Video games have gone hand-in-hand with comic books for as long as I can remember. The fans of these two industries seem inextricably linked. There have been many video games based on comic books, and several comic books based on video games (I personally miss "Atari Force"). In addition, video games seem to be a lure for many of the comic industry's "employees." And I don't mean a lure as in a distraction; such as, "the comic book shipped late because the artist was playing 'Doom.'" I mean that many freelancers are drawn to the video game industry by the promise of a paycheck (and some fun!).
Back in the 1990s, it was mostly artists that got sucked into the video game world. Their sense of design made them highly desirable for that industry (and still does). Lately, however, it seems more and more of our industry's writers are plying their trade in the video game business. Paul Jenkins, John Layman, C.B. Cebulski, Jimmy Palmiotti, Brian Bendis and Rick Remender are just a few names that belong to this ever-growing group of moonlighting superstars.
With regards to artists, it's fairly clear why the video game industry would want to steal them away, but what makes our writers so compatible for this line of work? And why does it seem that they are heading there in droves? CBR News spoke with two comic writers who've jumped into the video game work to get their perspectives: John Layman ("Marvel Zombies/Army of Darkness," IDW's "Scarface") and Jimmy Palmiotti ("Jonah Hex," "Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters").
We hope you find this little roundtable as enlightening as we did…
Hey guys, thanks for talking with us today. To begin with, which video games have you written?
John Layman: An upcoming Nintendo Wii game title "TBD" (previously announced as "Project H.A.M.M.E.R."); Konami's "Marvel Trading Card" game; Cabela's "Dangerous Hunts"; "Metroid Hunters" for the DS; "American Choppers II " (dialogue); History Channel's "Civil War" (dialogue); "World Series of Poker" (dialogue).
Jimmy Palmiotti: Just the "Punisher" game and now the "Ghost Rider" game coming out. Not as many as I would like. I think the next one up will be "Painkiller Jane"…that is, I hope so.
How did you get involved with writing video games? Did you know a contact? Did you apply via a website?
Layman: Pure dumb luck. I've been involved in about seven games now, and I didn't "apply" to a damn one. They have all been delivered to me on a red carpet, so I've been unbelievably fortunate that way. It started because I had a friend at Nintendo, who was approached to write a job for a different company. Of course he could not, because he worked at Nintendo, but he said, "Hey, I think my comic book writing friend is available." And that company jumped at the notion of having a comic book writer.
After that, that company reported to my friend's boss at Nintendo I did a good job, which led to Metroid. Meanwhile, the first company, Activision, threw more and more work my way. Eventually, somebody who knew somebody fed my name to Konami, who hired me for the "Marvel Trading Card" game. It's all been unbelievably fortuitous. I wish I could say the same about my comic book career, which has been limping along for almost a decade now.
Palmiotti: My lawyer/agent got a call about the "Punisher" game and they wanted Garth Ennis to write it. Garth never played a game past "Pac-Man" so it was suggested that I become involved, and that was that. I just about play every game out there, when I find the time. The "Ghost Rider" game was given to us by Ames Kirshen (Vice-President of Interactive for Marvel Entertainment) – he figured we did a good job with "Punisher" and "Ghost Rider" seemed like a natural fit.
At what point is the writer brought on board in the creation of the video game? Is it done at the beginning? Or after most of the game is already built?
Layman: It varies from game to game. A couple of the dialogue jobs were done at the very end of the game, providing polish. Others games I was in more on the ground-level, having a say in what should be done on a particular level of the game.
Palmiotti: Totally at the very beginning, for sure – sometimes before a single visual is even worked out, because without the story, there really is no reason to start building the game. It's the spine of the game, and the difference between a crappy game and a good one. It's key to anyone that is a gamer. Comics and games are two totally different worlds, trust me.
What does it mean to "write" a video game? Is it just writing the narration that takes place in between levels? Or do you actually create things that go on in the gameplay?
Layman: Both. It varies from game to game. It's like comics in the way that every project is different. In comics, you have a different relationship with editors and your artists – some you are closer to, some you just deliver a script and wait for the final product. I've done enough games now that I can say there is no one single way it's done.
Palmiotti: You do a level-by-level breakdown after a detailed outline is approved. You create story points and throw ideas into the game that maybe no one else was thinking. A lot of that has been done on both games.
What does a video game script/story look like? And where did you learn how to write in this format?
