My life as a video game writer is nothing like you'd expect it to be
“What do you do?”
“I’m a video game writer.”
“OMG SO YOU PLAY GAMES ALL DAY THAT’S AWESOME CAN YOU GET ME FREE STUFF?!”
That’s the typical exchange when it comes to talking about what I do for a living. Sometimes the begging-for-swag varies — like, “Can you write me into the game?!” or, “Can you tell me what's going to happen?!” — but, invariably, there’s always the assumption that I get paid to play games all day.
I’ve written, edited, and designed for DragonVale, DragonVale World, Puzzle & Glory, the Sid Meier mobile titles Pirates! and Railroad Tycoon, UNO, and half-a-dozen work-for-hire projects spanning PC and mobile for as many studios and indie developers… but never was it my role to play games all day.
“Wait, You *Don’t* Get Paid to Play Games All Day?”
If only. My love of playing games all day is what got me into the industry, after all. I would be thrilled if that were the scope of my job. You can draw certain parallels — my career is like playing a version of Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple that’s been procedurally generated to maximize player frustration, for example — but the reality is far from lounging pantsless on a couch surrounded by pizza boxes.
Although, it did sort of start it out that way (but with more pants and less pizza). My first gig in the games industry was as a QA Tester for a mobile developer back when Blackberry devices were the height of smartphone technology and iPods were just MP3 players. A creative writing undergrad at the time, I was relegated to copy-editing while I tried to break things in games … over, and over, and over, and over, and over. For what it’s worth, playing games all day isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
There were a lot of years of freelance work between my QA role and being a full-time studio member with my name in the credits under the “Writer” headline. By far, the most popular “can u write dis 4 mah vidya game” request was text for the first-time user experience (usually abbreviated FTUE in the biz, and pronounced “fuh-too-ee,” which is just fun for everyone). After a handful of one-off assignments and a lot of terrible service jobs that weren’t in the video game industry, I landed a role as a designated writer (surprising) at a mobile game studio (even more surprising, as games with lengthy narratives requiring a writer are usually bound to consoles).
Perhaps the most surprising thing for most people to grasp is that the work of a game writer is … well, work. It’s not as simple as sitting down, writing whatever you want, and calling it a game. In the case of a live product, you need to be keeping track of all of the moving parts — and believe me, they move faster than level 29 of Tetris — in order to maintain a solid narrative. You also need a healthy dose of technical aptitude, or at least the ability to pick up on new softwares quickly. I use complex spreadsheet functions, Unity, and git on a daily basis, none of which I had studied before working in games.
Process, Process, Process
It takes a village to make a game. Sometimes it takes what feels like several dozen villages. From ideation to release, the game-making process is a multidisciplinary feat. There are brainstorming sessions, design documents, scoping meetings, technologies to develop, bits of art and animations to render, fires to put out, endless rounds of testing and iteration and bug fixes… and that’s just in the span of one development cycle.
All the while, a writer needs to be aware of what’s going on so as to keep the narrative from unraveling. When a new feature makes its way into a game, the writer has to ask, “What’s the wrapper? How does this make sense in this world? How do we communicate this to the player?” When a feature gets pulled out of a game, the writer has to ask, “How does this change the narrative? What text is affected? Does this leave gaping plot holes?”
There’s always the issue of brevity, too. As the good pair Strunk and White penned in The Elements of Style, “Omit needless words.” In mobile games, especially, there is a delicate balancing act between meandering, atmospheric, effusive, world-building prose and the mechanical — i.e., “X does Y. Go do it now.” To leave a little room for flavor, messaging gameplay mechanics to the player requires more than just words; it’s in UI flow, art, animation, tech, and other subtle, non-verbal elements. Again, it takes a village.
Then translation enters the picture. If your game is multilingual, every stitch of text must be translated. Idioms, jokes, slang — these things that give a game flavor and personality are the hardest to globalize. Becoming a polyglot and doing the work yourself is one unlikely route, but most studios employ designated translators, whether in-house or out-of-house. Establishing a strong foundation of communication with your translators can be the difference between Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy XII.
Speaking again for the mobile space and other live products, the work doesn’t stop when a game hits the virtual shelves. Reset back to brainstorming and get ready to go again, because if you’re lucky, people will like your game and want more content for it. Forever. Or thereabouts.
A lot of people balk when they hear I work in games. “Didn’t you hear about Konami?” they ask. “And what about your future, won’t you just get laid off eventually?”
Look, no job is perfect. No industry is exempt from controversy. Fortunately, I’ve never worked with a studio that puts its employees through the gauntlets for which Konami is infamous. As for my future, it’s true that games can be a tenuous industry. In fact, I was laid off from my first QA gig after the studio ran out of money. But I found more work. As long as people play games, the industry will need people to help make them. I’d worry more if I were trying to make it as a novelist instead of a game writer.
Hands down, I wouldn’t trade my career for anything in the world. Just like that alterverse version of the Water Temple I mentioned earlier, working in games is nonstop feat of endurance, critical thinking, constant innovation, occasional crying, and a whole lot of asking everyone around you for input — but the challenge is all upside, as far as I’m concerned. The only downside is having to put on pants.