HOW TO FIND THE BEST WRITER FOR YOUR GAME
There are actually three issues here when it comes to answering the question "Do I need a writer?" Those three issues are why, when, and who.
WHY DO I NEED A WRITER?
Why do you need a programmer? Why do you need an artist? Why do you need a sound engineer? Each one of these professionals has the specific skills, training, experience and knowledge to give you what you need to make the best game possible.
When it comes to creating worlds, story, characters and dialogue, you should also want the best result possible. Sure, you can say "anybody can write", if you aren't too picky. And I can draw...sort of. I don't think you'd want me to do your animation. Turning out a quality product means using the right person for the job.
Games are best served by writers who are trained to write drama, meaning a story of human conflict communicated by means of speech and action to an audience. Drama is a format, not a genre. Every play Shakespeare wrote is drama, because they're intended to be performed on a stage, but Shakespeare's plays cover the full range of tragedy and comedy.
All existing forms of drama -- stage, movies, live-action television, animation, and now games --share the fact that everything is conveyed via two senses: sight and sound. Writers working in drama learn a specialized form of writing designed to create the most effective impact using these two senses alone.
A good drama writer translates goals, story structure, arcs, motivations, needs, desires, pain, joy, anger and the entire range of human action/reaction into the right mix of images and words.
Reading the job requirements for a Game Designer these days is like reading a laundry list for a Superhuman. It's expected that the Game Designer can do code, art, management and everything else under the sun, plus be a top-notch drama writer. This is highly unrealistic.
All but the most simplistic of games benefit from the input of a professional drama writer. A professional drama writer has both talent and craft, earned by hard work and honed by experience; understands the needs of budget and schedule, as well as knowing how to deal with the pressures of deadlines; and knows how to collaborate with a team.
WHEN DO I NEED A WRITER?
Ideally, a Designer-Writer should be a part of the creative team from the beginning. A Designer-Writer can focus on the world-building, story, plot, quests, mission, characters and dialogue, and keep those elements in balance with gameplay and other concerns. This type of writer would need to have an understanding of or experience with the interactive development process.
The earlier in the process you can involve a writer (whether a Designer-Writer or other media writer), the better for your game. Unless you're creating a game that truly has NO story, characters or dialogue, a writer will contribute every step of the way to keeping the story fresh and new, to making your characters engaging, to tracking the progress of plot points, and handling your cinematics, cut scenes and dialogue.
However, let's say you're somewhere in the development process and suddenly realize that you need someone to add story, or write those cinematics or that dialogue.
WHO SHOULD I HIRE?
You may be looking for a writer to create strictly linear, non-interactive elements such as a world history or the cinematics. If that's the case, the type of writer may not matter as much to you.
If you do want a writer who can understand and deal with more of the interactive aspects, think in a non-linear manner, adapt to your specific needs, and perhaps even use your proprietary tools, the extra qualification to look for is cross-media experience, meaning writers who: a) have done other game writing before; or b) have worked in more than one media format.
Aside from finding a writer who has already worked in games, the next best bet is to find a writer who has worked in two or more of the media discussed in this article. A writer who has written for both animation and comics is not that hard to find anymore. This type of writer is more likely to be flexible and understand the needs of different formats than a writer who has only worked in one medium. A writer with credits in animation, live-action and comics is an even better bet. A novelist who has also sold a TV or film script is a better choice than a prose writer who hasn't.
There are many WGA (Writers Guild of America) writers (both animation and live-action) who have designed and written games. Those credits should show up amongst their other credits.
This is assuming, of course, that you haven't called a peer in the business who you know has worked with a writer and asked for a recommendation. This seems like an obvious first step, but be sure you also ask how your peer found the writer and how that writer worked out.
In the near future, you will also have another vitally useful resource to tap. The WGA is creating an on-line directory of game, interactive and "new media" writers. It's in beta-testing now. When it's up and running, I'll post a link to it.
I'll discuss the relative merits and drawbacks, and make suggestions for how to conduct the search for these types of writers:
TELEVISION ANIMATION WRITERS
If you were to examine an animation script vs. a live-action script, you would see they're not the same. Though they use the same basic layout and elements (sluglines, action, dialogue and transitions), an animation script is a different animal. In a live-action script, writers are strongly discouraged from including angles or stage directions, unless absolutely necessary. In animation scripts, it's precisely the opposite.
