In Which Months Go By

580 letters to voters.

I once flipped through a dictionary (Merriam-Webster Collegiate, I think) and found that in the back, they had a super-cool list of foreign words and phrases that are or were popular. You know, like the Latin “finis coronat opus,” which translates to “the end crowns the work.” If you ever want to whip out the snotty literary criticism, throw that baby in and sound like a scholar, when all you’re really saying is “a story needs to stick the landing, or it doesn’t add up to much.”

I think my favorite, though, is “Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus,” which is “Mountains will go into labor, and a silly little mouse will be born.” That one’s about overpromising and underdelivering. You know, like the game that’s been delayed ten years that better be the Second Coming of Almighty Zeus when it comes out, or else all that expense and hard work will be met with a resounding “meh.” (It’s kind of telling that there’s a few games out there this could apply to.)

Me, I try not to overpromise. But it has been a long time since I posted, so I hope you weren’t betting on me giving birth to a mountain. There’s been good news and bad news in my life, my career, and my personal writing. So let’s take a tour.

I Got (More) Political This Year

As I posted in 2020’s “In Which I Give Worried Introverts Something to Do,” I decided to use a not-insignificant amount of my spare time to volunteer for a get-out-the-vote campaign. This year, I started earlier than I did in 2020 because historically Democrats don’t turn out in midterms, and if past was prologue, they were going to get pasted.

I wrote 20 letters a week to get voters to turn out in Texas, Georgia, Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania. By the time of the big send-off in late October, I finished 580 letters, about 100 more than I managed in 2020 if you include the Georgia runoff. It would have been nice to do an even 600, but in that last week I was crunching at work and totally out of brain fuel. Then, the next week, when it became clear Georgia was going to another runoff for its Senate seat, I burned all my free time and got an additional 100 letters out.

I don’t regret the time spent — the Democrats snatched a stalemate from the jaws of defeat and broke a pattern 20+ years long of getting routed in midterm elections. However, I am quite happy campaign season is over for the moment. I have a little more time on the weekends, and the ability to find other topics to talk about on Twitter.

I Tried To Be an Involved Dad

Just a minor note here from a proud pops: I helped teach my daughter how to drive and I wrangled my son through a frustrating season of soccer. Both kids’ grades are pretty great, and they seem to be thriving. Couldn’t be happier with them.

Some other obstacles came our way: my daughter got COVID for about 10 days. She was vaxxed and wasn’t in much danger, but it hit her like a truck. The rest of the family masked up and sanitized religiously and all somehow avoided it, even including a 3-hour car trip (shout-out to my wife for doing the driving, windows down the whole way).

I Kept Submitting Stories

I wrote and rewrote a few more short stories, but they have yet to find a home anywhere. As with martial arts, where you are only as good as your next move, a writer can have great experience and skill and still, the story may not resonate with whoever’s at the editing desk. So that was disappointing and consumed a bit of time.

Then There’s Civil Blood‘s Sequel

When I last posted about the sequel, I was reviewing its outline, trying to turn it into the book I really wanted to read. Rather than write by the seat of my pants, I spent a month or so planning it out and adding notes for a direction in which to take a third book. This all took time, but I’ve managed to get started on the manuscript itself. As of this writing, I have one chapter down and a pretty good grip on the second, so I really want to make this happen sooner rather than later. It’s been “later” long enough.

I Crunched Like the Captain

This one is kind of bittersweet. After months of work that sucked up weekends and evenings, my job with Mattel163 came to a close. The project is in soft launch now (it’s not in the US or China yet) and the prognosis is good for it being able to ship. I’ll tell you all about it when it goes wide, but right now I need to set my sights elsewhere.

…and We Lost Some Good Ones

Lastly, some things happened on a vastly more serious note. Some of my life had to be put on hold to grieve.

Since I last posted, three people I knew died. The first, Jerome Joaquin Mabrey, was a gamer I met at San Diego Comic Con in 2012. He was on the first team to beat the Mass Effect multiplayer’s fancy new Platinum difficulty, he ran a great Facebook group called Nerd Alert, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of space opera. The second was Kevin Barrett, who was director of design at BioWare and was responsible for giving myself and my wife our most significant video game industry job. We used to love arguing with him in a BioWare dev book club. We disagreed all the freaking time, but we never had a negative experience with him. The third was Ferret Baudoin, who worked with my wife on Dragon Age, ran a killer Roman-themed D&D campaign for us, and after the BioWare diaspora, wound up at Bethesda. I had mad respect for all three of these men, and the world is smaller for not having them in it.

