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Writers behind video games fight for recognition

NORTH LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 08:  GameStop employee Bradley Duncan rings up a copy of
NORTH LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 08: GameStop employee Bradley Duncan rings up a copy of "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" for the Xbox 360 during a launch event for the highly anticipated video game at a GameStop Corp. store November 8, 2011 in North Las Vegas, Nevada. Video game publisher Activision released the eighth installment in the '"Call of Duty" franchise at midnight. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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Recent releases like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 or Batman: Arkham City have sold millions of copies and racked up huge profits — Modern Warfare 3 alone eclipsed $1 billion in sales in its first 16 days of release, and today it's the largest grossing entertainment product in history.

Will Staples is one of the writers behind games like Modern Warfare 3. He's written movies, too, but games are a different beast. For instance, you often need to pen several different versions of the same line. “If the character is getting more frustrated, you need a variant that is saying ‘Come on, buddy. Follow me,’ or ‘Get your head in the game!’ So it’s not just saying ‘follow me’ ‘follow me’ ‘follow me,’" Staples says.

To keep a game like “Call of Duty” believable, you need real military language too, but Staples says it's not that easy. “Moment to moment the player needs to know exactly what their objective is. So if you write that stuff in too esoteric a manner, the player won’t know where they are supposed to go. So it is really that balancing act of making it sound authentic without confusing the player and losing them.”

Will Staples points out that writing a game is a collaborative process. Anyone on the development team can have an idea for a plot point or a one liner, but the professional writer brings a special toolkit to the table. “In this case, a screenwriter may have a really strong sense of story and particularly story structure.” That’s why Will Staples insists that when the credits roll, he gets billed as a writer – not just a contributor.

The Writers Guild of America is looking to honor the writers behind the best game scripts with an award. Micah Wright, veteran video game scribe and a member of the West Coast branch of the Writers Guild of America, is the driving force behind the Guild’s annual award for best video game writing. When he created the category six years ago, crediting writers wasn’t standard practice, so he made it one of the criteria for the award.

Wright says, “When people get properly credited for a game like ‘Modern Warfare 3’ or ‘Assassins’ Creed 2,’ that means they can say, ‘I won the Writers Guild best video game writing award! I think I deserve a pay raise!’ – and that has been a side effect of our award in many cases.” Video game writers still get paid significantly less than their TV and movie counterparts. But Wright says the industry is starting to treat its wordsmiths more like they do in Hollywood.

To some game fans, that emphasis on traditional writing misses the point. Jamin Warren is creator of the gaming magazine Kill Screen. “The way that games tell stories is very different from how other mediums tell stories – whether it’s books or film or music. So I don’t think we should try to pigeonhole game writing and say this is what good writing is because it fits our definition of what writing looks like in a Hollywood context or a TV or film context.”

Warren points out – many popular titles tell stories without a line of dialogue. Think of “Angry Birds” or “The Sims” – where players create virtual people who speak a made-up language called “Simlish.” Warren adds, "The stories that players are creating when they play a game like the Sims – the story of a particular man who is trying to get a job or keep his family together – those are stories that stay with them.” Still, Warren says any recognition that pushes the gaming industry forward is a good thing.

Though “Modern Warfare 3” grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, co-writer Will Staples isn’t up for the writing award. But he’s OK with that. “Writing in games … for me, as long as the game is fun and works, that’s the reward,” Staples says.

The Writers Guild of America hands out the video game writing award February 19th at the Hollywood Palladium.

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