Posted on March 26, 2008,

The Case for Writers in the Games Industry


Game designer Adam Maxwell, who has worked on Auto Assault and Dirty Harry, recently reworked a blog post for Gamasutra which is entitled “The Case Against Writers In The Games Industry.” With an intriguing enough title, I read through his piece and walked away thinking that a writer must have stole Maxwell’s girlfriend at some point; I couldn’t possibly disagree with him anymore than I do.

His main points are that a writer takes time away from development of a game’s core mechanics, his or her contributions won’t make a game good, and a writer’s linear work is at odds with a designer’s non-linear work.

Maxwell also claims that a designer who also has the ability to write is much more valuable than a writer, which is true to an extent. I completely can understand why you would want a multi-talented individual on your staff; someone versatile is always an asset. (Just ask Ron why he hired me. I do wonderful papier-mâchés.) But, that argument doesn’t take into account two things.

Number one is that the designer more than likely isn’t as good a writer as someone whose sole job is dedicated to crafting stories, characters, and evoking a person’s emotions. Number two, asking a designer to also do writing takes away from his or her time that could be spent working on the game – which Maxwell claims was an issue for him when he had to meet with a writer for 3-4 hours a week while working on Dirty Harry, which meant:

During that time, I was not balancing weapons, implementing core game play systems or overseeing the work of the rest of the team, which was what my job description actually called for.

I’m not saying this time was wasted, but it was time where part of the game design was suffering for the sake of the writer. Games get delayed all the time, I suspect that the example I provided above [spending time with the writer] is one of the reasons why.

Aside from obvious contradictions like that, Maxwell’s blatant assertion that writers are irrelevant to making a good game strikes me as ignorant. You absolutely don’t need a writer to make a good puzzle game – there aren’t many written words in Lumines, but I’d consider that to be a terrific game. But would BioShock, Portal or Call of Duty 4 be nearly as good as they are without the help of a writer to craft the story and characters? I can’t imagine Portal or BioShock would’ve been nearly as renowned as they were without their stories, humor, and plot twists.

An extra designer on your team can mean the difference between 8 levels and 12 or between 10 hours of content and 15, or the difference between a 60 and an 80 on Metacritic, and this is true whether your game has a story or not. Designers bring fresh perspectives that could bring with them innovations in your game… but what about writers?

No, a writer will not add to a game’s length or create additional levels or anything of the sort. But while they might not make your game any longer, they can make it a whole lot better – I’d once again point to Portal as an example of how more doesn’t necessarily mean better, and just because a game doesn’t have 35 levels instead of 25 doesn’t mean it’s any worse. Portal’s 2-5 hour experience was brilliant, but had Valve not concerned itself with the story and instead pumped in an additional five hours of puzzles, it wouldn’t have been nearly as good.

Perhaps Maxwell’s point of view is a problem inherent to the games industry. With the exceptions of certain games and developers, maybe it’s the sentiment that “We should spend our time adding more levels” that leads to games which seem like they’re on the cusp of being great – but instead end up seeming too thin in certain areas because the developer opted to add more content. The Darkness seems like a prime example, where the last hour of the game was not nearly as good as the hours that came before it. And maybe that’s because the developer decided to throw in a multiplayer (which was pure awful) that took away from development time on the single-player. BioShock had a wonderfully crafted single-player experience, and maybe we can attribute that to Ken Levine’s team working solely on it without worrying about a multiplayer component.

Back to Maxwell’s article, he claims that “writers alone can’t get your game done,” which is completely true. But no one individual is going to get your game done; because a Q&A person or artist can’t make your game come to life, does that make them superfluous? Of course not, because it’s the collective contributions of all these individuals that make a game into what it is – and having a writer is most certainly not a detriment to a game’s development.

It almost certainly is more difficult to incorporate the work of a writer into a game than it would be to just let designers plug things in as they see fit. And while Maxwell might think that writers aren’t necessary to making a good game, they might just be the key ingredient to making a game great.

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