Interview: Erin Hoffman, Videogame Designer and Fantasy Novelist, discusses The Chaos Knight book series

Erin Hoffman is a professional writer (covering fiction, poetry, blogging and more) and a game designer.  After graduating from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a B.S. in Electronic Art and Philosophy (dual major), and a minor in Game Theory, she has had an amazing career in the videogame industry; having worked on games such as DragonRealms, Shadowbane: The Lost Kingdom, GoPets: Vacation Island, Kung Fu Panda World, and FrontierVille.  She also co-edited and contributed to the groundbreaking text, Settlers of the New Virtual Worlds.  (Seriously, go buy it.)  And she has published several short works of fiction in book collections and other publications.

This interview will mainly focus on Hoffman’s burgeoning career as the author of a new fantasy series, The Chaos Knight.  Starting with Sword of Fire and Sea and continuing in Lance of Earth and Sky, the third installment of this series, Shield of Sea of Space, will be released in 2013.

You can learn more about Erin Hoffman by visiting her homepage here.

Nicholas Yanes:  So I always want to know about a person’s origin story.  What inspired you to want to pursue careers in videogame design and novel writing?

Erin Hoffman:  I was writing and designing games before I realized that either of these were viable careers. I wanted to be a novelist from a fairly young age, but knew it wouldn’t pay the bills, at least for awhile. Video games became my paying day job almost by accident — I worked as a developer for SimutronicsDragonRealms while I was in college, and this apprenticeship qualified me for an IGDA scholarship to the GDC, where I landed my first full-time position out of college. Games as a field are intense enough that you either go all-in or bounce within your first year; I was all in and have been since.

Editor’s note: IGDA stands for International Game Developers Association, and GDC stands for Game Developers Conference

Yanes:  With more and more people wanting to get into the videogame industry, how did you start your career in gaming?

Hoffman:  Actually, in a fashion that would repeat itself later in my career: by mouthing off with an unpopular opinion. I was at a roundtable at GDC where a group of business folk were discussing the practicalities of outsourcing MMO customer service to India. I had come to listen, but eventually couldn’t stand what was being discussed, and expressed my intense skepticism that effective customer service could come from a generic outsourcer thousands of miles away who was not personally invested in the games. I advocated instead a volunteer system similar to the one Simutronics used, which does have its drawbacks, but at least your players are talking to people who speak the language of the game. I’m sure I didn’t win any fans from the majority of the bean-counting audience, but my passion caught the attention of the CEO of a small company who later offered me a job.

Yanes:  Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is known for its stellar academic reputation.  How has your education at Rensselaer shaped your approach to storytelling?

Hoffman:  A few times in my life I’ve stood at a crossroads that I now look back upon as diverging into completely different identities. Picking a college was one of those. I had a full ride offer from the University of Puget Sound to go into their honors English program, and I had a lesser offer from RPI. I chose RPI under the theory that I could independently study literature if I had access to technology, but UPS’s lack of technology at the time wouldn’t allow me to independently stay competitive in tech. So what I learned at RPI — and many of the other students I met there, in its innovation- and entrepreneurship-promoting environment — definitely had an impact, but more on the game side of my identity than the storytelling. Though my game mind definitely shapes my storytelling; I build and think in systems, and then I thread a narrative through them. I have recently wondered if this possibly makes me a ludological writer, as opposed to a narrativist game designer.

Yanes:  Your first book, Sword of Fire and Sea, was published in 2011 and it is the first installment in a series called, The Chaos Knight.  What was your inspiration for this story?  Are there any classic fantasy stories that you feel influenced your writing?

Hoffman:  I’m sure I had many influences, but what’s at work in the Chaos Knight is probably a good bit of Treasure Island and an amalgam of many fantasy influences. It’s fast-paced adventure fantasy progressing into epic fantasy scope. The world itself is actually quite old, dating back originally to a fantasy world I created for an online writing group when I was in high school. My influences then would have been Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Stephen Lawhead, Piers Anthony. But by the time I was actually writing the trilogy, it was years later and they’d shifted to Philip K. Dick, Robin Hobb, Peter Beagle, and an assortment of short story writers. So if there’s much artifact of influence in there I’m not sure what it is. My editor calls the series Avatar: the Last Airbender meets Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion and Final Fantasy, which amuses me, especially because I’ve only recently read the Elric stories and had not watched Airbender at all.

Yanes:  With the literary market practically flooded with sword and sorcery fantasy stories, how did you differentiate The Chaos Knight from other fantasy franchises?

Hoffman:  I think the Chaos Knight is different in that its plot scope is definitely more epic fantasy than it is sword and sorcery, and yet its pacing and length is nowhere near our modern definitions of ‘epic’. I’ve had reviewers comment pretty frequently that the books have the scope of a thousand-page doorstopper squeezed into about three hundred pages. That was deliberate, and I think it does set the series apart, at least in the modern market.

Yanes:  When you started developing the concept of The Chaos Knight, did you envision it first as a videogame or as a novel?  On this note, would you ever like to see it adapted into another medium?

Hoffman:  I’m very “platform agnostic” when it comes to all of my worlds and so would love to see any of them as manga, CCGs, anime, tabletop RPGs, or video games. But the Chaos Knight itself was always intended as a novel trilogy, even though the world began as an interactive space, with character sheets, dice rolls, etc.

Yanes:  How do you approach the task of writing?  Did you have a thorough plot outline and character bio written up before you began writing, or do you just free write and cut out what doesn’t work?

Hoffman:  I’m an outliner, but a ton of work goes into the creation of the world and story before the outlining process even begins. I’ve been working on my new project for three months solidly now and have only just begun the outline. I don’t write up full character bios, per se, but for protagonists and antagonists I know their general family background, personal history, foibles before I begin writing. Once I’ve done the worldbuilding and found the theme of the project, I can begin taking shots at what the first story will do to introduce that theme, and from there I get the major plot points of a book, and a detailed chapter outline is built around them.

Yanes:  After years of publishing shorter pieces for book collections and other publications, and having your novels published, what advice would you give to people who want to become professional writers?  (I swear I’m just asking for a friend.)

Hoffman:  Your friend should know that being a professional writer can mean so many things, especially these days! So I think it’s much more important to decide what kind of writer you want to be and build your goals around that than the goal of being professional. Otherwise you’re building around external validation and that has many pitfalls. The hard thing, and the ongoing process, is to figure out your identity as a writer — what stories you’re here to tell. Your path will be determined then by that answer. If you want to sell fantasy trilogies, my opinion of the short version is that you should write short stories until you’re good enough to sell to SFWA professional markets — not for the sake of those sales but as a measure of honing your skill. Then study the fantasy market and figure out what kind of story you can tell that fits within the demands of readers (the popular subgenres). Don’t get excessively attached to any one project, especially your first project. Write, learn, move on. Keep writing.

Yanes:  Despite more and more women being involved in the creation and consumption of fantasy novels and videogames, both industries are still thought of as a boys club.  Do you feel this image is still accurate?  And if so, what do you think fans can do to change it?

Hoffman:  There is a rather fascinating war going on around this very subject. I think it’s a measure of progress that there can be a war with two sides, whereas before there weren’t enough people fighting for equality to have a measurable impact. I think the image is still more or less accurate, but the balance is shifting rapidly. Fans can help most just by being open-minded in their consumption of media, and being vocal in their demand for more diversity in the market. It’s a lot of work to sensitize yourself to the way cultures other than your own can be marginalized. You have to read, research, listen, and stretch beyond your immediate self-interest. But it is a powerfully rewarding thing and will make you a better person beyond the immediate goal of leveling the playing field. It is so important to chase down and question your assumptions. I worry that “geek culture” is calcifying in its maturity into exactly the thing against which it initially rebelled, binary mainstream ideas of right and wrong. Try something new; it keeps your mind young!

Yanes:  Finally, are there any projects that you are working on that you’d like your fans to keep an eye out for?

Hoffman:  Definitely the closing volume of the Chaos Knight, Shield of Sea and Space! I’m hoping the cover art will be released soon — it’s fantastic. And I know some readers have waited to start the series until all its volumes were turned in, thanks to certain titanic authors who shall not be named and who have certain issues finishing their series. So I’m hoping readers with that very natural hesitation will pick up the books now that they’re all in.

Thanks very much for having me!

Again, you can learn more about Erin Hoffman by visiting her homepage here.

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