Category Archives: Outsourcing

Story in MMOs – Beckett Massive Online Gamer

Are writers the unsung heroes of MMOs? The Sept/Oct 2009 print edition of Beckett Massive Online Gamer features an article with a number of MMO writers, including two faces that you might know quite well. The article covers the frustrations of writing for MMOs and what the future has in store for story.  Why are we bringing it up so late?  We didn’t know about it until someone recognized our pictures!

This post brought to you by Writers Cabal, a game writing and design partnership.

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Are more game developers hiring contractors?

After a day full of CNBC’s documentaries on the subprime mortgage crisis and various Ponzi schemes on Monday, it’s clear the economy is on everyone’s mind. The game industry appears to be no different. CNN recently pointed out that businesses are hiring more independent contractors. Is this true for the game industry?

One of the biggest motivations for working with contractors instead of staff involves a changing business model. According to the CNN article, as businesses move to a project-based model, contractors make more sense.  While many game companies efficiently move workers from one project to the next, not all of them are quite so organized.  Contractors are a great alternative, especially when funding runs low, projects are canceled, or even when you successfully ship your game.  From CNN:

There are also big economic incentives to hire freelancers, he said. Businesses cut the costs of benefits and payroll taxes and often don’t have to buy new equipment or find work space for a freelancer.

Not to mention you don’t have to lay off a contractor.  But you still have to pay them ;)

If you are looking to hire game designers or game writers, feel free to contact Writers Cabal via our website.  Of course, if you’re looking for other kinds of game contractors, we can point you in the right direction as well.

In the meantime, which game companies do you think will weather this economic crisis the best?  Which the least?

This post brought to you by Writers Cabal, a game writing and design partnership.

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Is game outsourcing the new Hollywood model?

The rise of game outsourcing and the debate about unions all balance on issues of quality of life for developers and the time we need to develop games.  Check out the latest articles on outsourcing and see where you stand on the debate.

Not Everyone Feels The Crunch

Several companies have taken steps to avoid crunch altogether, pointing out it’s a management issue more than a time issue and emphasizing a culture of getting work done rather than play.  Would outsourcing save crunch companies?  No — bad management can happen anywhere — even when outsourcing.

Babel’s Leinfellner, Williams Talk The Rise Of Outsourcing

This article explores the idea that outsourcing will allow quality episodic content in games, just like Hollywood’s outsourcing has.  However, an anonymous comment points out that outsourcing helps with scale, but it doesn’t necessarily yield skilled help.

Monkey Island‘s Gilbert: Industry Must Unionize To Move Forward

Another vote for the Hollywood model.  Gilbert thinks you won’t be able to grab freelancers floating around with nothing in between jobs, although he doesn’t address the trend of outsourcing companies that support their talent in between gigs.  Of course, not all outsourcers work that way – such as writers (present company excepted) and composers.  The biggest issue with unions — they don’t make it any easier to get jobs.

Ultizen’s Lan Haiwen Discusses the Latest Gaming Industry Developments

But wait, everyone’s doing it!  Ultizen develops its own games, but also provides outsourcing work.  Will this trend mean no need for unions?

An Examination of Outsourcing: The Developer Angle

Developers turn to outsourcing so they won’t have to fire 75 people after every game project is finished. However, the debate about outsourcing, offshoring, and unions continues on unabated in the comments section of this article.

The Hidden Costs of Offshore Outsourcing

So what about offshoring?  Think sending work to India or China is cheaper?  This article plays on the idea that you may end up spending just as much whether domestic or offshore.  However, if you’re outsourcing writing to India, well, good luck with that.

An Examination of Outsourcing Part 2: The Contractor Angle

Maybe, outsourcing ultimately is about quality of life for the developers on staff.  “Developers who outsource are doing it to get more on the screen, to spend money appropriately to make the game the best they can possibly make it, and to take some of the pressure off of their core team’s functionality.”

