Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Posts Tagged ‘Game designer interview’

One shot: Drew Clowery interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on January 6, 2010

Current lead game designer for Flying Lab Software, Drew Clowery talks about his professional background in the gaming industry, his current hobbies and favorite pastimes, including sleeping on couches, and what advice he has for those hoping to get into the video game industry.

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If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind discussing your background in the game industry?

Sure, I got started in the computer game industry in December of 2001 when I was hired as a Customer Service Representative at Mythic Entertainment for the MMORPG Dark Age of Camelot. At the time I was just looking for a full time job, and as an avid MMO player, the thought of turning one of my hobbies into full time employment sounded great, but not nearly as good as the regular paycheck and medical benefits that came with it (Mythic treated their Customer Service people very well at the time, I don’t know if this is still the case).

In the year I worked at Mythic I learned a lot, but I think the most valuable lesson I learned was that the guys who made this game were nothing special. I mean they were smart, talented people, but they weren’t magic. I was a smart, talented guy, I could do what they did. I also learned that I needed to know a whole lot more about the technical side of software development, and so in January of 2003, I left to go back to school.

I spent about a year in community college before heading off to Full Sail in Orlando Florida. Full Sail is a private, for profit college, accredited as a technical school. There are people who have really strong feelings about whether or not for profit colleges are valid institutions of learning, and whether or not Full Sail in particular is a good school. You could write a book on the topic, or at least a long blog post, but I’ll tell you my take away: I learned a ton at Full Sail, because I applied myself and worked hard. It was the right school for me, for where I was in my life, but I wouldn’t recommend it to kids coming right out of high school.

After Full Sail I moved home and slept on my parents couch for 8 months before I landed a job at Flying Lab Software. Once here I spent almost two years as a Game Systems Designer on Pirates of the Burning Sea, before moving on to be Lead Designer of Upper Deck U.

How did you get on with Flying Lab Software?

It was fall of 2006, I was living in Virginia, sleeping on my parents couch, and unemployed. I’d been looking for a job for 8 months without success, and I’d come to the conclusion that no one was going to hire me from across the country for an entry level job. I’d spoken to a hiring rep for Blizzard at GDC and he’d strongly implied that if I lived in L.A. I’d have an interview for a Game Master job at Blizzard immediately. They needed experienced GMs badly, and I had experience as a GM.

I’d made the decision to move out to L.A. and start looking for a job, hopefully something in Game Design, but with a willingness to fall back to being a Game Master if it got me into the industry. I had called a buddy from college who lived in L.A. and he agreed to let me stay on his couch for a couple of weeks. I cashed in the last of my savings, said my goodbyes and started packing.

The week I was supposed to leave I saw a job posting on the Flying Lab website for an entry level Game Designer come open. I decided there and then that I was going to make a detour on my way to L.A. I put together a cover letter and resume and sent it in. I told them I was leaving for Seattle tomorrow, and asked them to please interview me when I got there. When I told my World of Warcraft guild about the change in plans a couple of my guildmates, who I had never met in real life, piped up and insisted I stay with them when I got to Seattle. The next morning I left for Seattle.

I stopped to visit family in Chicago over the weekend, then continued on to Seattle the next week. In Wyoming I got an e-mail from Flying Lab with a written design test, I spent an extra day at the motel there to write the test, proof read it, and send it back. I arrived in Seattle that Friday night, spent the weekend with my guildmates (I would end up sleeping on their couch for three weeks before I found my own place, talk about kind hearted people). Monday I got an e-mail scheduling an interview for Tuesday afternoon, I interviewed Tuesday, and got an offer letter Wednesday night. I started the following Monday.

What has been your involvement with Pirates of the Burning Sea?

I was a Game Systems Designer on Pirates of the Burning Sea for about 2 years. Shortly after I was brought on board I was given the Avatar Combat system. When I was given the Avatar Combat system I was still extremely junior, far too junior in fact. What I couldn’t see at the time was that the system was not, despite what I was being told, fully implemented. Further, the design I had taken over was not a complete system, but rather a system that was built as a living argument for features that had already been cut. Obviously this put me in a pretty tough situation.

