How has Susan O’Connor achieved “pinnacle results” for her students in her online course, “How to write for video games”? As Mirasee’s Danny Iny and Ruzuku’s Abe Crystal found out, it was through her willingness to innovate, iterate, and go with the flow.
Episode summary: These days, video game writers are taking something old - storytelling - and marrying it to something new - technology. In this way, writers are redefining what it means to tell a story in the 21st century, just as screenwriters did in the 20th century. Now more than ever, great games deserve great stories.
In this episode, hosts Danny Iny and Abe Crystal interview Susan O’Connor, the creator of the multifaceted course “How to write for video games.” Susan's been writing for many years and learned everything the hard way, which meant screwing up and mostly screwing up in public. Why should other writers have to go through this hard process, she asked herself? Why not go through a class? So, she created one that’s achieving “pinnacle results” for her students.
In this episode we discuss:
“The digital campfire” model; creating a space for writers to build a community - they LOVE it.
How she constructed the content of the course and its multifaceted structure.
How the TA (teacher assistant) strategy enabled Susan to scale.
What she's charging for her course(s), and why she has class 1 and class 2.
How Susan is able to get her students jobs in the industry.
Danny’s and Abe’s debrief after the interview
“I created a buddy system. I waited a couple of weeks until we'd had a chance to know each other. But I would partner people up so that they could have a go-to person to discuss that week's homework assignment. And then I changed up the buddies every week.” – Susan O’Connor
Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.
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Episode transcript: Writing for Video Games (ft. Susan O’Connor)
[00:00:01] Danny Iny: Mirasee
[00:00:05] Susan O'Connor: I had to learn everything the hard way, which means screwing up and mostly screwing up in public, but I learned and it was great, you know? And so I thought gosh, why should other writers have to go through this hard process? Why why not go through a class? Why can't I just make it easy for them? Okay.
[00:00:25] Danny: Hello and welcome to Course Lab, the show that teaches course creators like you how to make better online courses. I'm Danny, me the founder of Mirasee an education company and I'm here with my co host Abe Crystal, the co founder of Ruzuku. In each episode we're going to showcase of course and horse creator who is doing something really interesting with their course. Our guest today is Susan O'Connor. Susan. Welcome to course Lab.
[00:00:54] Susan: Thanks Danny. I'm thrilled to be here. Hi Abe.
[00:00:58] Abe: Hello there.
[00:00:59] Danny: So let's start at the beginning, Susan. For people who are not familiar with you and your work, who are you, what do you do? How did you come to the world of online courses and what is your course about who does it serve? Give us the give us the whole picture.
[00:01:14] Susan: I am a writer and a teacher and I have a very unusual specialty. I actually for years and years now have been writing scripts and storylines for video games. Which is a lot like writing scripts and stories for movies. But instead of for movies it's for games.
[00:01:32] Danny: Are there some games you've worked on that we might have heard of?
[00:01:35] Susan: Oh yeah I've worked on many, many games. Some of the titles I've worked on include bioshock, worked on that franchise. I worked on Star Wars franchise. I worked on the Tomb raider franchise, Far Cry franchise. When I first started out there was no way to learn how to write for games. It was really sort of the Wild West. It was a lot like being a screenwriter in the thirties where you had this newfangled thing, like, oh, movies, but nobody really understood it. No one really knew how to tell stories with it. I had to learn everything the hard way, which means screwing up and mostly screwing up in public. Like I could certainly point to my portfolio and tell you like, oh, I really, that was a mess and that was a mess. But I learned and it was great, you know, And so I thought, gosh, like, why should other writers have to go through this hard process? Why why not go through a class? Why can't I just make it easy for them?
[00:02:30] Danny: That's really exciting. I mean, congratulations on. It's been a long journey. I've had some visibility into some of the steps along the way. You've really come very far and accomplished a lot. So you should be very proud. You went out into the world into your own industry, into your own niche and created a course. And as is often the case, we found all these interesting innovations that you have come up with and one in particular that I'd love to dig in with with our conversation today is this model that you've created of a digital campfire, First of all, just 30,000 ft. What is that? And where did it come from?
[00:03:06] Susan: So the phrase itself doesn't come from me, A colleague shared a Harvard business with your article About how people in their 20s and 30s are looking for an online experience that isn't like being just one of millions, but they kind of want to be in smaller curated spaces and they called it digital campfires. And like examples would be like roadblocks or discord or Tiktok places where it's not that the Brazilian people are there. Or even if there are a lot of people, they're they're in smaller groups where it feels more human scaled, right? You really feel like you're part of a community, you feel connected. And I thought, gosh, that is what has been happening in my class. And it's not something, I'll be honest, not something I expected. And I didn't plan for it. I spent a lot of time planning my course about the materials and how am I going to teach it. But the community aspect of my class really caught me by surprise and it just blew up. I mean, and I've been thinking about why did this work? So first of all, what did it look like? So one of the ways that look like is me setting up a slack channel, which proceeded to completely blow up like from day one, like these students were just dying to get together and talk about games and they did not wait until our weekly class to do it. They were all over slack sharing links and videos and have you played this? And oh my God, I love that. And people just loved spending time together. And then when we had class, you know, I quickly learned that discussions were essential to this and break out discussions were essential because they just wanted to spend time together and they're also very tech savvy. This is my audiences, writers, professional writers who love games, which means by definition they play games and also just the age range. We're talking about twenties and thirties. So you know, digital natives, gaming natives. So technology is not a barrier to entry. If anything, it's a, it's a place to find your people
[00:05:00] Danny: very cool. So let's talk about the logistics of how this came together. What was the tech stack underlying all of this?
[00:05:09] Susan: I love the phrase tech stack. It suggests that there was some organizational principles behind this. I would call it more of a tech jumble. It literally there's a lot of trying things partly coming from me and partly suggestions from students. So just to sort of run through the menu, I set up a slack channel, which I will be honest for people who are listening that have audiences that are kind of in my age range. I would suggest using discord because a lot of students have told me like slack is great, but it really reads as work time and discord is much more of a sort of, again, it's more of a campfire field and they're there all the time anyway. Like they go on slack for a purpose. Like I've got to go check and see what's going on, but they keep discord going on all the time in the background to stay in touch with their fence. So that's a big part of it. Of course zoom, you know, God bless zoom. I also used a technology called Voicethread. I don't know if you're familiar with that.
[00:06:05] Susan: So it's a, I think their tagline is how to have interesting conversations around media. And so the idea is that you can upload intro to a video game and then I can record, I have options of either adding it through like chat bubbles or I can just do a voice over and I can sort of narrate what's going on and point to things that I want the students to see and appreciate. And also the students themselves can add comments whether it's audio or video or its text, but it creates a way to have an asynchronous conversation looking at a game, which is where a lot of the learning really happened for a lot of people.
[00:06:44] Abe: Were there other keys as well? Like what else do you think made your digital campfire experience takeoff? Whereas in some courses that we see, there are attempts to get a community going and you know, it never really clicks. You see a slack that is not very active, just a question here and there or a discussion forum that's full of tumbled what was, what was special about your digital campfire experience that got it rolling. In addition to people having this kind of strong common interest,
[00:07:17] Susan: it's a great question. First of all, I knew all I had taken the time to meet all the students individually and then probably more importantly, they knew me right? Like all teachers, I set the tone and I am one of them almost sensitive, creative. And so I naturally place a high priority on creating a space where everyone feels comfortable, you know, in generative and collaborative. And then I think I also made an effort of trying to connect people that I thought would would hit it off right? Like created a buddy system. I waited a couple of weeks until we've had a chance to know each other. But I I would partner people up so that they could have a go to person to discuss that week's homework assignment. And then I changed up the buddies uh Duos every week. And so I think there was this real sense and I heard this over and over again of just how people felt like, oh my God, my people here you are. I found you, you know, I've created a winds channel on slack because a lot of my students have gone on to get jobs in the industry, like they're either their first job or they finally transitioned into the writing department. You know, they want to celebrate their winds with each other. They feel like there winds have happened because of the group and that's, that's really amazing to see.
[00:08:36] Abe: What would you say to someone who says like, you know, but I want to scale, right? I don't want to turn down the person who found the sales page and signed up. In fact, I want, you know, hundreds or thousands of people find the sales page and signing up without talking to me. Do you think that like, you can have a digital campfire or a community experience at that scale? Or does it have to be a kind of small, more, you know, personalized experience where you're vetting every student and sort of curating a cohort of people who are going to be a consent for each other.
