Screenwriting Secrets by John Scott Lewinski

Screenwriting Secrets » An Alternative Market: Proactive Interactive

With the constant up-hill climb screenwriters face in the film and television industry, what if I told you that there was a market developing that actually wanted writers?

Often writers swerve as the bottom of the Hollywood Food Chain. The industry needs our ideas, characters, images and dialogue. They'll pay us fairly well for them. But, in many cases, we're asked to step aside early in the creative process as producers, directors and actors (skilled in their own right) take over control of the story. That's the business. Professionals accept it happily to get a chance at writing for a living.

However, in the multi-billion dollar interactive entertainment industry, there is a general shortage of good writers cranking out good product. More than 20% of all American homes have some sort of CD-ROM or on-line game system. With these CD-ROMs becoming more of a home entertainment option every day, the companies producing them become more lucrative and ambitious. Meanwhile, infant companies spring up every year to tap into the market.

Five years ago, none of this would matter to the aspiring screenwriter as video games entailed a lot of flashy colors and perhaps a little back-story in the instruction manual. Now, video games have become much more advanced. Some are merging with film aesthetics to create truly interactive motion pictures.

I find myself writing such projects at this stage of my career. Essentially, I'm writing a movie that interacts with a game to create a hybrid. The story within the movie develops and changes as the player wins or loses the game. For example, the player watches the movie begin. Then the film pauses and allows the player to grab a mouse or joystick and play through a mission or solve a puzzle. If the player successfully completes that mission, the story will continue successfully. If the player fails, the story could circle back and become more difficult to complete.

If the player wants to see how the movie plays out, he or she must finish the game. Many games offer alternative endings that feature the player's victory or gruesome defeat. The outcome looks to mix and match the pre-determined, linear drama of story-telling with the guided, yet uncertain drama of game-play.

The motion picture side of the CD-ROM industry is improving as big-budget entertainment companies and movie studios see an opportunity to forge a new income source. If you wrote a CD-ROM script a couple years ago, the odds dictated that you'd watch an uninspired, Silicon Valley community theater reject deliver your lines with all the conviction of reading an eye-chart! Now, as the movies improve and the money behind them increases, big-name talent such as Donald Sutherland, Tim Curry, Tia Carrera, Mark Hammill, James Earl Jones and Malcolm McDowell supplement their movie careers with CD-ROMs.

Powerhouse companies like Broderbund, Activision and LucasArts are employing big-name talent, feature-quality screenplays and multi-million dollar production values along with sophisticated game engines to produce entertaining games with compelling stories. The CD-ROM industry already had its share of programmers, 3D artists and game designers. It needs writers!

Screenwriters in the interactive industry may work on staff or freelance -- similar to the TV industry. They write screenplays detailing the motion picture portions of CD-ROM play. Along the way, interactive writers crank out documents the average screenwriter never imagines. The interactive industry relies on story and game equally. Without one, the other can fail. So, the interactive screenwriter might be asked to write a treatment and design document for a CD-ROM story line. The design document features how the story plays off game play. The interactive screenwriter works close with a game designer or multimedia developer to make sure that he or she brings the essential movie elements to a new medium with special needs.

In my case, I hold a BA in journalism and a MFA in screenwriting. I write standard motion picture screenplays. Meanwhile, I identified a market here hungry for good writers. The current interactive industry avoids the glut of writers found in the movie and TV industry. As more companies conjure up this blend of story and game, they need capable writers to handle the story end of the equation.

Obviously, I had no direct experience with the software industry. So, I did what you must do to enter the interactive industry. I became familiar with the products out there. It's an obvious strategy. You would never write a movie unless you watched moves. You would never attempt an X-Files spec script without becoming intimate with the ins and outs of the show. When names like Doom, Myst, The 7th Guest, Command & Conquer, Duke Nuke'em, Final Fantasy or Wing Commander come up, you must know what they are and what companies produced them.

It's not that difficult. You need to hang around some software stores and eventually play the games. This remains the easiest part of your professional research. How taxing is game-playing? Once you know the games, look through the promotional materials to identify the company's location and entire product line. Look for the company on the World Wide Web or other on-line services. Once you know whom you're approaching and what you're trying to get into, you're all set to begin the standard resume and phone call hunt.

I managed to land a foothold as a staff writer. I landed the job following the procedure above and offering standard linear screenplays as samples. While no interactive writer makes anywhere near as much money as a working feature screenwriter, it's a viable way to write for a living while you wait for that first big script to sell.

Also, it offers the opportunity to participate in a lucrative, yet infant industry. CD-ROMs and their descendants are just getting started. They borrow their story-telling techniques and visual aesthetics from pre-existing media, but how they work is still up for grabs. Instead of merely following the rules of good screenwriting, you could invent a new aesthetic in the interactive entertainment industry.

Professional screenwriters in the 1990s have an opportunity that eluded writers since the early 1950s -- the chance to invent a new entertaining and informative story-telling medium. It's a pitch I use often when interviewing for assignments in the interactive industry. I still believe every word of it.

So many script writers came to their calling expecting merely to contribute to the pre-existing fields of film and television; whether the area of expertise was one-hour dramatic TV, sitcoms, feature-length motion pictures or TV MOWs. Other writers forged those formats in previous decades, leaving little else for modern writers to do beyond carrying on the tradition. A script writer can still do great work in those media, but he or she still must bow to three-act structures, rising action around commercial breaks or A & B sitcom plots.

With the proliferation of CD-ROMs and on-line Internet entertainment, the new age of interactive multimedia story-telling dawned over the past 10 years. Writers coming to this field in the mid 1990s find themselves able to create quality entertainment while defining a fresh, constantly evolving art-form -- the interactive, multi-possibility story-line.

This new industry needs and actively recruits capable writing talent. Often writers serve at the bottom of the Hollywood Food Chain. The industry needs the ideas, characters, images and dialogue writers envision. They're paid fairly well for them. But, in many cases, writers find themselves asked to step aside early in the creative process. In the multi-billion dollar interactive entertainment industry, there is a general shortage of writers cranking out good product. With CD-ROMs becoming more of a home entertainment option, the companies producing them become more lucrative and ambitious. Meanwhile, infant companies spring up every year to tap into the market. These companies don't shoo skilled writers away; they value their contributions as a way of beating the competition.

Just a few years ago, none of this would matter to the aspiring screenwriter as video games entailed flashy colors and a little back-story in the instruction manual. Now, video games have become interactive narrative adventures. Some are merging with film aesthetics to create truly interactive motion pictures.

Those professionals able to find a niche in this field constantly see opportunities for other writers (young and old, experienced or aspiring). A few find time to offer their vital advice to anyone looking for a break into the interactive industry.

Michael Halperin, former director of creative development for Cloud-9 Interactive in Los Angeles divides his time between writing, designing and developing multimedia and lecturing on interactive writing and screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University and the UCLA's Writers' Program. He wrote Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego and Where in Space is Carmen Sandiego? for Broderbund. He co-wrote Voyeur for Phillips -- which won the "Cybie" in 1994 from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences for Best Story.

Halperin suggested that the role of writers in the interactive field constantly evolves due to the nature and dynamism of the medium: "During the hey-day of role-playing games (like Dungeons and Dragons), writers created stories, characters, attributes and motivations that made the games fascinating and successful," Halperin said. "With the advent of computer gaming, visuals and fast-moving action moved to the forefront, and writing took a back seat. Now writers have moved forward once more as players demand better stories and motivated characters."

If a writer compares the creative process in interactive writing to pre-existing media, it might resemble television more than motion pictures. In movie screenwriting, the writer often works alone, whether he or she is writing the original script or doctoring a previous draft from another writer. In television, writers tend to work on staff -- collaborating with other staff writers and a script supervisor as a team.

