Good writers make better game designers

Poor, poor Adam Maxwell.  He’s a game designer who also writes.  Adam bravely went forward to make a few statements on Gamasutra about the role of writers in the game industry.  Unfortunately, he tripped over his own words, causing anger and dismay for many.  One designer who told me he doesn’t care for game story e-mailed me after reading his article, saying, “That’s not what I meant!” If you read Adam’s missive closely, he’s really expressing frustration with game writing as well as demonstrating a misunderstanding of what good writers can do.  I’ll do my best to underline what he is really trying to say and what it means for any developer working with writers and writing. 

“Writers tend to make better designers.”
Thanks!  That’s so sweet of you.  In the interest of full disclosure, Writers Cabal offers game and content design services as well as game writing services.  We are that enviable hyphenate “writer/designers.”

“Being a writer doesn’t automatically make one a game designer.” “The work of the writer is inherently linear – the work of the designer is typically not.”
Translation: “I’m frustrated that so many game writers don’t get games or don’t get interactivity.”
Very true.  It’s important when hiring a writer to find one who gets the medium.  On top of that, do what you can to help the writer you hire “get” your game.  If you hire the right writer, you will hire someone who, as writer/designer, designs the story into the gameplay.  As writer, s/he will write a story that won’t hogtie the player by giving the player non-trivial choice

“Is any of that [characters, emotion] necessary to make a good game? Sadly, the answer is no.”
Translation: “While I’m frustrated that efforts to put in great story and characters have met with relatively little success, that’s all writers have to offer.  Unfortunately, it seems like no one in the industry wants to make great games.”
Certainly, you can make a good computer game without writers, without composers, and without artists.  Let me point you to one right now:  I suspect the reason Adam has singled out writing is because he has tried to put in better story and character and met with little success.  Auto Assault anyone? 

Adam seems to misunderstand the writer’s role.  The best writers don’t just throw some story and dialog over the wall and go home.  Games create emotion — you can’t escape that.  The developer’s job is to identify what emotion the game should elicit, then use every tool at his/her disposal to get there.  If you want the player to feel heroic, you can design it in, draw it in, write it in, sing it in, or all of the above.  This is what great writer/narrative designers can do: help you create this emotion across all disciplines.  After all, are you in this industry to make okay games, or to make great games?

“I would rather have another designer than a writer.”
Translation: “I would rather have a co-worker that has more than one skill.”
I agree, as do many developers.  People love artists who can program, designers who can build, and programmers who can use more than one language. 

“I met with our writer [. . .] it was also a 3-4 hour event [. . .] During that time, I was not balancing weapons [etc. . . .] which was what my job description actually called for.” 
Translation: “I don’t like managing writers, but I don’t actually want to write the script myself because I’d rather balance weapons.”
Remember the top five excuses for not hiring a writer?  If there had been no writer, poor Adam would not have had time to balance even one weapon, since he would have spent all his time getting the script ready.  Hiring a writer allows designers, programmers, producers to focus on what they do best.  Professional writers save time by working faster than someone for whom writing is not a main skill. 

Managing outsourced writers can be a challenge, which is why we keep this blog.  There are plenty of ways to streamline the process, including hiring the kind of narrative designer who interfaces with writers, much like an art outsourcing manager.

“What do you do with the writer when the story is done?”
Translation: I live in a fantasy world where games aren’t an iterative process.
Okay, now I’m just being mean 😉
Translation: “I’m not a producer and don’t realize that this question plagues developers with regards to any employee, from writer and QA to core designers.”
This industry is inherently volatile — when a game project ends, not every company is equipped to keep everyone on staff.  Hiring writers on contract is a good option.  Hiring writer/designers on staff is another.  A good producer or product manager will decide what works best.

Now that I’ve translated Adam’s thoughts, I have to agree with him on many points.  Yes, a writer with a designer mentality who “gets” games is better than one who doesn’t.  Yes, it can be frustrating that more developers aren’t striving to create great games that appeal to all kinds of players.  Yes, finding the right staff and outsourcing partners for your game project can be challenging.  Fortunately, Adam and developers like him are not alone.  You have us!

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Published in: on March 20, 2008 at 1:50 pm  Comments (24)  

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24 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Good stuff. I read Adam’s opinion on GSW earlier today, and the first thing I thought was your blog, and if/when/how you would respond. My reaction was quite similar and I’m glad you took the time to put it in such convincing words. Of course, being writers, I expect no less from you…

  2. Thanks for the kind words! Your check is in the mail 😉


  3. Adam’s argument more or less boils down to a claim that primary resources – a staff member – are better spent on extra design than extra narrative. He seems to be saying that a designer can do a better second-job of writing than a writer can of doing a second-job designing, despite the claim he makes at the beginning that you’ve turned into your post title.

    It came across as a bit of an I-just-had-a-horrible-project-experience rant than a real argument, to be honest.

    The recurring theme on this blog is more or less the same thing: that most studios don’t need a full-time writer, but that they get all the benefits of strong narrative content without the (perceived) drawbacks of having a full-time staff writer, if they hire freelancers with interactive experience (you are trying to sell a service, after all).

    You have made posts in the past about how valuable it can be to have narrative design integrated into the very earliest stages of a project. Don’t you think that this is antithetical to the idea that a studio’s writing interests are best served by specialist freelancers?

    Anyone else find that small comment boxes are not conducive for organizing your thoughts? 😦

  4. Hi, came across your blog while researching the ION Conference. Great concept for a site, lots of useful info, and you’ve clearly done well for yourself.

    Question: Shouldn’t it be Writers’ Cabal, with an apostrophe? Lynne Truss would flip her wig if she saw this.

    – Jala, “The Glorious Duck of Correct Apostrophe Usage”

  5. P.S. to Graeme: If you use Firefox, I highly recommend the Resizeable Textarea add-on. I think there’s something like it for Safari as well. Small comment boxes were yesterday! 😀

  6. Graeme,

    Certainly, if a studio has need for a full-time writer, then it would be more practical to hire a writer to be on staff. An example would be the content team for a MMO. Content has to be constantly generated.

    For other game development studios, this is not necessarily the case. Outsourcing, whether it is for writing, art, programming, design, or music, has been a solution.

    – Sande

  7. Hi Graeme!

    We actually support developers making the choice that works best for them when working with writers, whether that means hiring a writer only or a writer/designer. We’re here to help you figure that out. Since we’re writer/designers who’ve worked both on contract and on staff, we know the benefits and drawbacks of both. I’ve also worked on-staff with an outsourced writer and know the challenges developers face.

    We’re an innovative industry, and there are tons of ways to use writers and writer/designers both on staff and off. I referred to the type of narrative designers in this post who serve, in a way, as an outsourcing manager. I know examples of bringing a contract writer in early with the on-staff narrative designer shepherding the writer’s vision through the design process. I posted recently about when to bring writers in on your game — both early and late, depending on your production needs.

    Feel free to poke around the blog some more and offer up your thoughts!


  8. Having talked with Adam during the project in question that he was frustrated with, I know why he might have flustered his words. He was focusing more on the frustration he felt at the time than the underlying problem that plagues the game industry.

    The fact is, a game designer who also writes will always write a better story for games than a writer who has never designed a game. That is why Adam would prefer to hire another designer than hire a game writer. Yes, one of those designers would likely spend 90% of their time on the story, but the end product would be far superior than a “Professional” hollywood style writer (which is what was hired for that project by the way) coming in for 2 months, quickly looking at the game in its current state, dumping a script on them, and then leaving the project, never to be heard from again.

    To write for a game is to be there through the whole process and every change. Compensating for losses of levels, characters and or huge shifts in gameplay. A “Professional” writer who has a limited time contract can never do that as well as a designer/writer who is there the entire time.

    Until “Professional” writer’s contracts are bound to the life of the game project, it’s just a poor decision for a game company to hire one unless they’ve planned the project to work around that writer’s time.