When I stepped in to Avatar Combat I was told “the system’s done, you just need to make the skills,” which aside from being factually untrue is like saying “we’re done with WoW’s combat system, you just need to make all the spells, combat abilities, and talents. You have a month.” I death marched from December 2006 through March of 2007 trying to get the Avatar Combat system into something resembling a working order. Unfortunately I ran into the problem that what we really needed to do was finish implementing the system. I attempted to do this through clever use of data driven scripts, but the results were not good.

I would continue to focus primarily on the Avatar Combat system until after Pirates shipped, when I briefly worked on the Skirmish system (writing the first draft of the spec), before moving on to the Upper Deck project. I worked on a lot of other, smaller projects on Pirates, but my time was dominated by Avatar Combat. The system was wholly ripped out and replaced less than a year after launch (something that should have been done long before launch).

Would you be able to talk a little bit about the game you are currently working on for Flying Lab?

I can’t talk about the game I’m currently working on, but I can talk about the game I was recently working, Upper Deck U. Upper Deck U is a casual kids MMO, targeted at 8 to 12 year old boys. It was conceived primarily as a marketing device for the sports trading cards of the Upper Deck company. A complete post mortem on the Upper Deck project is a task for another space (and something I hope to make the subject of a conference talk) but the short version is: the project did not have enough grounding in reality and we suffered severe communications issues with our client.

How would you say this game differs from other MMOs targeting younger players like Free Realms?

Well size and scope to begin with. Free Realms is a huge triple A title, Upper Deck U was a small casual ad game. Polish for another, Free Realms is a highly polished game, Upper Deck U, not so much. But the one place where we win, hands down, is this: no client download. There are certain magical phrases that will allow you to get the attention of MMO executives, and these phrases change over time. Right now, one of those phrases is “no client download.” Upper Deck U was a game with no client download, and that’s pretty huge.

Would you mind taking a minute and talking a little bit about your own gaming background (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

Sure, I’m a giant gaming nerd. I learned to read in order to play D&D. I had some older friends (they were in 3rd grade, quite the old men to a six year old), who promised they would let me play with them if I could read the rulebook by myself. I went straight from “see spot run” to red box D&D, with a whole lot of bothering my mother about what words meant in between. I played Chess, Shogun, Axis and Allies, Risk, and Strat-o-matic Baseball with my father and god father.

When I was a teenager I practically lived in a Games Workshop store, until Magic: the Gathering came out, when I moved to practically living in the card shop. At that store I learned Settlers of Catan, Nuclear War, Twilight Imperium, Titan, and about a dozen others I only half remember. Plus every weekend we played some role playing game or another, Rifts when we were younger, then Vampire and the rest of the World of Darkness when we were angst ridden teens.

On the electronic side I got a Nintendo when I was 8, but I was never a super heavy console player. My sister and I used to drive each other nuts playing Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo, and my buddies and I would often play console games waiting for the weekly RPG to start, or after it had wrapped up, but outside of that, I was mostly a PC gamer. On the PC my games of choice were always strategy: Civilization II, Alpha Centauri, Master of Magic.

Not long after Everquest came out I had a friend who got me hooked and ever since I’ve been an MMO addict. I’ve played Everquest, Everquest II, Dark Age of Camelot, and World of Warcraft extensively, but I’ve dabbled in City of Heroes, Horizons, Warhammer, Vanguard, and probably a half dozen other freebies I can’t recall off the top of my head.

Assuming you’re still a gaming enthusiast, what are you playing these days?

Work has been really busy the last couple of months, so my play time has been limited, so these days my game time is restricted to my bi-weekly pen and paper group (currently playing Shadowrun 4th edition), my weekly poker night, and a little bit of Magic the Gathering: online here and there. I’ve really found I enjoy Magic: Online quite a bit, especially the draft formats. They take out the “buy your way to victory” aspect of magic I’ve always disliked, and I have a lot of fun playing them.

I’ve gotten pretty serious out playing poker, my weekly game isn’t exactly nosebleed stakes, but it’s not nickel and dime either. The guys there are all very serious about their poker, and it’s a very competitive environment. We play every week, and one to two weekends a month, so that’s a pretty serious game outlet for me. I also occasionally do a trip out to a casino or a Magic tournament with some of those guys (the crossover, both in players and skill set, between Magic and Poker is astounding).

