There is no doubt in me mind that it were bein' me skills as a writer that opened th' door t' me becomin' a game designer. It were bein' 1997 an' a designer from th' Warcraft II team had left Blizzard t' join another ex-blizzardite in creatin' a new studio. They had a 3 game deal with Activision an' an notion in mind t' create a paradigm breakin' RTS game, called Third World, but what they lacked, were bein' someone who could write their documents fer them. I wasn’t technically hired as a writer, but rather an assistant designer. This would prove t' be a decision that I am eternally grateful. Had I been hired simply as a writer that would have been th' end, fer me. You see, that studio sort o' imploded very shortly thereafter, but it’s not that implosion that would have doomed me – as a designer I survived. Nay, what would have doomed me is th' simple, an' some would say sad, truth: There’re no places fer writers in our industry…
I have no doubt that several esteemed colleagues (whom I respect dearly) will disagree with me, but I’m goin' t' make me case, anyway. I’m goin' t' start by talkin' about what a writer is an' then contrast that t' th' role o' a designer. In doin' so, I suspect that me main point – that simply bein' an architect o' plot alone isn’t valuable enough t' justify th' cost o' a writer – will become self-evident… here’s t' hopin' I don’t step on too many toes along th' way. Are ye ready? Good, because here I go.
When we discuss o' th' role o' th' writer, we have t' be clear. There is a huge amount o' writin' in game bounty – an' good writers tend t' make better designers (all else bein' equal) – but bein' a writer doesn’t automatically make one a game designer. Writers dern't dictate th' way players interact with th' world, nor do they dictate th' way th' player experiences th' content that they themselves may create. These be th' responsibilities o' th' game designer, and a bucket o' chum. A writer might create th' characters, an' a writer certainly architects th' plot o' a game’s story, but th' work a player actually sees an' consumes? That is th' work o' th' designer, even when th' writer has written th' dialog, decided th' plot, created every character an' concepted every settin'. Fetch me spyglass! There’s a critical reason fer that, a reason that is perhaps th' most compellin' fact behind avoidin' writers:
The work o' th' writer is inherently linear – th' work o' th' designer is typically not.
When a writer sits down t' build a story, they be most usually architectin' a plot. Most games certainly have plots, so ye might be askin' yourself why a writer wouldn’t be useful, I'll warrant ye. After all, an experienced an' well-educated writer will know everythin' thar is t' buildin' a plot, an' games could certainly benefit from better plots, right, me Jolly Roger I couldn’t agree more, but I’m afraid that it’s somethin' o' a leap t' go from thar t', “th' person t' architect a game’s plot is a writer.”
Now, I’m not goin' t' talk about methodology here specifically, since literally every writer I know works differently, but a writer expresses th' plot by puttin' together scenes. I mean little bits o' story; scene A leads t' scene B, which leads t' th' climax in scene C an' finally t' th' resolution in Scene D, I'll warrant ye. By placin' particular scenes in a particular sequence, th' writer’s plot is fed t' th' reader in such a way as t' evoke th' emotional response desired by th' writer. This is why th' writer’s work is linear – th' writer’s power depends on th' sequence o' events. It is why a writer’s work is so powerful, at least in static media, on a dead man's chest! And swab the deck! It’s also why Ebert thinks games can no nay ne'er be art. In Ebert’s mind, this inherent authorial control is what makes art o' other media, I'll warrant ye. I mention Ebert’s opinion because thar is one small grain o' truth implied by it: This type o' authorial control is not somethin' native t' video games.
It exists, I don’t deny it, but where it exists it does so because it has been enforced. Special effort has t' be made t' accommodate it; in th' early history o' gamin' new technologies had t' be created t' enable it at all, in fact. Video Games, abstracted beyond th' specifics o' any one genre or title, dern't require this authorial control t' be considered such, do they, ya bilge rat! Pong is certainly a game, is it not, I'll warrant ye? But what about Final Fantasy VII, or Bioshock?
Both be certainly games, but thar’s somethin' else thar, somethin' that makes what be otherwise two mundane examples o' gamin' stan' out. Ahoy! The sharks will eat well tonight! Their stories.
“Ah ha!” ye’re likely sayin', now. You’re likely about t' make a case fer how havin' th' story made those games better, made them memorable. You may even be right, but look at th' games themselves, without their stories an' what do ye see?