  9. As a game writer, I have always been through iterative cycles whereupon features are added, levels are cut, characters are cut, gameplay elements are cut, etc. It really is dependent on the company who’s hiring to know how to handle outsourcing. This isn’t about writing services, because the same issues occur with outsourcing art or cinematics, sound design, music, and programming. We work very closely with designers, staff writers, or producers.

    I’ve worked on contract as a game writer where I had a cubicle across from the artist and next to the programmer. Whether you’re a temp, independent contractor, or full-time employee shouldn’t make a difference if you are embedded with the team and participating in the design process.

    But in this modern age, a lot of studios are virtual or have teams overseas. Learning how to manage remote workers is a skill. Done properly, you can get a lot of value.

    If you hire a designer who works 90% on the story, then essentially, you are hiring a Lead Writer, Story Designer, Narrative Designer, or Content Designer. There are all titles in this industry given to people who call themselves game writers and are part of the IGDA Writers SIG.

    Your definition of a “professional” writer is very off-base for the majority of people who work as professional game writers in the industry. The reason why many game writers work free-lance is because traditionally, game companies did not hire full-time game writers.

    Moreover, I don’t see why you would value (other than the cost savings) an amateur or hobbyist writer over a trained writer. If you could have a designer that could program, produce decent art, and compose music, then sure, there’s a cost savings. But this industry is more and more specialized (think AI Programmer, Network Programmer, Tools Programmer, Audio Programmer…) rather than generalized, especially when there’s a big budget to a game.

    Having seen a Lead Programmer try to be the Producer at the same time, it’s very frustrating for an employee to do two jobs and not get paid for two jobs — Moreover, that person doesn’t have time to do either of those jobs very well.


    • Woot, I will cetlniary put this to good use!

  10. An amateur or hobbyist writer? You’ve definitely mistaken my meaning. I am a proponent of a game company hiring a full time salaried writer on staff just as they hire everyone else who works on the team.

    It makes absolutely no sense to outsource one of the most important parts of the game, the writing. You outsource little things that don’t matter in the overall tapestry of the game, like tiny art assets or background dialogue for NPCs. You would never outsource core gameplay design docs or the main character’s art. That’s just stupidity. It’s just as stupid as outsourcing the core writing and story for a game.

    As a writer/designer myself, I know the importance of being on the project and being part of the team from the get go. Subtleties that I can see will never be caught by a contract writer who comes in months down the road to write a script and then disappear. The sad part is that I will always be hired for my game design background and never my writing background because the game industry in general doesn’t seem to understand that writing can be just as important as art, programming and game design in the overall product.

    The real frustration comes from people who think they can write within the game industry, and because of my design background, they assume my writing is sub-par even if it is excellent. They also think they can do better but often write horribly. Perhaps the problem is because writing is somewhat subjective and everyone tends to read their own writing in their head much better than it actually sounds to a normal person.

    Whatever the case, because all these game developers believe that they can write well, they often try to micromanage that aspect of game development. When it’s finally pointed out that their writing is crap by the person who controls the flow of money, that is when panic sets in and a “Professional” writer is brought into the picture. At least then none of the wannabe writers can complain since it’s out of everyone’s hands on the team, but at the same time, the good writer on the team is now locked out from something they excelled at and would have done better than the “professional” who was just hired (at great expense).

    What needs to happen is for game developers to hire a permanent writer on staff such that there’s one person who has final say over what is good writing for the game. Until that happens the industry will be plagued with the locusts of “Professional” writers and the games will suffer for it.

    -Commander Hate

  11. Then I believe we agree on a number of points.

    I agree that if story is an integral part of your game, then the studio ought to start thinking about the story earlier rather than later. Oftentimes, there is a person on staff, a writer, content designer, or narrative designer, that works with game designers and may or may not outsource parts of the writing.

    Situations in which the writer is brought in late is not optimal, IMO, unless it’s for small things like barks. Of course it still happens. And sure, it could be that somebody on staff was doing the writing previously. It might be that the person is needed to be a producer, or artist, or whatever, to basically do the job the person was hired for. If you’re out of resources and in a pinch, outsourcing becomes a good solution.

    However, it’s not true that contract game writers are always brought in late. Sometimes, they are there from the beginning of the project to the end. It’s really up to the company.

