Micky Neilson Interview

The following interview was between TigerChainsaw and legendary video game writer, Micky Neilson. His career spans over two decades in the video game industry and helped shape the dominant gaming giant that is Blizzard Entertainment. He is also a two-time New York Times Best-Selling Author. This specific interview is dedicated to his work on the Blackthorne in 1994 for the Super Nintendo where he helped write, design, and test.

TigerChainsaw = TC

Micky Neilson = MN

TC: “You’ve had an amazing career in writing whether it was through video games or authoring books. What first got you into writing and fiction in general? What made you want to pick up that career?”

MN: “I had been interested in story telling since the time I was a kid. I’m a visual story-teller. My head is always in the clouds and I’m always thinking about different worlds, fantastical settings, and things like that. From an imaginations standpoint I was already there but what I didn’t understand was the mechanics of writing and that was something that I needed to learn. As a child I wasn’t in a situation to get a great education so a lot of it was self-taught. I knew I wanted to be a writer and when I was a kid I had this book and took it to my dad. Inside of the book was the publisher’s name but I thought it was the writer. I pointed to it and asked who it was and he said it was Whitman. I then told him I wanted to be Whitman and what I meant was that I wanted to be the writer. Later I had an opportunity with my buddy Samwise (Didier) who was an Art Director at Blizzard. He was one of the first people there when the company started. It wasn’t even Blizzard at the time, it was Silicon and Synapse. It was just these college guys who had put together this company to make some games. They had a lot of dreams and ambitions but it was tiny as everyone could fit in one room. Sam was doing art and he called me while I was in the military. I had recently been in a truck accident and he asked if I’d like to do art. I thought “Oh okay, art for video games? That sounds great!” so I got out of the military and I went there and worked day and night on his computer. You’re doing video game artwork back then with no 3D or tablets. You’re using a mouse with these gigantic pixels to try and create art. If you look at the art in Blackthorne, that’s a lot of what it is. It’s a very pixelated art, but there’s a technique to that. So I took the test to learn all of these techniques and got hired on.”

TC: “When did you arrive at Blizzard? Was it 1993 and had they changed the name yet?”

Micky Neilson (Top of the picture) and the team at Blizzard.

MN: “I started in October of 1993 and when I was training I believe it was still called Silicon and Synapse. During the time I was training there was this weird little period where Silicon and Synapse went from that name to Ogre Studios. This is the time where Davidson & Associates purchased the company. At the time, the three founders of Blizzard, Michael Morhaime, Allen Adham, and Frank Pearce and the company itself were in a difficult position. With Davidson getting ready to acquire the company, we weren’t sure what the future was going to be and they were paying paychecks with their credit cards. We didn’t know what was going to happen or how it was going to go but we knew Davidson was going to acquire the company. When a small company like that gets acquired it can be a scary thing because you just don’t know what’s going to happen. Around that same time we started working on Warcraft and what that was going to be and brainstorming the very early stages of that. It was a weird time but Davidson allowed the company to remain autonomously. They really just let us do our thing, but their thing was educational software, so their thing wasn’t video games per say but they did know there was some type of magic going on within this little company and they invested wholeheartedly into it. Obviously, it worked out well.

TC: “So the actual game of Blackthorne, how did the concept come to be? Did you come up with the story first and then present it to the team or was the gameplay concept presented to you and you started to write the story?”

