The Weekend Gamer
Thoughts on gaming culture, living among non-gamers, and growing up in the nintendo generation

The Case Against Writers in the Games Industry

Adam Maxwell has an interesting opinion piece on Gamasutra, making the claim that writers are an overvalued commodity in the games industry.

A writer might create the characters, and a writer certainly architects the plot of a game’s story, but the work a player actually sees and consumes? That is the work of the designer, even when the writer has written the dialogue, decided the plot, created every character and conceptualized every setting. There’s a critical reason for that, a reason that is perhaps the most compelling fact behind avoiding writers:

The work of the writer is inherently linear – the work of the designer is typically not.

When a writer sits down to build a story, they are usually building a plot. Most games certainly have plots, so you might be asking yourself why a writer wouldn’t be useful. After all, an experienced and well-educated writer will know everything there is to building a plot, and games could certainly benefit from better plots, right? I couldn’t agree more, but I’m afraid that it’s something of a leap to go from there to, “the person to architect a game’s plot is a writer.”

For the same price (sometimes cheaper, I’m sad to say), you can hire a designer who is also an unsung writing hero (they exist in far larger numbers than anyone wants to give the industry credit for) and when the story is done, that same designer can be there to throw his lot into the fire with the rest of the designers and actually make the game fun. He can be re-tasked as needed, and he can be useful at every stage of development.

For those reasons, and maybe even a few more, my money is on the designer over the writer, every time.

To be quite honest, I disagree whole-heartedly with many of Maxwell’s main points.  Personally, I think that we possibly missed out on one of the golden opportunities this year with the writers strike.  True, writing for a game needs to be gone about in a slightly different way, as the gameplay makes the plot non-linear.  But to even intimate that game writing is on par with the writing of other mediums is just fooling yourself, and that’s coming from an advocate. 

The truth is too many companies are pursuing more polygons, more pixels, and more blood and gore in lieu of truly innovative, interactive storytelling.  Maxwell frets about hiring a writer or an extra designer.  You know what? Hire both, and then maybe your game will be better and sell more copies. 

What do you think?  What about Maxwell’s article rings true, and what need to be taken with a grain of salt?



6 Responses to “The Case Against Writers in the Games Industry”

  1. Look at RPGs such as Final Fantasy II (US), Chrono Trigger and even Earthbound. They may not have the greatest graphics, but the plot and character development made them masterpieces that are still played and talked about to this day. Examples can be seen in FF2 when Rydia returns to save you from Golbez, the plot lines and story arcs in Chrono Trigger and the awesome and sometimes hillarious dialogue in Earthbound.

    I’m not saying those 3 games are the greatest as far as story; I could probably name tons more. But think of it this way – How many movies are blockbusters if they had great effects but a terrible plot?

  2. I was VASTLY impressed with Anna Toole’s response to this article.

    It seems like this developer is not very good at facilitating a project, nor does he undertand how to utilize all his tools very well. It sounds like what his project REALLY needed was an assistant developer who understood the writing PROCESS and how to effectively integrate it into what he was hired to do.

  3. I will have to echo Ron’s comment!

    I bet Kenji Terada would have a few words to say about that article.

    The problem is that we’ve got to a point where so many gamers are happy with the next flashier, prettier game. I long for another epic like FF2 and 3. Back then, you couldn’t cover a crappy story with flashy graphics and game mechanics. And when it comes down to it, you can cover crap with a pretty cloth, but it’s still crap underneath. I think that is essentially why I loose interest in soo many games before I reach the end. There’s just nothing there to peek my interest.

    Take Assassin’s creed for instance. A great story (granted I’m not very far into it). It doesn’t matter that the game crashes on me about once an hour. I still find myself coming back to it to get the next piece of the story.

    I think for a game to be really successful it has to have both great writers and great designers.

  4. Zoe beat me to the link. 🙂

    Writing in games does generally suck. The problem is that what good writers we do have don’t understand the medium. Games are fundamentally about interaction. If the player isn’t directly affecting the story, then what you’re making is more film than game.

    A big part of the future of game narratives is combining the open experimentation of Will Wright’s games with the feedback of Peter Molyneux’s games and the up-close-and-personal presentation of Mass Effect.

  5. Thanks for the link Zoe — and the would-be link, Aaron. I will have to ponder that combo you suggest.


  6. I think it depends on the region…..from what I can see, the North-American is action-interaction based, the European is more strategic/problem solving based and the Asian is more plot based…..In terms of percentage of a game I’d say plot: 35% Strategy: 45% action:20%

    But again I’m from a place in Asia which was a British Colony and spent my teenage years in North America LOL

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