Part 1 of 3, By David Gaider
It’s the question I get asked most often, and whether the person asking is looking to become a writer specifically or more interested in becoming a designer in general, my answer is generally the same: “you apply, just like with any other job”. The truth is a bit more complicated, of course, but if I don’t often delve into it with enthusiasm you’ll have to forgive me. As I said, I get asked this a lot.
First things first: what does a writer do? Well, I can tell you honestly that there isn’t a lot of call for dedicated writers in the game industry. There are only a handful of companies that actually have such a beast, and BioWare no doubt has the greatest chunk of them. Most other companies, I would suspect, either have people who wear various hats or outsource any time they need actual writing to be done. We do a little of both, ourselves. There was a time when the designers wore more than one hat out of necessity, but as BioWare has gotten larger we’ve begun to specialize within the design group. The writers are the people who do the quest design and a great portion of the story and level concepting, as well as all of the dialogue writing (which takes up the vast portion of our time).
A level designer, meanwhile, is someone whose focus is on setting up the actual layout of a given level. This is often almost as much of an art-related task as it is design. System designers are the people who put together the actual gameplay systems, such as spellcasting or combat. Cinematic designers are the people who put together the cutscenes, and these days are also the people who retouch cinematic dialogue to make it have more impact. Technical designers, meanwhile, get to be the people responsible for putting it all together and making it actually work. They populate the levels, balance the combats, and they do all the scripting to make the plots go.
So as you can see, this can cause a bit of consternation when trying to explain what it is a designer does. I myself have experience in scripting and system design, but these days I’m as specialized as anyone else. Some writers focus even more on simply writing dialogue and approach the quest design aspect only as they gain more experience. It all varies. I’m sure Other companies deal with designers completely differently, which makes it a fun little dance when a recruiter calls you up out of the blue.
“I represent a company looking to hire a new designer.”
“Well, what kind of designer are you looking for?”
“Err… are there different kinds?”
Getting involved in the more technical side of design is something that involves more schooling (indeed, having some background as a programmer is almost invaluable). For the purposes of these articles, I’ll restrict myself to people who specifically want to become writers.
David Gaider wisely prepared for a career in the games industry by first suffering from terminal boredom as a hotel manager. During that time he gamed as much with his friends as he could, and that paid off with a sweet little job writing for a company he’d never heard of before on a sequel to a computer game he’d never played. “It’ll last a few years, I guess,” he thought. Ten years later he is still at the same company, working as the Lead Writer on Dragon Age: Origins. Who knew?