Halperin explained that a writer in the interactive realm works in a similar team atmosphere: "In some instances, writers are designers. In other cases, writers work with designers, gamers, artists, programmers, etc. The creation of interactive programming is collaborative. Writers do not work in isolation. Nor do they maintain creative ownership of the project."

I find this aspect of interactive writing among its most satisfying. Writing alone has its advantages, such as the ability to carry an individual vision through a narrative and the peace and solitude of the personal creative process. But, working with multimedia producers, developers, game designers and artists allows the writer to add his or her voice to a unique creation. Even as a member of a design or development team, the writer has an essential role to play.

"As with all media dependent on story and character," Halperin said, "writers continue to provide the original vision for reinterpretation by all those who follow."

Another industry professional with a great deal of experience in this team environment is Raymond Benson, former staff writer, designer and associate producer for Viacom New Media in Chicago. As a game designer, Benson wrote and designed Dark Seed II, a graphic adventure based on the works of horror/fantasy artist H. R. Giger. Benson also wrote Return of the Phantom, for MicroProse and Origin's Ultima VII -- The Black Gate. For Viacom New Media, Benson co-designed and wrote the screenplay for Are You Afraid of the Dark?. He also served as associate producer for a children's CD-ROM based on the popular book and film, The Indian in the Cupboard.

Benson sees the role of a writer in the interactive industry changing, depending on the project: "It depends on what else the writer is doing on the project. Many times the 'writer' is also the 'designer'. In that case, the writer is much more than just a writer. He's the vision-guy -- the man who is more like a movie director in that it's his vision that ultimately is put on the screen."

"If the writer is hired by the designer or producer to simply write the script," Benson said, "then the writer is more akin to the screenwriter on a movie."

Benson added, "I've had to wear a lot of hats on projects -- from simply writing, to being head writer of a team of writers, to being lead designer, to being director, etc. It depends on what your skill sets are."

Though a writer can find himself or herself used in a variety of ways, Benson also believes that the basic skill of writing unifies traditional screenwriters and interactive writers: "I don't think their roles differ much at all. They're all related. I believe that if you have experience writing, then you can do any of the jobs necessary."

Both Halperin and Benson stress that it takes a unique blend of classic training and high-tech skills to make the stylistic jump from traditional, linear story-telling to interactive writing. Benson explained: "Just because you can write a screenplay, it doesn't mean you can write an interactive computer game. It does require that you have a certain knowledge of the gaming industry, how gamers think. And, you need to be a gamer yourself."

Game audiences and movie audiences certainly overlap. However, their thinking shifts between the active task of game-playing and the passive mind-set of a movie audience. Writers need to acknowledge this difference. Everyone wants to be entertained, but the gamer wants to be challenged...and then he or she wants to win! Story structure, character development and dialogue all need to filter through that understanding.

For example, while a movie's characters need to be believable and realistically motivated, a game's characters need to be compelling. If the player becomes a hero in the game, that hero must be attractive enough that the player wants to assume that persona. A game villain should be rotten enough that the player generates genuine passion and satisfaction from defeating him or her.

Game story structure usually builds to that moment -- the end-game scenario. The game throws progressively more daunting obstacles before a player as the final challenge approaches. A strong satisfying game climax is essentially more important to a CD-ROM than a believable narrative ending. The game needs to challenge the player without providing too much frustration. Then, the player will enjoy their victory -- lapping up their entertainment money's worth and feeding their ego at the same time.

Finally, a game writer needs to bring flexibility and creative range to any project. He or she might have to see a game narrative from an adult's or a children's point of view. A writer might need to write medieval period dialogue for a dungeon-based sword and sorcery product. That same writer might have to turn around on the next project and produce futuristic speech for the "blankazoids of Twylo 7." A game writer must leave his or her ego and haughty artistic vision at the door!