[00:09:08] Susan: I have to say. I think there's a cap to this. I think scaling is possible also by the way, you know, bringing in THS for example like my past students might come in, I might hire them, you know, to be kind of ta for like a section of the class. And so that becomes kind of a teacher proxy, you know, so we create little groups of campfires possibly. But this is all something I'm exploring right now and I do think that there's a there's a cap I think. But what how big that are, how high up until you hit that, that cat that's kind of T. V. D.
[00:09:41] Abe: I guess. Let's talk about that today strategy because that's important I think and very relevant for people. So how did you come up with the t. Idea? How did you implement that and what we're kind of the benefits and challenges of working with the T. A.
[00:09:56] Susan: Well to be honest it was just it was serendipity truly. I mean in retrospect I can't believe I didn't intentionally make this happen. I teach a class at the University of texas at Austin. So I have graduates who have gone through that course and one of them, well a few of them have stayed in touch with me and one in particular Jack, he just reached out to me and he just said hey you know here's what I've been doing since college and blah blah blah. And I realized that he had a lot of the skills. So it just started off very organically, like, hey, I'd love you to audit my class and maybe you could help with, you know, a little bit here and there. And then as the, as the pilot evolved his responsibilities grew, he became a tremendous 2nd voice on the slack channel when I was not around teaching ain't easy y'all. Like he would help me think through what I was going to teach and kind of give me a second set of eyes and then he could give me a reality check because he was in the class, right? He's like, ok from the student's perspective, here's what I think really worked and having that extremely tight feedback loop every week, just made the class better with every week that passed. I can't do it without him. So you know, it takes a village and he's a big part of that village.
[00:11:13] Danny: Susan, I want to ask about kind of business model viability. I mean we're talking about a lot of individual attention and screaming and having a T A. Can you share like what are you charging for this course? Just so people have a sense of like do the margins work and all that
[00:11:29] Susan: so this could evolve, but this is the current plan. So You know, my full course, I'm going to cap it at 40 students and the price is 999 and I'm planning to launch at least twice a year, possibly three times. So you know, that's That's 120,000 a year, which is, you know, not bad. And actually I have two levels of course is right Class one is sort of designed to kick start people's game writing career. It opens the door, right, it gets them in the door into the studio. And then the second class is designed to help them really thrive in that role. Like, Okay, you've got the job now what? But um you know, this isn't a class that I think lends itself to like thousands of people and it just runs on automatic. I'm not at that place where I want to do that. There may come a time when I do want to sort of make it less of a campfire and more of just a plug and play. But right now truly guys, the community feels like the heart of the campfire is where the magic is happening.
[00:12:31] Abe: one of things we emphasize a lot is the importance of outcome focused course designed. So you of course helps people get to results that are meaningful for them in the context of what they're trying to achieve in their life and their work as opposed to just provide them information basically. And it it sounds like one of things that was interesting here is that your community was able to actually help people with their ultimate outcome, which in this case was getting gates right, like getting opportunities to write professionally in the industry. So you mentioned that before, I'd like to hear a little bit more about that. How did that come about? What was special about the community in terms of helping people find opportunities and and you know, what was the impact there on your students?
[00:13:19] Susan: I'll share tangible outcomes, I'll share, kind of intangible and then I'll talk about the process like how it happened. So tangible for sure is like having a portfolio right? This class had homework and it had deadlines and it had accountability buddies. So people did the work and through doing the work, they developed portfolio pieces, right? And the confidence, like a I have a portfolio piece. B I feel good about it because other people have looked at it and said it's good and you know, and then we're able to get a riding positions. I have one writer who used to be used to write for the onion. So he's more of a comedy writer and he is writing for his first game for actually a studio in Belgium. They contacted me saying, hey, do you know anybody who's a good comedy writer? And I was like, well as a matter of fact I do and now he's got that job. And then the more personal things were definitely, confidence was a big one for a lot of people like, yes, I can do this. Yes, I'm good enough. Gosh, darn it. People grew in their skills, they helped each other grow. So that brings us to how this happened and this is a testimony to them completely. So we had a jobs channel in our slack and people shared job listings and helped each other think through how to apply. Nobody felt like they were competing with anybody else for jobs because they recognized and I pointed it out to them and they saw it in each other that everyone had kind of a unique thing to offer, right? And even when they both were multiple people applied for the same job, They were genuinely happy if one of them got it, there wasn't the sense of competition or scarcity. They really went to bat for each other and I was able to help too.
