Deborah Chantson is a writer/producer for games (including narrative design), interactive digital media (IDM), television, and short films, specializing in preschool and educational projects. Just prior to moving to California, she was Writer and Community Manager for Minority Media (Montreal) where her notable projects included writing for projects in development, co-writing the Papo & Yo Postmortem for Game Developer Magazine (Jan 2013 cover), writing for the Sony PlayStation blog, and building Minority’s fan-supportive, approachable Twitter reputation.
Justin Sloan: Deborah, I am so happy to share your experience with my readers. To get us started, what is your background in writing and did you study it formally?
Deborah Chantson: I originally “studied” to be a television writer. I did a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations, and in my last year, I thought I’d combine that with my upcoming TV Writing and Producing Diploma to write for a show like Alias. But then I found my love of kids TV when I finally had a TV all to myself in residence. Shortly after my first real gig, I soon started writing for the interactive side of the television project(s) I was working on, and after that, I started doing lots of different writing.
JS: What medium of writing would you say is your specialty?
DC: My specialty is interactive for kids just because I’ve done so much of it. I would love to do more children’s television writing though.
JS: How did you get involved in the game industry, and writing in particular? Did you always have an interest in games?
DC: I’ve always had an interest in games, but I wasn’t purposely heading that way professionally. My husband got a job in Montreal and it was such a great opportunity that we moved right away (as in, 11 days!). After a few months of frolicking, I cold-emailed every English-speaking production company for meet & greets. But then I connected with Minority Media and they decided to give me a chance as a social media manager. I thought it would be a short gig, but people kept giving me things to do. So I stuck around! Within the first week, they discovered how handy it would be having a professional writer on the team, and with that I was able to help with some game development. With creative director Vander Caballero’s philosophies about story and mechanics, I fell in love with writing for games, living up to my then-changed title of Writer/Community Manager.
JS: Having done some screenwriting as well, what are your thoughts on the difference between writing for games versus film? TV and short films?
DC: I think time and process are the biggest differences. Screenwriting is a slog and it’s not that I don’t like it, but it was best done when I was between gigs and aiming for deadlines like programs that needed a screenplay as a writing sample. I enjoyed creating characters and getting feedback from friends to whom I was very grateful for investing the time to read the whole thing. But they haven’t gone very far because screenplays have to be written, and then you need to spend at least twice as much time trying to sell them. With games, I’m waiting for the tech to catch up before I really go all out blitzing with my ideas. I want to do console games, and the mechanics play a very big part of the story delivery and experience.
Television and short films seem to be the “easiest” for which to write. Pitching your ideas is another ball game, but once you’re on a show, your characters are often set and you can meet with the actors to hear how they talk and how you hope they’ll deliver your lines. But scripts will change so much from draft to broadcast that sometimes you’re lucky if you recognize the word “volcano.” In a way, the short film I co-produced with my business partner was the greatest experience because our creative vision was ours from start to finish.
JS: Do you have a genre you prefer to write in? Do you think finding a genre is important for aspiring writers?
DC: I like comedy and stick to it pretty fiercely when I can. I started a novel which I think I should really punch up because I can’t do sad. Genre is definitely important because you need to write what you know. I stay away from cop shows, procedural dramas, horror, anything medical… it’s not my thing and when it’s not your thing, sometimes you get lucky for having tried, but you have to have your heart in what you’re writing because that’s the first giveaway when it’s missing.
JS: What about the writing process? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers who are trying to set up a routine or may be stuck in front of the computer hoping magic words will fly through their fingers into their computers?
DC: I always found that warming up on other platforms was helpful. Like writing a really creative Facebook post to get you started. Deadlines help. Taking a chunk of another piece of the project really helps. But sometimes projects are just too cumbersome for you to think clearly and you have to move on to something else to get that “strangers’ first eyes” perspective again. The best feeling though, is when you look at something you wrote a year ago, and it’s STILL funny!
