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Michael Stackpole, Micky Neilson talk Shadows of the Horde

Anne Stickney
Anne Stickney|June 27, 2013 2:00 PM
Michael Stackpole, Micky Neilson talk Shadows of the Horde
Vol'jin: Shadows of the Horde will be available for purchase next week, on July 2. We've already published a spoiler-free review of the novel, which features the Darkspear leader Vol'jin as he recuperates from his near-assassination in the Dagger in the Dark scenario. The novel is something a little different for Blizzard, featuring a story that not only stands apart from the gameplay of Mists of Pandaria, but features a new author as well -- Michael Stackpole, whose writing spans both fantasy and sci-fi, with notable works in both the Battletech and Star Wars universe.

Blizzard was kind enough to let us have a chat with both Mike Stackpole and Micky Neilson, Lead Story Developer at Blizzard, regarding Shadows of the Horde, its development, and the intricacies of writing that oh-so-troublesome troll accent.

Michael Stackpole, Micky Neilson talk Shadows of the Horde

Of all the characters and events in Mists, why did you do a Vol'jin novel in particular?

Micky: Well, there are a lot of different criteria that go into why we choose to do a novel built around a specific character. There's all kinds of different things we look at -- we look at the novels that we've done in the recent past, and we look at characters that maybe have not been explored as much as we would like, and we look for characters that we believe are gonna be incredibly interesting, that we can build a story around.

We also look at relevance to the game. What are these characters involved in that is going to relate to what's going on in the game? And so we looked at all those things, and a lot of people were very, very excited about Vol'jin, and about trolls in general -- just because we felt that Vol'jin was one of those characters that we had not been able to explore as much as we would like.

Mike, what brought you in on the project?

Mike: I literally got a letter of introduction through Scott over at Cryptozoic to Jerry Chu, and then ended up talking with Micky and several other guys about my interest. I certainly knew of World of Warcraft, I had never actually played because I knew that if I started playing I would never get any work done -- because it would just totally absorb me. So they were very nice and sent me a bunch of stuff, including all the discs for the game, and you know, I immediately loaded it up on the computer and lost the month of February!

Yeah, that'll happen.

Yeah, pretty much! *laughs* I do remember the very first day we went out to lunch and there was a casual question of "Well, so you've played a little bit? What have you got for characters?" and I said "Well I've got a 36 level this and a 40 level that," and there were a couple of eyebrows raised, going "And you just started?" But yeah -- being a gamer, I wanted to sort of dive into the world and experience the way that the players do, and really get a sense of the richness of the world and a lot of the common experiences, and then that was stuff that I got to carry over into the writing of the book.

We had meetings, setting up what they wanted covered in the book and the ideas they had going forward for Vol'jin. I said that's great, I'd like to do that, but I'd also like to bring in an Alliance character to balance things. We went through the outline process, and then bang -- started writing the book. It was a lot of fun!

So ... what level are your characters now?

Well you know, the thing is is that I find myself -- they're in the 60's somewhere, a couple of them -- and I've got others that I'm sort of bringing up, I'm just going out, playing all sorts of different things, just to have the different experiences and stuff.

You're an alt-oholic in the making!

Yeah, I have characters all over! *laughs*

Michael Stackpole, Micky Neilson talk Shadows of the Horde

Micky, why did you bring Mike onto the project, as opposed to anyone else? I know you have plenty of authors, but Mike's brand new!

Micky: Yeah, exactly -- that was really, to me, one of the things most exciting is that you take a character like Vol'jin that we haven't been able to explore all that much, especially in the fiction, and then you bring in a fresh voice. You bring in a new author, and I think that's kind of a perfect marriage right there. Obviously we look at other things when we're bringing in other authors. It's not just about bringing in a new author, but specific authors, and why this author for this project.

With Mike, we looked back at the things that he's done, and his body of work. One of the things, to me personally, that was extremely impressive is the focus on character. That is so incredibly important, especially with a book like this. I mean it all centers around Vol'jin, Tyrathan, Chen, and everything rises and falls on that. So if you don't have those characters, if you can't really empathize with them and get inside their heads and root for them, everything else falls apart. So to me, that's really the foundation of it. And on top of that, there's the fact that obviously Mike has worked with licensed fiction before, so he's comfortable coming in and playing in somebody else's sandbox.

This story seemed to be really self-contained as far as the rest of Mists is concerned. Was this a deliberate decision?

Micky: It was, yeah, for us definitely. We'll do different types of novels. We'll do some novels that are absolutely a bridge between expansions, and there's a very specific goal there. With this novel, it was really about Vol'jin, about the history of the trolls, about the trolls moving forward, and how they fit in with the Horde, and how Vol'jin has changed as a result of the attempt on his life and really being able to dig into that, so it didn't have to be as dependent on the other things that were going on in the game, or what the next expansion is going to be.

Mike, you're an incredibly prolific author. What are some of the challenges of writing in the Warcraft universe?

