“Where do you get your ideas?”
The question, asked by innocent bystanders, well-meaning associates and the idly curious alike, plagues and troubles writers of all shapes and sizes, not solely owing to its ubiquity (although it is a perennial favorite). No, the question is such a bother because the answer is often as mysterious to the writer as it is to the reader.
Where do ideas come from? Do they come entirely from the mind, springing forth fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, whispered in the ear of our subconscious like the voice of some muse, or are they products of our hopes and dreams, influenced by everything we see or hear, stolen from the very fabric of our lives?
The answer is most likely “all of the above,” but it’s often hard to tell. Ideas just come, and the birthing of them feels like an arcane, delicate art; a swirling cauldron we’re reluctant to peer into, lest our examinations kill the proverbial cat. Hence, the popular image of the writer staring longingly at the blank page, begging for the emergence of ideas that, for whatever reason, are too stubborn to obey.
Wouldn’t it be easier if someone else had already done the legwork for you? Created the world, characters and story, filled the page already, leaving only blanks to be filled between the spaces? That’s, in essence, what it’s like starting a franchise writing project, games either built around an established license (Star Trek, etc.) or games inspired by or following up on a successful original story, and the writers for these games are just like any writers anywhere, only a large part of their work is already done. Or is it?
“I don’t think I would say writing for franchises is easier,” says Wendy Despain, Chair of the IGDA Game Writer’s Special Interest Group (SIG) who’s written for a number of franchises, including BRATZ: Forever Diamondz and “several Roddenberry Sci-Fi properties.” “It is different and sometimes takes less time overall, but there’s also a tendency to bring the writer in later in the project. … This is usually less than ideal.”
Writing for an established series can be an effective way to make a living as a writer, and is often the first stop for many writers on their journey to a lucrative career. But for a creative writer, working within the constraints of a preexisting idea can be a treacherous path to success.
“[Writing for franchises is] easier in some respects, harder in others,” says veteran playwright, screenwriter and game writer Haris Orkin, whose work has appeared in Dungeons & Dragons: Dragonshard, Kingdom Hearts, Call of Juarez and other games. “Usually, if the characters and/or story are already established, you are forced to stay within certain parameters.”
Parameters like the characters’ mannerisms, way of speaking, what they say, how they say it and where they happen to be when they’re going about the business you’re attempting to describe, to name a few. One would think it’d drive a creative mind insane to adhere to the tenets of someone else’s vision, but according to Orkin, the process has its pros and cons.
“I enjoy working either way,” Orkin says. “I love creating characters and stories. But also I love the challenge of taking someone’s work and kicking it up to a whole new level. Creating your own characters and story gives you more flexibility, but it also requires a lot more work initially. So there are good and bad elements of both.”
Rafael Chandler, writer and designer for a number of Tom Clancy games including Rainbow Six: Lockdown, agrees: “When a great deal of the material has been established prior to my involvement, it streamlines the process for me, and allows me to focus on just writing dialogue. When I’m given the opportunity to create story and characters within a general framework, it gives me more freedom, but it usually entails a very heavy level of involvement in the development process. Instead of spending a few weeks or months writing dialogue, I spend years as a member of the design team.”
Imagine playing Tetris without the pre-formed shapes. It would be easier to fill the holes if you could build your own shapes, but for some writers the challenge of filling them with the shapes they’ve been given is part of the thrill.
“Like most creators, I prefer as much freedom as I can get,” says game writer and novelist Matt Forbeck, whose credits include works for Marvel; DC; WildStorm; Image Comics; Conan; Mutant Chronicles; The Lord of the Rings; Dungeons & Dragons; Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law; and “many, many others.” “But I also enjoy writing and designing under tight strictures. It’s almost a game in itself. The more restrictions piled upon you, the more innovative you have to be to express yourself through them, rather than in spite of them.”
“It’s more like working on a comic book or writing a novel set in someone else’s universe,” says Chandler. “The rules, concepts and primary characters have already been developed for you, and your task is to expand on the material while remaining true to the source.”
There’s also satisfaction to be had in working within an existing structure, as if some of the pressure were taken off the writer’s shoulders, allowing him to focus on storytelling, rather than world building. The experience can be likened to working for an existing company, receiving a regular paycheck, versus starting your own business and being the one having to write the checks. Plus, with a franchise title, success is all but a foregone conclusion.
“Most franchise games and novels outsell most original works,” says Forbeck. “Those franchises put my labor in front of thousands, if not millions more people than I could probably reach on my own. Because of that, I get to entertain a larger audience, which is never anything to complain about.”
