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For a clearer picture of this process, let's pinpoint a game writer's most critical early-milestone tasks, beginning with a few pre-production goals. In these early weeks, it's easy to get drunk on a thousand and one ephemeral ideas -- by all means do -- but you'll need to conclude this reverie with a few tangible results:
High Level Narrative Summary. During preproduction, the design team should work directly with the writer to concoct a brief (one to four pages) high-level summary of the primary story. Think of it as your elevator pitch: make it succinct and snappy. This short piece is probably the only story document most of the team will ever read, so it should be clear and compelling. Do this early, and get the client to sign off on it as soon as humanly possible. Read that previous sentence again. Get quick client sign-off every step of the way. Failure to guide your client to a swift agreement on the story may result in endless misery for the remainder of the project.
Major Locations / Levels. This is one area where writers can really get sore if they are left out of the conception process. Designers frequently forge ahead with level concepts and designs without consulting the writer, not taking into account the huge role that setting plays in crafting an interesting narrative.
In video games, place is often more important than character, so this is doubly important. If the writer, designers, and artists band together to nail down the scope of the game's environments, and get a rough idea of how much is needed and how much is feasible, everyone will walk away happy.
This cuts all ways: writers need to know that they'll have the locations they need to tell a good story, while the artists and designers will want to make sure the writer is asking for content that is relevant to gameplay.
Obviously this "relevance threshold" varies with the size of the project, but on small projects with short schedules getting this right can mean the difference between environment artists going home at 6 pm or 6 am the next morning.
Once production begins, the writers work ramps up. This is the point where the entire design team needs to function as a single unstoppable force (for good):
A Detailed Story Outline. With the narrative arc complete, it's time to produce an exquisitely detailed story document, complete with scene descriptions and gameplay objectives. The amount of detail in this doc will vary according to how much the story influences the design, but it should be as thorough as possible. In any case, generating a detailed outline will give you an early understanding of just what sort of game you're making, and how reliant on the writer you will be for design iteration down the road.
In the case of heavily plot-driven games, the design challenges will stem directly from the story -- e.g. rescue a prisoner, assassinate a guard, courier a package. For non-linear games like RPGs this document should be incredibly dense and detailed. For less structured games, the writer's direct impact on the design may be minimal. Understanding this balance ahead of time is critical.
Story Presentation Plan. How, exactly, is the game's story being told, and who is responsible for telling it? Do you have pre-rendered cutscenes or in-engine cutscenes? Who will be putting these scenes together? Perhaps you have no cutscenes whatsoever, and would like to tell your story on-the-fly. Is this feasible? Possible?
Figure it out early. Nothing is more frustrating for a writer than seeing a project scoot forward without anyone having a firm understanding about how the story will be told, since this will affect what she intends to write.
Estimated Cut-Scene Breakdown. If your game does contain cutscenes or animated in-game sequences of any kind, it is crucial to estimate their number very early on to get a good sense of the work to come. If you have a detailed story outline, this should be easy. On tight projects it also helps to determine ahead of time what the expected intricacy and quality of each scene is so your teams can allocate their resources appropriately.
Characters. As you generate your detailed story arc, you'll need to make a clear list of the number of characters needed. Who are these people, and what roles do they play in both the narrative and the gameplay? Which are simple NPCs? Which are robust, interactive characters? Which are bosses? Mission givers? Shop keepers? Tutorial mentors? Et cetera.
The artists will be generating all character models and animations, and they'll want to know the scope as soon as possible. If you spring 15 new NPCs on your artists halfway through the project, they will shank you in the break room -- believe it. Getting the character scope nailed down early will also help you determine how much "incidental dialog" the game will require, for these throwaway lines frequently take up as much space in the script as the main story dialog. This is no trivial amount, so keep close track of it.
Sort Out Your Text Database. This can be a tedious task, but it is crucial to sort out your text pipeline very early, and get your tools up and running. The longer you wait, the more you will hate yourself. Some games have complex or esoteric text requirements -- non-linear conversation systems, for instance -- so it is critical that you organize your data cleanly and clearly.
Also, take a moment to decide how the script will be delivered. Not all writers are familiar with the esoteric architecture of your text database, so if your writer is delivering the script in Word or Final Draft, you're going to need a pipeline to handle its transfer.