Q&A: Stardock CEO Wardell On Writing A Novel, Creating Elemental With Random House

Stardock is partnering with Random House on its upcoming strategy RPG Elemental, and Brad Wardell talks to Gamasutra about how the collaboration has played out -- and how it led to him writing his first novel.
In an era when a constantly-expanding menu of entertainment options has put the book industry in dire straits, publishers are looking to adapt to new markets and formats -- including video games. Earlier this year, renowned book publisher Random House entered a "transmedia agreement" centered on independent publisher/developer Stardock's upcoming fantasy strategy-RPG, Elemental: War of Magic, set to release for PC this fall. At the time, the terms of the deal were somewhat vaguely-worded, with the two companies collaborating in some way on the game's fiction. Gamasutra caught up with Stardock founder, Galactic Civilizations creator and CEO Brad Wardell to discuss the partnership in more depth. He explained that not only has Random House provided significant amounts of lore for the game, but Wardell himself authored the novel Elemental: Destiny's Embers, which will go on sale when the game is released: Did you approach Random House or did they approach you? Brad Wardell: They approached us. What prompted that? They had just seen that the game was in development? BW: They were already aware of Galactic Civilizations, and they liked that we had a whole universe around it, so they asked, "What is your next game?" We told them about Elemental, and they told us that, rather than make books based on games, they wanted to collaborate on a world in which books and games and other media could be set. That's where the book, Elemental: Destiny's Embers, came from, and they let me write it. It's 600 pages, which turned out to be way more than I thought. I got really lucky in that the editors there had been scheduled to work on George R.R. Martin's new book, so they could give a lot of editorial help building up the lore of the universe to draw on for the book. Had you done much fiction writing before? BW: I was only a technical writer. I had written [in-game] manuscripts for Galactic Civilizations and so on, with all the story, but I had never written a 160,000-word book before. It took over a year to write, and there was a lot to do. It seems odd that you wrote the external book, and then Random House editors wrote the in-game fiction. Isn't that the opposite of what you would expect? BW: It turned out that it was a lot harder to do the game than to do the book, because the game has so much lore -- every city, every monster, every character needs background. I'm not as strong at that. The whole book has maybe ten characters, whereas the game has a hundred characters, and all the various [fictional] technology you run into. If you ever played Galactic Civilizations, you know the kind of stuff I come up with there -- "Laser 4." They can come up with stuff that's a lot richer. The book was more of an arc -- ten or so characters, things happen to them. [Random House] provided a heck of a lot of editorial help to keep me away from hackneyed cliches. You know, "Be careful here -- what you think is subtle is not as subtle as you may think." My idea of foreshadowing tended to be, "Boom!" Right over the head. In chapter two, you'd already figured out what a particular character is all about. They helped with that kind of structure. That must have been a huge learning experience. BW: Oh, it was. At the beginning, I had no idea how much rewriting is involved in writing a book. Writing a book is actually like writing a book eight times. I'd submit a manuscript, and it would come back with red all over it, and we'd go back and forth over and over and over again. Isn't that somewhat analagous to game design, though? You start with the prototype, you add content, you iterate, and so on. BW: It is and it isn't. When I'm iterating [on a game], I'm not having to read the same stuff. By the end of the book, I'm thinking, "I've already read this passage five hundred times." By the end, you're making very...tiny...tweaks. I understand why some books have continuity errors, because you're trying to think, "Is this plot point still there, or was it only in draft 19...?" But in terms of the game experience, it's been wonderful. It just makes the game feel a lot classier and a lot richer than it would have. How does that work? They have actual writers on staff who can just do fiction? BW: Correct. We're talking constantly. Here. [Wardell launches Skype on his laptop and is immediately contacted by Random House editors offering suggestions and asking questions about the game world's history.] [Random House publishing and creative development director] Keith [Clayton] is the main guy. He's in charge of Star Wars novels, and he was involved in [LucasArts' 2008 game] The Force Unleashed. We go back on forth and stuff, and then come up with what to incorporate in the game, and it shows up in the single-player campaign. There must have been a lot of interplay between the manuscript you wrote for the book, and what ended up in the game itself, for consistency's sake. BW: Exactly. And when I read through the final draft [of the book], it's very difficult to tell where my writing ends and where their contributions start. It's so integrated together. For marketing benefit, I've called lots of things collaborations in the past, but this really was collaborative. It's been a big part of this game. They're really interested in seeing how much this impacts the success of the game, as well as how the book ends up doing. I've learned the typical book doesn't actually sell a lot of units. Maybe if it does well, I can finally quit my damn day job. [laughs] If there are negative reviews, I'll cry. So write that in your article: "Don't write any negative reviews." I'll cry like a baby. There will be tears.

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