From time to time I get an email out of the blue from someone who wants to break into the games industry, usually as a writer or designer. I had another one this morning, and I thought it might be worth sharing my reply in case it can be useful to anyone else out there.
I haven’t worked as a game designer for some years, through choice. The discipline is becoming increasingly technical, requiring facility with scripting languages and 3D art packages that I don’t have. I’ve had more success as a writer, and I’d recommend these titles, written by members of the IGDA Writing Special Interest Group, as a starting point. They are a few years old, but most of the information they present is still useful:
The Writing SIG (http://www.igda.org/writing) is a good thing to join. You’ll be able to ask questions of other game writers and listen in on their discussions, which can be enlightening. They also have a presence on LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=89330&trk=myg_ugrp_ovr). Most of the members also have blogs, which are worth checking out for more information and insights. Find your local IGDA chapter, go to meetings, and get to know people: contacts are everything in this business.
I got into the industry a long time ago. I started in the 80s writing for tabletop roleplaying games, and along with a number of other writers from that industry I made the move into video games in the 90s. Back then there were very few writers and designers in the video games industry, so it was easy. Today, things are different.
These days, I would recommend focusing on one or two game genres that appeal to you strongly. Find the websites for their developers and get to know the companies. Take any beta testing opportunity you can, and try to train yourself to see a game with the skin off. Look through the graphics and the UI to see the underlying mechanics in action. If there are opportunities to create fan content – levels or whatever – make the most of them.
Keep track of advertised vacancies in design and writing: many can be found on the respective companies’ web sites, and the Gamasutra jobs page (http://gamasutra.com/jobs/) is also a valuable resource. Pay particular attention to the requirements for the kinds of vacancy that interest you: figure out how to acquire the required skills and experience, and also how to build a portfolio that shows them off. For design, create great maps, levels, etc, using the most popular tools. For writing, create storylines and dialogue samples. Start your own blog and use it as a showcase for your talents and experience. Create a LinkedIn profile, if you haven’t already, and link to your resume and samples.
Go to conferences if you can afford to (especially GDC) and follow the design and/or writing tracks. Learn as much as you can, present your skills and experience in the best possible light, and get to know as many people in the industry as you can. Contacts with other designers and writers are always useful, but also pay attention to producers: they tend to be the ones who hand out contracts and interview job applicants, and they have good information on the kind of skills and experience they are looking for.
That’s what I’ve got so far. If anyone has any follow-up questions, just ask and I’ll answer them as best I can whenever I get the chance. And if anyone from the industry wants to weigh in with a comment or more/better advice, feel free!
I didn’t go to E3, but I’ve been reading a lot of the recaps on Gamasutra and elsewhere, and they paint an interesting picture.
More than one commentator thinks that the show is out of touch with reality. AAA games are being marketed, according to one writer, through “unabashed pandering to the lowest common denominator” – which is to say, killshots and boobs. Regardless of the gameplay in this years triple-A offerings, detailed killshots and bountiful cleavage are the marketing bullet points. This shows very clearly how the AAA studios see their core market. More tellingly, perhaps, it also reflects their opinion of their customers, which seems anything but complimentary.
A lot of the real creativity right now seems to be coming from the indie developers, with small budgets and big ideas. It seems to be a law of nature that when a certain budget threshold is crossed, fear overcomes everything else and a deep creative conservatism kicks in. The result is me-too products (“We need to mitigate risk by sticking to tried and true formulae”) whose only innovations are brighter colors, more detailed kill animations – and more boobs.
Does this reflect the true state of the industry? I doubt it. Heck, I sincerely hope not. E3 is out of touch with reality, says at least one industry figure. At best, the blood-and-boobs obsession reflects what the marketing folks are thinking, rather than what the developers are dreaming. Given the recession, sales are shaky, and I guess a lot of marketers are fighting over the safe, reliable core market: a market that, according to Gamasutra’s Kris Graft, marketers see as “Bloodthirsty, sex-starved teen males who’ll high-five at a headshot and a free T-shirt.”
Thanks a lot, AAA developers. It’s nice to know that you hold gamers in such high regard.
But while the dinosaurs are roaring and stomping, I think the real story is down among the mammals: the indie developers whose low budgets give them more creative freedom. Arkedo co-founder Camille Guermonprez likes the analogy as much as I do: he said “When you’re small you move faster, so when the situation is changing, you better be some kind of high-running little lemur than a big dinosaur, because you’re going to get a tree on your head, otherwise.”
E3 is big and expensive, and no indie developer has anything like the cash needed to get noticed in that bright, noisy jungle. But that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Angry Birds has made ridiculous amounts of money, and there’s a huge scramble for the mobile and handheld market right now.
