“How do I get started as a game writer / narrative designer?”
This is, by far, the most common type of message I get in my LinkedIn inbox — followed by recruiters who don’t look at my profile before pitching me an irrelevant backend engineering gig, cold sales assaults from people who are inexplicably connected to 300 other people in my network, and entitled dudes sliding into my DMs with their misspelled "hello beuatifull"s because they think LinkedIn is a dating service (do we really truly need to hear that it’s not, because it’s really truly not).
The first type of message is the only reason I still bother to slog through my LinkedIn inbox, because it hits home. I was there once, too. I was 18, fresh out of high school and into college, holder of a dozen school writing awards that meant absolutely nothing in the big wide world, and completely lost on the topic of how to get started in games. I had passion, I had moxie, and I had no earthly clue what to do with all of it.
If we even had LinkedIn back in 2006, I wasn’t on it. I was, in fact, on Craigslist, trying to have a casual encounter with the games industry, looking in the "writing gigs" section of every city in the New England area. I even set up elaborate boolean searches to scour "writing gigs" posts worldwide for mentions of “remote” or “online” in conjunction with "games". I think we might’ve had Monster and Indeed back then, or at least some prehistoric ancestor of that type of service — so there I was, shotgunning dozens of applications a day across a plethora of platforms, aiming at anything even slightly related to writing or games. Anything, absolutely anything, to get my foot in the door.
What got my foot in the door was Beckett’s FUN! Online Games magazine. I still remember that many-winged feeling in my stomach the day I walked into Barnes and Noble, picked up a copy of my long-awaited magazine edition, flipped to the middle, and saw my name right there on that glossy page beneath a headline about Nintendo’s upcoming Zelda release. *wistful sigh*
That was the outcome of countless hours spent crawling through Craigslist ads, dodging scams and schemes, begging for scraps of paid work, tweaking my then-pathetic resume and portfolio, putting together a website with spirit glue and duct tape — while holding down a series of retail and food service jobs to make ends meet during the tumultuous four years of my stupid-expensive Creative Writing/Computer Science undergrad. That article was the first thing I could point to and say, “Look, I did it. I’m one of you. I’m a fledgling member of the games industry.”
That article led to other articles and more magazines, led to writing web content, led to a QA internship, led to copywriting for Hasbro, led to Game Writer/Narrative Designer and then Narrative Lead at Backflip Studios, led to Wooga, to Tactile, to ATA, to the dozens upon dozens of freelance and consulting gigs peppered along the way — to a bona fide Career in GamesTM.
All because a magazine publisher looked at my spunky little body of work — which, at 18 years old, was a collection of published poems, short stories, essays, and school paper articles, how adorbs — and said, “Yeah, okay, why not? Give this girl a gig.” The $150 paid for each article represented two weeks of wages from my part-time jobs, almost my month’s rent in a shared apartment — an absolute fortune back then. But it wasn’t even about the money, really — it was the “in”.
These days, it’s same-same, but different. There are more opportunities and avenues for entry now, oh, yes, but the competition too has grown. Any game writing/narrative design hiring manager, myself among them, can tell you how many hundreds of applications flood in for these few and highly coveted positions. And the competition doesn’t get any easier as you level up — you’ll be more experienced as you grow in your career, sure, but you’ll be more expensive than the up-and-coming mid-level writer who’s got a young and fresh perspective, and who doesn’t carry as much of that pesky learned-habit baggage of previous gigs.
Over a decade into my career, I still have to shotgun my resume every time the winds change and I find myself in need of a new role. My experience two job hunts ago took over a year, involved several hundred applications, and resulted in a pay and title cut when I finally *did* find a gig. And that scenario is not unique to my experience — I know incredibly talented game writers and narrative designers, lightyears more talented than I am, who struggle even to make it to the first round of interviews. The field of game writing and narrative design is both saturated and unforgiving (and very rarely genuinely rewarding, if I'm being completely honest). Them’s the breaks.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you — but for those still asking, below are some (unaffiliated, my-own-opinion™️) suggestions for how you might get started in game writing/narrative design.
1. Be writing and be playing games
Kind of a no-brainer, but being able to write and design game narratives for a living relies on your ability to a) write, and b) analyze narratives in games. These skills, like any others, take practice. If you’re not writing (and reading!) regularly, your craft suffers. If you’re not playing games (with narrative components) regularly, you’re out of the loop on what’s being done, what’s been done, and what could be done with interactive storytelling in games. Make it a part of your job-hunting routine to be actively bettering your skillset.
If you want to combine the two skills, start a game review blog! You’ll be able to showcase your writing abilities and game design analysis in one fell swoop. Don’t expect huge readership and yacht-buying ad revenue, of course — treat it like a portfolio piece and include your best reviews with your job applications. Heck, if the upkeep of a blog is too much, start a bespoke Reddit account and post your reviews on r/PatientGamers or r/TrueGaming. Whatever it takes to get you in the habit of thinking critically about interactive storytelling, and being able to express those critical thoughts with clarity and panache.
2. Create a project in twine (or Unity + ink, for extra credit) and post it to your portfolio (or better yet, itch.io)
“How do I get experience if no one will hire me to give me experience?” Yes, quite. Very that. But I’m going to let you in on a secret: you can make things on your own for free, and that still counts as experience. Yes, it does! Write a text adventure in twine. Watch some YouTube tutorials about making super basic games in Unity, and use Inkle's ink plugin to tell those stories. If tools are daunting — well, sorry not sorry, you're almost guaranteed to need to learn them anyway for most roles, might as well start practicing now.
You don’t have to make something huge and epic — a hiring manager isn’t going to have time to play your huge epic game, anyway. Give the world a short sample of your best writing and most entertaining plot design, and show that you have the skills required of the work.
3. Network — but specifically
There’s a hugely active game writing/narrative design community on Twitter, if you’re into that sort of thing — just search the usual hashtags, #gamewriter, #narrativedesign, #gamedev, etc. You can also find Discord communities (like Narrative House) and specific job boards (Gamesmith, Work With Indies) scattered around the internet. But the biggest support will be your specific communities. There are a ton of game dev communities that cater broadly to folks of all backgrounds — but in so doing, might not be suited to give you the best advice for your situation.
Specifically for underrepresented groups in the games industry (women, people of color, LGBTQ2+ folk, people with anormative physical or neurological abilities, etc.), look for organizations that cater to your experiences. Women in Games. Black Girl Gamers. Gaymers. Able Gamers. All of these organizations and myriad Googleable others are excellent communities for sharing tips, support, skills development opportunities, and job leads — with the added benefit of greater understanding of your specific struggles in the games industry. These communities lead to events and panels, lead to better representation, lead to visibility, lead to camaraderie, lead to connections that may lead to your next gig.
4. Have a portfolio of general creative writing, even if not game writing — and make sure it’s great writing
There’s an Ira Glass quote that comes to mind:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
When you're just starting out, it’s going to take a lot of bad writing to get through to your good writing — and it’s a process whereby your bar for good writing continually rises, like an Olympic high jump. If you’re lucky, as you grow in your tastes and grow in your craft, you’ll keep outdoing yourself — so make *super sure* your portfolio is a reflection of your peak skill. If your work doesn’t excite you, if you read it and think, “Ugh, this is all crap,” then… congratulations, you’re a writer!
But in all seriousness, if you can’t take an objective look at your own work and decide whether it’s good enough to start your career, you’re at the mercy of someone in a hiring seat deciding for you. Develop your eye and pen for good writing by consuming it, reading about the craft, analyzing “bad” writing, and continually pushing yourself in your own work. Folks like to romanticize the life of a writer, but when it comes down to the nuts and bolts, it’s nose-to-the-grindstone work to become and stay skillful.
5. Make your resume and cover letter relevant to the role
I’ve seen a lot of junior writer resumes and cover letters in my career — bless your hearts. Early in my career, I, too, listed things like GPA, extracurricular activities, babysitting gigs. My cover letters were passionate outpourings of desperation to be part of your wooooorld. I wish I had access to the old email accounts and hard drives of my early 20s so I could showcase these earnest and ill-formed attempts at early job-hunting — the learnings, dude, the learnings! This could well spiral out into another article, so I’ll keep the advice concise and relevant: keep your resume and cover letters concise and relevant.
When it comes to the resume, in lieu of job experience to fill out your one-pager, throw in a mission statement about why you want to work in games. List your school/hobby publishing credits and any experience collaborating in multidisciplinary group projects. If you’ve participated in a creative writing workshop and peer-reviewed the work of others, mention it.
Hiring managers understand you have to start *somewhere* — we started somewhere, too! — so highlight your most relevant experiences and the tools (softwares, soft skills) you used along the way. Triple-check the job posting and make sure you’re highlighting the skills listed therein. If the role lists “directing VO artists” among the responsibilities and you’ve directed a community/school theater production, that’s a transferrable skill (more on that in Tip 7) worth mentioning.
The subject of cover letters is an unwieldy beast, and there’s little consensus around how to slay it. Personally, I’m a fan of the short-form cover letter — no more than a few of your best, succinct, catchy paragraphs in a conversational style (read: business informal, save your lofty prose for the worldbuilding).
Remember, hiring managers are reading dozens, if not hundreds, of these letters. Grab my attention from the first sentence — show me you’re a creative writer and tell me a story. Tell me why you want to work in games and connect your life experiences to the skills required of game development and interactive storytelling as outlined in the job posting. I shouldn’t have to tell you to be METICULOUS in your check for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and typos. You can forgive spelling and grammar for a lot of roles in game development; writing is not one of those roles.
6. If you’re still a student, make use of that student discount on workshops and seminars at industry conferences
Challenging in a pandemic, yes, but if you have the ability to attend an industry conference along the lines of GDC, PAX, Pocket Gamer Connects, AdventureX, etc., whether in-person or virtually, make use of that student discount. These conferences are a wealth of panels and seminars, not to mention general networking opportunities. There’s (unfortunately) a lot of nepotism and “who you know”ism in the games industry, so building out those connections will be key.
I also think there’s huge value in walking the expo floors, seeing what people are working on, and talking directly to those people. The crowds and lines are not for everyone (me, I’m everyone), but that kind of hands-on playtesting and face-to-face discourse with the dev can be invaluably eye-opening.
Even if you’re not a student, you can still keep the costs of attendance down by taking advantage of early bird ticket sales and/or single-day passes. Barring that, you’ll find tons of recorded talks on YouTube — and for those talks locked in the GDC Vault, don’t be afraid to reach out to devs directly on their websites or Twitters and ask if they’re willing to hook you up with a mirror link, or at least some slides. Not that I’m condoning breaking any GDC Vault rules, if there are rules about that, ahem, don’t bar me from speaking on a future panel. But knowledge-sharing is a good cause for hypothetical rule-breaking, hypothetically speaking.
7. Remember that skills transfer
For a few years while I was working on my undergrad, I assistant-managed a GameStop. Yep. It was as awful as you might imagine, in a lot of ways — but it’s amazing how many of those skills transferred.
Talking about games (read: standing up to dudes who thought a WOMAN working at a GAMESTOP had to be a TOKEN HIRE who didn’t know ANYTHING about GAMES); analyzing what people were preordering, buying, and trading in; troubleshooting UX issues with games and consoles (typically over the phone with irritated grandparents); leading teams and keeping morale up through the onslaught of Black Friday sales; reading Game Informer and strategy guides on slow nights — all of those skills, despite the retail environment, have been useful in my game dev career.
GameStop, games — the connection is pretty clear. But even where the connection is less clear, think about your transferrable skills. I used directing a play as an example above — parallels with VO artist direction, project management, ensuring narrative cohesion across all the moving parts, etc. etc. What about food service? Keeping up with deadlines and fast production pace, organization and project management skills, customer service (i.e., community management), managing scope (e.g., if you’re low on an ingredient, pivoting on the night’s specials).
Game development, from the outside, can seem like some kind of obtuse wizardry — but at its core, it relies on skills that pop up in all disciplines: time management, project management, customer service, communication, precision, and keeping a good attitude when you’re crunching toward a deadline and sleeping under your desk.
8. Don’t bother applying for mid- or senior-level roles
This is maybe another no-brainer, but good writers must also be good readers, and if you apply for a job that requires significantly more experience than you have, you’re demonstrating that you didn’t read the job post thoroughly. If you can’t read, who’s going to pay you to write?
Cheek aside, I know it can be tempting to apply for the dream gig requiring for 3+ years of experience. You’re hoping you can slide in with your 3-month-contract-gig’s worth of experience and wow them with your writing prowess — and heck, maybe you can, kiddo. Maybe you can. But what’s more likely to happen is that you’ll waste some poor overworked hiring manager’s time, because they’re looking for someone who can hit the ground running with deeper knowledge of game project pipelines, industry tools, and best practices for the genre, and you’re bringing none of that to the table (yet).
The industry is small and has a long memory — especially databases with AI filters that know you’ve been in the “reject” pile before. Anecdotally, I’m pretty sure that’s why Nintendo has never once responded to my applications — because I was young and dumb and unqualified when I first applied, and now that I am old and maybe less dumb and slightly more qualified, it’s too late. I’m already on the “naughty” list. My dreams of lovingly polishing the English text of a Zelda game are dead. :’(
Reach as much as it makes sense — there is often wiggle room on the definition of junior, which can make things confusing — but don’t overreach to the point where you’re applying for mid or senior jobs that are way, way out of your league. You’ll get there eventually after you’ve s̶o̶l̶d̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶s̶o̶u̶l̶ put in the time.
9. Volunteer your time
“I’m trying to get a paid gig, lady, the eff are you on about?” Yeah, no, I get it. But hear me out.
If you see a post on Reddit or Twitter wherein someone’s looking to start an unpaid labor of love with a few other aspiring game devs, throw your hat in the ring. That little labor of love project that you and two pals put out on itch.io could be the portfolio piece that lands you a paying gig. Or the project that leads the three of you to start a Kickstarter to make the next game, and before you know it, you’re a small start-up studio — and you didn’t even have to ask anyone else for a job in the industry, pbbbbt. You made your dang own job in the industry, thank *you* very much.
Yes, those chances are slim — and the chances of resounding commercial success even slimmer — but not impossible. Go into it with portfolio showpiece expectations, and at the very least, get out of it some skills and experience.
10. Be lucky (with a caveat)
Ugh, yes, I know. The worst tip. I’m sorry. But luck got me here, so I have to acknowledge it.
It was damn lucky I saw the ad for Beckett and got the games journalist gig. It was damn lucky I spent summers in North Carolina and got a QA internship at a company that made iPod and Blackberry games (dig me a grave somewhere sunny, won’t you; the end is nigh).
But here’s something in your control, to a degree: you can create your own luck. Set up alerts on Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Reddit. Sign up for newsletters from the studios you idolize, and for the job board aggregators that share games industry job listings. Put yourself in a position where the next “ding” on your phone could be the “ding” for which you’ve been waiting your entire 20-something years — and be quick to apply, because the race is real. (For the sake of organization and sanity, you might want to separate your “dream-manifesting” Twitter/LinkedIn/Reddit/email accounts from your personal accounts, and give those notifications their own sound profile.)
And, sneaky tip within a tip, pay close attention to the skills listed in those job postings — if nine out of ten postings are looking for people with Unity and Unreal experience (and they are), be practicing Unity and Unreal to up your ability to respond to lucky opportunities. YouTube is a wealth of free education, no paid courses required.
Keep asking questions so that industry dinosaurs like me will write posts like this to help you youngins find your way! Because I didn’t have that when I was a yougin', and I dang could’ve used it. Just remember me when you rise to the ranks of hiring manager someday, and you need a wizened old game crone with knowledge of YoreTM to come in as a narrative specialist.
Mega List of Resources:
Diversity & Inclusion Associations:
News & Networking Websites:
Games Analysis YouTube Channels:
Free Game Design Courses:
Surely I've missed a few things — add your suggestions in the comments!