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15 Minutes of Fame: Gaming industry insider Liz Danforth


From Hollywood celebrities to the guy next door, millions of people have made World of Warcraft a part of their lives. How do you play WoW? We're giving each approach its own 15 Minutes of Fame.

For the crowdsourced site that it is, it's funny how Wikipedia's attempts at straight-laced objectivity so often nail the tenor of its subjects in an almost poetically understated fashion. Take this week's subject, Liz Danforth: "Elizabeth T. Danforth is a figure of note in the game industry. Although primarily recognized as an illustrator, she is an editor, writer, game scenario designer, and game developer." A figure of note? I'll say so. When I oh-so-casually mentioned who I was emailing back and forth with this week, the IMs from my husband (who's been playing pen-and-paper RPGs and card games since 1978) hit capslock mode: "WHO? Oh, HELL YEAH! Ask her if she can send the art for TUKNIR DEATHLOCK!"

Thus began my immersion into the world of Liz Danforth. Lest you think she comes strictly from an old-school perspective, Danforth's route today continues forward through computer gaming and forges ahead into new frontiers of MMO design. As our sister site Massively noted just last month, "Danforth is an industry pro whose resume stretches back to include classic PC games like Star Trek: 25th Anniversary and Wasteland, and she said she was impressed enough with what Namaste was doing with Storybricks to allow herself to be called out of semi-retirement and back into action. Right now she's providing the team with concept and promotional art."

Interviewing Danforth is no small prospect. The lady is passionate about everything she's involved in, from gaming to her work as a professional librarian to ... well, we found ourselves chatting late one night this week about standing desks. Of course, the point here is to see how the World of Warcraft figures into the mix -- and on that, like everything else, this outspoken WoW veteran has plenty to say.

Liz Danforth's character WinterMain character Winterice of Stormwind, mage
Guild Unabashed Noobery
Realm Kilrogg (US-A)

15 Minutes of Fame: Obviously, with a background like yours, we don't need to work backwards to establish your gaming cred.

Liz Danforth: You will need to speak to my "gaming cred" background because (a.) most people don't know me from Adam; and (b.) those who do will know me from only one facet. It's something I've never really figured out, but it's a constant theme -- people will know me from Tunnels & Trolls but never have a clue I did Magic cards (or vice versa). They'll have heard I did the Star Trek computer games for Interplay but never knew I did tabletop anything. They'll know me from Traveller but not FASA. They'll know me from the Middle-Earth RPG but not the CCG, or the card game and not the numerous game books I illustrated in Iron Crown's Tolkien license.

And it happens again now with new variations on the theme -- people know me as a games-in-libraries advocate and Library Journal blogger but don't have a clue why I know my way around games or anything I did for the last 30 years in the industry.

Some of this is my own fault. I suck at publicizing myself, really, and I hate sounding like I'm bragging -- in part, because I don't see I have a lot to brag about. The downside to doing so many different things is I don't do a lot of any of them (except the art, really). There are people who focus, who do a lot of one thing and make a name for themselves in the process. They also rack up those 10,000 hours for mastery, and it shows. I'm still working on the 10k hours for things like computer game design and maybe even fiction, but my 5k or 8k worth of "working on it" is still pretty good ... but not worth making a big braggartly deal about, because there are others so much better.

Liz Danforth's character Winter
Speaking of focus and diving deep, did you know what sort of deep involvement you were getting into when you bought World of Warcraft? Had you played MMOs before?

Short version: I didn't have a clue what I was getting into. I had played a few weeks of Runescape to find out what MMOs were but had been told WoW was "state of the art." If I liked free Runescape, I should get WoW, and I did.

Long version: Labor Day weekend, 2005, I was Artist Guest of Honor at the Seattle NASFiC (the North American Science Fiction Convention), the Worldcon substitute for when Worldcon itself was held out of the country. When I returned home, I had an email from a big-name game developer I knew from the time I'd done concept art for a proposed game about dragons being designed by my old friend Dave Arneson. Said developer was gathering together a crew to create a new MMO, and did I want to get on board? We spent an afternoon chatting, and I said I'd think about it. I'd recently started grad school for my MLS and wasn't sure I wanted to take a flyer on a start-up.

The folks there were great, though, and suggested I learn a little more before making a decision. RuneScape was a free MMO hugely popular just then, and they said, "Give that a try. If you like it, and if your computer is good enough, get World of Warcraft -- it is state of the art."

I had never heard of MMOs up to that point, being primarily a tabletop gamer. I played RuneScape, found it intriguing but frustrating, and eventually toddled off to Best Buy to pick up WoW. My computer was good enough although I decided I'd better upgrade my bandwidth if I wanted to play. "Death by download" was already in my vocabulary.

I never did sign on with the developer who pointed me at WoW, but I did enjoy the game right from the start. Because of how I came into it, I approached it analytically, more as market research and endeavoring to understand the game design as design. This led to my playing both Horde and Alliance, spending some time with every class and race, and thinking I was understanding what I was learning.

It would be a long time before I realized just how incredibly much there was to learn about WoW, about its players and history, and how much the community would grow and change over the years ahead.

Art by Liz Danforth It sounds like gaming is something you approach with thought and consideration.

WoW has been a naturally occurring feature of my overall life in gaming, but it has made my life more interesting, given me a place from which to have more impact and been a positive force in ways I would never have imagined the day I bought the game, lying to the Best Buy guy that I was buying it for my non-existent son. Back then, I didn't know the academic studies I know now and believed I'd be a very rare female -- and an impossibly old one! -- in a young, all-male game environment. Looking back, it was ludicrous even then, but perhaps that has reinforced my repeated efforts to bash away at stereotypes since then.

WoW has touched my life on so many different facets -- academic, personal, creative, in both my key professions (heck, I still wonder how many people recognized the genesis of the fire mage in this poster -- that robe model went to priests at 80 but was hot shit for mages back in the day) ... and yeah, WoW will certainly feature in my Speak Out With Your Geek Out post(s).

Nevertheless, I am entirely certain WoW always will color what I do in the future, in thought and memory. My break is the first in six years of play, and at that I haven't been able to completely not-play because I miss it too much.

So you're playing much more casually today?

The dismaying part is that I'm one of the many players who is so disappointed in Cata that I've taken an "extended break" over the last six weeks and haven't even touched Firelands beyond clearing Hyjal on my two 85s so that I can start poking at it.

I'm also playing a Horde mage in Northrend, to see that whole story from the other side. I wanted to do it while it was current content but couldn't find enough playtime to raid steadily with Winter as my main, tank with my bear as much as I did (up to and including Arthas, though she never brought him down) and still have anything resembling a life.

I still love the game, and my many-weeks break has made it so I don't cringe when I log in any more! In fact, I've played more lately than in quite awhile.

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