“Everything in a screenplay has a purpose, no scene or dialogue is wasted.” Interview with Micky Neilson, a writer at Frost Giant Studios

Micky Neilson started his gamedev career as an artist, but his childhood passion for writing left an imprint. A few years later, he changed direction and took up writing for popular projects, including three large expansions for World of Warcraft.

The Inlingo team talked to Micky to find out how the writers manage to keep the virtual worlds living for decades, whether to leave the key points of the story in notes and how to create a story that will be loved by millions of players

“Horror finds its way into the things that I’m writing”

You’re an experienced talented writer and you’ve created stories for both books and video games. When did you become passionate about storytelling? 

— It started when I was a kid. I spent a lot of time with my dad, he told me stories that he made up and those stories sparked my own imagination and led me to think about distant worlds and fantastical creatures. it was all in my brain but I already knew that I wanted to tell stories. I had a book when I was like 10 years old and I looked at the cover to try and see who was responsible for telling the story because that’s what I wanted to do. 

I actually looked at the publisher’s name it was like Whitman Publishing and I told my dad that I want to be Whitman and what I really meant was I wanted to be the author. So, I messed it up, but I ended up running the publishing department at Blizzard years later anyway. So it all kind of worked out.

— Do you remember the first real story you’ve created in writing? 

— I had a lot of ideas when I was young but the first concept that evolved into a coherent narrative was a story about a Franciscan monk in the 1400s who goes to a remote monastery in the Pyrenees. This monastery spends most of its day in shadows and the monk finds out that the entire monastery has been taken over by vampires.

There’s another version of that story where the monks were transcribing old scriptures and summoned a demon that ran rampant throughout the monastery. So you can see there was a theme there. I’ve always loved horror movies and horror stories of all kinds. So horror kind of finds its way into the things that I’m writing. 

— Who’s your favorite horror writer?

— Definitely, Stephen King and, you know, everybody says that, but there’s a good reason for it. 

He writes unforgettable characters and he’s an idea guy, he can just come up with ideas all day long. It’s like he’s a bottomless well of great ideas. Even when he’s taking something that’s been done to death like vampires in Salem’s Lot he manages to put a spin on it that makes it feel exciting.

I’m a huge fan of Dean Koontz, he’s a close number two in there, but Stephen King’s at the top. 

— Your work in the industry is related to storytelling but you initially joined Blizzard as an artist. How did it happen? 

— A guy named Sam Didier was my best friend when I was a teenager. He went by the name Samwise. He and I were ushers at AMC Orange and he would always draw barbarians and dragons on the back of the schedule book. I was an artist too, and I was drawing the same kinds of things, so we got close and became really good friends.

Shortly after that I went into the army for a while but got out on a medical discharge because of a truck accident. I was talking to Sam while I was in the army and he had gotten a job at a very small video game company called Silicon & Synapse. At the time the company was, I think like 12 people. He kept telling me about it and said “Hey I’m doing artwork for video games and this is a lot of fun, maybe this is something that you would want to try?” 

One of the first games by Silicon & Synapse. Image Credit: Blizzard

And so I did. I went to the offices and he would let me use his computer at nighttime to learn not 3d art but computer art in general. It’s different from pencil, pen, ink, or acrylic. There’s a whole new set of rules that you need to kind of understand and it takes a lot of practice. I practiced that for a few months and then took an art test where I was asked to draw a creature, a human, and a structure. So I got the job based on that and started doing artwork. 

— And then you switched to writing? 

— The first thing I worked on was the Justice League Task Force, I was helping to animate characters like The Flash and Green Arrow. That’s how I got started in that company, of course, Silicon & Synapse eventually became Blizzard. We started working on 

Warcraft and eventually went on to Starcraft. I was working on storylines, I was editing scripts, I was doing dialogue. When you’re at a small company like that everybody does a little bit of everything and so I was already kind of dipping my toes in the water as far as the story is concerned and I tried to do that as much as I could.