MN: “The story was pretty much done as far as the concept and setting. There was gameplay already when I started on it. The first thing that I started doing during lunch was just play it. I would look for bugs and play through the latest levels. When I came on I believe the story was a very collaborative thing. I don’t remember them telling me exactly how the story came about but with Sarlac and Tuul I think that was all group thinking. Where I came in was the art, I was actually working on Justice League Task Force and animations for that. I wanted to get into the story and something that I’m not sure a lot of people know about especially if they didn’t work on video games at that time is that with a small company everybody does a little bit of everything. The artists would learn whatever they could learn to help the game get finished. One of the things that I felt was a strength and also something that I was interested in was story-telling and writing so I had the opportunity to jump in and help create the NPC dialogue. Everytime you pass one of those captives who are hanging by a chain on the wall and they say something with a little interaction, that was what I was writing. It was a small contribution but it was the first time I wrote anything before in a video game. In that sense, Blackthorne has a really special place in my heart for beginning my writing especially because after 10 years of doing artwork for Blizzard and moving into 3D I had the opportunity to transition into a department called “Creative Development” and that’s where I moved into story development full-time. That’s where my writing career really took off.” 

TC: “Can you describe to me what your workspace was like back in 1993? What do you remember about the offices of Blizzard and what was the overall atmosphere? Help transport us to your desk during that time period.”

Micky Neilson (Third one up) and the guys at Blizzard.

MN: “A lot of people shared offices. I think maybe only the founders at that point had their own. You basically had this big open area like a bullpen and you had offices lining the periphery of that space. So you throw a bunch of artists in together and start blasting Jerky Boys and we all were watching Beavis and Butthead. We were just a bunch of kids. At lunch time we were either playing Samurai Shodown or running around grabbing Taco Bell. A lot of the artists, but especially the programmers would play Magic: The Gathering as that was a big thing. In that open bullpen area, most of the time at lunch there were people sitting around the walls and they all had their Magic cards. Obviously we were all playing games too, we played lots of Doom around that time and Duke (Nukem) so we were running around blasting the crap out of each other. It was just a lot of fun, I mean what more could you ask for as a kid at that age who was into comic books. We were all into the same stuff, everybody was geeky, and into fantasy, sci-fi movies, and comic books. Everybody speaks the same language and when you’re in a company and working on a team there’s a shorthand that you develop when you speak “geek”. As long as everybody was speaking geek, everybody understood exactly where the other person was coming from. It’s like “I’m working on this background and I need it to be more like Geiger stuff from Alien” and I’d understand 100 percent of what they were saying. It was fun, it was such a blast.”

TC: “What’s your creative process like for writing? Is it the same every time or how does the story come to you?”

MN: “Stories can come from anywhere. Sometimes it’s just a thought that pops into my head, sometimes I can be inspired by something I’m watching or a book that I’m reading. Of course when we start talking about licensing projects, people can come to you and tell you they have this project and offer you work. That was one of the big things about working at Blizzard because I loved being able to work on those worlds but they were never my worlds. I didn’t really have ownership, I was just kind of taking that space to a certain extent. Which was fine, it was great because I understood those worlds inside and out so I was able to bring a little bit of my own voice to that. I enjoy creating my own ideas but I do like to collaborate too. When I collaborate with other people we’ll just talk and I’ve found that I do my best work when I’m bouncing ideas off other people and that’s true for video game story development as well. If you get creative people together, like-minded people together, who are able to work together you can get a lot done and make a lot of progress. Good ideas can come from anywhere. I get lost when I’m driving because my brain is off in La-La Land thinking about story stuff.” 

TC: “When the game was finished and released what was the reception around the office about it? Did it meet expectations?”

Jim Lee designed the artwork for Blackthorne.

MN: “I think it did. I don’t remember the specifics a lot but there is one thing I think is worth mentioning that people will find interesting. It was the first time we worked with an artist whose work really lived up to it. It was Jim Lee who was a legendary comic book artist. I don’t know who arranged it but we got him to do the cover and the promotional posters so when you see them that’s all Jim Lee’s work and that was a really big deal. Later on the company (Blizzard) got to work with some of the biggest names in the industry which was just fantastic. It was just the beginning but that was the first time we had a really big name like that attached to something we were doing. I remember that it was successful and I think everybody was happy with it but I remember the big focus was shifted to Warcraft. We had been working on ports and licensed materials but Warcraft was our baby. It was an opportunity for Blizzard to really come into its own.”

