Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Michael J Ward

Tell us a bit about yourself

I’m a thirty-something writer, games-player and geek. And I drink a lot of coffee.

How did you get into gaming?

It’s tricky to pinpoint one thing. When I was around 8-9 I was starting to read a lot of fantasy. In
particular, Alan Garner and CS Lewis. I was also writing my own short stories too and found it
immensely empowering to be able to invent your own worlds and people them with fantastical
places and creatures. At the same time, a couple of my friends had older brothers who were
dabbling with a game known as ‘Dungeons & Dragons’. I didn’t know too much about it, save that it
involved some very odd-looking dice and some very cool-looking miniatures. Yet, they were enough
to arouse my ‘burgeoning-geek’ curiosity.

Then I saw the film ET: The Extra Terrestrial, which has a key scene at the start of the movie where
Eliot’s brother and his mates are playing a D&D scenario. When I saw that scene, I was just blown
away by the concept. All thoughts of little grey aliens went right out of my head after that! I left the
cinema determined to get a copy. So I did – and Dungeons & Dragons got me hooked into the whole
world of rpgs. Of course, there were also the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks too. It felt like a great time
for gaming – like there was this cool ‘geek revolution’ going on. It was fun to be a part of.

I’ve been a computer games player since the start really, from the Atari 2600 console (God bless
Pitfall Harry) through the ZX-Spectrum and Commodore 64 days, Atari ST, Amiga, Megadrive… ok,
you get the idea. ;)

What is it you find so appealing about gaming?

I think it taps into that desire in all of us to be someone else – someone a little braver, stronger
and more heroic (or more devious and evil, depending on the game!). For me, there is also the
competition. Not only pitting yourself against the challenges and obstacles that the game-designer
has set for you, but also your fellow players. I have an obsessive compulsive personality, so if I get
hold of a game that I love, then I’m driven to beat it and get the absolute best loot/rewards that are
going. What I love about gaming, and MMOs and co-operatives in particular, is playing them until
your eyes bleed and believing you are the best, then coming up against (or alongside) someone
who just makes you stop in your tracks – someone who has honed their skills/character to absolute
perfection. As I’m getting older I’m finding that happening a lot more often I have to say! Guess it’ll
be the Zimmer frame next…

Share a favourite gaming moment with us

For some reason, when I read that question, I had a flashback to a naked gnome race in World
of Warcraft. But for that anecdote to work, you really had to be there – and consumed a series
amount of beer. Actually, talking of beer, I did do my very first Molten Core 40-man raid completely
smashed! It was sort of an unfortunate accident really – I’d just joined one of the top raiding guilds
on my server and it was kind of my debut (you know, proving yourself to your fellow guildies). The

raid got delayed so, as I increasingly made my way through my stash of beers (to settle my nerves, of
course), the screen got a little fuzzier and a little fuzzier….

So yeah, my performance was rather horrible (imagine doing Baron Geddon for the first time while
messaging your in-game mate and saying ‘Oh God, I can’t see, I can’t see… I’m gonna hurl’.) Anyway,
somehow I managed to get through it without too many embarrassing deaths, but I did do a lot of
apologising to my rogue group leader (a guy called Nyms, sound familiar to any DQ readers?) the
next day. From then on, tee-total for raiding. (*)

(*) Believe that, you’ll believe anything ;-)

What are you currently playing?

To be honest, because I’ve been so busy doing final changes and game-testing for my second book
(The Heart of Fire) there hasn’t been too much time for game playing (much to my distress!), so I’ve
steered clear of any heavy rpgs. A friend of mine recently brought Grimrock to my attention (http:/
/ knowing that I am an old-school Dungeon Master fan. Grimrock is a modern
update of that eighties classic and so far it hasn’t disappointed. Its been good for a quick blast in
between everything else I am juggling at the moment!

What was the last game you played?

Now, if I said Travel Scrabble while on holiday that would sound incredibly uncool wouldn’t it?
Yep, okay. Well, after a recent house move, I stumbled across my old copy of Talisman board
game (one of my favourites of all time), so I’ve introduced that game to a few friends. It’s still as
fun and addictive now as it ever was. I keep meaning to check out the new version that is now
available. Computer-wise, it was Kingdoms of Amalur (I wrote a review of it on the Gollancz website
if anyone’s interested: I was intrigued
by this game because it has a lot in common with DestinyQuest. Sadly, the further into the game
you get, the more it becomes clear that the game didn’t receive enough testing and balancing prior
to release. Even on Hard setting it didn’t really provide much of a challenge. But it has charm – and
some of the best combat, outside of a pure action-consoler I’ve seen since Dragon Age 2.

Can you tell us what your favourite games are?

Recent games or all-time favourites? For the latter, it has to be World of Warcraft. It changed the
way I perceived gaming. I know its quite trendy to knock Warcraft now a days (actually, with Mists of
Panderia it’s probably well-justified!), but when it was released it was, quite simply, a revolution in
gaming. It made online gaming mainstream and it also provided one of the most appealing gaming
worlds I have ever come across. It’s a shame that some of that magic has been tarnished over recent
years with each successive update, but whatever the direction the developers take with the game,

they’ll never diminish the game’s fantastic achievements. It’s still the MMO to beat in my opinion.

Another all-time favourite that often goes under the radar is Thief: Deadly Shadows. This game got
a fair bit of criticism on its release for being console-centric, failing to offer a truly ‘open-world’
environment that I think reviewers had been promised. That aside, the level design and atmosphere
are utterly superb – the infamous Shalebridge Cradle level has now become something of a legend
amongst gamers; one of those things that I think you should get a T-Shirt for afterwards saying ‘I
survived the Cradle’. Jordan Thomas is one of my favourite level-designers (he also worked on
BioShock). When I see his name attached to anything it’s an automatic purchase.

Recent games, well I have to champion Dragon Age 2. Again, it was a game that had a mixed
reception on its release. I almost didn’t buy it when I read the reviews (shame on me), but thankfully
I did and I thought it was fantastic. To my mind, they improved on the gameplay of the first title in
just about every way imaginable, while keeping the elements that already worked so well (namely
the deep and involving character interactions). I actually liked the idea that the setting was a single
city and we experience and influence a chain of events, which have profound repercussions to the
characters and environment you have grown to love over the course of the game. Was there room
for improvement? Of course, but I think its flaws are minor compared to the colossal achievement
of creating such a complex story-telling experience. I highly recommend it to those who might have
missed it – and the DLC content is excellent too.

There’s so many great games really. Darksiders was good fun and can’t wait for the sequel. I also
enjoyed Dark Souls and Skyrim. Not classics, but they brought some interesting elements to the

Tell us how you came up with the concept for DestinyQuest

I really wanted to capture the feel of playing an open-world rpg. At the time, I was a serious MMO
gamer, spending around 50 hours a week on games like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars. I
realised, as I was playing these games, that no-one had really tried to capture that feel in a print
format. I wanted to create something that gave you all the customisation options that rpg players
are familiar with, alongside an exciting combat system and epic story. The CYO format was the
obvious means of achieving this, by giving players control over their character and the decisions that
they make as they explore the world.

How did you approach the writing process for DestinyQuest?

For each book I pin down the over-arching story first and then devise the main ‘game zones’ that
serve for each act of the story. From there it’s really a matter of working out what the separate
quests will be and then writing these individually, before compiling it all together.

Don’t ask me how, but I do manage to keep the decision trees and branching paths mostly in my
head. Of course, I have scribbled notes and the occasional diagram, but I tend to find that once I
start writing plans have a habit of going out of the window. I think that surprised my editor who,
when he came to reading through The Heart of Fire for the first time, was shocked that I didn’t have
any maps or flow charts to help him make sense of it all. It’s in here I’m afraid <taps forehead> but I
think for my editor’s sanity I’ll need to start doing those in future!

In terms of writing style, I wanted to mimic that MMO feel. I didn’t want it to read as a
traditional ‘stuffy’ fantasy. I wanted to have fun with it and play around with ideas and themes.
There are lots of popular culture references in there, as well as dialogue and events that harken
back to its MMO roots. But at the end of the day, its about giving readers an engrossing story and
meaningful decisions to make a long the way. I’m not sure that I 100% nailed it with the first book
– like everything in life, you look back and wish you could change certain aspects. But writing (and
certainly gamebook writing) is a craft that you’re constantly improving and refining. With DQ2, The
Heart of Fire, I feel incredibly confident that I’ve got close to that ‘perfect’ gamebook. But I guess I’m
obviously going to be a ‘little’ biased there!

What products have you had your work published in?

My previous work has been in the education sector, so a spattering of articles, teachers’ books,
and games and resources for the classroom. Most recently I’ve been working with the International
Primary Curriculum, updating their themed units for use in schools around the world.

DestinyQuest is the first of my novels to be published – and I hope it will open a few more doors in
the future in terms of writing opportunities. I always wanted to be a writer for computer games,
but getting into the industry as a writer is incredibly hard. I think times are changing. Before, game
scripts were often written by their designers or someone embedded in its production. Now, I think
developers are seeing the value in having specific writers come in and focus solely on story. I’m
always hopeful, one day it might be me but I guess DestinyQuest is the next best thing to keep me
occupied in the meantime!

Oh, just remembered – I did once have some tips published in CRASH magazine (a UK mag for the ZX
Spectrum, published in the eighties). I won a free game too. Result!

Are you working on any gaming-related projects at the moment?

I’m actually ‘between’ books at the moment, so am currently doing some education freelancing (it
helps to pay the bills!). I’m also writing a few extra bits for the gaming app of The Legion of Shadow,
which is due to be released later in the year.

A gaming app? Can you tell us more about this?

It’s a conversion of The Legion of Shadow for interactive devices (such as Android, iPhone, iPad etc.).
There’s more info here about its various features:
destinyquest-ya-dig-it/ There’s no release date as yet, but I believe a free playable demo should be
available soon.

Do you have any webpages or social network accounts where fans can find you?

For information and the latest news on DestinyQuest, then I’d suggest people point their browsers
to I also have a dedicated DQ facebook page and twitter account. The links
can be found on the ‘buy page’ of my main site. Please follow and help support! ;)

And last but not least, when is the new book out?

A ‘special edition’ version of The Legion of Shadow is published on 17 May in hardback and large
trade paperback format. It’s the version of the book that I self-published last year, but with new
cover artwork, extra quests and an expanded colour section.

DQ2, The Heart of Fire, is available in hardback and large trade paperback from 15 November. And I
promise you, it’s going to be something special!

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