I’ve been asked: you got to work for [client]! How did you manage that?
The answer is: I spent seven years building a games studio with a reputation for interactive writing. This isn’t a route available to most people, so it sounds glib to say it.
Another answer is to talk about the criteria that I used to hire writers when I was running Failbetter. That’s of some, but limited, use, because Failbetter was an unusual sort of studio with some unusual requirements.
There are a couple of guides I used to link to, but they’re badly out of date now.
Fortunately, Ian Thomas of Talespinners has written a long, practical piece on how to get started. Talespinners do good freelance work, and have built their reputation the hard way.
If you want to get into games writing, I recommend Ian’s piece. I have some additional observations below. But go read it first, or they won’t make sense.
1. Read and play widely
Ian’s #1 piece of advice is to read. This is essential. If you’re not already doing that, honestly I don’t know why you’d want or expect to be a writer. So let me emphasise the part where he suggests you read widely: but not just in form, also in content.
A lot of people in games have very similar cultural reference points, especially now geek culture has eaten the world. If you are reading the same things as everyone, you will have less distinctiveness to bring to the table. You don’t have to read exclusively canon-approved literature- in fact you shouldn’t read exclusively canon-approved literature. But whatever your comfort zone is, make time to go outside it.
Same goes for playing. If you play only the games made by the company you want to work for, you’ll end up producing a second-rate pastiche of their output. Go exploring.
2. Do visible work.
“The tools are out there for you to make your own games. To create them, and publish them, without any input from anyone else…”
Yup. Make sure you finish it, make sure you put it on the web, make sure you talk about it. Don’t be embarrassed about trying to make money from it (and don’t expect to make a living from your first work, but that’s a whole nother post). But make sure it’s somewhere people can find it, and keep talking about it. Most people in the world won’t have heard of it, long after you’re tired of talking about it.
One additional point of encouragement: if you make something interesting, you may be surprised how often other people will come across your work. After all, they’re probably reading and playing widely too.
4. Meeting people.
Ian says: “Don’t treat it as the dreaded ‘networking’ — treat it as going out to chat with other people.”
This is good advice, but some of us more introverted types can find it even more alarming than ‘do networking’. Chat! with! other! people! …oof.
You don’t have to be a networking android, but it can help to have a basic routine. So here is my Absolute Minimum Networking Essentials For Introverts approach:
(a) go up to the closest person or huddle
(b) tell them who the hell you are and what you’ve done, and give them a biz card. This is okay. It’s why they’re there.
(c) find out who the hell they are and get their biz card if possible. This is also okay. It’s also why they’re there.
(d) exchange pleasantries and then either go away and let them talk to other people, or keep talking if you find you’re enjoying it
(e) repeat until you run out of business cards or self-confidence. If the latter, you are allowed to take a break and recharge, before you take a deep breath and plunge back in.
Statistically you’ll make contacts and/or friends, because people like people. But the minimum thing is Tell People Who The Hell You Are And What You’ve Done.
“What if I haven’t done anything?” See step 2, Do Visible Work.
Networking often pays off much further down the line than you expect. You’re not aiming to run into someone at your first networking event who’ll hire you tomorrow. You’re just planting seeds and being human. You’ll have made some faces familiar for the next event; you’ll get a lead years down the line from someone you shared a joke with.
4b. Approach other work in a spirit of generosity.
Ian makes this point:
“A small note of caution — don’t harshly criticise people in the industry, especially if you’re new. You won’t impress anyone. It’s a small industry, and you’ll be burning your bridges. If you really have to be critical, be polite and constructive. You have no idea what was happening in the background while certain choices were being made on a particular game — you’ll fairly quickly learn that game development is about compromise.”
I agree. Hearing interview candidates shit on other games is usually a No Hire signal for me.
But more than that: once you’ve taken an interest in writing or design, if you’re mining for Twitter or streaming snark, it’s very easy to find things wrong with a game. Most interesting games are flawed in some way. The more you fall into the trap of playing a flawed game to feel superior, the less you’ll learn.