Women in Games Mixer and Working with Games Writers

Let me start with a yawn – i’m so goddamn tired! I’ve spent most of the week working on this RPG interface project. Not that i’m complaining, I took it to a level of complexity all of my own doing. I was up until 5am yesterday finishing it off. Thankfully living on campus is like a hotel – no-one complaining about my leccy bill!

In fact, I was up so late that I decided to sleep on the floor. Not the most hygienic of choices i’ll grant you but I didn’t want to be comfortable. It worked so well that I couldn’t sleep and at about 8am I crawled onto my bed. I think I got up about 10am. The reason? I wanted to get this project off to my tutor for some early feedback before tuesday’s deadline. It went well, my tutors were very kindly firing emails back and forth to me throughout the day. They were happy with what i’d produced and gave me some advice too.

The night before – and the reason why i’d been working late – I went to the Women in Games Mixer. I didn’t really know what to expect but it wasn’t what I expected. For starters I seemed to be the only undergraduate there, it was full of industry professionals (despite the website giving no indication of target audience). From the very beginning I was given a questionnaire about how many employees I had!

It was interesting but despite understanding all of the concepts discussed, I increasingly felt naive! I was completely blanked the whole evening – most of the professionals knew each other and stuck in groups. I managed to speak to one women from Rare but i’m not sure that she was very interested. I probably killed it when I responded to her job as programmer by saying that I wasn’t keen on going down a programming route!

The evening took the format of a panel who discussed their opinions and the questions that fed off them. I’m pretty sure they were all well-known in the industry but it was lost on me :-O The aim of the evening was to discuss why there were not so many women in the games industry and the top industry jobs. There were quite a few men there, in particular the panelist from EA said that they’d found it more effective having, in his words, a “female” in project management as they were better able to give employees a life-work balance (male teams tended to go for the “let’s all stay late and finish this” approach which is not always possible for everyone!).

One of the female panelists suggested that the reason there were less women in the industry (I think the quoted figures were between 5 and 18% in individual companies?) is because they didn’t see it as a career choice and cited examples of studies down where they had role-models, like the lady programmer, talk to young women and see the immediate, exccited response. It was also suggested that companies tend to hire “people like us” and the discussion chairperson did state that alot of industry adverts list “such and such game players wanted” as a prerequisite. This can lead to divisions – the example given was a friend of a panelist who read a book at lunchtime (a good way to feed your imagination I thought!) while all the guys in the office played Halo.

Cammeraderie is good but I think the warning was that if companies continue to hire “people like us” then they won’t evolve and employees who are not passionate about games may feel left out. You might wonder why anyone not passionate about games would be in the industry, but it was suggested that it might be better to hire people who are not passionate about games simply for the different viewpoint they can contribute – often being too close to a project you don’t notice it’s faults.

The evening was actually very short – it was stated as 6-9pm but the discussion part finished about 7.30pm. Afterwards everyone mingled but again, being both incredibly shy and not an industry professional, I felt increasingly left out. It was in central London so I had to make a long trip back to the flat anyway so actually didn’t get back until late – and then started working on my project.

After polishing up my project yesterday I went to the Working with Games Writers event in the evening. This was much more friendly atmosphere than the Women in Games event – alot of information was delivered. So much information that I ran out of paper and started scribbling on post-it notes, lol. The panel was made up of games writers from different backgrounds – some started in tv and radio for example – and who now worked as games writers in one of the two main ways: in-house or freelance.

Part of the reason I chose this course is because of my interest in stories. I’ve always found the stumbling block in games design to be when it comes to the technical things or when I try to make a story into a game – the panel advised that this was the wrong way round unless it’s an existing IP (Intellectual Property), and usually a games writer will take an existing game design and create from that because gameplay should come first before the story (otherwise you get a very nice non-interactive fmv!).

The panel discussed everything from what games writers do, when they become involved, their greivances, and who are games writers. It was very exciting and refreshing and I think I may finally have found a realistic direction to aim for (I may change my mind again in the coming 3 years mind!).

