1, Jun 2024
The Skills, Pathways, and Paychecks of Video Game Writers

Breaking into the industry

Orkin’s foray into industry began from an unexpected but deeply personal place. “I was a playwright and screenwriter who always loved games,” he recalls. “When my son was born, we played everything together as soon as he was able. As he got older, we’d go to LAN centers for games like Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, Unreal Tournament, and MechWarrior. We were scouted by the G4 TV network and competed together on Arena. He would always kick my butt, so after he’d go to bed, I’d stay up late to practice.”

His dedication paid off, particularly with one game: “Soldier of Fortune 2.” Orkin’s skill in the game led him to join a competitive clan and participate in tournaments. This experience introduced him to the writer of the game, who discovered Orkin’s background in screenwriting. “We traded contact info, and he introduced me to people in gaming, while I introduced him to people in Hollywood,” Orkin explains. This networking was pivotal, eventually leading to his first game-writing job for Atari’s “Dungeons & Dragons: Dragonshard.”

His career gained momentum when he began attending industry conferences such as the Game Developers Conference (GDC) and Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). These events facilitated key connections, including with Techland, the studio behind “Call of Juarez.” “I worked with them on their next six games, including ‘Dead Island’ and ‘Dying Light,’” he says. Around the same time, an application for a writing job at Electronic Arts (EA) resulted in him being hired for “Red Alert 3.” From there, Orkin’s career took off.

Many video game writers in the industry have similar beginnings. Breaking into the world of video game writing can feel like navigating an intricate maze with few clear paths. The journey often starts outside the gaming industry, leveraging skills honed in other writing careers. Screenwriters, magazine contributors, and novelists often transition into game writing, where their talent for crafting compelling narratives finds a new, interactive audience. This pathway, while challenging, relies heavily on showcasing a strong portfolio of previous work that demonstrates an ability to tell stories that can captivate players.

Entry-level roles in video game writing are exceedingly rare. Internships, which could provide practical experience and help build a portfolio, are seldom available. When such opportunities arise, they are fiercely competitive and often close quickly due to high demand. Aspiring writers are left to find alternative routes to break into the industry.

Evan Skolnick, a seasoned industry veteran and author of the book ‘Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques’, . “Competition for the few advertised game writing positions that come up is extremely fierce. For each of these openings, you will be going up against other writers — probably dozens, scores, or even hundreds of them — many of whom are already working in the field and have demonstrated their ability to write for games in the real world,” Skolnick explains. Instead, he recommends aspiring writers consider starting in more generalized roles such as game design. These positions are more common, versatile, and flexible, providing a broad understanding of game development. “Once you are well-established within the studio and have gained the trust of the management, you can express your interest in game writing,” he advises. This internal transition can offer a significant advantage over external applicants who rely solely on their portfolios and applications.

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