Thursday, July 21, 2016

Me, SFWa, and game writing

I noticed today in a stunning headline that “SFWA to Admit Game Writers Starting August 1st, 2016”. I am uncomfortable with the verb, but I love them none the less.

As a CW'04 person and a game writer since, well, ‘04 as well, I have a lot of thoughts on that. Because there are reasons why this is a dingbat decision, and reasons why this is an act of genius and a strategic shift that will propel the SFWA toward the future.

Of course, for fun, the abuse comes first.

1. Most game writing sucks.
This is normal. Games are a designer’s medium, where film is a director’s medium and _____ is a writer’s medium (feel free to fill in the blank). This goes for games that have won awards in the past; games  that are loaded from end to end with agonizingly over-used cliches yet are viewed as icons. So let us say that there is fertile ground for improvement.

2. The barrier to entry in game writing is a) knowing the producer or lead designer or b) bidding really low
It is not honing your craft over years and then being vetted by slushpile readers followed by editors who have decades of experience. It is being vetted by technical project managers and game mechanics specialists whose longest prose work might likely be an SMS if not an e-mail written in a foreign language.

3. The SFWA management understands essentially nothing about how game writing happens.
When the “how to become a member bit” terms includes the phrases “qualifying market” and “net income of at least $3,000”, it is like saying the qualifications include “things that don’t exist in reality” and “ten or twenty days of work.” All those whose first pro publications required only ten or twenty days of work, please raise your hand…. There is no such thing as a “qualifying market” in video games; what there is on the other hand is freelance work for a studio (not a market) working for a publisher (perhaps a market,… wait, no…) that gets released through (most likely) digital channels which are perhaps 'markets’ in the sense of academic economics. However the 'market’, like Steam or Amazon, does not know the writer, the terms of their contract, the number of words they did or anything remotely related, and never wants to. The wording in this entire section is a most arcane mystery.

And yet, in spite of this ignorance of game writing, it is probably an act of brilliance for a number of reasons:

1. Incompetence culls itself
Experienced or noob, we hire writers based on the samples they write for us. We don’t care what they have done. We care what they can show us they can do. It is most dog-eat-dog and capitalistic, but it is also most clarifying. The success of your last game does not interest us, nor does the success of your last novel. We will not sign a three-game contract with you, because there won’t even be a second game for the designers and programmers and artists (the important people) if the first one doesn’t sell. You have to be always brilliant, to a deadline that an entire studio depends on.

2. When you write a game, you touch a million people
I work for a moderately successful indie studio, and every time we put a game out there a million people end up playing it – or at least buying it, but watch the snark because we all know that goes for novels, too… It means that the questions we ask, the situations we create, and the decisions that the player must take will be experienced by (okay, I’ll be realistic) hundreds of thousands of people. This is a big soapbox. This is a soapbox that cuts across far more nations, languages, and cultures than most pro SF sales because games go out in a half-dozen languages. This media touches an unthinkably vast number of people.

3. Interactivity demands implication
Once you start a game, you engage in its mechanics and world exactly as you engage in the world of a novel except for a critical difference - you decide things. You have options, and make choices, and suffer the consequences. Or you do, at least, if it is intelligently done. You must think, you must act, it is a “leaning forward” form of entertainment and not a “leaning backward” one. The narrative does not exist without the interaction of the player, and the player – when it is done well – must take responsibility for their choices. You must both think and act. You must both see and do. It is not a mystery why games are far superior to simple text when it comes to learning. Games have a remarkable power to affect, to change.

Yes, on the other hand, it is true that I do take this way too seriously. But more money goes into games now than into movie ticket sales. Fact.

Fondly, if a touch acerbically,