Interview with Angel Leigh McCoy, Stories in the Ether Author & Guild Wars 2 Designer

Angel Leigh McCoy

Angel Leigh McCoy

Angel Leigh McCoy loves writing.

Her fiction has appeared in numerous print and digital media, and in 2011 alone she published stories in the anthologies Beast Within 2Fear of the DarkGrowing Dread: Biopunk Visions, Clockwork Chaos, and our very own Stories in the Ether with Charlie Darwin, or the Trine of 1809. Her contribution became our first stand alone work of fiction, an “illustrated novella” with commission art from Steven Austin. Not only is the story compelling and full of wit—but the artwork is gorgeous. It’s truly something special.

During the day, Angel gets paid not to be a fiction writer – but to be a gamer. She is a writer and game designer at ArenaNet, and part of the development team for Guild Wars 2. (Yeah – we think that’s pretty bad ass too). At night, she’s the Editor in Chief at How Angel found time to write Charlie Darwin and do this interview is beyond me – so I’ll say she must be a magician too.

She began her career writing for White Wolf, Wizards of the Coast, FASA, and other RPG companies in the early 1990′s. At, she was the correspondent Wireless Angel.

We caught up with Angel just after the holidays and wanted to find out more about her work, her writing, and the inspiration behind Charlie Darwin.

[NMP] You’ve been a life long gamer and fan of horror and fantasy fiction, but when did your love of these things turn from “hobby” to “profession”? Was is something you set out to do early on, or something that just sort of happened along the way?

My love affair with gaming had a gradual beginning that turned, almost overnight, into a career. In 1991, some friends and I opened a games and comic store in Blacksburg, Virginia, the home of Virginia Tech. We called it Fun-n-Games, and it fed my addiction to games. It was a magical time, with many creative people all coming together. Several of us went on to careers in the games industry, including Shane Hensley who created Deadlands and Savage Worlds, and game designers John Hopler (writer), Zeke Sparks (lead content designer of Champions Online), Paris Crenshaw (freelance writer for Paizo), and Hal Mangold of Atomic Overmind Press. The creative cocktail in Blacksburg at that time was intoxicating. There were plenty of actual cocktails involved too, but that’s a story for another time.

A now-defunct gaming company called Chameleon Eclectic Entertainment also birthed in Blacksburg. CEE was making its mark with a TRPG (tabletop roleplaying game) called Millennium’s End. I was a close friend with the owner and game creator, Charles Ryan (better known as Chaz). I cut my teeth writing material for the Overlay Kit for his game. Later, I wrote a sourcebook called The Medellin Agent for him. In a bit of serendipity, he and I later went on to both work at Wizards of the Coast. He has had a long and successful career in the games industry as well.

How could anyone surrounded by so many creative, entrepreneurial, and gamelicous people not get swept along? It wasn’t entirely like being dragged by a current though. I had to actively swim toward my dreams, and it was hard but rewarding work. The games industry gave me the entrance I needed into making a career as a writer—something I’d wanted since grade school.

Angel at SteamCon 2010

Angel at SteamCon 2010

[NMP] Writing for the gaming industry in the 1990′s was likely a very different experience than what it is today. Now that you have worked extensively on both on table-top and video games; what are the biggest differences and challenges of each?

The differences between writing for TRPGs and video games could fill a vast chasm. It’s somewhat like the differences between writing a novel (TRPG) and writing a screenplay (VG).

TRPG writers tend to be part of a very small team. They may have co-authors and prior world canon or an editor to guide them, but they are mostly on their own. Often, you can feel like you’re working in a vacuum, and the pressure of production schedules means you rarely get a chance to do more than a first draft.

In video games, you work with a very large team that includes artists, developers, programmers, marketing, testers, alpha & beta feedback, voice actors, and of course, your fellow writers. All these people contribute and affect what you write with their feedback and creative input. It’s chaos like you cannot imagine turning magically into a finished product that astonishes with how well-put-together it is. It can be challenging to sift through all the feedback and contributions, but with an iterative process like the one we use at ArenaNet, you revise and revise and revise until the material is just what you want it to be.

You have to leave the majority of your ego at the door, replacing it with discriminating taste. The ability to gauge whether feedback is useful or not is a skill that can be learned. More often than most of us like, you will have this amazing idea that’s going to be the best thing in the game, but when your co-creators see it, they cringe. Ahem. You have to learn to let go. And, you also have to be willing to champion someone else’s idea if it’s truly amazing or better than your own. Passion and creativity are everything in game design. Being unafraid to take risks is important, but you also need flexibility and a good emotional shield for when your idea doesn’t work.