Original Warcraft, debuted in 1994. Image Credit: Blizzard

Eventually, years later I transitioned from two-dimensional art to 3D, and around that time Chris Metzen created a brand new department that he called Creative Development, which was basically intended to oversee the stories for all the different IPs that we were working on: Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo. He asked me if I wanted to be a part of that and I started working there. For six months I continued doing the 3D art and working on the story at the same time. I hedged my bets because I didn’t know if it was going to be successful. After six months I felt comfortable enough to switch to the story stuff completely, but I still worked on art in my free time. 

The first thing I did was overseeing the WoW comic book. We did that with DC Comics, a label called WildStorm at the time. So from there I just kept working on story content, novels, short stories, and things like that. Writing my own stuff but also doing creative editing on other people’s stories. 

World of Warcraft comic books that Micky worked on.

“In World of Warcraft, the story is unfolding all around the player”

— You’ve mentioned working on storytelling in games and comics in the WoW universe and other IPs by Blizzard. What would you say are the main differences between narrative in literature and video games? 

— It depends on what kind of a game you’re talking about. Say, a first-person shooter versus an MMO, the stories are going to be different. For Overwatch, for instance, there’s not a lot of narrative content that’s conveyed to the player in the game. Games like that really rely on the ancillary products: stories and comic books. Whereas in World of Warcraft the story is unfolding all around you and so it very much is a big part of the game itself.

Another significant difference for a video game is player choice. In a movie you have a story that’s unfolding sequentially, the viewer is just there watching, you’re along for the ride. Whereas with a lot of video games you can choose what your character is going to do. You can go down one path versus another path and you can have branching storylines and dialogue.  The story to a certain extent is a little bit more in the hands of the player when you have a game that allows you to go hang out and fish all day or have a garden.

A similar kind of thing happens with a game like Minecraft. It’s just an open world, and you can do what you want to do, but even in a game like that the story is still taking place around you and that’s done through the environment.  Even if it’s a platformer game like Crash Bandicoot, the story is always going to be reinforced through art, through VO, sound effects and music, and through NPC characters that you interact with.

You’ve said that the story always happens around the player. Do you think if, say, I go fishing instead of completing my main quest, can this be considered part of the narrative within the game’s universe?

— If the player wants to, then why not. In World of Warcraft, you can kind of check out from the story if you want. If you don’t want to be bothered and all you want to do is just go and fish, you can do that. 

Now, the game is alive and is happening all the time 24/7.

So the world is always existing around you and the story is always unfolding around you.

And it is a little bit different for a group of players going on a raid or someone improving their fishing skills. I think if you want to go and just do your own thing and you don’t necessarily care about the story you should be able to do that.

Freedom would be the main feature for an MMO. Yet, you know, there are so many different types of games, so it entirely depends on the game. 

— What would you call a secret to writing a great engaging story? What should be done to engage the players until the very finale? 

— The rules would differ depending on the medium and depending on the genre, but with any story you’re telling whether it’s a game, a book, or a movie you need compelling characters. You need to keep the player or the viewer in suspense, guessing, asking questions, anticipating greater things to come. Above all you have to enjoy the ride, you should care about the main characters, whether they live or die. There should be points in the story that surprise you.

And on a deeper level, truly great storytelling contains subtext. It explores universal themes, it confronts moral dilemmas, and it asks difficult questions while forcing each of us to answer those questions for ourselves. 

There’s a lot of talk about how video games are finally reaching that level of cinema and books in terms of the seriousness of the topics covered. Should games go deep into philosophical questions?

— I think if you’re a game developer that’s one of the choices that you need to make right upfront. If it’s a platformer game it’s not going to have a deep storyline and you don’t want it to because it needs to be fast. The player just needs to be running through that world collecting items and going through the progression of the game. That’s going to be a lot different from something like an MMO where you might get really really deep into the storyline. A game like WoW has more of an epic storyline. But you can certainly have stories that are much more grounded. Even in a first-person shooter, it’s possible and I think that’s one of the choices you have to make.

