Professional Rates for Freelance Writers

Post contributed by Toiya Kristen Finley, SIG Committee Member.

What Are the Going Rates?

The prospective clients you want to attract will expect you to charge professional rates.

Only the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain has suggested professional rates for videogame writers. They say a fair rate is £350-£450 per day. For an 8-hour work day, that equates to about $60-80 US per hour.

Other writers’ organizations have suggested rates for copywriting, scriptwriting, and ghostwriting. These types of writing are somewhat comparable to writing and narrative design tasks. You can use suggested rates for these to determine what you’ll ask for.

The Editorial Freelancers Association says $40-50 per hour or 20-25 cents per word for fiction writing) and $50-60 per hour or 26-50 cents per word for ghostwriting.

You might also want to look at “How Much Should I Charge?” This PDF is available online. It was published almost 10 years ago. The numbers may be outdated, but they’ll still give you ideas.

The Scale for Professional Rates: Minimum, Maximum, or Somewhere in Between? 

The professional rates you can command are based upon your experience, education, and professional writing history.

If you’re experienced and have a degree in writing, game design, or game development, then you want to aim for the maximum end of the scale.

If you have little or no experience, ask for the minimum, or a little less than the minimum. Prospective clients aren’t going to expect you to ask for $50 per hour or $2500 for a game design document. They’re going to recognize you’re new to freelancing. That’s why you should start with smaller jobs and work your way up.

Definitions for levels of experience:

Experienced: Have worked several years as a freelancer, have a degree in your area of expertise, have published extensively, or have worked professionally as a writer.

Somewhat Experienced: May or may not have experience as a freelancer, may or may not have a degree in your area of expertise, have some credits as a writer, or have done some writing work professionally.

Less Experienced: Little or no experience as a freelancer, working towards a degree or no degree in your area of expertise, few or no credits as a writer, or no work professionally as a writer.

Balancing Narrative Design and Player Agency: Part Three

Constructing the Branching Railroad

By: Heather Albano

Last time we talked about the philosophy of the branching railroad game, in which player agency dictates which of multiple well-designed narrative arcs is experienced. The word “branching” tends to scare designers, and with good reason, invoking as it does visions of attempting to create four games for the production cost of one. But branching does not have to be scary or prohibitively expensive. It is possible to design a branching railroad game with only an incremental—instead of a directly proportional—additional cost of production resources, if you architect the whole thing up front.

So let’s talk about how to do that.

Step One: Know where you’re going.

I can’t overemphasize this. It is not possible to achieve a branching railroad that goes to four awesome places if you start the story at the beginning and branch every time it seems as though “Here would be a good place to offer the player a choice, and, uh, great, now I have another path I need to make awesome.” To keep the railroad metaphor going, no one in history has ever laid train track randomly on a prairie and then tried to make that random endpoint into a place the passengers want to be. You build the towns first; then you lay the track that goes from here to there.

Step Two: Start at the end and work backward.

Or, more accurately, look at the beginning you want, and look at the end-experiences you want, and figure out the arcs that connect the two. To create an experience like Choice of Broadsides, you might start by brainstorming, “What are all the stories that begin with the first meeting of two young officers from opposing sides of a war, and end with those same officers facing off in battle?”

Step Three: Pick the three or four strongest arcs.

Three or four, seriously. Three or four. Not one “real” one that represents the story you actually want to tell and two or three less compelling ones. And not twenty—even if you think you have twenty equally good ideas, you won’t be able to execute any of them well.

Step Four: Divide the arcs into scenes.

What beats do you need to tell each story?

For instance:

  • I met a Gaulish officer.
  • I treated him kindly.
  • We met again years later, and he remembered my kindness.
  • We fought off bandits together.
  • Now I am ordered to kill him.

And:

  • I met a Gaulish officer.
  • I treated him badly.
  • We met again years later, and he insulted and shamed me.
  • We fought a duel, but both of us lived.
  • Now I am ordered to kill him.

Step Five: Identify the choices made by the story protagonist that result in the beat of one arc versus the beat of another.