They stressed the importance of bringing games writers in to a project early – again alot of the audience were professional developers or people from other industries thinking about games writing (journalism). This has the benefit that the writer can be involved in the original brainstorming session and give early input as to how the story should develop. The more communication with a games writer then the easier it is for him/her to be abreast of any changes introduced – “Oh by the way we’re not doing level 6 anymore..” – that might have deeper ramifications for the storyline that the designer hadn’t thought of.

Unfortunately, the panel advised, developers usually thought of a games writer as simply a box to be ticked and would bring a writer in to the game very late, presenting him/her with a bunch of levels (nuclear powerstation, top of a skyscraper) and asking him/her to make a story to fit! But they were positive that this perception of the games writer is changing and developers who have used writers effectively are seeing the benefits.

They also discussed the advantages and disadvantages of working in-house and working freelance. In-house a writer can more easily be kept involved, can play the game and attend meetings, and generally has more presence than a freelance writer. However, being in-house means more interruptions and developers like to keep checking what your doing and if your working (writing however, can be sporadic and needs space).

Being freelance means you can write in your own time, at the desk or room you prefer and in your underwear if you want (The panel was very keen on the idea of writing in your underwear!lol), but it also means you can be out of the loop and different departments forget your involved when they remove a character or change the sequence of levels. The result being that the work you submit is rewritten (writers have to learn to let go) by someone on the design team who is not a professional writer. Had the writer been either in-house or kept involved via email/video chat they could make the quick changes more easily.

I was quite suprised at just how much a games writer can be involved in – project depending – and the panel outlined the following steps:

1) IP Creation – World Design
2) Story Design
3) Mission Design (context to missions etc)
4) Speech Design (What is said and the way it is said, speech triggers, RPG-Dialogue branches)
5) First Draft Script
6) Script Rewrite
7) Script Polishing
8) Ambient Dialogue
9) Level/Mission Dialogue
10) Combat Dialogue
11) Marketing Copy (Story summary, sell sheets for journalists, game box blurb)
12) Interviews
13) Manual (Little bit about control system, stories/anecdotes to make the manual fun, letters in the style of the game dialog)
14) Interface and Onscreen Text
15) Extras (Tie-in comics, animations, web content, novels etc)

It all sounds very exciting, lol, but they did advise sometimes a developer will just want them to do the dialogue – think 50 different ways of saying “we’re under attack!” – so writers have to give input where they can. Games writers are still not fully recognised so when they give ideas often people in the company feel they are just adding things to get more money!

That seems to be another area under development with games writers – money and representation. There are very little agencies and a varied pay scale for games writers. The event last night was hosted by the Writer’s Guild who can act as lawyers for writers, checking contracts, and suggest a pay guide (min ?300/day – note that work is often contractual) but this is not always followed by companies. The panel suggested it can give you more clout if you say “i’ll just run this contract by the Guild lawyers”.

There also doesn’t seem to be a defined way to get into Games Writing – Previously started games writer agencies usually collapsed due to lack of interest from Developers and there is no one format for a game script – it varies between projects. The panel seemed to suggest more success for people coming from existing industries like Television, Radio or Journalism, who are used to scripts in general but at the same time discouraged sending example scripts to companies? One way suggested was to start writing for the mod scene which is something I’m thinking of looking into. They also plugged a book Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames by IGDA (Inernational Game Developers Association) which looks very interesting. I spoke to one of the panelists after the event and she was suprised to learn my course is about Story Development so fingers crossed i’m in the right place!

The whole experience was quite enlightening, I don’t think there is any one rule for getting into the industry, people seem to get there in different ways, so that gives some encouragement.

I’m going to have some breakfast now (3pm, lol) I was supposed to go with a classmate to Sense of Play ’07 today but unfortunately I slept in!! This has not been a very healthy week for me – lots of late nights and since my money scare last week (I hadn’t realised just how poor I am!) I haven’t really been eating=S Not that it’s been a conscious decision, I just haven’t had time to go to Asda yet and there is next to no food in my fridge. I have pasta, lots of pasta…

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