Developers should decide how many stories they want in their game. Some people are going to listen to all of the NPC dialogue, but others don’t care. They honestly just want to go level up and get items not spend time with the story. In WoW, the developers deliberately chose the path of a well-developed story, the player can plunge into it if they want, or skip it.

If it’s going to be a narrative-heavy game there’s nothing wrong with that I think. It just needs to be promoted that way and the player needs to know what they’re getting into.

— What stages do you need to go through when you prepare a story not from scratch, but work on a large expansion for an existing storyline?

In my experience, game designers created the storylines and the quests with the creative director. This is where I would come in. 

The game designers would come to me with a list of characters and send me a short description of the gameplay, a document describing what the player will do. Now I need to think over the details of the story: all the lines of enemies, bosses, NPCs, taunts, and everything that characters say when they take damage or die.

We did it like that for Burning Crusade, Cataclysm, Wrath of the Lich King. I was also the voice director so I would audition the actors, select the talent and then do the voice directing sessions which was an interesting and fascinating part of my life as a storyteller.
To be able to come up with the words that the characters are saying and then select the actors who would actually say those words was a lot of fun.

Blizzard’s Creative Development Publishing Team ran by Micky as Publishing Lead.

— When writing, do you usually know how this or that character should sound?

— Yeah, I can hear the voice inside my head, but you know sometimes actors will surprise you.  You’ll hear a voice you weren’t picturing and realize it sounds amazing. You didn’t even think about that, but that sounds great. But most of the time I have a pretty clear idea of what it is that I want to hear from the actor and then it’s just a matter of finding that.

— Let’s say you have two very talented voice actors. Do you have any criteria on how to choose between them?

— Voice actors are a very interesting community. In California, there was a group that we would work with again and again and they’re so good. They’re excellent actors but their voices sound great on top of that. When choosing I know we’ve got five big creature voices.  I also know that there are three or four actors who can do those voices, each in their own way.

“Sometimes you get into things like retconning”

— WoW is played by people all around the world, how to create content that is well received by players of different cultures?

— You don’t want to offend another culture. It’s important to listen to feedback and to try and do something to address concerns if you can. 

You need to do the homework, the research and talk to the necessary people to try and prevent surprises. When I was writing a graphic novel that featured Japanese culture very heavily I used to call the Japanese Cultural Center in Seattle. I spoke to them and just asked a lot of questions.

— You think taking inspiration from other cultures helps you as a writer? Perhaps it would be easier to write something neutral so as not to offend anyone?

— It can be helpful for writers to have cultural touchstones because if you say: “oh this video game race is going to be very much like Vikings” then everybody knows what you’re talking about. You can come up with some name for this race and say “oh well, they’re kind of barbaric, but they’re travelers and they have proud traditions” If you say that to a room of 10 people they’re going to have 10 different ideas of what that race could be.  Whereas if you say “Vikings” everyone has pretty much the same picture.

I think that’s the danger of just going completely neutral in the earliest stages. Even in your descriptions, you should still have some touchstones of something that everybody understands, like when you say “this race is a lot like ancient Romans”.

Certain things you want to avoid in those instances are obviously stereotypes and I think the stereotypes are where you start getting into the territory of something being offensive.
you know you could say that this character is Hispanic or this character is Asian but if you start getting into stereotypes then you’re potentially running into a lot of problems. 

— Many teams today are trying to convey story and lore in their projects indirectly through item descriptions or notes. Does it help to see the gameplay in a new light or does it ruin the plot for less attentive people?

— Item descriptions exist to add flavor, they shouldn’t be there to convey important story elements. Notes, descriptions, and things like that exist to round out the world and make it feel more lived in. They provide detail for the people who want to take the time and immerse themselves in that level of detail. Nevertheless, the plot should be coherent and logical for those players who do not want to read the descriptions. They shouldn’t be missing out on anything important.  So, for someone who’s designing a game I would say it’s important to make sure that all of that content like item descriptions, NPC dialogue, and other details do not communicate important story points. They should all just be supporting story points that add to the overall immersion.

