“We’d like you to take a writing test.”
Yes: sometimes, as part of the application process, game studios ask applicants to complete a writing test.
What the heck is a writing test?
It’s a sample assignment, similar to the kinds of assignments you would receive as a staff writer at their studio.
An example of a writing test would be “Write a conversation between two NPCS”. Or “Create a short biography for a new character in our game.”
Um - OK?
Not everybody loves these tests! I see a lot of resistance from writers when this topic comes up.
The main emotion most writers feel around these tests is anxiety. You’re flying blind, not quite sure what they are looking for…and maybe you’re even wondering if you should even be taking this test at all - are they just looking to get free work out of you?
I completely get the resistance - and sometimes, it’s justified. But it’s an important topic for a budding game writer - or any game writer, for that matter - to understand.
So let's get into it.
They aren't trying to screw you, usually
Step One is realizing that most of the time, the game studios are not trying to take advantage of you. They assign these tests for good (and ethical) reasons.
“Most companies will ask for a writing test, even if you have experience and excellent samples. It’s nothing personal. If you’re insulted by the request, then…well, maybe the job’s not for you. When I asked on Twitter for advice from other writers, they all wanted to talk about the writing test. Everyone agreed that this is where they see the most mistakes. Why? Why do so many people go wrong here? Here’s what one writer said about the writing tests his studio received:
“This sums up the biggest problem studios see. By the time you’re asked to complete a writing test, they already know you can write well. What they don’t know is if you can write the kind of games they make. That’s what the test reveals."
That’s it, in a nutshell. “Can you write the kind of games we make?”
They need to know. Wouldn’t you, if you were in their shoes?
It’s a big gamble to bring a new person on a team. They need to know if you’re a good fit, creatively.
Sometimes, your portfolio samples are a perfect match for the kind of games they make. And when that happens, hooray!!!!
But sometimes, your samples are not a perfect match. That’s when a test comes in handy - for you AND for them.
I will be the first to admit that some studIos DO push their luck, and try to get free work out of writers. Those are the tests you refuse to take - more on that in a minute.
But if their test seems reasonable - and it’s a job you want - then you can use the same strategy you’ve used for every other test you’ve ever taken:
You study hard and come prepared.
Start by studying yourself - specifically, your red lines. What are you willing to do? What are you NOT willing to do? Would you be willing to complete a short writing exercise? Three?
If you want to be paid for the time you spend writing this sample, be prepared to say “I would like to be paid for my time.” Just be straightforward about it, and see how they respond. (Warning: it is pretty unusual for studios to pay for writing samples. But it does happen!)
If you think they are not giving you enough time to do the work, be prepared to ask for more time. Explain your reasoning - help them understand your creative process.
If you’d like your work to be copyrighted, that may be a sign that they are asking for more work than you are comfortable doing, in which case you may want to just take a pass.
It is perfectly reasonable to ask for what you want or need! Just realize that it may mean the end of the interview process. You can decide if that’s a risk you are willing to take.
The flip side of understanding your red lines is understanding what you bring to the table. This is where you develop some objectivity about yourself. You look at yourself as if you were the studio, thinking about hiring you. They are bound to have some questions, as they would about any applicant.
If you’re just getting started as a writer, they want to know what kind of writer you are, if you can hit deadlines, and if you can write the kinds of games they make.
If you're a writer coming from another industry like film or TV, they can probably see that you can write - but they don’t know if you can write for games, at all, or if you can write for the kinds of games they make.
You can intentionally design your portfolio samples to speak directly to these kinds of questions.
Here’s some good news: A writing test can become another writing SAMPLE for your portfolio, once you remove all the identifying material. (Let the studio know that you’d like to use your work in your portfolio, after the test is over.)
Speaking of studios -
Study the studio's past games
If you are planning to apply to a particular game studio, study the games they make. Specifically, study the way they tell stories in those games. Do they use a lot of branching dialogue, for example? Odds are they’ll want to know if you can write branching dialogue, too. And if they DON’T use branching dialogue, well, you probably don’t need to focus on developing that particular skill. Makes sense, right?
Think about what skills they want to see from you. If you can demonstrate those skills in your writing portfolio, it may make you feel more confident and comfortable with the process, whether or not they give you a test.
Speaking of -
Yes! You can study other writing tests. This is where the Internet is your friend. You CAN find examples of writing tests out there. It just takes a little research. Reach out to game-writing communities on Twitter or Discord - you can find waht you need.
Game writers are generous enough to share their experiences. For example, here's the incredible Sam Maggs, walking through a couple of real-life examples.
Take it away, Sam - and thanks for sharing! (Yes that's a typo down there, but hey, it's TikTok, not a writing test.)
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider . Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.