I also play an occasional bout of Counter Strike or Team Fortress 2 if I feel like a little ultra violence, and I fire up a round of Civilization IV about once a quarter. I’ve honestly been missing MMO gaming recently, but I just haven’t had the time to spend on one. I’ve been thinking about trying out WoW’s new group matchmaking system, but I haven’t taken the plunge.

Would you say working on games has in some ways lessoned your enthusiasm for playing video games?

Well, I wouldn’t say that working on games has, but sitting in front of a computer 40+ hours a week I frequently have the experience of looking for hobbies that allow me to not be in front of a computer. It’s definitely driven me to spend more time on pen and paper, board, and miniature games. It’s not that I never want to play video games, but my tolerance for sitting in front of a computer is definitely lower when I’m working 40 hours a week. It goes down significantly if I’m working more than 40 hours a week.

I will say, when I worked in customer service and spent all day in game in Dark Age of Camelot, it was very hard to play Dark Age for fun. It very much felt like being at work whenever I was logged in.

Would you care to share a particularly memorable experience from your game design days?

When I interviewed at Flying Lab they had me interview with several different members of the team, which is fairly typical of most company’s interview process. During one of the early interviews I had mentioned that I was a big fan of the pen and paper RPG Unknown Armies, which had been co-authored by John Tynes, who was the Producer at Flying Lab. So later on John is one of the people interviewing me, we’re introduced, I tell him I’m a big fan of his work, he’s very gracious, we sit down and start the interview.

Throughout the whole interview he blinks one eye at a time, in sequence. Blink right eye, blink left eye. In one smooth motion. Unknown Armies, if you don’t know, is a game of high weirdness, so through the whole interview I’m trying to figure out if he’s fucking with me, if there’s something wrong with his eye, or if this is just how he blinks. I just go through the whole interview acting like it’s not there, but I spend the next day until I get the job freaking out in my head about what the hell that was about.

A year and a half later, John is leaving the company for greener pastures, and I finally ask him what was up: bad contacts. I spent a year and a half wondering about contacts.

What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into the field?

When it comes to entry level hires there are four things that employers look for, in this order: Skills, Availability, Passion, and Fit. You have to have the skills to do the job For Programmers this is the number one requirement, and the toughest one to crack. Availability means that no one is flying you across the country to interview for an entry level position. If the economy does a sudden about face (unlikely), and you’re a programmer from a well known school this *might* happen, otherwise you have to be local, or close enough to drive to the interview. It also means you have to be ready to work on the day the job starts, not graduating in 6 months. Passion means you’re going to work too many hours for not enough pay. The game industry is an exploitative employer, and they know the only way that works is if people are taking jobs not for a paycheck but because they love what they do. This is the hardest thing for designers to demonstrate, and the biggest stumbling block I find in designer resumes. Finally Fit is just a matter of how well your personality fits with the team. It’s a matter of being not a douche bag. If you need specific advice on this, it’s beyond the scope of my reply.

If you’re going into the game industry you need to understand that you are not going to get rich. People in the game industry universally make less money than their equivalent counterparts in other industries. If you’re serious about working in the game industry start by getting a strong technical background. If you want to be a designer, learn how to program. You don’t need to be a great programmer to be a designer, but you need to know how a programmer thinks, and what software can and can’t do. You need to be able to read someone else’s code, and talk to a programmer in his language. If you want to be an artist don’t just learn how to use your tools, learn how to support your tools. The artists who can use Maya are valuable. The artists who can build Maya scripts are invaluable. If you want to be a programmer, you need to be a great one. Game programming is one of the most challenging programming disciplines, so you better be on top of your game.

Next, start making games. With the advent of flash, it’s really easy to make games on your own, but the quality of those games may not be great. If you don’t want to take on a project yourself join a mod team. Mod teams are a great way to get some experience while working as part of a bigger team. Alternately you can make a level for an existing game (Neverwinter nights was the classic candidate, but I’m guessing Dragon Age is about to supplant that), or a simple UI mod for your favorite MMO. The important thing here is get out and do something game related that your future employer can download, install, and play.

Drew Clowery

Finally start applying to jobs that are local to you. If you’re outside of one of the few major industry hubs (Montreal, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles/San Diego), you may have to face moving in order to apply for jobs. Keep trying. I applied to something like 50 jobs before I got one, and that was before the economy went to hell. That’s not unusual. This is about the worst possible time to be looking for a job in the game design industry. People with years of experience are out of work and have been for some time. Until the economy recovers, something I’m extremely pessimistic about, it’s going to be hard to find a job anywhere, let alone the game industry.

