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Can you make a living in games scriptwriting?

THE UK's computer games industry is now bigger than its music and film industries combined, and there are opportunities for scriptwriting for the narrative elements of games. One way in for a lot of writers is "localisation": the industry needs native English speakers to make a game originally written in, say, German or Japanese "work" as a narrative in English. There are "narrative designers" and "narrative directors" in bigger companies, some of whom are competing against scriptwriters brought in from Hollywood.

; Video games writers Andy Walsh and Rhianna Pratchett, photo © Matt Salusbury
Andy Walsh (left) and Rhianna Pratchett (right), video games writers.

But however talented or experienced writers may be, they should only bother trying to get into this area if they already absolutely love video games. That was the advice of the expert panel on computer games scriptwriting at the NUJ New Media Industrial Council (NMIC) event in April, which saw around 100 attendees. (For a write-up of its sessions on writing about the games industry, see here.)

Tomb Writer

Our expert panel included Rhianna Pratchett, who worked on the recent Tomb Raider prequel/reboot (preboot?); Ed Stern, who came from TV production but now writes in-house for games developer Splash Damage; and Andy Walsh, whose many scripts include Prince of Persia. (Andy was on the technical side of this title too - before he "deleted a cliff". He has stuck to the strictly narrative elements since that.)

The tecchy aspects of writing for games mean you are often a glorified data entry clerk, with a need to get your head round "document assets", to be brilliant at Excel, to learn how to work a wizard, how to work a Wiki, to use Gamemaker and Flash tools, to learn how to code. You'll need to be able to "talk code to tech people" especially about technical constraints.

Prince of Spreadsheets

And there's a long list of technical obstacles to work with. Ed described being limited to 120 characters of text per screen on his first game for mobile phones, with the added challenge posed by the greater width of the upper case "W". What works best on film tends to work worst in games. For example, while cinema uses facial expressions in reaction shots to great effect, facial expressions are about the hardest thing to do in computer games. Recommended essential reading on the techy side of the games writers' craft includes Level Up and Swipe This (on writng games for touch-screen technology), both by God of War developer Scott Rogers.

But more important than geeky software skills is the "craft" of writing. Ed advises, "If you want to learn about writing in games, learn about writing... Learn what the "three-act structure" is...If you know what the dynamics of a scene are, "you will be able to realise it with the tech."

Call of Dialogue

How do you get into games scriptwriting? "Keep going and really want to do it," advises Rhianna, as you stick it out through the non-paying clients and having to work on "Barbie Horseplay 77". Rhianna got into scriptwriting via a localisation gig she got through her journalism contacts after she left PC Zone in 2002. Then she contacted developers to ask, do you have any work for me? This got her "a few early gigs" - a Spongebob Squarepants game and some "mission dialogue" on another title.

Other advice was to seek out and join online writers' special interest groups (like Tig Source, where indy games designers show off what they can do.) Big game publishers never open unsolicited pitches, so network and go to conferences - Develop, Games Horizon and GDC are particularly recommended. It's still a relatively small industry: most of the games writers who've been in the industry for over a decade still know each other, a lot of it is word of mouth. As a writer you have to be interested in people and form friendships.

Make a game, counsels Ed. He quoted the old Peter Cook joke - "I'm writing a novel. Neither am I." "What have you finished? Be able to say to prospective clients, "Look, here's a thing I made myself, a finished thing."

Grand Late Payment Auto

Andy added, " Join the bloody union" - otherwise "you're busy helping your career evaporate and dissolve". Andy's "fed up with people who say you can't afford to be in the Union, you can't afford not to be". The New Media Industrial Council's Donnacha Delong closed by bigging up NUJ membership and its benefits, such as help in getting paid, and the Getting Started as a Freelance and Pitch & Deal courses from NUJ Training.

  • All the panellists in Game Over's other panel session on writing about the games industry (see here) were also involved in games design as well. Will Porter, for example, does games reviews but also writes dialogue for in-development zombie apocalypse survival game Project Zomboid. (According to its website, his dialogue is along the lines of "Noooooooooooo!" and "Don't eat me!")
Last modified: 07 May 2013 - © 2013 contributors
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