Many screenwriters dream of writing the scripts for video games and reaping the profits of an industry that is far more profitable than the film and television industries that screenwriters are striving to break into today — but there's more than meets the eye when it comes to being a game writer.
Being a game writer seems like the ideal job for many screenwriters that are gamers in their spare time. In an age where gaming technology appears to be making amazing breakthroughs with every release and where a single video game's revenue outmatches the latest box office theatrical blockbuster by unbelievable amounts, it's only natural that screenwriters want to jump on that bandwagon.
According to a Global Games Market Report, in 2016, the worldwide video game industry generated a revenue of $99.6 billion. Hollywood only managed to rake in "just" $36 billion in that same year.
Grand Theft Auto V, the ultimate video game record breaker, made $815.7 million in its first day of release. That's not a typo — its first day of release. Some of the biggest summer blockbusters in movie theaters take three months or more to make that amount worldwide — if they're lucky.
"Okay, where do I sign up?!"
This is where it gets tricky — and a little depressing for some.
You Don't Write an Original Script for a Game and Sell It on Spec
Many screenwriters have the fantasy of writing a brilliant screenplay that is perfect for video game interpretation. They think they can take it to the big video game companies, make their pitch as they would with any Hollywood studio or production company, sell it, and then collaborate with game developers to make the next big hit.
That's just not how it works.
The game writer doesn't sell their concept and watch game designers bring their vision to life through beautiful visuals and interactive gameplay. Project Directors are the ones that run the show. And they're often the ones with the concept who are in charge of building the conceptual designs and gameplay with their team of designers.
The Game Writer usually comes into play quite later in the process, generally speaking.
Video games aren't like movies. They don't start with a screenwriter and a screenplay. They begin with project directors and game designers, as well as a belly of other technical professionals.
And game scripts are nothing like the average screenplay. They are technical documents with hundreds of pages of visual description, flow charts, branching dialogue, cut scenes, etc.
So What Do Game Writers Actually Write?
If you're a screenwriter trying to break into the video game industry as a game writer, you need to understand that everything you know about screenwriting format, structure, and characterization is null and void — for the most part. Yes, you will utilize the ideals of story arcs, character arcs, and general story structure, but any game's story is secondary to the actual gameplay of the title being developed.
Gamers love some story and character depth in their games, but when push comes to shove, they want a game that has terrific interactive gameplay.
So what do game writers write?
Here's a general breakdown:
Flow Charts - Games these days are very complex — the RPGs (role-playing games) especially. The players will have to make many decisions throughout the game. Thus, the game is going to have to develop every possible option that allows the gamer to feel like they are really controlling a character organically within that world. A flow chart reads much like an extreme version of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books. It sounds interesting, but it's highly technical with barebones story and character development — just enough to keep it interesting for the gamer.
Side Quests - Many games have smaller missions and quests that the characters can embark on. These need to be written as well.
Character descriptions and biographies - Every character has to have a description and breakdown so that game designers can properly develop them together, as far as who these characters are, what they look like, and what they are capable of.
NPC (non-player characters) dialogue scenes - Gamers and the characters they control will interact with non-player characters throughout the flowchart of the game. The dialogue needs to be written for these many moments.
Cut Scenes - Cut scenes are cinematic scenes or sequences that are usually found before, during, and after the gameplay. Within the game, they are used to push the story forward after the gamer has achieved certain goals.
Final Storyboard Script - If there's anything that is similar to a feature film screenplay within the video game development process, it's the storyboard script. This is written after everything mentioned above has been completed. Consider this to be the master storyboard that documents the gameplay and story elements from beginning to end.
Here's a general example:
Location: A dark cathedral with stained glass windows. An NPC is kneeling before a stone casket in the center of the main room
Music: Background music of an organ playing introduces the scene but subsides
Characters: Main player, NPC named Thomas
Player Goal: Discover the location of the underground lair
Action: Player must initiate discussion with Thomas, upon first contact we activate cut scene (1) where Thomas morphs into a were-creature and summons his were-minions. Main character must battle the were-minions then re-initiate discussion with Thomas.
Flowchart: No decisions made at this point: If battle is completed Thomas reveals the entrance to the underground lair and player advances to that level. If player is defeated in battle revert to death cut scene (11) and move to try again screen.
Notes: Player is locked in the cathedral, and there is no exit. The only viable way out is to initiate contact with Thomas. Random were-creatures can be activated if player explores cathedral before talking with NPC.
Now, that seems like a lot of cool work for a game writer to do. Here's the rub. These elements are all primarily developed through a collaborative effort involving the project directors and game designers. The writer is there to flesh out the concepts being developed and perform the actual documentation in the form of everything listed above.
In short, the game writer isn't working as a screenwriter would, as far as creating these characters, worlds, and action. The game designers are working from what they are capable of building through their design with the budget and staff they have. Thus, the game writer can't say, "Hey, what if the players are sucked into a portal and dropped into this alternate dimension where everything is upside down and gravity is reversed, creating this Pandora-like world..."
Stop right there. The game designers have to create all of those elements. And those elements take time, money, and hours upon hours of design and rendering.
But Screenwriters Do Have a Place in the Video Game Industry, Right?
There are undoubtedly many variables. Technically, yes, a screenwriter could be hired to flesh out the work that the game design team does and offer some narrative and dialogue-driven flair.
But much of the time, narrative designers are utilized. Narrative designers are those primarily in charge of designing the gamer experience. Which is essentially a large part of the elements shared above. And they obviously have a technical background in game design, coding, and other equivalents.
