More journalists and fiction writers are shifting to writing videogames

Friday, 19 November 2010 16:39 GMT By Stephany Nunneley


Whether it is the economy, the lack of folks buying books, or the demise of so many newspapers and magazines, many people whose livelihood depends on their ability to wield the pen are switching to writing for videogames instead of continuing to pursue a more literary route.

According to many different writers whom Dan Duray of the Observer spoke with, who really wants to write a novel when “everybody plays videogames”?

With games being a $40 billion-a-year industry, more journalists and fiction writers are defecting to the interactive due to either “money, a passion for the medium or a combination of both”.

“I’d been a journalist for 14 years,” N’Gai Croal told Duray. “I had accomplished most of what I’d wanted to accomplish. I wrote cover stories, I’d written lots of features, I had this blog, I’d been on TV. It felt like there were structural changes affecting journalism, and going to another outlet would be a bit like same shit, different day. I felt like it was time to do something different; it was time to not be a journalist. The main thing to consider was, did I want to try to write games?”

Croal, who left Newsweek in the not-so-distant past, went on to form a consulting company called Hit Detection which “offers guidance to developers, from story design to level sequence to music, with an emphasis on offering critiques early enough in the process that major changes can be made”.

Rhianna Pratchett, another example of journalist defecting to games, entered the games gig in the early 2000s, and has written the games Mirror’s Edge, Dungeon Hero, Overlord, and Risen among others.

“What I found on the other side was that I’d never really understood how hard it was to get any kind of coherent story into a game, let alone a good one,” she said.

Novelist and Tomb Raider writer Austin Grossman backs up Prachett’s point when he said “the games industry, both creatively and economically, is not sure how to deal with writers”.

“For a lot of companies, it’s not worthwhile to keep a writer on staff, so they strictly hire freelancers,” said Grossman, “and they don’t actually know who to hire, so it’s totally slapdash. Culturally, they don’t have the right person’s phone number.”

Still, game writing doesn’t pay what you would think. Yet, it pays really well.

“Game writing pays less than Hollywood writing. A lot less,” said Croal. “If you want a Frank Darabont, for instance, you need to pay Frank Darabont’s quote or you don’t get him. But the flip side is, if you can’t afford it, than maybe he’s not the best one suited and maybe you want someone who knows games better, maybe isn’t as big a name, but can deliver you 60 percent to 70 percent of what Darabont brings to the table in terms of dialogue and structure.”

Scriptwriters for a game a few years back could earn as much as $100,000 for the dialogue, but today that sum hits around the  $20,000 to $10,000 range. Consulting jobs pay slightly below that, but for people who depend on writing for living and enjoy games, it’s a financial viable field for “prose writers of the non-Hollywood variety”.

Folks like Valve’s Marc Laidlaw see games as “closer to novels than movies anyway”.

“I still read to look at how much better games need to be,” said Laidlaw, a novelist himself. “My models are still the really good writers, wanting that kind of level of storytelling that you’d find in a really good novel. Not movies so much. I think you learn a lot about writing dialogue and stuff from movies, but games just compare more closely to novels, I think because you immerse yourself in them and they take up a big part of your life for a very long time.”

Most of Valve’s writing  is done in-house and it has employed two journalists and a comedy writer, but Laidlaw was the first writer at Valve hired in 1997 after doing temp jobs, freelance journalism and genre fiction himself making him probably one of the first examples of the switch to videogames.

The trend is likely to continue as well. If you consider the internet as the main killer of print – what with it’s constant up-to-date news, in-your-face blogs, fan fiction sites, and pirated books and free to read literature – it shouldn’t surprise anyone if their favorite author, journalist, or blogger even eventually moves on to write videogame stories and dialogue. You have to make a living somehow, and if they are also passionate about the medium, there’s really nothing wrong with it at all.