…and that’s all, he wrote.

So, all told, this summer and fall were pretty busy. I don’t have a lot to show you just yet, but I hope you’ll understand that sometimes, life isn’t a performance, or all about your next gig. Quite often, it’s day-to-day progress, or even just holding the line when that progress tries to disappear.

Festina lente. (In English idiom, “More haste, less speed.”)

In Which I Am Gainfully Employed

One of the “problems” with my writing career trajectory is that I’m not a specialist. If you really want to be a household name as a writer, you create a series and you get fans devoted to it. There are a lot of examples I could pick from, but let’s go with Agatha Christie.

“Why?” you ask? Because according to the Guinness Book of World Records, Agatha Christie is the best-selling fiction writer of all time. She’s sold more than two billion (with a “b”) books. Her name is synonymous with detective mysteries, having written 66 of the things. She wrote a few plays, some of them record-breakingly popular in their own right — they were mysteries, too. And her branding was helped by the fact that when she wrote a handful of non-detective novels, she did so under a pen name. She specialized, and it paid off.

Me? I’m the opposite. You never know what the hell I’m writing next, and sometimes neither do I. Since my last blog post about My Loft, I’ve been working on:

1) A visual novel (romance genre). It is now complete but not public yet.
2) Lore for a fantasy RPG video game. It’s in pre-production, totally not public.
3) A metric ton of writing tests for various companies.
4) Submitting short stories to various online magazines, some in the Civil Blood universe, some humorous superhero stories, and one cli-fi piece.

The first two are both gigs that ended recently, which meant I had to throw myself into #3 with a vengeance. #3 and #4 were the most discouraging, as my hit-to-miss ratio is typical of freelance writers — in other words, there was a lot of rejections. But, as of today, things are looking up.

I have been so fortunate as to accept a position with Mattel163, a mobile game developer and subsidiary of the famous toy company. I am working on an unannounced project as a full-time employee, and I want to make it sing.

What does that mean for you, the audience? I don’t know yet. All indications are that I will be up late at night on this job, since many of my co-workers are in Shanghai, 15 time zones away from me. On the other hand, a lot of my mental energy was taxed during my job hunt, so I may end up feeling happier and healthier, with a little security in my life once more.

That means I could end up able to do more personal writing, and submit more stories to more outlets.

One question that has come up regards Amazon’s Kindle Vella. In case you haven’t heard, Kindle Vella is essentially a platform for monetizing short stories and serial works on a Kindle, which naturally made my ears perk up. As always, a little more personal writing income means I can afford a second indie-publishing venture — a full-fledged sequel to Civil Blood. There’s two drawbacks to Kindle Vella: the first is that it’s got a limit of 6,000 words per installment, which is a little short for my taste. The more difficult hurdle for me to get over is that you have to build your brand — it takes a lot of 99-cent stories to add up to a single traditionally-published short story in a magazine, which could net $500 or so. That’s the reality. I’m working on building an e-mail list, an important step in the whole author ecosystem, but I don’t have any illusions about indie-pub sales.

So, will I die before my dream goal is achieved and leave you all in the lurch? Well, I’m happy to say I’m fully vaccinated as of today. It’s not proof against being hit by a bus, but as Bill Murray said, “I got that going for me, which is nice.”

Stay cool.

In Which I Ship a Game!

“Um, do you have room for one adult, one locking trash can, and about forty-one Tupperwares that need to stay warm?”

The short version: as of today, Amazon Game Studios is launching My Loft, a little voice-controlled game for the Amazon Echo. I served as lead writer on the project, heading up a team of three other writers. I believe it’s rated E-10, meaning E for Everyone over 10 years old.

You are the owner of a loft you rent out. You use the money to decorate the loft to increase its comfort, coolness, and weirdness ratings, and you interact with the guests to raise their happiness scores. More happiness equals more money you can spend on tricking out your loft. The gameplay happens in real time, so you can check in once or twice a day and not have a big time commitment to it.

The fun part is that it’s a comedy game, so when you say, “Alexa, check on my guest,” sometimes what comes out of their mouth is freakin’ hilarious.

There’s about 28 guests total, ranging from drag queens to venomous snake enthusiasts to boy detectives to Zen masters to Masivo the Human Wall. (Trust me, you’ll know who he is when you meet him.) There’s also a certain guest who only shows up if you play the game after midnight, and references to holidays if you’re playing on that particular day.

It’s not a super-slick AAA production, nor did I have complete creative control. But it was a great dose of laughter in my life during the first dark days of the pandemic, and I’ll always be thankful for that. After the writers’ contracts ended, we stepped back and let the design team do their thing, so there are still many surprises for me when I play. I seriously haven’t seen this thing in about six months.

To play it, tell your Echo, “Alexa, launch My Loft.” You can’t say “play My Loft,” because then Alexa will think you’re trying to play music. It’s “launch.” Make sure you’ve updated to the most recent Echo operating system or Alexa will say “the game is not supported.” It works on Fire 6.5.4.2.. The Echo sometimes says it’s done updating after a few minutes, when in fact it takes about two hours to process everything.

Hope you enjoy it… and forgive the tutorial character not being the most fascinating dude on the planet. He means well, and if I recall, he comes in handy when you run afoul of the absinthe smugglers.

Long story.

My Loft is in the Alexa Skills store here.

In Which I Make All Your Dreams Come True… Eventually

I don’t get a lot of fan mail, but I did get one particular fan recently who had some very nice compliments about the Mass Effect trilogy. The fan then asked for advice on how to break into the video game industry. I wrote back a long letter, because 1) I write better than I talk, and 2) getting a new job in the industry has been at the forefront of my mind for the last two months. In today’s blog post, I’ll go over what I’ve got.

A disclaimer — I’m not exactly a big wheel as game writers go. But I have worked in video games for 15 years now, so I’ve done some things right. Possibly the most valuable thing about what I say is that I don’t subscribe to Dogbert’s famous advice from 1995. I’ve seen some writers that do, telling the new fish to “never let them change your vision,” and other gems that will, more often than not, get you fired or labeled difficult. There’s also the old saw of “keep trying, keep applying, follow your dreams,” which is very true, but it’s sort of like telling a football player to “go out there and play hard.” It’s not really a game plan worthy of the name.

My points are mostly common sense, but sometimes it’s good to reiterate the basics. Professionals may want tips more advanced than these, but the world is full of amateurs.

So Here’s the Advice…

The key thing about getting a foot in the door in the entertainment industry in general is that you should aim to be the strongest candidate possible for the job. Ideally, not only can you charm the person interviewing you, the interviewer can point at your resume/CV and give an argument so the manager in charge of hiring will say “Yeah, hiring this person makes a lot of sense.” That means you tick off a lot of boxes. In no particular order, the boxes include:

1) Your Writing Sample(s)
The rubber meets the road here. Prove that you’d be good at writing the game they’re hiring for, which is not necessarily the same thing as their last game. Demonstrate your skill in writing narrative, dialogue, ten thousand variants on barks saying “He’s over there!”, all that stuff.

I can’t teach this all here, but my wife Jennifer Hepler wrote a book called “The Game Narrative Toolbox,” and there’s lots of screenwriting manuals out there to help practice structure, text, subtext, themes, and other literary goodness. You should be able to point at your work and when the writers on staff ask, “why did you make the decisions you did?” your answer will not be, “um, I felt like it.”

Also note that when writing this sample, you should study and imitate the target game’s structure, because there are probably many good reasons why they built the levels the way they did. Your overall impression of a game as “talky” or “terse” may not be accurate. It could have an actual word count that’s a lot larger or smaller than you think. Get out a piece of paper and write down when the characters talk, for how many lines, and how often other characters speak. You should have hard answers to these questions, or else the writers on staff will say, “Eh, it’s not in our voice.”

2) Your Experience

I see this pop up in many different ways. Dave Gaider (lead writer on Dragon Age 1 & 2) used to say “I can’t recommend that you get a job in the way I got a job, because that way no longer exists.” There isn’t one path into writing video games, but many. This box should be checked with “yes, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make stuff like yours work for an audience.”

Generally, you’re going to be competing with people who have experience in video games or in closely related fields. Bioware hired people who used to be:

* Video game writers who worked elsewhere in the industry
* Playwrights with an ear for dialogue and what actors want in a role
* Screenwriters with produced films, TV episodes, or short indie films
* Writers who professionally reviewed games for game industry publications or websites, so they had a great knowledge of the competition
* (less often) Writers with comic book or novel credits.
* (less often) Modders who know the games inside and out.

If you have no experience in any of these yet, you may want to decorate your web page with samples that show you can write for interactive media using free writing engines like Twine or Inkle.

Winning awards for any of this work is, of course, a nice feather in the cap. Recent work is better than old work. Shipped games or products are better than ones that never came to fruition. And similar work beats extrapolation. For example, Chris L’Etoile, a Bioware writer who wrote the Aliens homage level with rachni in Mass Effect 1, is now, to no one’s surprise, working on an Aliens game for Cold Iron Studios. There’s a pretty high percentage chance that someone there had played his previous work and knew he could do the job because he proved he’s done it before.

