While the Prince of Shapeir is probably enjoying early retirement in Silmaria, the Cole family who created his Quest for Glory are busily contributing to the next wave of video games for people who crave storytelling, interaction, and meaningful choices rather than "twitch entertainment."
Lori Ann Cole has twenty years' experience in the design, direction, and scriptwriting of computer games. Frequently, she works on projects alongside her husband Corey Cole, an equally experienced designer and lead programmer. Their son Michael is also pursuing a career in the game industry.
Lori and Corey's bestselling Quest for Glory series (1989-1998) realized innovations in cross-genre gaming—combining role-playing, action, stealth, puzzle-solving, and elaborate narration. Full of authentic folklore, satirical anachronisms, lessons in heroism and human foibles, and many darkly humorous ways to die, the five QfG games remain cult classics, inspiring numerous fan projects and perennially appearing on journalists' lists of personal favorites.
During production of the QfG series, Lori and Corey worked with top artistic talent, including Ernie Chan as concept artist for QfG2, John Rhys-Davies as narrator for QfG4, and Chance Thomas as composer for QfG5. The QfG5 soundtrack broke sales records for video game music, convinced the Recording Academy to open the Grammys to video game music, and landed Thomas his next job, on an Aurora- and Oscar-winning project.
Between QfG releases, Lori and Corey produced several educational games, including Mixed-Up Fairy Tales (1991) and Castle of Dr. Brain (1991). They also adapted Terry Brooks' fantasy novels to create the game Shannara (1995).
Since 1999, the Coles have worked on diverse concepts, tools, and content for the industry of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs). Currently, Lori, Corey, and Michael are the executive team for Transolar Entertainment, an enterprise with three programming staff including Corey.
The Coles' creativity has some of its roots in speculative fiction, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), animated movies, and recently World of Warcraft (WoW). Lori and Corey are longtime participants in science fiction and gaming conventions, including Worldcon, E3, and BlizzCon.
At Flying Aardvark Ranch, the Coles' home in the California foothills, Lori also finds time to create work in other media, including photography and a novel manuscript called How to Be a Hero: By the Book, coauthored with QfG fan Mishell Baker.
Joseph Howse: For you, what constraints and opportunities does online gaming create? I've heard Scott Adams suggest that if conventional game scriptwriting is about storytelling, then MMOG scriptwriting is more like carnival management.
Lori Cole: That's a very good analogy for a MMOG. World of Warcraft is set up a lot like an amusement park. The player's character wanders the various areas of the world doing various preset activities and quests. The world is rich in backstory—before WoW, there were three strategy-style, single-player war games that set up the world and most of the main characters. Some of the NPCs have complex storylines. But the player's character itself really doesn't have a story.
I am a storyteller by nature and I normally would prefer a game that involves the player directly in the story. MMOGs have to entertain thousands of people online at the same time. It would be impossible to tell that many stories simultaneously and have them be meaningful.
Corey Cole: Randy Pausch touched on this topic in his famous "Last Lecture," which I highly recommend that everyone reading this should watch. He said that calling Carnegie-Mellon's ETC (Entertainment Technology Center) a "Master's Program" is as misleading as calling the Cirque du Soleil a "circus." The ETC and its Building Virtual Worlds course are as difficult to describe as is the Cirque to someone who has never experienced it.
I feel that way about great MMOG scriptwriting. It is a "more than the sum of its parts" process that, at its best, is a Cirque du Soleil all-senses experience. Actually, developing any large game is a carnival management experience. You often have a team of freaks, geeks, and other misfits that you somehow need to get to work together to create a satisfying, unified game.
JH: One influential school of thought, "demographic game design," seems to suggest that success in your industry must build on strict segmentation—such that one game genre targets left-brained males, another right-brained females, and so on. Yet your own gaming preferences—and maybe your design philosophy—don't seem to fit into stereotypes so neatly. What are your thoughts on demographic game design?
LC: For the most part, I designed the sort of game I wanted to play. I wasn't trying to shoehorn my design to some artificial, stereotypical constraint.
