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What Does Video Game Writers Do? And How To Become One Realistically

John Ryan

John Ryan

John Ryan has worn just about every game narrative hat since he started in the industry in 2007, when he stumbled into writing barks and item descriptions for Fable 2. Since then, he's been a game writer, narrative editor, narrative consultant, narrative designer, and a story director for franchises such as Guild Wars, Destiny, Marvel's Iron Man, Forza, Horizon, and Lily's Garden. In his spare time, he shares his insights on his LinkedIn.

One of the most common questions I get asked by people outside of the gaming industry is “How do I get into video game writing professionally?”

Since I’ve been on both sides of the studio hiring process, I put together this guide sharing what writers actually do in video game development, how to get started, what you need to know, and how to prepare for the interview. This is based on my first-hand experiences being a writer who started out as a junior and eventually grew into leadership roles.

By the way, if you have any questions as you read this post, feel free to ask in the Funsmith Club Discord where you can seek advice and network with game devs of all levels including me.

You can also get notified on exclusive game design tips, workshops, and guides (like this one) here 👇

Now let’s get into it.

What does a video game writer do?

A game writer is responsible for creating, writing, and revising in-game dialogue, audio logs, journal entries, item descriptions, UI text, and just about everything the player is going to hear or read in the game.

They work in tandem with other writers and types of game designers and developers to shape characters, quests, cinematics, and the overall narrative spine of the game.

Writers are also responsible for:

  • Getting their stuff in on time
  • Pitching stories and characters
  • Breaking down story elements
  • Overseeing narrative revisions
  • Getting their stuff ready for voice recording
  • Overseeing the voice recording
  • Staying on top of the constant iteration process during the game’s development

Above all else, a game writer gives the player context and clarity for their actions such as

  • Who are they in this game world?
  • What’s their story (and why should we care)?
  • What’s the game’s setting?
  • Informing the player where to go next and why
  • What’s the task before them?
  • What obstacles might be in the way?
  • And what’s the prize at the end they are struggling to get to?

How is game writing different from TV or film writing?

The main difference is how the audience experiences the story and content, which fundamentally impacts the creative process.

In TV & film, the audience passively observes the story unfolding, which means TV and film writers aim to plot their shots to visually inform the audience.

In video games, the players (aka the audience) actively participate as the main character to unfold the story, which means the game writers must guide the player on where to look and go, all while giving context for their actions.

image9 1

This is a larger studio effort to pull off, but if done right, the players will feel like they figured out the directions naturally and intuitively.

To accomplish this, game writers need to

  • Think through the player’s actions and what needs to be conveyed at all times
  • Find a way to focus the players’ eyes on something important (preferably) without cutscenes
  • Account for everything the player will do, especially if they veer off the intended path

Differences aside, there is a lot of overlap between the two, especially since games have been adopting film/TV storytelling techniques for years.

Writers’ rooms are common in game studios, which gaming also adopted from TV and film.

Game writers are learning screenplay writing structures more and more, especially on big, cinematic titles.

You can get a better idea and reference these 10 screenplay structures by Screencraft.

For example, when I was a writer at Guerrilla Games, I had to think in terms of screenplay and cinematic formats.

And when I was a writer at ArenaNet, our VO lines were compiled into scripts to give to the actors in the recording booth.

In some cases, screenplay formats were a “common language” for informing the visuals of a scene (for the cinematics team) as well as how the VO talent (already familiar with scripts in general) should read the line.

So, what skills does an entry-level game writer need?

Every studio is unique when it comes to what they look for in an entry-level/junior writer, but there are a few common traits.

  • Excellent spelling and grammar skills
  • The ability to write tight, write unique voices, and write fast
  • Fluency in the native language of the studio
  • Knowing the studio and their games
  • Getting along with a team of people
  • Being able to take direction and criticism
  • Being able to not flinch when your stuff gets cut from the game
  • Contributing constructively to a writers’ room environment
  • Knowing one of the following: Word, Excel, Google Workspace, Final Draft, Twine or being a fast learner of whatever tool the studio uses. Knowledge of Unity or Unreal wouldn’t hurt.
  • Excellent time management skills to hit deadlines
  • Staying cool in high-stress environments
  • Staying up to date on narrative trends in games, especially in the genre you are writing in

Here is an example of a job listing for a remote junior game writer position from AdHoc Studio:

image8

The many writing roles in a studio

1. Junior/Mid-tier Writers

Responsibilities:

  • Juniors learn the ropes by completing smaller writing tasks under supervision
  • Focus on writing quality and timely delivery.
  • Mid-tier writers are assigned larger tasks, given by their lead.

