Writing Games.

So it’s Dragonmeet this weekend, a one day gaming convention in London and there are going to be loads of representatives of the board gaming and table-top RPG industry there as well as artists and writers. So today I’m going to share a little of my experience in writing for games and how to approach these kind of projects and work alongside other writers to create deep and engaging settings and situations for the audience.

I have been lucky enough to work on several games by a couple of different groups and have worked independently of and in concert with other writers on a couple of genres in a number of settings but what I’m about to share with you are the central lessons that I have learned when writing for games.

The first thing you have to remember when working on these kind of projects is that this intellectual property doesn’t belong to you. This becomes important later on but it is something you have to keep in mind the whole way through. However, just because it’s not ‘your world’ doesn’t mean you should do any less than your best during the creative process.

So, once you’re taken on board you should receive a guideline document from the project coordinator telling you about the style and layout that’s expected of you. Read it. If you’re writing for an established name in the industry or even a new company just starting out then they have, or are building, a recognizable style that their readers, their customers have come to identify with their brand. It’s also important for the final editors who don’t want to spend ages re-formatting submitted pieces to fit into the boundaries of the finished piece. You should always conform to the submissions guidelines as with any publisher or agent because it helps to build a reputation as someone who is easy to work with and follows their rules.

If you’re writing for an existing/ongoing game it is essential to have a good knowledge of that setting and the rules system you are writing for even if you are just writing settings or even vignettes it is important to be able to look at a scene and see how it would translate into gameplay. In fact the vignettes are often examples of story-telling within the system and used to explain specific rules so the short story needs to be engaging, entertaining and conform to the rules system. If you’re brought onboard for an existing system you’ll likely have at least a little background knowledge of it (usually at least a small criteria for the selection process) but, if you don’t, you should be given access to existing publications to familiarize yourself with the setting and rules.

Writing settings is different to writing stories but very much like world building. It’s essentially exposition intended to help the game-runner or GM build a story within the game world and there will be a word count limit and structure to how to go about it. Like exposition it cannot be ‘dry’ it still has to grab the reader and submerse them in the world they are reading about. In settings writing it’s more important than ever to avoid passive prose and keep your language active. The reader wants to be drawn into the world and we (as writers) are, in these instances, serving a customer and their audience so it is our job to do just that. That said, don’t be afraid to have fun with it (within the bounds of the Guideline docs) the reason you’ve been approached is to bring fresh eyes and and new perspective so it’s an opportunity to show what you can do.

Often these projects will engage a group of writers to contribute to the finished piece. Sometimes you’ll be working independently and sometimes collaboratively but it’s likely that there will be a shared workspace (either IRL or online) for asking questions related to the project or sharing ideas and suggestions. This is invaluable for new writers as some of the people involved will have prior experience and a deeper knowledge of the game world. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be afraid to seek suggestions if you’re struggling. I made a habit of working online in G.docs and sharing a link so the other writers on the team could drop in and look at my pieces and I wasn’t the only one. It is very important to engage with your team and I cannot stress this enough. Don’t scurry off into your workspace to ‘do your bit’ in isolation (especially if a number of you are working on a shared section or chapter), be involved, be active, the project will benefit and, again, prove you are someone who is not only easy to work with but takes an active interest in the success of the project.

Once the draft is done and submitted it’s time for the Redlines process where the project coordinator goes through the drafts and offers feedback on the material. You remember when I told you to remember that it ‘wasn’t your world’? Well this is where that becomes important. It’s very unlikely that your first draft gets through without suggestions for change so don’t be surprised and, more importantly, don’t be defensive or resistant. You’re working on contract, your piece has to fit their specs. Your project leader shouldn’t just highlight the bits that need changing though, there should be positive feedback in their as well highlighting the parts the PL really liked. So, read the feedback, think about it and make those changes. There should also be suggestions for how to go about it so you don’t have to rewrite cold.

Personally I really enjoyed my contract work experiences and look forward to being involved in more projects in future. Seeing how other writers approach a broad theme is a wonderful thing and I’m certain the experience helped me grow as a writer and push the boundaries of material I can write. Game writing is certainly a different beast from narrative or novels but shares enough similarities so as to make any fantasist or story-teller a candidate for contribution. Currently I’m actively looking for opportunities and may try my luck in the worlds of video games in the coming year.

I’ll probably wrap-up the blog for December (so maybe one or two more entries this year) and see you all sometime in January. Happy Holidays.

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