Momocon 2016: Writing for Video Games One of the greatest joys I find in attending conventions is soaking up industry knowledge from passionate professionals with successful careers in comics, gaming and anime. I love being in the presence of people who enjoy what they do and are excited about sharing that spark with others—especially writers and voice actors. As someone whose day job falls squarely in the realm of advertising, I often find that their experiences and knowledge are neatly transferable, giving me a new perspective on how I tackle similar challenges in my own field, while also providing me with ample opportunities to geek out. This means you’ll typically find me in attendance for panels that focus on more technical components of the industry. We broke in our attendance of this year’s MomoCon with one such panel: Writing for Video Games, hosted by Eddy Webb (@eddyfate), Bill Bridges (@bbridges) and Nathan Knaack (@NathanAKnaack). I was pretty stoked to get a peek behind the curtain of what goes into writing for video games and their panel did not disappoint. If I were to style this blog post based on their tips for writing good game copy it’d be something along the lines of the following: A Guide to Video Game Writing: The Good, The Bad and The Brutally Honest Writing for video games is an exciting career, but not stable. Those who are successful at it are both proactive and nomadic. Don’t get stuck in a genre; be versatile. It’s important to learn to write everything from documentation to dialogue and for every genre. Get used to writing in Excel. Your copy will end up in a database anyway at some point. Get cozy with brevity. Sometimes you’ll get limitations like keeping it to 100 characters per line. Brevity isn’t just for the player. It’s also for the team because they don’t like or simply don’t have time to read through reams of paper. Use bullet points. Don’t forget about localization. For games that will be translated, you need to revisit your use of colloquialisms to be sure there’s a cultural equivalent. Most of your writing won’t ever show up on-screen or in dialogue. 90% is for your team or something on the backend, such as outlines, art notes, character briefs, environmental scenarios, drafts and multiple revisions. Sometimes you’ll get cast in the role of Narrative Doctor. However, it’s a great opportunity to learn emergency management via narrative triage. Don’t get too attached to your work. Cut what isn’t working. But don’t stress to hard about killing your darlings – in this industry, people will come along and kill them for you. Save your work for posterity (and your portfolio!) Projects get canceled, or can turn on a dime. Keeping access to your previous work is important – ideas are always useful. Learn the right keyword to get hired. You’re not a writer; you’re a narrative/story/content designer. Fan Q & A Session Q1: Any advice for working with a German Company? English is the primary language of the German company Eddy is currently working for, which means that for the most part, communication hasn’t been a problem. Colloquialisms, however, can be quite challenging. A gag that he was working on for a Futurama game centered around “going to hell in a hand basket,” a phrase he thought was fairly common. In actuality, it turned out to be a cultural idiom specific to the East Coast United States, and it had to be scrapped because it wasn’t easily translatable to non-American audiences. Q2: Any thoughts about guarding your ideas? Eddy: It’s ultimately pointless as the idea is secondary to the application and execution. Also the ownership of anything you write on contract for a specific game will most likely belong to the studio. Nathan: It can be helpful to categorize your ideas into things you can execute yourself versus things that may require a team. Eddy: If you think it’s valuable, keep an eye on it. Or be willing to share it with someone if you find a good partner. Bill: You can also write the idea yourself and publish it on Amazon. If it gains traction, you can always license it down the road. Q3: How can you break into the industry? Eddy: There’s not one sure path. Go to industry events, network with your peers, be willing to talk to people and be social. Networking is anathema to a lot of writers, but it really does help. Bill: A lot of the ways in are through serendipity. People can’t plan their way into the future, but they can prepare for it. Have as much writing under your belt as possible so that you’re ready for opportunities when they come. Nathan: Multi-classing is important. I originally started as a level designer and was tricked into becoming a writer. Learn the ins and outs of the whole process. Try building a game or interactive novel for the Steam community. Ultimately people in the industry care if you’ve ever shipped a game, whether or not you can be composed in a meeting, if you have leadership qualities, and they want to know that you understand the process. They’ll teach you how to write for their property. Q4: What is the right balance between gameplay versus narrative? Eddy: It depends on the design of the game. Aim to inject as much fiction into the gameplay as you can. Problems occur when you’re pulled out of the gameplay into a narrative or cut scene in a jarring fashion. Uncharted 4 is a good example of finding ways to seamlessly transition from gameplay to narrative. It ultimately depends on what you’re trying to design for too. Stories are often fixed during cinematics, because it’s the one thing we can add. Nathan: Tell a story using the environment as much as possible. I try to think about what I can put where to direct the player to focus on a character / area at a specific time. Q5: What advice would you give for budding writers? Eddy: Time: if you put something away, and come back to it again after a break, you gain a fresh perspective. Print to proof: there’s a big difference between how you process things on screen versus printing them out Read it out loud. You’ll be surprised at what you catch by saying it out loud. Nathan: Read it to someone outside the genre Determine what percentage of the piece needs rewriting to determine at what point you need to completely scrap it and start over Bill When you print it out, don’t fool with the font; keep it neutral. Walk away, let the world get in the way – you’ll process it differently. Q6: How can you avoid giving offense? Eddy: Get a diverse group of people to review it before it goes out, but know that sometimes you have to stand by your convictions. Nathan: Be careful of name generating algorithms – sometimes they come up with names that may translate as racial slurs. Also, when working on a character that you may not personally relate to, go talk to someone who might and ask them how certain scenarios or dialogue come across. For the complete, collected experience of Eddy, Nathan, and Bill be sure to catch the stream of their panel on Twitch. For those interested in working on the craft of writing specifically, consider checking out the Broadleaf Writer’s Conference taking place in Atlanta in September of this year.