CC: The most successful juvenile books have been the ones that treated their readers as adults. When I designed Castle of Dr. Brain, my charter was to make an educational game. I could have tied it to a specific age and curriculum, and I really feel that would have handcuffed the design. Instead, I created a game that is designed to stimulate the brain and appeal to players of all ages. I think it is much more successful in its "stealth mission" of education this way, and it certainly was a lot more successful in sales. I consider the demographics of my players, then mostly set that aside and try to create a game that is as fun as possible.
Michael Cole: Demographic game design just makes sense from a marketing standpoint. Let's use the example of The Sims: by targeting women 16-24 they made it sound like The Sims was "for girls." So you see, women were the focus and because they were rarely targeted, it meant that The Sims was continually the first game recommended by female gaming enthusiasts. Why? Because it was the easiest, most socially accepted game to talk their other female friends into playing.
Don't mistake me though: even while focusing on a target market, it's a bad choice to get caught up in stereotypes. Why The Sims ultimately was a success was not only the amazing word-of-mouth sales, but also the very addictive game play. By having gameplay that actually emphasizes fun, Maxis eventually captured players from all genders and all groups. However, a good choice of market is essential for a product because it encourages the targeted group to become diehard fans, those who will sell your product for you.
LC: At the moment, Corey and I are starting a couple of new projects that are designed to appeal to a more specific demographic than our previous games. The first project is targeted at the "interactive fiction" adventure game market and Quest for Glory fans. It's a sort of "choose your own adventure" book with real decision-making and puzzle-solving. Text-based adventure games are really retro—the first computer game I ever played was called Adventure. Nevertheless, there is still a market for players who value storytelling over graphics.
The other project is a website targeted directly at women who want to relax by playing casual puzzle games and reading about gardens, flowers, and art. The Puzzle Rose Society will feature a blog, gardening tips, recipes, and much of my photographic artwork. I'm putting on my lacy white gloves, sipping tea, and eating scones in order to design this game. Okay, so I don't actually have any white gloves, but I do drink a lot of tea and I bake a wide variety of scones. I'm tapping into my stereotypical feminine psyche to design that site.
JH: Lori and Corey, you've been playing and designing role-playing games (RPGs) for decades. As players, why have you, like so many RPGers, especially bonded with Dungeons & Dragons and later World of Warcraft? As designers, what were the main concepts behind Quest for Glory, which has very different (and seemingly simpler) game mechanics than D&D or WoW? How might you design an RPG today?
LC: From the first time I played a role-playing game, I was hooked. I've made up stories and characters all my life, but I was always more interested in creating the story, rather than writing it down. I'm very good at improvisational theater, too. A good role-playing game gives you the opportunity to really think as your character thinks rather than as you would think. I'd still rather play a D&D game than a computer game any day.
In the RPG computer games I designed, I wanted the player to really become his character on the screen—to feel like he lives the adventure.
CC: Actually, if you look "under the covers" at the game mechanics behind Quest for Glory, they're more complex than the AD&D rules. It's a fourth-generation game based on our own unpublished, skill-based, paper RPG system. That in turn borrowed from the original D&D and from the "Arizona D&D" variant Lori played with her friends in the late '70s.
The Quest for Glory role-playing system is skill-based, meaning you improve individual skills by practicing them, rather than suddenly having them improve when you gain a "level." It also uses a complex feedback system so that, for example, practicing Climbing indirectly benefits your Strength and your Agility. These attributes in turn limit how fast you can improve your Climbing skill.
We felt the system worked extremely well for the first two Quest for Glory games, but that the constant need for practicing skills led to some boring repetitive gameplay in the later QfGs. I like the system, but would provide some shortcuts if I were creating a similar game today—perhaps a strategy page disguised as an "adventurer's to-do list" in which the player could choose a set of skills to practice in the character's off-time. As a live game master, I'm perfectly happy to have a player say, "I'll be practicing my lock-picking and dagger-throwing skills tonight." There is no need to have her roll for every dagger throw of the practice session.
JH: For concepts, you also seem to keep an eye on speculative-fiction novels, comics, movies, and TV. Aside from adapting Shannara, you've also pitched game proposals for toon and superhero adaptations, and Steven-Spielberg-esque sci-fi. Today, what kind of material and what style of adaptation would appeal to you most? By way of comparison, what's your opinion of mainstream adaptations, like the action games that movie studios often fund?
LC: For the interactive fiction project, Corey and I could have pretty much chosen any genre we wanted. It wouldn't work very well with a cartoon adaptation, because that involves a lot of visual jokes and timed humor, but Superheroes of Hoboken by Steve Meretzky was a brilliant, funny game that was more of an adventure game than anything else. So the medium is very versatile.
Nevertheless, with an infinity of possibilities, the idea that intrigued me most as a designer was the School for Heroes. It was actually an extension of a website I used to run, How to Be a Hero. The site was a cross between fantasy role-playing on the forums and doing class-like activities that made an impact on the student's real life. Players took a test that said what character class they were. Then, they had to deal with a bunch of very idiosyncratic instructors. I worked hard at coming up with a meaningful curriculum for each character class. The lessons of the Warrior School were all centered on leadership training and actually taking charge of your own life. The Paladin class was all about doing real good in the world. The Wizard Class was all about being creative and seeing the world as a place of magic. The School for Rogues was all about living by your wits. It all was tied together into heroism in real life.
So now I'm bringing the fantasy part of the website into a game.
CC: We're tremendously excited about this project. When we stopped creating games for Sierra, the game market had shifted from creative games for intelligent people to an endless stream of first-person shooters and other twitch entertainment. We think that trend has finally run its course and there is once again room for games that make you think.
As with many of our projects, chance had a large role in creating this opportunity. We got the opportunity to create Quest for Glory because of a phone call from a friend who was doing animation work for Sierra. I helped create Jet Set Poker because of an extraordinary set of coincidences. We are now creating the School for Heroes game because the adventure game market has arisen from its ashes like a phoenix. Well, more directly, it's because Howard Sherman at Malinche Entertainment has managed to be successful creating and selling traditional text adventure games. Howard contacted us about an event he was organizing, and we started talking to him about creating games for Malinche.
MC: A quick look at the reviews of mainstream adaptations will show you that the games are usually terrible. Companies know that the name alone will sell, so they rush out a product of low quality, just to capture those sales. This will most likely change soon because movie companies are investing heavily in the game market. Hopefully, games will become additional content for good movies and unfold additional story for the fans who are really interested. An adapted game that is great and tells new parts of the story will sell well, and also increase the sales of the movie's DVD.
CC: A famous science fiction author (sorry, I've lost the actual attribution) once stated that every time he tried to create a "commercial" story, it had failed dismally. His most popular stories had always been the ones that he wrote with no market in mind just because he liked the story.
It is terribly difficult to create a great adaptation of someone else's work. The time constraints of getting a game to market in synchronization with a film pose additional problems, not least the pressure to release the game before it has been thoroughly polished and tested. There have been a few great licensed games, but most attempts have resulted in commercial and artistic failures, and that's really not surprising. Some players will buy a title just because of the license, but you have to create a great game that will stand on its own merits if you want it to have "legs."
LC: Years ago, Lucasfilm started its own game division [now LucasArts Entertainment Company]. It put out a few first-class graphic adventure games based on Indiana Jones. Unfortunately, such games were so expensive to create that they were abandoned as a genre. Yet graphic adventure games are the best way to do a story-based game. Action games are much easier to produce. That's why most computer games out there fall into that category of game. So naturally, most adaptations of movies wind up as meaningless action and very little story. Game design is a much unappreciated art form. There are many games on the market. There are very few good ones because there are very few good designers.
JH: At several conventions, you [Lori] and Corey have spoken about your games or game design more generally. How useful are such conventions for generating business and creative ideas? Some conventions such as E3 have become business-only, while others such as BlizzCon apparently cater to fandom. What are your thoughts on this pattern?
