How ArenaNet is rewriting the narrative for its narrative writers
Novera King and Bobby Stein discuss the studio's first run of a narrative writing mentorship program -- and its next iteration
Novera King spent 15 years working as a producer in New York on various live events, MTV, and Comedy Central. Bobby Stein spent five years on Wall Street after burning out working on film.
Now, they're respectively a narrative designer and the associate narrative director at ArenaNet working on Guild Wars 2. And they want to help others interested in making similar major leaps into gaming.
I sat down with King and Stein ahead of PAX West earlier this year to talk about ArenaNet's narrative mentorship program, a relatively young initiative that Stein designed to help improve the company's narrative applicant pool. The program's first run happened in 2018, Stein said, when ArenaNet had an opening for a new writer, but was running into a bit of a stumbling block in picking a candidate.
"Do you know how to write a good story? Do you know how to develop characters? And do you understand how to play games? That's a starting point"Bobby Stein
"We kept either seeing the same people applying for the job who weren't necessarily aligning with what we needed, but also we were seeing a lack of diverse candidates," he said. "We're a global game. We're in markets all over the world, and if we don't broaden our hiring outreach, what's going to happen is we're just going to keep telling the same stories over and over again.
"So what we wanted to do was to try and as a company, as a team, become more competitive by being able to serve a broader market than we were currently able to do. And we decided to look at the people who are applying who maybe had potential but weren't ready, and figuring out if there's anything we can do to help them bridge that gap."
Stein and King told me that unlike a lot of other game development positions, it's particularly hard to hire narrative writers because the pool of experienced applicants is so small. There are a number of reasons for that, Stein said, most of which are just due to how the games industry as a whole looks at storytelling.
"Every TV show is going to have a writer," he said. "In games, that's not always the case. Not every game that comes out has a story. Sometimes it's people doing double duty. Some teams treat game development as software development instead of as creative entertainment development, and narrative might not be as critical component in their eyes and they might not have a team. They might just hire a freelancer to come in and fix the words. Which means if you're at a studio that's trying to hire, there are fewer people out there who have ever done this before."
King added that the handful of writing jobs there are in the industry can be difficult to get, especially at the senior level, because so much relies on word-of-mouth and having someone to give you a reference. That's compounded for those who belong to underrepresented demographics, who may have a tendency to be "self-excluding" when they see a job opening and decide if they don't have "enough" of some qualification, they should not apply.
"If you haven't come through a game-focused university program or anything like that, it's like a fence you're on the other side of," she said. "And it's not a barbed wire fence or anything, but trying to figure out where the door is can be a little bit difficult."
But Stein had a different tactic in mind for ArenaNet. He was less concerned about industry experience, and more focused on storytelling ability.
"We had a job opening for a junior or mid-level person, and I would say most of the applications that came in don't have any game development experience," he said. "We're actually okay with that. And what we had to do is kind of shift our recruiting tactic. We're looking for storytellers. If you've never actually written story for a game, do you know how to write a good story? Do you know how to develop the characters? And do you understand at least how to play games? That's sort of a starting point for us."
What Stein just detailed ended up being the criteria for the first ever run of ArenaNet's writing mentorship program. The first consortium of six was put together through Stein reaching out to applicants who didn't quite qualify for the opening, but might with a bit of assistance. These were people who had written for TV, done theatre, ARGs, or were otherwise qualified storytellers who understood games and just needed a boost to put the two together.
Among them was King. She told me that of the six that started the six month program at the company's Bellevue studio, three completed it. She was the only one who ended up being hired, a situation Stein told me had everything to do with the number of openings on the small narrative team (roughly a dozen people in a 200-person studio) and nothing to do with the improvement shown by the candidate pool as a whole.
King said that regardless of whether she had been hired or not (and there was a period at the end of the mentorship program where the opening was up in the air), spending six months effectively working in a mock-studio environment with other developers on a project that could have been real was invaluable to her as a writer in the space. Over six months, the mentees each worked on their own Guild Wars 2 episodes, from pitching them to a story editor, iterating on the idea, getting feedback from other mentees and ArenaNet writers, working with designers to determine how gameplay would work, and figuring out how to work around the "wrenches" the gameplay designers would throw in to force them to adapt.
King said the feedback processes in particular were good for her. Rather than working in isolation, she was able to better understand her own strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and how those strengths and weaknesses could work alongside those of others to form a cohesive narrative team.
Stein added: "One of the things that a lot of us have seen is when people come from an adjacent medium, whether it's writing for television or writing short stories or novels or plays or whatever, they're used to working in isolation. They are not able to operate very well when somebody comes in and says, 'By the way, you're not getting that cinematic, you're not getting that story instance, you can have half the number of actors that you actually need for this. Go redo it.' We want people to be aware of that so that they don't come into the industry and it's a huge shock to them."
"We're saying it's okay to say that you don't know. That's where we're going to help you grow"Bobby Stein
"...One of the things that we do at the start of the program is we ask [the mentees] where they think they are. And one thing I notice is some people feel the need to over-represent their skills or their strengths, because I think they're worried that we're going to look at an opportunity for growth somewhere as a weakness. And what we're really trying to test for is how well they know themselves, their limits, and if they are aware of where they need to grow... And we're saying it's okay to say that you don't know. That's where we're going to help you grow.
"...You're not hiring every person and expecting them to be a carbon copy of each other and to all have the same level of skill in every area. You hire for a team so that you can cover all your bases and then learn and grow from each other."
King also said they experience gave her confidence to ask questions and admit when she didn't know or understand something.
"I think that for a lot of people who are underrepresented voices in spaces, they sometimes walk in the door believing they need to be perfect at everything," she said. "And if they're not perfect at everything, they're going to be shuttled out really quick. After the mentorship program I felt very secure. I didn't know all the things. I had this other entertainment background, but I was still learning for games. I did not have any hesitation about asking for help consistently and I think that if I had to give advice to anyone else coming in, I would say to stop thinking you need to be perfect about all the things. It's not vulnerable to say you need someone to explain something."
Both Stein and King emphasized at multiple points in our interview the importance of having a diverse team of writers and collaborators on a project, regardless of what that project is. King said that her time in the mentorship program gave her confidence in how her diverse experiences were a strength on a team like ArenaNet's, and helped her feel more comfortable leveraging those strengths rather than burying them for fear of rocking the boat too much.
"I think that those sorts of group feedback activities and writers rooms are where you need diverse voices the most," she said. "Especially with Guild Wars 2, we are trying to tell stories of very disparate characters. We've got women, we've got men, we've got gay people, got straight people, we've got people from different races and ethnicities. And we have a very global audience that this goes out to. And so being able to be in a space where you can give another writer critique like, 'I don't think a chick would say it like that,' or, 'Think about this subtext,' or 'Let's look at not just Western storytelling, but lots of other different story types.'
"I think any time if I'm sitting in a room with another writer, and we're both too much the same, we need to bring someone else in this room."
"Any time if I'm sitting in a room with another writer, and we're both too much the same, we need to bring someone else in this room"Novera King
So far, there have been two runs of the mentorship program -- the first one which was the focus of most of our discussion, and a second, internal-only run with the aim of letting different departments learn a bit more about narrative. But Stein and King both have much bigger ideas of how far the program could go to reach out to more potential writers.
One of their big hopes is to get other studios involved. Stein has already reached out to other local game development studios to see if they'd be interested in helping, and though he can't specify for now, he indicated that some big industry names were interested. His ideas range from networking with studios that do very different genres of game to ensure they have a diverse array of writing to offer mentorship in, and connecting with studios outside the Seattle area for remote sessions. Ultimately, he wants future iterations to be bigger, better, and more meaningful for the mentees involved.
When I spoke to Stein and King at PAX West, the next iteration of the program was still in a holding pattern while the team mused on what its future would look like. But now, Stein's ready to bring it back for another round. He told me that ArenaNet is opening up applications for a new batch of mentees in January, with accommodations made this time for remote participation. Interested candidates should prepare a resume, a cover letter, and either a screenplay or teleplay sample for consideration.
He added that he hopes others in the studio will begin adopting their own versions of mentorship. They're also currently discussing an apprenticeship program to serve as an eventual on-ramp for junior developers to get their first job, though this initiative is still in development.
Both Stein and King emphasized that this isn't just about trying to improve their own applicant pool. Ultimately, they want to see narrative writing across the industry improve, and offer budding writers a better shot at finding jobs in a space they're passionate about.
"I think that if that one day this program isn't just in this building, and is more of an industry standard, it's going to be invaluable," King said. "You can hit the ground running and you know how to work in a professional environment as a narrative designer and what's needed."