At last year’s GDC, Nintento chief Satoru Iwata urged game developers to ignore smartphones. I wrote about it in one of the earliest entries on this blog. This year, Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida said that small games and indie developers are vital. He didn’t rush to embrace smartphones, though, because Sony is pushing the Playstation Vita. Sony is still trying to be in the device business and the games business at the same time, facing itself with the same dilemma that prompted Iwata-san to rail against smartphones.
We’ll see how that works out for Sony: meanwhile Nintendo’s Eshop is averaging a mighty 4.7 lifetime (so far) sales per customer in the 3DS games category. I’d love to see how that stacks up against iOS and Android apps, but I haven’t been able to find any corresponding figures. Let’s just say it seems on the low side to me. But then, if you ring-fence your apps and your device together, you’re denying youself any additional app sales that might come from ports to other devices. With device sales, it’s trickier to judge: do people really buy a device because it’s the only way to play a certain game? That used to be the case in the days of the Console Wars, but today I’m less certain.
So there we have it. E3: full of sound and fury as always, but apparently signifying little more than a depressing race to the bottom as far as marketing is concerned. Meanwhile, the mammals are busily harvesting nuts and berries from the iOS and Android bushes, and not worrying about comets. A couple of dinosaurs have gotten smart enough to harvest nuts and berries, but they insist on designing, building, and marketing their own bushes that grow nuts and berries only they can eat.
Okay, enough. I know when I’m straining a metaphor. But you get the idea.
As snapshots of the industry go, the above may not be that accurate. It’s just what I gleaned from reading various articles that themselves were condensed through the lenses of the reports who wrote them. But it’s a picture, of sorts, and if anyone out there has a different view, then hey – write a comment and set me straight.
Here’s one of the five online games I’ve been working on since July. It’s got added Picts and a twisting plot involving Morgause, Lot of Lothian, and Drust mac Erp.
Back in 2007 I scripted some videos for dueling in Empire: Total War. I’ve just come across them on YouTube, and the art team at Creative Assembly did an outstanding job.
TV is killing the movies.
Home taping is killing music. Filesharing is killing music. MP3s are killing music.
E-commerce is killing retail. E-books are killing publishing.
Everything new is killing something old. It’s the way we’re conditioned to think. Darwinism. Nature, red in tooth and claw. Predatory executives quoting Sun Tzu, gladiators in suits. When they’re up, they’re lions, roaring and magnificent. When they’re down, they’re gazelles, swift or dead. Or whiny.
“It’s not fair!” they wail, although they couch the whine in terms like “killing the industry,” “economically unsustainable,” and “force for instability.” But what they’re really saying is “It’s not fair!” just like anyone else aged three through sixteen who suddenly realizes that life doesn’t always have to go their way.
At the Game Developers’ Conference earlier this month, Nintento chief Satoru Iwata urged game developers to ignore smartphones. Smartphone games are killing the game industry. They’re too cheap to be economically sustainable. They’re too cheap to be any good. People are buying too many of them with money they should be spending on Nintendo products. It’s not fair.
It’s the old story. Whenever something new comes up to challenge a large and established industry, we hear the same howls of anguish. But the howlers are not in fear of their lives – or the lives of their industries – they’re in fear of change. Change is hard, as any therapist will tell you, and it’s impossible without will. How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? It doesn’t matter unless the light bulb really wants to change.
The music industry has survived home taping, filesharing, and e-commerce. The Day The Music Died was never. But it was shaken up all the way through, from the label execs to the record stores. Musicians can now reach their audience directly without going through middlemen – although the middlemen still come in handy for their expertise in promoting artists, bankrolling tours, and the like.
The publishing industry is confronting the same dilemma right now. The author Barry Eisler explains on his blog why he walked away from a half-million dollar advance on a book – because he reckons he can do better through self-publishing. I’ve read his argument, and I have to admit it kind of makes sense. Enough sense for me to walk away from a half-mil advance? Offer me one and we’ll find out.
In giving his take on the shifts coming up from POD, e-readers, and the like, Eisler quoted the example of the railroads in the USA when the Interstate highway system was established. They thought they were in the railroad business, and they thought they were safe because they were the railroad business. No one could offer a better railroad service. But actually, they were in the transportation business, and other modes of transportation – first the Interstates and then the growing postwar airlines – offered passengers a better transportation service.
But let’s get back to Nintendo and The Great Smartphone Scare.
The market and a little time will sort out those games that are truly low quality and economically unsustainable (though “economically unsustainable” is often big-company code for “won’t make nearly enough money to sustain our company in the manner to which it has been accustomed”). But there will be survivors, and the paradigm will shift. Companies who are too invested in the prior paradigm to be able to shift along with it are in for a rough time.
Nintendo has been around long enough to have become a little set in its ways commercially, despite the technical innovation that drives it. It happens. Years and decades of refining your business technique to become the perfect shark in your area of your industry, and it can be tough to maintain the split-focus you need when something shakes it up. Smartphones have done just that. They could kill the DS stone dead, and although you hear more about the Wii (perhaps because smartphones have already begun to drag attention away from game-only handhelds – when’s the last time the PSP made any headlines?) the DS is one of Nintendo’s two core platforms. That’s got to hurt.
Nintendo needs to make a decision about the handheld/mobile market. Up till now, it’s been in the device business as well as the game business, selling the platform, making games, and exercising absolute control over third-party developers. If it wants to keep doing what it’s doing with the DS, then the DS needs to compete head to head with the smartphones – which means, Nintendo needs to get into the smartphone business. I’m no industry expert, but to me that looks like several billion dollars’ worth of scary. Could Nintendo turn the next-generation DS into an iPhone killer? An Android killer? Could it go toe to toe with Nokia, Motorola, and Apple to get its new smartphone out there in sufficient numbers to create a viable market for its games and apps? Imagine if Nokia or Motorola suddenly announced a new game console and gleefully predicted it would kill the Xbox, the PS3, and the Wii. Very long odds. Would a DS phone be a Wind from Heaven or a kamikaze? There’s only one way to find out.
After the Dreamcast failed, Sega got out of the console business and focused on the game business. They’re still around a decade later, and doing very nicely, thank you. Discontinuing the DS would be painful, there’s no doubt of that, but letting it stagger on until smartphones finally kill it off would probably be worse. And with the installed base offered by the iPhone and Android platforms alone, Mario and friends would have new lands to conquer.
I know what I would do, although I’m realistic about the chances of finding Iwata-san on Line One asking my advice.
I have worked as a localization editor on a half-dozen or so projects ranging from an MMORPG being imported from Asia to mobile phone games whose code and initial text were developed in eastern Europe. Here are a few things these projects have taught me, both as a writer/editor and as a freelancer.
1. Know What You’re Getting Into
Or more specifically, how much you’re getting into. The client may quote you a number of entries, but the number of entries is only a very rough guide to the amount of work required. Quite apart from the amount of editing the text requires, the number of entries gives you no real idea of the starting word count. Depending on the platform an entry may be as short as 2-3 words or as long as a half-dozen paragraphs.
There’s nothing wrong with being paid by the entry, so long as you know how many words there are in the average entry – if you don’t, you could be letting yourself in for a lot more work than you expect, and a lot more than you quoted for. Always get a word count when you can. – or better still, sign a non-disclosure agreement and look at the work before you agree a price. If neither of these is possible, negotiate an hourly rate.
2. Learn to Love Excel
This kind of task is almost always done in Excel rather than Word. Excel is not the friendliest environment for text editing, but it does support automated uploading of text to the game program, and that is why producers prefer it for this purpose.
For reasons that will be made clear later, there is no way around this. Excel – learn it, love it, live with it. The alternative – if there is one – may be some home-brewed text management system, and they are usually far less friendly even than Excel.
3. Establish Word and Character Length Limits
Before starting work, ask the client if there are any limitations on the number of words (or, more usually, the number of characters, including spaces and punctuation) in an entry or type of entry. In general, the smaller the screen on the target platform, the more likely it is that character count will be an issue.
Once you know the maximum character length for an entry, here is a neat trick that will have Excel monitor the character count for you:
- Enter the maximum number of characters in a cell to the right of the edited text.
- In the next column, enter “=LEN(A1)” where A1 is the cell with the edited text. This column will display the actual character count for the text in cell A1.
- In the next column, enter “=IF(B1-C1>0; “OK”; “Too long”)” where B1 is the cell displaying the maximum character count from step 1 and C1 is the cell displaying the actual character count from step 2. This cell will now display “OK” or “Too long” according to the number of characters in cell A1, so you can see at a glance whether you are within the limit.
- You can copy these three cells into the entire column and Excel will automatically update row numbers as required.
4. Beware of Codes and Macros
Some of the original text may include codes for paragraph breaks, special characters, fonts, and so forth. Always get a list from the client to avoid deleting them by mistake, so that you can enter them correctly in the edited text, and so you can spot errors. The client may tell you not to worry about this, but you should. Original text may also include macros of various sorts, which will be attached to the spreadsheet cells in which the text appears and will not normally be visible. These can be lost if, for example, you copy the text into Word for editing and then copy it back into Excel.
5. Show Your Work
Unless the client insists otherwise (which may be because of macros) use a new column for the edited/rewritten text, so that the original and edited text can be examined side by side. This will help the client in the event that your editing turns out to be based on a misinterpretation of the meaning of the original. Original text can sometimes be ambiguous. If this is not possible, highlight the cells in which you have changed text by using a different background or text color.
6. Edit, Don’t Write
The product is already made, and the story is set. No matter how much you think you could improve the story, do not rewrite to change story elements, as this can cause problems. Just fix up the text. But see below.
