Saturday, 22 February 2014

Interview - Michael Ward, author of the DestinyQuest game books

I'm delighted to welcome Michael Ward; gamer, author of the best selling DestinyQuest game books and all-round decent guy.

Perhaps you'd like to tell us a little bit about yourself?

Ha! This is the part where I wish I lived an exciting and outrageous  life, filled with extreme sports and hobbies, and at least one exotic pet. Sadly, I’m pretty boring. I spend most of my life in my dressing gown, Arthur Dent style, sat in front of a computer – swearing occasionally, shaking my fist, cackling maniacally, but mostly just frowning in a constipated fashion and willing words of wisdom to appear on the screen.

I’ve always been a geek –and now I’m a middle-aged geek, embracing the highs and lows of mid-life crisis. Whereas most males deal with it through fast cars (and probably fast women), I er… embrace it through middle-age spread and writing the occasional gamebook. I win obviously. Ahem.

Tell us about your gaming history - what got you into the wonderful world of roleplaying, wargaming and adventure books?

Well, as I mention on my site, Dungeons & Dragons was the event that really sucked me into the hobby. I had glimpsed the metal miniatures and was always curious of the ‘game’ that lurked behind it all, but it seemed like something mysterious and underground – the type of thing to be whispered in shadowed corners, usually by older kids who looked a little bit scary. It wasn’t until I saw the movie ET: The Extra Terrestrial, that  I got my first glimpse of what a D&D session was like – and when I left the cinema, I was determined to get involved.

Of course, at the same time, the first Fighting Fantasy books were being released – and these were incredibly new and exciting. I remember the book clubs we used to have at school, where someone from outside would bring in a sort of portable rack that was opened up to reveal the books for sale. Cue a class of screaming kids (gripping their spending money in sweaty fists) rushing forward, elbowing and kicking to get the best ones before anyone else. In those days, I was but a puny mortal (before I developed my special abilities and put extra points into brawn and vitality) so I had no chance of getting to the front. But I always remember one time, when the dust settled and the “best books” had been taken, I finally reached the book rack to scrutinise what was left – and there was ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’ by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. It was meant to be. I grabbed it excitedly – the cover screaming at me ‘FANTASY GEEKNESS!’. Once my friends realised what the books were all about (‘Wow, you roll dice and stuff!’) then I suddenly became Mr Popular pretty quickly! Fear my skills, fools!

Seriously, at that time, there was nothing else around quite like those books – and computer games were still pretty much in the stone age, so for the first time we got the chance to imagine a fantastic adventure where we were the hero and got to make exciting choices. Gaming bliss!    

The DestinyQuest books are incredibly popular so tell us more about how you came up with the idea?

Well, my love of role-playing games was soon surpassed by another, more compulsive passion, which was computer gaming. I was lucky in some ways to grow up at an exciting and innovative time when games consoles (like the Atari 2600) were just being launched, and then computers came onto the scene (the ZX Spectrum, C64, BBC, Amiga etc.). Each new platform brought with it incredible new gaming opportunities. I’ve always stuck with the hobby, from Pac-Man through to the latest MMORPGS like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2.

I got pretty addicted to online gaming and that got me thinking about how I could replicate that online RPG feel in a book. I guess the gamebook format that I grew up with was an obvious connection there too. I already had a completed manuscript (for a kids’ book) doing the rounds with my agent, so I was kind of twiddling my thumbs. Time and again I kept coming back to the idea of an MMO experience in book form.

So I set about roughing out a system and writing some quests. I came at it as something just for fun. If no-one else reads it, who cares – I just wanted to create something I could play myself and have a laugh with. But as I carried on writing, I realised it was evolving into something quite exciting – something that I felt could be commercial.

What makes DestinyQuest different, if anything, from other gamebooks?

Traditional gamebooks tend to have a basic combat system. You roll dice, apply damage and just hope that your rolls are high enough to win. There is no real strategy – and the opponents don’t have much personality other than being a bunch of numbers. With DestinyQuest I wanted the combat to be much more dynamic – almost as if you were bashing buttons and selecting abilities in a computer game. I wanted opponents to have their own ‘battle scripts’ if you like – so that you were forced to react to their abilities, identifying their strengths and weaknesses.

Tied in with the dynamic combat, I also wanted to provide full-customisation of your hero. So instead of rolling some stats at the start of your adventure and that was it, I wanted to bring in the computer RPG experience of collecting items as you progress and then having these items boost your hero and give them abilities. Obviously, all this was a complete nightmare to balance (there was much swearing and shaking of fists) but I got there in the end.

Why did you decide to have a go at writing a new generation of adventure gamebooks? 

I think it was probably a pretty crazy idea. At the time, gamebooks were considered dead in the water. There were a few FF titles getting released but nothing that was mainstream. This was also before the explosion of Apps, so really no-one was even thinking gamebooks. I stuck at it because I was convinced there was still a market – those vets like me who grew up with gamebooks, but also a new generation of computer gamers who may be eager to experience books that were more interactive.

I met with a lot of opposition. So much so that I ended up self-publishing. Thankfully, I was lucky and the book sold well – and I do have to thank the gaming and blog community for embracing the book and help spread the word. That success won me the attention of a mainstream publisher who decided to take a punt on the series. So far, so good – but still a rocky road.

What were your inspirations/influences?

My main inspiration was World of Warcraft. It was such a huge part of my life at the time and kind of occupied most of my waking thoughts! I also loved action-orientated RPGS such as Diablo and Titan Quest. I’m a fan of most genres of gaming, if I’m being honest, and I think all of those influences got distilled into the DQ game experience.

Did you create a specific world for the adventures to take place in, and will we see more of it?

Yes, I did create a source document that outlines the history of the world. One interesting thing that I frequently see misquoted is that Valeron (the setting for the early books) is the name of the world. It isn’t. Valeron is just a kingdom – one part of a much greater whole.

I try not to overload the books with too much exposition of the world, I prefer to keep them action-based and filter in the ‘history’ when it is needed. With each book, I feel like I am opening up the world a little more, showing more of the broader canvass. If there are further books in the series, then more pieces of the puzzle will be revealed. I really want to explore Mordland, for example, (an area only briefly mentioned in the first books), which is very cool. Time will tell!

A lot of work must go into creating one of these books, more than producing a straightforward story - what's your plan of attack when writing one?

They certainly are incredibly complicated and time-consuming, which miffs me a little bit when the mainstream press turns their noses up at interactive fiction as something ‘just for the kids’. These books are monumental projects.

I suppose I start by deciding on the environments (or zones, if you like) and marrying that to the story I want to tell. Then it is a matter of breaking down the story into the individual quests. I write each quest in a separate document then compile them together as each is completed into a ‘master document’, which has all the numbers and links.

What do you see as the future for DestinyQuest? More books? Computer games? Maybe even a tabletop roleplaying game?

I have lots of ideas for things I would love to do. The thing is, to reach that point of having spin-offs, you probably need quite a huge player base. I don’t think I have quite achieved that yet. If the books continue to be successful and reach new markets, then who knows.

At the very least, I would love to finish the series (which is six books – originally seven, but one is now superfluous to the overall story). I do have ideas roughed out for interactive spin-offs and a customisable card game (played too much Hearthstone to resist, sorry!) but nothing concrete. Always open to offers!

If you could sit down with several friends and play a tabletop RPG right at this very moment, what would it be and why?

At the moment it would be the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game by Paizo. A friend of mine recommended it to me last year (I was sort of aware of Pathfinder but had never given it a go). He urged me to try it because it was ‘a bit like DestinyQuest’. In some ways it is – you have individual quests broken up into locations, and guide a hero (or party of heroes) through the challenges, equipping them with better and better gear as you do so. It is very addictive, both as a solo game and played with friends. I highly recommend!

Are there any other projects you are working on, or is DestinyQuest a full-time thing?

Contrary to what people might think, writing is a tough profession - one that doesn’t come anywhere near to paying the bills – so I still take on a lot of freelance projects (I write educational materials for schools). At the moment, freelance work is taking up a lot of my time, but when I get a chance I am scribbling down ideas for DestinyQuest 4. I do have a cool idea for a novel that I would like to write, but I feel – at the moment – it would be “cheating” to ditch DestinyQuest for another project. Ultimately, I guess I am your typical male – chronic at multi-tasking! But, as they say, watch this space. Who knows what the future holds…