Meet the Ancients: Neal Hallford
"Interesting fact. The less I talk, the more followers I seem to gain. Coincidence, or is silence really that golden? Message, Spock?"
So glad, that he did not base his answers to our questions on that rumor. ;)
Some days ago, we had the honor of receiving Neal Hallford's loooong and cool answers to our interview questions. Thanks to Julien (Marzhin) for organizing this. :)
Besides Neal's work as a Writer, he is a Game Designer, and Indie Filmmaker. My guess is that you all know his awesome work from Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra - besides he might also be known for his great contributions on the fantasy role-playing games Betrayal at Krondor, Dungeon Siege, and Champions of Norrath.
Today, we are happy to share some more details behind that saint man!
~ Meet the Ancients ~
1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your career?
I've been working in the computer gaming industry for a little over twenty three years now, a career that began at New World Computing. It was there, under the tutelage of Jon Van Caneghem and John Cutter, that I learned the ropes of game production, and transitioned from being just a writer to being a full fledged game designer. What I'm personally still best known for all these years later was not a New World title, but "Betrayal at Krondor", which I developed along with John Cutter at Dynamix.
A picture of Neal from his days at Sierra / Dynamix
In 2001 I boiled down all the experience I've developed as an RPG designer and co-authored "Swords & Circuitry: A Designer's Guide to Computer Role-Playing Games". These days, in addition to providing my services as a freelance writer and game designer, I am now also an independent film producer and director.
This is a picture of Julien's (Marzhin's) copy of Neal's Swords & Circuitry book, which he actually re-read when development of Might & Magic X began :)
2. When you think about your work on Might & Magic, what’s the first association that comes to your mind?
Might & Magic III is a very happy memory for me because it really marked the very first game I worked on from the very beginning. With "Tunnels & Trolls: Crusaders of Khazan," I'd been brought aboard to help finish up re-localizing the title into English, but on Might & Magic III, it was pretty much a blank slate. I remember a lot of time in Jon's office as we kicked around stuff about Sheltem and puzzles and all sorts of stuff. Jon was very open to whatever weirdness I threw out, and all for all, one of the easiest going bosses I ever had.
In an effort to alieve the problem of treasure chests always containing predictable items, Jon and I brainstormed the idea of objects with randomly assigned attributes. I built the first, simple version of the generator in BASIC (not the version in the game) and tested our idea. One of the most bizarre combinations led to the creation of the "vibrating leather buddy rod of aids". Needless to say, "aids" had not been intended in the context in which it had oddly appeared, but some tweaking was required to produce objects which would be acceptable for us to ship to the public.
Not terribly long after we started work on Might & Magic III, Jon also wanted me to start work on Planet's Edge which was pitched basically as Might & Magic in space (it could be strongly argued that Might & Magic was already in space, but that was beside the point). The further and further we got into it, I realized that there was simply no way I could really tackle doing both of them simultaneously, not while holding the reigns. I was still a brand-spanking new designer, and was really worried that I had the potential to wreck not only the flagship title but the new title as well by trying to do too much all at once. So after talking to Jon, I suggested that we get hold Ron Bolinger who was my best friend, former writing partner, and co-producer of the radio drama series that had originally helped me land my job at New World. From that point on Might & Magic III, from a story standpoint, was a collaboration between Jon and Ron, with me unofficially on the side as sort of creative consultant. Jon continued to generate all the stuff regarding the puzzles and the combat for Might & Magic.
Because the cost of living in LA was way higher than either of us could have afforded alone, Ron and I shared an apartment in Los Angeles (ironically formerly occupied by the owner and operator of Task Force Games), and our desks at New World were right next to each other, we were really pretty heavily involved with each other's projects. (Officially I don't think my name is even on M&M III and I don't think his is on Planet's Edge because we both were getting started in the industry and wanted to each have our "own" game. And the titles that we each chose primarily bears our stamp, with some influence from the other). Whenever we got bored or stuck with whatever we were working on, we'd trade and write for a bit until the stuck party felt unstuck. A lot of the really awful music puns in the game came from Ron and I talking nonsense at three in the morning while eating bags of cheapo Del Taco hamburgers (we called them novacaine burgers because they had an odd quality that was vaguely like having your mouth go numb). I remember chiming in a lot about the Sleepers and of course Fordehal the Mad is a sort of anagram of my last name. :)
In the long run, handing the story reigns to Ron was really the best decision that Jon and I made for the title. Part of what made that title so unique was that Ron was a complete outsider in terms of fantasy fiction. He wasn't a devotee. I, by that time, knew Tolkien backwards, forwards, and upside down. Ron, by contrast, wasn't really interested.