LC: I've been going to science fiction conventions since college. As the writer Neil Gaiman said in a recent journal blog, going to a convention was like discovering his tribe. Most dreamers like us don't fit in well with mundane society. Science fiction conventions attract the misfits, nerds, fans, and creative people. I fell in love with fantasy gaming after going to my first World Science Fiction Convention. Corey and I met at a science fiction convention when I joined the D&D game he was running. I've helped run conventions and talk on panels. So science fiction conventions have had a major impact on my life.
Most SF cons are put on by amateurs to promote the things they love best. They have a diverse variety of activities—lectures, art shows, costume contests, regency ballroom dancing, D&D gaming, etc., all on SF or fantasy themes. It's all about fun. E3 was designed as a marketing tool for game companies. As such, it is just a display show to advertise the latest games. It's a good place to network with other game designers, see what's new, or join this circus and try to advertise your own game, but it is all about business . . . serious business. BlizzCon, put on by Blizzard Entertainment, seems on the surface to be a promotional device to sell their games. Yes, they unveil the next games and expansion sets there. But they are already preaching to the choir. The people who go to BlizzCon already love the games and are willing to buy more. So the real purpose of BlizzCon is to put on a show and thank the faithful fans. It's an expensive and sweet gesture on their part, even if they are making millions every month.
I recommend to anyone who reads science fiction and fantasy to go to at least one major SF con. It's a great way to meet new friends. You never know what impact it might have on your life.
JH: A lot of game fans talk about having favorite characters, lines, or scenes. For me, the Quest for Glory IV cut-scene that includes Tanya's resurrection and Toby's death is particularly moving. What parts of your games particularly stand out in your memories?
LC: Since our goal in the Quest for Glory series was to create a meaningful experience for the player, it was important to have crucial life decisions and turning points in the protagonist's life. The problem with creating a game is that it takes all the fun out of playing it. All you see are the bugs and the things you really wish you could fix. The emotional attachment to the game is lost, and I never could judge how well we managed to pull off the emotional moments in the game. Fortunately, many fans of the series have written to tell us how well they enjoyed the game and what it meant to them. Hearing these things certainly creates a real emotional impact in my life.
CC: I admit it: I'm a softy and a sucker for tear-jerking moments in films. Games rarely manage to have that much emotional impact on their players. I think this is partly because of limitations of the medium, partly because most aren't very well written, and partly because the player is so busy trying to survive or win the game that the emotions don't have a chance to kick in.
That said, the Tanya and Toby moment worked on me too. Some of the scenes in Quest for Glory III (Wages of War or Seekers of the Lost City, depending on the edition) had a similar impact on me. There were some real emotional conflicts there about strife between tribes and so on. I think I was able to react to these because Lori wrote the whole QfG3 script, so I experienced them as a player rather than as the writer.
JH: You produced two games of groundbreaking sound quality: Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness, with its enormous narrative role voiced by John Rhys-Davies, and Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire, with its orchestral score by Chance Thomas. What's your opinion of voice and music quality in the game industry today? Are we headed uphill or down?
LC: At the last BlizzCon, they held a concert with a full orchestra performing the music from World of Warcraft and other games they produced. It was a wonderful experience to listen to that music. Almost as moving as the first time I listened to the Dragon Fire CD and heard the music of my game come to life. The game industry understands the emotional impact of music and puts money into using it. I've played WoW for years and still enjoy the music.
CC: One of the hardest things about developing games is how flat and lifeless they feel while you're making them. Until the music and sound effects are added, usually very late in the development process, it's hard to believe that our creations have any merit. Then everything comes together and suddenly, if the design, art, music, sound, and programming were all done right, the bits and bytes turn into pure magic. The Hell of developing games is that you really can't tell if the magic is there until the very end of the project . . . or sometimes months later.
JH: War and injustice are two evils tackled in the QfG series and I'm tempted to see real-world archetypes for some of the games' conflicts. For instance, you explore kindness and cruelty in an Arabian setting—Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire, released during the Gulf War—and next in an East African setting—Quest for Glory III: Wages of War, released during the Somalian Revolution. What message did you have in mind with these games?