There is an exception for games containing a mystery. And in order to solve the mystery, you have to read through all these different things. You have to read all that stuff because that is integral to the story.

— A lot of projects in the modern industry are developed as services, including MMORPGs.  New plotlines appear from time to time, complementing existing stories. How can we design them in a way that does not conflict with previous global updates?

— One thing that I think is very important is you have to have some kind of a repository for existing lore.  Say, you’ve got your base MMO that’s establishing a story, and then you’re going to have all of these expansions that are adding to that story. 

If you have a narrative based on some history, and you expand it every few months, then sooner or later what’s going to happen is developers will get to a point where they don’t know the story themselves anymore. The story has gotten away from everybody.

At Blizzard we had people critical in helping maintain the vision of the story, they were the lore people. They are like a real-world historian who can tell you every fact about Ancient Rome, well we had our historians who could tell you every fact about Warcraft and its 10 000 years of history. When the game designers had questions they could go to the historians to find if they could do that or if it’s already been done. 

And then obviously sometimes you get into things like retconning. You need to keep track of all of that history that you’re building as you go. 

Another note on that is that you can end up with parts of a game called Snapshots and what I mean by that is pieces that are valid only at a specific point in time. New players can play the fresh addition, but at the same time, they return to the previous points too where the story is already outdated because the plot has moved on. 

You have to make a choice whether to constantly go back and change old events in the story in order to connect them with the rest of the world or to just leave everything as it is and call it a snapshot. It doesn’t matter what the key points were in the previous part, they only refer to a specific point in time and place.

“Every element of the game is helping to tell the story”

— Do you think that there is a limit to the number of stories that can be told within a universe?

Say you’re starting up a game studio and you want to create a brand new story. One of the things that you need to take into account is the longevity of your concept. How many stories upfront you could potentially tell in a universe like that. If you’ve limited yourself to very specific characters in a very specific time period for instance then you might want to consider ways that allow you to expand beyond that. You’re going to need something to break out of that sandbox you’re in.

The trick is always to keep things fresh while remaining true to the spirit of what made the IP successful in the first place.

A lot of TV shows will struggle with this problem because they become victims of their own success. They get renewed for another season, but they haven’t necessarily mapped out what the storyline is going to be for that new season. There’s no magic formula for it but it’s important to have a vision and to maintain that vision throughout. You’ll get some shows that go off in left field and sometimes it doesn’t even feel like the same TV show anymore.

With some choices they go as far as saying: “We’re going to switch it up, it’s going to be totally different!” Well,  different may not work because if it feels too different then people aren’t responding to what made them fall in love with that show in the first place. I would encourage writers to always go back to the original whether it’s a game, a TV show, season one, or whatever it is. Ask yourself what were the ingredients that made that a success? What did the fans respond to and what was it about that story that made you as the writer passionate? Because your passion and your love for this world that you’ve created and for these characters that you’ve created are going to come across in the content. It’s so important not just to try and make sure that the viewers and the players are invested, but you as the writer need to be invested. As you move forward you should be as excited about season 7 or the 15th expansion as the fans are. If you can do that I think you’re in a good place.

— Were you as engaged later as the years went by?

—  Yeah I was. A lot of that was because there are always new characters to explore. Especially with a game like WoW, it’s like pockets of this world that feel fresh and new. This was one of the company’s strengths.

— Stories are told not only through text or dialogue. What details allow you to immerse the player in the world even before the NPCs start to talk?

— One example I look at is screenwriting. When you’re writing a screenplay one of the things that you learn is that nothing is wasted. No scene is wasted, no dialogue is wasted, everything in that screenplay has a purpose because you only have a certain number of pages to tell the story.

Games are similar, every element of the game is helping to tell the story.

Everything from the environment to the color palette, to the aesthetic design, the shape language, all of these things are helping to tell the story. A lot of it happens without the player even realizing necessarily that it’s happening, but all of these elements come together to create this illusion that you are walking through or playing through an entirely different world or universe.