TC: “Did you ever play Blackthorne and can you beat it?” 

MN: “Yeah, I played it all the way until the end. We didn’t have a QA (Quality Assurance) back then if you were on the team you were doing everything. I think everybody was into it because we were doing stuff that we enjoyed. It wasn’t a task to us like “Oh God, I have to play that game again!” These are fun games so we were totally wanting to finish it even when it’s rough. You still have fun and give feedback and then changes are made to make it more fun or fix bugs. It was the same thing when we were doing Starcraft. Every single person was doing all these things and we had a bug list. You had a whiteboard and all these bugs and everybody played the game until they fixed those bugs. Sometimes you’d fix a bug and then it’d introduce a new bug and you’re like “Oh God!” but it was all still so fun. When you’re that age there were very few people who were married so it was like “well what are you doing with your free time?” I mean we had the party animals and I did a bit of that. We’d all go to the bar and sing karaoke and that was a lot of fun. The thing is even when we weren’t at work, we were hanging out with each other. It really was in a sense, a family. Everybody wanted what we were doing to be the best and to succeed so everybody was on board 100 percent to play the game and provide feedback.”

TC: “What was your go-to Karaoke song?” 

MN: “Bed of Roses (by Bon Jovi) was my song, and I’m not sure if it came out yet but eventually “Lady” by Kenny Rogers became my go-to song too.” 

TC: “You went to have an incredible career in the video game industry creating plots and authoring books. Do you enjoy video games yourself and if so, what’s your favorite series or game?”

MN: “I loved games for a long time and I still love the idea of games. I don’t play them as much because of the time factor. I write anywhere from 10 to 12 hours a day. It’s nice to work from home and I was already doing that before it became the thing to do. If I’m working on a book like I’m doing now, I’ll do the homework and research and play the game. Like I did the Call of Duty World War II Field Manual, so I want to make sure I understand the game and research World War II which I was already into. It just depends on what project I’m working on. As far as just hanging out and playing games I don’t have time between the writing and family to do so. When you’re working freelance you don’t really get weekends.”

TC: “When you did have time back in the day, what was your go-to game?”

MN: “I was big into Doom. There was a game called Descent and I don’t know how many people remember that game. You were basically piloting this craft and you could go in any direction that you wanted to. It was a shooter so you were zipping through tunnels and blasting your enemies. I forget if it was two players or four players but you could get people together and shoot the crap out of each other. Adventure games were fun too. I enjoyed the personality and the animations. I stuck with a lot of the real-time strategy games that Blizzard made. There were times when I had to stop myself from playing games like Hearthstone because I’d look up and it was 4 A.M. and I had to get up in a few hours. I had to quit playing Hearthstone because of that, but those were some of my favorites.”

TC: “I really like asking this question because I get the most diverse answers with it but what’s a memory you’ll never forget during your time of helping create Blackthorne. It could something funny, or something that you were fond of what? Anything that you won’t ever forget?”

Curse This Terrible Life.

MN: “I don’t know why this stuck in my mind, but I was watching a YouTube playthrough for Blackthorne for this because my memory sucks and there was this one piece of dialogue that stuck with me and it was “Curse This Terrible Life.” For some reason that line got stuck with me and whenever I think back on my career and how it got started I associate it that line “Curse This Terrible Life”.”

TC: “You worked for Blizzard for 23 years, you’ve gone independent a few years back but you’re still cranking out lots of projects. What are some things that are being released soon or have just been released that we can look forward to reading from you?”

MN: “I just finished a sci-fi trilogy called “Skiptracer” and I’d love for people to check that out. I did a book with Samwise called “Strange Highways” and there is more potentially on the horizon. We wanted to establish an IP and make a franchise out of it. I’m writing a Blizzard book called “Forging Worlds” and it has some of the most iconic art. I’ve been sitting here telling stories and it’s 30 years worth of stories from Blizzard.”

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