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Ask Amiqus - What should I consider when employing a writer or narrative designer?

30/08/17

Whenever you’re hiring for a studio or project there are some staple considerations

How long you will need someone for; what employment model is most cost-effective; what level of experience is necessary; or whether anyone in your existing team can step up to the plate to name a few. The recruitment of key hires will have an enormous impact on your game and this is particularly true of writers and narrative designers. With this in mind, where should studios start when recruiting for the story-tellers?

Decide what your game needs

Phil Harris, Senior Narrative Designer at BigPoint told us “The first thing to consider is what your product really requires, as the roles of writer and narrative designer are quite different. Although often the difference in these roles is poorly defined within the industry.

A writer creates text within a game world, which can range from the description a player reads when they click on an icon to the flowing conversational dialogue between two characters, or the description of a vast fortress in the game. A narrative designer is a more specialized role, directly involved in the creation of the game world. They create the ‘machinery’ that makes the world working with the designers, artists, developers and producers to understand what is possible and how they can adapt their ideas to fit within the technical limitations of the game engine. They also maintain the canon of the product, so if the product is revisited, consistency is maintained.”

Get the timing right

Writers are often recruited after the start of product development with freelance and remote working being common employment models. Narrative Designers on the other hand are typically needed from the initial inception of a product as they are integral to the creation of the game.

Colin Harvey, Narrative Designer at Rebellion agrees - “Ideally and most fundamentally, get the Narrative Designer in at the beginning of the project. That way he or she can help shape the project and make sure everything is suitably integrated from the get-go. If you don’t have existing processes for creating story, be prepared to let the Narrative Designer help establish those.”

However as any experienced game developer knows, unforeseen issues mean it’s often necessary to deviate from the plan. Though your game vision is a cornerstone of any project, Harvey has some advice should things go wrong. “If for whatever reason you absolutely have to bring a Narrative Designer in part way through the project, be prepared to be flexible with the overall vision. The Narrative Designer will do his or her best to stitch together what you’ve already got, but there’s got to be some give and take to make the vision the best it possibly can be.”

Ensure team integration

Being able to bring elements together is a key competency to look for when hiring and you’ll need to decide how you are going to assess candidates for these attributes. A good recruitment agency can provide some guidance here. Freelance Narrative Designer Anthony Jauneaud believes that a person-spec as well as a skills list is key. "A writer on a video game project should be a people's person. They should be able to communicate with coders, artists, designers, producers… this is crucial. Narration is information, so they should be updated with changes. See narration as a binder for your games, but also for your team." Competency-based interview questions around examples of where your Designer has deployed soft-skills such as influence will help you pull out the capability of your candidate. It’s also a good idea to take up references about their style and approach so that you can get beneath the surface and find out how they are likely to function in the job.

What kind of project

Ultimately the kind of game you want to create will heavily inform your choice of hire. Experience in the genre or style you’re developing will mean a writer or designer has proven their ability in line with your vision. That said, many studios enjoy a totally fresh approach so it’s worth assessing personal portfolios in addition to formal work experience to find out what someone is capable of that hasn’t yet been discovered. 
As Harvey at Rebellion points out, it’s possible to pitch for a share in an increasingly competitive leisure market by challenging the status quo and experimenting with new ideas. “If you own your own IP, be prepared to think radically about it – are there fundamental things that need to be changed to get it to work? If possible build in development time to test story ideas, do table read-throughs, etc. and see what works and what doesn’t. Contemporary gameplayers have justifiably high expectations of narrative and will expect plotting and characterisation to be on a par with what they see in the cinema and on Netflix.” This approach can allow you to open up your usual recruitment patterns and think about hiring someone who will bring you new ideas you didn’t expect.

Conclusion

Harris of BigPoint emphasises the critical nature of making the right hire and summarises with some practical advice.  
“The real importance of narrative design is player engagement. If the world doesn’t work beneath the surface, the spell you hope the player is under can be broken. If you are considering a product that is a quick simple puzzle game with some sparkling text to engage the players you want a writer. But if you plan to produce a game with a stronger story element like a third person action adventure, an MMORPG, a multi-media launch or a series, you should probably consider hiring a narrative designer. Or, if the product is big enough, both”.

Finally, Rob Yescombe, acclaimed Writer & Narrative Director (RIME, FARPOINT, THE INVISIBLE HOURS) concludes. "Narrative is half science, half Art. Don't hire a scientist without soul, and don't hire an Artiste who can't explain their methods." 

This article written by Amiqus was first published in p46 of  Develop magazine 
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