At GDC Online in Austin, TX on Monday, Chris Metzen, Blizzard SVP of creative development, explained the role of the writer at the World of Warcraft studio — and it turns out that to be a writer on a game development team, you need to be able to do more than just “sling hot sentences.”
He admitted that Blizzard — with all its success from franchises like Warcraft, Diablo and Starcraft — “isn’t necessarily known as the best story shop in the business.” But what Blizzard’s writing does have going for it is “heart,” he said.
“To us [writing] is not about the best [story] hooks in the world, or the most clever hooks,” he said. “…It’s not about being the most unique in the world, or the best-written dialog in the world. To us it’s about heart, it’s about the engagement.”
He added, “That might sound naive, but at the end of the day there are amazing game companies out there, and great minds at work. There’s a lot of competition for peoples’ attention. You’re always going to get clobbered on ideas, but what you won’t get clobbered on is expressing your personal ideas and experiences — your personal truth.”
Of course, in the games industry, conveying that personal truth as a writer must always involve the rest of the development team. “Writing for games, in our opinion, is a social engagement,” Metzen said. “At Blizzard, it’s super social. [For] writers at Blizzard, more often than not, writing isn’t their primary role on the team.”
He said writers need to do more than just “sling hot sentences.” They also have to be the map and the compass for the rest of the development team, which is knee-deep in other important aspects of creation like game design. “Over the arc of time over a game’s development, you’re the person holding the torch [for ideas].”
Metzen said, “As the design ebbs and flows, you’re the one holding the torch. The writer’s job is to hold the vision. It’s cheerleader, torchbearer, keeper of the flame. The writer needs to be the one in the mix, in the middle, and keeping the image in mind.”
Another key part of writing on a game development team is to know when to compromise, said Metzen. Writers need to lead, but they almost must adapt. . “While you’re the avatar of the hook and the story through the game’s design process … you need to know when it’s time to compromise.”
From his experience at Blizzard, he has found that writers need to keep in mind how their story melds with other parts of game creation. “You have to have the wherewithal … to not only accept that your ‘precious story baby’ will take a beating, but also have the stamina to [support] the continuance of the product.”
“Being creative with other people is very hard. Being creative alone is one thing, but doing that with other people can be really rough. The trick to it is being able to really hear and feel out what the group is needing at any particular time.”
For Blizzard, ultimately it’s the gameplay that comes first – even before story. “If you don’t make it fun in the first three minutes, you’ve failed,” Metzen said. “Accessibility in gameplay must come first.”
The fact is that if the gameplay is a turnoff, all the writer’s great story, the characters and the plot mean nothing if players don’t want to play the game. “If we can inspire and encourage and engage, then mission accomplished,” said Metzen.