Writing in games has become standard in the industry, but all good writing requires a guiding hand.
Back when video games mostly involved moving sprites on a black field, the written word in games was often a second thought relegated to a game designer or worse, a coder. Now that creating a narrative in games has become standard, and most game developers have at least one full time writer on staff, the time has come for another discipline to emerge – the game editor. That was the thesis of a talk at GDC 2014 in the Game Narrative Summit given by Cameron Harris, an experienced editor of games writing. She outlined all the benefits a studio could gain by hiring editors to ultimately help reduce costs, and simply make games better.
Harris has worked at many studios such as BioWare that have embraced the editing culture, and she reports that it has helped the games in measurable ways. Iteration is very important to game design – developers try something, see if it works, and then try something else. That same philosophy is exactly what makes editors so important.
“The writers know that their work will go through many drafts, directed by an editor, until it reaches a point in which all parties are happy with it,” Harris said. “That process gives more freedom to authors to exercise craft, try new things, and get better at it.” Knowing that an editor will catch their mistakes, and shape the narrative, gives writers the ability to go crazy, and perhaps write something great instead of worrying about their nonsense making it to the final product.
Using an editor can save a developer money. That might sound counter-intuitive – usually adding a staff-member increases costs – but Harris gave two really strong examples. While working on Star War The Old Republic, Harris noted that a voice actor was scheduled to voice two characters that would meet later in the game. By recasting one role before recording took place, she saved the studio money in re-recording. Harris also stated she has data from BioWare editors working on Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises that cut down word counts, making them more precise and arguably better, but also saving the studio more than $1 million in recording and localization costs.
Editors also serve as communication hubs, Harris said, which helps the producers keep the game on schedule. When editing is expected and scheduled, it becomes an integral part of the process, and editors can help communicate between departments by creating story bibles and design documents to make sure the game’s ideas and world are consistent and concise.
Harris pointed out that other media have editors – from book publishing to movies – and none of them would think of producing creative work without the editor role in the process. “Editors serve as the internal critic,” she said. They shape and guide your game so that it appears coherent to the player. Because chances are, if editors don’t understand your game, the player probably won’t either.
I personally couldn’t imagine writing in any capacity without having someone else look over my work. It’s crazy that having an editor on staff at game developers, especially ones that concentrate on narrative experiences with thousands of pages of dialogue and story, is still relatively rare. I’m glad Cameron Harris is trying to change the minds of studio heads, and I hope her talk at GDC 2014 got at least one editor hired.