Danny: Very [00:15:01] cool. Yeah. Susan. I can imagine someone listening to this and thinking this sounds super complicated. I mean you've got your curriculum, you've got your T. A. S. You got your teaching, you've got your discussions, you've got the campfires which sounds really complicated from a tech standpoint and the culture and your screening people. What would you say to someone who is like staring down the barrel of all this complexity and just feeling a little bit overwhelmed?
[00:15:25] Susan: Well Danny as you know, I'm the queen of overwhelmed, nobody knows how to get overwhelmed like me, I do. So I would say get somebody on your side to walk you through this step by step and it does sound overwhelming when you say it but honestly it's been a lot of work. I'm not going to lie like a lot of work but it never felt like overwhelming work. It just felt like hard work that was finite, right? Like the pilot was hard work but now I've learned so much and now I'm ready to kind of replicate it and replicating something is very different from starting from scratch, even if I'm improving right? It's a revision. It's not a first draft. So I think it is not something people should try on their own, that's for sure. But if you get the right person in your corner, you know, there's no telling what you can do.
[00:16:18] Danny: Susan O'Connor is a working game writer who teaches aspiring game writers how to break into the industry. You can find out more about her classes at Susan O'Connor writer dot com. That's Susan O C O N N O R writer dot com. Uh huh.
[00:16:46] Danny: All right Abe. So now my favorite part of the show, we get to just debrief and chat a little bit kind of like we frankly do offline all the time when we're talking about courses except now there is a microphone, what jumped out to you as interesting or noteworthy about what Susan shared with us,
[00:17:04] Abe: wow, okay, there was a lot to unpack here because there's so much going on in Susan's course, I'd say at the high level, the big things for me is that this is again, we, we talk a lot about the importance of designing for outcomes, designing for results, helping your students get results. This is the drum that we're constantly beating, but it's not always easy to show, like, really clear examples of how that works and how powerful real world results can be from, of course. So in Susan's example of being able to actually help people get jobs and contracts and advance their career, it's almost like the pinnacle, you know, of, of results you can achieve for any kind of career or industry oriented, of course. So, in terms of beginning with the end in mind, you know, to me that that's very inspiring. Um and it was also really interesting the methods she used to achieve that outcome.
[00:18:04] Danny: What do you think of that? I mean community and cohort based learning experiences. This this is your jam.
[00:18:09] Abe: Yeah. So like communities become this total buzzword, right? Everyone is talking about online community, building a community around your brand and it's great that it's getting this attention. But the problem is actually creating a cohesive online community around the course is not at all easy. And so you see many, many courses that just have a discussion forum or have a facebook group tacked on and there's not really a sense of community at best. There's just kind of sporadic questions. And so what Susan's kind of example points to I think is what does it look like to build authentic and more meaningful community for people in the context of an online course? Mm Yeah. And her example shows that it is achievable. The bad news is that it does take a lot of work and it also takes having a focus for your course where your students have a very strong common bond which I think is actually a very important take away because if you want to create a learning community around your course, it's not going to be effective to have a very broad mandate or you know, scope for you're trying to attract into the course. One of the reasons Susan was able to have such a cohesive community, is she specifically attractive people who want to write for video games in a professional context. That is a extremely well defined kind of customer profile or avatar for her course And these people had as she talked about just so much in common, right? They had a lot of common demographically, but they just lived this culture of gaining together. And so that instantly created a comfortable sort of baseline to jumpstart the community. Whereas if you're bringing in people with, you know, very different demographics, experiences, context and goals and to of course it's going to take much more effort to get that too. Mhm. It really gets back to the idea of do things that don't scale right. She didn't try to build a course that was immediately going to be, you know, hundreds of people just going through a bunch of videos on their own. She was very intentional about doing this with smaller groups where she was vetting each person, making sure they were a good fit for the community and communicating with them one on one, not just throwing them into a slack channel. So these are, I think a really important strategies for anyone who wants to build a meaningful community is make sure you have a clear focus. So you're bringing people with a common interests who are gonna be able to bond and support each other and then making sure that you've mapped out your role as a facilitator to really guide people into the community and nurture it from nothing into something that is meaningful and self sustaining.
