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 intuitively understood from my time as a thoughtful gamer and struggling writer. I had played the D&D 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 actually 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 apartment's awful 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 ever would have guessed. 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 show off 1) good writing, and 2) a structured conversation made with brevity, choices, consequences, and reactivity in mind. With a little elbow grease (or a friend who knows HTML), Twine can even look nice with some neat visuals. Like this one.

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 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. 

After a while, patience paid off. 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 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 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 one of the few people in the world 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 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 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 - like the daily crossword, but on steroids. 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... but 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 forced to cut weeks, months, or even years of their work when someone decides the story needs to change. I can confidently say that 2+ years of my work is on the cutting room floor, and will remain there. 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. 

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 that writing and the months of effort that went into it. 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. So I try extra hard to stay positive. 

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 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 changes invariably happen or as unexpected bugs emerge. My advice is to 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. 

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? 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. 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 have friends who have relocated across the country, or across the Atlantic, 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 XP you earned along the way. 

Best of luck :-)
~PK