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How To Become A Video Game Writer

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This article 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.

READ  How To Become A Video Game Tester

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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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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33 comments on “How To Become A Video Game Writer
  1. 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. :))

  2. 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!

  3. 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!

  4. 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?

  5. Grant says:

    Thanks so much! This was extremely helpful. I was not sure if a video game writer was an actual job, but I want to do it and this gave me a lot of advice and inspiration. I’m still worried about finding a job, though…

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Getting jobs isn’t the hard part – the hard work goes into learning how to write, writing a lot, and becoming good at it. Keep in mind that writing for video games isn’t the only job that you could do as a writer. Many people who write for games also do other types of freelance writing jobs such as screenwriting, speech writing, comedy, books, and journalism.

  6. Amanda Fuller says:

    Hi Jason. I’ve been coding for over twenty years and I’ve recently completed my MA in Creative Writing. I want a career change and I feel that a move into video game writing would be perfect for me. Are there any tips you could give me?

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Amanda, congrats on your MA! Starting as a game writer can be tricky until you pull together a small fiction portfolio, but you may be able to leverage your coding skills to start out on a smaller game team in a design/scripting/writing role. There are a few other tips here: How to write for video games.

  7. Robare says:

    To someone who has the idea for game play concepts and story should I look more into design rather than writing the two seem very parallel from the outside.

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Robare, there is some overlap between Writer and Designer. At smaller studios, the game designers might also do all the writing. If you’re just starting your career, I’d recommend looking into game design as a starting point, but also continue working on your writing skills.

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