So the actual game writer involved is, again, secondary to all of the game design and conceptualization.
Richard Dansky, Central Tom Clancy Writer for Ubisoft Red Storm, says, "A good game writer understands that the game isn’t about them, or their story, or their witty dialog. The rest of the team isn’t there to realize their vision, and the player isn’t there to admire their brilliance. The game writer I want to work with wants to collaborate with the team to create the best player experience possible. That means crafting a story that shows off the features that the game is built around."
He goes on to say, "Game writing really is something different from any other style in terms of what it demands of the writer — it’s the only place where the writer isn’t telling their story, or the protagonist’s story, but rather the player’s story. Yes, the player takes on the role of the protagonist, whether that’s an avatar they create themselves or an established, iconic character like Sam Fisher, but the fact remains that everything that goes into a game is just possibility until the moment the player interacts with it and thus creates their own story of what happened."
Dansky describes what type of game writer he wants to work with. "The writer I want to work with doesn’t want the player to sit back and enjoy what is handed to them. The game writer I want to work with creates things that the player can pick up and integrate into their own experience of the game so that everything that player does feels right and seamless and utterly appropriate to the story they create as they go along.
So How Do You Get a Job as a Game Writer?
David Gaider worked with BioWare as a narrative designer on such games as Baldur's Gate 2, Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights, and was lead writer on the Dragon Age series: Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2, and 2014's Dragon Age: Inquisition. He later moved onto Beamdog Studios as their Creative Director. He wrote about the difficulty in getting the position that everyone wants through his article on Polygon.
Gaider comments, "I know games which really care about story will have actual writers there in early development. Others will have the writing being done by someone who’s also doing something else on the team, like a programmer, because they just have to. And most of everyone else? Their game doesn’t have much call for story, period, because they’re just not that kind of game."
But there are writing jobs available, right? "The chances of you getting any writing job in the game industry are not good."
He goes on to say, "Writing is a hard skill to show. You could be a genius at narrative design, but proving that you’re a genius? Really hard. More than that, the people who are hiring writers have a really difficult time in figuring out who’s capable. It’s not like a 3D model you can look at and objectively say whether whoever made it has the chops or not — we’re talking about an inexact science, and there are no degrees in, say, Interactive Branching Fiction. So you make do writing your brilliant submissions and trying to stand out from all the other submissions."
Despite the odds against most screenwriters trying to make the transition from feature and television writing to the gaming industry, Gaider does recommend steps that you can take if you're willing to challenge the odds stacked against you.
"You need to play games. All types of games, not just the ones you enjoy the most. You need to look at different stories and think about what they did narratively, good or bad. If it was good, consider how they managed it. If it was bad, consider why it might have been done that way and what could have been better about it. One of the most common questions we ask in an interview is what a writer thinks about the narrative in games they’ve played — and specifically what they didn’t like and why. Being able to critique is one of the skills you will absolutely need, not to mention showing that you’ve an interest in game stories that goes beyond enjoying a single game that developer made."
He also suggests that you practice.
"Yes, this is a skill you can actually improve and develop. A lot of people think writing is solely a talent, but that’s only part of it. I’ve told people they should try modding, but creating a mod involves a whole lot of other skills which many people just find too daunting to contemplate learning. Joining a mod team is easier said than done, so your best bet is to grab a program like Twine. It’s purely writing-based, it will allow you to wrap your head around the idea of branching and you’ll produce something that you can not only show later but which will also demonstrate you’ve taken the time to learn the simple scripting a program like Twine requires. 'I possess enough technical capability to learn how to use a conversation editor' is fantastic and will make you stand out."
Much like marketing your feature scripts on spec, Gaider recommends that you make submissions to companies. He suggests that you research a company and their games thoroughly — and make sure that your writing sample can be inserted into one of their published games. But don't make that submission too long. He states that if someone has to take thirty minutes out of their lives to read it, they're likely not going to.
With that said, he offers some recommendations. "My personal advice is to make sure you put your best work up front. If you’re writing a single dialogue, have something really clever in the first few lines. If you’re writing several, make sure the first showcases your skills the best. If you’re providing an outline for a quest, make sure the premise is what grabs me or that the first part of the quest is the most interesting. It’d be nice if we lived in a world where I gave your submission all the way until the end to be impressed, but we don’t. I’m impatient and tired, and my attention wanders pretty quickly. I doubt I’m the only one."
You need to remember again that game writers are secondary to the design and gameplay. This isn't about you, your stories, your characters, and your ideas.
"[When you make a submission] don't make it about your ideas — make it about your skill."
Video game writing is a unique position and skill. And the point of this post was first to debunk the fantasy that screenwriters often have when it comes to writing for video games — that they can conceptualize their own stories, characters, and concepts and sell them to the video game industry, much like they would try to sell spec scripts to movie studios.
And even beyond the spec myth, it's clear that being a game writer is an entirely different ball game with the full focus on game design and gameplay, rather than story and character narratives.
Yes, video games now have more depth in that respect, but, in the end, they aren't movies or television episodes. They're video games augmented by story and character.
So if you're interested in writing cinematic stories, stick to features. If you have a passion for character arcs and explorations, write for television.
But if you love video games and want to be part of that creative process, understand that it's a much different journey than that of a screenwriter. Do your research, find some excellent industry books on the subject (plenty are available HERE on Amazon), explore your networking maps to see if you know of anyone within the video game industry that you can connect with, and consider entering the industry through the different technical doorways of game design.
Being a game designer is one thing — being a game designer with a talent for writing? That could be your in.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies