PhD student Luke Kelly analyses the various routes professionals have taken to get a games writing job
“I enjoyed it, but there isn’t much career progression for writers in the cruise ship market.”
From sailing sketches to Sherlock: David Varela has come a long way. Last year saw him sharing scripts with Sherlock co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, whilst also receiving tips on how to get the best out of Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch. David had been hired to write Sherlock: The Network, a companion app to the TV show which made a great deal of its bespoke cutscenes featuring the series’ stars – not bad for someone who started out writing light entertainment for cruise liners.
Last year I interviewed David as part of a study looking at how the worlds of writing and gaming are beginning to overlap. In an era when the median salary for professional writers in the UK has collapsed to £11,000 (according to a survey by the ALCS), the games industry seems at first glance to be bucking the trend.
Develop’s own salary survey revealed an industry median of £29,000 last year – and for writers the figure increases to £33,000. Are games then a viable career path for a generation of writers struggling to make a living?
This was the question we tried to answer in Connecting Stories, a report which provides a glimpse behind the scenes of five games which all somehow rely on writers to stand out from the crowd. Whilst admittedly restricted in its scope, what we found was that each of the writers involved had fallen into the industry almost by accident; none had received any formal training, and each admitted to have learned several costly lessons via a painful process of trial and error.
“I’ve often been brought in as a writer, but ended up doing as much Project Management as actual writing," explained David Varela.
“It’s not necessarily that I even had experience of this: in a small team, when it’s all hands on deck, everyone has to just do what they can to make the project work."
The sentiment is probably familiar to anyone with experience at an indie crunching their way towards release – as indeed are David’s experiences of story often being treated as no more than an afterthought.
Another thing we found however is that several games have been able to use writing as a way to reach new audiences. This was part of Andrew Eades’ plan for Blue Toad Murder Files, which actively courted fans of murder mysteries such as Miss Marple and Midsomer Murders. Having previously had success reaching non-core audiences with the Buzz! series, Blue Toad was born from the same logic: whereas the former sought to replicate the experience of a Christmas Day family playing Trivial Pursuit, the latter does the same with Cluedo.
“Buzz! was always designed to kick off these kinds of social interaction,” Eades told me. “We’d give them a new option: ‘it’s just like a TV game show, except you get to take part’."
Finding a writer who understood how to create such an atmosphere – whilst also understanding the development process – often proves challenging. The success of Buzz! however proves that the rewards are there for those who succeed, as they have been for Naomi Alderman, co-creator of the wildly successful Zombies, Run!
In this case the combination of a great game and great writing revolutionised the world of fitness apps, although again Naomi had to look outside of games for guidance. She turned to Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon for inspiration, with the result being a narrative structured to sustain intrigue over the course of several “series” - a key part of the game’s financial success.
What these accounts seemed to indicate then is that whilst the potential rewards are there, the formal training currently isn’t. Writers relied on chance meetings and personal contacts to find work, before relying on trial and error to get it done. Developers faced the same issue, with those unable or unwilling to pay for professional recruiting services left crossing their fingers that a hire will have the skills and experience needed to work within the team.
Though limited in scale, our study raised some interesting questions: in an era when three-quarters of those working in the industry now possess at least an undergraduate degree, why do barely any screenwriting courses cover writing for games? Why do so few games courses place a corresponding emphasis on story?
We’re hoping to do a follow-up project which will address these issues, looking at ways in which more talent can be encouraged to make the transition from one creative industry to another. What’s clear already is that games are a viable outlet for writers who have the talent – and the developers who know how to use them are already reaping the rewards.
[Luke Kelly is a PhD student analysing the links between literature, film, and video games. Connecting Stories was a Creativeworks London funded project conducted with Spread the Word, a writer development charity. A copy of the report can be downloaded from www.spreadtheword.org.uk/resources/view/what-skills-do-you-need-to-write-interactive-games.]