogue a week," she said, "but in games it's even more so. I once had to write a game and come up with twenty five characters over one weekend, in daytime you have about seven."

"I've learned that, if you have to, you can come up with one hundred and fifty different variations on the generic line 'there it is, get it!'" joked Jeremy Barlow, Writer on Lucasarts' Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. Barlow also brought up yet another challenge for game writers - technical limitations. "You're also dealing with the assets of the game and what the memory will allow," he said. "It's a different challenge because it makes you fit your own imagination in that system."

Avellone suggests that the best way to understand the limits of your game is to involve yourself in the developmenht process. "Try to build a level or a cutscene," he said. "That, more than anything, will tell you about your limitations. There are about a hundred different paramaters that it's good for a writer to know about, and if you've actually gone into the engine, you'll usually find them yourself."

In addition to the existing assets of the game limiting game writers, the rest of the team must also be considered. An act as seemingly simplistic as adding a new character to a cutscene could take upwards of a week of real development time, affecting artists and engineers alike.

"You're sitting on top of a pile of other people," said Toole. "Every decision you make goes far beyond the player."

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