Video game makers are increasingly tapping Hollywood writers to weave intricate narratives into lengthy and sophisticated games.
A threshold was crossed recently when the Writers Guild of America introduced an award category for video game writers.
The need for more traditional dramatic arcs became apparent as the games evolved.
“In the days of Pac-Man, there was not much of a story there,” said David Anderson, a downtown attorney and partner at Nixon Peabody. “But games have matured in scope and theme and you definitely see motion picture aspects in them.”
Anderson represents video game publishers in negotiations on contracts with Hollywood writers, and the number of those deals has spiked. He mediates more than a dozen contracts a year now, compared with one or two a few years ago.
Top-selling video games now feature more than 50 hours of game play, which includes at least an hour of what game makers call cinematic “cut scenes,” where the narrative in the story is presented in a movielike way.
The cut scenes in THQ Inc.’s Call of Duty, a warfare game, for example, are reminiscent of the movie “Black Hawk Down.” The first 10 minutes of Take-Two Interactive’s Grand Theft Auto IV, which racked up first-week sales of $500 million last week, is narrative-based.
Also, as the industry grows, jobs become more specialized. Video game sales reached $10 billion last year, tripling in size over the past eight years.
Before games became more complex, if any writing was needed during game development, the designer did it.
“A lot of times those guys are great designers, but not necessarily good writers,” said Micah Wright, an L.A.-based film and video game writer. “The learning curve has been shorter for Hollywood writers because, like films, video games are visual.”
Also, as the industry matures, game creators want to produce more interesting challenges for their audience.
“You can only throw a three-dimensional hallway at players so many times,” said Jay Lender, another L.A. video game writer. “But why are you running through the hallway to kill a zombie? The story behind the game is what differentiates a top-selling game from a mediocre one.”
Wright and Lender are members of the new media caucus at the Writers Guild. They spearheaded the creation of the Video Game Writing Award for the guild’s annual honors in February.
The winners were Dave Ellis and Adam Cogan. They were honored for their writing for Dead Head Fred, produced by L.A.-based D3 Publisher of America.
Ellis and Cogan were also designers of the game. That’s a rare combination, said Eric Peterson, president of Vicious Cycle Software Inc. in North Carolina, developer of Dead Head Fred. Vicious Cycle was recently acquired by D3 Publisher. Peterson noted that Ellis also does some writing as a columnist for an industry magazine.
Dead Head Fred, designed for PlayStation Portable, is a mix of horror and comedy. It tells the tale of private detective Fred Neuman, who loses his head literally. He’s decapitated by a crime boss, then resurrected in a bizarre science experiment. But the new Neuman has neither a head nor memory.
The story required crafting a narrative structure that could keep players busy for about 30 hours.
“You don’t need as much character development in racing or sports games as you do for a murder mystery,” Ellis said. “Dead Head Fred being a brand-new intellectual property, there had to be a new story behind it.”
Vicious Cycle, which has also developed games based on licensed characters such as Curious George and Dora the Explorer, taps Hollywood agents frequently to outsource the game writing.
Peterson said the market is still small and knows of only two dozen writers across the country who specialize in video games. The Writers Guild estimates more, with at least 300 writers who belong to the International Game Developer Association.
Compensation for writers is catching up to feature film work, though. Some games can pay up to $90,000. They take at least a month to write, although a typical game would pay less and take longer. A movie script writer would stand to get at least $90,000 but probably more.
“Are Hollywood writers flocking to the video game industry?” said attorney Anderson. “No. But now they’re more aware than ever that it’s a nice way to supplement their income.”