Angel at Stokers Weekend 2011

Angel at Stokers Weekend 2011

[NMP] So, how about work today? You are a full-time designer for ArenaNet, how did you find yourself working on Guild Wars 2? (And… when is the game going to be released? [wink wink]

I do work full time, and I’ve been here for four wondrous years as of today. Before ArenaNet, I was working at Microsoft Game Studios (MGS) as a project manager. I’d interviewed at ArenaNet a couple times, been wined and dined by their previous writing lead, and had met the owners, but it wasn’t the right time. I had several friends at ArenaNet already, and I was a huge Guild Wars fan, but I just wasn’t ready to leave MGS. Finally, at the end of 2007, Bobby Stein, the new writing lead, approached me about applying again. So, I did.

Bobby likes to remind me often about how I blew off the first interview, and he had to call me and ask if I was coming. I’d had a total brain fart and lost track of time. Despite that, and despite the fact that I admitted to disliking Tolkien in the group interview with James Phinney, Jeff Grubb, and Ree Soesbee, I was hired. And I was ready. To my delight, the timing was perfect. I moved right into working on Guild Wars 2, and I’ve been crazy happy ever since.

That last question is the big one, eh? And, I cannot answer it because I don’t know the answer. What I can tell you is that we’re currently in Closed Beta and planning has begun for an Open Beta. It’s all extremely exciting, and the game is coming along smashingly. It really is like magic when it all starts coming together and you see what an enormous accomplishment you’ve contributed to.

[NMP] Any advice would you give for someone looking to break into the creative side of the video game industry?

Follow your bliss. That, of course, applies to everything, but with the video game industry, it’s especially true. There is so much competition out there that only those people who are truly passionate about games and about their own craft will make it in the industry. You have to constantly seek out ways to improve your craft and to make your mark in your field. If you’re a writer, then it’s simple: play games, write about games, make games. If you’re an artist, it’s also simple. Draw, imagine and re-imagine game worlds and characters. This goes for any job in the games industry. If you’re passionate about your career, then skill and opportunity will follow. Also, the not-so-secret back door into any game company is through testing positions. Many people start there and move up through the ranks.

[NMP] I want to ask you about the work you did at WotC. You worked with Sean Reynolds on the 3E Magic of Faerun supplement for Forgotten Realms. Frankly, it’s one of my most treasured supplements for FRCS (~no joke~). Can you tell us a bit about its developement? I’m always curious about the balance between “crunch” and “fluff” when it comes to RPG products and I find that the best products have specialists on board to develop each side of that equation. How did you and Sean balance those roles in developing Magic of Faerun?

Mmm—Sean. Love that guy. And you’re so sweet to say that! Thank you. So, I’m definitely more of a fluffer than a cruncher. Sean, on the other hand, can do both. Sean taught me a great deal on that project about game balance and statistical analysis of game elements. I knew, even then, that stats weren’t my forte, so I went into it thinking that my contribution would be in the stories and histories of the characters and groups. Sean and I worked well together and our styles blended delightfully. It remains one of the projects I’m most proud of.

[NMP] So, it seems your more into the creative writing side of game development. A “storyiest” as I call designers with that focus. What are your favorite sources of inspiration for your work? To date, you’ve published only short stories, why? Have you ventured anything longer?

Over the course of my career, I’ve taken inspiration from numerous sources, depending on and informing what I was working on. For example, back when I was putting out some really dark horror, I had just read Clive Barker’s BOOKS OF BLOOD. I also went through a period where I was removing everything extraneous from my writing, and I read a bunch of Ernest Hemingway at that time. There are two authors whose work I study: Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood. These authors have had big influences on my writing. Mostly, though, I take inspiration from life. I’m a terrible voyeur. I can’t go into a public place without getting sucked into just watching people, eavesdropping, and making up stories in my head for interesting strangers. Life is, after all, truly stranger than fiction.

I’ve always been drawn to the short form. I’m not a rambler. I prefer to be economic and efficient with my language. I like to construct a story, not just tell it. The short form gives me important boundaries that allow me to play with beginnings and endings, with tight character development, and zinging dialogue. Novels give you much more room to play and don’t require nearly as much conservation of words. With a short story, I can revise and re-revise until it’s perfect. If I did that with a novel, it would take me five years to finish it.

Having said that, it took me five years to finish my (unpublished) novel. I’m shopping it around to agents and beginning to outline the next one. Ultimately, I think it would make my mom most proud if I published a novel or ten, and that’s the real reason I do this.