What does the protagonist do that causes their character-arc train to switch tracks?

For instance:

TAble1

Step Six: Let the player make those choices. (Along with any cosmetic customizations of the player character you choose to allow.)

Step Seven: Show the player the consequence of their choices.

Step Eight: Craft every other scene to be arc-agnostic, and the player’s perception will do the rest.

Now you know what to do.

Table2

You are signing up to craft six scenes instead of four, which is indeed half-again the expense measured in time, schedule, designer compensation, assets, production costs, and all the rest of it. But for half-again the cost, you’ve created two games—two distinct emotional journeys—and given your player the agency to choose their protagonist’s character arc. I personally think it’s worth the investment.

Let me be clear, it’s hard to architect this way. I myself have not-managed it more than I have managed it (although I think I may have finally nailed it in A Study in Steampunk: Choice by Gaslight. Let me know if you agree.) This is an ideal, an aspiration.

But I think it’s the ideal we should all be working toward. In this ideal, player agency and narrative design are not enemies or trade-offs, but instead work together to take the player to all the awesome places they choose to go. The players who consider narrative design important will be satisfied. The players who consider agency important will be satisfied. And instead of relying on only one technique, you the designer will have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve created something at least twice as awesome, by letting player agency and narrative design work together.

Heather Albano is a storyteller. Sometimes she writes traditional fiction and sometimes she makes games, and she finds the line between the two growing fuzzier all the time. Her most recent game, A Study in Steampunk: Choice by Gaslight, incorporates all the principles talked about in these blog posts, and is available here.

If you want to know what she’s doing next, or just follow the random thoughts that wander through her head, check out www.heatheralbano.com.

 

Balancing Narrative Design and Player Agency: Part Two

The Philosophy of the Branching Railroad

By: Heather Albano

“Let’s invent a world where the player gets to go through every emotional journey available.”                                                                                                                                                        – Clive Barker

“There’s no way…any company would have the resources to make a game that fully accounts for every player decision and branches the story accordingly while still hitting the same story beats.”                                                                                              – benjaebe, www.giantbomb.com

It is not possible (today) to design to Clive Barker’s ideal. There really isn’t any way a company operating in the real world would have the resources to make a game that fully accounts for every player decision and branches accordingly.

But more importantly, that is not the no-pun-intended path to good narrative design. The more branches you are dealing with, the less of a chance you have of doing any of them well, and the less distinct they will be from each other. Designing your game as a branching railroad does not mean allowing the player to do whatever they like and branching the story accordingly. It means allowing the player to go through multiple (not infinite, but not singular) distinct and satisfying emotional journeys based on their choices. Under this philosophy, player agency dictates which one of multiple well-designed narrative arcs is experienced—i.e., whether the railroad takes them to Awesometown, Awesomeville, Lake Awesome, or Awesomeville Heights.

All Roads to Awesome-1

Let’s take a simple example first. If I were going to make the “star-crossed lovers” game with two possible endings, the Claudio and Hero one and the Romeo and Juliet one, the first thing I would do is look for the choice that caused the difference. I think there’s a good argument that the first story plays out happily and the second plays out sadly because Friar Francis is a whole lot more careful than Friar Lawrence when setting up his conspiracy. Admittedly, neither friar is a main character, which weakens this argument a little, but both are absolutely active characters, actors who affect the stories in which they dwell—what Shakespeare might have called players in their dramas. The friar-player takes an action (makes a choice) that determines whether the narrative arc is a tragedy or a comedy.

It happens well before the end scene, but the story doesn’t branch there. The game wouldn’t need to branch there either, only set a variable that remembers what the friar did. So you’d design it this way: At the point where the friar sets up the conspiracy, the game stores a variable recording the level of care. The rest of the game proceeds linearly. And then, at the very end, the variable is called, leading to one of two end scenes—one that makes the story a comedy, one that makes the story a tragedy.

The game designers would not need to craft two completely separate branches, only a single additional scene. All the other scenes—falling in love, beset by external forces, separated by those forces, clever plot, everyone thinks the girl is dead, all seems to be lost—are exactly the same. The despair on Claudio’s face is the same as the despair on Romeo’s. But in one arc, the moment of “all seems to be lost” is the suspense before the happy ending; in the other, it is a beat in the tragic downward curve. The two different endings change the player’s perception of all that came before.

Now let’s take a more complicated example. (Serious spoilers for Choice of Broadsides follow, but the game’s been out since 2010, so…)

In Choice of Broadsides, a game I co-wrote with Adam Strong-Morse and Dan Fabulich, you play a naval officer of the Napoleonic era, in a secondary world, fighting for “Albion” against the “Gauls.” A secondary world Horatio Hornblower, essentially. Very early in the game, you are involved in taking an enemy prize ship, whereupon you meet Lt. Villeneuve. In the middle of the game, you meet Villeneuve again, during a temporary peace between your countries. At the end of the game, you face Villeneuve in battle. These points are hardcoded.

In the first encounter, you can treat your prisoner as well as honor demands; you can treat him even better than honor demands, so very well that your crew objects; or with polite chilly distance; or very badly and dishonorably indeed. Depending on what you choose to do, a variable is set.

In the second encounter, that variable affects what choices are open to you. Your actions here can take the beginnings of a friendship or enmity and dial them back to chilly polite formality, or your actions can deepen your mutual friendship or mutual hatred. At one extreme end of the scale, encounter 2 ends with you and Villeneuve fighting a duel at dawn; at the other, you and  Villeneuve end up banding together to fight off footpads. Depending on how you set your gender and sexuality variables up front, the footpad fight can even end with the option of a love affair.

So depending on what you do in encounter 1 and encounter 2, when you meet Villeneuve in battle in the climactic scene, you are facing either your star-crossed lover, the person who could have been your dearest friend if not for the unfortunate fact of war separating your countries, your oldest rival (in an intellectual sense, mostly functioning as “the face of the opposition”), or your bitterest enemy with whom you have many personal scores to settle. All four of these are recognizable narrative arcs that feel satisfying; all four of them feel distinctly different from each other; and all four are driven 100% by upstream player agency.

The climactic battle scene is the same scene for all four arcs. The player has the same options within that scene no matter how they got there, they have to perform the same actions to win the encounter, and the same stat checks determine whether they won or lost. But it looks completely different to the player who comes at it from the “star-crossed lover” path than it does to the player who comes at it from the “I’ll make you pay if it’s the last thing I do” path.

Encounters

As Daniel Greenberg phrased it at GDC 2014, “The game world does not exist on the screen. It exists between the ears of the player.” The player’s perception of any given scene is influenced by their previous experiences; their recollection of earlier scenes is influenced by the one they’re in. This shifting perspective is a tool that the designer can consciously use.

If you plan it out ahead of time, you can make the same scene function as a certain beat in one arc and a different kind of beat in another. The “oh God, she’s dead” moment functions as “the darkest moment is just before the dawn” in Much Ado and a downward step in the unrelenting tragic arc of Romeo and Juliet. The first and third encounters of the Villeneuve arc are the same no matter what you do in the second, but the variable nature of the second changes the entire story.

If you default to designing for reuse, you have more flexibility to briefly branch in the places it matters, with an only incremental—instead of directly proportional—additional cost of production resources. However, this does mean you have to architect the whole thing up front—the entire game and all arcs through it—and that task carries its own complications.

We will talk about the nuts and bolts in the third and final installment of this series.

Heather Albano is a storyteller. Sometimes she writes traditional fiction and sometimes she makes games, and she finds the line between the two growing fuzzier all the time. Her most recent game, A Study in Steampunk: Choice by Gaslight, incorporates all the principles talked about in these blog posts, and is available here.

If you want to know what she’s doing next, or just follow the random thoughts that wander through her head, check out www.heatheralbano.com.

Balancing Narrative Design and Player Agency: Part One

The Train To Awesometown

by Heather Albano

In September of 2013, I had the pleasure of being in the audience of the Narrative Design panel at the Boston Festival of Independent Games, listening to Brian Moriarty, David Lebling, and Terri Brosius talk about the craft. The quote that got tweeted the most afterward was Brian Moriarty’s “Games are the art of choice.” It’s a great sound bite, and it made me particularly happy, given that Choice of Games, the company for which I do most of my work, has based its entire business model around meaningful player choice. In Choice of Games games, the choices made by the player absolutely affect the player character, the game world, and what happens next.

Awesome quotes are often even more awesome in context, though, and “Games are the art of choice” was part of a really fascinating larger exchange. If I recall correctly, it was David Lebling who responded with something like, “It can be really hard to balance player choice with the desire to tell a coherent story. You might want to communicate a really strong narrative about the prince of Denmark who comes home from school to find that his uncle has taken his father’s crown, and what he does about that. But on the other hand, you want the game sandbox to function realistically for the player, and the player may want to say, ‘Let Uncle Claudius have the throne. I never wanted it anyway. I want to go be a pirate.’”

And that, of course, is the essential tension in the narrative designer’s role: the need to balance player agency and good narrative design.

We are accustomed to viewing these elements as a trade-off. On one side of the spectrum, there is the kind of game that functions like a railroad, prioritizing narrative at the expense of player agency. If the narrative design is good enough—if it matches the beats of a classic narrative arc, if it resonates with the player on an emotional level and leads the player to walk away feeling satisfied—then many players won’t mind being unable to make narrative-affecting choices. In the words of a member of my college LARP group, “I don’t mind being railroaded if I’m on the train to Awesometown!” But players who place a premium on having agency will be disappointed; it doesn’t matter to them how awesome the destination is if the train goes there no matter what they do.

On the other end of the spectrum is the sandbox game, which allows complete player agency, and where the only narrative is the one that emerges organically as the player interacts with the system. And whose narrative design is by definition nonexistent, since the unfolding of the story is randomly generated rather than consciously designed. It’s possible for a randomized emergent storyline to match up to the beats of a classic narrative arc, sure. Given world enough and time, players interacting with a State of Denmark sandbox will indeed create The Tragedy of Hamlet through their choices. But in any given playthrough, it’s not the way to bet, and while you’re waiting, you get to suffer through a bunch of weak, wandering story arcs. And players who place a premium on narrative design will be disappointed in that.

“Railroad” and “sandbox” are of course not the only options—it’s a continuum, not a binary. For instance, you can have a sandbox with a railroad running through it, where there’s one main mission with a good strong satisfying narrative arc and a bunch of other stuff you can do if you want; or a sandbox with lots of self-contained railroads in it; or a situation where choices are offered, but they ultimately all feed back into the same narrative railroad; or—perhaps most interestingly—a situation where the player gets to so heavily customize the car they ride that the railroad feels different each time, even though analysis may prove it to be the same railroad.

Sandbox 2

Spiral Railroad

These shades of gray aside, we generally conceptualize player agency and good narrative design as tradeoffs. “We” is the game-playing community, not just the game-writing community. When you see players online complaining that their choices didn’t impact the story, you also see responses along these lines from other players:

“Partly due to production constraints and partly due to the writers’ desire to tell a coherent story, most games like this don’t have dozens of varied endings.” [KOTAKU]

“There’s no way…any company would have the resources to make a game that fully accounts for every player decision and branches the story accordingly while still hitting the same story beats….” [GIANTBOMB]

(Both of these quotations happen to be in reference to The Walking Dead, but this isn’t me beating up on The Walking Dead. They were simply the best quotations to illustrate my point. My italics, in both cases.)

The statement, “We can’t incorporate all player decisions and still keep the beats of a good narrative arc” carries the implicit assumption that you can only create one good narrative arc out of given story’s building blocks. That if you have story elements A, B, C, and D, the only good, satisfying, recognizable, emotionally resonant arc goes from x to y to z in a parabola. Anything else will be unsatisfying, and therefore bad narrative design.

Or, in other words, it’s a railroad where one branch goes to Awesometown, and the rest wander off into empty prairie.

Not So Awesome

There’s a lot of critical intellectual support for this conviction. A memorable 2007 exchange between Roger Ebert and Clive Barker used Romeo and Juliet as an example, with Ebert maintaining that the building blocks of Romeo and Juliet are set up to be a tragedy, and it would be completely stupid (my paraphrase) if it suddenly had a happy ending.

He has a point, and this is what I mean when I refer to classic, recognizable, emotionally resonant narrative arcs—the ones that spark a feeling of “Oh, I’m the protagonist of that story.” When you have a play where a boy and girl fall in love at a masked ball, then the boy and girl are plagued by outside forces trying to drive them apart, then the girl engages in a deceptive plot with a friar to make it seem as though she is dead, then the boy hears the news, believes it to be true, and is heartbroken—at that point in the narrative, you really have to end with the poison and the tomb to have a satisfying conclusion. If the boy discovered it was a ruse before he killed himself, and he and the girl lived happily ever after, that’s just childish, right? A refusal to grapple with the inherent darkness of the story. If it ended that way, it wouldn’t be Shakespeare. Right?

Except that’s the thing. It wouldn’t be Romeo and Juliet. But it would be Shakespeare. That’s the plot of Much Ado About Nothing.

In Much Ado, Hero and Claudio are deeply in love, beset by jealous outsiders. Claudio believes an ugly slander about Hero that is backed up by a truly evil piece of theater staged for his benefit, he leaves Hero at the altar, and the word spreads through the city that she has killed herself. Claudio is distraught, hates himself for what he’s done, would do anything to change it back if only he could, but it’s too late—whereupon the ruse is revealed. Claudio begs Hero for her forgiveness, and they marry. Benedick and Beatrice also sort out their problems and marry, the bad guy gets what’s coming to him, and everybody else lives happily ever after. It’s a Shakespearean comedy.

But the first time I saw a performance of Much Ado, I didn’t know the story. And as Claudio berated Hero at the altar in front of her friends and family, and she sobbed out protestations of innocence and pleas for understanding, I found myself tensing. Then came the friar and the feigned death, and I’m thinking, “I know this story. This is Romeo and Juliet. I thought this was a comedy?” It was. It is. But a Shakespearean comedy and a Shakespearean tragedy are not always distinguishable until you know how they end. You can create two very different, emotionally satisfying, deeply resonant narrative arcs using the same building blocks.

In fact, if you select your blocks carefully, you can use one set to create many different, emotionally satisfying, deeply resonant narrative arcs. We’re not talking about a pure sandbox here, since emergent storylines don’t reliably equal emotional journeys. And we’re clearly not talking about a single-branch railroad.

We’re talking about a railroad with branches to multiple destinations, each one its own solid and compelling and distinct emotional journey, each one hitting recognizable and satisfying story beats.

All Roads to Awesome

Next time we’ll talk about how a branching railroad can be constructed, in the context of real-world constraints such as development schedule and production cost.

Heather Albano is a storyteller. Sometimes she writes traditional fiction and sometimes she makes games, and she finds the line between the two growing fuzzier all the time.

If you like steampunk time travel, check out her novels Timepiece and Timekeeper; if you like Victorian gaslight fantasy, Napoleonic naval battles, medieval court intrigues, or zombie apocalypses, check out her Choice of Games titles; if you like James-Bond-style spycraft and/or interactive radio dramas, check out Codename Cygnus. If you want to know what she’s doing next, or just follow the random thoughts that wander through her head, check out www.heatheralbano.com.

Ask a Game Writer: February-March, 2015

Ann Lemay, BioWare writer, has graciously agreed to host a Q&A for members of the Game Writing SIG.

Please note: I’m keeping questions not answered in a file. If I haven’t answered you in this batch, your question may yet come up later. :)

—Ann

HM:

What are some best practices for group writing, or writing content when you are part of a writing team?

ARN:

Writers tend to be solitary creatures. How do you interact with a collaborative writing style like a writer’s room like you find in television or some videogame studios? What do you personally do to adapt and flourish?

