Of all the money that ere I had, I spent it in good company.
And of all the harm that ere I’ve done, alas was done to none but me.
And all I’ve done for want of wit, to memory now I cannot recall.
So fill me to the parting glass. Goodnight and joy be with you all.
– The Parting Glass, Irish traditional folk tune
It is time, my friends, for me to move on.
Last week was my last with KingsIsle and the Wizard101 team.
Five years ago I had wrapped working with a great team at Webkinz in Toronto in order to spend some time at home with our young daughter when I got a text from Jason “ALHAZRED” Durall.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Quitting!” I joked.
“That’s funny,” he said, “Todd and I were just talking about you. How you should come down and work with us.”
“The Greatest State.”
“Hahah,” I said, “You tell Todd to call me, and we’ll talk.”
You see, I had had this general conversation with Todd once a year or so since the first time I moved from Toronto to Austin, in 2005. And it never went farther than “we should talk about working together.”
Later that night the phone rang and there was Todd.
It took us time, because moving across a border is rarely simple, and we never do anything easy, but by February I had landed in Austin and began working at KingsIsle, the Greatest Game Company, in Austin, the Greatest City, in the Greatest State.*
* said with only love for Austin and Texas.
KingsIsle was, truly, the best job I had ever had. Oh, I’ve loved all the jobs I’ve had and the terrific folks I’ve worked with, but this was something special. Todd and Jason and Josef and Karl and Evan and Russ and Leah and TJ and Kiersten and Jeff Toney and so many others had built this incredible game and this wonderful community. And they were asking me to step in and take over the story of Wizard101.
It was a slow start but a rapid learning curve, but after testing the waters with the Return to Crab Alley quests, Jason and Todd gave me more and more freedom to take the story of Wizard where I wanted (with careful oversight and tons of advice, of course!). Todd and Josef and Jason knew that ZAFARIA was the next major world they wanted to hit, to further develop Morganthe’s story. Armed with several books on African mythology and literature, I charged into the savannah. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And then I revised, and revised, and revised.
Building quests like these, and working with a veteran crew of World Builders who had seen it all before, and a group of artists who continued to amaze me, and a sound team that pulled out all the stops to populate this world with spectacular voices, was an awesome and humbling experience. And oh boy was I scared on the lead-up to the Test Server and then Live.
Wizard101 was a huge success and it had history behind it, and deeply involved players. How were they going to take to my new voice, and this new world – built on some fairly unfamiliar mythologies? We were drawing on Maasai culture and Zulu history and Moorish stories to populate this world – a far cry from traditional Western myths.
I held my breath. And they – you – liked it! You have no idea what a relief it was that most of the Zafaria reviews were positive. Not everything was perfect, by any stretch, how could it be? But it was a successful continuation of the Wizard story, and it gave me a huge boost of confidence to carry on.
Todd and Josef asked me what world we should do next, and after a lot of consideration I proposed a more classic medieval world, to return to more familiar themes, but ones that hadn’t been touched on in the Spiral for some time – AVALON. A world of Arthurian myths, updated with a touch of Game of Thrones sensibilities, and of course a heavy dash of Monty Python. Todd and Josef liked it!
And with their blessing, Jason again helped me shepherd my ideas to create the story of the young Wizard searching for the Sword of Kings; and discovering some of Morganthe’s and Merle’s intertwined history; and liberating the lost King Artorius and restoring the land.
As an aside, our second child, a son, was born right before I began writing the AVALON script and I don’t think I’ve ever written so fast in my life.
From Avalon, we thought it would be a blast to go into strange and alien territories again, and mixing dinosaurs with Aztec and Mayan culture was about as foreign as we could get – thus was born AZTECA.
I think I proposed we end on Morganthe triumphant (our “Empire Strikes Back” chapter, as it were), but it might have been Jason. We needed to give Morganthe some kind of win (more so than her escaping with the Deck of Shadows at the end of Zafaria), because otherwise every story beat ended on the same “and the Wizard wins” note, which can get boring fast. The dark ending challenged the players, as did some of the Aztec/Mayan-inspired taunts and sour grapes lines, but we got more praise than frowns, so I’m pleased we went that route.
It was Jason who suggested the comet, Xibalba, and the finale with the Celestial Bow, as a way to launch the Wizard up onto the comet. It was a combination of many things according to Jason, including: the ancient alien astronaut image from ALIENS, the plot of ARMAGEDDON, and the mysticism of THE FOUNTAIN, with a dash of the Baltimore Gun Club thrown in.