Ease Of Development Rules, Outsourcing On Rise

Love it or hate it; it’s here to stay.  Forty percent of game developers will outsource in 2009.  Maybe it’s time for you to consider outsourcing your writing.

What’s your take on game outsourcing?  Does it improve the quality of life of developers?  Or is it a way to reap profits?

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The myth of the game writing vacuum

You won’t believe this.  I was trolling the web the other day and came across a statement supposed to promote game writing, which essentially said: “You can develop the story and dialog independently of the rest of development.”  While they added the caveat that there would be iteration, of course, they proposed that game writing could be so much better because it could occur in a vacuum.  After I stopped laughing, I realized I was facing two assumptions — 1) that we can write without too much concern for other departments and 2) that writing is actually better when it does.  Let’s test these assumptions in each stage of development.

In the Beginning
When we are brought in early in a project, a lot depends on what we write, and we depend a lot on any constraints from the company in terms of design and scope.  If you write something up without taking those into account, it just doesn’t ring as true.  Furthermore, some games just can’t start production until the game story is complete and thoroughly vetted by everyone making the game.  Survey says?  The assumptions are wrong on both counts when bringing in a writer early.

In the Middle
Occasionally we are brought into a project while it is in mid-stride.  Sometimes there’s just the game design document and demo, but usually the game is in production.  That means we’re sometimes dealing with concepts that are set in stone or hard-coded, while other ideas are open to discussion.

Should we work in a vacuum?  Definitely not — the game concepts are constantly going through changes, sometimes on a daily basis.  This state of flux demonstrates why writers often work on staff rather than remotely, though good communication can make it work wherever the writers are.

Sometimes developers are too busy to communicate and much prefer the plug-n-play writer.  In these vacuum-like cases ;), unless the writers are poor, the game doesn’t suffer from poor writing so much as suffer from missed opportunities.  Outsourced writers as well as outsourced artists can come up with ideas that will benefit the entire game.  If there’s not time to field these ideas, you miss the chance to improve.

The verdict?  Avoid letting your writers write in a vacuum, but if you must, consider what you might be missing.

The finale
Game writers have historically been brought in at the very end of development.  Some developers may tack in writing at the end, like a texture on a wall.  The “story,” such as it is, is already set, and the game is in the last legs of production.  You can change very little at this point.  The myth of the writing working happily in a vacuum probably stems from this very situation.

Can the writer work with little input from the other departments at this stage?  Yes, with reservations.  Like working with artists, you will need to clarify your parameters on such issues such as length and style.

Does writers working in isolation improve the writing?  It doesn’t hurt it at this point — chances are your writer has played the game and knows what to do.  Richard Dansky suggests that what’s missing in this equation is time for writers to reiterate and improve upon their work, just as the designers, artists, and programmers do.  The earlier the writing begins, the more chance writers have to perfect it.  You’re certainly more likely to get higher quality than the writing you throw in moments before you ship.

So can writers work independently of game production?  Certainly they can, and sometimes do.  Depending on the quality of your writer, you’ll get okay writing, or even good writing.  But if you incorporate your writers early and ensure communication between them and your entire production, well… that means great writing!

Agree or disagree?  What else do you think will improve game writing?

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Which type of game writer are you looking for? Part 2

The problem with titles or credits in the game industry, is there are so many titles to describe the same type of work.  The problem with game writing is the same title can describe different types of work!  Check out the continuation of our look at game writers (Part 1 here), with the artistic goodness of our friend Chris Avellone.

Game Writer

Very into dialog and story and may get cranky if you say s/he is a designer. Despite that, may also design
Known for: Good dialog, story and a sort of nationalistic pride in the writing profession and all things written

Game Writer

Terribly confusing moniker for game journalist or game reviewer, leading to consternation in conversations involving game writers of all types
Known for: Writing reviews, feeling guilty about taking swag from PR people, and questioning the quality of games journalism regularly

Writer/Designer

Someone who writes story as well as designs aspects of the game. Considers him/herself the salt of the Earth, but probably looks down on mere writers (just kidding. mostly)
Known for: Putting first whichever word will more likely get him/her the job

Unfortunately, you can’t easily tell different types of writers apart, leading to confusion at parties:

"No, not that kind of game writer!"

