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Game Writing FAQ

The following is a letter I prepared at Valve after years of getting requests for the same advice and information. I have not updated it much since leaving the company, but I still get these questions and I still send this out. I’m posting it here so that I can now just reply with a link instead of having to dig up the old document. It is now mainly of historical interest.

Thanks for writing to ask me for career or college advice.   Sorry for the boilerplate response, but I now receive these requests so frequently that I thought I’d try to put the answers in one place.  Forgive me if I don’t have time to answer your questions individually.

Q: What type of education did you receive before breaking into the industry?

A: I have “several years” of college education, mainly focused on English literature.  The only work-related skill I specifically gained in school was a typing class I took in junior high.  I don’t have a programming background but I occasionally try to educate myself in that regard.  When I was in college, programming meant typing your code into punch-cards and giving them to someone in the university computer center to go off and compile, only to discover that your second card had a bug in it.  I didn’t see a PC until I was out of college.  I used a typewriter, not a word processor.  None of the games in the arcades resembled anything I thought I could contribute to.  This should give you hope, however:  Continue to develop your skills in areas you love, and opportunities to put your talents to work will emerge. The thing you’re meant to do might not exist yet.  I am not a good source for educational advice.  We always advise that people who want to work in the industry are better served by creating games in a practical setting:  Work with a team to create a mod, and you will see if you have what it takes to actually see a project through from vision to completion.  We often hire mod creators who are brought to our attention by our fans, when they tell us:  “This mod is great, you should hire these people!”  It can be harder to find a way to contribute as a writer, but not impossible; and the fact that there are fewer positions for writers in the mod community is unfortunately a reflection of how few jobs there are for writers in the industry in general.  There are far more positions for programmers, artists and animators than there are positions for writers.

Q: How did you get into the industry?

A: I developed my writing independent of the game industry–I wrote short stories and novels from childhood on, and finally began to have some professional success late in my teens.  I was not really aware of the industry until I played Myst, which is also when I realized that I wanted to make games.  At that point I began playing, analyzing, and reviewing games, which led to an assignment for Wired Magazine:  Write an article about id Software, which was then making Quake.  This led to a variety of personal and professional contacts.  At around the same time, I was given the opportunity to meet and work with Haruhiko Shono and his colleagues at Synergy studios in Tokyo, to develop a novel based on the game Gadget.  I began putting out the word that I was interested in working with game developers to use games for storytelling, and this led to a few doors opening.  One of those doors opened into Valve.

Q: Was this your first career choice?

A: Games did not exist when I was considering careers.  I wanted to be a fulltime freelance professional writer, and that was what I pursued.  However, I discovered that I personally could not make a living at this, let alone support a family, so I worked a number of other jobs from bookstore clerk to legal secretary.  I did not get into the game industry until 1997, when I was 37.  That was when games had finally reached a point where I felt I had something to offer.  They were sufficiently mature as a medium to seem interesting to me.

Q: How does writing games differ from writing novels?

A: Working on games is a team activity.  Very few games are made by a solitary individual.  Yet most novels are written this way.  To be a successful game writer, you have to enjoy working with a team, just wanting to create the best possible game, recognizing the good ideas no matter who might have suggested them in the first place.  If you like being the sole creator, then stick with prose, where you can have complete control over your vision.

Q: How often do you work?

A: I work a regular week, Monday through Friday, and when we’re close to shipping, the days get longer and bleed over into the weekends.   My schedule is very reasonable at this point, but early on it was quite intense.  Seven day work weeks were not unusual.  I often went home to see my family in the evenings, then went back to work till late at night.  I was younger then!

Q: What is the salary for an average worker in your field?

A: I’m not able to comment on the field in general, or on specifics regarding Valve.  The International Game Developers Association has done regular surveys on this topic, which you might find through their publication, Gamasutra.

Q: What specifically do you do?

A: My job varies from frequent brainstorming sessions about things like overall world creation, character histories, engineering a plot that meshes neatly with gameplay, writing dialog, and helping direct voice recording sessions.  Some of our other writers have taken an active role in creating entertaining marketing and website material, or they have gotten into more direct roles in managing and promoting our games.  At times I have done level design to demonstrate story ideas, but with so many excellent visual designers here, I don’t do as much of that these days.  On an average day, I talk to a lot of people about what we’re working on, figure out if there are any tasks that need my immediate support, attend meetings that sometimes involve long-term planning, sometimes short-term goals, and I write a lot of emails.

Q: Do you work among many other people?

A: I typically work closely with a handful of people who are part of a larger team, but I do move around from project to project as needed.

Q: What types of equipment do you utilize?

A: Writing is technology-agnostic.  You can write in a Moleskine if you like.  At some point you need to make sure your work can be emailed and printed, given to designers and actors to read.  But it’s the least equipment-intensive job in the game industry.

Q: What does a script for a game look like?

