Working in Games

A lot of people ask me about breaking into game design. What follows are my personal experiences and the lessons I learned along the way. Results may vary. 

How did I get my first job in the industry?

During the 2000-teens, I was part of a small Facebook group of game enthusiast friends, many of them writers in various industries (television, internet advertising, freelance, etc). At that time I was working at a call center for a dot com, doing a combination of tech support, data entry, billing troubleshooting, and "relationship management." It was soul-crushing, but it paid enough for a studio apartment in Los Angeles. Someone posted a link to a Narrative Design opportunity in our group. I had some very modest creative writing credentials, but no experience making games. I applied on the developer's job page anyway. I had applied to every technical writing / copy writing job in Southern California and had little to show for it beyond some very strange interviews, so there was nothing to lose in trying.

The developer sent me a writing test and questionnaire. I spent about a week (outside of work hours) polishing my answers, leaving nothing off the table, treating that document as the only opportunity I might get to properly introduce myself. The test didn't pose any confusing or unexpected questions. It was a space to express my opinions about topics I already understood as a player of games. I had played the Infinity Engine games exhaustively in my younger years (Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, etc), and my familiarity with their dialogue presentation, tone, and brevity fueled my answers.


What I turned in was respectable enough to earn me a phone interview.


I won't sugarcoat it: the interview was awkward.


What I thought was a getting-to-know-you call had an unexpectedly large number of big industry names on the other end of the line. Sometimes I also struggle to communicate coherently off the cuff (or at least I think I do). The call dropped twice due to my bad cell reception, and once I misunderstood a question and went on a long tangent about an unrelated subject before anyone stopped to correct me. Not good.

Someone else got that job, but one thing had changed for me -  I knew that I was more qualified for the role of Narrative Designer than I had previously assumed. Going through the process showed me what the studio wanted in a Narrative Designer, and I was close. Much closer than I could have imagined. So I decided to make myself a better candidate for the next job opening, whenever it came around. That meant building up the skills and game credits I didn't have, filling my resume with line items I wanted to see there.

Twine is a flowchart editor similar in many respects to professional-grade tools. It might require some Googling and note-taking to grasp, but it yields a nice-looking sample which can demonstrate your writing skill and ability to structure a written encounter with brevity, choices, consequences, and reactivity. Once you figure out how to gussy up the visuals, you can put together something pretty neat. Like this.

Back at the call center job, I occupied my free time working in Twine, writing short stories no one would publish, applying to other roles, investigating other tools, and even had a close call with a developer in London (years later they would fire most of their writing staff. Bullet dodged). I worked on making myself a better candidate during off-hours and lunch breaks, fitting the life I wanted into the margins of the one I had. I did a lot of failing, but I also did a lot of work. The weeks and months were disheartening. I wrote to my college professors, even my high school principal, asking what I was doing so wrong that I was stuck in this perpetual rut. Someone who I respect a great deal told me: "Writing is like religion. You go there to pray, you don't work at the church." I firmly rejected that advice.

Every couple of months I'd test the waters with a polite email sent to that original developer, asking if they could use any additional help with their project. About a year later, they surprised me with an answer. They were looking for a freelancer to write a book coinciding with the release of their next game. No one had ever made an offer like that before. I was terrified. I even considered turning them down, thinking I should wait until there was an actual job available and not merely a task (that was a short-sighted a ludicrous idea, which I thankfully abandoned before I could make any rash decisions). This was my second and perhaps only remaining chance, so I took the offer. 

Rather than be a remote freelancer, I sacrificed my vacation hours at the call center to work at the developer's office - vacationing at another job. Even if I spent most of my day glued to a Word doc, I was present at company meetings and daily check-ins. Every day I put myself in the shoes I wanted to wear full-time. By the end of that first assignment, the team knew that I was a go-to resource for writing tasks. I could fit anything into my schedule if I wanted it enough (that's a privileged position, I know. I was fortunate to have a decently-paying job with a semi-flexible schedule and no major impediments to my time outside of work). A year and three or four freelance tasks later, they made me an offer for a full-time Narrative Design role. 

I've been here ever since. 

What's a good day like?

As long as I work within the agreed-upon themes and constraints of a project or task, I have a lot of creative freedom. I work with some incredibly talented and intelligent people who inspire me to be as good as they are. 

The studio I work for has a high tolerance for eccentricity, so I haven't faced many serious road blocks when I want to pursue some out-there writing ideas... like romancing a fish man, or a saint who hates his father, or getting dating advice from a bird, or going on an acid trip with a malevolent imp, etc. But projects change, and sometimes I have to play it a little more conservative. 

Collaboration and iteration are daily facts of life. Working closely with area designers and artists always yields better results than working alone. Lone-wolfing an assignment is a good way to avoid new ways of thinking and create future bugs. 

Even though I get to be a Narrative Designer, that doesn't mean I'm the only one telling a story. All of my co-workers are telling a story. They just use different tools. I do whatever I can to help them out. 

What's a bad day like?

Narrative Design is hard work under tight deadlines. We wrestle with the competing objectives of writing impactful characters and offering player choice while also keeping the word count to a minimum. Because we're all invested in story and characters, sometimes people try and take the reins and claim ownership over what's squarely my responsibility without consultation. 

Writing is cheap to develop, expensive to translate, time-consuming to record, and often disruptive to gameplay, so you can always depend on someone petitioning to trim it back. 

Writing is more malleable than art or animation, so Narrative Designers are often at the vanguard when sudden, unexpected changes need to be made. That can be a very vulnerable position. In the first five years of my career, I can confidently say that one year's worth of my hard work is cut content that will never see the light of day. 

I've been fortunate to experience only one project cancellation, and I can't describe the heartbreak of losing that writing, those beloved characters, and the months of effort that went into them. At the risk of sounding dramatic, it was like someone close to me had died, and I spent a long time stuck under a rain cloud of ennui and resentment. 

There isn't a prize for being ahead of schedule. If you work fast, your reward is the honor of inheriting the work of someone slower. That's more dangerous than it sounds, because if I write something I also have to support it for months or years later as changes invariably happen. Use the time you are given. 

I love my role, the atmosphere, the team, but yes - it's also still a job, and it comes with everything you might associate with a job. 

Do I network?

Beyond messaging the occasional Narrative Designer on Twitter to tell them I admire their work or enjoyed their latest game, I really don't. I'm not much of a social butterfly. That said... don't be like me. Do what works for you. 

Wrapping up.

I sincerely hope this helps, if only to demystify the process. If there's a cheat code that unlocks a door to the industry, I never found it. Be polite and honest. Be kind to yourself when you falter. Most importantly, do the work. Even if you fall short, no one can take away the XP you earned along the way. 

Best of luck :-)

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