His literary hero was Jack Kerouac. He really didn't know what the tropes were. I remember at the time when he was talking about dwarves living in the desert I was thinking that I'd never go there because I'd gotten so wrapped up with the established dogma of fantasy fiction that it was a chain wrapped around my neck. Ron went places I never would have gone because he just didn't know any better, and Might & Magic III is all the better for it.
3. What does Might & Magic mean to you today?
Might & Magic epitomizes for me a genre of game that I feel has tragically been lost, i.e. the RPG/adventure/puzzle hybrid, which makes me very sad. When you finished a game like that back in the day, you felt like you'd accomplished something. You'd get to the magic door and there would be some kind of puzzle associated with it, and you might be stuck for an hour, or three, or a couple of days. You'd be beating your head against the floor...and then suddenly you'd be driving home and there the answer would be. You'd rush home and complete the puzzle and WHAM...you got in, you went to the next level, you made the next discovery. Those games made you use your brain, and victory wasn't about how fast you could "twitch" your console buttons, but by how you strategized your attacks. And M&M told great stories back in the day as well. So in a nutshell, that's what that series means to me.
4. What inspired your work on Might & Magic?
Well while the reigns were still in my hands, I can say they were hugely based on my pen and paper dungeons & dragons sessions with my high school group. Back then, the goal had always been to try and make the computer RPGs as much like a tabletop game as possible, so I was definitely casting back to those summer weeks where we hardly ever left the gaming table. Of course it was also drawing heavily on traditional fantasy like Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay, as well as from science fiction greats like Arthur C Clarke and Ben Bova and Larry Niven (It was thanks to my time at New World that I actually bumped into Larry on a fairly regular basis during the monthly "Hugger House" potlucks at the home of New World artist Bonnie Hemsath. We also mingled with several of the folks from the "Faerie Tale" team from The Dreamers Guild. Very small and interconnected group back in those days.)
Neal in his study
5. When developing a game in general, what do you aim for?
I aim for something transportive, something that takes you somewhere and that speaks to you on a personal, emotional level. We used to talk about "addictive" gameplay, but I realize now that wasn't really what we were aiming for. Facebook games are a really great example of what addictive gameplay is. Empty and vaccuous appointment gaming based not on actual emotional connection to the experience, but instead based on anxiety and social pressure. That's not gaming, that's OCD induced by a crack dealer. For me, a great game needs to do for you what a good book, or a good movie does. It should let you step into the shoes of a knight, or a starship captain, or a dinosaur hunter and let you feel what it's like to completely live in that world without distractions or intrusions from the world outside of it. You have to care about it.
6. What are you currently playing, and how do you like it?
I'm playing a couple of things right now, but I'm not really thrilled with anything I'm playing at the moment, so I won't name names. Suffice to say that I think we've strayed so far into the territory of making games that positively EVERYONE is supposed to love that we've lost the art of crafting worlds and instead we've settled for cheap amusement parks instead.
7. Would you rather be a human, elf, dwarf or orc, and why?
I'll always be an elf at heart. I've always been Gandalf. The magic, the poetry, the long view of the world, the beautiful craftsman ship, the mysterious woods. How can you want to be anything else?
8. Apart from games, what fascinates you?
Everything? Seriously, I read a lot. I'll die eventually being buried under one of my stacks of books. You can't really be a good creator of other worlds if you don't have a wide interest in THIS world. Science. History. Philosophy. Astronomy. Anthropology. Archaeology. Basically almost anything that ends with -ology. And as I mentioned above, these days I'm also an independent film producer, so I've spent the better part of the past six years adding director, cinematographer, video editor, compositor, 3d modeller, and motion graphics artist to my skill set. It's safe to say I sleep very little.
9. What’s your motto?
I have three of them:
"Not all those who wander are lost"
"Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."
"Never before have so many people understood so little about so much"
10. Your message to the fans of Might & Magic?
I want all of you to remember the story about where Might & Magic III came from. It didn't start with a license, or a franchise, or as a set of sales points from inside a corporation. Nobody knew it would be a hit. It began with Jon sitting down with Mikela and bashing out this crazy project on his own, and putting the titles in zip lock bags and mailing them across the country. This was indie before there was such a thing as indie. It came from someone who was a dyed in the wool gamer, someone who cared about giving something that was fun and light hearted, but it also made you think. And he wanted to tell a great story while he was doing it. Might & Magic was always about personal passion, about heroicism, about intellectual curiosity. Thank Jon for helping lay the groundwork for an industry that still hold so much potential for all of us.
A big "THANK YOU" to Neal from the whole MMX team for this great interview! :)
Neal is currently working on his first fantasy novel "The Thief of Dreams". You may want to check it out. ;)