What is it like working at Gearbox?
Working at Gearbox is awesome. There’s a ton of talented people here who are really passionate about games. The studio culture is highly collaborative, and it’s a really fun place to be. I love the games we work on, and the people I work with. Right now, our narrative department includes three writers, a junior writer/editor, a VO director, a managing producer, and a storyboard/video dev.
What is the day-to-day work like?
My average day involves working on scripts, playing through missions with temp VO, and a few meetings here in there – along with impromptu brainstorm sessions with my fellow writers. Then, we’ll have VO recording sessions from time to time, where we either have in-house talent for Temp VO, or professional actors, come in and record our scripts. This is easily the best part of the job. The best actors elevate scripts beyond the words on a page, and bring your characters to life.
Do you have advice on becoming a game writer?
Yup. Here goes.
1. Embrace rejection and listen to feedback:
First, becoming a game writer at a big studio is highly competitive, and there aren’t a ton of AAA game writing jobs out there. That said, it’s the best job I’ve ever had, and it’s extremely rewarding. So in the end, it was worth all the rejection, the lows, and so on. But you’ve got to be willing to keep at it, despite how difficult it can be to actually land a job. I learned something from every writing test I took and every interview I landed. If you get feedback, listen to it! Getting honest and critical feedback on your writing is crucial to becoming better at your craft.
2. Put together a Portfolio of Spec Scripts:
Having a portfolio of spec scripts from popular games is the first thing I’d recommend putting together. When I was applying for jobs, I had a Mass Effect script, a Walking Dead script, etc. This helps demonstrate that you can jump into a pre-existing IP with already-established characters. You can write these in traditional screenplay format or use Twine. There are also unity plugins (like Fungus) that help you create a more interactive experience. I made a Walking Dead game in unity with some photos and a few SFX.
3. Acquire a wide variety of writing skills:
Scenes: A game writer (depending on the project) should be able to write both scenes (traditional screen-writing). These are really rewarding, but relish them – they’re few and far between (depending on the type of game you work on), and space is limited because cutscenes can be expensive to produce!
General VO: A lot of a game’s writing comes in the form of General VO — the type of instructions you get from a single character about where to go next, and why you’re going there, etc. To me, this sometimes feels like a mix between writing a radio play and stand-up comedy. Unless you’re working on a David Cage game, the majority of your writing will probably not be scenes.
Battle VO and Contextual VO: These are grids of condition VO based on what’s happening (my character spotted an enemy, I’m hurt, etc). Battle VO is really challenging, because the skill is really in writing the same thing twenty times while keeping it a) informative b) entertaining.
Flavor Text: In addition, having prose skills for all of the other sorts of materials you need in a game, like flavor texts, is handy. This sometimes feels like a mix between advertising and poetry – space is tight. Every word matters.
4. Work on Indie Games:
Reach out to indie devs and help them with writing. I worked on a few indie games before getting a AAA job. There are tons of amazing indie developers making incredible games – don’t be shy. I contacted a few indie devs with successful kick starters, for example, and offered my services. Every project has something to teach you.
5. Acquire other skills:
I did a ton of code academy courses, just to understand how code works on a basic level – this has proved really useful in talking with coders and designers. Communication is a key component of game writing, and being able to explain an idea in ways that make sense to other devs is very important. I also read most of the basic game design books. But basically, the more skills you can acquire, the more valuable you are to a team. You don’t need to be an incredible artist or designer or coder, but speaking the language, understanding the fundamentals – goes a long way.
What would you say was your career path to where you are today?
Well, I’ll start with the fact that it was a trail of endless rejection, with a few words of encouragement. I always knew I wanted to write games. But, I thought I’d become a novelist first, and then get into games later in life. In terms of writing, I’ve written novels, screenplays, poetry, comics, and games. Writing outside your comfort zone and pushing yourself turned out to be a smart move, because game writing can involve a bit of everything. Yup, even poetry – when you’re trying to find the perfect name for a location or only have five words to describe something, poetry can come in handy!
Is there anything else you would like to add to tell people about yourself?
I grew up playing games like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger – games with wonderful characters, where you could feel the passion of the developers in every scene. Depending on the game you work on, story could be incredibly important, or a backdrop to doing something else. But in every game, context matters, and a writer’s job is to help provide a context to what a player’s doing that matters. You’d be surprised what sticks with people long after a game’s ended. Sometimes it’s a hint at a greater world in the game, just a stray line or reference to something you haven’t seen.