And it's this difference that makes an animation writer especially well suited to writing for games. The animation writer must storyboard each scene in her head, then write the script that way, calling out each shot in detail. So while a live-action writer and an animation writer both write what they mentally visualize, an animation writer must put it down in such detail that a storyboard artist can turn the writer's words into a storyboard that matches the writer's intent. This trains an animation writer to have both a strong, focused ability to visualize.
Games are animated. Unless you're resorting to the now-abandoned practice of filming live actors, your game relies on animated characters and sets. Animation writers are not only trained to visualize in detail, they visualize in the style and form of animation.
Experienced TV animation writers understand limitations of budget. They learn clever tricks to work around the limitations of the type of low-budget animation commonly used on television. They're accustomed to limiting the number of backgrounds they can call for, the number of characters they can use, or even the number of speaking lines they can write. This makes them well-suited to dealing with the fluid process of game development where changes in schedule or budget can have an impact.
Television animation writers learn to write under tight deadlines. An animation writer is commonly expected to turn around an entire outline and script (say, 35-40 pages for a half-hour show) in one to two weeks. When you need a writer who understands tight schedules and can write quickly, an episodic TV animation writer is a really good bet.
Animation writers are trained to write short scenes and short dialogue to create tightly compacted scripts. This is important for games, where you want to have great scenes and dialogue in the shortest possible amount of time on-screen. Animation TV writers must keep dialogue pithy for reasons having to do with recording time, the work that goes into lip-synching, and the fact that characters in limited animation don't look that good close-up for minutes on end. They learn how to break up dialogue and work it into several shots, instead of one, too-long shot. And they learn how to get into and through a scene with speed and efficiency.
Animation TV writers routinely work in collaboration with a producer (any number of them), story-editor, maybe a director and storyboard artist. They're used to getting notes and input, then having to implement them in a way that makes everybody happy. A successful animation writer is a good team person.
Another strength is that animation writers work mostly in the same genres that are the mainstays of games -- sci fi, fantasy, action-adventure. I exclude the sitcom style shows (The Simpsons, King of the Hill), which are written by live-action sitcom writers and don't fit into this category of writing, regardless of their being animated.
Since most animation shows fall into the same genres as are used in games, you're starting with a writer who is already well-versed in those genres and loves them. She won't be trying to reinvent the wheel and will know what has been done to death vs. what is creative and original.
Another quirk about television animation writers is that they're amongst the most computer-fluent writers in Hollywood or publishing. This goes back mostly to one particular story-editor in the 1980's who would only use writers who worked on computer and could send their scripts in via a private BBS (which is why I had to jump overnight from a typewriter to a Kaypro 10, learn to write in CP/M Wordstar, and send in send my scripts with a lightning-fast 300 baud modem). The practice spread amongst the relatively small group of animation writers, so that they ended up being wired pretty far in advance of the rest of the business. This won't be true of every animation writer today, of course, but the odds are better of finding a more techno-oriented writer who can adapt to using proprietary software, if necessary.
The one real drawback to using a television animation writer is the same one you would have for using any writer that is accustomed to working in a linear medium and may not adapt well to non-linear writing.
To find the right animation writer for your project, you could sit around watching a whole lot of animation and making notes of the names of writers you like. The difficulty may be that your schedule doesn't allow time for that, plus you can never be quite sure how much of what you see on the screen came from the original writer and how much was rewritten by a story-editor.
It will help to have at least some sense of what current animation shows are like, so that you know what type of animation writer you want to find. There are serious dark action shows like Batman, or serious teen-oriented action shows like Teen Titans, or humorous warm-hearted action shows like Jackie Chan Adventures, cute spunky teen action shows like Disney's Kim Possible, or anime-influenced shows such as Samurai Jack. This can at least help you narrow down your search to writers who tend to do harder-edged shows or writers who do a lot of lighter, funnier shows. However, all animation writers are good at putting humor into shows because nearly all shows demand it.
For more information on animation writers, contact the WGA's (Writers Guild of America) Animation Writers Caucus (323-782-4511). They can send you their Animation Writers Directory that will give you credits and agent information. Or you can Google on "animation writer" to find individual websites for animation writers and contact them directly.