    – Sande

  12. I doubt any of my two cents will be as insightful as this article! You were right on the money!

    I think that maybe Mr Maxwell was referring to a very specific kind of writer, the one that is brought in the end of the production cycle and has no interest or experience with games, and somehow managed to generalize it enough to anger an entire SIG.

    Thank you very much for visiting my page, btw. I can’t believe I never heard of this place before! I’ll be sure to visit often! 🙂

    You chose a very elegant theme too, if I may say so. 😀

  13. […] you in this industry to make okay games, or to make great games?” asks Anne Toole. Most game developers, including the recently defunct Iron Lore Entertainment (Titan Quest), would […]

  14. In response to your comment on my blog:

    To be honest, I didn’t put too much thought into what motivated Adam Maxwell, rather I thought about my own reactions to his text and what I would want to say to someone else who had also read his text but hadn’t shared my – albeit relatively slim – experiences. No, I don’t think he dislikes story in games but that’s what he comes off sounding like.

    But to address your translation;

    I do agree that Maxwell seems to talk about traditional, linear storytelling rather than writing in general and that he’s right that no, a game writer can’t think in linear terms and it’s a problem when they do. I’m not so sure you’re right in him being “frustrated that efforts to put in great story and characters have met with relatively little success”, though, I get the feeling he’s decided to go with the program (or at least, what he perceives it to be) and his frustration is with the ones who haven’t made the same decision. But maybe I’m just not getting a sarcastic tone in his rant or something.

    Both you and the IGDA Game Writers SIG have pointed out that he singles out writers and attacks them for reasons that could be applied to anyone, I wholly agree and think this applies to the “meeting” point as well as all of his other points. Being a programmer I’m not too fond of having to sit in meetings to find out how the designers want the engine to work, but on the other hand I wouldn’t want to design the levels myself. Maybe the modelers feel that time spent with the concept artists is a waste since they could be modeling (though I sure hope they don’t).

    … Sorry about the rant =/

  15. What a surprise that this topic of all things should turn into an extended comment dialogue!

    The crux of the matter, in both Señor Hate and Adam Maxwell’s comments, seems to me to be a narrow understanding of the word “professional”, and this unfortunate set error:

    “The fact is, a game designer who also writes will always write a better story for games than a writer who has never designed a game. That is why Adam would prefer to hire another designer than hire a game writer.”

    The first sentence is something I agree with, though it’s by no means a universal. Interactive narrative is a skill unto itself. However, why the assumption that a ‘game writer’ would have no experience of writing for games? Or that a ‘professional’ writer could not possibly have that experience?

    Unpacking that seems to leave me with the claim that you’d rather hire someone with relevant experience than someone with only seemingly relevant experience… which, while true, hardly warrants debate!

    Jalapeno: top-shelf extension, cheers for that!

  16. […] writer horror stories The recent flap over the merits of hiring game writers has been educational.  I’ve learned that many, many people believe in the power of […]

  17. […] Good Writers Make Better Game Designers […]

  18. […] In the last post, I warned about going on a writer’s reputation only. Sure, Sally may have a writing credit on 2008’s bestselling game, but did she actually write anything that ended up in-game? If you’re approaching Joe, the television writer, the stakes are even higher, because he might not even “get” interactive storytelling. […]

  19. […] as well as designs aspects of the game. Considers him/herself the salt of the Earth, but probably looks down on mere writers (just kidding. mostly) Known for: Putting first whichever word will more likely get him/her the […]

  20. […] good and fun. Many designers and gamers will say that story doesn’t matter.  Others will say writers don’t have much of a place in game development, although more and more writers are being hired on staff.  Some developers will insist that […]

  21. […] Richard Dansky, Drew Davidson, and Elisabeth Nonas addressing last year’s hullabaloo on how game writers don’t belong in the game industry.  We’ll also be discussing narrative design and writing for ARGs and non-AAA […]

  22. […] Good writers make better game designers […]

  23. Only a short note to say thanks for the gamer update,
    that was exactly what I was searching for!

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