2. Senior Writer

Responsibilities:

  • Take on bigger projects, such as key narrative elements within the game
  • Take junior writers under their wing
  • Usually, the lead’s “right hand” in helping manage workloads and issues
  • Be the voice of reason and expertise when a lead writer isn’t present

Here is an example of senior game writer job listing by Respawn Star Wars Jedi:image16

3. Lead Writer

Responsibilities:

  • Lead the writing team, overseeing day-to-day operations
  • Maintain the narrative vision of the game and ensure deadlines are met
  • Manage writers, administrative tasks, roadblocks, and disagreements
  • Acts as the main decision-maker in the writers’ room

4. Narrative Director

Responsibilities:

  • Hold ultimate responsibility for the game’s narrative pillars
  • Act as a representative of the narrative team in the C-suite and with major stakeholders
  • Take responsibility for the narrative’s successes or shortcomings

Here is an example of narrative director job listing by Blizzard Entertainment:

image10 1

5. Narrative Editor

Responsibilities:

  • Review all narrative content for quality and consistency
  • Maintain the studio’s style guide for narrative content
  • Provide critical feedback and suggest revisions to improve narrative delivery

6. Narrative Designer

Responsibilities:

  • Bridge writing and game mechanics
  • Implement story aspects directly into the game’s engine
  • Requires a robust understanding of narrative structure, game writing, and technical game design
    • If you like getting under the hood to tell the story with greater technical complexity, look into narrative design.

7. Narrative Producer

Responsibilities:

  • Keep narrative development on schedule, especially VO recording dates
  • Identify and remove obstacles to ensure the writing team can focus on their work.
  • Coordinate closely with the Lead Writer to manage project timelines and deliverables.

Note: This is a rare role, but very vital

8. Freelance Writers

Responsibilities:

  • Assist the team with narrative tasks for a predetermined contract period
  • Deliver final narrative content to the studio before concluding the contract

Additional details:

  • Not considered permanent studio employees
  • Receive credit for their work, similar to full-time employees
  • Job security and income can be inconsistent, so it’s either feast or famine

Here’s a simplified overview of how your career paths can progress and potentially pivot in the narrative creation realm of game development:
image18

How are game writers involved at different stages of the game development process

Stage 1: Present At The Creation/Pre-Production

If you are a junior/mid-tier writer, you might not be part of the major stakeholder discussion about the next title.

Odds are, your narrative director or lead writer (or both) will be in that room for the discussion.

This is when game ideas are pitched. Most will be rejected, but one will catch fire.

Once the stakeholders figure out the game, the narrative representative in the room will brief the writing team on:

  • World
  • Planned gameplay loop
  • Theme
  • Main character
  • The “rules” that the narrative has to adhere to
  • Likely share concept art to inspire the writers

Next comes a lot of sitting in a room with a whiteboard for weeks or months breaking down the story and characters.

image7
(I can’t share an actual whiteboard breakdown; that would violate an NDA. Second, only the story should be subject to a “breakdown,” not the writers. Be sure to take plenty of breaks.)

Then breaking it down over and over after you get feedback and approval from the stakeholders, including your lead/narrative director.

Note: This whiteboard part can be an ongoing thing. Sometimes you need to go back to the whiteboard when missions get cut or a major narrative change happens.

Stage 2: Production

Writers will work with different departments to flesh out character designs, missions, story locations and more.

You are going to pitch missions to your lead, who will give you feedback.

You will go revise until you get a greenlight. And then you write.

If your game has VO, you must have table reads.

Table reads are where the writers sit and read through the lines to be voiced.

Hearing a line spoken will reveal what sounds clunky, what sounds natural, and what’s missing.

Combined with a pass by a diligent editor, this will save your dialogue.

Working on Guild Wars 2 as a writer was my first experience with table reads. Hearing my stuff read aloud in a table read taught me so much about voice and how to sharpen my writing.

You might be asked to sit in on a VO recording session, either in person or virtually, where your responsibilities would be to:

  1. Make sure the lines are being read correctly with the proper emotion necessary.
  2. Provide context to the actors in a brief, professional way.
  3. Stay out of the VO studio director’s way and don’t direct the VO talent.

Stage 3: Pre Launch

You will be writing item descriptions, UI text, and other flavors of informative copy. You will be getting bugs. You might be cutting missions. It’s going to get hot and frantic.

Stay cool. Do your job. Make the bugs go away.

You might be roped into press junkets. Maybe you will be at a convention booth promoting the game. You meet fans and answer questions. Stay cool. Stay friendly. Remember your media training.

And then one day you will be standing with your team at the studio or another venue and you will see a big screen with a countdown timer on it. You made it. There is nothing at all like the launch of a game, your game. Enjoy this.

Stage 4: Post Launch

Your studio will either move on to the sequel if the game is successful, DLC/Expansion to support and extend the game’s lifespan, or a new title.

If you are going into the DLC/Expansion route, then you are going to experience everything above but on a smaller scale.

Also, depending on the development of the core game, this stage might start happening before launch.

If this game is an MMO or a mobile game, new content for players is always going to be needed. Everything in the four phases above will happen again, but everything will be greatly sped up.

You will be in an ongoing cycle of brainstorming, development, implementation, iteration, launch, and repeat.

For example, being a narrative designer/story director at Tactile was my first time in a weekly release schedule. Coming from AAA, where you can spend years on a game, it was a culture shock. If you don’t have good time management skills, you’ll struggle here.

Do game writers have creative freedom?

Writers have as much as the creative director and the narrative lead gives them.

Writers take their direction from their narrative lead or lead writer.

This includes information about a character, a quest, a region, or something else narratively relevant.

A writer brought onto a project will be trained on the game’s voice, how missions are structured, and the overall design philosophy.

Here, the writer understands the limits of what they can do, creatively or technically.

After they understand the restraints, they have their playground to be creative.

For example, when I was the lead writer for Forza Motorsport 7, the narrative was still at a high level and partially undefined. In a situation like this, a writer should do a lot of listening and submit many tone drafts to gauge what the stakeholders are looking for.

(Here is the intro narration from Forza Motorsport 7 story mode)

Also, the writers might find themselves in a place where they can pitch smaller missions or additional NPCs. If approved, the writer will put together:

  • Mission briefs
  • Critical path breakdowns for missions
  • Character biographies
  • Dialogue
  • And more

The writers can put their voice into all of these.

If the writer is hired before all of the boundaries are established, the writer might have a greater say in shaping the game’s world, but they will still have to follow the guidelines laid down by the creative director and/or narrative lead.

A game writer at this stage will brainstorm lore, characters, plot arcs, missions, side quests, and more.

How to start your game writing career

Here’s the truth. Game writing is the weirdo mutant job of the gaming industry.

We don’t have a path laid out for us like game designers, game artists, or programmers.

Also, pure game writing jobs are rare.

What I’m about to list here is not a guarantee of getting a job, but will help your odds.

You want to stand out? Here you go.

1. You get your foot in the door in another role:

  • Learn the studio and the tools
  • Do a good job there
  • Show you can bring writing to the table at no additional cost to the studio
  • Internship or entry-level programs. You will get three invaluable passive buffs here
    • Studio experience on your resume
    • You can point to something in a game and say “I made that”
    • You build a reputation with people in this industry. A good reputation can be as invaluable as a solid portfolio.

2. You make your own games:

  • Build a respectable portfolio as a solo dev or in group projects, like Game Jams.
  • You build a network and a reputation
  • Your games or a personal connection gets you in touch with a big game studio

(Note: this is how modders get into the industry. Some games have creation kits in them where you can make your quests and show off your writing. You can add these to your portfolio.)

3)  You are a writer in another space:

  • You are a writer covering the gaming industry. You network, you show off your writing. One day, you get tapped for an interview and the rest is history.
  • You are a screenwriter or a novelist. You know someone in gaming is looking for a screenwriter. Since AAA gaming is emulating Hollywood, you can naturally transition over.

Let’s talk about what to include in your game writing portfolio

Since you might not have a lot of professional pieces in your arsenal, you’ll have to get a little creative.

The following is what I see as serving you well in a starter’s portfolio.

BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE – If you have anything from a game jam/published TTRPG/Twine game/Mod you have done, add that to your portfolio first.

Having stuff you’ve made that is playable and out in the world will be gold for you since the hiring team can potentially reference your work in the context of actual gameplay.

1. A character profile – 1 page: If you don’t have anything you can draw from a game you made, try imagining an NPC in one of your favorite games.

Famous RPGs are the natural draw here. Devs reviewing your portfolio likely played those games, too, so they’ll get what you are doing.

Write up a brief summary of the character with the following:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Background
  • What’s their reason for being in the game?
  • What do they do in the game?
  • How do they interact with the player?
  • What do they want?
  • What’s their arc?

Here is an example character profile of Rose from my portfolio:

image3 1

Here are Guild Wars 2 character profiles for Tassi and Bloody Prince Thorn:

image2

If you are a DM in a TTRPG, consider using one of the NPCs you created for your campaign.

2. Barks based on the character – 1 page: Barks should be short, evocative, and rich in the character’s voice. No monologues.

You contrast emotions to show off voice and character, such as:

  • Hello
  • Goodbye
  • Happy
  • Curious
  • Scared
  • Being upset
  • Showing Regret
  • Giving an apology
  • Starting a fight
  • Leaving a fight
  • Telling a joke
  • Being commanding
  • Being successful
  • Suffering failure

Here are some barks for Tassi and Bloody Prince Thorn from the previous 2 examples:

image5 1

Here is another example of barks from Guild Wars 2 (from my old site):

image12 1

3. A short scene – 2-3 pages ideally in screenplay format: Focus on dialogue and have a beginning, middle, and end.

Here is an example of the Hunting Ground cutscene character dialogue in a project I wrote set in the Horizon universe:

image6

Here are a bunch of short scenes from Guild Wars 2 (from my old site) I built with modular flexibility to fire alone or in a sequence for the implementers:

image15

Focus on these 3 elements:

  1. Brevity
  2. Character voice
  3. Pacing

And if you can, showcase how the scene will look like in gameplay like this:

4. Item descriptions – 1 page: 30-40 words. This is a test of writing tight and evocative. You could grab an image off the Internet to go with your description. Just label where you got it from.

Here is an item description example from a 4 hour game pitch project (from my old site) I worked on:

image1

5. Branching conversation example – 1-2 pages: This shows off your dialogue skills, how well you design branches, and how well you cleanly connect everything.

Here’s the first branching narrative decision tree from my text-based game prototype I made on Twine for a 12-hour project:

image11

You can check out my game here.

6. Location/World Building Lore – 1 page: Here you prove you can build a world that makes sense and is interesting.

Here is an example from my portfolio:

image4

Again, having TTRPG (like Dungeons and Dragons) experience here will give you an advantage, since you literally practice building lore with words.

7. Online portfolio only. A couple of prose pieces about how which games influence you or an analysis of trends in games. Keep it to about 500-750 words.

The portfolio you’ll submit should be no more than 10 pages, but also have a five-page bundle ready to go. Once in a blue moon, a studio will want no more than that.

Lastly, if you have a choice, use PDF over Word. PDF files are smaller, which helps when facing strict file-size limits.

Once you build your portfolio, make sure you’re prepared for the interview stage of the hiring process.

Passing the game writing interview gauntlet

Every studio will be different, but here’s how a typical video game writer hiring process goes.

image14 1

1. Initial interview:  Someone from HR will ask about your skills, why you want to work for this studio, and get an impression of who you are as a person.

Here are a few tips to pass the stage:

  • You should do all the research you can about the studio, its games, and its culture.
  • Be as genuine and as personable as you can be.
  • Give reasons why you want to work for the studio. You can show some passion here, but don’t veer into hyper-fanboy mode.
  • Be ready to explain who you are and what you can bring to the table, but don’t get aggressive.
  • Bring questions. HR might not be able to answer narrative ones, so stick to general ones, like…
  • Ask about the hiring process and what you can expect from here on in.

Keep your answers brief. Do not ramble. It will not be a good look for you.

2. The technical interview: You’ll likely meet with someone who will be your boss or lead. You’ll be asked about your background, how you approach stories and characters, what your strengths are, and so on.

If you haven’t yet, get familiar with the STAR method of interviewing.

image13
(Credit: MIT)

It’s here you can ask detailed questions about:

  • The job
  • The expectations
  • The studio
  • The project
  • The day-to-day operations

You might sign an NDA at this stage.

3. The writing test: You will be given prompts, guidelines, and a time limit.

Do your best and think about how this studio has approached writing in the past.

Use it as a guide for your writing test.

You will send off your test and endure the worst part: the wait as your stuff gets evaluated.

4. The interview loop: You will meet with several members of the studio.

Here are a few tips to pass this stage:

  • You’ll likely get the names of the people who will interview you. Learn all you can about them through Internet research. In a non-stalker way, of course.
  • If you are being interviewed by someone from a different team (art, audio, design), create custom questions about how writers will interact with them on a daily basis
    • What are they expecting out of a writer?
    • What’s the best way you can work with that other team?
    • What pain point can you relieve as their writer?
  • Ask them what they like about the studio AND what they would change about it.
  • Be interested in the studio, the people, the departments, and the project.
  • Be authentic.

5. The final boss: No joke, this might be the head of the studio. They will want to know:

  • Your skills
  • Your knowledge of the studio
  • How you handle yourself

You should have a lot of practice talking about yourself at this stage, so keep doing what you are doing.

If it all works out, you and the studio will determine a start date.

If this is an international move, then there will be a ton of logistics that you and HR will go through in the coming weeks.

You will get a pay offer. There is room for negotiation, but if you are starting out, you won’t have a lot of leverage.

Here is how much professional game writers get paid:

Within the United States, the average salary is around $53,493 up to $63,685 per year according to Glassdoor.

But how much you get paid will depend on the market, the part of the world you are in, your experience, and other factors.

My best advice:

  1. Try to find salaries for jobs. More jobs are posting salaries ahead of time. Research all the major job boards like Glassdoor, ZipRecruiter, Indeed
  2. See if there are other comparable studios in the area and try to figure out what they’re paying people in the same role.
    • Try searching to see if the studio has hired for this role before. Maybe they have a salary listed in that job description.
  3. Look into where the studio is and gauge the cost of living there.
    • Here are a couple of calculators to help. See what you can live with and counteroffer with the studio in good faith.

How to learn more about becoming a video game writer?

If you are interested in becoming a game writer after all of this, play lots of games, read books, and most importantly write every day.

Write in a journal and for yourself, especially on the days that you don’t feel like writing anything.

To get more creative and original, be curious about the world, art, language, people, telling stories without words, and the power of words when you wield the right ones.

If you’re unsure where to start, here are a few things I’d recommend you to do:

  1. Read “The Game Narrative Toolbox” by Tobias Heussner, Toiya Kristen Finley, Jennifer Hepler, and Ann Lemay.
  2. Consume everything on Kaitlin Tremblay’s recommended list.
  3. If you have the time and cash, look into the game writing workshops hosted by Susan O’Connor and Greg Buchanan. (Full disclosure: I’m an alum of Susan’s program.)
  4. Get an itch.io account, and a copy of Twine, and start making your own games.
  5. Get involved with game jams, either through itch or through other outlets:
    1. Indie Game Jams.
    2. Ludum Dare
  6. Get involved in game development Discords. Meet fellow devs.
    1. If you get involved with Greg or Susan’s workshops, you get invited to their Discords, which are filled with other game writers.
    2. If you haven’t yet, you can also join the Funsmith Club’s Discord, where you can find help on making your first game, as well as opportunities to playtest your game and get feedback from other designers.
  7. Follow game writers on LinkedIn or on any social media platform you feel comfortable using. If you want, you can connect with me on Linkedin or check out my site.

Meanwhile, go make your own games. You have a story only you can tell.

Now, go out there and tell it.And if you have any thoughts, questions or opinions, feel free to share them in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

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Each Friday, get a shot of 2-min TL:DR update in your inbox on the latest

All tactics. No fluff . Pro advice only. Unsubscribe any time

EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan