How to Level Up as a Game Writer: A PAX West Panel

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Twitter.GameWritingPAX.Wed.9.14.16 by ArtofChelleElle
Photo credit: ArtofChelleElle

At PAX West 2016, I attended my absolute favorite panel ever. What was it about? Writing. There were so many takeaways for writers in any industry and my hands just couldn’t type fast enough on my phone to get all of these tips down! Character development, organization, how to get a job doing game writing… Whether you’re an agency copy editor or an avid novelist, I hope you enjoy these tips as much as I did.

Panel: Write Better Games NOW! How to Level Up as a Game Writer


  • Chris Avellone (Game Writer, Freelance)
  • Symantha Reagor (Writer / Content Producer, Freelance) 
  • Toiya Kristen Finley (Narrative Designer / Game Writer / Game Designer / Editor, Schnoodle Media, LLC) 
  • Richard Rouse III (Director / Designer / Writer, Paranoid Productions)
  • Alex Kain (Freelance Writer / Designer of Games)
  • Chris Tihor (Game Writer / Designer, Ironic Iconic Studios)

*Please note: Some of the comments made by panelists were paraphrased and may not be direct / exact as I was typing these notes as fast as my fingers would go on my phone!*

How did you get into game writing?

Toiya: I’m a freelance writer and gamer, working in prose fiction, comics, academic, and creative non-fiction. Nine years ago I found an indie startup that needed lore writers. They liked my samples and then they soon promoted me to designer.

Chris Avellone: For me, it took 30-40 submissions to pen and paper games. My advice: Just don’t stop submitting. Do a post-mortem of why you’re not getting in and try to contact the submission manager to give you feedback that can help you.

Symantha: I went to school for writing. I found a Craigslist post for an English Localization Editor, applied, and copy edited for them. I kept applying for mobile games. Originally, I came to Seattle and had no job for four to five months. 343 asked for help and I said yes, even when I didn’t know how to do something, such as technical writing, editing, etc.

Richard: I knew I wanted to work in games since I was in 7th grade. I got a CompSci degree and sent a sample game to an indie shop. They wanted a designer / dev / writer, too. I did screen savers, and then did a first-person shooter (not much money). 

Alex: I was born in 1985 and wanted to be in gaming from the beginning. I went to game and design programming school. Ian Schreiber was my mentor. He helped me make my first game in school. I pitched for jobs and ended up doing games for flip phones. They hired me on as an Associate Designer, which is barely above an intern. I worked on a game called “Space Miner: Space Ore Bust” and later met someone who liked the game. I asked if they needed writing done. My advice: Be persistent. It doesn’t work the same for everyone.

Chris Tihor: Find your own path. That’s a good way to approach it.

How different is video game writing to tabletop games?

Toiya: I started in prose fiction. You have to put into words things people can see in their minds. When working with animators, sound designers, and artists don’t be super wordy. But if you can, put things (actions) into words. Also, a good manga has great plot structure as well as plot and character arcs. Can you map out arcs? Can you spot plot holes?

Alex: My experience is in comics. There’s a certain economy of words you have to learn. People read a small amount of text with mobile games before clicking through. Comics helped inform decisions on how to do that!

Chris Avellone: My background is in tabletop RPGs. It’s easy to fail quickly. Your role is to be an entertainer. You have to ask yourself, is the audience enjoying this? For office tests, are people having fun? Is it too long? Are you talking to players about their experience? Lessons learned: Figure out why every person is there. How do you design quests? How do you make people feel valuable in the game? Stroke their ego?

Symantha: My experience is in books. A cast of characters are words on a page. How do you know who is talking if you remove dialogue tags? Dialogue must represent different characters. Voice actors shouldn’t have to try and cover for your mistakes. Also, people say each other’s names FAR less than you would think! Tip: Grab a friend and read your writing out loud like it’s a play.

Richard: Get actors in early, before the entire script is written to be able to figure out what they are bringing to a character.

Toiya: In fantasy, research is extremely important. Even if it’s just an analog of a setting. You can start getting ideas off of things that actually happened. Characters are more believable with research.

What are some special approaches when dealing with character development?

Chris Avellone: You want to bring major characters to a reoccurring game or system. Show the effects on mechanics around you. Are they going to the dark or light side? Make characters question your decisions. Have characters help the player ask questions about themselves. Don’t ask a question you already know. Have the surrounding cast help the player answer.

Toiya: Focus on who, not what character is. Who you are… What’s important to you… Where did you grow up? Start with a character. THEN you look at their ethnic background, sexual orientation, etc. Stereotypes are predictable. For example, the space marine… We know what their journey is going to be.

: How is that character’s personality going to be expressed to the player, even without cut scenes?

Symantha: How do you want the players to relate to the characters? Are they the player actively, or playing as / helping the character? Do you want the player to feel they are that character? Or, do you want them to be watching the character?

Alex: Playing off of artists’ designs can be fun. It’s like improv. Also, know when your characters are getting voiced! Plan ahead. Treat all characters as the main character of their own story.

How do you keep track of lore / etc. via tools?

Alex: Excel (I go from Final Draft to Word to Excel). A CSV doc can be imported directly to a game. It helps with translation. Non-prose writing for me is in Excel format. You can have zones, keys, where the character is talking, when / why the character is talking (dialogue with conditions), etc.

Richard: I have fought successfully and have never written in Excel! I write in Word. Character bio, outline, plot… But, my character matrices are made in Excel. Ubisoft has a cool tool that does both and turns it all into a spreadsheet automatically!

Toiya: I am low tech. I like being tactile and use pen and paper. I later like transferring to my writing to Word. It also depends upon the developer we are using. As an example, one time a developer wanted to use OneDrive, and another Google Drive.

Symantha: Notepad++, Scrivener, Word, Excel (sometimes with lots of tabs); it depends on the project and the supervisors and what they’ve already set up. If there’s a better way, I try to convince them.

Chris Avellone: Excel is best for tracking and organization. How is this going to be put into an XML file? I still tend to write in word for grammatical stuff and formatting. Sending Word docs to people for commenting is easier. Also, know how many characters will be on screen. For example, English is 75% of German characters.

Richard: Serve the needs of others as best as you can. You probably need people’s help editing and reviewing if you’re not the “top dog”.

How do I become a good collaborator with other teams?

Toiya: Learn communication styles. You’ll be working with sound and art designers. A lot of people in these areas don’t like reading. Put stuff for them up front. Keep things short and in bullet points. Give sound and art references. Don’t overload them because it can be very difficult to read, especially when you need to work quickly, which in game design, you do.

Richard: Become good friends with people, discuss things… Compare ideas. Chat and stop by their desk. Compromise on the vision if needed so that all pieces fit together.

Chris Avellone: Read all documentation and view all concept art. People may have a thought where they want a character to go that informed their decision for how they look / etc. Grab all leads of departments and give a one-pager on where the story is going. If people won’t read it, schedule a meeting to present it. Then send out a four-pager. If it gets approved? Make sure the leads all approve and understand it. Then, share the story with all of those teams. Schedule another, under 40-minute meeting to explain because no one will read them. Record that meeting for new people coming on the team to help them get an idea of direction. Many people on my team didn’t want to present! Share. Make sure everyone knows what the story will be. Players will feel that disconnect while playing.

Toiya: Having the Narrative Designer embedded in meetings is important. Get this message across: Everybody is responsible for the story

Alex: Game writing is about compromise over time.  A lot of people want to feel ownership of the game. It’s all about communication and compromise.

Symantha: Send your emails. Know your deadlines. Let people know right away if the schedule needs to be adjusted and give an updated timeline!

Chris Avellone: Deadlines become more important when you realize someone has to review your stuff. How long does it take for someone to review it? How much do you have to nag them?

Symantha: There are several rounds of edits and copy review and incorporating designs in. Send Design an email asking for assets early. Start communicating as early as possible.

How do you match creative voices that are different from yours?


What is the importance of a diversity consultant?

If you don’t have that personal experience, find someone who does. Sometimes that’s with voice acting.

Where is your favorite place to find inspiration in your writing?

Toiya: I go to a local pizza place. I work at home. It’s nice viewing what I / others are doing and just being able to jot down notes. I’m a visual thinker. Get away from what you’re used to.

How do you apply to be a game writer?

Chris Avellone: If someone can organize information succinctly in Excel and the producer, audio, etc. gets it… Sold.

Other Thoughts:

Chris Avellone: Player and player characters’ motivations need to be thought about and be aligned. They don’t need to be the exact same.

Toiya: Understand good storytelling. Period. You need to understand what a good character is. What a good plot is. Grammar is important. Have friends who have a good grammar structure. Make sure to not use semicolons as commas wearing fancy hats.


For Getting a Job in Gaming:

Just don’t stop submitting. If you aren’t getting in, contact the submission manager and ask for some tips. Then, do a post-mortem of why you’re not getting in and try again. And when you do get that job? Say yes, even when you don’t know how to do something. Learn as you go and try new things! Remember: It doesn’t work the same for everyone. Find your own path and be persistent.

For Writing Well:

Get away from what you’re used to and immerse yourself in different environments. Expose yourself to new places, people, etc. and do your research, especially with fantasy writing as stories based on real-world research make your characters more believable. Understand good storytelling, that good grammar is always important, and that practice is a great teacher. Also, when it comes to writing dialogue, how do you know who is talking if you remove dialogue tags? Tip: Grab a friend and read it out loud like it’s a play.

For Staying Organized:

Excel is best for tracking and organization, Word for sharing and editing. But, a CSV file is easiest to load into a game. You can also use OneDrive, Google Drive, Notepad++,, Scrivener, or even just the classic pen and paper. But, know what your team works best with to help keep communication and ideas flowing.

For Working with Others:

Know communication styles and serve the needs of others as best as you can when it comes to communication… and communicate well. Send emails early, know schedules, read through everything, look at all concept art and help everyone understand that they are all responsible for the story. Know that a lot of people want to feel ownership of the game, but ultimately, It’s all about communication and compromise over time. And make friends with people!!!

For Creating Good Characters:

Make characters question your decisions and have the surrounding cast help the player answer questions. Know how players will relate to the characters and understand how that character’s personality will be communicated. Focus on who, not what character is. Who you are… What’s important to you… Where did you grow up? Start with a character and then look at their ethnic background, etc. And if you need a diversity consultant? Get one.

For Understanding Your Audience:

Figure out why every person is there, what their motives are. Think about how you would design quests and how you would make people feel valuable in the game.

I thoroughly enjoyed this panel and felt really encouraged in my own writing. Thank you to all the panelists who participated and shared their experience and advice.

And to everyone out there; keep those commas hatless. (:D)

Chelle Elle

“Chelle Elle” has been drawing since she was really small. No restaurant napkin was ever safe when crayons were involved! Now, she writes and illustrates characters and other fun ideas to help her dreams and the dreams of others come to life! Yes, she takes commissions and would love to hear from you.

Email her today to learn more about how she can bring your ideas to life!

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