Thursday, February 24, 2011

DestinyQuest: The Interview!

DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadow.
Cover art by David Wyatt.
DestinyQuest Book 1: The Legion of Shadow by Michael J. Ward, is an amazing new contender in the slowly rejuvenating gamebook scene. I was first made aware of it by a post on Dave Morris' Fabled Lands blog, and procrastinated about buying it before ordering one of the limited Collector's Editions from eBay. It arrived yesterday, and I must say at 534 pages it is the most impressive gamebook I have seen in a long while, if not ever. After I spent my lunchbreak wandering around the wild lands surrounding the village of Tithebury Cross, slaughtering monsters and accumulating loot, that opinion has not changed and I fired off a bunch of questions to Michael about his new book. Here's what he had to say... 

1. Firstly, it’s the biggest gamebook I’ve ever seen! How many words is it, and how long did it take you to plan, plot, test, and write? What’s your writing routine like?

Yes, the size took me a little by surprise too! The finished manuscript was something like 145,000 words by the end and I could have easily carried on! Originally, it was meant to be a four act story, with Mistwood and Black Marsh existing as separate zones – but it became apparent quite quickly that the format I chose for the book (with the different narrative quests) meant that it would have made the book quite unwieldy. I had to do a fair bit of chopping and editing!

The planning happened quite quickly, maybe a few weeks. I started with the zone ideas first and then rolled that out into a plot that gamers would easily identify with. The writing took about six/seven months (which is actually quite quick for a book), the speed due to the fact that I just loved writing it. The book never felt like a chore, in fact, quite the opposite – and I did have to remind myself at times that a break can do you a world of good!

The testing of the book. Oh boy. That was a mammoth task. Writing it was the easy part… balancing 3 classes, 15 careers and umpteen gazillion items was the real challenge. Basically it involved playing the book… again and again, and then again… and again. I can’t imagine how many hours were spent on the testing. I know that, towards the end, I was doing about 13 hours a day of solid testing. That can drive you a little crazy, to be honest. I was lucky enough to be able to recruit some friends to help out – and their feedback was invaluable in making last minute tweaks. I was very conscious all along that there can be no patch for a book – no quick fix once the words are printed, so I had to do my very best to get it as perfect as I could. Obviously, with a game of this size and complexity, there will be some builds that might inevitably struggle in places – that is just the nature of the beast – but I hope that the play experience will be enjoyable, no matter what crazy hero builds people decide to experiment with!

2. What’s your background with regards to fantasy RPG games and gamebooks? In other words, what possessed you to sit down one day and think “I’m going to write the biggest gamebook ever”?

As people may already know from my website, I was a big Fighting Fantasy fan when I was growing up. In fact, once I had discovered the wonders of Dungeons & Dragons I pretty much lapped up any fantasy game I could get my hands on. I still have very fond memories of playing Talisman (which I understand has now been re-released), as well as the Firetop Mountain board game and a little known game called Dungeon (which had colour coded levels, if I remember correctly – similar to the quests in DestinyQuest). Also, like most teenagers of a fantasy persuasion, I was a regular at my local Games Workshop, playing Warhammer and Warhammer 40k.

However, my hands-on hobby was constantly competing with the lure of computer games, and I’ll confess that ultimately, the computer won. I think I must have played most computer rpgs from Dungeon Master to Diablo…  to the modern day MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, LOTR online and Guild Wars. I got pretty addicted to online gaming; at one stage I was playing Warcraft 50 hours a week (and that was while holding down a full-time job!). That was back in the day of 40-man raids (Molten Core until your eyes bleed…) and I don’t regret a minute of it. In fact, many of the ‘characters’ in DestinyQuest (Nyms, Ravenwing, Sahna, Caeleb) are based on gaming friends from those days. 

So, what possessed me to write a gaming book? Well, I love the aforementioned computer games and I felt that no-one had tried to attempt that in a book before (at the time, I was not aware of The Fabled Lands series, which I believe shares a similar design philosophy). I just tried to imagine the kind of book that I would like to play – away from the computer – when I needed a ‘gaming fix’. I wanted something that delivered the same instant gratification, where I was developing a hero and outfitting them with new equipment; but one that also gave me that freedom to explore a world and ultimately, allow me to take part in more of an epic narrative.

3. How do you go about plotting out a gamebook like this? Do you flowchart it out on paper, or use a spreadsheet program, or something else?

I have what I call ‘scribble pads’, that are filled with ideas, drawings, maps… you name it. I probably have about six or seven of the things for the first book alone. When I come to a quest, I simply work out what the encounters will be, the choices that will be presented to the hero, and the story that needs to be delivered. Then I roughly sketch it out as a flow diagram. However, I rarely stick to that (!) and once I get writing, I get new ideas or swap encounters around – I go with the story flow rather than restricting myself too much.

Logo by Paul Cheshire.
4. Gamebooks are commonly thought to be “over” as a phenomenon. How difficult was it to find a publisher and how did you go about convincing them to publish DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadows?

Hmm, how long have you got? I could write a book about this! Basically, my agent loved the book and took it around major publishers. I had a couple that were very interested and, in one case, was literally about to sign on the dotted line. However, for whatever reason, they didn’t. The book industry as a whole is having a hard time of it at the moment and publishers are very wary of taking on what they would term ‘risky’ ventures. They liked the idea of DestinyQuest but simply did not want to commit the money to launching a new franchise. The bitter irony is that I know people working in the book industry and apparently commissioning editors are crying out for new and innovative projects to take on… but the struggle is to win over those who hold the purse strings.

After a year of touting the book around and getting frequent disinterest or comments of ‘I just don’t get it’… I remember having that eureka moment at about 3am one morning when I thought ‘I’ll do this myself.’ I firmly believed, for my sins, that DestinyQuest was too good an idea to just shove away in a cupboard to gather dust. I’ve worked in publishing and I’m lucky to know talented designers and illustrators… so I felt I could do this. And not only do it, but do it well.

I’ll hold my hands up and say that I am one of those people who hears the words ‘self-publishing’ and runs a mile, screaming for the hills. There is a stigma about self-published titles - that the standard of writing was ‘not good enough’ to be taken on or the ideas are flawed. The truth is, as I have discovered myself, publishers are taking on fewer and fewer books these days, and those they do take on are restricted to certain genres (if I see one more Twilight/vampire novel argh!). It is tough to get something ‘new’ out there at the moment, you almost need to ‘prove your worth’. When I made the decision to self-publish I knew that, not only did I have to do it well, but I had to make it ‘better’ than a traditional high street bestseller. What you see when you pick up that book is the result of a year of blood, sweat, tears and sheer obsession to produce the best book that I possibly could.

5. Are there any particularly sources of inspiration that have influenced DestinyQuest, such as books, films, or RPG games?

I think it goes without saying that World of Warcraft was a huge influence (and why not, it has 11 million+ subscribers, so it is doing something right!). I also love the ‘point-and-click’ rpgs like Diablo, Titan Quest and Dungeon Siege -  that idea that, at any moment, some great loot can drop for your character. Of course, I am a massive film geek as well, so I think readers will spot those influences in some of the storylines also.

Limitless Possibilities, Endless Adventure!
Illustration by David Wyatt.

6. The Legion of Shadow is set in the Kingdom of Valeron. Does Valeron have a longer history (and if so, what?), or was it developed specifically for the DestinyQuest series?

Valeron is just one part of the world of DestinyQuest. I sat down and wrote a twenty-page history of the kingdom along with details on the magic system. I know gamers are a tough bunch to please (I am one myself) and they like their lore – but they also hate inconsistencies or areas that feel ‘made up’ on the fly. I’ve tried to build a backstory to the world, however, I am trying to avoid feeding too much of that into the books. I don’t want to provide a history lesson or a detailed explanation of why a pyromancer can cast fireballs… I want readers to experience the world through their actions. It always annoys me in computer games when there are books to pick up, that give you about twenty pages of lore to read. I’m just one of those people who doesn’t want to waste time reading those, I want to hit things instead!

7. Although there’s no art in the book, I do like the cover and also the website art. Who are the talented artists helping you and what’s their story?

