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Postcard from Austin: Game Writers Conference Wrap-Up

At 8.00am on Wednesday October 26 2005, registration opened for the world’s first Game Writers Conference. As self-conscious scribes shuffled into a darkish conference ro...
At 8.00am on Wednesday October 26 2005, registration opened for the world’s first Game Writers Conference. As self-conscious scribes shuffled into a darkish conference room in Austin, Texas, big questions hung in the air - Was there the appetite for a conference on writing for games? Would the planned events cover what people wanted to hear? Susan O’Connor, the conference chair, relived her nightmares: "I didn’t know if anyone would turn up! Or if the promised speakers would arrive!" With five minutes to go, Susan’s first worry was over. The two hundred allocated seats were filled, people lined the walls and camped out on the carpet. The people had come…but would the speakers? As the audience composed of everyone from game design students to seriously heavyweight Hollywood writers waited, the conference’s first speaker, Mr Half-Life himself – Valve's Marc Laidlaw – arrived… and he brought his muse. Opening the conference with this 'Gaming The Narrative' talk, Marc Laidlaw set the style for the next two days. This was a conference that was going to grasp the nettle and tackle all the hot topics that exist in writing for games, the big three being – do games need stories? What is a games writer? And can Hollywood writers do it better? Throwing the cat amongst the pigeons, Marc declared "Games don’t need a story - writers in the games industry are essentially unnecessary". Taken out of context, this could have been dynamite, but his point was that games must answer the question ‘is it fun to play?’, before they turn to the story, or even the art. This statement went to the heart of what many speakers were to discuss, the need for games writers to understand that they serve the player. Storytelling for games only works if it is immersive and interactive. Forget this and you’re not writing a game. Next up was Hal Barwood's 'The Language of Games' talk, and the conference’s second session explored writing from the early days of film to the latest game models. Barwood, now a freelance writer/designer whose credits include much work for LucasArts, and who has also worked as a writer, producer and director in Hollywood, emphasized Marc Laidlaw’s point that games writing is a new evolution of writing. To master it you must understand "how to align the player with the story", so that you can "retain player involvement". In other words, Barwood cautioned that you should learn from Hollywood, but also learn to move on beyond it into the new world of games writing. Creative Director at Ubisoft, Clint Hocking stands behind the Splinter Cell titles, and discussed 'From Concept to Localization – A Case Study For Writers' in his lecture. Stepping outside writing philosophy, this was a nuts and bolts examination of how a writer fits into the development team, and a nod to the conference’s strength in tackling writing from all sides. In a nutshell, writing a script for a game is part of a process and writers must understand their place within that process if they are to succeed. Next up was Maureen McHugh, a freelancer working for the shadowy 4orty 2wo Entertainment, producing ARGs. ARGs (alternate reality games) are an odd type of game that subvert the normal world. Normally hinging on websites, the games extend out into the players’ lives. They receive emails and other communication, and end up map chasing payphones in order to communicate with characters within the game. For many this was their first introduction to the concept, a demonstration of the breadth of different games that exist, and it left everyone in the hall wanting to sign up for the next ARG experience. Changing the format, the next part of the day saw the delegates split into different rooms for round table discussions. Topics such as 'Distributed Storytelling', 'Emotion in Games' and 'Next Generation Storytelling' were cathartic therapy sessions where writers and designers aired their grievances with the games industry and writing. These round tables were also a chance to network. Easily overlooked, this is an important part of conferences, as Wendy Despain was to add from the floor: "Most of us arrived here knowing there were other games writers…now we can see them, we know we are not alone!" Moving on, Thursday took an entirely different form with panels replacing single speakers and debate (either intra-panel, or extended to the floor) being the style of the day. Designed to place writing within the production process, 'Shared Storytelling : The Writer and the Team' was a panel of a Vocal Director, Voice Artist, Sound Designer, Animator and Producer, and painted a picture of how stories are developed and what is needed from a writer, while reinforcing the fact that a writer is part of a team. If the writer doesn’t understand games, or the role of co-workers in the game development process, then their script will fail. Mixing designers and writers, 'Writing for MMOs' was closer to a roundtable than a panel discussion. Sparks flew as panel members grappled with the question – do MMOs need stories? Plot fanatics and sandbox fans clashed, demonstrating the problems with this whole area. Are stories needed? Put simply… it depends on what sort of game you enjoy. Giving a voice to publishers, managers and executives, the 'Publishers Panel' spoke about the importance of finding good, reliable writers. How do you find a good writer for games? Can Hollywood writers cut it in games? "The jury’s still out, but it’s not looking good", said Germaine Gioia, vice president of licensing at THQ. The panelists agreed that it’s not that Hollywood writers aren’t good writers; it’s their willingness to put time into learning this new form of writing and to finishing a game. Without those two commitments, big name writers from other mediums won’t make it in games. On the other hand, finding good established games writers who are high quality and know their games is difficult. It’s not a lack of talent, the problem is visibility, and this is something that organisations such as the Writers Guilds and IGDA (all present in large numbers at this conference) are doing something to address. Other highlights of the second day included 'Convergence or Collision' from a hugely amusing and informative speaker, Flint Dille, and examining how the world of games and the world of Hollywood are growing ever more intertwined. An excellent way to summarise the key themes of the conference, Flint’s session exposed many writer’s fears and how they must challenge them. When writing for games, a writer must write a story that can be broken. In Hollywood you won’t get a call eliminating the leading lady, but in games you can get calls eliminating all six major characters and moving the key scenes from a battlefield into a submarine. This is the industry - if you choose to work in it, then accept this and get on with it. Not all games writers can handle this. Similarly, some Hollywood writers can write games and others can’t. An evolving medium, games require new skills not just in writing but in teamwork and communication. This is a brave new world - learn its rules. So, with people flying in from all over the world; representatives from various Writers’ Guilds; a large contingent from the IGDA and a cavalcade of big names, this first Game Writers’ conference carried a lot of weight. The question of whether there was a need for such a conference had been answered. It’s not just that there is a need for such a conference, but that it is amazing there hadn’t been one before this. With keynote after keynote over the last few years screaming that games need stories and that the stories need to be better told, it seems incredible that it has taken until now for it to arrive. However, with the success of the 2005 Austin Conference and with a Writers’ Guild of America session appearing as part of the next GDC, it looks like writing for games has finally appeared on the map, and that full-blown game writers are here to stay. [Andrew S. Walsh is a UK-based scriptwriter with extensive experience in writing for video games, television, and film. Gamasutra will reprint this news story with additional photos in the near future as part of an Austin Games Conference feature wrap-up.]

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