[00:21:09] Danny: Yeah, I really like the awareness that yes, there was a good tech stack selected. You know, she was working with zoom and she had slack and she was like a discord and it's good to have that. But you really had a keen understanding that the real driver isn't the technology, it's the care and attention and curation that goes into the culture we've seen, working with a lot of online course creators that when you start with really a carefully curated and well tended to culture, You learn how to scale it. So it's very hard when you're kind of looking at your first enrollment of a dozen people and then looking ahead to 40, it's like, how does that get to 400? You know, you don't have your, your first five students yet and you're already thinking about what can I build it will work with 500.
[00:21:52] Abe: Yeah. You have to get those learnings at each step in the process. For sure.
[00:21:56] Danny: Something I also really appreciated is really Susan approached this with a very, very adaptable open go with the flow kind of attitude in terms of let's see what emerges, let's see what people need and then, you know, okay, that's what people need, that's what's emerging as valuable and resident, let's really lean into that. There's a certain amount of adaptability and kind of thinking on your feet. I think that is very important in developing and cultivating a successful course that Susan is really exemplified here.
[00:22:27] Abe: Yeah, I think that's partly where people get stuck in a way is feeling that everything has to be planned out in advance and plant out in a way that will scale right? So like something again, we talked about a lot is kind of wrong way to go about designing your courses. Thinking about, okay, I'm gonna credit course that 1000 people are gonna be able to take, you know, completely independently on their own. I'm not going to be talking with them at all, and I'm also going to plan out and create every detail of that kind of perfect self study course experience completely in advance. And I just leaves you completely down the wrong path because you're not getting those insights from working with small, very personally with small groups of students that then lead to these opportunities for innovation right? It was by working with small groups of students that Susan discovered the idea of having a buddy system. It's how she discovered the idea of bringing in A T. A. That turned out to be transformational for how she created the course, you know, week to week and made the content really relevant for students Mattel. She discovered how impactful the community could be for helping people get projects and get jobs coming out of the course. Like all these learnings would never have happened if she had tried to like script out and create this perfect like quote unquote passive video course completely in advance.
[00:23:57] Danny: It's also interesting that actually most of the ingredients for scalability are already there right. Once you have a T. A structure and a ratio of students to ta you know, you can have as many students as you want. As long as you get the right corresponding number of to the same thing, like a buddy system scales for as many students as you want, as long as there is an even number of them, even the campfires would probably work very successfully with some kind of a cell division into pods as it grows to a larger scale. So, but again, you know, you can't pre plan that you really have to see how it grows and what emerges in order to kind of see how it plays out. Again, that speaks to really the mindset, you need to create successful courses. You can't wait until it's all figured out and then go because then you you never move,
[00:24:43] Abe: it sounds like that didn't necessarily come to her naturally as well, either, right? That that was, you know, a learning curve and initially very uncomfortable for Susan that that was how she had to facilitate the course for it to be successful. So for anyone listening to if that feels very unnatural, right that you're going into it in this more exploratory and iterative fashion. Like no, that Susan, even though she had these incredible successes that was initially uncomfortable for her as well.
[00:25:20] Danny: Do you want to read us out?
[00:25:20] Abe: Course Lab was produced by Cynthia Lamb with support from Michi Lantz and Geoff Govertsen. Danny Iny is our Executive producer. Big, big thanks to Susan O'Connor for taking the time to share her successes and challenges regarding the course. Again, you find out more about her classes at Susan O'Connor writer dot com. That's Susan O'Connor writer dot com.
And if you yearn to say I made it, you'll definitely want to listen to Mirasee's new podcast. Making it. In each episode, a successful entrepreneur will share what making it means to them and what they've learned along the way. You certainly don't want to miss what is to come this season on course lab. So please subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify or whatever you're listening right now. And if you like the show, please leave us a review. It's the best way to help us get these ideas out to more people. Yeah, again, I'm Abe Crystal co-founder of Ruzuku here with Danny Iny, CEO of Mirasee and you've been listening to Course Lab.
[00:26:31] Susan: So can I listen in while you and Abe chat or should I just wait for the podcast to come out?
[00:26:35] Danny: You've got to wait for the podcast come out.