Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On being a freelance game writer/designer

Success is what happens when you're not looking. I'm sure someone famous said that at some time. As tax season draws ever closer I had a small nudge that gave me an inkling that I might just be a successful freelancer. My 1099 form from Catalyst came in the mail and I realized "Hmm that's going to affect my return." Mind you, it's no New York Times Best Seller paycheck, but for something I started out doing as a hobby, it certainly isn't anything to sneeze at. So while not sneezing I started thinking about just how I'd gotten to the point of being considered a "freelance developer" for Catalyst.

This will be a multi part blog.  I'm only the second paragraph in and I already know that. One of my ever present banes, is my ability to write about absolutely nothing, for pages and pages. When unconstrained by a Line Developer ready to chop my words (and fingers) off for going over count, I can really cut loose. I'll have to do a future blog on the challenge of writing 300 word, in character, news articles. But anyway, as I said, this will be a multi part blog, it's the only way to do the topic justice.

How do I become a game writer / developer?

First, you need to lose your mental sanity. Seriously, this is not the place you make your fame and fortune. Writers like Mike Stackpole have shown that you can certainly get a start in a niche universe, but few people get rich in the game industry. You can make a living, after many long years of selfless devotion, but from what I've seen and heard, making it rich in games industry is up there with winning the lottery.

I've got a day job. It's my first priority, every day. It's what pays my bills, supports my family and keeps a roof over my head. Freelancing is bonus money, a little extra to buy my wife a present or to get a new catalytic converter on my car (The irony is not lost on me). I freelance for Catalyst essentially as one of only two hobbies I have, albeit one that more than pays for itself. When my day job is done and my family is settled, I break out the keyboard and crank out word count like a madman.

So why would you want to become a freelance game writer?
Two key reasons, in priority order.

1- It's fun: Seriously, if it weren't I'd find another hobby, because it sure as hell is hard work. I write for Catalyst because its fun. When I was writing the Caspar II Drone decision tree, for Jihad Hotspots: Terra, I had one of those geek moments and IM'd Randall. I had to ask him if it ever gets old to make **** up from scratch. Randall has assured me that no, it never gets old.

2- In second place, by a good margin, is the experience. When I first started freelancing, it was all about the fun. About the third time I was on the solicitation list, for a regular product, I started to realize that maybe I might be halfway decent. Writing is a lot about confidence. Having the confidence that you are good enough and the will to keep at it. I've been writing for Catalyst now for close to five years, and in that time I've gotten light years better at writing and communication. And this isn't just in my fiction work.  I know that writing for Catalyst has improved my professional career. When 90% of your writing related communications are by email, you learn to be good at communicating, that can only help your professional career.

The experience and confidence building is invaluable. I may not get rich writing for BattleTech, but the on the job training I've gotten will serve me in good stead for any future writing projects. I'm even using my writing skills to promote my professional development. I'd never have started my professional blog, if not for the confidence in writing I developed with Catalyst. I've recently been asked to put together a professional grade training course based on that writing. So I'd say the experience has been well worth it. And I still hold out hope of someday writing the next Honor Harrington fiction series (a writer can dream).

Okay, so I've lost my sanity and I really want to write for a game company? Now what?

Don't ask… Seriously, it was the best advice I ever got when I was getting back into BattleTech.  John "Worktroll" Hawad told me "If you want to be a playtester or moderator, don't ask. If you ask then you pretty much rule yourself out."

But, if I can't ask, how can I get in?
 Great question, really it is. One I struggled with when I was first coming back to the game.

So I've referenced "coming back to the game" a couple of times now. Let's step back a little and get everyone on the same page. I started playing BattleTech in high school. Memory fades a bit, but I'm pretty sure it was 1987 and the main GM for my gaming group brought BattleTech home. While it only lasted a couple of months in our group, I was forever hooked. I began buying every FASA BattleTech product I could find and devouring it. One day I was at a theatre rehearsal for an improv street fair. At the end of the class (it was on how to speak with a Victorian accent), the teacher got on a hay bale and held aloft a copy of the BattleTechnology magazine and asked if anyone played BattleTech. Taking the exact same copy of the magazine from my backpack I approached my future editor, Hilary Ayer.

You'll note, I didn't ask.

I worked for BattleTechnology for about three years, going from the equivalent of a gopher to the technical editor (Yes, every bad design that slipped through was my fault, sorry guys designs were all done with pencil and paper back then). Each step along my work for the magazine came at the invitation of my editor. And the reasons then, were much the same reasons as this time around.

So I have to take up acting?

No, that was pure luck. I certainly don't recommend that as the way to become a freelance game writer. And writing for the magazine would never have led to that anyway. The way its relationship was with FASA, I'd never had gotten the chance. Still I did learn and have a lot of fun. While at the magazine I got to read the galley proofs of Warriors of Kerensky, I got free copies of BattleTech and Shadowrun stuff, I got to playtest Shadowrun and I also created some stuff. Hate Battle Value? I may be the guy to blame. Before FASA ever created a point tracking system, I wrote Combat Efficiency Factor. It was a crude system that didn't give enough credence to movement, but I had fun. I also first created the Osprey and wrote my first ever short story, Ghost of the Twenty-Fifth. But in the long run, it was just a hobby for a college age kid.

So then, how did you become a freelancer?

Ah good question. One I think will be perfect to start the next blog with…

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

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