Working in Games

Aspiring developers often ask for my opinion 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 early 2000s I was part of a small Facebook group of game enthusiast friends. At that time I was working at a call center for a company that advertised in the automotive industry, doing a combination of tech support, data entry, billing troubleshooting, and "relationship management" with car dealerships. Not the most intellectually stimulating work, but I found ways to be proud of it. It was my second customer service job, the first being a four year stint at Barnes & Noble after college. My life plan was to have an unfulfilling daytime career and work on my groundbreaking novel after hours, but after about seven years I was getting pretty sick of the "unfulfilling" part... and I had no novel. 

Someone posted a link to a Narrative Design opportunity in our Facebook group. I only had some very modest creative writing credentials and no experience in the gaming field, but I played games ravenously and was always eager to unpack what I enjoyed about them. I applied on the developer's job site because 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 have to properly introduce myself. Much to my surprise, 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. 

I got excited. Really excited. Because the writing test showed me what kind of candidate the developer wanted, and I realized I could do this. 

 

My application was respectable enough to earn me a phone interview, but 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 put together coherent sentences on the fly. The call dropped twice due to my bad cell reception, and once I misunderstood a question and went off on a long tangent about an unrelated topic before anyone stopped to correct me. Not good.

(Years later I was told the interview wasn't that bad, and behind the scenes someone in the room had given my name to another developer. So maybe I didn't screw up as terribly as I thought.)

I didn't get 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, and I was much closer than I had previously 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. 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 old high school and college contacts, asking what I was doing so wrong that I was stuck in this perpetual rut. A close friend and mentor told me: "Writing is like religion. You go there to pray, you don't work at the church." I actually think that's great advice, but I still wanted to see if I could make a career of writing. I wasn't ready to admit defeat. 

One day, patience paid off. 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 had absolutely no idea if I could even write a book on demand just like that, but I accepted the offer. 

Rather than be a remote freelancer, I sacrificed my vacation hours to work at the developer's headquarters in person. I spent two weeks there sharing an office with the team's QA lead, with nothing but a desk and my laptop. 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. When my two weeks were up, I retreated back to my regular life and finished the book. By the end of that first assignment, the team saw me as a reliable go-to resource for tasks that their writers couldn't fit into the schedule. 

A year and a few more freelance assignments later, they made me an offer for a full-time Narrative Design role. I've been here ever since. This is my first job in the industry, and I hope it'll be my last. 

What's a good day like?

As long as I work within a project's agreed-upon themes and constraints I have a lot of creative freedom. My fellow team members are some incredibly talented and intelligent people who inspire me to be as amazing 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 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 safer. 

Our games offer players a ton of personal freedom, and that means puzzling out the many convoluted permutations of quest logic. What happens if players kill a critical path questgiving NPC before they've even introduced themselves? It can be an ordeal to puzzle out, but I honestly feel like I'm giving my brain some exercise that it will thank me for later in life. Player choice is a constant, unknowable variable, so I spend a lot of time anticipating what players will do, what they'll want to do, and what they'll want to try given a broad set of options at their disposal. 

Collaboration and iteration are essential to the process. I'm not the only one on the team who's telling a story. All of my co-workers are telling stories, they just use different tools, and I do whatever I can to help them. A lot of my day involves getting excited for other people's ideas and wondering how I can contribute. 

It's amazing to me knowing that people will read the things I write down, and that they'll even remember some of it. 

I'm still working on the novel.

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. 

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 sometimes made to unravel weeks or months of their work when iteration needs to happen. 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, but I can't describe the heartbreak of losing that writing, those beloved characters, and the months of effort that went into them. We held a wake in the office. I couldn't stay long. 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 I work fast, I get to inherit the work of someone slower than me. That's dangerous and borderline irresponsible, because if I write something I also have to support it for months or years to come as changes invariably happen or as unexpected bugs emerge. Use the time you are given, and use it responsibly for your own good.

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 jobs. 

What's my design philosophy?

A simple design may grow more complicated over time, but a complicated design will never get simpler over time. Some developers and fans romanticize complex designs, but they can create an awful lot of bugs and problems that detract from other areas of the game. When a piece of content is designed with simplicity and modularity in mind, it's more future-proof against inevitable revisions and cuts.

 

In branching dialogue, exposition should be a narrow tree. The player can have opportunities to interject with roleplay options, but there needs to be an established minimum of information to convey consistently across all players. Broader, more complex dialogue trees are reserved for moments when big choices come into play.

 

When a dialogue conflict can optionally lead to combat, players who want to defuse the conflict should face two layers of conditionalized checks. Ideally the checks emphasize different skills and escalate in difficulty, like Might 13 followed by Intelligence 18. These checks can and should include information players may have acquired along the way, just to reward those who explore their environment. Passing a single skill check to win an argument feels unsatisfying, but passing two offers a feeling of accomplishment and makes the encounter more authentic.

 

Don't offer choices unless you're going to pay them off with consequences. Consequences are usually predictable in the short-term, but it's good to seed long-term doubt in the player's mind to present some ethical dilemmas. 

Do I network?

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

Engaging with the gaming community can be fun in small doses. I gravitate toward supportive, inclusive groups and don't go anywhere near bad faith discussions. Yes, there are ugly corners of the Internet devoted to unpacking what terrible, irredeemable writers my colleagues and I are. I firmly believe that you choose your audience by creating what you believe in, and there are some people who will never go along for the ride. 

How do I make my writing stand out in an application?

That's for you to figure out. But at the risk of stating the obvious, I'll say this much: Look at games that offer branching conversation paths and see for yourself what they're doing well. What sorts of roleplay opportunities are available to the player? How long does it take to get to the "point" of a conversation with an NPC? Does the player feel like they have all of the necessary information before moving on? Does it feel like the player is being railroaded down a single path, or does the conversation end at a unique branch? Learn from unpacking one of these exchange and see what you can apply to your own writing. 

One final note.

It's unusual and unfair how much of this journey hinged on luck, chance, guesswork, and being in the right place at the right time. The only thing I did categorically right was open myself up to the possibility that I could have a career in game design, and then act as if it was within reach. Once you start thinking of yourself as a writer, a game designer, or whatever else you want to be, you can start feeling around for your place into that existence. 

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 :-)
~PK