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One shot: Arnold Hendrick interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 20, 2009

Arnold Hendrick is a veteran of the computer game industry who’s held positions at Coleco, MicroProse and Kesmai Studios, among others. In this interview he talks about his own gaming background, what games he enjoys playing these days (with and without his wife), some of the highlights in his game design career and what advice he has for those hoping to get into the industry.

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Arnold Hendrick’s website:

MMO Tidbits

If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind discussing your background in the game industry?

You can get an overview of my computer game work history at the “about” page of my website, or logging into Linkedin and searching people for “Arnold Hendrick.” I keep both up to date, while the info below is pegged to this point in time (Oct 15, 2009):

I’m a 25-year veteran of the computer game industry, and prior to that worked in paper-and-pencil games. My first experience in computer games was at Coleco as a “designer” (which there included Associate Producer work) starting in 1983. When Coleco imploded along with the rest of first generation console gaming I joined MicroProse software and was there for ten years (85-95) as designer and producer (frequently both on the same game). That led to another few years at Bill Stealey’s successor company iMagic (95-98) in a similar role. Then I converted my growing interest in MMOs to something professional by joining Kesmai Studios as a senior producer. Kesmai was absorbed by EA, dismantled by EA, and then tried to constitute itself as Castle Hill Studios. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out very well. I then took some time for formal training in project management and a bit of consulting before going into “Serious Games” and virtual worlds at Forterra Systems (05-09). Forterra has run into some hard times, so at this moment I’m job hunting again – in the traditional game industry I know and love, MMOs especially. Know anyone who needs producer, senior producer or executive producer?

Had you done any game design before entering the computer game industry?

In fact, I’m old enough to have worked in the paper game industry before computer games came along. I’m probably best known for my stint as publishing director of Heritage Games in the late 70s and early 80s. I wrote various miniatures rules, acted as managing editor for a fantasy RPG, did some traditional boardgames, and along with Howard Barasch led the “Dwarfstar Games” division, including designing a fair number of them personally. Perhaps the best is “Barbarian Prince.” I recently ran into a game industry entrepreneur and studio leader who remembered that game with great fondness.darklands

You were chief designer on the PC game Darklands for MicroProse. I actually played this game and remember thoroughly enjoying myself—particularly for the game’s open world. In fact, GameSpot lists it as one of the greatest games of all time. How do you feel the game turned out and did it turn out the way you had hoped it would?

Darklands as a game DESIGN turned out really well because so many people worked so hard to make it great. I also think the basic idea worked really well: build a fantasy RPG around the belief structures of the 15th Century Germanies, which are just close enough to conventional fantasy to be understandable to gamers, but just different enough to make everything seem novel and new.

However, as project leader I was a real “babe in the woods” about project management back then and MicroProse had literally no process whatsoever. As you might imagine, the result was working insane hours for months on end for a game that was late, over budget, and shipped with far too many bugs. More than any other experience, that game got me interested in project management, although it took me a while to find truly better ways for making games.

From all the games you’ve worked on, is there one you are most proud of?

As a game designer, I’m always thinking that the next game will be better than anything previous. I suspect most designers are that way. Of course in today’s game industry target markets, timetables and budgets don’t always allow you to work on what you’d like. This may not be all bad – look what happened when NCsoft gave Richard Garriott a blank check for Tabula Rasa!

Historically speaking, I’m probably proudest of my collaboration with Sid Meier on the original “Pirates!” game. We worked well together, and produced a really innovative game that held up remarkably well. “Gunship,” “Darklands” and “M1 Tank Platoon” were the most innovative at their time, while “Silent Service II” for the PC was a fine “sandbox” game. In paper games I always felt “Demonlord” and “Barbarian Prince” in the dwarfstar line were the most innovative. I keep getting inquiries about republishing rights for the “Sword & Spear” miniatures rules (ancients skirmish rules), although I believe the “Warlords” rules we were finishing as Heritage went under in 1982 were my finest miniatures rules set, largely because of their simplicity.

piratesI should hasten to add that when it comes to computer games you are quite correct to say “games you’ve worked on” rather than “your game.” All computer games are team efforts, and reflect the team as much as any one individual.

