Dec 3 2010 11:20am

Breaking Into Video Game Writing

Breaking into Video Game WritingBecause I work and write in a number of different fields, I often get questions about how to break into them. Video games are a huge and growing field for creative expression these days, and a lot of writers would love to know how to make the leap from writing novels or short stories to putting words in the mouths of characters in their favorite games instead. 

First, play games. Love them. Play more of them. Figure out which ones you like and why. 

There’s plenty of competition to become a game writer these days. The companies aren’t waiting around for a talented storyteller to come in and show them how to do it right. They have people beating on their doors and begging for those jobs. 

If you can’t speak the language of a gamer—if you don’t know the difference between FPS and RTS, if you don’t know why the Tea Party founders calling themselves Teabaggers is funny—then you’re too far behind to get started. Go back and do your research first. Learn what you’re getting yourself into. (Hey, it’s fun. You get to play games and have a great excuse for writing them off on your taxes!) Then come on back. 

Once you’re ready, the best way to break into video game writing is the same as it is for any other profession: networking. Sit down at your computer and do some research. Figure out where the people you want to work with have their offices and do what you can to meet the people there. This used to be a hard nut to crack without picking up stakes and moving to a new city with no promise of work, but fortunately today we have other resources, including the internet. 

Take advantage of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). Dues are only $48 a year ($30 a year for students or $25 if you’re unemployed), and they have dozens of chapters in cities around the world. You can also join the IGDA’s Writers SIG, which has an excellent mailing list. Subscribing to the list is free, even if you’re not a member.

If you can make it to a Game Developer Conference (GDC) event, do so. The main one happens in San Francisco in March, but they also hold events in Austin, Europe, and China. The Austin show—GDC Online—isn’t as big as the one in California, but it has a special track for game writers. 

If you can manage the time, volunteer to help out with the show. This helps cut your costs (an all-access pass is over $2000 at the door), and it gives you a good reason to interact with people at the conference and show them how useful, friendly, and intelligent you are.

None of that, of course, will get you a job, but it wedges your foot in the door. Employers prefer to hire people they like. If you’re going to be in their offices, they want to know you’re someone they can get along with, and networking gives you an opportunity to prove at least that much to them. Then, once you get that far, you can dazzle them with your skills.

Good luck!

Matt Forbeck is the author of thirteen tie-in novels, most of them having to do with Dungeons & Dragons or Blood Bowl. Just this month, Angry Robot published his first original novel—Amortals—and his second—Vegas Knights—is due out this spring.

David Fortier
1. NewGuyDave
Great advice, Matt. Thanks for sharing. What pic did you use in the post? It looks like Dragon Warrior from the 8-bit Nintendo days, or perhaps an early Ultima or Bards Tale on the PC.

With regards to the writing in games, I love it when developers push the boundries of what we're used to. One thing that stands out is the expansive worlds of the Elder Scrolls series, particularly Oblivion. This was almost so big that seeing it all meant devouring all my evenings running around checking grottos and temples.

The ability to travel anywhere and not just along a single path helps with the delineation of storylines, which is another thing that is important. Last, tough moral choices for the characters is another important piece of the puzzle for my gaming satisfaction, something that NWN and Dragon Age: Origins did well (though they suffer from (!) syndrome.

I realize there's a time and place for running around, talking to everybody in town with an (!) above their head, accepting a quest, collecting items and killing monsters, then returning for a gift or gold. Even hack and slash adventuring can be mindlessly entertaining and good for unwinding after work.

Still, I hope the industry continues to challenge the boundries of where its been and where its capable of going. Quality storytelling in the games can do that.

2. CericSF
The game would be Final Fantasy 2 for SNES (4 in Japan, though updated versions of the game list it as 4 in the US).

Good advice overall for networking, but an additional strategy for getting into game writing is to partner up with indie game developers. Trying to get a writing job at one of the studios that makes triple A console or PC games is like trying to get a job in Hollywood - possible if you have an established track record but not easy at all if you're an amateur trying to get your foot in the door.

Also, if you really want to get into games, you should develop other related skills, such as programming, game art/graphics, game design, anything that can demonstrate that you can wear many hats, especially when it comes to indie game development. You should really love video games and games of all kinds.

Of course the best thing to do to demonstrate your skills is to make your own story-driven game. There are plenty of free development tools out there that are making game development accessible to newcomers to the scene.

Some sites to check out to learn more about the indie gaming scene would be and

If you just want to write and you don't play games, you're better off focusing on other writing markets, for example nonfiction or even screenwriting, than you are bothering with the video game marketplace.
Luke M
3. lmelior
Warning, TVTropes link ahead:

Also I'll throw in a site I frequent. It's mainly for programmers, but there are a few writers around, and there is a subforum for writing to boot:
Steve Burnett
4. steveburnett
If you happen to be in the North Carolina area next April, might look at the third in Raleigh.
5. Alex Freed
A few other random thoughts (Hi, Matt!):

1) If you're coming from the world of prose or film, it's tremendously important to show an awareness of what makes games different when dealing with potential employers. Have strong opinions about how interactivity changes storytelling! Be able to argue over the reasons why (for example) tragic heroes are rare in the Western RPG canon. Cite modern games that had great stories but that utterly failed to wed them to their gameplay.

2) There are good books out there on the subject of game writing, and game design in general. ("Writing for Video Game Genres" is a collection of essays from a bunch of fine authors, though I haven't delved into most of it.) I'm sure people here can suggest some.

3) It's less common these days, but a professional background in traditional (pen and paper) RPG or board game design can help show an understanding of storytelling in a related medium. If you've got that experience, use it.
6. Christopher Byler
Be able to argue over the reasons why (for example) tragic heroes are rare in the Western RPG canon.

Well, my initial response to this is that you can't have a proper tragic hero without a tragic flaw. Which, if it's not just going to be an Informed Attribute, will have to be enforced on the player through something like Stupidity Is The Only Option, which will annoy the player. Imagine an RPG that forces the player into, say, Hamlet's indecisive inaction (let alone Juliet's premature suicide!). Would you play that? I doubt I would. Even Othello's trusting the wrong friend could be very irritating if you telegraphed the identity of the villain at a point where you're still forcing the player to go along with everything he says. (Or for players who have been spoiled as to the plot, which on replay, is everyone.)

Partly it depends on what the flaw is, but basically a true tragic hero can't struggle against his doom because he *is* his doom, and forcing the player to screw himself over like that is very alienating. (Unless the tragic "flaw" is self-sacrificing heroism, which the player might be willing to get behind despite the self-destructiveness of it, but I don't think most people would consider that tragic in the sense the OP asks for, if the hero achieves something worthy.)

That, and marketing droids don't think Americans like downer endings. They might be right, or they might be wrong, but the perception is so well entrenched that any corporate-made game (read: anything with respectable production values, since by definition, those require the big bucks) is probably going to bow to it.

I think they're probably right, anyway; the more the player identifies with the character, the more they're going to take bad things happening to the character personally. It's emotionally powerful, but not necessarily in a good way. Screwing over the main character (in anything other than a Heroic Sacrifice way) is best used sparingly; forcing the player to screw themselves over is probably best not used at all.
7. Ymarsakar
if you don’t know why the Tea Party founders calling themselves Teabaggers is funny

I guess you don't have a degree in psychological warfare and how to make illusion look like reality.

The Tea Party founders never did call themselves Teabaggers. I guess the next thing you'll tell me is that WWE wrestling is real and that a magic trick is a supernatural phenomenon from the guru.

As for video game writing, I have found that the Japanese source material are often always superior to their Western counterparts. Not because they are any more original or thrilling, but because of the way the market is setup in Japan that gives the writer much more creative freedom and license.

Notable examples, Utawarerurmono and Ein no Aselia for the PC.

Never found in the US, because of licensing and censorship law issues.
Matthew Hunter
8. matthew1215
#7: I second your opinion. I consider myself a gamer and at least an associate tea party member. I don't appreciate having gratuitous insults slung at me while reading something to do with one of my other interests. Tor editors, that sentence would have been a great place to do some editing.
9. JGood
A good way to break into the video game writing field is to write an animation script or a video game script. I think that zombie related stories are going to be popular.

Furthermore, the WGA introduced a Video Game Writing Award category to honor video game writers. Keep an eye out for the WGA's Video Game Writing award next month.

Great article! I will be sure to add your article link on Happy New Year!

10. kid rock tickets
There are good books out there on the subject of game writing, and game design in general. ("Writing for Video Game Genres" is a collection of essays from a bunch of fine authors, though I haven't delved into most of it.) I'm sure people here can suggest some.

14. jamesyd
there's always opportunities, it's all about persevering and getting a bit of luck! check out www. as they are looking avid gamers to write for them
15. NyNy
That is some good advice and I need it. I don't know if you can get back to me on my blog ( and possibly give me a bit more advice about what I should do now. I am 19 currently doing a degree in Japanese & Journalism but I wonder if I should take more internships next year to build up my experience in places like newspaper companies for the journalism side. What do you think?

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment