Advocating the Devil - The case against writers in the game industry

Snipehunter's picture

There is no doubt in my mind that it was my skills as a writer that opened the door to my becoming a game designer. It was 1997 and a designer from the Warcraft II team had left Blizzard to join another ex-blizzardite in creating a new studio. They had a 3 game deal with Activision and an idea in mind to create a paradigm breaking RTS game, called Third World, but what they lacked, was someone who could write their documents for them. I wasn’t technically hired as a writer, but rather an assistant designer. This would prove to be a decision that I am eternally grateful. Had I been hired simply as a writer that would have been the end, for me. You see, that studio sort of imploded very shortly thereafter, but it’s not that implosion that would have doomed me – as a designer I survived. No, what would have doomed me is the simple, and some would say sad, truth: There’re no places for writers in our industry…

I have no doubt that several esteemed colleagues (whom I respect dearly) will disagree with me, but I’m going to make my case, anyway. I’m going to start by talking about what a writer is and then contrast that to the role of a designer. In doing so, I suspect that my main point – that simply being an architect of plot alone isn’t valuable enough to justify the cost of a writer – will become self-evident… here’s to hoping I don’t step on too many toes along the way. Are you ready? Good, because here I go.

When we discuss of the role of the writer, we have to be clear. There is a huge amount of writing in game design – and good writers tend to make better designers (all else being equal) – but being a writer doesn’t automatically make one a game designer. Writers do not dictate the way players interact with the world, nor do they dictate the way the player experiences the content that they themselves may create. These are the responsibilities of the game designer. A writer might create the characters, and a writer certainly architects the plot of a game’s story, but the work a player actually sees and consumes? That is the work of the designer, even when the writer has written the dialog, decided the plot, created every character and concepted every setting. There’s a critical reason for that, a reason that is perhaps the most compelling fact behind avoiding writers:

The work of the writer is inherently linear – the work of the designer is typically not.

When a writer sits down to build a story, they are most usually architecting a plot. Most games certainly have plots, so you might be asking yourself why a writer wouldn’t be useful. After all, an experienced and well-educated writer will know everything there is to building a plot, and games could certainly benefit from better plots, right? I couldn’t agree more, but I’m afraid that it’s something of a leap to go from there to, “the person to architect a game’s plot is a writer.”

Now, I’m not going to talk about methodology here specifically, since literally every writer I know works differently, but a writer expresses the plot by putting together scenes. I mean little bits of story; scene A leads to scene B, which leads to the climax in scene C and finally to the resolution in Scene D. By placing particular scenes in a particular sequence, the writer’s plot is fed to the reader in such a way as to evoke the emotional response desired by the writer. This is why the writer’s work is linear – the writer’s power depends on the sequence of events. It is why a writer’s work is so powerful, at least in static media. It’s also why Ebert thinks games can never be art. In Ebert’s mind, this inherent authorial control is what makes art of other media. I mention Ebert’s opinion because there is one small grain of truth implied by it: This type of authorial control is not something native to video games.

It exists, I don’t deny it, but where it exists it does so because it has been enforced. Special effort has to be made to accommodate it; in the early history of gaming new technologies had to be created to enable it at all, in fact. Video Games, abstracted beyond the specifics of any one genre or title, do not require this authorial control to be considered such, do they? Pong is certainly a game, is it not? But what about Final Fantasy VII, or Bioshock?

Both are certainly games, but there’s something else there, something that makes what are otherwise two mundane examples of gaming stand out. Their stories.

“Ah ha!” you’re probably saying, now. You’re probably about to make a case for how having the story made those games better, made them memorable. You may even be right, but look at the games themselves, without their stories and what do you see?

You see games hamstrung repeatedly to allow for storytelling mechanics. To many, Final Fantasy VII is reviled as the game that introduced us to interminable cinematics, boring exposition dialog and pointless interruptions to the gameplay. Bioshock’s railroaded experience is such because of the story. For myself, I don’t think I’d have played Final Fantasy VII without the story, but Bioshock? Done as a sandbox game, I might still be playing it now. Of course, it would all depend on the implementation, but that’s where designers come in.

And that’s something you can never say about a writer. No matter how well written, a story can’t make the game better. It can make the game more memorable, perhaps, but when it comes to playing the game, to interacting with the world presented within, a writer has no real power. To have any effect in that realm of what we do, the writer would essentially have to be a designer or at least have the knowledge, skills and sensibilities of one.

So, when I am wondering about the place a writer has in our industry, I have to ask myself a simple question: “What does a writer give me?”

Good characters, interesting plots and memorable worlds, right? Evocative emotional experiences, at least, wouldn’t you say?

I would, but you know, when I come to that conclusion, I ask the next question: “Is any of that necessary to make a good game?”

Sadly, the answer is no. So then I start to wonder about designers and what they give us. Designer’s give us puzzles to solve, worlds to explore, new ways to interact and above all else, new games to play.

Despite my love of the written word and the way I tend to identify myself as a writer, I have to admit that when it comes time to add to the team of a project I’m on, I would rather have another designer than a writer. Writing may have gotten me my first gig in this industry, but it’s my skills as a designer that have kept me in the industry for as long as they have. That I can write certainly makes me better at what I do, but I have to admit that it’s, in the parlance of my world, a bonus stat, not a primary one.

An extra designer on your team can mean the difference between 8 levels and 12 or between 10 hours of content and 15… or the difference between a 60 and an 80 on metacritic… and this is true whether your game has a story or not. Designers bring fresh perspectives that could bring with them innovations in your game… but what about writers?

Writers are at their best when they can write stories. That means there are whole market segments of our industry where writers are only somewhat useful. Even in a linear single player experience where story is king – say an old school RPG, writers alone can’t get your game done; you will need designers to implement gameplay. In other words – even on a story heavy game, a designer who can also write is more valuable than a writer alone. This is bad for the pro-writer camp because, Writers are expensive and often in ways that don’t show up on the books.

As a case in point, let me explain one of the things I did on Dirty Harry. As a part of my job on Dirty Harry, I met with our (totally kick ass and awesome) writer once a week to discuss the story, his progress in the script, changes we had made to the game that he had to accommodate, etc. It was a great process that really helped the game, but it was also a 3-4 hour event, once a week. During that time, I was not balancing weapons, implementing core gameplay systems or overseeing the work of the rest of the team, which was what my job description actually called for. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this time was wasted, but it was time where part of the game design was suffering for the sake of the writer. Games get delayed all the time, I suspect that the example I provided above is one of the reasons why. Accommodating writers takes time and money that is often unaccounted for because people don’t realize that it takes extra work to integrate the work of a writer into the game, even at the fundamental planning stage.

Mind you, if your game has a story in it, these costs don’t go away if you hire a designer that can write. No, those costs exist either way, but here’s the final nail in the coffin for the writer: What do you do with the writer when the story is done?

Do you fire the writer? Do you pay them to sit around in case the story needs to change? Do you only hire writers on a contract basis? All of those questions have answers that can work, but I wonder why you would bother.

For the same price (sometimes cheaper, I’m sad to say), you can hire a designer who is also an unsung writing hero (they exist in far larger numbers than anyone wants to give the industry credit for) and when the story is done, that same designer can be there to throw his lot into the fire with the rest of the designers and actually make the game fun. He can be retasked as needed, and he can be useful at every stage of development.

For those reasons, and maybe even a few more, my money is on the designer over the writer, every time.

- Snipehunter

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Ombwah's picture

A writer's place in games is on a leash

And a short one at that.

To speak directly to the disparity between a pure writer and a designer/writer's usefulness, I reference a recent dialog-heavy console project I was a part of. Before I arrived on the project it had been decided that a reasonably well-known (not into mud slinging, so no names) house of self-styled Hollywood writers that purports to be 'the place to go for emotion in games' would take the helm of the storylines so as to produce some real quality dialog -- dialog that would be far and away better than the designers would be able to produce, or so we were told.

Perhaps the idea was a good one, perhaps not. The implementation, however, was a debacle. The writers were provided with no framework upon which to hang their words. No thread or map of the gameplay gates that the players would be faced with. Further, this was a mostly sandbox game -- there was no way to force a player to view all dialogs in a strictly controlled order. Last, this game was all about player choices in branching conversation trees -- but the trees were to be determined by the plot that we were going to receive from the writers.

This did not turn out well. In reference to costs that don't show up on books, consider that at least three months worth of production time for three designers was lost in editing and re-architecting the dialog that we were given. In the end, very little of the original writing remained at all - the writers had based too much of the dialog around dramatic events that we couldn't ensure that the players would experience without taking away the very choices that made our project a game, and not a TV show. We lost tons of time that could have been spent on gameplay features attempting to shoehorn writing into the necessary format.

Again, maybe the idea was a good one, and the implementation failed us. It is my opinion that we did things backwards and that those writers should have been given a flowchart premade, with the appropriate interactions stubbed in - so that they could have some inkling of the intent of the branching dialog. Or, maybe the writing group could have had a little more training in the challenges of writing for a non-linear environment -- it is my opinion that they should if they are advertising their skills as 'writers for games'. None of this was true, sadly. Perhaps all of that extra work could have been mitigated had the writers been managed closely, by a designer with an eye for writing, or had we designers simply written the dialog to begin with.

A whole different case is exemplified, however, on another project I worked on - an MMO. Feeling the content crunch that is inherent in making such an ambitious project, we hired a mixed bag of quest writers and level designers to fill in the world. Many times, some scripting was necessary to make a quest work. A designer with script chops could write and implement an entire quest, with special effects or conditional reactions. The writers who couldn't script were doomed to making the same quests over and over or needed to use time from two team members, as anything beyond the most basic and simple quest implementation required the support of a scripter.

In some studios, I've heard that this is even a common practice - this separation of writer and scripter. Have we seen more stunning storylines from those MMO's - striking enough differences in quality to offset the cost of two employees? Have we seen significantly more compelling interactivity by giving over the script to a specialist? I'm not sure that we have.

Snipehunter's picture

Reprinted on Gamasutra and Game set watch

Today this blog was reprinted on Gamasutra and Game set watch! Laughing out loud

As expected, I annoyed, infuriated and challenged a lot of people with this. To those people I will say: I'm glad.

The point of the article is to challenge the assumptions made by many in this industry about the point of writers, the role they fill and what they bring to the table. To be more effective and, honestly, more useful to this industry the world's writers need to focus more on how games work and learn to adapt their writing to accommodate that.

The idea that we can railroad players along a plotline without allowing them to affect that plotline beyond "pass or fail" is obsolete - or, if you prefer I be more generous, on the road to obsolescence. I loved Bioshock and I played it through in a weekend largely because the audio journals were so powerful, but oh, how much more fun I would have had if I had been allowed to explore Rapture at leisure, choose my own fate and pick my own allies. I could not because the plot was linear - and my choices meant nothing. This can't stand in our interactive medium forever; it's holding us back. Writer's need to understand that the interactivity in our medium is what gives it its power and they must learn how to adapt their work to that rather than subjugate said interactivity to their authorial control. Ebert is right: Games aren't about authorial control, they're about shared authorship - and that's what makes them more powerful than any static medium.

Between you, me and the internet - I think writers are learning that, and I think that there is a key group out there who are already adapting and excelling as a result, but the critical mass has not yet reached that level of understanding with the interactive medium and until they have, I'll still take a designer who can write over a writer, on any project, any time.

- Snipehunter