Important Tips on Hiring a Video Games Writer

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I’m Scott Richmond, the Producer and a programmer at Brightrock Games. I am lucky enough to have been able to go through the experience of Kickstarting and, as of April 2015, successfully releasing our game War for the Overworld. WFTO had a considerable amount of writing in it as well as voice acting, and in this article I will be taking this experience and discussing how we aim to tackle the writing department with our new game title. Just before I start, I’d like to thank Chris Avellone for taking the time to discuss with me the inner world of video game writers.

One of the first mistakes many developers make is the misunderstanding of how important a writer is to their video game project. Its an easy mistake to make, likened to the idea that if you go for one of the many low-fi art-styles you can get away without an artist so long as you’ve got a handle on Microsoft Paint. However just like having a professional artist, a writer can dramatically lift the quality of practically any game of any scale – There are the obvious tasks like the game universe bible, characters, voice actor scripts & direction and in-game tooltips & UI. But what about your Kickstarter page? The Steam store page? Marketing posts, newsletters and blurbs? These things, although not critical to the game itself, for many they are critical prior to the game even getting off the ground.

If there is one thing to take from all the recent talk around #indiepocalypse (Which is not much) it’s that the base quality bar is being raised in all aspects of development, and if you fail in even a couple of areas the risk of total failure starts to get worrying.  It’s important to understand that it doesn’t matter what the size of your project is nor what genre it fits within – In my experience having someone who can professionally write clean and exciting text is as just an important pillar as art, marketing or design.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you now need to find a way to pay for a new permanent role in your team. This is where game scale and genre do matter and will determine whether you need a permanent full-time writer for your RPG MMO Witcher-like, or a part-time contractor for 2 months for your twin stick arcade fighter.

What is the game?

Prior to even thinking about the hunt for a writer, you need to determine what kind of game you’re developing. You need to figure out a rough approximation of raw time you might need for a writer, primarily because believe it or not you’ll need to pay for their time and you’ll want to know how much that’ll set you back.

The way we determined our approximation starts with the total word count we believe our game might require, and then we divided that by a magic words per day number. For example:

We loosely estimated our Game Bible to be approximately 10,000 words (About 10 pages).

Average writing speed of a professional writer can range between 500-1500 words an hour. However, this doesn’t take into account that for most of the tasks there will be a lot of creative back and forth with the designer, a number of iterations and a fairly complex game theme. For us, we decided to pull it way back to 125 words an hour or 1000 words a day. It’s likely a gross under-estimation of the real output we’ll get, but I prefer to under-estimate than to over-estimate in this case – We can always scale out with more content if time allows.

That leaves us with approximately 10 days, or 2 weeks, to write the game bible for our game, which feels about right for us.

Try to break your game down into as many individual writing components as you can, estimate all the components, and you’ll get your rough approximation of writer time.

For inspiration, you can view the full component breakdown of our game here: Subt Games Writer Scope.pdf

What style of Kung-Fu are you?

Writers come in many flavours and specialize in different areas. Before starting the hunt for a writer it is a good idea to figure out what areas of writing are most important for your project and what style you’re looking for as you will later need to express it to the writer. If you’re not clear about what you want from them you reduce your chance of finding the right person for the job.

For our new title we determined that the style of writing we wanted was dark british humour and provided examples of popular existing work for them to visualize such as “A mix between Futurama and Scrubs“.

Knowing what writer specializations are most important for your project is critical to finding the right person at the right price range. Like practically every industry the more experienced a person is the more expensive they’ll be, so knowing what specializations you can do without will help immensely. One key example of this is whether you will have voiced acted characters in your game – If so you’ll want to tailor your search for writers with experience in script writing and voice actor direction (Its harder than you might think).

Part-time or Permanent? Why not both?

“We need a writer! When do we want it? NOW!”

It is critical you integrate the writer as early in the development process as possible! The best game design is one that fits seamlessly with theme and story, and the best way to do that is involve the writer in the initial design phase.

With that in mind the question then becomes one of how long you can sustain that role in your team. Not only because of financial reasons but also because you might not have that much content for them to create. We estimate our new game will take approximately 30 months to complete, with enough writing content for 1 writer to occupy themselves for 10-15 months.

The problem for us was that this content would be spread over the life of the project with times of concentrated work such as the initial design phase, Kickstarter marketing push in the middle, and voice actor scripting & direction towards the end. We couldn’t justify a full-time writer, but we also needed one available for the full duration of the project.

What we ultimately decided to do was offer a part-time role for the life of the project, hoping that the allure of up to 30 months of part-time work would be a positive incentive for writers to apply. We were worried at the time that the idea of gaps of no work and the general looseness of committed work time would be a serious issue, but we were pleasantly surprised at the amount of positive feedback we got from applicants. I think writers, more than most, are used to short-term contracts with little chance of being able to really be a part of a project from beginning to end. Most writers will excitedly jump at the chance to be part of the full scope of a project and will happily work on a loose part-time basis to see it through.

Who writes the writing test?

