Friday, February 22, 2013

Interview with Sam Johnson - Creative Design Lead for Pirate101

    We have a great treat for all ye landlubbers today! Thanks to One Eyed Jack and Blind Mew aka Sam Johnson, I got the chance to interview him! He is the creative design lead who has worked on the storylines in Pirate101! Without him and his team, the great storys we have experienced so far, (Magnificent 7, El Dorado, The Armada, etc..) wouldn't exist. And without further ado. . .
1- When did you first know that you wanted to start a career in Video Games, and when did you start working for KingsIsle?
My road into game design was a long one, and not very typical. I think I first really wanted to be a game designer back in high school, when I was playing Dragonlance at my table and Ultima 5 on my computer -- that will give you some hint of how old I am. Living in Austin, we always had Origin Systems right here, the holy grail of dream jobs. There was a brief span in my early college years where I tried to get a job there, but it didn't work out.
I always figured if I ended up with a job as a writer, it would be for Pen and Paper RPGs (you know, the kind you play with dice, like DnD) instead of video games. I have more than a dozen published RPG credits to my name, but it was never lucrative enough to be a real job. 
 I got my college degree with a double major in History and Archaeology and was working on getting a teacher's certification for Social Studies when an old friend from my high school gaming table asked me if I'd like to write setting and game fiction for the new online game he was making. The game was Shadowbane, and the friend was J. Todd Coleman.  That was my first industry job, which I started in September of 2000. Funny thing, almost exactly a decade later, Todd recruited me again, this time to work for Kingsisle.
2- Your Job title is "Creative Design Lead" -- Can you explain what you do for the game to our viewers and what your favorite part of being one is?
Put simply, I'm in charge of maintaining the creative vision for Pirate101 (I report to the Creative Director) and working with the design, art, and tech departments to implement the grand vision for the game. I also write lots of dialogue. When I first started, Todd and I laid out the core of Pirate101 -- the tone, the main themes, the core of the El Dorado story, and all of that.
Since then, my job has fallen into a pretty sustained pattern: for each Book (or chunk of several Books, depending on the scope of the Milestone), I make a detailed outline of the Main Story quests and generate a list of necessary characters, environments, and game objects from that outline. Then I write visions (brief descriptions) of everything, so the artists can build it all. Then, after revising or cutting the asset lists based on schedule and other production-related factors, I'll revise the outlines accordingly and finally start writing the quests and quest dialogue.  After the main quests are written, we write the side quests.
I don't write everything in the game -- at various points during production a designer or two will help me out, usually with side quests. Also, last year I got a designer relegated to helping me full time -- I tend to write the Main Story quests and the Promotion quests, the other writers focus on Side Quests.  My underling is now writing Main Line quest material too. After it's all written up, I review and polish every quest I didn't write to make sure the tone stays consistent.
Once all the quests (Main, Side, Promotion, and Trainer) are written, I work closely with sound to record the voiceovers (and, in a pinch, I do some voice acting, too). I also have a pretty constant set of duties related to reviewing and giving feedback on art as it's created and dealing with story or text-related bugs as they arise.  In addition to all the quests, there are tutorial tips to write, and every item in the game needs to be named -- again, I don't do all of that, but I do a lot of it, and I supervise the designers who do the rest.
 There are several things I absolutely love about this job. Working closely with such talented artists and watching something I'd describe come to life and end up looking even better than I'd imagined; that's as good as it gets. Brainstorming plots and gags in a room of really talented designers is another favorite part of my job. I also love the actual writing -- how a twist of a phrase or even a whole joke will just arise out of nowhere. When I'm in the groove, sometimes the dialogue writes itself. Finally, I love watching community speculation. Seeing people respond to things I've imagined, find the obscure references, and chew on the mysteries never gets old.
3- We have seen some of your epic posts as Blind Mew over on, the community really loves your responses to some of our questions. What were some of your favorite storylines you worked on [That have been released so far]? And what was your thought when you first heard the pitch about Pirate101?