Mike: Well with Warcraft, you've got the fact that players are living in the world. That means that all of them have got more exposure to it, and they all see it in their own way. So the chance of getting something wrong was much, much bigger. That's why I think, to me, having the lore masters there being able to provide me with examples of places, of things that I want to avoid, or things that I want to make sure to get absolutely right was critically important. It's one thing when people are playing the game on weekends, like board games like Battletech, playing it on weekends when they get together with friends -- but when you can log lots of hours as I was doing, every single day, it gives you an exposure in there that's a lot different.

But I think the other thing which I really enjoyed and made writing the book something that really drove me forward was being able to get inside Vol'jin's head. Being able to supply some of the stuff that you can't get through playing. So knowing what the player's experience was, then trying to make sure that stuff that was in the book was gonna enhance that. That was also really, really important, as far as I was concerned.

Michael Stackpole, Micky Neilson talk Shadows of the Horde

What was it like writing troll language?

Mike: (laughs) There were a couple of issues with it -- part of the reason we had Vol'jin get stabbed in the throat was so that we weren't going to have to be writing in that cant all the time. Because that would have driven me insane. And I will say that what kept running through my mind was not so much that it was Jamaican-style English or anything, but I kept hearing people out of pirate movies. (laughs) So you didn't have the singsong angle of it -- it was sort of like Pirates of the Pandaren Sea, was kind of what was running through my brain at all times. That made it a lot easier for me, to be able to do that when I had to! But primarily -- trying to do a whole book that way? Oh, that just would have been really brutal, for both me and the readers I think.

Micky: You know what I always hear when I hear the troll accent, or when I'm thinking about the troll accent? I always hear the bad guys from Marked for Death. (laughs) You go back and watch that movie, you'll see what I'm talking about.

Shadows didn't just delve into troll culture, there was a lot of pandaren culture as well. Did you base that off of anything, Mike?

Mike: I've done a lot of books with Asian antecedents to them -- some of my fantasy novels have been that way, and certainly in the Battletech universe there's a lot of Asian culture in that. So I had a pretty good grasp on that, and it made it really easy to take a lot of what I already knew and shape it within the way that Pandaria had been defined. So it was kind of bringing in some outside stuff and just fleshing out what was already there.

Have you played any of the earlier games, like the RTS?

This was all brand new to me. I got my crash course in lore, it was like a six hour graduate seminar in lore. It was honestly -- they just cranked my skull open and poured stuff in. (laughs) It was right before they put me back on a plane to go back to Phoenix, and I think it took two or three days for me to get it all straight! But the great thing was, then you had that foundation, and also just talking to the lore masters, you had their passion. That really, really reinforces exactly what you want to be getting across in the book, and I really appreciated that. All the help was just incredible.

Will we see any mention of events in the book reflected in game at all?

Micky: I don't know -- I wouldn't be able to say one way or the other, honestly.

Are Chen's days of wandering over?

Micky: That -- I know what you're talking about -- that remains to be seen, but I think it was beautifully set up in the book.

Will we see Tyrathan at some point in the future, in the game?

Micky: I don't know, but it wouldn't surprise me honestly, because we've done a lot of fiction where we have created characters or the authors have created characters in the fiction, and they end up in the game. So it's certainly possible.

Michael Stackpole, Micky Neilson talk Shadows of the Horde

Li Li has been seen both in game, in comics, and now in a novel. Her attitude and relative maturity seems to fluctuate between all of these. Is that just author interpretation?

Micky: Well for Pearl of Pandaria, when I wrote that, to me she was like a tween. But that was my personal interpretation, and so it certainly could be that when different writers are coming in and kind of looking at her character, they view her through a little bit of a different lens.

Mike: I think for me, she was being seen by her uncle. And her uncle is always going to see her as slightly younger than she probably really is, and interpret things that way, more than he would any other way.

Can we expect to see Mike write any future projects? Micky, will you bring him back?

Mike: I'm certainly open to that possibility! It depends on what their schedule is and what mine is.

Micky: Yeah, absolutely -- we had a great experience with the book, it's an awesome book and we're very happy with it. Really, it just comes down to other pieces falling into place as far as the books we're going to be working on in the future and the schedule and everything else. That's all stuff that we'll be talking about.

What's upcoming on the novel front? Shadows was really the last one we'd heard about -- can you tell us anything about future projects?

Micky: I can tell you that we are working on future projects, I can't announce anything right here. But I would say keep an ear out for upcoming announcements, we've got some really exciting things that we're going to announce soon. I think the next big one is going to be -- well, keep an eye out for the San Diego Comic Con!

Thanks so much to both of you for the interview -- I do hope we see future novels from Mike's pen!

Vol'jin: Shadows of the Horde will be available for purchase on July 2. You can pre-order your copy on Amazon.com in both hardcover and Kindle format, or at Barnes and Noble in hardcover or Nook format.

Michael Stackpole, Micky Neilson talk Shadows of the Horde