"Writing interactive stuff is most similar to screenplay writing, I suppose, but it's different, too," Benson added. "Whereas a screenplay usually has one linear path, a computer game has several. The writer has to learn how to manipulate non-linear plot lines and make it all work. There is a lot more to write in this medium."

Halperin feels many interactive writers get so caught up in the revolutionary nature of the interactive medium, they forget the classic skills that brought them to the show.

"One area in which much of the interactive media lacks and, in my opinion, has disappointed the buying public, lies with maintaining logic within the framework established for a program," Halperin said.

"Writers and designers ought to pay attention to classic story telling," he added. "No matter what the medium, stories and characters should remain consistent and every action should have strong motivation behind it."

I always make a very serious point whenever I present a lecture on interactive screenwriting. The multimedia industry is not a backwater business in which aspiring film and TV writers can hide out and make a quick buck until they sign that million dollar deal with Fox or Universal. Now, Fox and Universal have their own large interactive divisions -- as do Disney, LucasArts, Time Warner, Paramount, Turner, MGM, etc. Those companies compete neck and neck with other big exclusive software developers like Broderbund, Interplay, Electronic Arts, Accolade and others.

These companies need competent, dedicated, ground-breaking interactive screenwriters -- not hack linear scriptors looking to pay the bills. Certainly, a writer can work in film or TV along with the interactive field, but he or she must be prepared to bring different sets of abilities and mind-sets to each field.

A good starting point to making the jump into interactive writing is researching the products out there. The best way to write a good book is to read good books. Watching classic films inspires a writer to produce a classic script (hopefully). You wouldn't try writing a spec TV one-hour drama script without studying ER, The X-Files or NYPD Blue. You wouldn't type 'page one' of your Seinfeld spec without watching Kramer, Homer, Ellen and other sitcom giants.

No interactive writer should try to fool himself or herself (or a prospective employer) into believing he or she can crank out a good game script without thoroughly studying games. He or she better take a good look at Myst, The 7th Guest, Wing Commander and Dark Forces. If a writer wanted to tackle educational or non-fiction CD-ROMs, he or she needs to examine the products coming out of companies such as Voyager, Living Books or Ivy.

A writer doesn't want to pitch his or her services to a company producing flight simulators or fighting games (such as Mortal Kombat or Streetfighter). Those companies have little need for writers and will simply waste your time and search resources.

Halperin agreed: "Writers who wish to break into the interactive world should know their market. This goes for writers interested in any field. Know the games and understand the technology."

"Just as a writer would study a particular television show before writing for it, study and play interactive programs," Halperin said. "Develop a solid writing style. Network with others in the industry and get to know the companies that have open door policies for talented individuals."

A writer armed with a knowledge of traditional media and insight into developing interactive multimedia can best attempt a career in the interactive field. Time spent studying more "old-fashioned" media can hone a writer's story-telling instincts and abilities for interactive work.

"Every experience in writing motion pictures, television, books, or plays has impact on writing interactive media," Halperin said. "However, it's important for anyone interested in the medium to understand its capabilities and its limitations."

Benson said, "Any outside experience is important and is usually imported to the interactive field."

"I started out as a theater director and music composer," Benson said. "I learned story structure and drama in college. I've always been a film buff and was quite versed in film theory. Added to that was a love of games -- and I played a lot of them."

I knocked down a BA in Journalism in college, mixing in courses in Literature and Film Studies. I watched the interactive industry grow around me while completing graduate film school in Los Angeles. I saw an opportunity to contribute to a new, booming entertainment field. I continually studied the major products coming down the pipe -- always examining how classic narrative models and traditional screenwriting tricks could help construct a CD-ROM.

Now, the interactive industry chugs along at full speed, chalking up sales in the billions of dollars every year. Writers needn't wait to see if it catches on; it has arrived. Where a writer can best break in (and how) differs from genre to genre, company to company.

Halperin feels that the best opportunities for writing today come from "edutainment" (stories, games, activity centers, etc.) for children. He added that another area is the adventure story with highly interactive mystery-solving components.

