Graham Linehan (@Glinner on Twitter) tweeted a link to a wonderful article on the Guardian website: Ten Rules for Writing Fiction. It’s two pages are filled with lots of writers’ rules and tips and I’m sure it’s a good read for writers at all stages of their careers.
I started thinking about the possibility of coming up with my own set of rules specifically aimed at game writing and after thinking about it for a little time my initial thought was that it might not be possible to do this at all.
My reason for thinking this was that I looked at the idea from the same position as these fiction writers – they are listing these rules, on the whole, as advice to novice or inexperienced writers. A common “theme” is advice on writing regularly and keeping up the writing. As a would be writer of novels, a novice would be expected to complete a novel before sending it off to agents and/or publishers. Similarly with plays or film scripts – the writer tends to complete the work before sending it out to those who are potential buyers.
With game writing the role of the writer is very different. Very rarely, if ever, does a writer create a script for a game and send it to developers and publishers. How would a developer know that this great story and dialogue will make a great game? Unless the writer is also a game designer – creating a 500+ page design document that includes the story and dialogue – the writer will not make it into games this way. Developers tend to have more than enough of their own ideas to consider outside stories and publishers will only consider signing up a project if it already has a development team attached to it. Far more often than not, a writer will join a team on a project that’s already in development. Hopefully, early enough in the development process that you can make the story and characters your own, so to speak.
Of course, it’s perfectly possible to team up with a development studio and create a game pitch as a joint venture. I’m currently in this process with a kids’ game idea I had, but this is much more a game design thing than a writing thing (though I will be writing as well). In such a case, you have to convince the developer that your idea has legs, but before approaching publishers you need to create the pitch documents, game design ideas, story synopsis, character gameplay abilities, etc. You and the team would have to think about the size of the project, the workload it would need and the budget that it’s likely to require to bring to market. Now you’re doing ten things you didn’t expect because you only wanted to write for games. Blimey!
With this in mind, and before this turns into a long essay on game design and production, I’m going to attempt to write some rules for game writing. Or should that be Rules for the Game Writer?
0. Gameplay comes first
Actually, it’s so important, it’s more important than first. Without gameplay, there would be no game. When we get wrapped up in our great story ideas or cool dialogue, it can be easy to forget this, but everything you create as a writer should be done to enhance the gameplay experience. It’s also important to understand the gameplay style of the game you’re working on and ensure that what you do is in keeping with this style.
1. Be prepared for a lot of hard work
Writing is hard work. Game writing can be a lot harder. Much of this is down to the sheer volume of dialogue needed for some types of games. A typical film has 1000 to 1100 lines of dialogue, but for many game this is no big deal. A 12,000 to 20,000 line total is very common and some games can have 40,000 lines or more.
2. Work well with others
If a game has 20,000 lines, it’s unlikely that a single writer will be given the task of writing so much story and dialogue – it’s the equivalent of writing about 20 feature films. This means that you may be one of a team of writers working on a game and so you need to be a part of that team in a constructive way.
You’ll also be part of the bigger development team and may well find yourself working with designers, artists, animators, etc as you all work towards a consistent vision.
3. Learn game design
You don’t have to become a game designer, but having an understanding of at least the rudimentary principles will go a long way. Not only will it give you better insights into the development process, you will see how certain story and character aspects will and won’t work within the concept of the game. It will save you a lot of time in re-writes if you can foresee gameplay related story problems before they occur and you hand in the story overview.
Game design doesn’t have to be difficult – just get yourself Game Maker from Yoyo Games; it’s not expensive (there’s even a free version).
4. Accept changes
There will always be the need to make changes. Mostly it’s down to things outside of your control – publisher feedback, testing feedback, design changes, etc. Whatever the reason, make the changes work in a positive way.
Sometimes it may seem that a change is being made for the sake of it and you may feel justified in defending your ideas against the change. If you feel it’s something important, then it’s right that you do so, but learn to realise when you’re fighting a losing battle and back down with grace and move on.
5. Play games
And play a variety of games. It’s not enough to play Farmville or World of Warcraft for twenty hours a week.
6. Read the gaming press and fan forums
Read a broad cross-section to avoid bias. Read what kind of things fans are saying, particularly about games in the same style as the one you’re working on. If you read online comments about your own work, be prepared for some harsh words, deserved or otherwise.
7. Do other things
Live a life outside of your game writing life. Not only will this keep you sane, you get a much broader, balanced outlook that can feed into your writing.
8. Travel by bus
With your headphones off. Listen to how natural conversations work – the to-and-fro, the interruptions, the overlaps. Treat every such opportunity (the train, the coffee shop, etc.) as food for your creative mind.
9. Play a musical instrument
Or any other type of hobby that’s not writing. I’m teaching myself to play the bass guitar as a fun distraction. I doubt that I’ll ever join a band (a bit too long in the teeth for that) but who cares? It’s a fun thing to do. Swim, hike, do the gardening – whatever you want.
I hope some of that works for you.