by Alexis Kennedy on February 23, 2019
Here’s the good news. This blog post really does contain one weird trick. The bad news: it isn’t a reliable list of steps you can follow, or a career track with an exam you can do, or the email address of someone who wants to hire you. Those things don’t exist. Games writing is a very competitive career. More on what that phrase, ‘competitive career’, actually means in a moment, but first, stories.
Here are rough accounts of how six real people got into games writing. I’ve blurred some of the details, because I won’t get all the details right and because I don’t want you thinking these are specific things you should do and also because they will all have done a lot of things I don’t know about.
1. Got a first job as a producer at a TV channel working on educational games, made unpaid experimental text/video transmedia work in their spare time, and won an interactive fiction competition for a now defunct narrative technology platform. On the strength of their writing in that winning entry, they were offered a writing gig by a best-in-breed indie studio for what the studio thought would be a small side project but which turned out to be a hit.
2. Did a Master’s in Creative Writing, wrote Twine pieces and attended game jams, deployed hustle and energy, got a couple of small but high-profile gigs and then built up their rep from there.
3. Worked as a teacher, then as a web developer, started a narrative-focused games studio and built an online text game that made almost no money for four years and about six other projects that produced occasional gobbets of ultimately insufficient money and then in desperation, months before bankruptcy, spawned an actual video game and then suddenly made a healthy amount of money.
4. Worked as a programmer for over a decade, ran LARPs and did film work and wrote fiction on the side, picked up writing gigs and worked co-operatively with other writers until they had had earned enough cred to found a business that handles writing work for other studios.
5. Fresh out of a history degree with no published writing at all, applied for a job at a studio with a rep for narrative work; got knocked back; wrote two self-published interactive pieces to prove commitment; applied again even though there was no current role advertised; got given a trial piece that they did an insane amount of work on; did well at interview, got a permanent role at the studio.
6. Games journo who wanted to do something different, who used their proven writing skills and their relationship of trust with developers to pick up part-time or freelance writing gigs, then finally moved into games writing full time.
I realised as I was writing this that I can think of more games journalists who’ve become games writers than I can think of any single other entry route. But ‘become a games journalist to get into games writing’ is terrible advice, because if you can break into games journalism you can probably break into games writing. There’s just as much competition for jobs, you have to work just as hard, and it’s worse paid.
In fact, ‘do what one of the people in the list above did’ is also terrible advice. #1 required not only hard work and serious talent but also a couple of strokes of frankly weird luck. #2 is the closest I know to the ‘standard route’, but I have to be honest with you, it doesn’t work for a lot of people. #4 took a really long time, and the person beneath the mask of #4 is one of the hardest-working and most indefatigable people I know. #5 worked because the emails stopped just short of being pushy and their tone hit the difficult sweet spot between persistence and humility. #5 would, in many cases, get your emails marked as spam.
#3 was, of course, me. I recommend it if you enjoy the experience, while you’re pushing a one-year-old in a buggy or chairing a writers’ meeting or staring at the ceiling at 3 am, of constantly obsessively calculating the studio’s running costs in your head and working out how many months you can keep going and trying to squeeze deadlines and figure angles you aren’t equipped to figure. Sound like your thing? Go for it, but be aware your chances of making it, even after years of work, are less than 50/50. My first studio nearly went bust at least twice, before we cracked open the bottled lightning. And that’s why when someone says ‘but how did you get started?’ my answer is invariably ‘don’t do what I did.’
Okay, Kennedy. How exactly does this help?
Here’s my advice. The one weird trick is to find a weird trick. Games writing is a competitive field. That means that most people who try to make it won’t make it. I don’t want to over-dramatise this. There are even harder fields to make it in: I think it’s harder to become a full-time film director or actor or novelist. But that’s what competitive means: not ‘most people will have to work hard’ but ‘most people will end up doing something else.’
So you need an advantage. Preferably several. An uncle who works for Nintendo, or enough money to live off while you make your reputation, is great, but most of us don’t have those. Talent? Hard work? Those aren’t advantages, they’re entry requirements. Exceptional talent is an advantage. Experience is an advantage. Suitable talent or suitable experience is a significant advantage. If a studio is hiring for a horror game set in the Antarctic, and you can say ‘I have a PhD in Really Cold Stuff’ or ‘I wrote this game jam piece about being cold’ or ‘I was a camera operator on The Terror‘ maybe that’s enough to get your CV to the top of the pile.
So you want to do as many different interesting things as possible. Take unusual work opportunities, do creative things on the side, seek out creative works you wouldn’t normally look at. This has several other advantages. One is, hey, you’ll be doing interesting different things, and your life will be better, and when you’re dying you’ll look back at your life and think, boy, I never made it as a games writer but I’m glad I did all that stuff, PS it’s a shame the atmosphere is on fire here in 2080. Another is, you might stumble on something else you want to do. For nearly half my life I thought I wanted to be a novelist, not a games writer. And the third thing is that variety of experience makes you a better writer.
(It shouldn’t need saying, but not everyone’s got the memo, so here’s what you don’t want to do: dick over other writers. Other writers are the competition, sure, but they’re also the community. Being honourable and helpful is an advantage in its own right. What goes around comes around. It’s not always easy: we writers are an envious tribe. But it pays off in the long run.)
The people in those six stories did different, interesting things. I’m pretty sure, because of the kind of people they are, that they did a lot of things I don’t even know about. I will probably bump into one of them at GDC and they’ll say ‘nice piece but you didn’t mention the years I spent as a a particle physicist.’ All of them tried lots of different things, and eventually one of those things stuck.
This is much less specific than the usual advice. If you Google ‘getting started in games writing’ you’ll find a lot of that advice. I’ve given it myself, so I won’t repeat it here. It’s not bad advice. But the important thing is that it’s what everyone else is doing. If you do exactly what they’re doing, you won’t have an advantage. Remember what ‘competitive field’ means.
So follow the usual advice. You need to do all those things to make it. But you need to do something else, probably actually somethings elses, too. It’s up to you to work out what that is. Find the road less travelled.
Some final bad news, good news.
Final bad news: if you are faced, right now, with getting up and going into work every day at a dull job, and coming home and writing in the evenings and then going to bed not too late so you can get up and go into work again, there is probably nothing you can do today that will mean that next week, you can get up and get paid for writing instead.
Final good news: there are lots and lots of things you can do that mean that next year or the year after you can suddenly look back over the road you’ve travelled and find you have a job, writing, in games. But only if you start trying to find those things today. Good luck.