Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Writing for computer games

The more writers I talk to about working in the games industry, the more obvious it becomes there's yawning gaps in the marketplace - both for a decent agency that specialises in working with writers and computer games companies, and for some sort of industry-wide standard of payment. Here's what Jonathan Clements had to say in the comments section of an earlier posting on this topic:

"I know of a *bad* agency, but no good ones. I'm not surprised that the computer games industry employs more than TV and film here. There are some writers around in it. I think I've worked on around a dozen games in the last five years. The money can be very good, but there's an incredible amount of wastage -- almost as many stalled projects as in the film business.

"Also a great variant in producer expectations. I've worked for producers who pay Writers Guild scale, and for others who have a barely contained horror of the concept that this is a job that Jeff the Tea Boy couldn't do for them for a fraction of the price."

That got me thinking - what is the Writers Guild of Great Britain scale for computer games? A quick scan of the guild website wasn't that informative, especially as the site's being retooled at present. The Guild has a fistful of publicly viewable agreements and rate cards, such as the BBC Television Script Commissioning Agreement, the PACT/WGGB TV Agreement, ITV/WGGB TV Agreement for series and serials, Radio Drama Agreement Rates (August 2005), TMA (theatre) rates, TNC (theatre) rates and Animation Guidelines. I'm guessing the Animation Guidelines are the closest thing the Guild has to a scale of payments for computer games (somebody correct me if I'm wrong here!).

Here's the WGGB Animation guide rates (which date back to 2002, by the way)...

A) Bible development fees range from £2000 - £8000+
B) Scripts up to 5 mins @ £1000 - £1500+
C) Scripts up to 10 mins @ £1500 - £3000+
D) Scripts up to 22 mins @ £3000 - £6000+
E) Scripts over 22 mins negotiated on a case-by-case basis
F) Storylines (1 page) @ 5% - 10% of full script fee.
G) Beated Outlines/Treatment (4 – 6 pages) @ 33% of full script fee.
H) Re-writes requested after the final polish stage should be paid for. The fee will depend on what is involved.

Of course, applying this is computer games is problematic, to put it mildly. I've down a tiny amount of work in the industry, such as scripting cut scenes for an update of an old arcade game, and determining rates was a vexed issue. I guess the easiest way to equate computer game time to screen time on an animation project is to apply the old one page of script equals one minute of screen time rule. So if you have to write 50 pages of script to dialogue all the scenes in a computer game, that's equivalent to writing a script for a 50 minute animated film.

IIRC, I charged the company involved a day rate and any expenses involved in working with them, such as travelling to their various offices. Of course, they wanted a full-time in-hosue writer and I wanted to stay freelance, so I was just a stop-gap.

Like I said, there's an obvious need for some sort of industry-wide payment standard. As Jonathan noted, the difficulty is any idiot come conceive an idea for a game. Since most people can turn on a laptop and launch Microsoft Word or Final Draft, they think that makes them writers. I wouldn't dream of trying to create a code for a game, simply because I've spent some time playing on my Game Boy Advance. Yet some within the games industry believe that because they can type, that makes them writers. The years of craft acquisition and depth of talent required to be a good writer are immense (I wish I had both, but at least I'm working on improving my craft skills).

I could be wrong, but it seems some games developers see writers as an afterthought, somebody to come in and do the tedious job of putting words into mouths of NPCs. (Another great piece of industry jargon - NPC equals Non Playing Character, ie a character who appears in the game but one the player can't directly inhabit. It's like a talking equivalent of the NSE, the Non-Speaking Extra. I love watching characters in TV dramas who act their little socks off but aren't allowed to speak, as that means the actor would get paid more. The West Wing's often full of great NSE, or background artists as they're also known.)

If games developers involved writers from the earliest stage of conception - particularly writers who play games and displays some scribe skills - then the end result might just be better written games. All too often, my working experiences in games development boiled down to "we've got all these great ideas, we just need you to do some typing and magically turn them into a legible pitch document".

Anybody else want to share their experiences of writing for computer games? Don't worry, you can be vague about the names of the games, developers and the publishers - no need to violate your NDAs. I want to know more...


Jim Swallow said...

"That got me thinking - what is the Writers Guild of Great Britain scale for computer games?"

Hold that thought; I'm working with the WGGB and a team of writers right now on a set of guidelines for the games industry, and we're hoping to have a document published in the next couple of months...

Simon Jowett said...

Some within the games industry believe that because they can type, that makes them writers.

In my experience, this attitude is not exclusive to the games industry. Nor has it prevented more than a few of these "typists" from being published/produced.

So if you have to write 50 pages of script to dialogue all the scenes in a computer game, that's equivalent to writing a script for a 50 minute animated film.

Only if your 50 pages of cut scenes carry the same amount of narrative weight as the script for a 50 minute feature.

The most problematic issue when looking for an equivalent to writing for computer games is that you're generally not comparing like with like. Movies/TV (even individual episodes of ongoing series) are closed narrative structures, where control over action, character and plot resides with the creators (in the first instance, the writer); the progress - the narrative, if you like - of a game is defined by its player, regardless of how much work as gone into developing backstory or designing the environment. I have yet to be convinced that your average cut scene performs a role equivalent to a scene in a movie, a television drama/sitcom/soap or a radio play.

Just because the games industry now employs more people than the film and TV industries doesn't mean it yet bears any meaningful relation to them, other than the most superficial. There's money to be made but, until writers are able to lay claim to royalties/residuals on copies of games sold, I'm not sure how interested reputable agents will be in representing a writer's games work as anything more than an amusing sideline to an existing career in books/film/TV.

David Bishop said...

Good points from both Jim and Simon there. Note to self: be more careful with sweeping generalisations!

From my limited experience of scripting cut scenes, I agree they don't carry as much narrative weight as a page of script for a work of broadcast entertainment. But games require so much more material than the comparitive, due to the branching nature of the narrative and the numerous alternatives that throws up.

I have doubts writers will ever get the chance to lay claim to royalties on game sales, just as scribes get shut out of a lot of the backend from films. [On the other hands, at least most writers in films do get paid and often first of anybody.]

AIUI, it's standard practice in films for the writer to surrender copyright on their screenplay, although ancilliary rights is another matter.

Oh, it's a big can of worms, alright.

David Bishop said...

Oh, and by the way - hello Simon!