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9Dragons Interviews: Steven-Elliot Altman, Lead Writer

By Carolyn Koh on August 15, 2006

Author Steven-Elliot Altman answers our questions about 9Dragons and his role in it

"Steven-Elliot Altman, best-selling author and Hollywood screenwriter, has signed on as the lead writer and loremaster of 9Dragons, the first authentic martial arts massively multiplayer online game. Think of the world of Hero, House of the Flying Daggers, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or even Jackie Chan’s classic Drunken Master. In-game you can rise from a beggar on the streets to become a master of martial arts as you train with some of the greatest masters of ancient China."

MMORPG.com:How did you feel when approached to write for what essentially is a video game?
Steve Altman:

Glad you asked, Carolyn. I was hesitant for a moment when Howard Marks, Acclaim’s CEO, took me out to lunch and asked me if I’d be interested in coming on-board to create The Lore for 9Dragons. He knew my work, that I’d written novels, scripts and comics. I knew he was responsible for making A-level games. He convinced me that 9Dragons was a game that had a strong story component… and that he felt confident in my grasp of East meets West storytelling after reading a novel I wrote called Zen in the Art of Slaying Vampires. Then he showed me the in-game visuals and well… as you’ll see, they are very compelling. I felt like I was being given a chance to live inside the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It was sort of irresistible.

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MMORPG.com:What about Acclaim or 9Dragons was the decision maker for you to take on this writing job?
Steve Altman:

Admittedly, I thought Howard’s business model for the game was brilliant, but I think the true moment of decision was when I opened up a document about one of the game’s clans… I’m pretty sure it was regarding Shaolin’s monks. And I looked at what the designers had planned for a quest, and I thought… wait, I see exactly how to write this. The moment I knew I could do it, I decided I really wanted to do it.

MMORPG.com:What of your background do you think makes you suitable for this position? Are you a gamer at all?
Steve Altman:

Suitable, hmmm. I think it is an odd combination of things that make me suitable. Having lived extensively in China, I already had a love for their mythology, and experience translating Asian-based stories. I played Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid, and I still play World of Warcraft. But believe me, when you’re suddenly faced with helming an in-game story, it changes how you look at all games. You start to observe all the different working parts and how they unify as a whole… and you get a rush of respect for both the process and the finished project.

MMORPG.com:Since 9 Dragons is actually an existing game in Korea - have you been given a blank slate apart from the historical basis to work on or are there some “don’t touch” elements in it?
Steve Altman:

Well Carolyn, I must admit that at the beginning I felt lost in translation. A lot of the early documents I read based on the backgrounds of the Clans (those are the groups you can join in-game, each with their own special philosophy, ideals and Kung Fu) were rather confusing. There are elements of Asian culture that simply do not translate. So, the earliest part of my job was trying to ask the right questions (through translators) to the designers to find out how clan history was actually interacting with elements like alliances and quests. Once I understood what elements were essential to game-play, I could choose which historical information would be fun and accessible to English-speaking gamers. The Korean team’s writer and Loremaster, Jwa Baek, a rather famous best-selling author in Korea, did an amazing job at weaving the original story with compelling characters and Chinese mythology. So I felt a little nervous when I started changing story elements to suit the English market… but he has been very accepting of the new work as they translate my “Remastered English” back to the Korean designers.

There weren’t any real “don’t touch” moments, but everybody did get a little antsy when I explained that we had to adjust the names of several of the clans. Sure, our gamers have probably heard of Shaolin and Wu-Tang Clan, but other clan names would have been meaningless (and difficult to pronounce). So a good example might be that I studied the “Mojiao Clan”, thought about their arcane ideals, read up on their Bloody Fist Kung Fu technique, and then renamed them Heavenly Demon Clan.

So, rather than a blank slate, it was more like an empty plate I could fill… and when I couldn’t understand something on the menu, I asked them to bring the cart around and let me taste the food. Then I did my best to describe each delicacy.

MMORPG.com:How different has the experience of writing for an MMORPG been for you so far?
Steve Altman:

Well, every writing assignment is a new learning experience, Carolyn. When I first moved from writing novels to writing scripts, I had to learn about film structure and make every second count. In a game, let’s say during a quest assignment, you have to get your point across very quickly and efficiently. So while the elements of story remain the same, it’s a much more concise format. Dialogue is the only thing I’ve encountered that is fairly constant. Great dialogue requires getting into character. I’ve even given the game system itself a certain feel, so you can expect to read error messages in a voice like, “One cannot use Kung Fu while in Peace Mode.”

MMORPG.com:Tell us about the experience. What tools have you been provided? Have you played the game?
Steve Altman:

Fortunately, I get to play 9Dragons all the time. I set up characters in each of the clans so that I could play them all. It’s not only fun as heck, it’s also pretty important. Playing a Shaolin Monk, that is supposed to refrain from killing, and learns from his masters with ancient proverbs, is a lot different from playing an almost “Sopranos” like criminal character from The Brotherhood of Thieves who gets taunted by his superiors.

