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Can I sell my original story to a video game studio?

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In this episode of Game Industry Career Guide Podcast, I answer a question from Josh J. who asks, “I have only recently started learning how to code games, I’m starting with Game Maker Studio. However, I know I’m not ready to put the ideas I have in my head into code yet, I just have not learned enough yet. I am a decent writer however (if I do say so myself). And it’s my stories and imagination which I want to put into games most. Is it possible to write the story, plot, script etc of a game and sell it to studios?”

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • The 3 different sources where game teams get their stories
  • Why games and game stories are often developed hand-in-hand
  • How you can get your foot in the door as a game writer

If you have a question you'd like to get answered on the podcast, leave a comment below or ask me anything here.

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Hello, you smart and talented gamer geeks. Welcome to the game industry career guide podcast. This is episode number 26. I’m Jason W. Bay from gamecareerindustry.com, and this is the podcast where I answer your questions about getting a job and growing your career making video games.

This week’s question is from Josh J. who left a comment on the blog to ask this: “I have only recently started learning how to code games. I’m stating with Game Maker Studio. However, I know I’m not ready to put the ideas I have in my head into code yet, I just have not learned enough yet. I’m a decent writer, however, if I do say so myself and it’s my stories and imagination which I want to put into games most. Is it possible to write the story, plot, script, et cetera of a game and sell it to studios?”

I’m excited to answer this question today because it’s a super common question. Quite a lot of people seem to have a great story for an original game and they’d be thrilled to see their idea or get made into a finished product by a professional game development team. If you’re listening to this right now, I’d be willing to bet you even have an idea of your own that could make an awesome game someday. That’s why today unfortunately, I’ll be smashing a whole lot of people hopes and dreams against the jagged, rocky, unforgiving shores of reality. So, prepare yourself because we are going to talk about where game ideas really come from. But there will be a light at the end of the tunnel because there is a way for you to participate in the process of turning game story ideas into game realities and we’ll be discussing that too.

Okay. So where do game stories come from? Well, for starters I can tell you where they don’t come from. They don’t come from some Uber game designer in an ivory tower whose only job is to come up with the most amazing ideas and then dole them out to the lonely game developers to implement exactly as they’re told. That’s what many people think a game designer actually does, but unfortunately that is a myth. That job doesn’t actually exist.

Then where do game stories come from after all? Most game stories come from one of three places. The first place game stories actually come from is from books, graphic novels or movies that are already proven to be successful stories. Just think about some of the most successful books or movies of the past few decades – Star Wars, Harry Potter, Ghost Busters, The Nightmare Before Christmas, not to mention all the super hero books like Batman, Spider Man, the rest of those DC and Marvel comics. Dozens of those have been made into video games and often for every possible platform.

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Why do they do that? Why do game developers use stories from other media instead of coming up with their own characters and stories? Well, it’s pretty simple. It’s because those stories are already well-loved by millions of people. And that means any video game you make that’s based on those stories will already have a huge audience ready to buy. Now, if you’ve played any of those movie-based games, you might have noticed that the quality isn’t always very high. They’re often not very good games. Part of that can be because characters and plot lines that make for a good story in a linear medium like a book, they don’t necessarily translate well into a video game which is by its nature a non-linear medium. But there are other reasons that are more financial than anything else. Sometimes the people who own the rights to those blockbuster movie stories, they’re not so committed to making a great game. They might be more committed to making a quick buck from those millions of raving fans that we talked about. Well, that means for you as an up and coming game writer is that you probably don’t have a shot at getting your story made into a game unless your story is already big hit as a book a movie or both. So, get to work, you’ll get there.

Another place game stories come from is that they’re created by the game team, but not necessarily with the goal of making an amazing story. Oftentimes, the goal for the story is to simply explain the game universe in a way that makes the game mechanics make sense. In that situation, you can’t just write a story and have some developers build a game underneath of it. You have to start with a game and then build the story on top of it. For example, the team of students at DigiPen Institute – which is a video game school here in Seattle – made a really cool game demo as part of a student project. The game was creative and unique that some of the students were actually hired by a local game studio that you might have heard of called Valve Corporation. As the game was developed and the game mechanics were flushed out over a couple of years, the writers at Valve created a story to wrap around the game to explain the game mechanics and the goals.

The story wouldn’t make sense without the game and the game wouldn’t make sense without that story. They were developed together and you can’t have one without the other. What that means for you as an up and coming game writer is that you can’t make a story and have it turned into a game. You’ve got to work with a game team to build a story that fits into the game. In other words the game is the star and the story plays the supporting role.

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The last place a story might come from is the games players themselves. Games that are very open like The Sims or Minecraft or games that are mostly player versus player like Modern Warfare, they’re super popular partly because players create their own stories as they play the game and interact with the game world and with other players. That’s what make them so exciting and surprising and fun. Even in open world games that do kind of have a story like the fallout series, they’re so interesting because your choices as a player deeply affect the plot and the characters and the overall outcome of the story. So again, that kind of branching of non-linear story, it won’t work if you wrote the story ahead of time. The game and the story are tightly coupled and they have to be developed in the same time and the each one changes the other multiple times throughout the development process. What that means for you as an up and coming game writer, is that it’s often more important that you develop the skills needed to let players create their own stories rather than presenting your pre-made story and forcing the players to act it out.

In summary, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll be able to just write a story on your own and then sell it to a game team as is. Your best chances for doing some writing for a video game are really going to come by getting a job at a video game studio or you can work with the game team throughout the development of the game. And since most dedicated game studios don’t have dedicated writers, it’s really common to start in a job as the game designer and fill the role of the game writer as needed by the team.

How can you get a job as a game designer and writer? Check out my article on becoming a game writer. It’s at www.gamecareerindstry.com/writer. You can also go back and listen to Episode 16 of this podcast, because I talk about how to start as a game writer.

Thanks to Josh for this question and thank you for spending some time with me today to talk about your future career in games. If you have your own question that you’d like to answer on this podcast, stop by the website and leave me a comment. And I’ll answer it on a future episode. For more information and inspiration on getting a job and growing your career making video games, visit me at gameinsdusrtycareerguide.com. I’m Jason W. Bay and I will see you next week right here on the Game Industry Career Guide podcast.

Read my new book!

Making games for a living is an incredibly rewarding career, but it’s hard to break in unless you have insider knowledge. This book levels the playing field.

READ: Start Your Video Game Career

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