[NMP] I absolutely loved Charlie Darwin when I first read it. The observation that Lincoln, Poe, and Darwin were all born within 2 months of each other is really cool. What made you think of this? Can you tell us a bit about the story’s genesis?

That fact was one of those obscure ones found on the interwebs. Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin share the exact same birth date (2/12/1809), although they were born on different continents. Poe was a bit older, born on 1/18/1809. I got to thinking about how these three men had been so influential during their lifetimes and afterward. Both Lincoln and Darwin had enormous social impact. Poe affected people on a literary and personal level. Quickly, I got to the “What if?” part of my thought process. What if there were some supernatural event that caused these three men to be so great? What if it happened when they were all nine years old? What if it had been done to them—on purpose? And I was off to the races.

In order to show that this event had changed them, I had to establish up front that they might have turned out very differently, so I did a lot of research into what their lives were like when they were young, what their parents did, etc. I wanted to see if I could find the alternate path for them, the one they might have taken if they hadn’t become extraordinary. Abraham Lincoln would have become a farmer, like his father. Charles Darwin was lined up to become a doctor, like his father. And Edgar Allan Poe could very easily have become a businessman like John Allan, the man who raised Poe after he was orphaned. Instead, they all had a great adventure that gave them different world-views and taught them that anything was possible.

I researched all three extensively, and you may find, while reading, that you see bits and pieces of their futures foreshadowed in the story.

Rytlock watches over Angel's desk at ArenaNet

Rytlock watches over Angel's desk at ArenaNet

[NMP] Well, obviously we loved it. Steven Austin apparently really loved illustrating for it as well. Now, can you tell us about your creative space and environment? I’m really interested in the connection between the creative process and where it actually takes place. For artists, it’s often in a studio or in front of their drawing tablet. For writers and game designers though – it can be a bit harder to nail it down. 

I have little choice about my workspace at ArenaNet. We’re all at desks in a big open room. Ree Soesbee’s desk faces mine, so I’m one of the lucky ones. My desk has a growing array of toys and stuffed animals on it, thanks to my awesome co-workers. And I have a plushy Rytlock (a character from Guild Wars 2) who straddles my monitor.

At home, it’s a different story. I have my writing chair. This is an overstuffed, extremely cozy armchair placed in the corner of my living room. Its upholstery is a burgundy/gray paisley. It has a floor lamp beside it and a book shelf for my coffee/Coke/tea/snackums. I can sit in that chair all day, writing with my laptop on my lap, and that’s often how I spend my weekends. Comfort is key. If you’re uncomfortable, it breaks your concentration and you fall out of the zone. Invariably, one of my kitties will join me in the chair, and that always helps.

I never listen to music or have the TV on while I’m writing. Even at work, I often have headphones on with no sound playing. It helps keep out the ambient noise and lets me focus better.

[NMP] What writing or game design plans do you have for the future (aside from working on Guild Wars 2, obviously)? Do you have enough time to pursue your interests outside working for ArenaNet? What can we expect to see from you in 2012?

Right at this moment, I am living and breathing Guild Wars 2, but that isn’t always the case. I have plans for, the fiction podcast I produce, in 2012. About mid-year, we will become a pro-rate market (you’re getting a scoop on that). In addition, FUTURE IMPERFECT: BEST OF WILY WRITERS, Volume 2, is about to be released. I expect to be tackling the third volume by the end of the year.

I’m always writing short fiction and sending it out for publication. This is my staple, like tater tots or Fritos. I have to have a bit of short fiction writing going on, or I go into withdrawal.

In addition, I plan to start writing my new novel, the one I’m outlining now. It’s a historical fantasy series, set in the late 1800s in Boston. If I do it right, it will be much darker than “Charlie Darwin, or the Trine of 1809.” I’m looking forward to that.

On the game design side, I can’t look far beyond Guild Wars 2. Once the game launches, I plan to play, play, play it! I’ll have earned it.

[NMP] Thanks Angel! We wish you the best of success and we’ll be sure to keep an eye out on Guild Wars 2 release—whenever that might be… [wink wink]

37 thoughts on “Interview with Angel Leigh McCoy, Stories in the Ether Author & Guild Wars 2 Designer

  1. Nice interview Jonathon. I, and many others, are amazed at the talent and enthusiasm of Angel and her fellow game designers and artists at ArenaNet. Like Angel, we’re all eagerly awaiting the launch of Guild Wars 2 so we too can play, play, play! :)

    • Thanks for stopping by! Yes — she is a very talented writer and designer. It’s wonderful to see her, and so many other table-top RPG veterans in the cRPG industry. ArenaNet is lucky to have her. GW2 is no doubt going to rock!

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