Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.25: Breaking Into Game Writing

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, Cassandra Khaw, Dan Wells, James L. Sutter, and Howard Tayler

So, after all this talk about designing games and writing for games, it’s time to address the big question: how does one go about getting a game-design/game-writing job?

It’s a competitive field, and there are no easy answers, but we do have some hard answers for you. And some homework…

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: You’ll probably start at the bottom. Work-for-hire means follow the marching orders, and someone else owns what you make. Put yourself out there. Cold calls, a portfolio, networking. Game jams! Snowball your career, start small and roll up into bigger gigs. Give the boss what they want. Be careful of trying to impress and ending up setting expectations that aren’t sustainable. Competent, on time, and pleasant to work with is enough. To break in, you need to be obstinent, and keep throwing yourself at the door. 

[Season 16, Episode 25]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[James] Breaking into Game Writing.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[Cassandra] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[James] I’m James.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Cassandra] I’m Cassandra.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dan] We are finally arriving at the topic that I bet a lot of our listeners have been waiting for. For seven weeks…


[Dan] We’ve been talking about how to write for games. But today, we’re going to talk about how to break into it as an industry. How to try to get paid for it. So, Cass, if someone wants to become a game writer, what do we do? Where do we start?

[Cassandra] I think setting expectations, unfortunately, is definitely where you want to start. It is a highly competitive business, regardless of the field you’re talking about, whether it’s tabletop role-playing games or video games or anything in between. So, like any other job, unless you benefit from nepotism, but that is a topic for something else, you start at the bottom. No one is going to hire you to run a new game right off the bat. Nobody wants to publish your homebrew setting. Not because they don’t necessarily believe in your abilities, but because they have an entire stable of people who have already proved themselves and have contacts to reach out to. Most of your work is, unless you end up opening your own studio, going to be work for hire. Meaning somebody else owns your creation. As such, you have to be prepared to follow those marching orders, within reason. You’re a mercenary. [Garbled plot games?] Prior to the show, we were discussing artists versus artisans. I’m curious about the analogy you’re using there.

[James] Yeah. So, this is one I often use, along with mercenary, like you said. Where I think an artist is all about sort of expressing yourself and creating the thing that is you, embodied on the page. An artisan I think of as somebody who does a job for somebody else. So when I say… I always say for game writing or any sort of tie-in work for hire, you’re building a house with words for somebody else. They tell you what they want. You build it. Then they control what happens to it afterwards. So if you build a beautiful word house and then they decide to paint it with purple polkadots and you hate that, sorry. Like, that’s not your house. Like, your fundamentally building something for someone else. I think that’s really important for people to know going in. Because it can be easy to get your heart broken if you go in thinking you own something when you really don’t. But, so, getting in again is the important part for this show. So, how do you get in, Cass?

[Cassandra] You have to put yourself out there. I know it is possibly a difficult thing to do if you’re an introvert, which I think a lot of writers are, but this is definitely one of those things that is just necessary. You have to cold call companies you love, maybe noting a few specific things that you enjoyed about their games. You have to present a portfolio. You have to have a portfolio. You should network, at least as much as you can within the boundaries of what you feel comfortable with. Cons, social media, talking to people at social media, internships, meeting devs… Dan, you have any other thoughts on this?

[Dan] Yeah. But before we leave this concept of the portfolio, how does someone build a portfolio before they get hired?

[James] I’m glad that you asked, Dan. We were definitely going to hit that.


[James] So, making your own portfolios, you kind of have to start a lot of the time by making your own stuff. So that can be writing a little one page role-playing game, it could be writing interactive fiction like a choose-your-own adventure, writing fan material for an existing game, new adventures, new rules, etc. Modding a videogame. Even just writing a short story. Anything you’ve done that’s somewhere related to the job you’re trying to do can be experience. Then you take that to companies, usually smaller companies while you’re first starting, and say, “Hey, I’ve done some stuff that’s related to this. Here’s what I can do. Do you need my skills?”