CC: Well, consider the lead time on game development. All of those game situations were created long before the crises you mention developed. When we dramatize war in one of our games, we are basing it on past events and on the archetype of war. Sometimes there is a more specific reference, such as the throwaway "Persian golfer" joke in Trial by Fire, but trying to keep a game topical is a good way to make it come out "dated."
Hopefully we didn't inspire either the Gulf War or the Somalian Revolution. I do sometimes joke that Disney based their films on our games. For example, they released Aladdin a couple of years after we did Trial by Fire, Hercules not long after we finished Dragon Fire—set in the Greek isles—and a couple of other films that seemed to come right after we explored a setting in one of our games.
I think this may just mean that some themes and settings fit the times. Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love came out the same year, and there have been many other examples of parallel development in the media. That doesn't explain how we got there ahead of Disney; I guess we're just brilliant that way. 😉 😉
JH: Lori, your original career, before game design, was primary education. How well is the gaming industry serving preteen players today?
LC: Most of the gaming industry isn't trying to serve anyone. They are targeting the market that sells the best. Since it costs so much to create a game, it makes sense on their part to gear their designs toward the greatest profit center.
Personally, I think WoW is the best game out there for preteens. I play regularly with 12-year-olds. It's very hard to tell the age of the players you are playing with. The action aspect of combat appeals to a wide range of ages.
However, it's the "playing with others" that makes WoW significant. The game requires people to group together to complete quests. This requires cooperation and communication. Kids (and adults) develop real-world skills while having fun.
JH: I'll invert my previous question. What can the education system do to foster the skills that game development and other New Media industries demand? Maybe we should be rolling out projects like Alice (free 3D animation software for school-kids)—or maybe something else is more fundamental.
LC: The educational system in America needs to do some serious reevaluation of its teaching methods. It still tries to be a purveyor of useless knowledge and meaningless facts. It needs to teach how to learn—not what to learn.
Ideally, while schools still need to teach the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, they should be encouraging students to develop their own strengths and interests. Free animation software will be great for some kids. Giving them the tools to build their own websites would be fine for other kids. Letting them play the good computer games will help some with critical thinking skills. Schools and parents should be doing everything they can to help kids discover the things they are passionate about. If someone has a reason to learn something, and the tools to learn something, oddly enough, they probably will learn something.
JH: Michael, you're Director of Marketing for Transolar Entertainment. I understand you're also studying in Japan. Do you take an interest in the East Asian market? What are your aspirations in the game industry?
MC: Most companies of the game industry show one of the worst flaws of a large corporation: they are slow-moving—slow to innovate and slow to improve. However, the indie game industry is interesting to me. Indie games have the same problem as books online in the Internet age. They need to actually be seen in the massive crowd—and, especially for games, pirating is easy. So indie games have to appeal to fans on a personal level, and build a community around them. People rarely pirate things they really love, or things that their friends recommend to them. No matter whether you are a game company, or you are a starting writer, because there are so many choices online, you need to show that what you do is remarkable.
To the first question, the East Asian market is interesting, but the barriers among all markets are shrinking. A great product will appeal to everyone who tries it and understands it. In that way, individual markets are interesting, but now they can all be reached at the same time.
JH: A "reversal" faced the computer gaming industry in the late 1990s and your [Lori and Corey's] then-employer, Sierra On-Line [now Sierra Entertainment], was one of the companies that fell from prominence. You and others have often said that the reasons included rising development costs, innovations in competing game genres, and failures of entertainment conglomerates' governance. What possibility do you foresee for another such reversal in the industry's future?
LC: It seems to me that the computer game industry is in a sort of creative lull right now. Most major companies are churning out rehashes of previous games. There's just such a demand from players who want something new to play that it keeps the industry hanging on.
Once upon a time, all computer games were made from scratch from the code upward. Now, however, there are all sorts of programs available that do things we only dreamed of being able to do. There are classes in major colleges around the country teaching game design theory and how to use the off-the-shelf programs. So, as Michael suggests, the real changes and innovations will come from the indies and the college students who have a love of the games and, now, the tools to make them. After all, when Corey and I started out, we made up the game theories as we went along. We started out as amateurs, but it didn't stop us from making great games. I believe that these newcomers will be the ones to pull the life support from the old, creatively dead companies and breathe new life into computer games.
