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Five Lessons Learned as Head Writer at Failbetter Games

A short list of insights into running a content team and curating a lore-rich IP, by Chris Gardiner, Head Writer at Failbetter Games (Sunless Sea, Fallen London).

Last year, after decades of scheming and the imaginative murder of countless rivals, I became Head Writer at Failbetter Games. I manage our in-house content team and cabal of freelancers who create the stories for Sunless Sea, Fallen London, Dragon Age: the Last Court, and our other projects.

I'm still finding my feet! But here's five things I've learned so far.

1. Prioritise staff development, even if it's at the expense of content quality

"Here's Fallen London. Don't break it."  

Obviously I panicked. The first time I had to sign off on content, I went hyper-perfectionist. If there was anything I thought was wrong, I'd say "do it like this instead," and write out how I thought it should be.

I convinced myself I was providing examples people could learn from. But by pre-packaging solutions, I was denying my team a chance to grasp the problem themselves and invent their own fixes. Instead, I had to learn to step back and identify two or three recurring problems to address. My feedback had to be clear, broadly applicable, and achievable: "Halve the word count," or "Ensure the player knows what they're doing at each step."

The solutions people came up with were usually better than mine. It took a while to realise that the most important part of my job is to help other people be as good as they can be. Sometimes, that means gritting your teeth and letting some stuff go by you don't like. There's always next time.

2 . Protect your team from the consequences of their ideas

This lesson was painful. We're a creative company; everyone contributes ideas. We're also pragmatic and - when necessary - critical. As a manager, you're not doing right by a member of your team if you let them run with a half-baked idea. Sit down with them and bake the fucking thing.

Ask tough questions, especially ones they might not have an answer to ("what's the business case?" "how could this go wrong?" "how much do we lose if it does?") If the idea can't withstand you, it won't withstand everyone else.

The worst case scenario is that an undeveloped idea isn't shot down. That it goes into development, wastes resources, and ultimately has to be put out of its misery. None of that is pleasant.

3. Waste not, want not

Sometimes you have to say no to a genuinely good idea: it's not the right time, the right project, or the right person. But don't waste it! Write it down, and schedule a time to revisit it. Things might look very different in three months.

4 . Your lore is precious: protect and cultivate it

Understand the foundations of your fictional world: what it definitely is (gothic!) and isn't (steampunk!) Talk about it; refine that understanding. Use books, films, TV, music, art as guiding stars or warning signs: "This should feel like Melville, not Roddenberry." Communicate the refinements; not just internally, but to your freelancers, too.

Freelancers have it tough - they don't benefit from the warmth and implicit knowledge developed through everyday office conversations. To compensate, we hold writer workshops and invite freelancers into our content-focussed Slack channel. That way, they can ask questions and take part in talking this stuff through.

5. Foster ownership

Fallen London is over 1.5 million words deep. Sunless Sea is another 300k. That's too much lore for one brain. We can offload the burden onto summary documents, and our content management system is searchable. But the former is necessarily incomplete and the latter is time-consuming.

Instead, we've started making writers the authorities on their own content. If Cash invented the Waltzing Duke, and I want to use said Duke in a story, Cash is my first port of call for questions. If there's a disagreement about a development involving the character, Cash can be called on for a deciding vote. It's efficient, and it's creatively rewarding.

 

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