Coming from world of IT and programming one of the first things I wanted to figure out was whether we needed a writing test for applicants. Almost every other role has one, why not writers too? I decided I ought to get some feedback straight from the horse’s mouth and asked the IGDA Games Writing group WSIG on Google Groups, which led to a fascinating discussion from almost 40 writers. Predictably the answers were mixed and varied with some expressing that a writing test is worthwhile whilst others disagreed or suggested that the time spent ought to be paid for.

One key thing I did take away from the discussion was that writers are no different from any other role with respect to the hiring process. It didn’t answer my question but it did simplify it as it was now part of the eternal argument for and against hiring tests in every industry. During this process I was lucky enough to be contacted by industry veteran Chris Avellone and through a discussion with him I came to a clear decision that a test was necessary and I knew why.

The writing test is not aimed at figuring out if a writer can write – That can typically be determined through their resume and previous work. The test is not aimed at figuring out if a writer is culture fit for the team – That can be determined through on-site interviews. The test is aimed finding out whether a writer can write in the language and style your project needs. It is no different to finding a programmer who can write in the language your project is in or an artist in the art-style you need.

We developed our writing test over a number of weeks trying to write questions that would represent a broad intersection of the kind of writing one might expect to do in the real world role and project. This meant that the writing questions were more or less directly tied to the real project. This led to some trepidation that some writers might negatively react if they thought we were exploiting them for some free work, prompted from some suggestions from the WSIG group discussion. But that wasn’t the only worry – The length and environment the test was to be done in were both key things that we wanted to be mindful of. In the end we didn’t have a single applicant drop out after being asked to perform the test.

It is in your interest to keep all applicants happy – You don’t want to find the right one only to be knocked back because they felt you didn’t respect their time. To that end, these are the key tenants we tried to stick to for the test:

  • Do an interview first
    • Not everyone will be a potential fit and its best for both parties that time isn’t wasted writing and reading the test.
    • Be up-front about the expected salary! Again, you’re wasting both parties’ time if you’re asking well under their pay grade.
    • The writing test takes time, so use the interview to get them excited enough about the company and project to bother.
    • It is absolutely critical you get across the style and form of writing you’re after – No point doing the test if they don’t understand what you’re looking for.
  • Writers are solitary animals
    • You want the test to be able to be done in whatever environment they are most comfortable in – Don’t time it or restrict where and when it can be done.
    • We wrote our test in Google Forms and explicitly said they can copy it into word and email it if they wish.
  • Be careful of the test length
    • In each question, write the expected word count – It is useful for them and you can use it to measure the test length.
    • In our view it is okay for a test to take the applicant 2-4 hours with no expectation of paying for their time.
    • Want to do a longer one? Consider paying for their time.
  • Make sure they know what you want
    • Reiterate and summarize what you want on the test itself.
  • They’re busy too
    • Be mindful that they’re doing this test in their own time. We gave applicants 2 weeks to turn the test in.
    • Be up-front about when you expect to have the test completed.

Finding the diamond in the rough

Before we begun the quest for a writer we picked a couple of people from the team as ‘The Board‘, who are responsible for being in all the interviews, reading all the test results and ultimately deciding who ought to hire. After each interview they discussed the applicant and recorded some notes about them.

One of the tough things about interviewing people is breaking apart those who you like just because of their interview skill or charm, from those who might be a great fit but you just didn’t gel with because of interview nerves or anything else. We’re not experts at interviewing people so instead of directly solving that problem with experience and skill we had to work around it: Blind tests!

Once we had our group of applicants who passed our interview and had turned in a completed test by the deadline we asked one of our colleagues to copy them each into their own document and replace their name with a letter of the alphabet. ‘The Board‘ then went through each test and marked them according to a number of factors we felt were key to the role:

  • Humour – One of the primary aims of our new title is to be a kind of dark british humour.
  • Technical – Grammatical errors, typos, etc.
  • Creativity – Creative flair in the writing.
  • Design – Their understanding of game design and limitations. A couple of questions were aimed directly at testing this.
  • Bonus – Not often used, but reserved for those who surprised us in some way we didn’t expect.

The factors were totalled and then averaged between ‘The Board‘ to find the top contenders among the applicants.

To be honest we weren’t sure just how useful doing the blind testing was until the results were matched against the real names and people we’d interviewed. It was extremely eye opening in fact! There were applicants that we had picked as top contenders based purely upon the interview that had turned in among the worst test results, as well as those who we had pegged as average that turned out to be fantastic. I would highly recommend marking the tests blind as it allows you to focus on the writing quality and fit.

Making the final decision

At this point you should hopefully have a couple of great applicants to choose from, and from here it becomes a more typical hiring scenario – You should know who can technically deliver what you want and you should have a basic understanding of their cultural fit, as well as their availability for the project and the goals of your company (To grow with people or contract out).

We were lucky enough to have a number of equally fantastic applicants and had to think hard about the finer details. I highly recommend having a second in-person interview with them to provide feedback on the test as we had some really valuable discussion, as well as to discuss any doubts or confirm dates and other availability details around the role.

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