Despain agrees: “I don’t consider it slumming when I work on a franchise. These properties are successful for a reason, so there’s always something to learn from the experience, and usually something I can offer to the project to make it shine a little brighter.”
“I’m a professional writer,” says Orkin, “and if I’m being paid to write, I’m a very happy camper.” Besides, he says, a franchise project eliminates the “paralyzing” effect of having too many choices. “Having some limitations and restrictions can sometimes help the creative process,” he says.
“With fresh brands from fresh companies,” says, Forbeck, “you sometimes feel like you’ve been given a map that says ‘There Be Monsters Here’ and been told to start exploring.”
The key to getting it right, according to Despain, is the characters, “even if you don’t know or understand them when you first start out. When the characters are born in your own brain you almost instantly know them intimately, but when they’re someone else’s creation you have to get to know them like you’re making new friends. It takes a lot longer.”
It can also be more work, not less. Chandler says he feels obligated to explore all the content available for a given world when taking on a franchise gig. “This gives me a feel for the ‘mythology’ of the series,” he says, “and helps to contextualize the dev team’s vision for this new installment. I also research all of the story and design documents pertaining to the franchise. This can add up to a hell of a lot of work.”
What’s critical is knowing where the boundaries are, as established by the creators of the world; knowing where they are and avoiding them.
“The characters are predefined, and you can’t have them do anything that contradicts the past or drastically changes the future,” says Orkin. “You can’t kill off Batman or have him decide to have a sex change operation.”
Despain knows that feeling all too well from her experience working on the BRATZ game, where she was expected to take entire episodes of the television series and translate them, more or less intact, to game form. “However, in every other case,” she says, “I’ve been given a wide range for creating plots and even new characters or elements of the universe I’m playing in.
“I think it comes down to how clearly the IP owners have already envisioned the end product. Sometimes they know exactly what they want and just need someone else to make it real. Other times they just know they want something cool and hire people they trust to create something on their own.”
Or, as Orkin, whose experiences have ranged from fleshing out and expanding preexisting characters and stories (Dragonshard, Call of Juarez) to simply putting words in mouths (Kingdom Hearts), says, “[The] process is a lot easier and less stressful if the person you’re collaborating with isn’t too rigid or defensive.
“The most important thing is for the IP owner to be clear about what they want. Sometimes they say you have lots of freedom, but in reality they’ve got a clear vision already, and they’re just not sure how to articulate it. That turns into a ‘Guess what the client is thinking’ situation and that’s no fun at all.”
Which would make it sound a lot nicer to go back to that blank page, light some candles and wait for the ideas to come, but that’s not exactly how writing for games works.
“Sometimes it’s nice to play in a world you only make up yourself,” says Despain, “but anyone who wants to do that should go write a novel. Everything else requires a group effort.”
“As a writer I’ll always be working alongside a designer,” says Orkin, who describes the relationship between a writer and a game designer as similar to that between a screenwriter and a director. “As a screenwriter you come up with an idea for a movie, write and sell a spec movie script. Games don’t work that way for writers. The driving person behind a game is the designer.”
Despain calls game development “a team sport.” “Game writers are usually trying to work within and flesh out the game designer’s vision,” she says, “even if it’s a unique concept. If a writer wants total control, they need to learn how to be a game designer as well.”
Yet even the designer, the all-powerful force behind a game concept, is not a god, but a part of a larger machine – they have to play well with others, too.
“Games don’t spring full-blown from the designer’s brow,” says Forbeck, stealing my intro. “They require larger and larger staffs, and the communication challenges grow with those numbers. You have to spend a lot of time communicating with other members of the team to make sure you’re all working toward the same goals.”
With franchised games in particular, he adds, the potential hurdles multiply like rabbits in spring: “With big licenses, the licensee has to sign off on every aspect of the game. It can be frustrating to put weeks of efforts into a product only to be told that it’s wasted time, as it doesn’t match the approval person’s vision.”
But in spite of the hassles, the writers all agree that it’s worth it just to continue working in the industry and remain in a creative field. Besides, franchise writing is often the best, most reliable door into the industry. Mainly because getting your own idea off the ground is a near impossibility in today’s industry – unless you’re indie.
“It’s almost unheard of these days for an untested talent to create a mainstream game of his or her own from full cloth without getting experience elsewhere first,” says Forbeck. “Indie game developers, of course, break that mold. Mainstream games usually require huge budgets, and investors only want to back proven talent. They’ll rarely risk millions of dollars on you just because you claim you can write. You have to prove it first.”