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August 9, 2013 / minusbar

Guest Post+Giveaway: Jason M. Hough, author of The Darwin Elevator

Thoughts from a Game Designer turned Novelist

By Jason M. Hough

SKILL: Author (requires Writer 6, Language 5, Patience 9)

People often ask… hold on a second. Often, Jason?  Yes, granted I’ve only been a published author for one week, but the question of how my career in game development has influenced, informed, or affected my writing has come up a few times. A definitive post on the topic seems in order. Ready? Okay!


First, a quick history:  I first entered the game industry as a 3D artist / animator in 1995 or so. I was pretty good at it, but not great, and the small studio where I worked couldn’t afford to have one so-so artist on a two-artist staff. Luckily, they saw a nascent game design skill in me. I’d been playing games since age 10, I could articulate my thoughts on game mechanics, and thanks to my 3D experience I was well suited to handle level design tasks in an industry that was just starting to get into real-time 3D graphics. I also had a bit of programming experience, which meshed well with their desire to have more aspects of their games created via a simple scripting language rather than requiring deep source code manipulation.

Long story short, I moved from 3D Animator to Game Designer fairly quickly, and spent the next eight years in that role.


Before I talk about game design, let’s cover the art aspect. My stint in the graphics department did actually help my eventual-writer-self. As a videogame artist you must be able to verbally describe what you’re going to create. Often this is just to explain to the lead artist what you plan to do, but sometimes you find yourself offering ideas to the VP of engineering or a producer from the publisher’s office. The keys to success are to know your audience and use the simplest terms possible. Be accurate so there’s little risk of misinterpretation, but know you’ll also benefit from choosing evocative words. Stoke the imagination, force them to picture something amazing, and they’re more likely to be excited about the project. It’s one thing to say you plan to add a “scary pig” to the game. It’s another thing entirely if you say, “a wild boar the size of a grizzly bear, with blood-red tusks the size of your arm, glowing yellow eyes, and a barbed tail so sharp it leaves scratches in the asphalt as it chases the player around.” Not only does this paint a better picture, it actually helps move the game development process along. A programmer might instantly dismiss the barbed tail leaving scratches because of the overhead required for stenciling scratch-mark sprites onto the playing surface (this was 1999 or so, remember). That’s a good thing! Your accurate description up front caught this problem before it ever became a real production headache, and provided an opportunity to brainstorm an equally menacing, if easier to code, alternative.

So, being an artist on a creative team forced me to learn how to use words to describe visuals. As a writer, the ability to think in terms of visuals is very handy.


Game design was much more applicable to writing, though. Well, not writing per say, but the up front planning that goes into a novel. In preparing to write The Darwin Elevator I drew maps, wrote up treatments for each character, and – perhaps most importantly – outlined the story. That outline was very similar to a game design document. I wrote it in such a way that, in theory, someone else could have picked it up and wrote the novel. It was incredibly detailed at over 9000 words, with multiple paragraph synopses for each chapter. I did this because that’s what I knew: make it so detailed that it leaves as little room for mistakes as possible come the start of development (or writing, in this case).


And so it was that I quickly learned which aspects of my game design background to leave behind. That 9000 word outline? I hardly referenced it after the first few weeks, because I found that it drained much of the creativity out of the writing process (and now I know why the programmers and artists I worked with usually didn’t bother to reference the game design doc). Over the last few years I’ve refined my approach to something much more compact, which allows me to know where my story is going while still giving me joy of coming up with the details when I write. I’ve borrowed what I learned from the game design world and kept only the portions I need for writing novels. Namely, the value of a solid plan.


Aspiring writers take note: There’s no right or wrong way to go about your craft. You may find my approach above to work well for you. Or you may just as easily want no plan at all, or something more like my 9000 word plan. Take all writing advice with an open mind and the confidence to know you can ditch something if it doesn’t work for you.


Final note on “game designer turned writer”: There’s another aspect, perhaps less obvious, that helped me become a published novelist. While in the game business I worked on eight games that made it to store shelves, and at least as many that were cancelled at some stage of development. Eight times I went through the process of taking an idea and seeing it all the way through to store shelves. I worked with agents, producers, testers, cover artists and consultants. I talked to the press, did interviews, and more often that not had to suffer through harsh reviews and even angry consumers. On a brighter note I still have fans to write to me today, a decade later. The point is, I had at least some idea of what to expect when my writing career transitioned from a solitary endeavor to being part of what is, in reality, quite an impressively large creative team.


Jason M. Hough (pronounced ‘Huff’) is a former 3D Artist and Game Designer (Metal Fatigue, Aliens vs. Predator: Extinction, and many others).  Writing fiction became a hobby for him in 2007 and quickly turned into an obsession.  He started writing THE DARWIN ELEVATOR in 2008 as a Nanowrimo project, and kept refining the manuscript until 2011 when it sold to Del Rey along with a contract for two sequels.  The trilogy, collectively called THE DIRE EARTH CYCLE, will be released in the summer of 2013.

Buy Links: 

The Darwin Elevator

The Exodus Tower

The Plague Forge


If you’re not already won over to reading “The Darwin Elevator,” check out my review of the title here! One of the better Sci-fi books I’ve read in a good while!



Open only to US & Canada residences! All entries must be submitted by no later than August 16th 12am EST.

Here are the ways you can earn a chance to  win:

1. Leave a comment on this post!

2. Head over to and like us on facebook!

3. Earn an entry for following Jason M. Hough on twitter: @JasonMHough

4. Earn an entry for following me on twitter: @Master_Pastry

Please let me know which of these things you’ve done on a comment on either Facebook or the page! Thanks, and good luck!


A huge thank you to Jason M. Hough for taking the time to share his insights! Also, thanks again to the readers. Should there be any authors who you are interested in hearing from, please feel free to share in the comments.


A Daily Dose of R&R



One Comment

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  1. Heather J. @ TLC / Aug 9 2013 10:36 pm

    I LOVE this: “SKILL: Author (requires Writer 6, Language 5, Patience 9)”

    Great guest post! Thanks for being a part of the tour.

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