JS: Now that you do the social side of games, do you feel any of what you have learned on the job would be applicable to people making their own games and hoping to push them out to the world? What advice do you have on that?
DC: Community management is an essential part of any game developer’s existence now. Being a writer helps with creating shareable content and being able to generate ideas, wording things tactfully for consumer questions and technical support, and making sales and promotion posts less boring and slightly more quirky and memorable. Spelling and grammar are also helpful. Errors really bring down any community management efforts because then it just looks like you got some flaky teenager to do it and you don’t care. I’ve written previously on advice in this sector but the biggest thing is to respond. Community management, even basic social media, is about engagement and you’ll lose fans/customers/credibility when you just ignore people. Of course, I’ve now learnt that fans need to send you properly articulated messages to which you can respond, especially since Google Translate doesn’t deal well with foreign language typos, so it’s a two-way street.
JS: I was very jealous that you were able to attend the Game Developers Conference (GDC) last year. Can you give us an overview of the conference?
DC: GDC is a great way to keep up with what’s going on or trends that are coming up next. Expensive if you’re going on your own without a company sending you, but it’s professional development. Knowing if you’re on the right track for how you’re planning something, connecting with experts – that’s what I was able to get.
JS: What were some main takeaways from the GDC?
DC: It depends on what you’re there for. Last year, I attended the Narrative Summit and that was helpful for validating that I know what I’m doing!
JS: What should attendees do to prepare, if anything?
DC: Again, it depends on what you’re there for. Business cards are always important to have on hand, but I find they’re less used in games than they are in TV. I’m not sure why. Maybe because in games, you’re more likely to meet your Twitter friends in real life. Get a Twitter account if you don’t have one!
JS: What games do you think people should be playing to make sure they understand the industry? Do you have a type of game that you are obsessed with?
DC: I have a wide list of my favorites, but you need to play the types of games you want to make so you know what’s out there and how to overcome current limitations. For example, many console games are focused on a specific set of mechanics, but then they get so overused that it becomes tedious. Extensive collecting is one of my pet peeves because I think that’s more like grinding than contributing anything to a story. For story and the sheer magic of a video game world, I love Uncharted 2. For mechanics, collaboration and a fun world, I love LittleBigPlanet (I haven’t played the latest one yet). For a story really involving the player in an immersive experience, I highly recommend Tearaway. For various other reasons, I also recommend Papers, Please; Starcraft 2; Plants vs. Zombies 2.
JS: What can you tell us about having children and how that affects the writing life?
DC: Sigh. My life is on hold at the moment. With a new baby, there’s not much time to write. I admire you, Justin, getting so much writing done with TWO kids. But then again, I’m not at the point where there’s enough sleep to sacrifice yet. I’d like to think this is the information gathering stage, like reading what I can while nursing, and building a huge playlist of the games I’m going to play once I have two hands free for more than a half hour at a time.
JS: If you were to imagine a life where you find yourself able to sleep through the nights again (say when your son is older, but hopefully soon), do you have a plan? Do you have advice for people who want to get into the game industry, whether that’s writing plot/story or writing on the community engagement side?
DC: I’m still carving out my path on the game writing side, but on the community engagement side, just being active online (Twitter, Twitch, etc.) and preferably with the types of games you want to manage will help gain you visibility. It’s helpful if people can see how you post content on your own feeds because then they can see your sense of judgment on what’s appropriate. If your feed is full of misogynistic and racist memes, well… you know… you really shouldn’t be online at all.
As a writer though, even in television, I found that it always helps to have other skills to allow you to break in. For example, I really got my start in television writing because I was also a researcher and script coordinator. I got started in games because of my previous experience in digital media. I don’t know of many people who just become successful as writers from the get-go.
JS: Thank you again for sharing your advice with us, Deb. Before we sign off, do you have one last piece of wisdom to leave us with?
DC: I envy anyone at the moment with oodles of unfettered free time. Play all the games you can!
For other interviews like this, see my Creative Writing Career: Becoming a Writer of Movies, Video Games, and Books. (now in Audiobook!)