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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3 Comments

Filed under Outsourcing, Writing

3 responses to “Top 3 ways to choose your game writer

  1. Graeme

    One approach you don’t specifically mention is Bioware’s: require a generated game asset that demonstrates writing ability. Any thoughts on the pros and cons of such an approach compared to the purist methods you’ve recommended?

  2. Hello Graeme,

    We did mention this under 3 that some companies will require you to work on a small part of the game. There is a bit on the pros and cons.

    Bioware’s requirement, AFAIK, is not to work on a small part of the actual game, but to generate a similar-genre type sample in 24 hours.

    There are variations upon the timed writing sample or story critique test.

    This obviously puts value on writers who can produce something acceptable in a short period of time. If this is what your company values, then perhaps this is the type of test you should give. I do believe that is a function of company culture. It is similar to programming — do you value acceptable code or do you value elegant code?

    There’s a trade-off in production. Sometimes you have to go with the mantra, “Don’t Worry, Be Crappy,” to get something done on time, but it may bite you later if you have to urgently make a modification to the game (and it’s hard-coded).

    — Sande

  3. Pingback: 5 ways to find your next game writer « Writers Cabal Blog

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