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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?

From 2011-2015 I worked at a call center for a dot com. This wasn't the most intellectually stimulating work, but I found ways to be proud of it. My life plan was to have an unfulfilling daytime career and work on my groundbreaking novel after hours, but after about seven years in customer service I was getting pretty sick of the "unfulfilling" part... and I had no novel. So I started hunting for roles that could make better use of my creative, problem-solving brain. 

I happened to be part of a small Facebook group of like-minded friends, all of us interested in gaming. One day someone posted a link to a Narrative Design opportunity. Up until then I had applied to every Copy Writer / Editor job within a hundred miles of Los Angeles and had little to show for it. My resume only boasted a couple of modest creative writing accomplishments and no experience in the gaming field, but I played games ravenously and was always eager to unpack what I enjoyed about them. 

Shortly after I applied to the job, the developer sent back a form letter that included a writing test and questionnaire. The test didn't pose any confusing or unexpected questions. It was a space to express my opinions about topics I already intuitively understood from my time as a thoughtful gamer and struggling writer. I spent about a week (outside of work hours) polishing my test, leaving nothing off the table, treating that document as the only opportunity I might have to properly introduce myself. Throughout my younger years I had played the D&D Infinity Engine games exhaustively (Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, etc.), and my familiarity with their dialogue presentation, tone, and brevity fueled many of my answers. I could tell from a distance what the team was looking for, and that was a big advantage. 

My application was respectable enough to earn me a phone interview. "Probably just a quick chat," I thought. "A one-on-one with a recruiter just making sure I can speak in complete sentences." But when I answered the phone, the other end of the line was filled with game industry veterans. Names I actually recognized from the credits of the games I played. There were maybe five or six people on that call, but in my imagination it was a packed board room. 

This was not my best interview. My time at the call center gave me some much-needed confidence with phone calls, but verbal communication isn't always my strongest suit. The call dropped twice due to my apartment's terrible 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 passed my name to another studio. 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 than I had previously assumed. Once I was done feeling sorry for myself, I made a conscious decision to become 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 light research to understand the nuts and bolts, but it can produce a clean, well-crafted sample that shows off good writing, good pacing, brevity, impactful, choices, etc. With a little elbow grease (or a friend who knows HTML), Twine stories can even incorporate some neat visuals - like this one, which I wrote to promote the Beast of Winter DLC in 2018. 

So I was back where I started at the call center. Crestfallen, discouraged, melancholy, but with a little ember of hope. 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 wonderful advice, and sometimes I wish I had followed it. But I still wanted to see if I could break free of my passionless jobs and pursue a career in writing. 

Every couple of months I'd test the waters with a polite email to that original developer, asking if they could use any 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, but I accepted the offer. 

Rather than be a remote freelancer, a name without a face, I sacrificed my vacation hours to work at the developer's headquarters in person. I spent two weeks sharing an office with the team's QA lead, where I caught sneaky glimpses of the game I was writing about. 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 knew I was a reliable go-to resource for tasks that their writers couldn't fit into the schedule. It didn't hurt that I was intimately familiar with the lore of their unreleased game. So they kept giving me work. 

To make a long story short - a year and a couple more freelance assignments 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 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. 

I'm basically a professional Dungeon Master. 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 NPC before they've even introduced themselves? It can be a frustrating 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, like an infusion of the daily crossword. 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. At the end of the day, my job is to give players a fulfilling, rewarding experience. I never lose sight of that. 

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. 

Compared to other disciplines, writing is cheap to develop. What do words cost? What is a writer's time worth? But writing is expensive to translate into multiple languages, VERY expensive to record into voiceover, and it can be disruptive to gameplay. You can always depend on someone petitioning to trim it back (sometimes that person is me!). 

Because writing can be developed so cheaply and so quickly, it lives on the chopping block in ways that art or animation don't. The game needs trees, rocks, and monsters more than it needs my NPC's gripping emotional arc. A writer's work doesn't always have the same value as things the player can see or touch. 

I can confidently say that 2+ years of my work lives on the cutting room floor. Not because it was badly written, but because someone changed their mind about the story in a way that made everything I worked on obsolete. The only consolation for all that lost productivity is that I got paid for it, and maybe learned a few lessons that toughened me up for the next time it happens. 

I've been fortunate to experience only a small number of project cancellations or major pivots that took the writing down with them, but I can't describe the heartbreak of losing all that wasted effort. I'm not good at dealing with failure on that scale. Even when it isn't my fault, I carry the responsibility on my shoulders. I can't deny that these experiences have made me more cynical toward my work, probably as a defense mechanism. 

There's a reputation that people generally last about five years in the game industry before they burn out and leave for brighter pastures. Without getting into the specifics, that expiration date sounds about right. Around the five year mark I told myself to speak to a therapist, and then I sat on my hands for another two years before I made my first appointment. Therapy has been good for me. I have no expectation that a therapist will give me all the answers, but when you wander through your own thoughts it's good to have company.

My mentor's advice is never far from my thoughts. "Writing is like religion. You go there to pray, you don't work at the church." He was absolutely right. As a writer, I have to strike a balance between the narrative designer and the aspiring novelist. The writing I do at home is a sacred experience, a communion with my subconscious. It has no budget. The only production cost is my time. The writing I do at work is work. I care about it, but it isn't mine. 

I'm a hard worker, but there isn't a prize for being ahead of schedule. If I get through my tasks quickly, then I get to inherit the work of someone slower than me. That's more dangerous and irresponsible than it sounds, because if I write something I also have to support it for months or years to come as the game inevitably changes or as unexpected bugs emerge. My advice is to use the time you are given responsibly for your own good. The project will not thank you for breaking yourself over it. 

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 create bugs and bloat the scope of projects beyond the team's ability to support them. When a piece of content is designed with simplicity and modularity in mind, it's more future-proof against inevitable revisions and cuts. If the story is well-told and the steps to navigate it are unique and engaging, players won't know or care if the content is structured in an uncomplicated way. 

  • If something looks effortless... it wasn't. I've seen enough of the development process to know that nothing happens without incredible effort, and nothing is accomplished to satisfaction on the first try. That spans every discipline. 

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. 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. 

I don't think it's possible to write something that will make everyone happy, so I try and write things that make me happy. 

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? Is that a bad thing or a good thing? Learn from unpacking one of these exchange and see what you can apply to your own writing. 

I really mean that. Sit down with a pen and paper and transcribe how your favorite NPC's conversation flows. Do a close reading of everything you enjoyed about a particular exchange. As you're learning about the writing, you'll also learn about the structure, the pacing, and get a glimpse at how it operates on a technical level. 

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. But it probably didn't hurt that I was born in Southern California and didn't have to travel far to find this industry. I also had the availability to write a book as a freelancer because I wasn't working multiple jobs. I have friends who relocated to unfathomable distances to make this career work for them. Our paths to get here were all different. Once you start thinking of yourself as a writer, a game designer, or whatever else you want to be, you can start searching for your place in that world. 


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 experience you earned along the way. 

Best of luck :-)

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