At first I had to play the Korean version, so all I could do was slash and hack. But then as they gradually uploaded what I call my “remastered” English text to our servers, the game became more and more fun to play for the US and UK teams. We all kept saying, “Ok, now I really get it!”

MMORPG.com:Are you directing the story or is it more of a collaborative experience?
Steve Altman:

I guess I’m directing the story, though in a way it has been directing me as well. Since the actual game-play and directives are set, it’s more like I’m watching certain events that must unfold, and then going back and reading as much about the history as I can… then I just create the story, dialogue, or parable that guides you there.

MMORPG.com:Do you work closely with any other members of the development team?
Steve Altman:

Yes, since many of the elements I’m working on require very subtle translation, I have to work very closely with the Korean development team. I’ve actually adjusted my schedule to theirs, so my workday is 4 PM until 4 AM. I have a chat window open with Jongjoo “Jade” Lee, the lead translator with our Korean partners at Indy21, and we constantly bat ideas back and forth. I also conference daily with our UK partners at Persistent Worlds, on the “Lore” elements for our articles and newsletters, and consult daily with David Jun from Acclaim, here in Los Angeles, who is directing our advertising and marketing efforts. As you can imagine, with all these different time zones to consider for our combined global effort, sleep is often elusive.

MMORPG.com:Would you or can you draw any parallels between adapting a Korean story to the US market and adapting a novel to movie script? Or has it felt like it is the other way around?
Steve Altman:

Both essentially require the same starting point, which is digging down deep into the core of what the original story was trying to say, ideally through conversations with the original creators. In the case of a translation from a foreign language, you have the additional responsibility of wading through the cultural barriers, and asking the right questions. Once you’ve got a firm grip on the core themes, you have to understand the audience you’re adapting for. Which is why I’ve kidnapped several US and European gamers and thoroughly interrogated them. Just kidding… no really… I’m kidding. And once you believe you have all the elements you need to begin writing… you have to say a prayer to your muse, trust yourself, and just jump in and write. As far as execution goes, adapting a novel to a script suggests nothing has been shot yet, so as the writer you are the first one in the driver’s seat on a long winding journey. Adapting an MMO that is already in play, however, suggests you know exactly where you must drive… and the fun is in thinking up ways to taunt and tantalize the gamers you’re about to interact with on their own roads in-game.

MMORPG.com:As the writer for Acclaim, tell us in your own words what 9Dragons is about. Have you enjoyed the journey so far?
Steve Altman:

How to best summarize the experience of 9Dragons. Okay, here goes. You are a peasant on the streets of a small village in China during the Ming Dynasty, and you’re dreaming of learning Kung Fu and becoming a Martial Arts expert. You’re in luck, because the major schools of Kung Fu, organized by clan, are now accepting students. There are six starter clans you can join, each with very different philosophies, training, and acceptance requirements.

So, to join The League of Beggars is simple, be humble and do some begging. To join the noble Shaolin Clan you’ll need to give up all your worldly possessions and shave your head. To join the Sacred Flower Clan you must be playing a female character and submit to the will of the Holy Mistress. Heavenly Demon Clan requires an oath of allegiance to their leader before they will teach you their deadly Bloody Hands technique. And The Brotherhood of Thieves requires a “steal from the rich and give to the poor” attitude along with an introduction from another brother. Why? Because any infraction you commit brings down punishment on both of you. And lastly, there’s Wu-Tang clan, which is the most difficult clan to join, since training your swordplay with them means you have entered a very ancient lineage of swordsmen. And you can kick ass!

Unlike other MMOs, you don’t just start off with weapons and skills and start fighting. In 9Dragons you’ve got to earn your moves, beginning with training your inner “Chi” through in-game breathing tests. Learning to breath, training to fight, and understanding how to use your weapons makes for a very satisfying experience. But I think my favorite part of the game is how the in-game quests deliver you not only rewards and experiences points… but ancient Chinese wisdom as well.

Once you’ve actually joined a clan, and begun training under a Sifu, you’ll start to learn more about your clan’s history and the conflict in The Land. You’ll learn that ten years past there was a war between the clans called The War of Nine Dragons, and that it concluded with a series of duels in which each of the clan’s best warriors were sent to compete to the death. Following The War, those 9 heroes mysteriously vanished, and so part of your destiny lies in walking The Road To The Dragon and discovering what happened to them… and determining your own unique part to play in the destiny of The Land.

Carolyn, thank you so much for the opportunity to share some of The Lore of 9Dragons with your readers. I’m enjoying working on the project a lot, and I’m hopeful all the gamers who read this will enjoy playing the game as much as I do.

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