[Mary Robinette] One of the things also to keep in mind when you’re building a portfolio, regardless of the medium in which you are building it, is that portfolios are judged by the weakest piece in it. Because your best peace might be a fluke as far as they’re concerned. So whatever your weakest piece is, if you’re like, “Well, I’m including this. It’s not really good but there’s this one piece about it,” take that piece out. Take that piece out. A portfolio is only as good as your weakest piece.

[Cassandra] It all ties into something I also wanted to say. Joining game jams, at least for video games, is a really good way of building your portfolio. It gives you an understanding of working within time constraints, working within the constraints set by somebody else, and also, you’ll have people judging and commenting on your work. So if you don’t necessarily find yourself a good judge of your own abilities, game jams are a good way of outsourcing it, right? Very slightly?

[Dan] I’m not sure that I’m familiar with game jams. Can you…

[Mary Robinette] Yeah, I don’t know either.

[Dan] Talk to us about that?

[Cassandra] I keep forgetting everybody hasn’t been in the games industry… Video games industry for far too long at this point. I need a new job.


[Cassandra] So, game jams are things organized by the videogame community. I think nowadays by some of the people out of the RPG community. It’s basically people will say, “Okay, over the course of this particular weekend, we need you to make the thing that uses these two ideas.” Very often these ideas are voted upon by a community. So it could be stuff like make this a romance game. But it must in some way involve sentient cacti. Then everyone just goes to town creating them. Depending on the game jams, there are pre-events, where you can partner up with artists and programmers, other writers, and kind of fuse together into this temporary team to pull things off. It’s definitely very stressful, I will not lie. It’s something people need to watch out for, because I’ve seen folks burn out on it. But it’s very much an interesting way of approaching stuff like this.

[James] So I wanted to throw out a couple more examples of, Cass had talked about, various ways you can network and get your portfolio in front of people. We mentioned cons and social media and internships. But there are some others. There are… You can meet with the devs, by, say, interviewing them as a fan or for podcast, fan sites, the press, whatever. That can be a good way to make contacts in the industry and just get some face time and learn about how things work. I love press because you get to ask people how they do their job and learn from them and get paid for it. You can also take non-writing jobs at game companies just to be sort of around it and learn by osmosis. You need to be careful with that, because if I hire an accountant at my game company, I want an accountant, not a game designer. So you need to make sure that first and foremost, you do the job you were hired for. If you do it well, then the people in the quote unquote creative departments are going to be a lot more likely to give you a shot when they’re looking for freelancers. There’s also mentorships. Cass, you had talked about one called the Pixels?

[Cassandra] Yes. It is just, I think, a yearly thing where a number of people offer to be mentors. They organize classes and workshops. They have little talks that are hosted across the year. You can apply with the knowledge that there is a group of people embedded in the video games industry who are invested in getting you to the next stage. This is a little bit of a sidebar, but one thing I definitely want to note. If you’re breaking into game writing and you’re from a marginalized community, it is incredibly easy to see a list of requirements in a job opening and go, “No, this is not for me.” Especially in the video games industry, you will see people going, “Okay. You must have shipped at least one AAA game.” Something that is very difficult, because positions in narrative are very limited. What I’ve learned from recruiters and managers over the years is people don’t actually care about that. There are very many, many recruiters who will hire people with a good portfolio, who do not meet those credentials. As you’re breaking into it, like, keep that in mind. Like, do not be dissuaded.

[Howard] One of the things that I found in the few occasions when I’ve done work for hire for game companies for other folks is that the skill set that I built writing Schlock Mercenary and writing other things had some holes in it. I had to learn new things. I had to learn them pretty quickly. Fortunately, I’d learned that I can learn things very quickly and I know how to build a craftsmanship skill for myself. But it’s a challenge. It’s a… The learning curve is steep. While I know we already have homework for this episode, one of the things that I think will build confidence for you and going out there… Putting your name out there, somebody says, “Well, can you write multi-branched dialogue?” Well, the question… The answer you always want to be able to say, “Yes, I can.” Because I know I can learn how to do it. But you don’t say that part out loud. Over the last several months, we’ve given lots of different kinds of homework assignments in Writing Excuses. I’ve looked at a lot of them and I’ve said, “Oh, that looks tedious. I don’t want to do that.” Okay? If you want to break into writing for hire in any business, I challenge you, take the homework assignments that look tedious and you don’t want to do them, and do them anyway. So that when somebody says, “Can you do this?” Not only can you say, “Yes,” because I know I can learn how to, you might even be able to say, “Yes. That was a homework assignment on Writing Excuses and I did it three days ago.”


[Mary Robinette] Yes, but you don’t actually need to say that part out loud.


[Howard] Please don’t.

[Dan] Let’s take a minute for our game of the week, which is coming from James.

[James] Yeah. So this week I wanted to talk about a tabletop game called Dread. The reason I wanted to bring this up for this class is because it’s fairly simple. It’s something that you could make without the big team. The basic mechanic of Dread is that you use a Jenga tower. Every time you have to try and do something, the GM says, “Okay. Pull one piece.” Or pull two pieces. Or pull three. Depending on how hard you’re trying. If the Jenga tower falls, your character dies. It’s a horror game. That little mechanic is so good at creating tension, because as the game goes on, everyone’s just naturally getting more and more scared of that thing falling. So, like, that’s a very simple mechanic, that, like, is an idea that you could come up with and put… You could build a game of an idea that simple and put it online and really impress people. Similarly, the character creation system is the best I’ve seen in that it’s just a series of leading questions. So the GM will give you a bunch of questions. They’ll be things like, “Why didn’t you talk to your father before he died? What’s hidden in your sock drawer? When was the last time you cried?” So as you answer these things for your character, it’s impossible to not create a back story. So, that’s Dread. It’s a supercool indy RPG. I encourage people to check it out.

[James] So, as we’re coming out of that, talking about Indy RPG and talking about credits, while absolutely you should be applying at the big companies, it’s also really important to be looking at the smaller companies and seeing what companies are doing good work, because you’re going to have a lot easier time getting in there. Then, I always think of like Katamari Damacy or the sort of what I call the snowball theory of career, which is you get credits whatever you can, and then you roll them up into larger and larger gigs. So maybe you start putting out a little thing on your own, and then you use that to get in with a small RPG company, and then use that to get into the next larger one and so forth.

[Cassandra] But I think, universally speaking, impressing bosses, the process is pretty much exactly the same. You should give whoever hires you, whether they’re from a small company or a large one, precisely what they want. You want to hit your word count, not more, not less. You absolutely want to hit your deadlines. If you can’t, you should always be transparent about your inability and give people enough time to create a buffer in case something comes up.

[Mary Robinette] But, speaking of buffers, this is a piece of general life advice to people. One of the things that people will do when they want to impress bosses is that you will do 110% that first couple of months. The problem is that they assume that that is your normal.


[Mary Robinette] And you will then have to do that level of work all the time. If you… If they add more to it and you succeed at that, that is what they think is your normal. So you actually want to build a buffer in for yourself. A piece of advice that I heard very recently was to come in and plan on giving 80%. So that the times when you actually have to do extra, that reserve tank is there and that you can bring that. But the other is not sustainable. I’ve spent my entire life building it to create crises because I work best in a crisis. But that also means that I have big burnout periods.

[Dan] Yeah. I saw somebody on Twitter the other day… Maybe this was something you had linked to, Mary Robinette, but they said their therapist had told them that if you always do your best, it’s not your best anymore, it’s your average.


[Dan] That can be such an easy trap to fall into. Especially for an employee or a freelancer.

[James] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So, when you… I’m not saying, like, to deliberately slack off. But think about how you work best, and do that. But don’t… Remember that whatever expectations you set at the beginning are the expectations that you have to live up to for the rest of your time there.