Would you mind taking a minute and talking a little bit about your own gaming background (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

I remember in 4th grade getting various toy army men and tanks, creating some rules for them (mostly tables for movement and damage), and dragooning my younger brother and neighborhood kids to play. The local kids didn’t enjoy the game much, since as rules inventor I always knew details they didn’t. I shamelessly used this advantage to always win. Eventually I had to play the games solo!

As a teenager I played Avalon Hill hex wargames with a passion – RPGs didn’t even exist then! With the advent of D&D and especially Traveler (from GDW) I went wild over RPGs. I played many of wargames solo too, which was probably good practice for computer game design. After all, even MMOs usually need a strong PvE component to succeed.

I believe all this gaming is what fed my academic interest in political and military history. That’s what my degree is in, and I retain that interest to this day. My experience learning about, playing and designing boardgames strongly influenced many of the MicroProse game designs. However, at this point the majority of computer game design “lessons” can now be learned from previous computer games, with only rare forays further back into paper games.

Would you say working on computer games has in some ways lessened your enthusiasm for playing games?

Nope, not in the least. I still spend hours every night playing games. Mostly its online MMOs, but sometimes I’m playing solo games (usually PC games, more rarely console titles). The best way to keep up in this industry is to keep an eye on what everyone is doing.

What games are you playing these days?

I have played MMOs with my wife since the early days of text-only games on GEnie (circa 1993-94). Starting with EverQuest we decided on a formula that has served us well for a decade. When playing a game together, we have one character each that we ONLY use when playing with the other. We always group together. Therefore, we advance at the same rate (unless the game has broken level-up logic, as Warhammer does). We’ve done this successfully in EQ, DAoC, WoW, EQ2, SRO, Conan and Warhammer, to name a few. She hates PvP and doesn’t have the hand-eye coordination to handle fast-action games (like MMOFPS titles), but fortunately there are enough “classic” MMORPGs still coming out that we expect to spend many more years gaming together. Having hit level cap in WAR, right now we’re back in EQ2 giving it a second shot (as a dark elven Shadowknight-Inquisitor team).

Outside of my gaming with her, I’ve recently been playing EVE, Champions and Fallen Earth – all games she wouldn’t like. I can’t play Aion because I’m one of the 5-10% whose ISP’s routers hate Aion’s comm layer, resulting in impossible lag spikes. Incidentally my ISP is AT&T in the heart of Silicon Valley running at 3.0 Mbps! Grrr, grrr. I’m also waiting for Earth Eternal to fix their sound problems so I can fully enjoy that – browser MMOs are VERY interesting (FusionFall was a lot of fun!).

I’m looking forward to APB and SW:TOR. My curiosity is both professional and personal. Both games are being very daring, although in different ways. By the end of next year we should know a lot more about how to design the next generation of MMOs.

Would you care to share a particularly memorable experience from your game design days?

Well, on the good side, it was sitting with Sid Meier, talking about the pirates game as we built it, going off to do my part, giving my files back to him, and seeing it all working just a week later. There is something magic about a game as it comes together. You don’t know that it’s great, necessarily. It’s just nice when it starts working as you envisioned in your mind’s eye.

What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into the game design?

Don’t get too caught up in grandiose visions. Great games are about doing a really good job with all the details – without driving the company into bankruptcy in the process! Never design for yourself – since nobody is going to have your knowledge and skill with the game. Instead, design for the full range of the game’s audience. Imagine yourself in their shoes, often as a total newbie, and how they’d experience it. Just because you can beat a level in 30 seconds or do your quest in your sleep doesn’t mean it’s too easy. One of the persistent errors made by newbie designers is trying to show off by making “impossible” levels, raid dungeons, etc.

Game design is learned by doing. Get a game with a level editor or a scenario maker or whatever and create something. Get some friends to try it. Don’t TELL them how to play. Instead, watch them and see what happens. Quietly observing how people play (or struggle) with a game is VERY educational.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gaming audience?

If somebody has a pile of money, I’m full of ideas for how to make some great MMOGs! To get some insights into my thinking about design and production of MMOs, feel free to take a look at www.mmotidbits.com.

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Reading the text: Greg Costikyan

Posted by Randolph Carter on September 17, 2009

Author’s website:

http://www.costik.com/

If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind discussing your background in the gaming industry?