Sometimes, extra bits in your bio can help out, like lived experiences. For example, knowing some of the history of martial arts (specifically a Chinese martial art that I practiced at the time) helped me win over some of the Jade Empire writing staff in an interview. I go over a little of this in my GDC talk on writer research skills (not really a shameless plug, ’cause it’s available free).

3) Knowing the Company’s Games

This helps in a myriad of ways. Sometimes a writer will be perfectly good, but they just don’t “get” what the company is looking for. If Bioware says, “Okay, write a scene with Morrigan, the swamp witch,” and the writer has never played Dragon Age, they might make Morrigan’s lines sound like a screeching harridan, referencing her green skin and the wart on her nose. Those writers who have played Dragon Age will know her voice, and have her sound sultry and evil and use the word “’tis” when appropriate. Note that there are more video games in the world than there are hours in the day, so pick a subgenre and aim there. Knowing all of one particular company’s games when you’re targeting that company is, of course, a plus. Knowing some of their competition doesn’t hurt either — for example, if you think Mass Effect and Bioware RPGs are awesome, it’s also good to come into an interview being able to talk about Obsidian’s games, Bethesda’s, or CD Projekt Red’s.

4) Having No Warning Signs

There were a few people on the Bioware forums who knew the games backwards and forwards, and made 4-hour videos saying that the most critically successful Mass Effect game that won over millions of fans (ME2) actually sucked. The posters then exhaustively went over how they’d fix them, and stated Bioware should hire them to make amends for their terrible mess.

Those people are never going to get hired.

Interviewers want to see people with some ideas for improvement, yes, and confidence in their abilities, but they also want team players, not someone who thinks they’re king of the video game universe. It is not possible to write a game the size of Mass Effect alone. I mean, you could literally write it yourself over the course of six years or so, but not on a company’s dime. Levels in AAA games are written simultaneously by other writers for the sake of speed, because time is money, and a big team full of world-class game devs are waiting for the writers to be done to start their work. That’s a lot of man-hours and that means millions of dollars of money. So the writers, editors, combat designers, testing staff, everybody needs to know when to speak up and when to shut up. What would you rather have if you’re making games for a living: a game that ships and is 80% good, or 80% of a perfect game that never ships?

Right.

Sometimes the people at the top will think everything they do is genius… but they usually are able to win arguments because they have years of experience and shipped titles under their belt.

Conversely, while keeping your head down is often helpful, you do need to actually do what Marines call “covering your own damn sector.” No one wants someone who can’t make a decision on their own, otherwise why’d they hire extra manpower if it’s not speeding up the team’s progress?

5) Knowing People

This is a useful factor, but it doesn’t outweigh the others. Generally, even if your Person On The Inside makes a recommendation, at a big company, five or six people are going to have to sign off on the decision, and that decision is part of their job performance. At smaller companies, it works better. All that said, big companies have big Rolodexes, and it is sometimes nice to have your resume go to the top of the pile if the pile is 100 people thick. It helps to have the people in the hiring meeting be able to say “Oh, I know who that person is, they’re not a serial killer.”

Often, if you have no contacts to start with, meeting company representatives at conventions and such is how you get yourself visible. Don’t be a creep, bond over your shared love of video games at the booth, and don’t step on the gas too hard.

“Crap,” you say, “with COVID-19, nobody’s going to conventions any more.” That’s right. Like Dave said a few paragraphs back, the way I got my first big video game job no longer exists.

6) Be Willing to Relocate

This matters a little less in the age of COVID, but a good 50% of companies still want someone they can supervise just by walking down a hall, and they think things will be back to normal soon. In my part of the world, things are emphatically not going to be normal for a while, but there are game companies scattered all over the world, so you never know. You could be in North Carolina for Red Storm, speaking French with Gameloft Montreal, visiting Seasun’s offices in Shenzhen (that’s the photo at the top of the post), or anywhere else on the globe. Game development is sometimes an adventure.

Conclusion:

Hopefully, you can tick off at least some of these boxes when you’re applying. Tick off all of these boxes when your competition doesn’t, and a company would have to be crazy not to hire you. That’s the position you want to be in.

If you think it’s easy to get there, you’re probably not thinking clearly. There are a lot of video game writers out there, all clamoring for work, and your journey may take years. If that doesn’t scare you, then good hunting, and godspeed.