Back in 2006, rumors were swirling about Apple’s new iPhone, but most of us were still carrying around clamshell phones or old-school BlackBerrys. A handful of kids had their hands on T-Mobile’s new Sidekick, which came with a hidden QWERTY keyboard to make texting faster but without a decent handheld device to actually support gameplay, video games were still reserved for console systems.
One company out of France focused entirely on mobile games, with a vision that U.S. gamers would quickly adopt the platform. Gameloft (now a subsidiary of Vivendi) first began in 2000 by Michel Guillemot, who is one of five brothers that founded videogame developer and publisher Ubisoft.
Gameloft hired me, and between 2006-2012, I wrote over 150 mobile video games for the publisher. Mobile gameplay was limited in those early days, but by 2008, the iPhone 3G became available and the App Store was born. Developers were scrambling to release titles for $5 a pop, and consumers gobbled them up, all to feed a growing addiction of gaming on the go.
The journey back
In the summer of 2006, I was living in Los Angeles but making plans to move back east. I was overeducated, with a Masters of Fine Arts from Columbia University in Screenwriting and over $175,000 of student loan debt. While my old college friends were becoming VPs, I was stuffing ASCAP paperwork into file cabinets at the now defunct Sony Connect, the online music store that was attempting to compete with a new Apple venture called iTunes.
A vice president in Sony’s marketing department recognized my creative skills and took me under his wing. I subsequently earned copywriting experience there and then built a small freelance business on the side. It felt like I discovered a gold mine. I was finally getting paid to write, and I had so many projects that I had to turn some clients away; this was a dream.
Based on my online portfolio, Gameloft hired me sight-unseen as a full-time copywriter. I moved back to New York City and began writing just about everything: advertorials, sales collateral, game titles, and game descriptions. One day, a French game designer in the office approached me in search of a native English-speaking writer to work on a new game set that was intended to be a cross between Big Brother and American Idol.
Here’s the thing: I was not a gamer. Sure, I was an ’80s kid so I had played Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Haunted House on my Atari 2600. I also had a brief stint in college when I became unhealthily addicted to Nanosaur on my mom’s iMac, but all of this was ages ago. I didn’t even own a console system. Half of me thought I had no business writing a game, but I understood storytelling, and I was a pop culture aficionado, so I happily obliged and said I would write the game during my downtime.
Adapting to a new format
Once I started writing, however, I quickly discovered a major roadblock. I had been trained to write in screenwriting format, and because every piece of text for the game would be sent to a programmer, I had to keep all text in an Excel spreadsheet. My brain was programmed to visualize scenes in a very particular format: scene heading, action, character name, parenthetical, and dialogue. Other than my narrative fiction projects, I had written in this same format since I was in high school.
Dialogue is centered on the page which allows me to hear its rhythm. I follow the cadence of story beats in scripts because of how the action is laid out on the page. But here I was, forced to write everything in boxy cells.
Cells were eventually broken out into different tabs by the programmer and before I knew it, my dialogue for single scenes was divided between several tabs. If I needed to make an edit, I’d have to play the half-done game to follow along and then find the appropriate cell somewhere in the spreadsheet. I also had to keep careful track of the character count in each cell to avoid making the player click a phone key to read the remainder of dialogue on a screen.
Everything became formulaic and for a moment, the creativity I once associated with screenwriting fell by the wayside. I plowed through and managed to finish writing the game which we called American Popstar. A top reporter at IGN gave it a glowing review and called out its “whip-smart writing.” The game went on to win several industry awards and soon after, Gameloft offered me a full-time position as the company’s first full-time game writer.
It took a move back from Los Angeles to New York City to finally get a job in screenwriting. The world works in mysterious ways.
Gameloft eventually grew its writing staff to a team of five. All of us had MFAs in screenwriting from either Columbia University or NYU. We understood narrative, could speak the same language, and finally had the chance to apply our expensive degrees to something of tangible value.
We built this city
A year later, the iPhone brought new types of gameplay possibilities and attracted millions of new players, many of whom had never played a video game before. With its mobile-only vision, Gameloft soared to the top and pushed hundreds of new games into development.
For the next five years, I had the opportunity to work on some amazing iPhone games for studios around the world, including Oregon Trail, Iron Man, CSI: NY, Castle of Magic, Cops, and 9mm – the latter of which included an obnoxious amount of cuss words and violence that I was secretly quite proud of penning. For Sherlock Holmes: The Official Movie Game, I listened to the movie in my headphones over and over again while I was writing the script so I could channel Robert Downey Jr.’s speech patterns. As the only woman on the team, I was also the go-to writer for games intended for girls. Yes, I wrote a Twilight-inspired video game called Vampire Romance and several romantic strategy games, including Date or Ditch, Paris Nights, and High School Hook Ups. Seducing love interests with sexual innuendos and escaping bullies became my M.O.
That is… until Zynga popped.
In 2009, Zynga’s Farmville became the most popular game on Facebook, a platform that was quickly overshadowing mobile. Players grew various crops and enlisted their Facebook friends to help improve and manage their farms. The game was very addictive and for publishers, social simulation and city building quickly became the new recipe for success.
By 2011, virtually every single game in development at Gameloft fell within the city building genre. The only aspect that changed between titles was the environment. Players could grow their own space colonies or transform tropical islands into bustling metropolises. Gameplay was repetitive but players didn’t seem to mind, and publishers took notice.
It was clear that the world of mobile gaming had changed, and there was literally no endgame in sight. My task of coming up with exciting narratives continued but with monotonous gameplay, I struggled to maintain my enthusiasm and eventually made the decision to return to marketing as my day job. The city building genre’s popularity in mobile eventually died down. Zynga had its ups and downs and in 2015, Gameloft shut down several of its development studios including the New York City one where I worked.
I have no regrets. The volume of game scripts that I drafted under strict deadlines truly exercised my writing muscles, and I’m a better writer now because of it. Divulging my past life as a mobile game writer is also an amazing conversation starter.
Tammy Blythe Goodman is a PR and marketing communications professional. Follow her on Twitter @gooblythe.