— When you walk on the train station in Half-Life 2, you see all the totalitarian environment. As a writer, are you the one that comes up with that description or does the visual artist just run into the room and yell: “I have a great design for totalitarian train stations!”, so now you accommodate.

— You know, it depends. If we’re talking about video games specifically, it all depends on the developers. For example, Toys for Bob, developers of Crash Bandicoot 4 

asked their artists: “What great ideas inside the Crash Bandicoot universe can we implement?  What do you think would be the coolest most fun environments for Crash Bandicoot to play through? Go nuts”. Gave them complete freedom and only then began working on the story based on the environments. 

Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. Image Credit: Blizzard.

In that case, the environments came first, the artists were building this world, and then it was up to the writer to make all of that gel, that’s not always the way it goes. Oftentimes you’ll have the writer come in having a very clear idea or a vision of what the universe is going to be. And one of the things that you’ll do as a writer when you’re coming on to a new game is you’ll create a world bible. The world bible is giving you the history of that world and it’s giving you a lot of these details.

So you’re saying, “A hundred years ago there was this great war and this race fought against that race.” You’re adding all of that detail so then the designers, the artists, everybody who’s working on the game can use that as a guide. So maybe a level that they’re creating will have a poster that says something about that war that took place a hundred years ago.

To me, it’s incredibly important that the designers have freedom.

So the story that you’re creating isn’t meant to restrict the game design and the art. If an artist comes up with a cool idea the writer should always look for a way to incorporate that. The best idea wins is what we’ll often say and as a writer coming on to a new project I subscribe to that theory. I want to know what the designers and developers are excited about, what are they passionate about. My job is to tell a story that gives them the freedom to pursue those passions.

— Do we need to somehow overcome the ludonarrative dissonance or do we just embrace it? How to create a sense of uniqueness in an MMORPG where everybody is a hero?

— I think it’s important that the player always feels like the hero or if it’s a different kind of story, the villain. We ran into trouble when I was running the publishing team at Blizzard. We did the WoW comic and we had King Wrynn as a major character. There was this whole storyline around King Wrynn going back and doing things that the player had done in the game. So a lot of people reading the comic actually got mad about it because they said, “Well, no wait a minute King Wrynn didn’t do that. I did that!”

Yeah, of course, millions of players did that, they all felt pride and they all felt ownership of having gone through those quests. They’re spending hours and hours to get to the end, to get the items, to beat the boss.

It wasn’t our intention to make players that way. That was a lesson that we learned and we took that lesson and carried it forward when we did other comic books or stories.

Say, there are goblins that are pillaging the village and the NPCs are like: “Oh no! They’re so fierce and evil”. But you’re too overpowered for this quest and you go in, you destroy them.  So there is this dissonance because you’ve been told that it is almost impossible and you just kill everybody in a second or two. How to fix this?

— That sounds like a game balancing question that the designers need to go through. That’s where QA comes in. You’ve got these people who are playing the same level over and over trying to break it, finding out all the bugs. And then the game designers react to that feedback and make changes. So that you don’t get a situation where you take a high-level character and run around in a lower-level zone being way overpowered. Yes, you can do that but that’s not what the game is designed for necessarily. 

Yet again, it’s part of the freedom of the game. If you want to go and do that you can. But it’s bad design if you’re progressing along with the storyline and you feel completely overpowered.

Rapid Fire Round

—  Alliance or Horde?
— Yes. I say that because I played both.

—  Three rules of a good story?
—  Character, Concept, and Theme.

— What would your ideal weekend look like?
— A remote cabin, sushi, chocolate, and family time.

Your favorite science fiction or fantasy writers?
— So we talked about Stephen King even though he’s specifically horror. We talked about Dean Koontz. For fantasy Robert E. Howard, Tolkien of course, Richard Matheson, and for Sci-Fi William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson who did Logan’s Run.

What universe would you like to work on as an author?
Anything developed by Robert E Howard so it could be Conan, it could be King King Kull, it could be Solomon Kane, anything that he created.