Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Archive for May, 2011

Reading the text: an interview with Michael J. Ward

Posted by Randolph Carter on May 26, 2011

Michael J. Ward is the author of DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadow. In this interview we talk about his extensive gaming background, what sets his book apart from other traditional gamebooks, and what his plans are for the future of the DestinyQuest series. Enjoy.

For more information, visit the DestinyQuest website.

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For those unfamiliar with gamebooks, could you take a minute and explain what DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadow is?

DestinyQuest is an epic fantasy adventure where you play the hero. The story is written in a ‘choose your own adventure’ format so, as a reader, you are given various choices to make at key moments of the story, and asked to decide what happens next. You then turn to the corresponding page to discover the outcome of your choice. Basically, it’s an interactive game in a book.

And so what would you say sets DestinyQuest apart from the rest in this genre?

Gamebooks haven’t really moved on all that much. They rose to prominence in the eighties with the Fighting Fantasy series, when Dungeons & Dragons was also very popular as a table top role-playing game. Fighting Fantasy was really seeking to capture that table top experience in a book. Most gamebooks since have stuck to that model, with varying degrees of success.

With DestinyQuest, I wasn’t setting out to write a gamebook in that mould. Which might sound odd. I didn’t have a eureka moment and go ‘You know what, a gamebook is what is missing from my life’. Instead, I was drawing off my computer RPG experiences. Being something of an MMO addict, I wondered why no one had tried to capture a experience like ‘World of Warcraft’ in a book – to give the sense of being in a world where you make the decisions, but you’re also ‘levelling up’ and fighting monsters and getting loot.

Once I’d roughed out my ideas, I realised that DestinyQuest was indeed a ‘gamebook’ – but a gamebook written for a completely new generation, one which was used to playing computer and console games, and probably more inclined to pick up a controller or a mouse than sit and read a book. There was my challenge really – to make something relevant to the gamers of today; something they could understand and identify with.

And then convince them that rolling a bunch of D6 is cool and hip. Yep, quite a challenge.

I take it there will be more books in the DestinyQuest series?

I have plans for seven books at the present time. Whether they ever see the light of day really depends on the market. I’m already committed to doing a second book (well, I guess I have to, as the first one has ‘Book 1’ emblazoned on the cover!) but after that it’s down to sales. At the present time, DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadow is a self-published title, but I hope that a larger publisher might descend like a guardian angel, and help me to promote and develop the series further.

Why did you decide to go down the self-publishing route with the first book?

It was frustration, more than anything. My agent had taken the book around publishers and we’d met with a fair bit of interest – but due to tightening purse strings, I think publishers saw it as too much of a gamble to take on in our current gloomy economic climate. After all, why take a gamble when you’ve got another two-hundred Twilight clones to get out the door, right? 😉

In all seriousness, I think it came down to the fact that publishers saw the whole ‘gamebook’ thing as over – or something that can only exist on a digital platform. I think they missed the point of what I was trying to do with DestinyQuest, which was to get people away from their monitors and television screens – experiencing something interactive and game-like, but also promoting reading and using one’s imagination. Call me crazy…

I’m hoping the continued success of DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadow will encourage publishers to be less dismissive of gamebooks as a genre. When you’ve got a readership from ten-year-olds to people in their seventies (I kid you not!), I feel that is pretty compelling evidence to suggest that the market is out there and it is very strong.

From what I’ve read your second offering will be even more ambitious. Could you talk a little bit about what we can expect with subsequent volumes?

There is a tendency with sequels to over-egg the omelette. You’ve only got to look at most film franchises to see that subsequent films in a series rarely live up to the first; usually because they are trying to do what the first one did but just throw more, more, more at it!

Well, it is always a risk, but DQ2 is very much fitting into the ‘more, more, more’ mould; however my challenge is to make the new additions fit seamlessly into the story/game system without overwhelming new players or turning away the existing fan base.

Certainly, on a basic level, I’ll be fine-tuning the paths (warrior, rogue and mage) so that they play more differently than they do now. Warriors will be more hard-hitting in combat – generating more damage dice, rogues will have greater opportunities to modify existing dice rolls and influence outcomes – and mages will get access to powers that can throw up more dangerous combos and damage bursts, but with potential trade offs. I want the game experience to feel quite dynamically different, based on the path you have chosen.

