Game development is a time-intensive and complicated machine. And studios are always looking for anything to improve the efficiency of that process. That’s why many publishers are embracing the writers’ room formula that has long dominated television production. During a GamesBeat Summit 2020 panel, HBO narrative design director Adam Foshko and John Wick creator and writer Derek Kolstad talked about what this concept means for gaming.
Foshko has written for game franchises like Skylanders, Call of Duty, and Destiny. And in addition to John Wick, Kolstad is adapting games like Just Cause and Hitman while also working on Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier for Disney+. And during their conversation, both talked about how the writers’ room environment is important to delivering high-quality writing in high-pressure scenarios.
“Historically, we get the best stuff in the shortest amount of time working with a room,” said Foshko. “We now make products seasonally year-over-year. And we’re able to do it in a much more efficient and timely manner than having to spin up an individual writer or several individual writers who are all working separately on a particular game from a standing start. And then having to spin that up again later.”
This is why writers’ rooms are popping up more frequently for feature films for massive franchises. Star Wars and Transformers have teams of narrative designers that continue work between projects. And the same is true for games.
Writers’ rooms enable best practices and knowledge to live on from game to game
A writers’ room provides a franchise with a persistent institutional knowledge for a live-service game or franchise. It ensures that developers have a crew of people who are familiar with all the various intricacies of the fiction. That includes what has already happened and what the writers’ room projects will occur in the story in the future.
“For Destiny … there would be no way to bring in a random writer and have them take it over and not lose precious time,” said Foshko. “Not only by familiarizing that person with where things have been narratively and where they were going. But also in terms of what the medium is. There’s a lot of synergy between television and game development — much more than with feature film. But still, it’s like putting the wings of the plane on while you are flying it — and then also updating the telemetry. It’s an ongoing process, and [writers rooms] are just a more efficient way to work.”
That doesn’t mean writers’ rooms are without their challenges. Kolstad said his experience on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier taught him that the best idea wins. But someone’s great idea may directly lead to more work for everyone else.
“By the end of the room when you’ve turned in one episode and you’re almost done with your other episode and then someone has an idea, they won’t really want to share it,” said Kolstad. “[Because] all the other writers are thinking ‘yeah, that’s good, but it’s going to have a backward ripple effect on everything that’s been written.’ So it needs to be ripped out and layered in like a new spine.”
But that interlocking process is one of the reasons the writers’ room is effective. One person can have an idea that suddenly improves the work of a dozen people or more.
“If it makes it 0.5% better, then it makes everything else better,” said Kolstad.