Hi, David! At DragonCon this year there was a panel on Game Writing with Ann Lemay and Ian Frazier, and Ian mentioned that a game writer and a narrative designer weren't the same. Could you elaborate?
There is no real standard when it comes to game development terminology—particularly not when it applies to the names given to specific roles. It will vary from one company to the next, though there are certain trends.
One such trend is the growing reference to the “narrative designer”, as opposed to the “game writer”. Even so, what’s considered the latter and what’s considered the former will vary depending on who you ask. Sometimes they’re identical, sometimes they’re not. My impression is that it largely depends on how much writing the dev team in question actually does.
In general, however? My impression is that a narrative designer actually constructs (or helps construct) the game’s story. They decide what happens, help design the quest/mission arcs, or simply have a much greater level of input overall in the narrative flow for the game. A game writer’s responsibility more lies in the actual implementation of that design—they write the dialogue and text, but may not have much input in what they’re writing… in some cases, they may even be called in to do the writing after all the design work is done.
A narrative designer might not actually do any writing. One could conceivably design the narrative and hand it off to a game writer. See the difference?
At BioWare, what we call “writers” do both—to varying degrees, according to their individual talents and/or experience. A Lead Writer or a Senior Writer is going to have a much bigger role in narrative design, particularly for the game as a whole, as opposed to someone with less experience who may be designing the narrative for a single quest arc or do no narrative design at all (though that’s rare—generally the idea is for them to at least take part in the design even if they don’t spearhead it, in the interest of teaching them how it’s done).
That is, however, specific to BioWare, and is a workflow which was necessary to develop simply because we have a large writing team. Other teams might have fewer writers, writers who also fill other roles at the same time, or who are even outsourced. So it’s not a question that can be answered definitively, and is always an issue when writers from many dev teams get together at conventions like GDC. Someone can hold a panel on writing, and you may attend only to discover it has little or no relevance to how you personally operate. Sometimes there’s an effort to standardize the terminology, to make communication easier, but in my experience that’s always had limited effect.