Reaching new audiences for games through great writing

Luke Kelly, PhD analysing the links between literature, film and videogames

“From the outset, we were looking at Christmas Day”, explains Andrew Eades. “Somebody has this new Playstation, the family are sitting down after eating a huge dinner, and that’s when you crack open Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit. We’d give them a new option: ‘it’s just like a TV game show, except you get to take part’”.

Andrew is one of the developers behind Buzz! a BAFTA award winning video game that was much-praised for its ability to attract audiences who’d never sat down in front of a console before. He’s since sought to replicate this success with Blue Toad Murder Files, a puzzle game aimed squarely at the Midsomer Murders demographic – with a dose of Carry On style humour for good measure.

The ability of both of these games to reach non-traditional audiences is based partly on writing. Both were carefully scripted in order to appeal to as many Christmas Day family members as possible. Andrew’s belief was that the sort of things families enjoy watching as a group – murder mysteries and quiz shows – they’d also enjoy playing as a group. Trivial Pursuit mixed with Pointless; Cluedo with a dash of Miss Marple; the games Andrew creates are designed to slide seamlessly into those moments so many families enjoy (or indeed endure).

I interviewed Andrew last year as part of a study looking at how the worlds of writing and gaming are beginning to overlap. In an era when the median salary for professional writers in the UK has collapsed to £11,000 (according to a survey by the ALCS), the games industry seems at first glance to be bucking the trend. A recent salary survey by Develop magazine revealed an industry median of £29,000 last year – and for writers the figure increases to £33,000. Are games then a viable career path for a generation of writers struggling to make a living?

This was the question we tried to answer in Connecting Stories, a report commissioned by Spread the Word and funded by CreativeWorks, which provides a glimpse behind the scenes of 5 games which all somehow rely on writers to stand out from the crowd. Whilst admittedly restricted in its scope, what we found was that each of the writers involved had fallen into the industry almost by accident; none had received any formal training, and each admitted to have learned several costly lessons via a painful process of trial and error. “I’ve often been brought in as a writer, but ended up doing as much Project Management as actual writing”, explained David Varela. “It’s not necessarily that I even had experience of this: in a small team, when it’s all hands on deck, everyone has to just do what they can to make the project work”.

The sentiment is probably familiar to anyone with experience at an independent crunching their way towards release – as indeed are Kate Pullinger’s experiences of story often being treated as no more than an afterthought. The rewards are undoubtedly there however for those who manage to succeed, as they have been for Naomi Alderman, co-creator of the wildly successful Zombies, Run! In this case the combination of a great game and great writing revolutionised the world of fitness apps, although again Naomi had to look outside of games for guidance. She turned to Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon for inspiration, with the result being a narrative structured to sustain intrigue over the course of several “series” – a key part of the game’s financial success.

What these accounts seemed to indicate then is that whilst the potential rewards are there, the formal training often isn’t. Writers relied on chance meetings and personal contacts to find work, before relying on trial and error to get it done. Developers faced the same issue, with those unable or unwilling to pay for professional recruiting services left crossing their fingers that a hire will have the skills and experience needed to work within the team.

Though limited in scale, our study raised some interesting questions: in an era when three-quarters of those working in the industry now possess at least an undergraduate degree, why do barely any cover screenwriting writing for games? Why do so few games courses place a corresponding emphasis on story? We’re hoping to do a follow-up project which will address these issues, looking at ways in which more talent can be encouraged to make the transition from one creative industry to another. What’s clear already is that games are a viable outlet for writers who have the talent – and the developers who know how to use them are already reaping the rewards.

Luke Kelly is a PhD student analysing the links between literature, film, and video games. Connecting Stories was a Creativeworks London funded project conducted with Spread the Word, a writer development charity. A copy of the report can be downloaded from www.spreadtheword.org.uk/resources/view/what-skills-do-you-need-to-write-interactive-games.

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