Interview: Eric Bratcher – Video Game Writer, Freelancer, and Author

EHead2Eric Bratcher spent more than a decade as a pop-culture journalist specializing in music, videogames, and technology, then switched hats from critic to creator. Like a super-hero, he now lives multiple lives; he’s a videogame consultant by day, a novelist by night, and a musician on weekends. Unlike a super-hero, not one of these roles requires him to wear a cape. But he wears one anyway.

Eric provided me with wonderful advice when I was looking into entering the world of writing for games, including a great list of games I had to play (most of which I have now played and loved). I am happy to share his thoughts here with you all.

Justin Sloan: Let’s get started with a general background of you and your interest in writing. What were you doing before you started writing, and what led to the decision to be a writer?

Eric Bratcher: It sounds contrived, but I’ve always been a writer—I was just too block-headed to realize it. I’ve loved to read since childhood, and I wrote for various papers through high school and college. Granted, I majored in landscaping (like I said: blockhead), but after graduation, I became a pop-culture journalist. Years later, I lost that job and my wife said, “Good! You can finally write those books you’ve been jabbering about for 20 years.” So, because even a blockhead can see my wife is the smart one, I became a writer of books.

JS: Okay, so you’re working on your own novel, as well as doing freelance work? What are some of the struggles there? Where do you find freelance work, and do you feel it cuts into your personal writing time, or complements it?

EB: Novels are what the great Chuck Wendig calls a “long con.” The dollars you make from writing a novel take a loooong time to arrive (and that’s assuming they don’t just ditch you and join their friends over at J.K. Rowling’s jellybean factory or E.L. James’s bondage emporium). In the meantime, you need to eat.

Enter: the day job. In my case, that day job is “Freelance Writer and Game Design Consultant.” It can prove erratic—sometimes I can’t spook a job out of the bushes with a stick, and sometimes I have three assignments going at once—but I love it.

Finding freelance work is all about connections. Sounds cliché, I know, but it’s the absolute truth. You get hired by getting out there, meeting people, and letting them know how you can help them. I had it easy. My journalism connections gave me a jump start. But in this era of conventions and social media and online groups, anyone can build a network of connections from anywhere. Heck, I once met a random goofball at a convention, and a couple years later he offered to interview me for his big, fancy book. So you never know.

Granted, every new assignment does take time—as in, time you will definitely NOT spend writing your novels. But so would any other day job.

Plus, freelancing is great training. I’ve written everything from videogame scripts to software manuals to magazine ads, each time adopting the client’s preferred tone, voice, and style. And that has absolutely made me a better writer.

JS: We met at the San Francisco Writers Conference (SFWC), where I believe you were one of the scholarship recipients. For others looking to attend the SFWC but who aren’t sure how they could afford it, how does one go about applying for the scholarship?

EB: Scholarships are like manna from writer Heaven. They’re free money—why would you NOT jump at the chance to get free money? In the case of SFWC, the website at http://sfwriters.org/ has a link labeled Scholarships and Contests right in the top nav. Click it, and you’ll get a whole list of scholarships and contests (you probably saw that coming) just waiting for you to enter. You’ll often have to write something, but that shouldn’t bother you because, you know, you’re a writer.

It’s not just SFWC, either. Most every conference has its own scholarships and contests. They’re all different, too. I won tickets to one conference by calling in to a radio show, and at another conference I lost the scholarship but won a book as a consolation prize.

Scholarships, man. Apply for them. You’re just shutting doors in your own face if you don’t.

JS: As for the conference itself, do you have any main takeaways from that first year you attended? What do you recommend aspiring writers do to prepare and get the most out of their experience?

EB: Bring paper, pens, an audio recording device if you have one, business cards, comfortable shoes, and a smile. You’re going to be drinking from a fire hose of knowledge and networking, and you’ll want to make every second count. It’s actually a little bewildering how openly the wisdom flows at these things. You would think successful people would want to keep their secrets to themselves. But they don’t. They share like crazy. I bet none of their grandmothers trust them with the secret family cookie recipe.

JS: What about other conferences? Do you attend video game conferences, such as the GDC, or any other writing events?

EB: More than I can readily recall. As a journalist, I went to the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) and Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) for years, and I’ve been to the San Diego Comic-Con, South by Southwest in Austin, the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, even New York’s Toy Fair. But these days, I focus on writing conferences.

The biggest events take place in the major cities—San Francisco, New York, San Diego, etc—and they rock. But size isn’t everything. Smaller conferences are often more intimate. One of my first conferences was a tiny regional event, but it included hours of one-on-one instruction from a published novelist and writing instructor who read my first 30 pages and gave me a line-by-line edit. I can’t even quantify how helpful it was for me.

JS: Since I know you as the video game expert, can you share with our readers what you did related to video game journalism, and any projects you have worked on since?

EB: I worked for Future plc, which at that time was the world’s largest publisher of “enthusiast” magazines and websites. My specific beat was videogames and technology, so I wrote and edited various publications (mostly Next Generation, PSM, and GamesRadar.com) that probably aren’t household names for non-gamers, but were big fish in that particular pond.

Much of my work since then has been done under NDA (non-disclosure agreements) but recent projects I can mention include the strategy guide for the videogame Far Cry 4, as well as the story and script for an iOS game called Contract Killer 3 and its expansions.

JS: For an aspiring game writer, do you think video game journalism is the best way to go? What are some other paths you have seen people take?