7. Look for Cultural References
A game that is imported from overseas will probably use metaphors from its language and culture of origin, and these may be literally translated. There will almost certainly be other cultural references, included knowingly or otherwise. Here are a couple of examples:
A game developed in Asia may refer to rice cakes instead of rations; this is easy to fix, provided you check it with the client first. There could be art or other ramifications to changing the word without telling anyone.
A game from Russia may have tough guys calling other characters “darling” regardless of gender. This does not imply anything about the speaker’s sexuality, because terms of endearment are often used ironically in the Russian vernacular; instead, it implies a put-down. The phrase will have to be changed for an American audience, to something less ironic and more directly insulting.
If you are lucky (and the text is clean) most of what you don’t understand in the original text will be some kind of cultural reference. Ask at the outset whether you will have access to the overseas writers and/or a locally-based speaker of the original language, so you can clear up any questions or problems quickly.
8. Eschew Exuberant Punctuation
In Asia, particularly, it is common to use multiple sentence ending punctuation marks, especially question marks and exclamation points, to convey emphasis. The text can look like a written version of the archetypal screaming Japanese game show host, and this may not be the desired tone for the game. Check with the client first, but as a rule only use single sentence end punctuation and convey emphasis through word choice and sentence construction.
9. Typos are a Universal Language
At the start of the project, get a definitive list of character, place, and creature names from the client. There is no guarantee that they will be spelled consistently in the original text. If in doubt, query. A dargon may be a mis-spelled dragon, or it may be a completely different creature.
10. Clear Name Changes in Advance
Sometimes a name will have to be changed, either because it is too similar to another name in the game (like the dragon and dargon example above), or because it has a sound or meaning in English that is laughable or runs counter to the game’s intended tone in some other way (for example, a spell that conjures a scalding explosion of steam may be called Wet Bang in the original text). Be aware, too, that the original text may be the work of multiple translators, each with their own way of rendering names into English. The Dark Wood and the Forest of Gloom could be the same place.
Always run suggested changes by the client before making them in the text, as the original names may be tied to art and code entities and those links may be broken if the change goes unnoticed. Also, you may not be the only editor on the job – especially if it is an MMORPG with tens of thousands of lines of text – in which case the client will need to juggle the input of multiple contract editors. The sooner you get your suggestion in, the more likely it is to be the one that sticks.
The core gameplay involved strategy and resource management as the player tried to complete a castle on schedule. More workers made the work go faster – provided you got the mix of skills right – but guards were also needed in case of an attack by unfriendly locals.
All well and good. But what made this game special in my eyes was the way it integrated interactive stories. Every so often a screen would pop up showing an adviser or other character asking the player to make a decision. Vikings are attacking elsewhere in the kingdom! Do you: (a) ignore them (they raid and loot, and your revenue goes down); (b) send troops (leaving less to guard your castle); or (c) buy them off with Danegeld (expensive, and may lead to other Vikings showing up later to demand money).
Mechanically, it was a piece of cake. In terms of design, a storyline was no less taxing than a conversation tree in a Monkey Island style adventure game or a short section from a numbered-paragraph gamebook. But I always felt that the little stories added a lot to the game, and I’ve often wondered why no one else has used this cheap and effective technique. RTS games continued to emphasize building and resource management, but their storylines became more linear as their cutscenes and other narrative elements became more expensive to create. I imagine the prevailing thinking was that it would be wasteful to create narrative animations or video clips that the player might not see because of a decision made earlier in the game.
Visually, there’s no question that subsequent generations of RTS games were – and still are – far ahead of Castles. The stories, while more linear, are richer as well. But something about this humble little mechanic still charms me. It’s interactive storytelling, albeit on a modest scale, and even that small amount of interactivity added something to the game that was out of proportion to its cost. To me, it was a good mechanic that disappeared not because a better mechanic came along, but because no one figured out how to make it work with cutting edge visuals.
Now don’t get me wrong; I love good-looking games. But when the choice arises to create better gameplay or better visuals, is gameplay underserved? Visuals have that instant impact – great screen shots, jaw-dropping trailers – that serves a marketing function as well as making the game better. Gameplay is harder to see without actually playing the game, which no one will do unless they have been inspired to buy it – probably by jaw-dropping visuals. Word of mouth happens, to be sure, but it takes time, and in today’s release-driven market two or three other games with jaw-dropping visuals have started to hog the limelight by the time the word of mouth on your game has had a chance to build.
I’m not really sure where I’m going with this train of thought. Not into an anti-art, anti-marketing, design purist rant, because I know that making a great game without marketing it is like smiling in the dark: very nice for you, but who else cares? I know that all the elements of a game – design, art, audio, engineering – have to work together in order to make something that is greater than the sum of its parts, and I know that in order to achieve that, compromises have to be made in all areas. I guess I’m wondering whether anyone from a discipline other than design or writing has any similar regrets.