How did you get into the film industry?
I knew I wanted to draw and tell stories at the same time. Storyboarding for animation seemed like the best way to do that, so in my junior year of high school, I sent a letter to the Walt Disney studios asking where I should go to school. They replied: California Institute of the Arts, Animation program. Several years (and two attempts) later, I was admitted and attended.
The program at Cal Arts was great. The teachers were excellent, and all of my fellow students were superb. They created an atmosphere of hard work and passion. I quickly realized I was among the least talented students in the program, and began a period of intensely hard work in order to achieve basic adequacy.
When I graduated, I got an internship at Turner Films, working as a clean up artist. It seemed like I was on my way… but I was not. At the end of the internship, they let all of us go, saying the picture had been delayed.
I began a several-years-long period of getting freelance storyboard work here and there, “covering” scripts (reading and commenting upon script submissions for studios and producers) and working retail to pay the bills.
All that time, I continued to work on my portfolio and apply around Los Angeles. Finally, my portfolio was in just the right condition, and the time was just exactly right, that I was offered a three year contract at Warner Bros. Feature Animation. Then I was on my way.
How did you get into writing video games?
In early 2002, I’d been working as a film professional for many years, and had gotten to do some very fun stuff. Nonetheless, I was becoming disillusioned. I felt like I was getting to do less storytelling in my job. It seemed like it had become more about making pretty drawings. And the truth is, I’m not that great of an artist. My boards were clear and, I always thought, entertaining. But no one ever stood around admiring the skill of my artistry. My real skill seemed to be creating and portraying characters, conflict, pacing, and emotion, i.e.: the story stuff.
As my disillusion grew, I found myself playing a lot of games. Some, like the Civilization games, had no story at all. But others, such as Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II, had a good story and fun characters. I noticed that BioWare, developer of the Baldur’s Gate games, was looking for writers. But you couldn’t just send them a resume or something. You had to get their newly released game, Neverwinter Nights, and use the included toolset to write a game mod.
I got the game, learned the toolset, and created a mod. The process was invaluable. It taught about some of the technical aspects of creating and writing a game, and it taught me how to pace story in a game environment. I submitted the mod, and several weeks later they flew me up for an interview.
Shortly after, I moved to Edmonton Alberta and began my first game writing job, on Jade Empire.
What advice can you give to an aspiring writer?
I can give you some – but there’s an awful lot out there already on the internet. The obvious ones are: read a great deal. Read all sorts of things, but most of all read the kind of writing you want to do. Want to write movies? Read screenplays. Novels? Duh. Games? Play all the games that have narrative and writing. Step outside your chosen genre. Go deep into your chosen genre.
And of course, write. Write every day. If you’re already prolific, try writing something different than your usual.
Beyond that, learn to take – indeed, to seek out – criticism. Pay attention to the areas where people say something is wrong, but don’t pay too much attention to what they say is wrong. Find two or three people whose opinion you really trust, and get extensive feedback from them. Don’t go out to too many people for criticism, as this can lead to confusing notes and a washed out result.
Don’t try to have your writing be everything to everyone. If you get notes from a professional editor or production company, pay attention. You don’t have to be their puppet, but if they have a note about part of your story, you need to address that note, even if you don’t do it the way they request.
Don’t miss deadlines, even if they tell you it is okay. It’s not. Don’t worry too much about schmoozing or networking. If that stuff comes naturally to you, then do it. But too many people these days think it will make or break their career. Write well and entertainingly, and you’ll have a career even if you’re a hermit.
Can you help me break into the film or games industry?
No, I can’t. These are competitive industries, with a high barrier to entry. Just about everyone who got in had to figure out how to make it happen. And you can too. If you really want it, and are willing to do the work, there’s nothing that can hold you back.
Fine, be like that. At least tell me how one gets into writing for video games.
As it happens I have a series of blog posts about that very topic.
Will you look at my manuscript/screenplay/drawing/idea/concept/doodle/etc?
No, I can’t. I’m sorry. I am a creative employee of a major game developer. If I look at your idea, I open myself and my employer to potential lawsuits. If you send me anything, it will be deleted or thrown in the trash unexamined.
Most production companies have a process whereby you can submit screen or teleplays to them. It usually involves signing a waiver, or having an established agent.
I want to ask about this lore inconsistency in Mass Effect, StarCraft, Diablo…
It happens. But not as often as you might think. This is actually the subject of my first blog post.
Who designed your webpage?
You served in the military? Did you see combat?
No. The only combat operations during my time in the service were operation Just Cause and the first gulf war, and I was not a part of either. I was in an extreme-cold-weather infantry unit at the time, and our chances of going to fight in the jungle or desert were pretty low. When I came out to California and transferred into the 7th Psyop group, I joined a unit that had deployed a number of people to Iraq, but I got there just as the war ended.
Of all the games you’ve worked on, which is your favorite?
This is impossible to answer. I love every project I work on – that’s why I’m working on it. I have turned down work in the past that would have been very rewarding financially, because it didn’t interest me creatively. This isn’t just artistic integrity. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to do a very good job on a project that held no interest for me. I guess the best I can do with this question is: I’m always most interested in the project I’m working on right now.
I really hate some of the characters you’ve written – like Jack in Mass Effect 2. What do you think about that?
I’d rather write a character you hate than one that you have no opinion about. The best characters evoke a strong reaction in everybody. Some will hate a character like Jack and some will love her. And that is the way it should be. If you like a character, you will never love them. I’m sure you have run into characters who evoked almost no reaction in you. You probably don’t remember their names.