EB: I don’t think there is a single best way anymore. Journalism is definitely a valid foot in the door. I’ve lost count of the number of journalists I’ve seen go on to work for game developers. But I’ve also seen many game writers get their start by taking any job they can at the game developer—producer, designer, community manager, even a lowly tester—and later migrating into a writing position. And speaking of migrating, I’ve met many writers who began their careers writing for a different medium, such as films, television, or novels. Also, more and more colleges are introducing Game Design majors, which often incorporate writing techniques (and if they don’t, go ahead and grab that minor in Creative Writing).

Or you could just bypass all that stuff and start making your own games. The indie scene is alive and well, especially on PC, and there are countless software tools, from Quest and TADS to GameMaker:Studio and Twine, to help you out (many of them are even free). Even if it’s just a text adventure or “interactive novel,” there’s no better way to demonstrate your game-writing abilities than to ACTUALLY WRITE A GAME.

JS: Has your list of awesome games changed much in the last year? If so, what are some new additions? What are the classics, for people who haven’t seen my list (I included a lot of your recommendations in my Creative Writing Career book 1)?

EB: Ha. That’s a bit like asking Cookie Monster if he’s enjoyed any tasty baked goods in the last 12 months, but I’ll try to keep it brief. And I’ll focus mostly on PC games because they’re easy for most folks to track down and play.

New stuff:
Grim Fandango Remastered –  Classic film noir in the vein of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, but starring Dia de los Muertos-looking skeletons and packed with humor. Ridiculously clever.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – Two brothers set out to find a cure for their father’s illness. Poetic and beautiful.
Broken Age – A coming of age tale in a whimsical fantasy setting. Funnier than Brothers, but no less moving.
Dragon Age: Inquisition – Gritty role-playing for the Game of Thrones/Tolkien fans.
The Sunless Sea – Odd but charming, this one plays like a choose-your-own-adventure book co-written by Jules Verne and H.P. Lovecraft. You play a sea captain (and when you die, his successor) exploring a captivatingly weird world in which Victorian-era London stands on the shore of a pitch-black underground ocean full of sanity-warping horrors.

I’ve surely neglected something, but I need to toss in some classics. The three Bioshock games are fantastic, as are the Mass Effect games (especially if played in sequence) and the previous Dragon Age games. The Last of Us is fairly recent, but already a classic. Knights of the Old Republic is the best Star Wars movie never made, and you can get it on iOS now. The Walking Dead is gut-wrenchingly good, and A Wolf Among Us is right behind it. Red Dead Redemption is the quintessential cowboy story, Psychonauts is relentlessly creative and funny, and Grand Theft Auto V plays like a crime caper gone wild. Deus Ex, Planescape: Torment, and System Shock 2 are old but awesome. And everyone on Earth should play Portal and Portal 2. They are amazing.

JS: As for your novel, do you plan on going the traditional publishing route, or self-publishing? What are your thoughts of the merits of each?

EB: For me personally, traditional publishing fits best. I want to see physical copies in libraries and bookstores, and if the book hits, I’ll appreciate having a partner with extra marketing muscle and experience in handling foreign editions, licensing rights, and so on. But for other folks, especially those who already have a decent following or aren’t as interested in physical copies, self-publishing is a perfectly viable choice. These days, it’s really just a matter of which solution matches your personal goal.

The models are still evolving, too. A friend of mine just published a novel with Inkshares, which has a really interesting hybrid system. The author pitches Inkshares on the book, Inkshares helps with editing and layout, and the two sides work together to pre-sell the first 1000 copies on Kickstarter. Once that’s done, the book gets published and can be ordered in all the usual places, and the author gets 50% of physical sales and 70% of digital.

JS: Do you have a grand strategy when it comes to your writing career? What do you see yourself doing next?

EB: I absolutely require a strategy. Without one, it would just be videogames in my pajamas all day. However, it’s a pretty broad-strokes plan. Basically, I just boiled everything down to my ultimate goal, then de-prioritized anything that didn’t move me toward that goal.

Determining your goal is crucial. Until you have a clear goal, you can’t formulate a strategy. Luckily, determining your goal is also easy. You just envision the end result you want.

In my case, I crossed “live in a solid gold mansion and play croquet with my robot butler” off my list. Those things would still be nice—who doesn’t love croquet?—but I don’t dream about them. I dream about a 10-year-old boy telling me he loves my books.

Therefore, my particular goal became, “write the best books possible, then get them out to as many potential readers as possible.”

A simple goal, granted. And not remotely original. But it helps me stay focused on what’s important.

This simple goal also enabled a simple strategy: A) Learn to write. B) Write. C) Get it published via whatever method best suits me. D) Find a day job to keep the lights on while I work on parts A, B, and C.

That’s really about it. Income first, books second, everything else third. Sure, I would love the books to do well enough to eventually overtake my day job. And I would love to expand into additional mediums: comics, films, even song lyrics. But those are down-the-road bonuses. My immediate goal is writing reader-worthy books while also making enough money to support myself. So that’s my focus.

Reader take note: Your goals and strategy may differ, and that’s fine. The important thing is not that they be the same as everyone else’s. The important thing is that they exist in the first place.

JS: Thank you again, Eric. Before we leave you to your writing, do you have a final piece of advice you would like to leave us with?

EB: Just do it. My one regret as a novelist is that I waited 20 years too long to start.

Yes, you will have reservations. Maybe you look at your incoherent shopping list and wonder what makes you think you could ever write a novel. Maybe you read China Meiville and feel your ideas aren’t clever enough. Maybe you’re busy with work, family, or your side business tattooing honey badgers. Whatever. There are a million possible obstacles. But if you wait for the stars to align, you’ll wait forever.

So don’t wait. Write.

 

For other interviews like this, see my Creative Writing Career: Becoming a Writer of Movies, Video Games, and Books. (now in Audiobook!)

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