How To Become A Video Game Writer

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This interview is part of the Quest for Your Career series. We focus on each specific job in the video game industry by interviewing an expert in the field. Learn what they do, how they got started, and whether it's a good job for you.

Meet Darby McDevitt, Video Game Writer

Darby McDevitt, Video Game Scriptwriter

Darby makes his own luck by working hard and saying “yes” at every opportunity.

Darby McDevitt is a scriptwriter for the hugely successful Assassin’s Creed series of games. But he doesn’t only write for games. He’s also released several prose fiction works, has been published in national literary journals and anthologies, and has released several music albums. He’s also written, produced, directed, or designed the audio for a number of successful films.

That should give you a hint about how Darby approaches his career: passionately. The best way to get good at something like writing for video games is to do it, and do it a lot.

Darby talks with us today about how his passion for learning new things and taking on more responsibility got him into the game industry – and continues to open new doors. It’s a lesson he hopes you’ll take to heart.

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How would you describe what you do every day as a Video Game Writer?

My daily workload fluctuates wildly depending on what stage my project is in.

In the early, conception phase of a new game I spend most of my time reading, researching, taking notes, and discussing my findings with the game- and mission-designers. We use this time to figure out what sort of game we’re making, how much writing it needs (narrative and incidental) and how we are going to tell our story and communicate our ideas.

In the production phase of the project, I am writing furiously while working with mission designers on a daily basis to make sure my ideas fuse perfectly with theirs. I also work directly with the cinematics department, rehearsing with the actors and brainstorming with the directors — but this is fairly unique to the heavily narrative-driven franchise I write for.

In the later stages of production, I am furiously proofreading and playtesting to make sure my work is well represented.

How did you get your job as a Game Writer?

I had a few lucky breaks which resulted in me getting a writing gig. In the early 2000s, full time game writing gigs were somewhat uncommon. But when the opportunity presented itself, I had most of the prerequisites needed to convince people I could do the job.

For one, I was already a writer, with a few published short stories to my name. Two, I had some design experience, and enough coding experience that programmers didn’t frighten me. Three, I said yes to every writing task offered to me, and sought out others when I had free time.

“it’s actually quite easy to offer your services as a writer, even when your official job is something else. It never hurts to ask for more responsibility.”

Good writing is something many small design teams prioritize last on their big to do lists — game design must always come first — so it’s actually quite easy to offer your services as a writer, even when your official job is something else. It never hurts to ask for more responsibility.

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What’s your favorite part of the job?

In my specific case, writing for Assassin’s Creed, I love the extensive research we do before we make any new game. When we finally dive into production, I am passionate about writing dialog. I love the sound, and feel, and scent of good writing, so I take great care to make every sentence a masterpiece. I also love working with actors to get my dialog off the page and into the atmosphere. My background in theatre makes me especially appreciative of thespians.

What aspect of the job would be surprising to people looking in from the outside?

“Good ideas come from everywhere, and everyone on the team must be receptive and open to them if they want the game to succeed.”

The radically collaborative nature of making a game is often hard for people to grasp from the outside. Good ideas come from everywhere, and everyone on the team must be receptive and open to them if they want the game to succeed. I get some of my best story, character, and line ideas from designers, artists, and animators… and have contributed a number of design and art ideas as well.

It does nobody any good to be closed off in this industry. If you think only about your little slice of the pie, your narrow discipline, you will miss the bigger picture and possible harm the final quality of the game.

What kinds of talents and personality does it take to succeed as a Game Writer?

A strange brew of confidence, thick-skin, and humility is needed to succeed in this job. Be confident about your work and your opinion, but realize that it is only one small part of a larger whole. Sometimes you’ll need to sacrifice your best ideas in service of the larger goal.

You must also have the fortitude and constitution to work, and re-work, and re-re-work your writing to suit the evolving nature of the game. All games change over the course of their development cycle, and writing is often the first to suffer. Thankfully, writing is also the easiest to change (before any actors get their hands on it, anyway) so you must be flexible and willing to work hard.

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What advice would you give to somebody who’s thinking about becoming a Video Game Writer?

Number one, make your own games. Small ones, if necessary. The world is full of great tools for burgeoning game writers and designers — GameMaker, Unity 3D, etc. — so just dive in and make a little game. This will look incredibly impressive to a prospective employer.

“If you can’t talk with game designers on their level, you’ll be in a much worse position on the project.”

Number two, learn a trade other than writing. Probably design or coding. If you can’t talk with game designers on their level, you’ll be in a much worse position on the project.

What would you recommend for education, books, or other learning to start down the Game Writer career path?

Rules of Play book

“It’s engaging, accessible and short.”

Ralph Koster’s book A Theory of Fun is one you’ll hear tossed around a lot, and for good reason. It’s engaging, accessible and short. Rules of Play is another academic-flavoured tome it wouldn’t hurt to read.

In terms of writing education, I’m a bit of an oddball in this regard. I think Modernist and post modernist experimental writers — like Joyce, Beckett, Paley, Barthelme, and Lydia Davis – offer the best preparation for learning to write in games. Understanding their unique approaches to literature will improve the quality of your writing while getting you in the habit of thinking outside the box.