Layman: It looks a lot like a comic script, though perhaps not as detailed in the "panel description" part. Honestly, nobody ever showed me how to write an official video game script, so I just wrote the way I imagined a video game script should be. And, so far, I've gotten no complaints.
Palmiotti: It's pretty much like a comic script, but broken down a bit differently to mirror game play and level jumps. I went online and looked into the format and researched the hell out of it. It's half of what I do these days, research and buying books. It's a good time really since I enjoy it.
How long did it take you to write your video games?
Layman: It varies. A couple of these dialogue jobs were literally done in two or three days with no sleep, because it required an insane turnaround. Others have taken months on end. Sometimes it stretches out for a very long time, and it's not because it is so much work, but because you have to let game designers and developers catch up to you. That's how my gig at Nintendo currently is. They are working on a game, and fortunately I don't live to far away, so I drive over every week or every other week and do the dialogue for the new stuff.
Palmiotti: They take a half a year or less; then there are revisions and dialogue and so on. It's very time-consuming, that's why it costs so much for the actual games.
How much say does the writer have in what occurs in the game? Does it feel more or less restrictive than writing for comics?
Layman: Much less restrictive. You are a much smaller part of the creative process. Or at least, part of a bigger team. In general, the game companies and game producers know what they want, and I simply deliver it to them as they want it. Sometimes I have an idea, and they say, "Yeah, we can do that," but in general, I'm there to help polish their vision.
Palmiotti: It's a group activity – writers, editors, tech guys and so on – and it's a group that works together to create one vision. Comics are so much easier to do, there is no comparison.
Why do you think so many comic book writers are getting sucked into the video game industry? What makes them a good match for that job?
Layman: The companies I've worked with have been impressed with my ability to visualize pictures with words, which, of course, is a huge aspect of writing comics. A lot of the subject matter is the same, certainly, as is the demographic.
Palmiotti: I think most have not got a clue about the games or how to approach them, and I have seen some pretty lame games with my friends' names on them, so I think the initial promise of the money drags them in at first, but by the end of the game, they were wishing they were doing comics.
I apologize, but time for a crass question here – the video game industry is a multi-million dollar industry. Without getting into specifics, is the pay substantially better than writing comics? Are there any royalties?
Layman: The pay is fantastic – literally seven or eight times the pay of comics for pretty much the same amount of work. That, of course, has been the biggest draw for me. On the other hand, there are not royalties, and your name is in microscopic print in the back of the game booklet. There is something to be said for interacting with people who have been impressed or touched by your work, which is what makes comics so satisfying. Sometimes it ultimately boils down to what you want to feed most: your wallet or you ego. Plus, you have more of a pride of ownership in comics, which is certainly an advantage to working in comics.
Palmiotti: It is and it isn't. For me, the time it takes breaks down to about the same…I am not kidding. There are royalties with some companies, not all – and those are usually much more than comics – if the game ever hits a break even mark. The cool thing about writing the games is going to a place like E3 and getting a lot of attention for what you do. There are actually women that come on to me…not so much in comics, heh.
What did you like most – and least – about writing video games? And would you do it again?
Layman: I'm doing it now, and I don't plan to stop. As I said, it pays a lot of bills that comics don't; at least, at this stage in my comic book career.
Palmiotti: Most – I love to see visually what they can do with the ideas we present them with…the worlds they create and the flow of the actions we ask for. Next is actually playing the game.
Least – Waiting for pay and the group mentality; "things" and details are gone over again and <i> again </i> by many groups of people. Sometimes the best ideas get watered down till they are unrecognizable.
What comic books do you have coming up that our readers might want to know about?
Layman: I've got "Scarface" coming out of IDW, which is a five-issue miniseries with Dave Crosland. I'm doing two more "Xena" four-issue story arcs – Dark Xena and one other which has not been announced. I'm doing "Marvel Zombies/Army of Darkness," from Marvel/Dynamite coming in March. And I have Stephen Colbert's "Tek Jansen," a five-issue miniseries I'm writing with Tom Peyer, coming out of Oni in March.
Palmiotti: A few books actually – "Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters," "Shanna," "Painkiller Jane," "Heroes for Hire," "Jonah Hex," "Friday the 13 th ," "Terra" and so on. A lot of stuff is happening with Justin Gray and I that I can't talk about yet, but announcements are coming. And last, I want to remind people to check out "Painkiller Jane" on Sci-Fi starting in April.