My first game was published when I was 16; it was a board wargame based on the battle of Alamein. I continued to design games for SPI, a wargame publisher, throughout high school and college, though most of my games were based on SF or fantasy themes. In the early-mid 80s, I was director of R&D for West End Games, where I managed all game development and publication efforts, and personally designed several games, including Paranoia (with Dan Gelber and Eric Goldberg) and Star Wars: The RPG. For several years thereafter I was a house husband, writing novels and doing work for Prodigy, the old commercial online service, in my “spare” time. In the early-mid 90s, I went to work for Crossover Technologies, one of the few game developers in NYC, where I designed several online and PC games, as well as a series of ecommerce applications. I was then a consultant for a time, the founded one of the first North American mobile game companies in 2000. After it failed, I went to work for Nokia, first as editor of the games portion of their developer support website, then as a “games researcher.” In 2005, I founded Manifesto Games, an attempt to expand the market for independently developed computer games; I shut the company down earlier this year.

I’ve written a lot about games, game design, and game industry business issues for many publications; have consulted to many Fortune 500 companies on the industry; have lectured about game design at universities both in the US and Europe; have designed more than 30 commercially published games; and am the recipient of 5 Origins Awards and the IGDA’s Maverick Award, as well as an inductee into the Adventure Gaming Hall of Fame.

As the CEO of Manifesto Games, which retails independently developed games and creator of the website Play This Thing! you are obviously a big fan of indie games. Why are you so committed to this?

See: “Death to the Game Industry, Long Live Games”

What would you say to someone who has never strayed from the AAA titles in their gaming experience? What are they missing out on?

Doesn’t it all start to feel the same after a while? The conventional industry is lucky if it sees -one- innovative title in the course of a year, and in general, unless your name is Wright or Miyamoto, you will never be allowed to work on anything other than a game the marketing dweebs know how to slot into an existing market category.

If you actually want some spark of creativity in your games, you have to look outside the mainstream. This is true of film and music as well, of course.

You designed the first online game to attract more than one million players. Would you mind discussing this game a bit and what the experience was like for you?

That was MadMaze, a game for Prodigy, one of the commercial online services that existed before the Internet was opened up to commercial use. The miracle is that it didn’t suck, since one of the constraints was that no original programming could be required; it used two existing Prodigy applications, one for posting news stories, and one for running little q&a quizzes. Like miany highly constrained game development projects, it was actually rather tedious to work on, really, but Prodigy paid me quite well, and it’s hard to argue with success.

Are you still designing games?

Yes. My current project is a boardgame commissioned by the Macarthur Foundation that is designed to teach middle- and high-school kids from the Chicago area something about the Burnham Plan, the landmark 1909 urban plan for the city of Chicago that had a big impact on the 20th century development of the city, and to encourage them to think about how they would reshape the city given the chance.

I’m also working on a 2-8 player boardgame about naval conflict in the Mediterranean in the 16th century, tentatively titled “Philip & Suleiman.”

Kim Wilkins, one of the authors recently interviewed for this site, had this to say about the future of writing: “If you want to see the future of narrative, it’s in games. As written entertainment goes digital, I think we’ll see more and more quality writing in games. It’s going to be awesome.” Would you have anything to say to this?

I think it’s horseshit. There’s a fundamental conflict between the demands of narrative and the demands of games, which I’ve written extensively about here: “Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String.”

The typical game story is a thud-and-blunder heroic melodrama of such limited literary virtue that it would make Robert E. Howard blush. Games do power fantasy pretty well, but nuance of character is lost when you hand over control of a character to a player, and most of the things that create tension or interest in a story are difficult or impossible to show in a game (how upbrigning shaped a character, the complexities of love and betrayal, any sort of emotion beyond fiero and frustration). Mind you, I applaud people who try to extend the narrative reach of games, but to look to games as the future of narrative strikes me as insane.

She also happens to be a big fan of World of Warcraft. Speaking of narratives, what is your take on the current state of MMOs?

Narrative in MMOs consists of a) backstory that everyone ignores, and b) quest text that you blip over as quickly as possible to extract the essential information you need to know, e.g., where do I have to go and what do I have to do.

