John Featherstone

25 April 2016

Video games writing: it’s not all in the game

The conversations usually go something like this:

  • “And what do you do?”
  • “I’m a writer. I mainly work for video games companies.”
  • “Wow, so you’re a scriptwriter? Cool!”
  • “Well, no. I produce all the other stuff – you know, like instructional text and sales copy.”
  • “How interesting… Oh, I must talk to <insert name of person standing behind me>.”

Aside from the fact that I desperately need to improve my party patter, these regular exchanges all suggest one thing: most people have a limited understanding of the functions performed by video games writers.

Twenty years ago, their assumptions would have been closer to the truth – but twenty years is a long time in an industry as vibrant and fast-moving as the video games sector.

Ready Player 1: The Rise of the Games Writer

Following the birth of the industry in the 1970s, early video games were too basic to support complex narratives, so even scriptwriters were seen as a luxury. Meanwhile, other writing tasks such as instructional text and marketing copy were often completed by the game developers themselves.

By the time I entered the industry in 2000, however, technological advances and the commercial successes of a string of story-led titles had resulted in scriptwriters becoming permanent fixtures on development teams. The larger publishers had also begun to hire technical authors to improve the quality of the documentation that shipped with their games.

It was while working as a manual writer for Electronic Arts that I first came to appreciate just how many copywriting opportunities existed within the industry. I also quickly realised how rapidly the sector – and, with it, the nature of those opportunities – was evolving.

In recent years, the growth of ‘casual games’ propelled by the popularity of social media and smart phones, and the increase in digital distribution fuelled by ever-improving broadband speeds have had especially significant impacts on writers working in the industry.

The ‘democratisation of game development’ facilitated by these trends has resulted in a proliferation of start-up studios that has, in turn, forced the sector’s major players into comprehensive restructures. Both of these events have created a host of fresh employment opportunities.

Press Any Key: A World of Opportunity

Before I lose you to the blogger standing behind me, then, let me provide you with an idea of what those requirements look like today:

  • Product descriptions: Traditional ‘back of box’ copy is rapidly migrating online as digital distribution platforms increase in popularity. Product descriptions are now just as likely to be seen on platforms such as Steam, Xbox Live Marketplace and PlayStation Store as they are on high street shelves.
  • Game instruction: The humble manual booklet is a rare sight these days, but that doesn’t mean game play instruction is no longer required. Explanation of increasingly complex interactive experiences is now largely handled by in-game manuals and interactive tutorials.
  • Web copy: The industry’s web copy demands have increased exponentially over the last decade. From ghost-writing developer diaries and penning blog posts to producing game play-enhancing material such as character bios, the opportunities are many and varied.
  • In-game text: Storyline, dialogue and instruction aren’t the only in-game areas requiring a scribbler’s skills. From game menus to context-sensitive prompts, somebody has to pen all the ancillary copy and, with titles constantly pushing new boundaries, in-game text is a growing requirement.
  • Creative strategy: With start-ups frequently entering the industry and the number of new game franchises increasing all the time, style guide, positioning, tagline and game naming projects provide regular employment for freelance writers.
  • PR work: All the major publishers have their own PR departments. However, the opportunities to provide smaller developers with press releases and other PR staples are numerous.
  • Advertising: Like every other product, video games need to be advertised. Whether they are required for print, video or web ads, there’s an insatiable desire in the industry for words that sell.
  • Trade marketing: Assets such as sell sheets, consumer leaflets and retail brochures continue to form a core element of the video game copywriter’s workload.

Levelling Up: What Does the Future Hold?

So there you have it: there’s plenty more to video games writing than just scriptwriting. What’s more, five years from now when virtual and augmented reality gaming experiences are more established, you can be sure the sector’s copy requirements will have undergone further evolution.

Writers wishing to work in the industry in the coming years will need to stay on top of these ever-changing demands and, above all, keep their skills relevant. Those who do manage to ‘level up’ will be glad they did because for a sector in continuous flux, one constant remains: the video games industry is an exciting and rewarding place in which to work.

Have you written for the video games industry? Let us know about your experiences below.

John Featherstone is a freelance copywriter specialising in the video games industry. He writes for a range of clients, from start-ups to world-renowned publishers such as EA, Ubisoft, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, Square Enix and 505 Games. You can find out more about him at copyrepublic.com