I began my game development career when I was about ten, by writing text-based adventures in BASIC and talking my little sister into playtesting them. This is where I learned that essential exposition text needs to be repeated at three intervals for players to absorb it, but actually making games still seemed like an unrealistic career path, a bit like being an actress or an astronaut.
As an adult, I wandered into game development through blogging about games. In college, I studied English and Classics, and then moved in China to teach English and see more of the world. My years as a foreign teacher provided me with ample time to write. I imagined myself as expat Hemingway, writing deathless prose about my adventures in a foreign land, but spent almost as much time blogging about games as about travel.
Rereading my earliest reviews make me cringe. Although we learn to analyze literature in English classes, we don’t usually learn to analyze games, so now it’s somewhat painful to reread reviews in which I laboriously describe a style of gameplay based upon finding hidden objects, or in which I notice that a lot of adventure games involve killing sewer rats.
Good game reviews analyze the successes and failures of a game. These are more thoughtful than a fan’s post about how much fun they’re having playing an awesome new game. Although expletive-filled angry rant reviews are gaining Internet popularity, I don’t think there’s a lot of insight and analysis behind them. This hilarious SA piece highlights some common failings in game reviewing. Good game reviews contextualize the game in terms of previous games and larger industry trends.
From my blog, I began to have game editorials published on fansites and in gaming mags. I started contributing to Indie Game Magazine in 2009, in the magazine’s third issue, and have been reviewing indie games since then. Often acquaintances will hear I’m a game reviewer and ask if I’d played the latest AAA hit, but it’s far more likely I’ve played an obscure indie title.
For anyone interested in taking this path into the games industry, I’d recommend reading thoughtful, longform reviews. Killscreen, The Escapist, and Indie Gamer Chick offer this kind of review. When every headline is saying that SimCity sucks because EA is evil, read how and why Electronic Arts chose always-online, and what they’d hoped to offer to players, read how SimCity relates to other EA releases and to trends in PC gaming. And read industry publications, like Gamasutra and InsideSocialGames. Even if you — like me — aren’t terribly interested in the business side of the games industry, it’s worthwhile to learn where individual games fall in the larger industry trends and to pick up industry terminology.
I’d suggest aspiring game writers start a blog right away — moving to China is optional — and start filling it with the kind of insightful reviews and witty games editorials you’d like to write for magazines.
Coming from reviewing into design isn’t the most traditional career path but I’ve discovered many narrative designers who’ve taken this route. Analyzing games for reviews lends itself very well to working in games. Instead of analyzing a completed game for potential players, in design I’m analyzing a game in process so it can be improved. I was able to use the skills I’d gained from reviewing games to move into game design.
Game narrative is still my interest although I’ve moved on from BASIC adventures, and I’ve been lucky enough to work on developing game narratives on several different projects. I worked writing dialogue and missions for Next Island, an MMORPG in the Entropia Universe, designing storylines for players to experience and characters for them to meet. I worked under a series of creative directors, which allowed me to do everything from introductory tutorials to codebreaking missions, but I’m particularly proud of the characters Tom Shepard and Ol’ Mort. I feel like those guys are really “mine” and I do wish I could have taken them further. I worked at Next Island for two years, and had some great times, but my favorite moment was overhearing a player conversation in gamechat, discussing details of the characters’ backgrounds, and speculating on how the next game update would add to their stories.
Localizing game text is another career option for game writers. You’ve probably encountered localized text as a player, even if the term is unfamiliar. When you’re playing an import RPG and need to reread what a character’s just said in order to understand it, it’s been poorly localized. All your base should not be belong to us. Localization is different from strict translating because a good localization writer makes sure the funny characters are still funny, ominous descriptions are still ominous, and nothing is inadvertently filthy. I had the chance to work on a Chinese MMO, Empire Online, as Lakoo Games prepared it for an English-speaking audience.
Most of my work in games has been as a freelancer or contractor. That’s introduced me to so many talented people, and I’ve contributed to more than a dozen games in various capacities. It’s great fun, I’ve gotten to write romantic and rejection dialogue for a dating sim, character backstories for cartoon surfing birds, player instructions for a horseracing sim, and nerdy jokes for a Star Trek game. (Aspiring game writers should know that I’ve supplemented this income with plenty of less interesting work, especially as I was getting started.)
As a freelancer, I know I’m being hired per-assignment, and I can never really get out of job-hunting mode. Still, as I work on more games, I’m finding that more of my work is coming from previous coworkers and supervisors, asking if I would be interested in contributing to their next project. For example, I did some QA work on a Her Interactive Nancy Drew game called Lights, Camera, Curses, which led to work on a second title from that developer. Later, when Her Interactive staff formed Passionfruit Games, I was asked to QA their first release, Tiger Eye: Curse of The Riddle Box, and then the sequel. It’s really great when I get to start a new project with people I like to work with!
With the rise of indie games, the barrier to entering the games industry has been greatly reduced. Software like RPG Maker, ChoiceScript and GameSalad make it possible for individuals and small teams to take a project from idea to execution. So instead of seeing game design as an impossible career goal, aspiring game designers can tinker with their game ideas, create indie projects, and share them with the community. Just like aspiring games writers should just start a blog of thoughtful game essays and editorials, my main advice for aspiring game designers is to just try making a game.
Oh, and then send me your press kit, I love seeing great new indie games!