So How Do I Get a Job Writing in the Videogame Industry?
In an earlier post I suggested I would eventually explain how an aspiring video game writer might actually go about getting a job in the industry.
And then I forgot about it. But I was kindly reminded today about that post and so here goes.
Sadly I don’t have too many tips. This is because there are not that many video game companies that actually hire writers on staff. Most use freelance writers, under contract. The stable game writing career with benefits, free breakfasts, and sports cars is a rare beast.
I don’t know much about freelance game writing, as I have never done that nor have I worked with a freelance writer so I’ll just discuss what I do know.
The On-The-Staff Writer
This is the position I discussed in my other post… a writer who is a standard employee of a videogame company with all the perks (and disadvantages) that entails. As I mentioned above there are few companies that offer this sort of position… most writing in most companies is done by the system/level designers, or freelance writers.
BioWare is an exception.
I don’t know exactly how many writers BioWare employs but between its various studios I’d guess about thirty full-time writers. I’m biased but I still think this is the best studio for a video game writer to try and write for. Haunting their job openings page is your best bet.
I know of no central location to find a directory of writers in the game industry or any organization of them… in most companies writers are designers who happen to write in addition to other responsibilities. And I should mention that the writers at BioWare, while considered full-time writers, also perform other design tasks but I think most of them, now, primarily write.
Here’s some tips to hunt for other opportunities.
Scan the Credits
One non-optimal way is to go through the credits of games that have story of some kind or another and see who is credited as writer. If there’s more than one writer it is a good bet the company has at least some writers on staff. After getting a couple names google them and see if you can find out more about them! Yes that’s stalking, but its all in a good cause — getting you a job. If the writer appears to be actually working at a particular company (instead of freelancing) learn more about the company, the games they make, and whether they are hiring or not.
Keep in mind that a first-person shooter studio probably has little need for writers compared to an ambitious 200 hour role-playing game with eight hundred thousand words of dialog.
These are the writing credits for Dragon Age (taken from MobyGames)
Ferret Baudoin, Sheryl Chee, Daniel Erickson, Jennifer Brandes Hepler, Mary Kirby, Lukas Kristjanson, Jay Turner
Caveat. The reason that credit surfing is not an overly productive method of determining writers in a company is because many companies don’t seem to label writers as such. I assumed Bethesda (Fallout 3, Oblivion) and Obsidian had on-staff writers but I didn’t see any mentioned in the credits! That might just be because they are called something else. So your mileage with this approach will vary.
There are several video game conventions. Don’t bother going to them unless you can afford to but do scan their events. Look for panels concerning Storytelling or Writing and find out the names of the presenters. Figure out the games they worked on and check their websites. Maybe even toss an e-mail or two their way and ask about their careers; you’ll probably find a willing correspondent. I officially give you permission to contact any writer in the industry.
This is the link to the schedule for the Game Developer’s Conference. Also look for comic or role-playing game conventions, they will occasionally bring in guest speakers from the video game industry. Follow one around and pester them with questions.
Forums — Become Part of the Community
Visit video game forums and start interacting with the developers there. Learn to differentiate the various design positions and build relationships. It can help you down the road and following the discussions will give you a better idea of who does what.
Also consider building mods and add-ons for existing games. Learn basic scripting and build an adventure that gets some attention. At the very least you might create something for your portfolio to help if a job opening presents itself.
As well I think anybody considering writing dialog for video games needs to play around with the Neverwinter/Dragon Age dialog editors and examine how dialog is actually constructed. Its not as much fun as you might be thinking.
Got Something Else To Offer?
If you would like to write, or be involved in the story craft on a video game consider getting your foot in the door in another position. For a developer like BioWare I think a reasonable foot-in-the-door might be as a technical designer… which is basically a programmer who populates environments and sets up the logic flags for the dialog (and loads of other important stuff). Take on additional writing tasks when they present themselves and you’ll probably find yourself doing some writing down the road. If not just sneak text into the game… the leads love that.
Of course you need to be a strong programmer to land the scripting job, which is why I still recommend getting a computing science degree to anybody trying to get into the video game industry (whether artist, writer, or quality assurance). Be aware that if you enter design you’ll probably make less money than you would in a programming position. Just saying.
Any other thoughts out there for the aspiring video game writer?
Do NOT send the lead writer of a project a giant book of slashfic pr0n written about his latest videogame. That is not a good way to get a writing job.
Very good point!
Somebody did that?! Who would do something like this?
Anyways, interesting tips on getting a job. I’m afraid I will have to ignore the last advice, to get a computer science degree. Been there and tried, but programming is just… not for me. Do you have any idea if an artist could later rise in a company to do more design/writing related stuff?
Still… It’s a pity that writing in games is not respected more. Companies shouldn’t shove in writers at the last minute and expect them to make a coherent story out of an already fully designed game. And that’s when they bother hiring a writer at all.
I don’t mean to say every game needs a story, but if you’re going to put one in anyways, might as well do an effort to make it a GOOD story, and one that matches the game system and player experience.
An artist can definitely rise, at least at BioWare. Several producers and leads had strong art backgrounds — though most had a mix of art, design and programming sensibilities.
An artist becoming a designer… I could imagine a situation where an artist became a level designer (minor programming duties setting up plots + responsibilities creating art levels and whatnot) and then if they proved themselves to have good story design/critique skills and leadership skills maybe moving into a design lead position of some kind.
And I agree with what you have said about games and story… writers are too often a late addition though I do think the situation is gradually changing. I expect to see more opportunities for writers in the videogame industry.
Mr. Knowles, I’m beginning to worry about the degree I have taken in college. I chose Creative Writing for Entertainment. I had seen on the school site that the degree was often associated with video game writing. I took the chance and enrolled. But now I fear I may not get hired because of the degree. Not to mention the overwhelming debt that usually follows a college education. Is this degree enough to land me a writing job (at the least freelance work) with a well done portfolio?
I don’t think you need to worry that you won’t get hired *because* of the degree. While I’m not convinced that specialized degrees are essential, I don’t think they are generally detrimental.
As with any degree you get out of it what you are putting into it. If I were you I would be trying very hard to get a job (freelance work) well before you graduate. That could be copy editing, playtesting, writing press releases and such. I would try to write my own games, grabbing a game with a toolset and a strong writing system (Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age). I would seek out an amateur modding team and offer my writing skills to them.
The hope would be that what you learn while earning your degree, both in-class and out-of-class through your own personal assignments, would ‘raise your value’ to any potential employer in the future.
Thank you for the swift reply, Mr. Knowles. I am currently trying to intern, but it can only do so much. I had just wondered if the degree was acceptable for hiring companies or if it just wasn’t enough. I don’t come from a well off family so attempting to obtain two degrees might send my mother to an early grave. (or at least have her yell at me until I wish I was instead)
Getting a game dev job is a combination of having the right skills and luck — the degree is a requirement but simply having the degree is usually what is important (i.e., proving you have the discipline to complete the degree). The specific degree, for a design job, isn’t generally going to be super important. So I think you are probably okay but again, it will be what you learn and what you can do that matters more.