My take on the current state of MMOs is that it essentially sucks. One the one hand, we have eight-budget spectaculars that look for WoW numbers and are even less willing to experiment than the conventional console-and-PC market; and on the other we have low-budget “free play” titles designed to gull you into splurging on digital content and therefore offer degraded gameplay in an effort to maximize per-player revenues.

Mind you, I continue to play WoW, and I highly recommend A Tale in the Desert and something remarkable and different from the norm.

Why do you play WoW?

WoW is a pretty bad gamemaster, but it’s always there and I don’t have to work to get together a group of friends or (as GM) to prepare an adventure. It’s a useful way to satisfy a gaming jones at fairly minimal effort.

I’ve previously made an analogy to tailoring: A tabletop RPG session is like a bespoke, hand-tailored suit, crafted by your GM to the tastes and interests of his or her friends. An MMO is like a suit bought off-the-rack — it won’t fit as well because it’s tailored to the lowest common denominator rather than your individual measurements, but it will satisfy some of the same requirements.

What do you see as the biggest unrealized potential of the genre?

Which genre? RTS, FPS, TCG, board wargame, computer wargame, miniatures wargame, LARP, ARG, tabletop RPG, computer RPG, console RPG, JRPG, indie RPG, Eurogame, aufbaustrategiespiele, sim/tycoon game, MMO, casual game, adventure game, sports game, sports management game, shmup, sidescroller, platformer, turn-based strategy, turn-based fantasy, flight sim, vehicle sim, choose-your-own-ending book, or maybe tower defense?

Games are not a genre; games are a form, and incorporate a great many genres.

Let’s try this again: What do you see as the biggest unrealized potential in MMOs?

Virtually every MMO on the market at present is essentially a dikuMUD variant. That is, it’s based on hack-and-slash gameplay and level advancement. In the history of MUDs, there were many other successful game styles — to give one very different example, in a Pern MOO, advancement fundamentally depends on establishing positive relationships with other members of the weir and getting permission to imprint a dragon, go on raids, etc. Or as one of the few examples of an MMO that’s quite different, A Tale in the Desert is basically a crafting game, with a specific end-goal and victory condition, in which all combat, even PvE, is prohibited.

Hack-and-slash is far from the only style of play you can accommodate in a thousands-of-players online environment, but virtually no one is experimenting with anything other than minor permutations on the dikuMUD model.

first contractYou also happen to have several published novels under your belt. For gamers who would like to check out something you’ve written, what would you suggest?

Several of my short stories are readable for free at my site at http://www.costik.com/stories.html.  Of my novels, First Contract is the one I like best.

I am curious to know whatever happened to your Magic of the Plains series. I see where book 1, By the Sword was published a while back, but I wasn’t able to locate any of the subsequent volumes in the series.

By the Sword was written as a stand-alone novel (actually, originally, as a one-chapter-a-week series for Prodigy). Tor got all excited about it and slapped the “Magic of the Plains” label on it in the hope that it would become a series. The first book didn’t really sell well enough to justify a sequel.

I can more properly be chastised for the Cups & Sorcery series, which is hanging at two books and definitely needs a third to come to completion. I rather doubt I’ll ever get to it, however.

What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into the field of writing for games? Would your advice be any different for aspiring authors?

First, play LOTS of games. Second, understand that you are a hired gun; the game designer is the one actually shaping the experience, and you are being brought in to fill in little bits of dialog that need to be written, or little bits of story that get transmitted here and there, or, in very rare cases, to flesh out the basic game system with sidequests or other story elements. In other words, not only are you not a novelist, with complete control over the final product, you are not even a screenwriter, the original fount of the movie even if it later gets reshaped by others. You’re pouring content into a structure defined by others.

Third, understand that writing for an interactive medium is very different from writing for linear media: “First, they go to Bree….” But what if they don’t? What if they decide to light out for the West?

And of course, network, network, network… People hire people they know. And it doesn’t hurt to get famous or quasi-famous as a writer first (e.g., Marc Laidlaw was a pretty well known science fiction novelist before he was hired by Valve).

How do you escape these days?

There is no escape this side of the grave.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

Immortal Defense: http://playthisthing.com/immortal-defense

My Life with Master: http://playthisthing.com/my-life-master

The Upgrade: http://playthisthing.com/upgrade

The most interesting uses of narrative in games today are -not- found in boxes from EA or Activision.

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