Benson said that it's getting a little tougher for inexperienced writers to get that first opportunity.

"It used to be easier ten years ago," he said. "Now you have to have experience to even get your foot in the door of most companies."

"If you have experience, a good resume and samples of your work, you will at least (or should) get an interview," Benson said. "If you don't have experience, you'll want to consider getting a position as a tester, or a production assistant, or whatever lower-level positions the company might have."

My experience testifies to the value of persistence and thoroughness (with a dash of good luck). I became involved with minor "spec" interactive titles with fledgling companies for very little pay. Those CD-ROMs never found sufficient development capital and died young.

However, the work served as professional experience to top a resume. I put that resume (with references and writing samples) onto a floppy disk with a simple multimedia program -- essentially creating an interactive, computerized resume. When that caught a developer's attention, I used my best linear screenwriting samples to convince them I could write.

Once a writer gets that first gig, he or she can roll it into another -- building a little momentum in an interactive writing career.

Halperin said most publishers hire writers on a per project basis.

He added, "More and more publishers are developing writing staffs. Salaries are dependent on the experience of the talent and the company's location. Major markets pay more than smaller markets."

Halperin explained that many publishers search for talent. In addition, they look for individuals willing to become part of a team.

"That doesn't mean subservience or acquiescence to others," Halperin said. "Writers and artists in this or any other creative business ought to defend what they do -- or else why do it in the first place?"

Benson said that producers often look for writers who know what they're doing regarding game-play -- again stressing the need to know the products already on the market.

"They want writers who are gamers," Benson explained. "They don't want writers who would rather be writing screenplays or novels. They want writers who know game structure -- with a knowledge of the marketplace."

So, a writer interested in this field faces an uncharted, rapidly developing field ripe with opportunity. However, before he or she can knock on the door, they need to know the methods of linear writing, interactive story-telling and basic game design. If a writer can mix all those ingredients together, there's a good living to be made in those little sliver discs with companies who (unlike many film and TV studios) hunt for talented writers.

Once a writer finds himself or herself in the interactive industry, what is the absolute best achievement that writer can hope to accomplish?

"In the long view, writers may hope to leave behind programs of merit," Halperin said. "Programs that not only entertain, but provide social benefit to users."

Halperin added, "The greatest achievement for a writer would be the creation of a valid, highly creative new art form for telling stories of drama, comedy, romance, adventure, etc."

Richard Thompson, a top entertainment attorney with Bloom, Dekom, Hergot & Cook in Beverly Hills, Calif., represents successful interactive writers in negotiation with multimedia developers. He sees a writer playing many different roles in the production of a CD-ROM or on-line interactive title.

"Writers supply the story and character elements of interactive productions," Thompson said. "They also are responsible for making sure that the fictional world of an interactive production is internally coherent."

Thompson added that writers often drift into the realm of designer, also.

"Frequently, they are also heavily involved in interactive design," he explained. "They may be required to design elements of interactive worlds which could not be conceptualized until the story and characters are fleshed out; or they may redesign elements which do not make sense in the context of the story and characters which they have created."

Susan Gerakaris, multimedia representative for the Writer's Guild of America, West, offices in San Jose, Calif., sees an essential role for writers in this developing field.

"The most important role a writer has in the interactive industry is to provide the best stories and dialogue possible," Gerakaris said. "At a time when the public and multimedia analysts are demanding improved content to keep with incredible technical advances, a writer's role couldn't be more important."

According to Thompson an interactive writer has to hold together more diverse strands of story than a linear writer.

"Instead of one or two parallel stories," Thompson said, "the interactive writer may have to deal with a dozen possible parallel stories -- which all loop in and out of each other and have to remain internally coherent and follow a dramatic arc."

He added, "Interactive scripts are also incredibly hard to read, so writers usually do not get useful notes from the creative executives. They are really on their own."