COMIC BOOK WRITERS
Although comic book writers are a stretch to call drama writers, they still represent writers telling stories of conflict through a use of dialogue and visuals. Their dialogue just happens to be written rather than spoken.
The medium of comics has matured. Those who know the current comic books and graphic novels on the market know that there are some truly fine writers working in this medium.
Furthermore, there are more and more crossovers between drama writing and comics so that you end up with the creator/writer of the Babylon 5 TV series writing Spider-Man, and creator/writer of Buffy writing Flay, his own book based on the Slayer mythos.
Like animation writers, comic book writers tend to work in the same genres as games. Although superhero games are rare, the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and action-adventure are well represented. Plus they write for a primary demographic that matches that of most games -- the young male audience.
Comic book writers with the major publishers are accustomed to meeting monthly deadlines, and those writers working independently know that the key to success is to keep the book appearing on a regular schedule. An inquiry at a local comic book store will reveal how well a writer keeps up with deadlines by whether or not the book comes out on time.
All comic book writers need to have a good rapport for dealing with artists (with the exception of the writer-artist who does both, in which case the writer has an even better understanding of dealing with an artist), so they understand the collaborative process.
Also like animation writers, comic book writers are trained to write short dialogue. This is forced on them by the limitations of how many images and how many words will fit on a printed page. Likewise, comic book writers must be good at visualizing what they write and communicating that clearly to an artist for realization on the comics page.
Comics aren't necessarily a linear medium. There's more freedom on the printed page to range across both time and space. A single page can encompass a change in time from the beginning of existence to the present. It can encompass a single image split into fractions of a second, or a dozen images encapsulating the same nano-second. Change of locale, of time, of perception are tools of the comic writer's craft, in addition to linear storytelling.
The main and most obvious drawback is that a comic book artist is dealing with a static art form. The page is there, unchanged, for as long as the viewer wants to absorb it. It doesn't move across a screen. All the same, a good comic book writer is often able to think cinematically and make the adjustment with more ease than a prose fiction writer.
Finding a good comic book writer means reading what's out there. There are numerous websites that review comics, but it's better to visit a comic book store and discover for yourself the comics and graphic novels that catch your attention (perhaps going beyond the favorites you already know).
As a guide to certain books to investigate, you might want to take a look at who has been nominated for the Eisner Awards for writing comics, as this is the highest award given by one's peers in the field. The 2003 nominees are listed at the Comic Con International website. Scroll way down to find the "Best Writer" category. Nominees for the previous years can be found by doing a Google on "Eisner Awards".
LIVE-ACTION TELEVISION WRITERS
Many of the same strengths of animation writers apply to live-action television writers, especially those who work in episodic television. They think visually, meet tight deadlines, and work collaboratively. Most TV shows require writers to use Final Draft or a similar scriptwriting program, so episodic writers are at least somewhat accustomed to writing with specialized software.
The reason they're further down on the list is that episodic TV writers tend to be heavily tied up during the development season. They're usually writing 12-15 hours a day for weeks on end. You might be able to catch one during the hiatus season, when the series writing season ends and before the next staffing season begins (very roughly, this hiatus would be between the end of April to about the end of July), but that's usually when they want to spend time working on their own pet projects, or simply recuperate from the harsh TV schedule.
Not every good live-action TV writer ends up on staff every season, however, so you could find one available while not on staff. What you may run up against are high expectations for a writing fee and lack of knowledge about games. You need to decide whether having a "name" or simply having someone with live-action credits is enough to justify a higher fee.
If all you want the writer to do is write cinematics in a standard script format, live-action TV writers can certainly handle that, but they don't write scenes in an artist-friendly way and they're used to letting characters talk freely without restriction in the length of dialogue. You'll have to caution them to keep the scenes and dialogue short. Be specific about length. They will understand completely if you say, "No more than 1 1/2 minutes" and will know exactly what they can fit within that time limit.
You should look for those live-action TV writers who have worked in the genres that most closely match the game you're doing. You can do searches by name, series title or other credits on imdb.com (the Internet Movie Database)to locate who wrote what. If you go to a series listing, scroll down to the bottom of the actor's credits and click on "(more)". This will bring up a list of writers for the series or for individual episodes.
Bear in mind that most episodic TV is work done by committee. It is very rare that any one writer completes an entire episode no matter what the credits say. Staff writers tend to break down the beats of an episode as a team. One writer may write the first three acts while a different writer writes the last couple of acts. Then a story-editor or producer often does a substantial rewrite. Should you ask an episodic scriptwriter for a writing sample, be sure to specify that it's entirely that writer's work.
You can Google to find episode guides for series, which will often include information on the writer(s) and a synopsis of the episode. And there's always the WGA which can give you the credits and agent contacts of specific writers. If you already have a writer's name, you can do a search at www.wga.org for credit and agent information.
FEATURE FILM WRITERS
Both live-action and animated feature writers are lumped into this category. If choosing between these two types, be advised to think of the animation feature writer first, for many of the reasons listed under Television Animation Writers. They think in animation, understand the parameters of working in animation, and know how to craft the required pithy dialogue.
Overall, feature writers are a "status" choice rather than a practical one. They will have even higher expectations for money. Live-action feature writers (with some exceptions) may not have much respect for games. Animation feature writers may tend suffer less from that syndrome.
This category is low on the list of choices due to the status and money problems, but also because feature writers tend to work on their own schedules and are not used to the same kind of tight deadlines as TV writers.
Furthermore, a feature writer works in a longer format, one with looser requirements for page count. Live-action writers aren't used to writing the kind of short dialogue that animation writers are trained to do. Animation feature writers deal with a much higher level of animation quality and higher budgets, so they don't have to restrict themselves in what they can ask the artists to do, unlike a TV animation writer.
However, if you feel you simply must go for the status, consult imdb.com to find out who wrote the movie that you're impressed with, and contact the WGA to get the agent's contact info (if it's not on imdb.com). Be prepared for the possibility of dealing with a high-powered agent who may or may not take you seriously.
Though book writers are not drama writers, it's only fair to cover them as well since there are so many superb sf, fantasy and action writers worth of attention.
A small percentage of writers do well at making the transition from prose writing to drama writing, or from drama writing to prose writing. It's a small percentage because the two media make significantly different demands on the writer's skill.
Basic talent remains the same. A good writer is a good writer. A good prose writer understands how to tell a story, create compelling characters, and have them speak in well-written dialogue.
A prose writer has the freedom to evoke the six senses, to convey thought and emotion in words, and to let the action, scenes and dialogue go on at great length. Reducing all of that down to the senses of sight and sound is where the crunch comes. No handy text description of emotion. No lengthy exposition. Beautifully crafted text descriptions won't be seen on the screen.
A prose writer may not think cinematically, nor visualize as cohesively as someone who writes for a visual medium. Prose tends to be extremely linear. Prose writers aren't accustomed to keeping scenes and dialogue short. Finally, most prose writers are not used to tight deadlines. The big exceptions to that statement are writers who produce media-related novels. Writers of tie-in books tend to have extremely tight deadlines and be very fast writers without sacrificing quality.
Obviously, if you decide to go with a prose writer, look for one that has worked in the genre you need, and consider looking most closely at authors on media-related novels.
One final note regarding how to talk about fees and payment when negotiating with a writer or writer's agent. Writers who do scripts for television, features, and animation get a flat fee to write a treatment (outline), then another flat fee to write a script (which usually includes a rewrite and a polish).
Staff episodic writers get both a flat fee and a week-to-week fee. The weekly fee alone is easily twice what most game companies are able to offer for a weekly rate.
Writers who write comics have a page rate (so many dollars per page of finished comic book, not page of script). Some of them may get royalties.
Writers of novels have advances against royalties, so they think in terms of a chunk up front, with expectations (or hopes, at least) of more money later.
Generally (with the exception mentioned), the above writers don't think in terms of a weekly or hourly rate. If you ask for that type of rate, they will likely draw a blank. Rather than having them flounder to come up with an hourly or weekly rate (if you require that), don't be shy about putting forward what the going rate is in the industry or what you can afford to pay.
Unless these writers have worked in games, you will need to educate them or their agents on what a "milestone" is and how that works in game development. Explaining that a milestone is a deadline should handle that nicely.