The story in DQ2 is probably a little darker in tone and more involved than the first – but I certainly want to keep the fun elements there too. On top of that, you will also have more ‘advanced’ challenges for experienced players, which includes the co-op game play feature, where heroes can team up to take down epic boss monsters.

I’ll admit, at one point in my life I considered it a source of pride that I had never seen E.T. However, after reading about your own experience with the film, I’m rethinking that a bit. This was your initial exposure to Dungeons & Dragons, right? What was that experience like?

I think today’s cinema audiences are more demanding of their movies – they seem to want ever more complex story-telling experiences, with special effects bombarding their senses (well, with 3D… I guess quite literally). I can understand why some people might consider a cheesy film about a kid finding an alien and helping it to ‘…go home’ as a little saccharine for today’s tastes. But what

Spielberg did with that film, which is pretty damn skilful as both a director and a writer, is to make you care for a puppet. I mean, if you don’t cry buckets over that film then you’ve got a heart of stone!

Sorry, I digress. Forget the alien – even though he is cute. What made this film memorable for me was the scene at the start when Elliot, his brother and his mates are playing Dungeon & Dragons. I’d heard of the game and seen some of the lead miniatures – I didn’t really know what it was, but I was certainly intrigued and wanted to know more. Then I saw the scene in ET and that was pretty much it. Seeing the wooden maze, the miniatures of the heroes and monsters, listening to some of the geeky talk, I was sold.

Although, when I found out that you had to buy all the miniatures separately… oh boy, that can destroy a kid. But I got over it – and D&D proved the start of a very long and rewarding hobby – and I’m sure Games Workshop (with their countless board games and war games) ended up doing very well out of me, thank you very much.

Going back a bit, what has your own gaming experience been like?

Well, I became a regular at my local Games Workshop – this was back in the day when they were ‘nice chaps’ and actually sold third-party products as well as their own; so it was the one-stop shop for all your gaming needs. I must have bought and played nearly all of their board games – each one superbly designed. Stand out titles for me included Battlecars (remember the god awful computer version?), The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (of course!), Block Mania and Blood Royale.

And then there was Talisman. Possibly one of the greatest board games ever. That ate up a lot of hours, believe me.

I dabbled with table-top RPGs but it was always such a pain to find people who a) knew what a RPG was, b) knew the rules for your games system or c) weren’t likely to beat the living daylights out of you for being ‘you know, a bit strange’. Setting up and playing games was more time consuming than the actual playing (I think I was just unlucky). So, that is why I was always more inclined to play computer games – which rapidly took over my ‘hobby time’. From the earliest days of the Spectrum 48K through to today, I’ve played most RPGs, FPS and RTS titles. There is nothing better than cracking open those boxes, loading up the game for the first time and jumping in. Usually, disappointment arrives shortly after – but occasionally you come across a few gems that remind you why you still invest time and money in the hobby.

You’ve mentioned on your site that you have been an avid MMO player for many years now. Would you mind talking about this?

I’m probably like a lot of people in that I discovered online gaming through my love of Warcraft. I played the original RTS titles more hours than could ever be deemed sensible (Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos still remains one of my favourite games of all time) and the idea that I could now take one of these characters into an online world was just too compelling to pass up. On top of that, I love the style and art direction of Warcraft; turning that into a 3D game world… who wouldn’t want to experience that? Well, as we now know, about 11 million people. If that isn’t the greatest gaming achievement in history then I don’t know what is.

Before then, I always viewed the whole ‘online thing’ as something a bit scary. I mean, why on earth would I want to play and interact with other people when I spend most of my time ‘getting away’ from other people so that I can game? It never made sense… until World of Warcraft made it completely make sense. It was a good while before I got into the whole ‘guild and raiding scene’, but once that happened, the game pretty much took over my life.

At one point, I was playing World of Warcraft 40-50 hours a week. I have an obsessive-compulsive personality, so throw me into a world where you’re given a thousand ‘carrot on a stick’ opportunities for grinding and raiding, then I really didn’t stand much of a chance. I don’t ever regret spending that amount of time on the game; I have fantastic memories of that time – mostly 40- man raid nights – where, as a guild, we had great camaraderie and enmity for one another and what we wanted to achieve… I don’t think I’ll ever experience that level of shared commitment again in gaming or indeed any other medium.

Good things always come to an end. For me it started when World of Warcraft launched its first expansion ‘The Burning Crusade’ and broke up pretty much 95% of guilds on our server (the raiding limit was changed from 40 players to 10 and 25). A lot of really good players and friends left at that time. Like most obsessive Warcrafters, I’ve stuck at the game until Cataclysm, but it has never been the same. To be honest, the format is looking a little dated and tired now anyway – it needs a new direction; it needs to recapture the spirit and innovation of the original.

So, I’ve naturally dabbled in other MMOs, looking for a similar fix. Out of those that I have tried, the Lord of the Rings MMO is probably one of the best in my mind. Turbine did a fantastic job of translating the look and feel of the books… Which is exactly what I had been hoping for, with Warhammer Online. You can’t really get a more detailed and distinctive franchise, steeped in lore and great characters. That MMO should have been the next Warcraft, but for me (and I think a lot of others) it was something of a big disappointment. Age of Conan also.

What MMOs are you currently playing?

None, it might surprise you to hear. That’s really a time issue for me at the moment, but also boils down to the fact that there is nothing out there at the moment that feels innovative and new, or I haven’t already played until my eyes bleed.

There are a spate of new MMOs on the way and I am certainly intrigued by some of these titles. In particular, Guild Wars 2. I like their design approach – the whole idea of immersing you in a world where you feel you have an impact on what is happening around you; something that feels more organic. Warhammer Online tried it with the public quests but they were a bit of a disaster, in my opinion. It sounds like Guild Wars 2 might have cracked it – I’m really excited to experience what they have come up with.

As someone who obviously appreciates the written word and the art of narrative, do you tend to read the quest text and immerse yourself as much as possible into the story of the game you are playing?

It depends how well written it is and how it is integrated into the game. Let’s take World of Warcraft as an example. I love the game, I love the lore – but really, because the story is presented in such a fragmented way, and often you really just want to get a quest done and move on, there is a tendency to click through quest text and never read it – or scan it in a couple of seconds. As gamers, I don’t believe we want to sit through reams of text. It breaks the flow.

It also happens a lot in RPGs and point-and-click titles (such as Dungeon Siege, Titan Quest, Diablo), where you’ve been slashing and blasting your way through countless mobs, your adrenaline is pumping, you are desperate for a bigger challenge and some better loot and…. <wham> you are hit with a faceless, expressionless npc who seems intent on reciting the whole of War and Peace to you, providing some convoluted reason why his cousins half-sister’s mother needs you to help save the world… again. Inevitably, after a while, you are going to hit the <skip> button.

This, as you might have guessed, is a real bugbear for me. Storytelling should be seamless – it should flow with the gameplay. I think games like Dragon Age and Oblivion do it very well (although there can be a tendency for the whole ‘War and Peace’ scenario to rear its head again – but at least you have voice actors instead of text windows). This is something I am very conscious of when writing DestinyQuest. I don’t believe players/readers want to read pages and pages of background text. If a story is told well, then you shouldn’t be pulled out of the experience. Think of it like screenplay writing; you might get the occasional ‘exposition scene’ in a movie but on the whole, the story is delivered through the main character’s actions – it is all told on the fly. That is why I think First Person games have the most potential for telling a great story; one where you feel it and experience it rather than being told it. Which is also why I do a /facepalm on occasion, when I play a FPS and the story is just so damn awful. You think, what a wasted opportunity. (And yes, Crysis 2 I am looking at you.)

Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer?

Most definitely. I think gaming helps you to see scenes more viscerally; gives you the ability to imagine action in more inventive ways. And of course, DestinyQuest wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for the countless hours I have poured into playing computer games; it was that experience – of playing a game – that I wanted to capture in the book.

Gaming also helps you to think about stories in a non-linear way – to explore the idea that readers don’t have to have the same experience going from A to B; that stories can be tailored to the personality and choices of the reader. I think, as technology develops and the potential for ‘interactive books’ expands and becomes mainstream, more writers will be approaching books as ‘non-linear experiences’. Imagine reading the latest P.D James, Robert Ludlum or John Grisham novel, for example, but instead of reading how the crime was solved or how the protagonist escaped a certain situation, it is the reader themselves who is helping to influence events and make important judgement calls – becoming more involved in the story; the environment. That could be pretty cool, if it was done well.

Would you say there is grind involved in the writing process?

I think if there was ‘grind’ then you just wouldn’t do it – as there are certainly easier ways of making a living! You’re also talking to someone who really knows the true painful meaning of the word ‘grinding’ when it comes to MMOs and computer RPGs. Back in the day, I do remember running Stratholm (both sides), Upper Blackrock Spire and Scholomance (in World of Warcraft) about 50+ times each for my Shadowcraft armour set. The drop rates on some of those items were just so bad… and man, I became obsessive about getting them. I do remember going to bed at 4 or 5 am some mornings, having done dungeon runs all evening/night with nothing to show for it. Argh. But then, when you finally get your drops (I remember the darn Shadowcraft spaulders taking forever to drop for me), the sense of elation was just… geek joy.

But then, like all things – you are focused on the next challenge. And the amusing thing is, then I got massively into raiding, and got my nightstalker armour set in a 1/10 of the time it took me to get the dungeon set. So, really, those hundreds and hundreds of hours were ultimately for nothing. But good fun all the same. (I have to tell myself that, it’s part of the therapy…)

Would you mind sharing an interesting and/or amusing story from your gaming past?

This probably relates to the above in that, when it comes to grinding in MMOs I know pain and I know dedication. I remember working on getting gold for my first epic riding mount (a swift stormsabre, if anyone is interested) – again this is back in vanilla WoW before everyone had about 100,000 gold and epics coming out of their eyeballs. I would put on my headphones, listen to some music and just spend hours farming mobs. To the point that I got reported several times by other players for being a BOT (an automated program used by gold farmers).

There was some crazy guy who /whispered me saying he had reported me: ‘You’ve been here like everyday; you’re here all the time. You’re a bot!! Good luck getting your account back, loser!’ (or something along those lines. He probably threw in a few rude words and a lot of misspellings too).

I replied back going ‘Are you crazy? This is me – this is what I do!’ He just didn’t seem to believe I wasn’t an illegal automated program. Until, of course, I duelled him, pwned him and then /danced on his corpse. Then he got the message.

That was actually a fine moment.

How do you tend to escape these days?

I wish I had more time to play games. I really don’t know where time goes – and I wonder if it is something to do with age. As you get older, time (or your perception of it) just seems to move so much faster. It makes me wonder just how I was able to spend so much time on MMOs in the past.  Perhaps it is all about priorities and those priorities are constantly shifting.

Michael J. Ward showing us his "game on!" face.

When I’m not writing or planning DestinyQuest, then escape for me is watching a good movie. I’ve always been an avid cinema-goer and DVD obsessive. I tend to watch a lot of fantasy and sci-fi, but also enjoy most other genres too.

Of course, I also like reading – but I’m a slow reader, which is a constant source of amusement to my girlfriend who can read about four books a week. Sometimes it can take me about four-six months to get through a book. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Occasionally, I stumble on a book that has me so engrossed, I’ll burn through it in a few days. But those are pretty rare.

Oh, I forgot to add computer gaming to that, but that is a given right? 😉

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

Sure. I guess I should never pass up the chance for a shameless plug! So, if you like computer games or you like table-top gaming – hell, even if you just live for grinding – then go buy DestinyQuest.

It might not get you all the way to Valhalla but hey… there’s gaming heaven in them there pages!  Game on!

(Did I really just say ‘Game on!’? That’s a shootable offense, no really…)

Thank you very much, Michael. Best of luck to you with DestinyQuest. Also, I’d like to thank Marty for featuring Michael’s book on his most excellent blog, Bullet Points.

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