But on the job, the best writers work in a team.


Which type of writers works best for you?

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Which type of game writer are you looking for? Part 1

Confused about what kind of game writer you want?  You’re not alone!  The game industry constantly struggles with titles in every department, and writing is no exception.  When looking for a game writer, story designer, narrative designer, dialog writer, etc., make sure you’re looking for the right kind.  For this series, we teamed up with Chris Avellone, writer and co-founder of Obsidian Entertainment, who offered up his characteristic artwork for this issue.

Writer/Co-Founder

This writer is so good s/he started a company to share the shiny goodness
Known for: Great writing, good management, and the ability to walk on water

Narrative Designer

Writer who knows the ultimate truth that game story doesn’t begin and end with the written word
Known for: Using a holistic approach to game development, and having it all figured out ;)

Narrative Designer

Narrative designer makes sure there's no name-calling

Now, no name-calling

This type of ND acts as champion for a game writer’s work within a company, especially if game writer works on contract.
Known for: Diplomacy, good eye for great writers (like us!)

Content Designer


Someone who works on staff, writes some storylines, then implements them into the game with tools. Someone who will rise in the design department, rather than being relegated to the “writer ghetto” that exists on some staffs
Known for: Having a career path, a pile of story ideas, and a secret desire to shed the designer title and be a WRITER FOREVER!

All done?  Not so fast…  Next week we’ll put up more game writers, including the game writer vs. game writer confusion.  Subscribe to make sure you’re getting the right writer!

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Why virtual collaboration is not for you

[ Warning:  Sarcasm Alert ] Friends, gamers, countrymen.  I come to bury virtual collaboration, not to praise it.  Outsourcing, virtual collaboration, remote workers — the buzzwords of the game industry these days.  But it’s not for everyone, and here’s a few reasons why it’s not for you.

1.  Outsourcing only works for art

Certainly, we have seen many companies outsourcing art both near and far, but the benefits end there.  In fact, most best practices on outsourcing come only from art.  No one has actually applied them in other arenas, such as in this article on writing.

2.  Your company culture will get hosed

You are all about getting together and playing ping-pong after work with your co-workers.  If people don’t show up at work, all that jolly team spirit will disappear.  Sure, building remote systems into your company culture, such as playing games, meeting virtually, and having fun mailing lists, do work, but not for you.

3.  Remote workers don’t actually work as much as in-house workers

When your artist is sitting at his desk, you know he’s working and not surfing MySpace.  When your designer is at the office until 10pm, you know it’s because she’s been grinding on that design doc, and not spending half the day goofing off.  On the other hand, as soon as they go home, who knows what they’re up to.  And evaluating results rather than hours worked as many suggest in this article is really not the best plan for you.

Clearly, if you need to see your workers working, only believe art outsourcing has been successful, and believe your company culture will dissolve if workers only come in once a week or year, then virtual collaboration is not for you.  However, maybe, just maybe, with a bit of a designer’s mentality, you can create an environment that makes it both fun and productive to work remotely.  But that’s up to you.

What are some other great reasons why virtual collaboration is not for you?  Comment with your answer!

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Top 5 misconceptions about hiring a game writing team

So you want to hire a game writer.  Congrats!  Whether adding to your staff or outsourcing your game writing, you’re not alone.  Apparently, most companies that hire writers, just hire one.  But have you considered a team of writers?  Before making your decision, read on to see if you’re struggling with any of these misconceptions about hiring a game writing team.

1.  Won’t two people cost more than one?

Quantity of work and the time you need it done in set the price for game writing more than the number of people doing it.  You could pay one person for two months to get a project done, or a team of two one month to get it done.  Either way, the costs are the same.   

2.  Can’t one person deliver the same as a writing team?

The above example assumes that all else is equal.  But not all things are equal.  You also pay your game writer(s) for quality, which as we all well know varies greatly in the game industry.  With an extra person looking over the writing before submitting it, you get higher quality work from a game writing team than a solo game writer.  You’re getting greater value by hiring a team.

3.  Won’t two writers just disagree a lot?

Yes, thank goodness!  It’s in these disagreements that the writing actually gets better.  Sande and I have worked together long enough that we can discuss an issue until we reach consensus.  This week we were working on a game pitch, and, based on our assessment of what the client wants, we decided to go with the classic 3-act structure.  We spent quite a few minutes discussing “midpoints,” of all things.  In the end, our conversation yielded a stronger, more organic story than if we’d just agreed to get along.  On the other hand, some clients — and maybe you’d be one of them — want a plurality of options before they decide to move forward, so our different perspectives come in handy.  

4.  A writing team can’t work individually.

I confess I don’t quite understand this misconception in game writing, but I’ll dispell it anyway.  While Sande and I collaborate on just about everything, with large projects we often split the work.  In the event that one of us is ill or occupied, the other one steps up and works alone.   

5.  I need my writer to come into the office, and it would be too hard to bring in a team.

Good for you!  It’s always a brilliant idea to bring your writer in to work, see the builds, and eat lunch ;)  That said, we have had cases where the client only had one of us come to the office at a time.  Since Sande and I are accustomed to virtual collaboration, we can easily communicate any information we learn to each other. 

So, let me have it.  What else is nagging you about hiring a writing team?  Send me an e-mail at anne (at) writerscabal.com, or drop a comment to this post!

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Top 3 ways to choose your game writer

Earlier this week we explored how to find your next game writer (aside from hiring us, of course). Now that you know how you’re going to seek and destroy — er — discover writers, how do you go about choosing the best one? Here are the top three ways to go about it.

1. Go on reputation

In the last post, I warned about going on a writer’s reputation only. Sure, Sally may have a writing credit on 2008’s bestselling game, but did she actually write anything that ended up in-game? If you’re approaching Joe, the television writer, the stakes are even higher, because he might not even “get” interactive storytelling.

I worked on one project where another game writer was brought on without having to submit any writing samples. The writer had a bumpy start, largely because it turned out the writer didn’t really understand the game genre. You’re better off if you can get an idea of his/her strengths and weaknesses before hiring. If you have approached a writer based on reputation, make sure to try one of the other approaches below.

Benefits:

  • You’ll get experienced writers with a long track record
  • Less search effort

2. Ask for writing samples

Our preferred way of applying for writing jobs. Tell your writers the rating, game genre, and the storytelling genre of your project (such as a rated teen fantasy FPS) and allow them to submit their best samples. We don’t mind signing an NDA first so we can learn more about the project. If you’re open-minded about other types of writing samples, such as screenplay excerpts or prose, let your applicants know. Sande, who does all types of writing, once submitted poetry and landed a game writing gig.

Benefits:

  • You find experienced writers who have done writing similar to what you need
  • You may find new talent if you’re open to other types of writing samples.

3. Ask for a writing test

You may decide you need a writing test to identify which writers “get” your game project. To help your prospective writers out, try to explain to them as much as possible what you’re looking for. When I was looking for writers, the only instruction I gave was “write a quest.” I ended up getting 30 and even 50-page epics, complete with world backstories. While the length a writer defaults to can be informative, you don’t want to be reading 30-page anythings. Give a page limit and you’ll thank yourself later.

In other cases, you may decide that the best way to know for sure if this writer is for you is to ask them to work on a small part of the actual game. This is what we did for THE WITCHER.

Keep in mind, even with a NDA, you don’t want to let too many people know about your game-in-progress. You may have to pay for this type of writing test, but by this time, most likely, you are only choosing between a few writers.

