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  • Notes From A Game Writer: Indie To AAA

    - Danny Homan

  • Kickstarting a Game Writing Career

    I tracked tons of indie projects before eventually reaching out to a Mexican developer making a retro Zelda II throwback called Elliot Quest. Basically, I asked him if he needed help writing the story, and ended up helping him run a small but successful Kickstarter. In the meantime, I also jumped on a few other indie games. Of them, Elliot Quest was the only one to get a publisher and came out on most modern game platforms, including most recently the Nintendo Switch.

    Elliot Quest

    While I was working on Elliot Quest, I started taking notes on the games I was playing, analyzing story, character development, pacing, and what narrative tools the writers had at their disposal. I also began reading game design books like: Theory of Fun and The Art of Game Design.

    As Elliot Quest's development was wrapping up, I finally found a few video game writing jobs and applied to all of them. I received plenty of rejections, most of the time in the form of never hearing anything back. This is part of the entertainment industry, and certainly videogames. Competition is stiff. Getting noticed is a combination of hard work, who you know, and luck.  For a select few studios I got a writing test, and of those I interviewed with one or two companies. But no job offers.

    I didn't know many people in the game industry, other than a handful of indie developers. I had two indie game credits to my name. If I had to guess why my materials got noticed, it'd be that I wrote speculative scripts based on mainstream, popular games like Telltale's The Walking Dead and Mass Effect. Although I've never written fan fiction, a spec script can be a powerful tool to demonstrate to potential employers that you can write in a particular voice or genre:

    Never underestimate the power of a spec script.

    Multitasking My Way to AAA

    Armed with spec scripts, I got my first mid-sized studio job, a six-month contract working for Trendy Entertainment. My employment started right after some upheaval at the studio, after which I joined a pre-production team for Dungeon Defenders 2. I wrote a lot of lore and world-building documents, as well as character bios.

    My Walking Dead Game

    In 2013 I saw that the University of Texas at Austin was starting a video game fellowship, the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy: Free tuition and a living stipend, and directed by Warren Spector. There were only twenty spots, and I figured that a video game writer didn't have a chance in hell of getting in. But I did.

    Although I never took a coding class in college, I knew that having a more diverse skillset would both make me more attractive to potential employers as well as give me a better insight into how games are made - which would translate into my ability to write better video game stories. I took all the basic courses in code academy, and also began to (slowly) learn a game engine, Unity. Later, I'd use Unity to build interactive games (Telltale-Lite) but more interactive than, say, a Twine game. 

    Anyhow, I also learned basic level design in Unity and completed as many tutorials as I could. Armed with my spec scripts, I applied to the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy and, to my surprise, got an interview. When I was speaking to Warren Spector, the inevitable question came up. What would I do if the game we decided to make didn't need a story? Due to my work in Unity, I was able to say that I could jump onto level design or potentially even audio (I play guitar and piano, and have sub-par editing skills). I got in.

    The Denius-Sams Gaming Academy is no more, and I killed it. Kidding. Unfortunately, the program only lasted two years, and I was in the first of two classes. Really, that the program isn't around is a shame, because in a short nine months, so much video game wisdom was crammed in my head, not just by the program's faculty (Warren Spector, Joshua Howard, and David Cohen) but also a myriad of veteran game developers who came to speak: Richard Garriot, David Bettner, Max Hoberman, and a host of other veteran developers

    Nearing the end of the fellowship, the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy hosted a job fair, and Gearbox was one of the participating studios. Write for Gearbox, the studio who made Borderlands? Yeah, I'm in.


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