Favorite storylines: tough to choose. I love Gortez, I'm very fond of the Magnificent Seven story, and many of the Promotion Quests are some of my favorites: Ratbeard's 2nd, Sarah Steele and Subodai's 2nd promotions, and Egg Shen's too. Oh yeah, the theological debate storyline for Monquista was a labor of love -- the final quest really worried me, because it only consists of lots of dialogue and one big joke, but I do love it so. The warm response it’s gotten has been a relief.
4- Will all the companions that do not have promotion quests receive one at some point or will they be pay gold only?
Some definitely will -- the Magnificent 7 and Monkey King are top tier companions and will get quests, but players currently can't get high enough to promote them yet. The Silk One (aka Shiruku Neko, Ninja Cat) probably will too. Any future companions that get granted to everyone and who speak definitely will. For each new companion, I have to decide if they get quests or not.
As for the rest, I can't guarantee it -- it takes a lot to make a good Promotion quest, and to "backfill" for the companions that already exist but don't have them would require about as many quests as we launched the game with (yikes!)  All the existing game worlds aren't big enough to hold the places needed for all those goals! We ran out of caves in Cool Ranch a while back! There's a potential pitfall there, too: if we add a promotion quest to a unit that used to be gold only, some players will complain that they have to do this hard/boring quest now, while others who already promoted the guy with gold will be sad they missed it. Ultimately, we're limited in what we can produce in the time allowed. I'd rather have a longer Main Quest or more Side Quests to engage players than make sure every companion gets full promotion quests.
5- Are there any non spoilers you could share with the community about the next chapter(s) of Pirate101?
I think I'll just reiterate what I've said before -- the next update is about war. It's also about consequences. In Skull Island players learned how to be a pirate. In Cool Ranch players learned how to be a hero. In MooShu they learn just how big and strange the Spiral can be, but ultimately, the MooShu books were a diversion from the Map and El Dorado. It's time to get back on topic, revisit the central conflict of the game, and raise the stakes . . . big time! The next storyline update will also include, in terms of numbers of quests, the longest single Book we've yet released. It's an epic -- or two!
6-  Who is your favorite Armada Leader? Favorite Skull Island Trainer? Favorite Companion so far in the game? Favorite World? Favorite Easter Egg? [And why?]
I must preface this by taking the parents' classic position of "How can I choose? I love them all" -- however, if forced to choose...
Armada Leader: Kane. Hands down.
Skull Island Trainer: Too close to call, really. I dig all of them, but I must say the Commodore wins by a nose -- it's the Anglophile in me, I suppose.
Companion: Bonnie Anne, but then I typically only play Musketeers. There's a joy to her that's really fun to write. She's about to do some growing as a character -- we'll see some very different sides of her, and I'm eager to see if y'all like it as much as I do.
World: It hasn't been released yet. J
Easter Egg: There are thousands... I'm very fond of Mick Dagger, Hopper, Moo Manchu, and all the Planet of the Apes jokes in the Monquistan theology debate . . . and the Jolly Ranchers. When it comes to the Easter Eggs, I'm very fond of the subtle ones -- I'm stunned somebody found the Rocky Raccoon reference so fast, I like 'em like that. I think my favorite of all may actually come in the next update -- it's a piece of "stunt casting" that I, as a child of the 80's, cannot resist.
7- How much story that is written actually makes it into the game, and how much is cut out in the end? Do you save it for the possibility of using it in the future?
The way the process works, things that get set aside tend to get set aside very early, so no dialogue is written yet -- I'd say there are usually 1 or 2 ideas per milestone that end up falling out of the story. Some get recycled as side quests, others become irrelevant as the main story evolves over time. But yes, our goal is always to save cut ideas and bring them back later. There were two pretty big set pieces we envisioned for the next update that were beyond our grasp, but I fully intend to bring both of them into play at some point in the future -- they'd make marvelous promotion quest fodder or a cool Gauntlet add on.
Again, a huge thank you to Sam and Tom! Your work is fantastic thus far, and I cannot wait to see what you have in store for us with Pirate101's future updates! I hope you all enjoyed the interview! See you around the Spiral!


  1. Very cool! I enjoy the interviews with the K.I. staff, they give us a nice peek inside their world. But sadly, this interview made me miss Mr. Coleman even more.

  2. I love all the Easter Eggs in the game.

    Nancy McGill was an easy find, for someone who grew up listening to The Beatles.

    I myself posted quite a few on their official site and I would post more.
    But I would like more people to get involved in it.

    Discovering the Easter Eggs, to me, is a very fun part of the game.

  3. See, this is what I want to do. I would love to help with the creative design of the game.