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Too many cooks in the kitchen: Video game writers discuss frustrations, techniques and authority

At a roundtable event at GDC 2013, a roomful of video game writers shared the tips and techniques that have helped them navigate some of the more precarious positions in their careers.

Richard Dansky, the roundtable's moderator, who writes for the Tom Clancy series at Ubisoft, began the roundtable saying that he hoped that the writers could talk about their craft "and hopefully come away a little better."

Throughout the panel, the writers spoke of a common misconception that many perceived: What they do is easy enough to be done by anyone. As a result, well-intentioned designers, producers and others on the product team often tell them how to do their jobs.

Antony Johnston, who wrote ZombiU and Binary Domain, characterized the situation as a perceived "lack of authority" on behalf of industry writers.

"In my experience, the problems isn't just that people don't understand how a story works, but they think they do," Johnston said. "It's not just the lack of knowledge. It's the lack of the lack of knowledge."

Alli Thresher of Harmonix likened it to a "too many cooks in the kitchen situation."

Those with suggestions seem to think, because they've seen movies and read books, that qualifies them to give writing advice, a frustration voiced by several people.

"It's the lack of the lack of the lack of knowledge."

"I think that people think that writing for a game is like being a singer in a heavy metal band," a game designer at Crytek said. "It's like people think that everyone can do it because everyone can sing in the shower. All the other guys are playing instruments. But it's is all technical — you have to learn it."

The writers believe that their job is a craft, complete with tricks you'd find in any trade.

Several panelists discussed strategies that offer alternatives to the suggestions they receive. For example, writers can accept the suggestions, even if they're "stale," and build off of them both to show their expertise and that every member of the team can contribute.

It's a trust issue, Dansky said. He recounted a story from Deus Ex: Human Revolution writer Mary DeMarle, who was engaged in a story debate with others on the game's team.

"'If you trusted me to do my job as much as I trusted you to do yours, we wouldn't be having this conversation.'," Dansky quoted her as saying.

"That was sort of a dead silence crickets moment, and that actually went a long way toward how they progressed moving forward. In that moment, there was sort of a crystallization [where they agreed that] there are technical aspects to writing. It is a craft with expertise ... and there was a realization that, yes, she was a subject matter expert and her authority should be respected."

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