In games, writing comes in all forms. It helps to be experimental. To be sure, classic plot-driven novels can be fun too, especially if they have crackling dialog, like a Raymond Chandler novel. But narrative-driven games make up only a fraction of the total types of games found in the wild.

Also, take some coding or digital art classes in university. They’ll help tremendously, even if you don’t major in them.

And lastly, play games with a critical eye. Not to determine how good or bad they are, but to understand how they work and why they keep players attracted.

Check out Darby’s books on Lulu. If this advice was helpful, please return the favor by sharing on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

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24 comments on “How To Become A Video Game Writer
  1. Ty simmons says:

    Thank you so much, This was incredibly helpful

  2. Kieran Thompson says:

    This was a lot of help! This is exactly what I want to do in the industry so this was really helpful, thanks!

  3. Joe Kirk says:

    Thanks! Helpful tips! This is a career that sounds appealing to me, cheers.

  4. Lance says:

    It sounds like game writing and game designing are very similar. I was looking to become a game designer due to the fact that I was able to make the story but it seems like that’s what game writers do. Is it realistic to think that I can make the plot and story by being a game designer or should I consider switching to game writer?

    Thanks!

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Lance, you’re right that game designer and game writer are different jobs. However, most game companies don’t hire full-time writers – most of them either hire writers on an as-needed contract basis, or else they have their game designers do the writing. Very few companies have enough writing work to actually keep a full-time writer on staff.

  5. mohamed ezzat says:

    thanks a lot…i love writing but i hate coding ..i should try digital art classes

  6. Dorian Winters says:

    This is very helpful! I’m currently in school for liberal arts, but I already have skill in digital art. I probably will take some classes like that over the summer so that I can be prepare for that. Thank you so much!

  7. Chris says:

    Thanks! This is incredibly helpful. I’ve always wondered how exactly to break into this industry, specifically from a writing standpoint, and this was exactly what I needed to read. I only have one question: What is the format of the writing within the industry (is it similar to Scriptwriting, or closer to Fiction styles)?

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      I’m glad this was helpful! There’s no standard format, some studios may have a scriptwriting style for in-depth cinematics, but most are less regimented. I wouldn’t be concerned about the exact style, because you can easily adapt to whatever style happens to be in use.

  8. Anastasia says:

    This is generally pretty helpful advice! My only issue here is, honestly, that I already finished college. I have a B.A. in Writing; it’s a little too late for me to go back to my university and get more than the one C++ class I took under my belt, let alone any sort of game design or digital art course (the former was not something my university even offered).

    So what can I do aside from writing and working on getting things published?

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      First of all, congratulations on getting your B.A.! That’s a great start. Now you could focus on 1) learning game design on your own by making a small video game, 2) writing some short fiction that would show game studios your writing ability, and 3) start doing career networking to meet people in the game industry such as writers and game designers. You may be able to apply for entry-level game design positions, which would be a good start as Darby mentions in the article. I wish you luck!

  9. Lilli says:

    Hi! I’m interested into getting into some kind of writing, what kind of schooling is necessary to get a job at a big company? I write many small fiction stories on my own. What will help me be successful? Thank you so much x

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      All the writing that you do will help you become a better writer, and will add to your portfolio that employers will evaluate when you apply for jobs. So yes, keep writing those short fiction pieces. As far as schooling, any kind of writing or literature will be helpful. Also, learn as much as you can about the process of game design and game development. You’re heading in the right direction!

  10. Lee says:

    I want to be a writer for video games. I have a love and passion for writing and playing video games. I have actually started to write a book last year but need some inspiration to keep working on it. It’s hard to come up with ideas. This has provided me with much needed information and I was having trouble finding it.

    Thanks.

  11. Blake LeMasters says:

    This is a great article, I have always wanted to be involved in the gaming industry in some capacity, but never knew where to start. Do you know if Game Design requires heavy math skills, its not really my forte.

    Thanks!

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Blake! Good news – game design does not require heavy math skills. (BTW, I was pretty bad at math when I was younger, I got better with more practice – you probably will too. :))

  12. Katalin Horvath says:

    Thank you very much, you helped me a lot! I’m thinking about whether non-native English speakers have a chance to become international video game writer. For example, I’m Hungarian but I can speak English (and little Japanese), too. I have passion and lots of ideas (I think I could provide at least 5-6 games or more right now), but I don’t really know if I could be emplyoed by any game developing companies. Would they give me a chance to work for them even if my mother tongue isn’t English?
    Thank you very much for our help in advance!

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Katalin, I think it could be difficult to get a job as a writer in a language that you may not have strong fluency. But it doesn’t hurt to try – unless a job posting says something like “requires native English speaker” then you can still apply. I wish you luck!

  13. Patrick Duzan says:

    I have a homework assignment due for a college class on September 4th 2016. And I was thinking of using something like this for it. But I am also kind of curious of what date the interview actually occurred on for copyright purposes of course and all that other legal stuff or whatever it is called.

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Patrick, this interview was published on February 26, 2014. But usually when you cite a website in a paper, you put the date you accessed the page not the date published, since web pages change all the time. Best of luck with your paper!

  14. Sully says:

    I was wondering…what subjects did you complete at school and University before you became a game writer? Is English one of the key courses to take at Uni, or is it more your practical application of writing that you need?

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