February 19, 2016

A Dream Deferred: A Career in Video Games


“I want to design video games.”

As soon as a child discovers a love for video games, the realization that this could be a career follows soon after. Like most kids that were raised by Nintendo and Play Station, this became my dream. I spent hours sketching Mega Man levels and writing out elaborate interactive stories. I filled notebook after notebook with my game designs and thought that if I could only get these notes in front of someone at Nintendo then they would see my genius.

That’s how a 10-year-old thinks, especially when they spend most of their time running from bullies, hiding between pages of The Phantom Tollbooth or in the depths of Zebes in Super Metroid. But I was serious. I really wanted to make video games.

I started to teach myself to program in my early teens, but I didn’t quite have the head for math. Maybe I could do art. No, I didn’t quite have the inclination to do that either. I liked writing. I wasn’t good at it, but I liked it nonetheless. Could there be a place in video game for a pure writer? I wasn’t sure.

And then came Ultima Online, the groundbreaking MMO that established an entirely new genre now dominated by the likes of World of Warcraft. I played it obsessively, learning every nuance of every mechanic over the course of a few blurry, sleepless years. Along the way, I heard about a splinter group of players that were making their own servers. These were emulations of the paid servers, but their being free wasn’t the true allure. What really made these indie servers exciting was that they could be customized—from the maps to how skills worked to what monsters appeared where and when. Every detail of the digital world I knew so well could be transformed into a completely new experience.

So I got a server. Well, my friend Charlie got us a server is more accurate, and we started to figure out some basic C# and the strange challenge of building & managing a playerbase as well as server uptime and server updates. We were in high school at the time, so we spent most of our class time sneaking in naps and our nights slaving away on our own version ofUltima Online.

This was when I first started to realize just how important the audience was in the design equation. It was a crash course in the realities of launching a product and communicating with customers. Here’s what I learned:

  • Marketing matters. We needed players, so we played the rank game on free server listings, paid for a few ads, and reached out to the moderators of role playing forums and small blogs to get coverage for our server.
  • Customer service matters. Once you get players, you have to keep them. We had to be mindful of player problems and feedback, and we had to be responsive. If we, as administrators, treated a player poorly, they would leave.
  • User experience is delicate. The slightest change in mechanics could produce a cascade of problems. We were barely amateur coders, so that was part of our challenge, but we also had to consider more abstract implications of a change like the balance of player power, the in-game economy, and the theme of the server.

For a free server, we did okay. We routinely broke the top 10 on the free server rankings, and we covered all of our server fees through player donations and even had a little left over.

By the time I left for college, we shuttered the server, but I still wanted to work in video games. A professor kicked me in my slacker ass (my high school grades were abysmal) and suggested that I could actually do something with my writing. I found an online job postings board for video games and started to submit writing samples. A few months later, Studio Archcraft contracted me to write character dialog for their Nintendo DS game, The Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled. The pay was crap—I made more with Ultima Online—but the opportunity was huge.

My job was to follow the broad plot outline of the game and to flesh out everything that characters would say in the game, that meant player characters and NPCs. I wrote scripts for dramatic scenes and populated towns with citizens—shop keepers and families, each with their own little story (in my head at least) in this fantasy world. As my first real professional writing project (Studio Archcraft was a bit surprised to discover that I was 19 when I turned in my tax paperwork), I learned a lot. Here are some of the highpoints:

  • Working remotely takes discipline. The Studio Archcraft team was split between Montreal and New York, and then there I was writing away in Pittsburgh. I quickly discovered how critical organization and clarity become when you can’t stop by someone’s office to explain what you meant by this note on page 7. Fortunately, staying on task wasn’t an issue for me. My early experiences with bullies meant that I was already good at working on stuff alone for long hours.
  • It takes a village. In my Ultima Online days, it was just me and Charlie for the most part. Studio Archcraft was a small team by industry standards, but that still meant a few programmers, an artist, a sound designer, a business manager, and a project director. My writing had to account for the direction of the director while also being mindful of the work the rest of the time had done or was in the process of doing.
  • The business of games can be harsh. The Black Sigil was far from a perfect RPG, and some financial difficulties meant that much of the team was cut, so instead of writing all of the dialog I ended up only doing a fraction (the director/owner did the rest), and testing time got cut as well. The game did get released. Unfortunately, a botched deal with an unstable publisher meant that the run was a lot shorter than Studio Archcraft anticipated. Bummer.

Over the next nine years, my writing career circled back to video games from time to time. I freelanced for a few video game websites, but I mostly focused on sports journalism and marketing for 8 or 9 years until Synersteel Studio and I connected to build Super Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Dojo Storm: Championship Edition. The video game industry has changed a lot over the years, but I’ve found that a lot of what I learned in those early years still applies.

Everyone thinks that the video game industry is about making games when that’s only a small part. If you ignore the other pieces—like player engagement, marketing, and business management—it doesn’t matter how good your game is. A durable studio has to account and plan for every element for a project to be successful.

Originally written for Synersteel Studio.

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