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Tips on writing a compelling game storyline from the lead writer of Avalanche.

With nearly three decades in the entertainment industry under his belt, Adrian Ropp is a creative director and narrative designer who has explored the artistic capabilities of all mediums, from film animation to gaming and comics. 

As the lead writer of the award-winning studio Avalanche, he has helped develop legendary game franchises, including Hogwarts Legacy, Wizarding World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens Play Set and the Infinity series. Overall, he has created $1bn+ projects for Disney, Lucasfilm and Marvel and is now ready to share his knowledge with a new generation of game writers. 

Andrew sat for a chat with ELVTR on what it takes to become a successful game writer, how to write a great cutscene, and the future paths of the gaming industry, courtesy of VR.

What got you interested in game writing? 

Ever since I was about six years old, I was obsessed with stories and film. As I got older, I developed a successful career in animation, but then I discovered gaming. I love the challenges of writing games. It’s different from writing films. I love writing stories that engage people and draw them into the world more. 

So how do you get a job in this industry today? 

There are many ways. If you're a writer, you look for just writing jobs. If you can get a job writing for a magazine, a television show or a comic book, you can develop your craft and write stories that will look attractive to an employer. There's not one path to get there. You need to show you are passionate, smart and you know how to analyse a story correctly. 

One of the things we will discuss in my class is how to analyse a story. Why are characters developed this way? Why is the story narrated this way? Understanding the structure and why you're making those choices makes you a better writer.

What advice would you give to someone who aspires to be a game writer?

Many of my students tell me that they don't have any background in writing and therefore will never get into the industry. I respond that I grew up in a small farming community where the only job was potato farming.  Somehow I made it, so there's no reason to think that you can't. 

But it's become a very competitive market. You have to show great qualities as a human being on top of good writing to get a job. There are wonderful opportunities, but producers can reject someone if they're a difficult person to work with. So I tell my students that apart from wonderful writing, they need to make sure that people enjoy working with them. 

When I started my career, I was in animation, but there were more job opportunities in gaming, because it was a brand new industry. Now it's very competitive. So you have to know what you're doing and understand how a story works to be attractive to employers.

What skills does a game writer need to have? 

You need to understand games, ideally be a gamer yourself. It's hard to get into an industry if you don't know it well. So play video games and look at things that work and don't work and understand game theory. Also get some sense of game design, so that you understand the decisions designers make. 

Crucially, you want to make smart, informed decisions on how you develop your story. You can't do that unless you understand how gaming works. 

What's the process of writing a game and how do you collaborate with developers and designers? 

It varies from studio to studio. First, there's a pitch for a game. The story team and the design team work together to come up with a pitch. They decide what they want the gameplay to look like and then write the story. 

We call this “story wrapper” and we use it to present gameplay in an intriguing way. We work together to pitch this idea to the studio, and then as soon as they greenlight it, we flesh it out more and turn it into a longer summary. 

Then we take it back again to do a check-in and make sure that they're still happy with it. At that point, we can start outlining what the missions are and how the stories are going to work within them. It's a collaborative process between the design team and the story team. You need game designers, because you're working with them as a co-pilot. 

I've worked a lot with Pixar, and it's a very iterative process where you try something and if it doesn't work, you fix it. This is why you need to be analytical. You need to look at why something's not working and figure out how to fix it. 

The last game I worked on, it took about six years to find a really good story. So you're always constantly reiterating things to make them work better.

Do you need an understanding of what game designers do?

I think so. Maybe not a very deep understanding. But you need to have an understanding of how to communicate with them. One of the biggest problems studios have is that the writers and the designers don't communicate very well. If you have a problem, you go to your designer, your producer and you say what is your goal with this game or mission. 

When they tell you that goal, then you can write and support that goal as much as possible. If you don't do that, you will come up with your own goals and then it will be a very tense situation, fighting back and forth on who's gonna win. You should be on the same team and have a common goal. Once you get there, it's easier.

And how do you adapt your writing to different platforms, mobile, PC, consoles etc? 

You have to understand the platform and be analytical in the way you approach things. If you're writing a VR game, you're immersed in the game, so you have to approach the writing differently. If you're writing a mobile game, it's probably text only, so you give scene information in the dialogue. 

I've been a screenwriter and I've directed actors and voiceover sessions. So I know what sounds natural from a dialogue perspective. It's the “Don't say it, show it” rule. In a larger platform game, you have cinematics, visuals that tell you things without dialogue. You don't need to say “Here's this apple, I hope you enjoy it.” You can just say, “Hey, do you want a snack?” It's conversational. They see that you are handing them an apple. 

In a mobile game, you might not have that option, so you have to say it. You have to provide more visual input that you wouldn't need in a platform game.

VR games are different because you have to imagine yourself being encompassed by this entire experience. Any direction you look, you are in the game. So you approach that dialogue differently, but you might not be looking in the right direction when they say something, so you have to be aware of that. You have to think how this is going to look from the experiential level.

What's the secret to keeping players engaged, for example by using cutscenes?

There's an unspoken secret about cutscenes: people like to skip them, because often they don't have any important information. They just look cool. So part of the challenge is to have those cutscenes reward a story narrative that you've developed the whole time.

If you can come up with a setup that is interesting and draw people through it, they want to see the payoff for that, instead of skipping that cutscene. But sometimes cutscenes are just tutorials or something cool to look at. And that's not the deep meaningful experience a player wants. 

So the key is to figure out what it is that you can do in gameplay that the players want to see. If the goal of your game is to rescue the princess from the castle, that's a great cutscene at the end, because you can see what happens when you're near your goal. 

But if it's just a cutscene to teach you something, it's boring and people skip them and you have to write extra dialogue. Cinematics are very expensive. So you want to utilise as much of that footage as you possibly can.

How do you evaluate and benchmark your own work? 

There are several ways. The most important one is to have focus groups or test groups. I know what I'm trying to say when I write a story. So it's not evident to me if it's not clear, unless I have somebody else look at it. 

You have to be willing and brave enough to share your work and get honest feedback. I've done things in the past thinking they were my best work. And then somebody told me "I don't understand that at all", so I realised I'd made a horrible mistake and I needed to fix it. 

This happens to everybody. The Pixar storytelling methodology is to show what you've done. You get good feedback from people you trust and you adjust accordingly.


Which game did you enjoy writing the most?

I worked on the award-winning Disney Infinity series and I really loved writing that. The challenge was to take these existing characters, and the Disney and Marvel and Star Wars brands, and write new adventures for them. We wanted to make it feel authentic, like natural continuations of the original story. So that was really fun.

What’s your favourite game in terms of storyline? 

I love the Zelda series. Ocarina of Time and Breath of the Wild are two of my favourite games. I also love the Uncharted series because it feels like I'm watching an Indiana Jones movie. 

Breath of the Wild is really interesting because it has very little dialogue and the storytelling is very ambient, like you're going into another world. No two people who have ever played that game would tell you the same story, because you invent your story as you play it. It's very clever.

Where do you see the gaming industry heading to over the next few years?

I've become intrigued with VR. It's very immersive. It hasn't hit its stride yet, but it's on its way there. It's an interesting concept to put on a headset to get literally into another world.

I feel that 20-30 years ago game writing was more fun and humorous. Now it's the same trend we're seeing in movies and television where we've become more jaded as a society. So we want to see things that are more authentic and realistic. I see that trend continuing on for quite a while. 

The maturity of the storytelling has been really impressive. There are many people writing video games that would have been award-winning movies in the ’90s because the industry has grown so much.

What about AI?

AI is an interesting tool to use to get you into the first step. However, we're all human beings that have experiences and that's not something that AI can duplicate. A studio that tries to use AI to replace the writers is making a horrible mistake. 

One of the strengths of humans writing your game is they can make it understandable and relatable to the audience. AI cannot do that. At least not now. If it does that in the future, it will be very scary.

There's a big difference between crafting a story and typing. AI can type, but it can’t create a good story. There's a place for it to help you walk through a few ideas, but a human has to do the final work. 

Will the Apple Vision Pro headset change anything?

I haven't actually used it, but there's a good chance it will. Oculus is changing things just as much. What's great about these VR games is that the price point on buying a game is lower than a platform game. You don't have to commit to quite as much financially. That will open a lot of people up to playing VR games. I see a trend of releasing them for a smaller price point and doing them as episodes. 

For example, Vader Immortal releases an episode and it's $10 versus a $70 platform game. And it's a cool experience doing lightsaber battles. I think they did a really good job with that game. It's more bite-sized. You can take on a smaller amount of it at a time and enjoy as much of it as you want. And when you're ready to buy the next chapter, you just do it.

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