Gaming the System: Anna Megill
Anna Megill has written scripts for a wide variety of games; here, she talks about how flexibility and communication skills are essential when working on titles like Guild Wars 2.
Would you rather drink tea made from dirty socks or bite a hobo’s toenails? It’s a tough question and just one of a handful of gruesome queries that freelance script writer Anna Megill found herself pondering while working her way into the game writing field. Starting as a QA tester, Megill worked her way up the testing ranks, all the while reminding her bosses that she had a degree in English and an aptitude for writing. When she landed a testing gig on the massive multiplayer RPG, Planet Cazmo, Megill got to do some small writing projects which included sifting through sometimes icky Would You Rather? suggestions submitted from players and writing questions for a weekly contest.
Since the early days at Planet Cazmo, Megill has landed bigger projects with major industry players including Ubisoft, Hasbro, Nintendo, Cyberlore, and Airtight Games/Square Enix, and has written for an impressively diverse array of titles, ranging from RPG-fantasy staples like Guild Wars 2 to the stealth game, Murdered: Soul Suspect.
And that’s part of what’s kept her employed she says. Freelancers who bounce from studio to studio need to be flexible enough to write different genres and have a clear idea of the good and the bad the job brings. Here’s what newbies need to know.
Get In Media: It’s a huge transition to jump from QA to writing. What was your first job officially in game writing like?
Anna Megill: My very first game writing break where I officially got the title and I got to sit down and make characters and work with designers and it was my material was Guild Wars 2, which was a really exciting first project to have that happen with. It was wonderful. I started off doing editing work on that, on the original Guild Wars, and worked with the designers on their text that they were putting out for missions. Then when I became a game writer on Guild Wars 2, did you want to know the actual process that we went through from start to finish?
GIM: That would be great.
AM: There are very different processes depending on which gaming house you’re working for, but out of ArenaNet, what we would do is when you decided you were going to work on a certain area, each writer was assigned a map and with that map came the map designer and the character designer and the mission designer and the artist and the writer. Everyone would get together and sort of collaborate on what the story of that area was going to be and of course it had to fit into the bigger picture of the game so there were certain constraints. Within that, with the beats of the story that we had to hit and with the parameters that were set for us, we could go crazy. We’d all sit down and toss these ideas around and then the artists would go out and come up with concept art or other ideas and work with the designers to come up with some proposed missions and we’d just slowly sort of build up that skeleton and make it richer and richer, get more art in there, get some animation in there, build up the characters with dialogue and some technical writing. Pretty soon, before you knew it, you had the fully fleshed out map with missions taking place and people able to go in and have the full experience.
GIM: You’ve written about how, unlike screenplays, games really have to be informational as well as entertaining. How do you balance that?
AM: It’s a process of trial and error really. You think you’re being clear with something and you write a version of it and that’s where designers and artists come in. Even the lighting in a scene can make a huge difference. Instead of saying to players,”Hey, you need to walk down to the end of that hallway and turn there,” you can just make the level dark and have the bright spot be at the end of the level and people will naturally gravitate towards it. It’s a much more elegant way of doing things than with text…
GIM: Would you mind speaking to that environmental narrative? How closely are you working with designers to ensure that things like light placement and environmental aspects of the game are cohesive with narrative?
AM: That really varies from studio to studio, how closely designers and writers work together. I’ve been fortunate at those studios that I’ve worked at that I’ve worked quite closely with them. The people I’ve worked with have been extraordinarily talented and they had come with a lot of ideas and said, “Hey in this section here, I want to do this” and I look at that and am like, “Oh that’s fantastic. I can cut all these lines if you do that.” Or you go to them with an idea and say, “You know, I’m trying to figure out how I can get this player to understand that this thing has to happen” and they’re like, “Why don’t we have this thing blink over here” or “Why don’t we have someone standing right there twitching and calling attention to it?” It’s just bouncing those ideas off of each other, and maybe someone just has a perfect solution that’s never occurred to you because it’s not your discipline. That’s really the beauty of game writing I think is that you get to collaborate with people like that and they just bring so much to the table.
GIM: At the Game Developers Conference this past year, there was a lot of discussion among game writers about how in some studios, historically, the writing portion and story portion of a game have been valued less than game play. Have you come across that?
AM: I think that was [Riot Games’ senior narrative director] Tom Abernathy’s talk if I recall, that the player can’t remember the plot but they do remember interesting characters and interesting game play?