CC: Most of the innovation in gaming is coming from small, independent companies targeting the online casual game market. The entry costs are very low for this type of game. There's also a lot of repetitive garbage in this category—mostly rehashes of "match three" puzzles and the like—but the low cost of entry is giving independent developers a chance to take some market risks with their games. The established companies can't do much of this because every game they make costs millions of dollars to develop and market.
Malinche Entertainment is also creating and publishing small, inexpensive-to-create games with real story lines, as are a number of other small companies. The market votes on which of these companies are making products of sufficient quality that they can afford to make more.
JH: Almost every great game design company has started small, just as Transolar is now. What does it take to get from there to becoming something like today's Blizzard Entertainment, with games so popular that they not only sell millions of boxed copies and subscriptions but are also able to make money from conventions, pen-and-paper RPG licenses, and so on? What's the formula for growth and media convergence?
MC: Blizzard has succeeded because anyone who has ever bought a Blizzard product trusts all of Blizzard's products. Their delivered products are consistently good and always create more fans. Real fans are crucial to anything becoming popular, because they are the ones who will tell their friends, and get them to try the product too. Blizzard especially did a good job because all their games had a multiplayer component. So when one diehard fan got the game, he would convince his friends to get it so they could play together. So you see, because Blizzard's products are consistently good the fans would hype every new product both before and after it came out, resulting in amazing sales. Sales from fans' recommendations are exactly why World of Warcraft has been one of the top ten bestselling PC games for years. Blizzard's success is a good lesson to anyone who wants to make his or her book, game, or service successful. Just remember, the first fans are the hardest, but something great will keep them with you.
JH: Nineteen years after the first QfG game release, how do you feel about the work you're doing now?
LC: Despite the fact that creating an interactive fiction game in this day and age is rather like hitching the horse to the carriage in order to go to San Francisco, I am really excited about it. Once again, I can design a game that really lets the player enter a new world and live the adventure. I've always been a book reader—the character, setting, and story are very much alive when you are reading. But the problem with books is that it is someone else's story making someone else's decisions. In a game, the person who makes those decisions is you.
JH: Two final questions: First, is the QfG world, Glorianna, actually an alternative Earth spawned by the impact of an arcane force wave in 1 BC? Fans claim you [Lori] have said this but I've never seen the source. Second, if Glorianna is an alternative Earth and your alter ego exists in it, what is she currently doing?
LC: Several years back, a fan [Mishell Baker] approached me about co-creating a book series about the Quest for Glory series. To do this, we had to codify a lot of things that Corey and I pretty much figured out along the way when designing the game. The information about the arcane force wave was written in the bible for the book series. So it has become part of the QfG mythos.
Right now, my counterpart on Glorianna is working at the "Famous Adventurer's School for How to be a Hero," probably as secretary to the great FA himself, and teaching general education classes on the side. Hey, we can't all be heroes! Some of us just do everything we can to encourage other people to be heroes. And that's what I do best.
CC: I'm rereading the How to Be a Hero: By the Book novel now and really enjoying it. I'm going to push Lori and Mishell to find a publisher for it so that other fans of their writing or of fantasy fiction can enjoy it.
For more about the Coles and Transolar Entertainment, see the company's website: http://www.transolar.com/.
"Corey and Lori's School for Heroes Blog" is on Malinche Entertainment's website: http://www.malinche.net/schoolforheroes/schoolblog.html.
 An example is an enhanced freeware remake of Quest for Glory II, currently in beta and probably due out this year. See http://www.agdinteractive.com/.
 See http://www.soundtrack.net/news/article/?id=946 for details on this chain of events.
 Scott Adams (not to be confused with the Dilbert cartoonist of the same name) pioneered the influential genre of text-based computer games in 1978. See http://jerz.setonhill.edu/if/adams/intro.html for his comments on scriptwriting.
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