Gerakaris explained that linear screenwriters can successfully import some of their essential skills from TV and film over to interactive.

"No matter what the industry, a professional writer must know how to hold an audience's attention with a good story, characters that people are drawn to, and believable dialogue," Gerakaris explained.

"In addition, interactive writers also must understand the complexities if interaction to make them prime candidates for work on creative teams developing interactive products," Gerakaris said. "In short, an interactive writer's role differs slightly in this industry because they actually work more closely with other creative talent during production than linear screenwriters."

"We actually see more contract work than staff writing positions held by our membership," Gerakaris said. "We're hearing from companies which may have previously had scripts written by someone on staff who was not solely a professional writer. Those companies are now looking for writers outside of their staffs to write interactive scripts or rewrite existing scripts."

The current interactive industry avoids the glut of writers found in the movie and TV industry. As more companies conjure up this blend of story and game, they need capable writers to handle the story end of the equation.

How should a writer first go about breaking into such an industry?

"Buy some of the products and play them," Gerakaris agreed.

She added, "Buy resource books so that you know who the players are in the industry. Attend multimedia events and join multimedia associations that that provide networking opportunities. Join writers groups and work on writing samples."

Thompson explained that another way for a writer to break into the market is to develop his or her own spec game or educational title.

"Create an original interactive product, write a design document on spec," Thompson said. "Team up with a programmer and an artist to do a spec prototype and then shop the project to publishers."

So, it's not that difficult. A writer needs to hang around some software stores and eventually play the games. This remains the easiest part of the professional research. How taxing is game-playing? Once a writer knows the games, he or she should look through the promotional materials to identify the responsible company's location and entire product line. A writer should look for the company on the World Wide Web or other on-line services. Once he or she knows whom to approach and what to get into, the writer can begin the standard resume and phone call hunt.

What genres offer the best hunting grounds? According to Thompson, "wherever a paying job can be found."

"Generally, adventure games have provided the richest genre for writers, because they are heavily dependent on story and character," Thompson explained. "However, the market for adventure games has been down recently."

Thompson added, "The hottest area right now which relies heavily on writers is episodic web shows. Real time multi-player strategy games are hot now, but these games generally offer little opportunity for writers."

"A writer who could come up with a new real time multi-player strategy game that also had a fully integrated intelligent story line would have a potentially great product," Thompson said.

Gerakaris said that, during recent years, game development saw more funding. However, now the educational or edutainment market is growing faster than others.

"Many producers who call out offices are looking for writers who are comfortable working on a team," Gerakaris said. "Especially important to many producers is the writer's knowledge of how audiences interact with CD-ROMs or on-line entertainment."

She added that the development of new products distributed exclusively over the Internet was the most interesting new trend in the interactive industry.

"There is a convergence of a number of industries going on right now," Gerakaris said. "Communication, publishing, software and entertainment industries are in transition. I think it's safe to say that, with more channels of distribution, more content needs to be developed."

"At the Writer's Guild offices in Los Angeles and San Jose," Gerakaris explained. "We've monitored salaries, and we can find no standard rates. So much depends on the budget of the project, the degree of design work also done by the writer, the length of employment, and the writer's experience."

She added, "Rates must be determined between the writer and company on a project-by-project basis."

Thompson negotiates such deals. He acknowledged that the financial deals for interactive writers are much less lucrative than for linear screenwriters.

"The high end deals for interactive writers are barely more than WGA scale for a feature film," Thompson said.

"On the other hand," Thompson added, "interactive writers frequently have more opportunities than linear writers to take on a bigger role. They can become designers and/or producers and have much greater input into the final product than a screenwriter of a movie."

"In interactive deals, writers can be fired at any time," he said. "They are never 'pay or play.' But, as a practical matter, because of budgetary constraints, they are replaced much less frequently than in the movie business."

"This is a great and exciting time for writers," Gerakaris said. "They can meet that essential need for content in the interactive industry. After all, they are America's storytellers."

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