*** Merging two questions here, since my answer got a bit longer, and things overlap nicely.

Cooperation. Communication. Organization. A clearly structured confluence/wiki setup. Concrit (constructive critique)—both knowing how to give it and how to receive it. I could go on, but really, most of them will keep hitting the same thematic—being a good team player and understanding that your word babies sometimes have to be given up.

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Guest Article: Welcome to the Booth—Now, Shut Up!

Written by: Will Bucknum

Being a dialogue writer for games can be rough. It is difficult enough to get your dialogue to look appropriate in games, but to also sound right is an even bigger challenge.

As someone who rides the line between being a writer for games and a voice-over producer for games, I’ve seen a whole host of scenarios related to how voice-overs are recorded and how much power each person in the process has in a recording.

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Guest Article: On Revenge

written by Game Writer Alex Kain.

The first game script I ever helped write was for a mobile phone version of Road Rash. No, you won’t find it on the App Store—this was back in the pre-iPhone days. Back then, if you talked about mobile games, you weren’t talking about Clash of Clans or a slick port of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. No, you said “mobile game” back then, and people thought of one thing: Snake.

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Post-GDC Intitiative Roundup

A lot’s been going on with the Game Writing SIG since GDC. After a successful, standing-room-only roundtable session, we’ve been discussing and working to get initiatives off the ground and serve the group.

Here are some things currently in development:

  • Scheduled Google Hangouts to discuss game writing with industry veterans, run by Garrett Martin and Symantha Reagor
  • Game writing critiques by Josiah Lebowitz
  • A series of what game writers and narrative designers are expected to do and know on a team by Dave McCabe
  • A SIG podcast managed by Carl Killian

We also plan to work on building onto the game writing samples we feature on the website. We also intend to start building on the Wiki to help explain terms, concepts and tools regularly used in game writing. If anyone wishes to help with these initiatives, email the sig at writing.sig@gmail.com

Additionally, we will have some potential scholarship opportunities on the horizon. We’re working with other SIGs on this initiative and we’ll publish more information as it develops.

Finally, elections for the Game Writing SIG board are coming up. Committee members will be electing and voting board members to determine who will be on the board in the coming year. More information will be coming soon.

-Alexander Bevier

Write Club GDC2014 Winners Announced

IMG_2381GDC’s Narrative Summit concluded this year with another wonderful Write Club. The first, second and third place winners this year were Scott Russell, Laura Michet (right) and Alice Thornburgh (left). The three managed to answer questions about lettuce revenge and games about iconic comic book writers. 20 people participated this year.

For those who don’t know, Write Club is a casual contest held after game writing events. Players are given prompts that are similar to those seen in the games industry, but made ridiculous, such as “write three lines for when a character dies in a Pride and Prejudice RTS.” GDC’s write club this year was held at Soma Bar and Restaurant near the Moscone Center.

Thank you to Jeremy Bernstein for emceeing. Thank you to Doug Hill and Steve Williams for judging. Thank you to Richard Dansky for providing questions and prizes. Thank you to everyone for attending. It was a great night and we’ll do it again at the next game writing event.

How to Get Your Story-Oriented Hustle on at GDC (a.k.a. Networking for Game Writers)

It might look like there are few opportunities for writers at GDC. Writing jobs you might hear about are filled through referrals. If you visit the Career Pavilion, you’ll find that companies are rarely looking to hire writers. This means you’re going to have to find your opportunities—or make some. Writers looking for work at GDC will get the most out of the conference if they’re willing to do a little self-promotion and hustle a lot. This means your nights are going to be pretty busy.

Work First; Party Later

You will be walking . . . and walking . . . and walking . . . and walking. You will be walking all over Moscone during the day to get from session to session. You will be walking to get breakfast, lunch, and dinner. While you might pay a taxi service, Lyft, or Uber to get around at night, it will be much cheaper to walk. If you’re planning to hit more than 1 party a night, you could be walking 6 to 8 blocks just going from one event to the next. That sharp pain you’ll be feeling in your feet will be your arches giving out and muttering curses under their breath. Continue reading