GIM: He spoke about that as did Dr. Deborah Hendersen from Microsoft.
AM: …I think there’s a lot of value in what they were saying about that. If you have strong characters and you have interesting game play, people are going to want to play your game. Look at Pong. I mean look at Asteroids. There wasn’t a lot of story there but they were really compelling games.
I think people are playing different kinds of games for different reasons. One of the running debates I have with some friends of mine is whether pinball has stories or not….They give you the elements of the story and they give you enough of a narrative that you can sort of build your own story out of it. You’re collecting jewels and you have to go and invade the bazaar…and you trying to complete these missions. It is a story being told in a very sort of fractured way, but it’s still there and I think that is sufficient. If you provide people with the building blocks for these stories, they will construct it themselves to a certain extent but game play has to be compelling and the characters have to be interesting in order for that to happen.
GIM: You’ve spoken in the past about how game writing looks so fun from the outside but there are certainly challenges to it. Would you mind going over the most and least fun parts of your job?
AM: The most fun is obviously that we’re making video games. That’s so cool. You get to create this incredible world, this shared vision that you’ve had with other people, sometimes for years at a time where you’ve all thrown your ideas into the ring and made them come alive. Then people get to come into that world and you can watch them play your game. That for me is the miracle…in what other medium can you participate in your vision with the people you made it for? Not just watch them enjoy it or talk to them about it, but actually help them make their way through that world. It’s the only one. It’s just incredible. It’s an amazing feeling. That’s as good as it gets.
That’s the high and it makes everything else worthwhile, but there are lows. There’s a lot of drudgery to game writing, to every aspect of game creation. Writers spend a lot of time in spreadsheets. We spend a lot of time…just trying to find ten different ways of saying “Ouch” sometimes, processing VO [voiceover] files. I probably spent a third of my time at ArenaNet processing VO files and that’s not a lot of fun. You’re just listening to lines, making sure it doesn’t have any static in it or it’s clear, that it matches the written dialogue. It’s really repetitive and boring and especially if there’s a lot of it, it can just be exhausting…Especially if you’re in crunch time and you’re working long hours, it can really get to you. You have to be able to look past that and stay focused on what the game is going to be and the big picture of it to hang in there. Some people can’t do that.
GIM: There’s so much market saturation for game writers. What stands out to you in a portfolio? How can new writers break in?
AM: …Networking is key of course. If they’re just looking to get a job in the industry, who you know is really critical. I talked about it in the FAQ on my website…You won’t even know the jobs are out there if you’re not connected to the industry. You won’t even know that there’s a job available. Very few places actually post the jobs. That’s step one, knowing what’s out there and what the qualifications for it are and making sure you align your skill set with their qualifications.
You need to be familiar with games, obviously, and all kinds of games. If you only play fighting games, I’m not going to hire you to come work on a narrative-heavy game like The Walking Dead…I think a wide knowledge of the different narrative styles would be something that I would definitely look for at this point. Someone who was interested in all kinds of games, who was playing indie titles, who was playing the big names, and who was interested in what you could do with those different kinds of narratives. The difference between telling the stories that they can tell in one of these huge AAA titles and the story that they’re telling in Kentucky Route Zero, for example, very, very different….Someone who was aware of that and understood those nuances and was able to dial it back or blow it up depending on that, I think that would be absolutely invaluable at this point in time. I would give them a versatility that they would really need in this industry when people sort of bounce from project to project.
GIM: What are the biggest misconceptions about your job?
AM: I think people have a weird idea that game writing is just, you sit down and you dream up these great stories and that becomes the game. I don’t think people realize how much process it goes through in order to get from what you put down on the page to something that people can play a couple of years later. It’s not just purely creative process. I get a lot of very young, excited people writing to me going, “I want to be a game writer” and I’m like, “Oh, bless your heart. That’s great; however, let’s dial it down and talk about what that really means.” They think that they’re going to write a story and that story will become a game and it’s never like that. It’s never that pure and it’s never that simple. It involves a lot of compromise and a lot of work. I think that’s just a misconception that a lot of people have, and also that it’s going to be your idea…Quite often you’re working on an existing IP and you’re making someone else’s vision. You can get little bits of your own vision in there, but sometimes it’s not about your imagination. It’s about helping someone else realize their dream, and that’s cool.
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