A: Script format varies not only from company to company but from project to project and from writer to writer.  Some writers use off-the-shelf screenplay software to create something that looks like a standard screenplay; this is helpful to actors when they are reading lines in a studio, as the scripts are free of confusing game-specific text. However, internally, scripts must typically be marked up with a great deal of information, indicating the names of sound files, providing instructions to programmers and level designers. At this point, a lot of writers end up working in something like a spreadsheet or creating a custom database that lets them output the script in a variety of different ways for different users. Actors get something that looks like a screenplay; level designers get something more detailed. In every case, the writer needs to accompany the script and be there to make sure it is implemented correctly in the game, and to take advantage of unexpected opportunities for storytelling that might arise when the game is under construction.

Q: What is your least favorite part of your job?

A: Spending a lot of time and energy developing characters and story ideas, only to learn that the game has changed so drastically (sometimes overnight) that none of it is useful.

Q: What is your favorite part of your job?

A: The frequent sense of discovery, of pioneering, and the fact that creativity and innovation are highly valued here.  Working with smart creative surprising people is the thing that makes it fun to come into the office every day.  For me it is a dream job.

Q: Who are three people that you respect in this field that I could also get advice from?

A: I can’t give out names or contact information.

Q: Can you give me some advice about getting a creative writing job for video games?

A: Develop your writing for its own sake.  Even if the game industry were to dry up and disappear next year, following your passion for writing and telling a story will help you find a way forward.

I hope this is helpful to you.

Marc Laidlaw

Underneath the Oversea: An Awkward Audiobook

Over the past few months of lockdown, I have passed the time by reading my short stories aloud and posting them on SoundCloud and YouTube. Over the last couple weeks, I took the additional step of reading and posting my entire new novel, Underneath the Oversea, which was written in 2018 and remains unsold. In effect, this audio appearance marks its publication. It amounts to 28 chapters, or 7.5 hours of audio.

If you can tolerate the non-mobile listening experience of YouTube, or have a SoundCloud account that lets you download and travel with your files, then I invite you to enjoy these readings.

YouTube Playlist: Underneath the Oversea

SoundCloud Playlist: Underneath the Oversea

I do intend to clean up the files and package them as a single audiobook in the near future, so if you’d prefer to wait for that, I will announce it here on my blog when it is available. That will be priced appropriately for what is essentially an amateur theatrical offering. These are enthusiastic recordings but not professional ones…at points I am accompanied by a vocal minifridge, unless I can figure out how to neutralize the hum in future editions.

Also, once I’ve got a cover and a few other details worked out, I will package the text itself as an ebook, and possibly also tackle print on demand to turn out physical copies for the first time. So if you are not into audiobooks (I admit, I’m not big on them, although I enjoyed reading), text is in the offing!

More that matter, once you have found my YouTube or SoundCloud sites, you can find hours of other readings also organized into playlist–including many short stories, and the nearly complete collection of previous Gorlen Vizenfirthe stories. I say “nearly” because there is still one unpublished story, “Weeper,” which will appear in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in September of 2020.

2019 World Fantasy Convention

I will be attending this year’s World Fantasy Convention, at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott, from November 1 through the con’s end. I am not participating in any panels, but I will be reading (most likely a selection from my Gorlen novel, Oversea) on Sunday at 12:30. This is also the time the banquet opens for seating, so I expect a smaller than the usual small turnout; but if you are not attending the banquet then I promise not to describe succulent morsels that will make you wish you were.

I also plan on attending the Friday night Autograph Event.

See you there?


Pre-Premeditation: The Kapu Version

Last year my story “Premeditation” appeared in Darker Companions, a book of stories collected in tribute to Ramsey Campbell. “Premeditation” is a very short horror story. You might think to look at it that it couldn’t have been much work. But it went through many versions, one of which turned into comedy. I went so very far astray, working on this one. I had no idea what was working. Eventually, I pulled back from the brink and continued to refine my original vision of the story, and it settled back into horror again.

But there was always something about the comic version that I liked, if only because it turned into its own completely different thing.

Tonight, after watching some eagle rays frolic in the bay, I remembered this version and the fact that I had always intended to put it up on the Fiction section of my blog under its original title: “Kapu.”

A Swim and A Crawl and A Interview

I answered a few questions about my latest short story, “A Swim and a Crawl,” over at The F&SF Blog.

“This is a story for anyone who has committed completely to something, and then changed their mind when it was too late.”

This is also possibly the first time I’ve admitted in a public forum that I’m writing a Gorlen Vizenfirthe novel, which takes place not long after the events in “Stillborne.”

A Few Words About Stillborne…and Twitter

F&SF has put up one of their blog-post interviews, where I discuss a few of the things that went into “Stillborne.”

In other news, I just deactivated my Twitter account. It was cutting into my time for reading and writing; it was increasingly hard to justify putting energy into that particular forum. If you see any accounts popping up, purporting to be me, well…they’re not me. If I go back to Twitter at some point (for instance, at some publisher’s request, to promote a new book), I will let people know on my blog that it’s me again.

I continue to maintain the usual Facebook page.

UPDATE (11/13/17): I have re-activated my Twitter account, just to hold the spot so it can’t be poached. I won’t be active there, but it will automatically update when I post on this blog. I won’t have access to the account, won’t be able to read notifications or direct messages; I’ve handed it over to a third party for safekeeping.