Interview

Jobs in Games: Wooga's Rebecca Harwick on how to get a job as a Lead Writer

Jobs in Games: Wooga's Rebecca Harwick on how to get a job as a Lead Writer

It takes a great number of individuals working together in various disciplines to make any commercial enterprise function.

The mobile games industry is certainly no exception, offering dynamic and diverse roles to thousands the world over.

As such, PocketGamer.biz has decided to celebrate this with a regular series of interviews where each week we chat to a mobile games industry professional from a different field - be it game design, art, or PR - to learn about how they bagged that job in games.

Obviously every career path is different, but the goal is to give a picture of the sorts of skills, qualifications and ambition one might need to find themselves in such a role - and how we can all learn from it.

This time, the spotlight is on Rebecca Harwick, Lead Writer at German casual developer Wooga's adventure game team.

PocketGamer.biz: Tell us a little about your current role and what it entails.

Rebecca Harwick: I’m Lead Writer for an upcoming project from Wooga’s hidden object teams.

My job is a mix of writing (creating characters, writing dialogue, planning stories) and narrative design (making calls about how the story is told in game, and how much story we can tell).

The reality of my day is a bit more complex. Games are highly collaborative, so I’m working with artists and designers regularly, gathering feedback on the story, checking to make sure we’ll have the tools and art we need to tell the story properly.

You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if it can’t be told in the game, the player will never experience it.
Rebecca Harwick

You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if it can’t be told in the game your team is building, then your player will never experience it - or worse, they’ll experience a version of it that feels fragmented, incomplete, or a confusing mess.

I also have a couple of writers on my team, and we have regular brainstorming sessions and dialogue reviews. My job is to coach them so that they can continue to improve their work and push the quality bar of the project higher.

Then there are projects outside of my team that are looking for narrative feedback and assistance.

So some days I’m wearing my game design hat, and some days I’m trying to figure out how to give useful feedback to artists (I’m really not an artist), and some days I’m rewriting UI texts, or reviewing playtest results, or meeting with the localisation team to discuss how we’re going to get all of this story text translated.

After all of that, I write.

How did you first get into this job? (If senior, how did you progress into this role?)

Luck, talent, persistence - in no particular order.

My first game industry job was writing the Sith Inquisitor class story (and assorted other quests and writing) for Star Wars: The Old Republic at Bioware’s Austin, TX studio.

I was finishing my Bachelor’s degree in English, and I saw they were looking for writer applicants. So I dove into the Neverwinter Nights toolset and submitted a module.

After something like three design tests, they offered me a job. I spent five years working on that project before going on to graduate school and then a stint working on The Elder Scrolls Online.

From there, the same basic principles apply. I worked hard, I continued to develop my skills, and I caught some lucky breaks as well.

Is it something you ever imagined yourself doing?

Definitely. I knew by the time I reached high school that I wanted to be a writer.

I loved to read, and I’d been playing video games since I first begged my Dad to pick up a used NES I saw in a classified ad in the local paper.

PC games showed me just how much creative space there was in gaming.
Rebecca Harwick

A bit later, I was exposed to the world of PC gaming through King’s Quest and Sid Meier’s Civilization series. PC games showed me just how much creative space there was in gaming - you could tell small, funny little stories or simulate entire epochs.

I also remember watching a show called Clarissa Explains It All, in which the lead character would make these little computer games and put her friends and family’s faces in them, and it was a revelatory moment.

The idea of a kid just a bit older than me - a girl at that - making her own games; I don’t know if I’d ever thought about making games as something I, personally, could do until that moment.

I started making stupid little games for school projects using Klik ‘n’ Play. I took the only programming class in my high school, which was in BASIC.

I liked that well enough, but I’ve always been drawn more to the creative side. I think the release of Baldur’s Gate settled it - I wanted to write interactive stories.

What did you study to get your role? What courses would you advise for aspiring professionals in the area?

My Bachelor's degree is in English; my Master's is in the Social Sciences. I studied History in graduate school.

I think studying history, literature and mythology is useful because the second two give you a good grounding in how to tell stories and the first helps you understand why we tell them at all.

I took a few courses in C++ in college, which I’ve never had to use, but the fundamentals of programming are useful in most game development situations.

It’s helpful for a writer to be able to look at how a quest is scripted and understand the logic there, why this conversation breaks, or that line plays at the wrong time.

The Wooga office

I also play a lot of games, many of them story-driven, and I’m continually interrogating those experiences.

How did that story beat make me feel? Why did it make me feel that way? Was that intended or accidental? Did it serve the story or undermine it? How could it be improved? What can I take from it to make my own work better?

The best writers are first and foremost lifelong students of storytelling and the human condition.
Rebecca Harwick

There’s an analytical component to creativity that’s vital to making smart decisions quickly and achieving a high quality standard. If you don’t flex that muscle, you can spend a lot of time second-guessing yourself or wandering down blind alleys.

Is there a course I would recommend? Not a dedicated game writing course, no.

Formal study can be beneficial - there’s a lot you can learn from a good teacher. But I think the best game writers I know (and the best writers in general) are first and foremost lifelong students of storytelling and the human condition.

Not all of them have degrees, but they’ve all lived varied and interesting lives and worked hard at their craft.

If a degree helps you do this (and it certainly helped me) then choose a subject that interests you and pursue it -whether that’s literature, history, psychology, business, or programming.

Is there anything about the job/industry you wish you would have known when first joining?

That you will run out of time, or get the wrong art assets, or find out too late that that mechanic or level is not fun, and you have to find a way to make things work anyway, and with even less time and fewer options.

This is a reality, not because anyone screwed up, but because perfect communication is impossible and creativity is risky.

Working at Wooga

So plan accordingly and be ready to adapt when the time comes. Sometimes, the best way to protect your vision is to be flexible.

What other advice do you have for someone looking for a job in this profession?

Professionally: learn to collaborate. Practice giving and receiving constructive feedback. Learn to be adaptable, and practice coming up with creative solutions to problems. Finish what you start, learn from it and then start again.

In a more general sense: don’t forget to be a human being. I love my job, and this industry has been very good to me. But part of not burning out in this industry is having interests outside of it.

I took a year off to study medieval history. I travel, read and spend time with my family. I go to church. Cultivating other interests outside of video games will keep you sane and will give you more experiences and inspirations to draw from as a writer.

Features Editor

Matt is really bad at playing games, but hopefully a little better at writing about them. He's Features Editor for PocketGamer.biz, and has also written for lesser publications such as IGN, VICE, and Paste Magazine.

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