[James] Yeah. I would say, as somebody who has spent a decade… Oh, to say, as somebody who’s spent a decade hiring authors, one of the easiest things you can do to really stand out is just match their existing material. Do that thing we were talking about before, where, identifying their formatting, the language they use, the way the game is written. If you can copy those specific style elements for the game when you’re writing for it… If what you can give them looks as close as possible to what an in-house generated document looks like, you’re going to make it easier for them. You’re also going to make it seem like you are already on the team. It makes it a lot easier to hire somebody if you can tell that they’re going to be able to jump right in with very little on boarding.

[Mary Robinette] Cass, what were you going to say?

[Cassandra] I was going to say capitalism has definitely created a very toxic work environment in general across all the industries. What you mentioned earlier about not giving your 100%, but instead something that is comfortable with a buffer to grow into if you need to crunch. Like, that is really good advice, and that is advice that I think a lot of companies are trying to push under the carpet. Because they want to pressure everyone to go as hard as possible, churn them out and get the next new hire who is willing to work for a lot less then you might have once you’ve realized your importance and role in that company. Which I think is an oddly depressing point to bring up in an episode about breaking into the game industry and writing industry.

[Mary Robinette] Actually, but I will say… Yeah. I will say something from having hired people, from talking to my husband who works in winemaking, to talking to a contractor, to talking to editors. If you are competent and show up on time and are pleasant to work with, you are… That’s basically all people want.


[Dan] Yeah. It’s like what James just said about making things easy on the hiring person, making things easy on the manager. It’s not that you have to give 110%, you just have to hit your word count, hit your deadline, make their job easy, and then they’re going to hire you for the next project.

[James] Yeah. That was… my very first editor, when I started out in journalism, told me, “Oh, James, you’re one of my favorite writers.” I went, “Oh, thank you. Like, what is it about it that speaks to you?” He goes, “You’re always on time and you’re always on word count.” I said, “Oh. What about the writing itself?” He went, “Oh, it’s fine.”


[James] But he kept hiring me.

[Dan] Yup.

[Howard] I… When I was drawing the Munchkin Starfinder stuff, there was a big piece I was doing and I had given one of the very small characters a very large wrench for comedy value. There was this approval process. It kept coming back. The guy at Paizo, I don’t know his name…

[James] Probably best not to say.


[Howard] You know what, it’s fine. It might’ve been a Mike, it might have been a Matt. It began with an M, I think.

[James] It was probably Mark Moreland. Sorry, Mark.

[Howard] It had two M’s in it. That’s fine. But what came back was “make the wrench smaller.” Okay. So I did a quick erase, redraw, made the wrench smaller. Came back again. “Make the wrench smaller,” again. At which point I stopped and I talked to the art director and I said, “I could be wrong, but I think what Mark means is I hate the whole idea of the small character with the large prop, and I don’t want it in the piece. So what I’m going to do for this next fix is I’m going to give the character a flamethrower instead so that it fills the visual space. Let me know if Mark’s okay with that?” Now I’m saying it’s Mark, because it must’ve been. What came back around was, “Oh, that’s perfect, he loves it.” I share that with you because giving the bosses what they want depends entirely on a suite of communications skills that involves you knowing what the boss wants even when sometimes the boss doesn’t. That’s hard to navigate.

[Mary Robinette] Well… Also, it involves asking questions.


[Mary Robinette] Like, never be afraid to ask a question when you don’t understand the parameters.

[James] I want to just… To end on an inspiring note, because it can be so intimidating to think, “Oh, well, these people got in. They’ve always been in the game industry.” I would just love to know, like, Cass, how did you break in?

[Cassandra] Oh. To the game industry, specifically, in terms of development? My first big role was because I would not shut up. I was working PR at a convention, and I met someone who worked at Excel. I ran up to him, like, “Oh, my God. Did you work on the original [garbled planet escape car?]?” He was like, “Yeah.” I was like, “I want to work in your company.” He was like, “I’m just a writer. What do you want me to do?” I’m like, “I don’t know. Here is my portfolio. If there’s ever an opening that you think is appropriate, please let me know.” We kept that up for about four years before I got hired. It was just constantly me just jumping up and going, “Hi! Please?” So, blind obstinence. That’s how I got in.