However, when we pitched it to Todd as some kind of space cannon (“with the wizard, shot like a monkey, into space!”), he looked at us like we were crazy. “No, you can’t do that!” he said, flat out.
We conferenced hurriedly, and said, “Well, what if it was a magical teleporter, that transformed the wizard into energy, and he or she flew up into space like they were flying on a great magical arrow? As if flung from a colossal statue carved to wield a magical bow.” Todd liked that idea, for which I’m forever grateful, because I think it was a phenomenal ending to that chapter, and I had no other ideas for how to get the Wizard up to Xibalba.
After AZTECA, Todd left KingsIsle, and Jason and Josef gave me even more free rein. We knew we had to track Morganthe down to her place of power, and where else could that be for the Queen of the Shadow-Web but “Hiveworld” (that was our codename for many years), a world of horrible insects. “But spiders don’t really have hives,” I argued (we have some of the craziest arguments in game design), “how about KHRYSALIS?”
Luckily, no one said, “but spiders don’t have a chrysalis stage.” I’m sure I was drawing on Babylon5, which was and remains one of my foundation points, and the episode entitled “Chrysalis” in which everything changed. Babylon5 also used Shadows vs. Light as its primary theme, and the Shadows always reminded me of the Shadow Weavers. Josef signed off, and I began the very long process of creating our first two-part story.
Khrysalis was my attempt do to “weird fantasy,” ala Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber and Harlan Ellison and Ursula Le Guin and Philip Jose Farmer and Lois McMaster Bujold and Frank Herbert and Alfred Bester, and of course Roger Zelazny. Zelazny influenced so much of my writing, and my career, it’s hard to explain or express my gratitude to the memory of the man.
Khrysalis also had a very different vibe. It was a spy story and a revolutionary story, where the Wizard begins by operating deep under cover, posing more-or-less as a willing agent of the enemy, and slowly finds a Fifth Column waiting in the wings to join a revolutionary movement and depose the evil tyrannical empress. The first half ended with a real blow struck against Morganthe’s empire, and by the end of the second half the Wizard had turned most of the population against Morganthe in open revolt.
Khyrsalis was also when I was joined full-time by an associate writer, Mike “THUNDER SNAKE” (who, coincidentally voiced said Thunder Snake, in addition to many other fine voices in both Wizard and Pirate).
For a proper conclusion, we needed to find a way to explain Morganthe’s story and shed a bit of light on her perspective. Morganthe didn’t have an epic personal tragedy (unlike Malistaire, whose personal tragedy made him such a fantastic villain), but I wanted to create some further depth to her and to build the potential for some empathy from the players towards her. And by the end of it, once we had met the crazed, long-stranded, rat pirate captain, Taylor Coleridge, and learned how Morganthe got to this point by exploring some of her past in dreams and memories, I think she resonated far more strongly. The Wizard got to literally walk in her shoes though a magical vision. Morganthe was, in many ways, a dark mirror to the player’s own Wizard. A “what could have been,” if the Wizard was motivated by selfishness and greed.
And with Khrysalis I worked closely with Nathan “CYRUS DRAKE,” our lead designer, to create and design Shadow magic. And we introduced Old Cob to the players, and in so doing we revealed that they didn’t know as much about the Spiral as they thought they did. The team did an amazing job to end the Second Arc in a spectacular fashion.
With Morganthe’s story well told, and Old Cob freed, and infinite options opened to the Spiral, the universe decided it was time for a change on a personal level. Our circle had expanded by one in Austin, as I mentioned, but the rest of our family – grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins – were all still back in Canada, “North of the Wall.” And so plans were made and toys were boxed and pantry stuff was consumed and “we’ll see you soons” were said.
In the four years I worked on Wizard, I think we did phenomenal work – work that I am terribly proud of – and I fully recognize that I stood on the shoulders of giants in order to build it.
The future is bright, and I have several options to ponder, and ideas of my own to pursue. I had a wonderful time telling stories for and to the Wizard101 community (one of the best groups of players I’ve ever known), and leaving is certainly bittersweet. But it is time for others to take over the Book of Secrets and tell the next chapter of the Spiral’s story (and I’m leaving you in good hands with ZANDER and the THUNDER SNAKE – I’m sure you’ll meet them soon). And I’m extremely excited to see what they do next, and experience all the surprises and wonder the Spiral has to offer as a player once again!
And when I can announce my next work I’ll certainly do so here and on Twitter.
Jesse “KING ARTORIUS” Scoble