David Wyatt did the cover art for the Legion of Shadow. We had worked together previously on some education and story materials, back in my days at Scholastic. Since then his art has adorned the covers of some really big names. When I contacted him (with my hastily-scribbled cover idea) I didn’t think I was in with much of a chance – but I was lucky. Like most people I meet and talk to about DQ, he had a strong sense of nostalgia for those old game books. He leapt at the chance – and of course, produced a fantastic cover.

Paul Cheshire produced the maps, logo and web art. He is a good friend of mine and, despite loathing all things fantasy (yes, I know….), pulled out all the stops to create some stunning visuals. He is just one of those guys who can take a rough sketch on a napkin, then literally a day or two later presents you with something that makes your jaw hit the floor. A very talented illustrator, who I hope to be working closely with on future books. 

8. If you buy the Collector’s Edition from eBay, one of the extras you get is a unique treasure card for your Hero. Are there plans to produce more of these so we can acquire ones we don’t have, or are you planning on introducing some sort of DestinyQuest CCG?

The treasure card idea was something I always wanted to do with DQ – just one of about a thousand ideas that I have for developing the gaming experience beyond the book. But sadly, as I am financing this myself (for now!) then I can’t really develop my ideas further. For the moment, they are just available as part of the collectors set and at my book signing events. There are common, rare and epic cards.

9. I notice on your website you’ve mentioned an eBook version. Would this include programs to do all the Hero Sheet book-keeping for you? Have you thought about expanding your digital repertoire to include a DestinyQuest app? (I only ask because I think the different maps you use for each Act are perfect for a touch-screen device!)

No, the ebook version is just a standard version of the book. I did want to do all the stuff that you mention (recordkeeping, interactive maps, page-jumping etc) but that is app territory, which is more involved (from a programming perspective) than a standard ebook. Again, I have so many ideas for an interactive version of DQ it sometimes makes me want to scream; things that people are just not doing at the present time but would just provide those ‘geek’ moments when playing – moving more towards more of a shared experience. The digital side of things, particularly with mobile technology, offers almost limitless avenues to explore when it comes to interactive books. And I think that will help make the game book relevant once again.

But having said all that, I still love to hold a good book and flick through pages, roll dice and feel the ‘physicality’ of the game. So, I have no regrets at all in making DestinyQuest a traditional print title, but I hope I have shown the potential in the game system and concept that perhaps a larger publisher might give me the support I need to develop the franchise further.  

10. What does the future hold for DestinyQuest? When can we expect a second book? How can I access the extra downloads on your website?

At the moment I am just finishing off some of the download materials (extra quests etc.). They will be available for free as PDF downloads from my website in the next week or so. Then I will start writing the next book. I think it will be this time next year (or perhaps a little later) that the next book will be out – but the website will continue to be updated before then, with the new career sneak peeks and more info on the exciting new elements that are coming to the DQ world! I hope gamers will stick by me and continue their support for this game book and for the genre in general.

Thank you!

Thank you, Michael! If you want to grab a copy, the DestinyQuest website has a purchasing page that will direct you to the online emporium of your choice. Personally though, I'd recommend the Collector's Edition while stocks last...

Your Choices, Your Hero! Illustration by David Wyatt


  1. Great interview - thanks for doing this Andy and thanks Mike for answering all of those questions. I look forward to getting Destiny Quest and reading it :).

  2. You've definitely persuaded me - just ordered it!

  3. I am still on the first act, but so far I love the game. It's very addictive and I highly recommend it. Glad to know the second book is still in the plans!

  4. What is the quality of the writing? Is it engaging, compelling, immersive for the reader? Or, and not to sound rude, is it along the lines of Fabled Lands, which, IMHO, is less that engaging, compelling.

  5. Thanks for all the comments!

    @Soren: The writing is definitely immersive - it's more like reading an engaging fantasy novel than the wandering of the Fabled Lands (where the text could be a little terse at times).



  6. this book has totally went up to my top 10 favourite gamebooks! its a bummer that we have to wait another year for the next book though... =(

  7. It's a great book! Don't forget to do a review for Amazon if you enjoyed it, as good reviews = more sales = more DQ books = win-win for everyone!