[James] I think…


[James] I think that’s really important for people to hear, because, like, that is the message. It is just throwing yourself at it. I got in the same way. Where I wanted to work on Amazing Stories magazine, which was run by the same people who did Dungeons & Dragons. They were hiring for an editor-in-chief. So I emailed the CEO of the company and said, “I am totally unqualified for that job, but I have this portfolio of journalism. Is there anything at your company that I might be useful for?” She brought me in and started me out working on their website, finding JPEG’s for a nickel a JPEG, which was very far from being a magazine editor, but it got me in the door. So don’t be afraid to just throw yourself at the door.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I got in because I… A friend of mine had been asked to write loading screens. He does not write short, at all. It’s not Brandon, it’s someone else.


[Mary Robinette] But he knew that I wrote short and that I wrote fast and introduced me to them. So I wrote these loading screens. I could get the word count that they needed and I would turn it in on time and I had no problems with multiple iterations. Then they hired me again to do something else, because I had turned things in on time. That’s basically… I came in from the side, but it was because I had honed a set of skills in a different area, and then turned up on time and hit word count.

[James] Yeah. Perfect.

[Howard] Dan, you want to go next?

[Dan] Yeah. I’m actually relatively new in the games industry. I have written a bunch of tie in fiction in the past. But about two years ago, I started getting approached by game companies. That’s just because I started producing two different web series. We do Typecast, which is the Twitch show that Howard and I and a bunch of other authors do where we play games online and I’m the game master. Then, I also do a weekly YouTube series of role-playing game reviews. So it is… I was not actually, at the time, seeking out employment writing games. But raised enough eyebrows… Or got onto enough people’s radar because of all the web stuff I was doing related to gaming that I was contacted by people at cons and stuff. So that’s where it came from me. But that’s after 12 years of writing books. So…

[Howard] So, about 12 years ago, I’ve been making Schlock Mercenary for eight years. I was at a convention in the green room with Tracy Hickman who was pitching this idea for this book he wanted to write called Extreme Dungeon Mastery. He couldn’t find a publisher for it. I told him, “Well, here’s a Schlock Mercenary book. We self publish these. You should totally self publish things.” What he heard, apparently, was, “I would like to publish your book, and can I draw the pictures for it?”


[Howard] He came back to me and said basically that, and said, “Oh, and can we have it by GenCon?” I did the math and realized… Sandra and I both… We had this discussion. “Tracy, you’re asking us to turn around a 160 page role-playing supplement in 12 weeks.” He said, “Yeah, can you do it?” I’m like, “I really don’t think we can do it, that’s too fast. So, no.” Then he came back to us three weeks later and said, “But I really want to do it. Can you do it?” I said, “Well, now it’s nine weeks. So obviously, the answer is yes.”


[James] That’s the story of the game industry.

[Howard] I broke in by doing something way too fast. Sandra was brilliant in assembling all of this. She contacted our friend, Stacy Whitman, to help with the copyediting. We ended up putting a team together to publish a Tracy Hickman book at GenCon. Then I ended up at GenCon, and coming back to what Cassandra has said, at that point I was now networking with games people instead of with comics people, and other opportunities began presenting themselves.

[Dan] Howard, is Extreme Dungeon Mastery still available?

[Howard] I think we might be out of print of the hardbacks. I need to talk to Sandra. I’ll post something in the liner notes about whether or not it’s still a thing.

[Dan] Okay. Cool. Mary Robinette, what were you going to say?

[Mary Robinette] I was going to say, by interesting coincidence, next week we will be talking about teams. I think that we should probably wrap this episode up and go to homework, so that we can talk about teams next week.

[James] Yeah.

[Dan] Agreed.

[Cassandra] Your homework this week is to brainstorm something short you can make to showcase your skills. It could even be the homework from a previous lesson. Then make that thing and post it online for free.

[Dan] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.