Benefits:

  • Good for larger projects
  • Good for unique projects where existing samples won’t work

3.5 Get a writing test and ask for revisions

How well writers write the first time out can hint at how talented they are, but how well they write the second time shows you how good they are to work with. Game production means iteration, iteration, iteration. If your writer can’t take and incorporate feedback, you’ll be kicking yourself. This process also helps the writers figure out if they want to work with you, so play nice!

  • Good for projects with lots of iteration
  • Good for sussing out your own pipeline

Keep in mind Hollywood doesn’t use writing tests, due to legal and creative concerns. You don’t want to be in a situation where the writer sues you for going with an idea similar to the one s/he submitted! The game industry gets around the legal concerns by making the writer sign away rights to the test. With no guarantee of getting the gig, however, your ideal writer may pass up your writing test offer if it means s/he has to sign over their ideas to you.

Television shows like LOST also don’t read sample scripts of their own show, largely because no one on the outside can quite capture the voices like someone who has lived and breathed the show on the inside. At STARGATE WORLDS, we had many instances of otherwise good writers tripped up by not knowing the TV series well enough to capture the voices.

What is the most unexpected writing sample you have read — short stories, screenplays, personal diaries? Drop a comment or an e-mail!

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5 ways to find your next game writer

You’ve got the money; you’ve got the resources. You’re ready to make a game. But how do you find the perfect game writer for your project? This week we’ll explore how to find the game writer who can make or break your project.

1. Referrals
One of the best ways to find a writer. Talk to people you already know who have worked with writers. Who do they recommend? Who should you avoid? When I was hiring game writers, I e-mailed literally everyone I knew in the game industry, describing my ideal writer. I found several writers I wouldn’t have found any other way and even hired one. Find out if your contacts have actually worked with the writer before.

Benefit: You will already know the strengths and weaknesses of the writer
Drawback: Limited to your network

2. Agencies
Contacting the major Hollywood agencies will yield you quite a list of writers. Many game companies are going that route, though many others are put off by the whole Hollywood scene. As far as I know, agencies primarily provide writers on contract. Whether you hire a writer through them or not, you won’t have to pay the agent a cent.

Benefit: Established writers in games, Hollywood, or both.
Drawback: Established writers in games, Hollywood, or both.

3. Recruiters
Game industry recruiters make a good resource for game writers, content designers, and narrative designers. I found my staff job as head writer through a game recruiter, so they definitely have their benefits. You have to pay them if you hire one of their candidates.

Benefit: Pre-selected candidates with game industry experience
Drawback: Not good for small games. Recruitment fee. May be redundant if you have a human resources department

4. Advertisement
I have seen quite a few game writer jobs listed on places like Craigslist and other game industry boards.

Benefit: Some are free to post, and depending on where you post, will gather a variety of people.
Drawback: You may find less qualified writers and you also have to devote your time to sorting through the huge volume of irrelevant responses.

5. Research
Which writers wrote your favorite games? Which wrote games in your genre? Equipped with names, you may contact your next writer directly. Watch out for hiring the hot action writer for your action game. It might just turn out like his or her last game. Think outside the genre. The showrunner of HEROES had to apologize for second season — he apparently found so many good Sci Fi writers, that the season plodded through poorly constructed love stories. Conversely, the LOST television series made sure to find “good” writers, even if they didn’t have a Sci Fi background.

Be wary of hiring based on reputation. At ION, we had one lunch partner say “Oh, I thought there were only 5 game writers.” Don’t go with a writer just because they have good PR! A writer may have gotten credit for a popular project, while having had all work thrown out by the producer. Do your research before going with any one writer.

Benefit: You cut out the middle man and find qualified writers
Drawback: Those writers may be overbooked or overpriced.

Now that you have a few candidates, next we’ll explore how to vet your game writers. Of course, if you would like to hire the Writers Cabal to write your game, drop us an e-mail and let us know about your project!

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