Karate Kicking Your Way Into The Game Industry

So, I go to a con, I generally give a panel about “writing for the game industry,” which at the con usually means, “how to break into the pen-and-paper game industry.”

It’s often a widely-attended panel, by which I mean, you get seven people staring at you.

Clearly quite popular.

I don’t know that I have a great deal of explosive information to offer, but it seems like maybe I should come here and speak on the topic for any who care about such things. I generally get similar questions, and generally provide similar answers, so let this post serve as a small catalog of that talkery.

“How Did You ‘Break’ Into The Game Industry?”

I fought Justin Achilli. We were both dressed as bears.

I loaded a machine gun with d10s, and kung-fu’ed the White Wolf doors down, and shot dice into their brains, and inside their skulls the dice rattled and rolled until each one came up a shining, mighty 10. I’m making a note here, huge success.

I made Ken Cliffe drink my hypnotizing urine.

I never worked in the game industry. It has been a carefully constructed Internet lie.

Or, invent your own story!

Ahem, no. My path to Roleplaying Stardom (shut up) started eleven years ago. The ever-excellent Bruce Baugh, through the always-drunk Ken Cliffe, put out a “writer’s all-call” for Hunter: The Reckoning that basically said, “Write 1000 words on what Hunter means to you.” I thought about writing some kind of sexy Valentine’s Day card to some dude named “Hunter” and sending that in, seeing if I could get points for humor, but I figured hinging my first professional writing gig on what amounts to a “middle finger” would be a horrible idea.

Instead, I wrote a thousand probably-pretentious words about internal and external loci of control. So, playing an Imbued Hunter was representative of shifting your locus of control from external (the world controls me) to internal (I control the world).

It passed the gauntlet of Bruce, then Ken, and next thing I knew I was working on two books for the game line, and then Demon work started coming in, and then Tribebook: Stargazers and suddenly I blinked and it’s 85 books later. And 11 years. Holy shit, 11 years.

“How Can I Get In On One Of These So-Called All-Calls?”

You don’t. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen White Wolf do another all-call. That’s not to say a game company might not advertise for freelance positions. They probably do. But I don’t know that you’ll find the exact permutations duplicated again.

Point being, I don’t know that One True Path Into The Game Industry exists. Everybody seems to find their own way in. It’s a small enough industry that this isn’t totally bizarre. Every tunnel carved into the industry is demoed after you pass through it; it collapses in on itself so that no others may crawl that path.

“So What The Fuck Do I Do?”

If you’re smart, you run the hell away. Go get a cubicle job somewhere. It’ll pay better. It’ll look proper on a resume. It’ll earn you more respect in the world. Seriously. Try telling someone you “write RPGs.” Or, “write games.” Unless that person actually plays pen-and-paper role-playing games, you’ll receive one of several likely responses:

“I love roleplaying games. I play World of Warcraft. Do you write that?”

“I love video games! Tetris rules. Do you write Tetris?”

“Are you a programmer?”

“Like, what does that even mean?”

“You write Dungeons & Dragons?”

And on, and on.

Of course, you’re potentially one of those persistent weirdos who really loves games, and so as moth-to-flame, you are drawn ineluctably toward the shiny-burny. Presuming you therefore will not deviate from this immolation, then you might want to consider a few things…

Don’t Suck As A Writer

“Game writing” isn’t “game writing,” it’s just “writing.”

I’m not saying it doesn’t require its own special considerations; it does. But if you’re a shitty writer, you’re a shitty game writer. If you’re a good writer, you might make a good game writer. Writing is writing, by which I mean, writing is communicating using the written word. Whether you’re writing a pamphlet, a menu, a game book, a novel or a suicide note, good writing remains good, and bad writing remains stinkworthy.

Thus, learn to write.

Do not attempt to emulate the writing in pen-and-paper games. The quality across the entire industry is dubious. Not universally bad, no. Some game writing is jaw-dropping in quality. I’ve had the fortune of working amidst such quality (need I say named like Hindmarch, Laws, Ingham? The industry has many holy trinities). I’ve also had the misfortune of reading some truly bad writing in game books, writing that is eye-watering with the foul stench of inability and uncertainty.

It might not be the worst idea to refer to another post on this’n bloggery: “Crap Habits Of A Highly Ineffective Professional Writer.” Try that on for size.

Present Your Ability In Public

And let me add: “for free.”

Yes, I did my 1000-words for the all-call. It probably didn’t hurt that, prior to that point, I’d done a handful of free resources at Ex Libris Nocturnis. I worked on those as if they were not free, but paid resources. Meaning, I strove for quality and did not dismiss them as piffle, because I was really hoping they’d serve as examples of work rather than bullshit free nonsense on the garbage-choked Internet.

You are a fan, but don’t act like one. Act like a resource. A knowledgeable, friendly resource.

Further, Don’t Present Only Game Writing

When putting work online or submitting material to companies, I’d suggest presenting broadly. Fiction? Essays? Interesting and well-written blog posts? Yes, yes, and yes. All in addition to good game material. When I was developing, I was far more interested in those who could write broadly. See, game writing necessitates wearing many hats: fiction writer, essayist, advice columnist, system monkey, level designer, and so forth. The more aptly you can handle work in multiple arenas, the better you become as a writer and the more sought after you become in the industry. If you’re the best damn fiction writer only, you might get work. But fiction writing in the game industry isn’t often a big chunk of text, so that might be the only work you get. Meaning, minimal word count across fewer books.

Further, be advised:

Game design is not the same as game writing.

A designer can design all he wants, but if that design cannot be communicated properly, then that design is meaningless. The game writer must communicate good design. In a perfect world, the game writer is also capable of good design.

The 2/3rds Rule

I think this was once in regards to “writing for the comic book industry,” but I suspect it works here, too: if you’re two of the following three things, you’ll probably succeed in the industry: fast, friendly, or good.

Fast means, get your shit in on time, or even early.

Friendly means, service with a motherfucking smile.

Good is good. Don’t suck. Be excellent.

Being “fast” got me lots of work. You can write the most awesomest shiznit anybody has ever seen, but if you pile all that awesomeness into the Slow Boat To China, then it really doesn’t matter, does it? Being fast allowed me to step in where, frankly, sadly, other writers couldn’t hack it. “Someone wasn’t able to do this, can you get 30,000 words to me this weekend? Can you write a short story in five minutes? A game system in 17 seconds?”

Turning it in fast, and turning in good work, helped. I don’t think I’m a great writer, but I think I’m a good one. Solid, dependable. Not sure if I’m friendly or not? I try to be.

So, you can go for two out of three. Me, I say aim for all three.

“Will It Make Me Rich?”

Rich and famous. Your game writing will get you laid. On your yacht. Off the coast of your own personal island. Just last week, I had to break up with Lindsay Lohan.

No, game writing will not make you rich.

If you do a lot of it and for long enough, you might be able to sustain yourself, though. Which I think is the case for most freelance writing. You can sustain. Never rich, but never starve.

Be sure to get paid, though. If someone plans on making money off of it, then you should be making money. Doesn’t need to be a lot, but if their idea of “pay” is some weird fraction of a penny (per word), then I personally would suggest making a jerk-off motion in their general direction. That’s just me, though. You want to work for some dude’s testicular lint, that’s your choice.

Questions, Comments, Prayer Requests, Death Threats?

That’s pretty much that.

Other game professionals: do you have advice? Further thoughts? Conflicting info? Share and share alike.

Everybody else: got additional questions? Pop ’em into the comments. I’ll attempt to address.