David Valjalo swings by to talk to game industry veteran turned comic creator Nate Simpson (Demigod, Supreme Commander) about his MMO-themed graphic novel that was conceived on the toilet, how everyone thought Demigod would go toe-to-toe with League Of Legends, and why he believes game addiction is real, and coming for us all.
Image Comics' Nonplayer is a beautifully drawn and coloured book that brings to mind the delicate lines and pastel-wash hues of some of comics' finest. But the real hook? It's all about games. Specifically, it's about what happens when a hobbyist player assassinates a celebrity NPC and how both the virtual and real worlds go ga-ga with the repercussions. With its finger fully on the pulse of MMOs work and the inner lives of game-playing folk carry on, it's no surprise to find its creator's CV steeped in games. Nate Simpson's biggest break was when he lead the art direction on strategy hybrid Demigod. Here, we talk all things games, comics and why Demigod's failure wasn't the developer's fault...
RPS: Tell us about Nonplayer - where the idea came from...
Nate Simpson: I guess the short answer is that it happened on the toilet. I'd quit games about six months earlier so I could work on a screenplay for this big space opera called Gordon And The Stareater. I'd been tinkering with versions of that story for nearly a decade, and it was going to be my great magnum opus. And it turned out not to be all that good. I'd wasted half a year's worth of money, and all I had to show for it was this terrible, impossible-to-fix pile of crap. In that moment of despair, one of my friends, this guy named Ray Lederer -- who did concept art for Skyrim -- he told me I should maybe back away from the movie idea and try a comic. It was a huge relief to even consider a life without the Stareater burden on my back.
I guess I had a backlog of stuff I'd thought about that hadn't made sense as part of the Stareater stew - ideas about the Singularity, advances in gaming, advances in robotics - and once I'd freed up the bandwidth for something new, it all just came flooding out. I think I had all the basic plot points worked out over about half an hour. It's the only time in my life I've ever experienced that kind of all-at-once creative surge.
RPS: How did your time working in games influence your decision to move into comics? Are game writing and designing skills transferrable to comics writing and creation?
Nate Simpson: Well, I've never really played a major role in game design, but I've done a lot of concept art, and that skill-set is certainly transferable to comics. Especially the tools. I don't think I'd be able to do comics at all if I didn't have a Cintiq [Simpson's Cintiq is pictured below], for example, and that was a gadget that I discovered at Gas Powered Games.
I think a lot of guys in both comics and games spend a lot of time looking wistfully over the fence at the other side. When you work at a game company, you're a small part of a big machine, and you don't have a lot of control over what you're doing. If your company needs to do a My Little Pony game to stay afloat, that's what you're going to do for the next year and a half. But a lot of comics guys envy the financial stability and the relative predictability of working in games. And weirdly, even though game developers crunch a lot, the schedules are a lot less brutal than comic schedules. The comic artists I've met are mostly nervous wrecks, with the exception of a couple of guys like Ryan Ottley and Brandon Graham.
Obviously, my exposure to the games industry informed a lot of the themes in Nonplayer. I had an unusually intimate view of the sausage being made, and it's really interesting stuff. Nonplayer probably wouldn't have existed if I'd just been an oil painter or something.
RPS: Specifically on the process working on Demigod. What trials and tribulations did you go through on that project, what did you learn?
Nate Simpson: Demigod is a great example of everything that can go right and go wrong with a game. The team was one of the best I've ever worked with - everybody had a great attitude and we believed in what we were making. There were so many opportunities to be genuinely creative with the way the game was presented, and it was one of those rare cases where the money people and producers had a very "yes, and" attitude in brainstorming sessions. I think the game ended up looking pretty interesting because of that.
At the time, we thought we had a real blockbuster on our hands. Our primary competition were the guys doing League of Legends, and the advance press was that we had the more interesting product. Ha! Now those guys own the universe, and nobody's even heard of Demigod. In the end, our game was hobbled by the publisher, who insisted on handling the networking code on their end, but didn't have either the time or the manpower to do it right. They ended up just shipping it broken. So we had this great multiplayer game that nobody could actually play when it shipped. That pretty much killed us.
RPS: How did the deal with Image come about?
Nate Simpson: I'd been posting some of the early pages for Nonplayer on my blog, and it had attracted the attention of a few industry people. At the time, Joe Keatinge was still working at Image, and he's a big lover of that European clear line style, so I had an advocate there.
RPS: How about the film rights deal? Any news on the film production/direction?
Nate Simpson: The film stuff happened after the comic debuted at Wondercon. There was a little bit of buzz for a few weeks, and a number of movie people contacted me. It was strange. I guess production companies contain a lot of comics geeks, because Nonplayer wasn't really that widely known. Anyway, I flew to LA and got to talk to a few production companies. I'm totally ill-suited to pitching stuff, though. I remember meeting a couple of producers at this breakfast place and going off on this tangent about how they should make a movie series based on the Riverworld books by Philip Jose Farmer. I could see they were ready to change the subject about five seconds into it, but I couldn't make my mouth stop moving. So embarrassing. Regardless, I guess I didn't screw up too bad, since they ended up optioning the book.
I don't have anything to report on the film's progress. I handed off a synopsis of the entire story months ago, and I haven't heard much since then. Hopefully good things are happening!
