Q&A: Comic Writer Devin Grayson on Writing for New MMO

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Comic book fans may know Devin Grayson from her work on Batman: Gotham Knights and Nightwing, but after a two-year hiatus, she’s decided to lend her writing skills to a new medium — a massively multiplayer online game.

Grayson just signed on to work on Kung Foo!, a free-to-play, martial arts-themed MMO based on a popular Chinese TV show ported over from Asia by Perfect World Entertainment. Her job? To take the Chinese version and craft a completely original story that pokes fun at American pop culture and MMO conventions.

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And she’s more than qualified to write for an MMO. Apparently, while she’s been away from comics world for the past two years, she’s been playing a lot of them. She cites plenty of game time in Champions Online, Fallen Earth and World of Warcraft, to name a few.

Grayson told Techland about her new venture and what we can expect from Kung Foo!‘s North American release, slated for early 2010.

Techland: So what’s the game about?

Devin Grayson: Kung Foo! is a humorous spoof on the classic hero’s journey, in all its myriad of forms. There’s a central quest that gives players the opportunity to perform classic heroic deeds, such as searching for a missing princess, reuniting a war-torn realm, and introducing adorable woodland creatures to the kiss of their deadly blade, but there is also a ton of additional content meant to help the player find and define their “inner Foo.”

The beauty of Kung Foo! is that it runs on the same engine as the other Perfect World games, meaning that the user interface and quest structures will be familiar to and comfortable for Perfect World fans. We also wanted to make the game accessible to people coming to Perfect World for the first time, though, and the spoofing aspects of the game allow us to do just that. We use the player’s personal experience with RPGs, Kung fu movies, comic books, and even badly translated game text to encourage them to make Kung Foo! their own.

Techland: How did you get on board the project? What were your initial thoughts in tackling this?

Grayson: I’m an avid RPGer and a pretty experienced MMO player, so the challenge of trying to bring a product that is already up and running and popular in China to a Western audience was immediately appealing. My first thought was a quick, silent calculation about the length of an MMORPG, script-wise, as compared to a standard comic book, but that, of course, led only to panic. What I finally settled into involved crafting a world and story line that I’d respond to and enjoy as a player.

Techland: How much input do you actually have in the storyline, characters and development?

Grayson: The mission is to introduce this game — which already exists in China — to a whole new audience. The story in the Chinese version is largely influenced by a popular television show that isn’t available here, so we’re creating a completely original story that takes advantage of American pop culture and a more westernized version of the hero’s journey.

Techland: Does your comic book writing experience specifically come into play at all in writing for this?

Grayson: The organizational principal behind writing a superhero comic and a game are not that dissimilar; in both cases you’re immersing yourself in a fictional world and then finding individual stories within that world that help share its essence with readers (or players) coming to it with varying degrees of knowledge about its structure. Part of the fun of writing something like Batman is incorporating the tremendous amount of institutional knowledge already spread throughout popular culture into a story of your own crafting. RPGs are similar in that sense; there are player expectations already in place, and the challenge is to deliver something that meets or surpasses those expectations while also bringing in something new and fresh.

Also, as with comics, this has very much been a group effort. I’m working hand in hand with Perfect World’s stellar QA Department and game producers. Writing can be very lonely, but I’ve been very lucky in my career to work primarily on collaborative projects.

Techland: What specifically influenced you in writing for this game?

Grayson: All of my gaming experience, every martial arts movie I’ve ever seen, most of the comics I’ve read, three game shows, two articles about furrys, one really bad pun, and of course all the creativity and energy of my colleagues at Perfect World.

Techland: Are you going to try to slip in secret homages to Batman or Nightwing or any other characters you’ve written?

Grayson: Not directly, but we do have an entire realm spoofing the tropes and structure of superhero comics, as well as some fun trivia sections that will probably end up fairly super hero-heavy.

Techland: I’m told you’re an MMO player. What do you play?

Grayson: I play MMOs with a group of friends I’ve been gaming with for an embarrassingly long time. We’re sort of serial MMO players; we’ll spend a couple years on one game and then jump over to something else en masse. Currently we’re jumping off of Champions Online to check out Fallen Earth, but we’ve put good time into everything from Anarchy Online to World of Warcraft, including EverQuest and EverQuest 2, Star Wars Galaxies, Dark Age of Camelot, and City of Heroes.

What I love about MMOs is the ability to submerge myself, along with several close friends, into different worlds that allow us to design, role-play, and challenge our more heroic selves. It’s a great way for introverts to stay connected, and I’m also still thrilled by the technological genius of being able to interact on shared ground with avatars belonging to people all over the world.

I think it would be almost impossible to create fun parody as an outsider. You have to know the secret handshakes. How would you even know to joke about, for instance, the leveling grind if you’d never done it. It’s a writer’s job to use their empathy and imagination to tackle a wide variety of subjects, but parody, specifically, has to come from some kind of familiarity.

Techland: Did you look at other MMOs specifically to help in writing for Kung Foo!?

Grayson: I’m bringing my experience as an MMO player and fan to Kung Foo! but I didn’t specifically go out and look at other games to prep for it. I did, however, cite one game to Kung Foo!‘s producer and QA team several times to explain why we could expect this funny kind of Frankenstein grafting to work, and that game is Kingdom of Loathing.

It’s a brilliant example of RPG parody, but it’s also inspirational as a reminder of the power of good writing. KoL’graphics are literally black-and-white stick figures, but the lack of eye candy goes all but unnoticed — the game works because of terrific writing and evident intimate knowledge of RPG play. It’s incredibly well done and, like all Perfect World games, free-to-play.

Techland: What should MMO players, as well as fans of your comic book writing, expect to see in this game?

Grayson: Hopefully they’ll see something they recognize from their own experiences with gaming and martial arts movies that makes them laugh. And I can guarantee that they’ll see intriguing new realms full of synthetic gorillas, magical soup, and identical centuplets.

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