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The WGA's Micah Wright defends its game writing award

Fri 04 Feb 2011 8:34am GMT / 3:34am EST / 12:34am PST

Chair of Videogame Writers Caucus addresses some "common misconceptions"

Following yesterday's comments on GamesIndustry.biz by Deus Ex: Human Revolution lead writer Mary De Marle concerning whether the Writer's Guild of America's games writing award comprehensively reflects the industry, the WGA's Micah Wright responded directly.

Wright is chair of the Writers Guild of America's Videogame Writers Caucus, and has himself written for games including the Sopranos: Road To Respect, sequels to Destroy All Humans and Friends: The One With All The Trivia (as well as for TV, film and comicbooks). Here, Wright explains the current thinking behind and requirements for a writing award that has previously gone to the likes of The Force Unleashed and Uncharted 2.

Hi, as the Chair of the Writers Guild of America's Videogame Writers Caucus, I'd just like to correct some common misconceptions about the WGA's Best Videogame Writing Award that the games press seems intent on spreading.

First off you do not have to be a member of our guild to win our award. We ask that all entrants join the Videogame Writers Caucus (VWC), but that is NOT the same thing as being a member of the WGA. The WGA is a federally supervised union of film, television, and videogame writers which provides portable health and pension benefits for professional writers. You can't just "join" the WGA, you have to work under a WGA contract first. The VWC, on the other hand, is a working group of professional writers dedicated to raising the profile of the videogame writer, improving the working conditions for all development crew, and setting industry standards as far as work and payscale and deliverables for game writers. The VWC is a volunteer organization made up entirely of working videogame writers.

When we ask writers seeking to nominate their games to join the VWC, they are asked for a nominal $60 yearly fee. This immense sum covers their subscription to Written By Magazine, the official magazine of the WGA, and helps fund the work that the VWC does, such as sponsoring the Game Developers Conference in Austin, throwing three annual parties for all videogame writers (not just members of the WGA or the VWC) - one at San Diego Comicon, another at GDC Austin, and a third at the WGA Building when we host a yearly panel of all the best writing nominees (which we held last night). For someone not in the guild, a yearly subscription to Written By magazine alone costs $100.

Anyone complaining that they're not getting their money's worth out of a magazine written by and featuring the best writers in the entertainment business hasn't read the magazine. Additionally, members of the VWC can attend most WGA events, such as screenings of films with discussion groups afterward with the film's writer, writing seminars given by our non-profit branch, and can even take themselves and a guest to see free movies during the nominations & awards season just by showing their VWC membership card at the box office. Again, take your spouse to go see two movies for free a year, and you've more than paid for the $60 yearly fee.

More importantly, though, the WGA is a Guild primarily supported by the mandatory union dues of our film and television member-writers. A writer who works on, say, Pirates of the Carribean 4, will contribute 2% of their salary to the union, which in the case of a film like that might be in the range of $100,000. The idea that anyone thinks the WGA is somehow getting rich off of $60 dues fees from videogame writers is laughable.

The reasons we created the WGA videogame writer award are threefold: (1) we wanted to honor the craft of the game writer/narrative designer, (2) We wanted the game companies to begin to fairly credit the writers on their games, and (3) we want to know who all the best game writers are so we can sit down with them and find out what their concerns and ideas about improving work conditions in the games industry are... and then to implement those ideas. Each year our goals are met more and more often by the games industry.

For example, if a game does not have a credited writer, it's not eligible for our award. The first year, several games which people believed should have won our award were not eligible because the Developer didn't bother to credit the people who wrote those games. That's an insult, and as a guild of professional writers, we're not about to give an award to either a mystery person, or to a company which can't be bothered to honour the workers who made their game. Last year only two games were denied entrance due to this requirement... down from over two dozen who weren't eligible the first year we gave out the award four years ago. Game Developers are recognizing that they need to credit the writers in order to be eligible, and have begun to do so. Mission Accomplished!

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Comments by Deus Ex 3's lead writer prompted the WGA's defence of the award

Secondly, we have succeeded in raising the profile of our game writer nominees and winners. When Hayden Blackman left LucasArts earlier this year to start his own company, every article about his departure mentioned that he won our award, and several of them used the WGA's press photo of Hayden holding up his award for "The Force Unleashed" as the image they ran with those articles. Other companies have run advertisements touting that their game was "Nominated for a WGA Best Videogame Writing Award" or "Winner of the WGA Best Videogame Writing Award." An award like this, given from the largest group of working professional writers in the world raises the writer's stature and provides career access that they might not otherwise have, both in the games world and in the film & TV industry. It's difficult to win a WGA Award, and it's considered a major achievement by other writers. Plus you get a cool statue for your cats to constantly knock off your mantle!

Now, we do have some rules, and those rules can tend to limit who gets nominated for our awards, but not for the conspiracy reasons which float around in the blogosphere. First off, we're not giving an award for "Best Videogame of the Year!" - if you want that, go watch the Spike Game Awards. We're honouring the specific craft of writing for games. To that end, we need to see a script with a list of writers' names on it. For one thing, we need to know WHO wrote these games: we're not clairvoyant... we can't magically peer into some Developer's internal business structure and divine who wrote what. Because of this requirement, however, some game studios have refused to submit a script, even though we've gone to great lengths to make it easy for them to do.

Bioware, for example, refused to submit a script for either Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age this year, and that's too bad, because both games would have likely been finalists. Obsidian, on the other hand, did submit a script for Fallout: New Vegas, and now they're a finalist and might win the award on Saturday night. Similarly, Take Two Games refused to submit a script for Red Dead Redemption. Why? We don't know. Maybe they hate unions, or maybe they just hate winning awards, or maybe they have enough statues on their mantle. No way to know. So another game gets what would likely have been their nomination. Are we happy about it? No... but rules are rules and our rules are clear and very fair.

Some people in the games press say that we should simply play all the games and make our judgments that way. That's what the Writers Guild of Great Britain does, these people complain. Well, first off, only British writers are eligible for that award, and there are many fewer British-written games than there are American-written games. Our judges are all members of the VWC, and thus, professional, working videogame writers. I can't demand that our judges sit down and buy and then devote 80 hours to playing every videogame that comes out at retail... not when they've got jobs and lives to lead and they can read the entire script in 2 hours or less. Does that mean gameplay doesn't get taken into account? Of course not, like I said, we're all working videogame writers and most of us play as many games as we can to stay current on our industry, so our experiences playing these games inevitably come into our decision-making processes when we're judging the scripts, but we do focus on the game's WRITING when judging.

All in all, I think we have a pretty fair and clear set of rules. $60/year for all the benefits of being a member of the Videogame Writers Caucus seems quite reasonable to everyone who's ever paid it (most other games industry awards are FAR more expensive to submit for and you get nothing other than an entry form for your money). Most importantly, however, anyone is allowed to submit for our award. If Mary De Marle wanted to submit the Deus Ex script for our award this year, she could have, and we would have loved to have her... and she might have even won it since the guys who wrote Red Dead Redemption took themselves out of consideration this year.

Micah Wright is a videogame writer and narrative designer, IGDA member and chair & steer committee member of the WGA Videogame Writers Caucus.

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