RPS: Nonplayer revolves around the MMO - why choose this genre as subject matter?
Nate Simpson: I'm really interested in game addiction. I've seen lives ruined by World Of Warcraft, for example. We can all sort of stand around and laugh at the unfortunates who get sucked into that stuff, but those of us who have that detachment just haven't yet been targeted by the industry. At some point, they'll get around to making a world that I find preferable to the one in which I'm living, and then I'll be faced with a very difficult choice: both of these worlds are equal from a neurochemical standpoint. When I succeed, I get the same dopamine pay-off. But in the virtual world, those pay-offs come early and often.
In a weird way, choosing to spend your time in the real world is like choosing to live in the middle of the desert. All the interesting, rewarding stuff is happening where you're not. And of course that sounds terrible, because none of the things you're doing inside that virtual world have any objective value. It's scary. I've got a little boy on the way, and I'm not sure what the rules will be when it comes to games.
RPS: Comic book adaptations and spin-offs of games feel like a ghetto of the comic book medium, do you agree?
Nate Simpson: Yeah, it's true. I guess that may say something about the relative cultural impact of comics and games right now. Though I bet if you hired some great people to do the adaptations, you could see some movement there. Like, I dunno... a BioShock comic drawn by Mike Mignola. Holy crap. It would be the moodiest-looking book of all time.
RPS: We're slowly seeing games become more a part of comics culture in both iconography and subject matter - Scott Pilgrim and Thiem Pham's Level-Up, for example - how do you see this developing and why is it only now becoming so prevalent?
Nate Simpson: That's probably because the current generation of influential comics creators all grew up during the 8-bit era. It'll be fun to see the next generation come forward and bring all their Mario Kart nostalgia to the medium. I also think Bryan Lee O'Malley created a new vernacular with Scott Pilgrim. Just all of the tongue-in-cheek user interface stuff that pops up -- I've been seeing a lot more of that in newer comics. He deserves a lot of the credit for that trend.
RPS: Did any games and game art directly influence Nonplayer?
Nate Simpson: Certainly games like World Of Warcraft and Aion influenced the tone of the in-game sequences in Nonplayer. I wish I could paint like some of the great game concept artists, but I've always been the guy to whom producers are constantly saying "can you make this stuff look less comicky?" I definitely come from a line-art background, which means that mainstream painterly concept art isn't something I can process very well. That said, I've been very inspired by M.C. Barrett, Cory Allemeier, David Ryan Paul, and a few of the other guys I work with here in Seattle.
But as far as visual inspiration goes, I think I developed most of my drawing habits before games got good-looking enough to influence my artwork. I idolized guys like Moebius, Geof Darrow, William Stout, and Arthur Rackham. A big part of my decision to draw a comic that takes place in a fantasy forest comes from wanting to draw gnarly, Rackhamesque trees.
RPS: You had a terrible accident that delayed Nonplayer's production, I'm going to be quite insensitive and assume you could still play games and read comics during that time. What did you play, read, find inspiration in, and what did you learn from the respite period. Such bouts of creative inactivity can be a blessing or a curse to a creator, what was your experience?
Nate Simpson: Sadly, I was unable to play games during my convalescence. I was so busted up, I could barely even sleep. I ended up watching every episode of Mystery Science Theater, and then every episode of Top Gear, and then every episode of Mythbusters. My time away from the comic was definitely a curse - I was aware of the ticking money clock throughout the healing period, and it made it hard to think about the book in a positive light. It was really depressing.
RPS: Will you ever return to game development?
Nate Simpson: I have already returned! I ran out of money pretty quickly after Nonplayer issue one came out, and I had to go back to the grind. I work at PopCap Games right now, and my first game there will be coming out in 2013. I'm working on Nonplayer in my off-hours, which is why it's taken so disastrously long to get it finished. I still grapple a lot with work-life balance. I'd love to be able to get back into comics full-time, but it'll be awhile before I've saved up enough to go back to that life.
RPS: What games are you currently playing?
Nate Simpson: I got sucked into Kerbal Space Program a few months ago. If you haven't heard of it, it's basically Legos in space. You have a vehicle assembly building where you construct spacecraft from a menu of parts, and then you can fly them around the solar system. The amazing bit is how accurately the physics are modelled -- I have learned a ton about the way actual rocketry works. And when you screw up, there are lots of pretty explosions. Before that, I was into Minecraft, which is basically a Lego game, too. You may be sensing a pattern here. I played a little Skyrim in between, as well. These days, I'm on a no-gaming diet. But every once in a while, when I feel myself approaching burnout, I take a little time off to let my brain return to its original shape.
RPS: The first issue of Nonplayer debuted over a year ago, with the second delayed due to a health issue you suffered; for readers wanting to catch up ahead of the forthcoming release of issue 2, where can they find it?
Nate Simpson: There are actually still copies of the second printing out in the wild. I see one every now and then on the shelves at my local shop in Seattle. I have no idea where this inventory comes from -- I think maybe some of the larger regional shops stocked up in a big way and are letting them trickle out or something. But even if you can't find it at a shop, it is available on ComiXology. I also think it's pretty likely that issue one will see a third printing before issue two comes out, just to give people a chance to catch up.