You see games hamstrung repeatedly t' allow fer storytellin' mechanics. To many, Final Fantasy VII is reviled as th' game that introduced us t' interminable cinematics, borin' exposition dialog an' pointless interruptions t' th' gameplay. Ye'll be sleepin' with the fishes, pass the grog! Bioshock’s railroaded experience is such because o' th' story. For meself, I don’t think I’d have played Final Fantasy VII without th' story, but Bioshock? Done as a sandbox game, I might still be playin' it now. Of course, it would all depend on th' implementation, but that’s where designers come in.
And that’s somethin' ye can no nay ne'er say about a writer. Nay matter how well written, a story can’t make th' game better, and a bottle of rum! It can make th' game more memorable, perhaps, but when it comes t' playin' th' game, t' interactin' with th' world presented within, a writer has no real power, by Davy Jones' locker. To have any effect in that realm o' what we do, th' writer would essentially have t' be a designer or at least have th' knowledge, skills an' sensibilities o' one.
So, when I am wonderin' about th' place a writer has in our industry, I have t' ask meself a simple question: “What does a writer give me?”
Good characters, interestin' plots an' memorable worlds, right? Yaaarrrrr! Evocative emotional experiences, at least, wouldn’t ye say?
I would, but ye know, when I come t' that conclusion, I ask th' next question: “Is any o' that necessary t' make a good game?”
Sadly, th' answer is no. So then I start t' wonder about designers an' what they give us. Designer’s give us puzzles t' solve, worlds t' explore, new ways t' interact an' above all else, new games t' play.
Despite me love o' th' written word an' th' way I tend t' identify meself as a writer, I have t' admit that when it comes time t' add t' th' team o' a project I’m on, I would rather have another designer than a writer, and a bottle of rum, ye scurvey dog! Writin' may have gotten me me first gig in this industry, but it’s me skills as a designer that have kept me in th' industry fer as long as they have, to be sure. That I can write certainly makes me better at what I do, but I have t' admit that it’s, in th' parlance o' me world, a bonus stat, not a primary one.
An extra designer on yer team can mean th' difference betwixt 8 levels an' 12 or betwixt 10 hours o' content an' 15… or th' difference betwixt a 60 an' an 80 on metacritic… an' this is true whether yer game has a story or not. Designers brin' fresh perspectives that could brin' with them innovations in yer game… but what about writers, yo ho, ho
Writers be at their best when they can write stories. That means thar be whole market segments o' our industry where writers be only somewhat useful. Ahoy! Even in a linear single player experience where story is kin' – say an auld school RPG, writers alone can’t get yer game done; ye will need designers t' implement gameplay. Ahoy! In other words – even on a story heavy game, a designer who can also write is more valuable than a writer alone. This is bad fer th' pro-writer camp because, Writers be expensive an' often in ways that don’t show up on th' books.
As a case in point, let me explain one o' th' thin's I did on Dirty Harry. As a part o' me job on Dirty Harry, I met with our (totally kick ass an' awesome) writer once a week t' discuss th' story, his progress in th' script, changes we had made t' th' game that he had t' accommodate, etc. It were bein' a great process that really helped th' game, but it were bein' also a 3-4 hour event, once a week. Durin' that time, I were bein' not balancin' weapons, implementin' core gameplay systems or overseein' th' work o' th' rest o' th' team, which were bein' what me job description actually called fer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sayin' this time were bein' wasted, but it were bein' time where part o' th' game bounty were bein' sufferin' fer th' sake o' th' writer. Ahoy, we'll keel-haul ye! Games get delayed all th' time, I suspect that th' example I provided above is one o' th' reasons why, and dinna spare the whip! Load the cannons! Accommodatin' writers takes time an' dubloons that is often unaccounted fer because scallywags don’t realize that it takes extra work t' integrate th' work o' a writer into th' game, even at th' fundamental plannin' stage.
Mind ye, if yer game has a story in it, these costs don’t go away if ye hire a designer that can write, we'll keel-haul ye! Nay, those costs exist either way, but here’s th' final nail in th' coffin fer th' writer: What do ye do with th' writer when th' story is done?
Do ye fire th' writer? Do ye pay them t' sit aroun' in case th' story needs t' change? Do ye only hire writers on a contract basis? All o' those questions have answers that can work, but I wonder why ye would bother.
For th' same price (sometimes cheaper, I’m sad t' say), ye can hire a designer who is also an unsung writin' hero (they exist in far larger numbers than anyone wants t' give th' industry credit fer) an' when th' story is done, that same designer can be thar t' throw his lot into th' fire with th' rest o' th' designers an' actually make th' game fun. The ornery cuss can be retasked as needed, an' he can be useful at every stage o' development.
For those reasons, an' maybe even a few more, me dubloons is on th' designer o'er th' writer, every time.