The Viability of Spec Game Scripts

In this article, game writer Sande Chen weighs the primacy of gameplay inspiration over story, and story inspiration over gameplay, to opine on whether or not the game industry would ever accept spec game scripts.

[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month under the topics of Story Frameworks and Game Development.]

While the game industry may share some terminology with Hollywood, its business practices for story development are not that similar.  Therefore, when I've been asked on occasion if game companies routinely accept spec scripts or game ideas, I usually remark that if that happened, it would be very rare.  In a recent article, "Could there be a speculative script industry for narrative games?" writer Hannah Woods explored the possibility that this might change for interactive story games.

In general, I have found that most game companies start with tech or gameplay or a theme, but I've also seen games that very obviously were created story first, gameplay later.  In those cases, the game may seem like a collection of ideally related mini-games made to support the story.  For example, in Missing, a game about the tragedy of human trafficking, the gameplay goes in very short order from choosing branching narrative to an action mini-game and onward to resource management.  Cynically, I thought that even though the game appeared to have a way to escape the traffickers, I knew in deference to the story that the player-character would not be allowed to go free because otherwise, the full story of what happens to girls forced into prostitution would not be revealed.

Even when the basic gameplay is of primary concern, this does not necessarily mean that the story has been ignored.  Game designers often think about verbs associated with activities, so it may very well mean that the story elements have been the inspiration behind gameplay actions.  When the gameplay can become more interesting and complex in progression while also dovetailing with an exciting story, then the chances of ludonarrative dissonance are lower.  Our challenge is to have gameplay and story development working in concert.  My best experiences as a game writer have been when I've been treated as part of the team, leading to gameplay inspirations from the story, and vice versa.

Many game writers have complained that the gameplay first, story later methodology presents issues and as I pointed out above, going story first, gameplay later faces similar challenges.  Moreover, video games can be very different in their gameplay.  For this reason, how one approaches writing one game versus writing another game may be radically different. Therefore, for most games, especially the AAA games that most aspiring game writers would like to write, a spec game script would not make sense. But what about narrative-driven games?

Even within the umbrella of narrative games, there are different engines and different gameplay.  A text-based Twine game won't have the running and shooting actions that Mass Effect has. The only way I see spec game scripts working is if there's specificity for a particular engine and particular type of game.  That's how it is right now with companies like Choice of Games but if a writer wrote an entire spec game in ChoiceScript, I doubt another company would want it as is.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

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