Saturday, March 26, 2011

An essential tool to succeeding in Freelance Game Writing

A Thick Skin…

I imagine that twenty years ago, maybe even ten years ago, the feedback a game writer got was limited and definitely not real time. Mainstream online interactions didn't exist two decades back and even a decade back products were printed and shipped old style. So you could have months from release to fan comments on the product.

Today, you can release a product electronically and by the time you've been to the coffee maker and back there are a 100 posts on the product. In this world of instant media you have to develop all the key skills of a regular freelance writer, but you also have develop an iron hard skin.

Now maybe Pip Ballantine needs a thick skin, what with her audio novels and tackling the popular Steampunk genre, but in Kristine Kathryn Rusch's very popular blog, on surviving as a writer in today's publishing economy, she doesn't mention thick skin.

She does list the following:
1. Flexibility                           6. Storytelling Ability.
2. Forward-thinking             7. Voice.
3. Business Savvy                 8. Risk-takers.
4. Entrepreneurial Spirit     9. A Willingness to Try
5. Write Fast                         10. Nonconformists.

These are all excellent pieces of advice and I would also recommend her Freelancer's Survival Guide if you want to tackle this crazy art.

But I think even more than self published authors, writers for an established game universe have to have skin so thick you can survive a trip through the sun. The BattleTech game universe is twenty-seven years old now and there are fans that have been following the game that long (twenty-five for me). With all that history your fans can develop some very decided opinions. Like every bad Star Trek convention spoof you've ever seen, gamers can have the same firmly fixed opinions and woe betide if the writers change the universe in a way that fan doesn't like.

Enter the age of instant media and the ability for the fans to express themselves isn't limited to a handful of conventions a year. They can respond quickly and in great volume. This can be wonderful, when some fan posts a heart felt thank you. This can be gut wrenching when another one declares how you've just destroyed the game.

Thick Skin.

You've got to have a mountain of self confidence, a healthy dose of patience and a wicked sense of humor won't hurt. With these in hand you can tackle the feedback, sort the wheat from the chaff and probably end up learning a few things from even the most vociferous of trolls. Mind you it may just be learning to add this person to your spam filter, but every little lesson has value.

Oh, and that skin comes in handy with the job itself. When you're the sole author of a book, you have the "power". You get to decide what happens and when. When you write for a game there can be dozens of other writers. Then there is a developer, a line developer, the fact checkers, the editors, the layout guys and so on. With that many opinions conflict is bound to occur (Management guru Mark Horstman likes to say "Conflict is two people in the same county", so get used to conflict it's a part of life.). So once again, a thick skin is very important. As is being professional, polite and calm, even if your fellow staffers are screaming bloody murder at you.

Thick Skin. You don't need to have it to be a game writer, but you probably won't last long without it.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

1. Flexibility
2. Forward-thinking
3. Business Savvy
4. Entrepreneurial Spirit
5. Write Fast
6. Storytelling Ability.
7. Voice.
8. Risk-takers.
9. A Willingness to Try
10. Nonconformists.

Monday, March 21, 2011

On being a freelance game writer/designer pt III

In my project management career we have a saying. It's a saying the game industry probably knows all to well, even if they don't use the exact phrase.

OBE - Overcome by events.

Or, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Such is what finds me a month from my last blog and in many ways describes how not to get your foot in the door. In Part II I talked about your public presence and how that was a critical factor in working for a game company. To be honest it applies to any job. I wrote a project management blog  in a similar vein after the NPR public relations disaster of two weeks back. In Part II I promised to go into making the jump from a volunteer (playtester, fact checker, etc.) into writing. Better late then never, here we go.

First off, don't let yourself be overcome by events. When the chance comes along, it is usually a brief little window that may or may not present itself again. Jump on the chance and run for it, because it may not come around again. And that's what I did. I was one of the few fact checkers who took part in the, then, super secret The Blake Document review. Some of the promo material used to promote the book were in universe marked up copies of units from FM:Merc Supplemental Update. Uncle Chandy's right hand man was reviewing possible candidates for hiring. I saw an opportunity to further promote the BattleCorps website and get a chance to write. So taking the leap, I wrote a pitch to Herb to include a bio on the Battle Corps' commander in the Biographies section of the book.

But what if he said no?
I don't recall where I learned the lesson, but it's one I've lived by for a long time and one any aspiring writer absolutely must believe in.

"You will never get anything, if you don't ask for it."

So I asked and then I pitched.


Yes. If you are submitting a story to BattleCorps, you provide an complete story. It's different when pitching into a continuous story game line. Unless you are Herb, Ben or possibly Randall, you don't know the entire story and the entire plan. So spending your complete labor of love on an idea that, while great, doesn't fit the universe can be very much a let down.

This means nine times out of ten you have to pitch your idea at a higher level. Provide enough detail for the developer to understand what you are pitching and your style. Not only does this keep you from spending months on the perfect LAM rules, when they were written two years ago and are just waiting for the right book, but it also can help protect the company you hope to work for. Who owns an idea can be a very touchy issue in game designing and writing. This is a huge part of why unsolicited designs from people not already under NDA ends up in the document not being opened and quickly round filed. The last thing a game company wants is to be accused of stealing someone's idea. They may have already been working on rules for sentient computers, but if they opened Jo Bob's rules (which involved memory chips made out of chocolate chips) they could put their entire plans at legal risk.

So nine times out of ten, when you pitch an idea, you pitch the concept. Then you wait for a reply and a contract (or at least a written go ahead).

That's what I did with my first foray into the writers credits of Catalyst Game Labs. I pitched my idea to Herb and he said "Ok" (no really, that was pretty much the sum of his first response. Herb's a man of few, but powerful words).

I guess I did something right, because when the next sourcebook came out I was one of the people it was sent to for open submission. But that's a whole other kettle of fish and isn't about becoming a freelancer, but about being one so I'll talk about that sometime in the future.

I got paid a whole $20.00 for that submission. It was the best twenty bucks I'd ever earned and I darn near never cashed the check.

Several years later I've definitely made more than that first twenty, but I still mark that point as the first time I realized maybe there was something to this hobby of mine.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner