The Master of Multiplatform

Interviewed by Kimberly Bradley, April 17. 2013

Matt Costello will speak at the StoryDrive China Conference (May 29-30, 2013). Why? Because long ago, in a galaxy not far away at all, Matt Costello was the first to boldly go where no man has gone before – the world of multiplatform storytelling and writing. Once a journalist and already a novelist, Costello became, in the early 1990s, the first author to write a video game with The 7th Guest. Since then his work has spanned genres and platforms, including more games (like Doom 3), horror novels like Vacation and the upcoming Home, games that were also novels (Rage, 2011) and children's books, like Magic Everywhere!. He's even written and consulted for television. Here, the cross-media writing pioneer explains how he got where he is, and where things might be going.

You were essentially the first video-game writer. You're a longtime novelist as well. How did your rich fantasy world start?

As kid I grew up in a dysfunctional household, and lived in a fantasy life in my head; playing with my soldiers in a tree in Brooklyn, New York. When I went to college, I ended up majoring in Asian philosophy, and spent a lot of time – when I wasn't studying – playing board games. But I always wanted to write. I wrote my first book, but it didn't sell. Then I did journalism, writing about games for the LA Times, Sports Illustrated. I decided to try the novel again, and this time it sold. In 1992, 1993, a company was going to do a game on a brand-new format called CD-Rom. They'd read some of my novels and came to me and said they were going to do a horror game, and that I'd be a great writer for it. Then I told them I'm a gamer, too. So not only did I write the story and the script, but I was also co-designer of how the game played. It was called The 7th Guest, and it sold something like three million copies. But I kept writing novels. The one I wrote last year was well-reviewed (Vacation); the sequel (Home) is out in three weeks, through Macmillan St. Martin's Press. I've done dozens of video games for companies like Disney and Mattel.

And how did your career unfold?

I feel like there was a direct line from being a young kid in Brooklyn to here. I was taught by Dominican nuns in Brooklyn. Back then I would say I have a story I want to read, and they'd roll their eyes. Some years the nuns wouldn't let me read. Other years I'd have a nice benevolent nun who'd let me read my story about space monsters attacking Gotham, or whatever. That was when I was ten years old. I was also always making up games. But who knew you could make a living making games? I've probably made more money from games than from my books. My first writing happened to be about games. Every little brick led to another brick. Doing that first game became a calling card to doing many other games, to working with major companies.

How does your brain function when you're working in these different forms?

If I did one thing at a time I'd be bored. I like three or four different things happening. They each get the other one excited. Each medium has different limitations and strengths. Novel writing is really solitary, but if you do a game, you might walk into a room with 20 people. It's very collaborative. In writing for TV there's the dreaded script editor and co-writers. I feel very lucky – even if don't believe in this word – that I've gotten to play in all of these arenas. The shifting around might be a little ADHD or something.

Where do you get your ideas?

Stephen King had an answer to that question that I think he borrowed from Ray Bradbury: "I have the heart of a little child, which I keep on my desk at home." The idea begins with a mere bit of a thought. I let it sit there. If it's good I'll write it down, and not do too much with it and watch it grow. If it's a good idea, all the "what ifs" will start building. It might start with plot, or the characters. You don't know what the entry point in the story world is. With the game Rage, I created the story world and the events of the game, which began by thinking about an asteroid in a post-apocalyptic planet. What would happen if the asteroid didn't destroy all life? With the novel Vacation and the sequel Home that's coming out, that "what if" is... what would happen if you were an ordinary family living in a world in which half the world is cannibalistic? I don't think you can reduce it to a process. It's almost like you're an antenna and you have electrodes in your head. It's a little magical.

Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?

Entrepreneur, no. Innovator, yes. Some of my projects were things that had never been done before. I don't think I'm suited to being an entrepreneur. I have trouble paying my bills on time (laughs).

Do you think authors these days have to be entrepreneurs?

There is a different sense today. I did a five-day workshop, we call it a lab, in Spain, and these young people were totally focused on business. But I thought they were almost too focused on business. They just wanted to talk about funding. But I said, "What are you funding?" It nice to have a combination of the vision and the business aspect of it.

How has writing in the game world shifted?

The game world is much more professional now. When I started it was the Wild West. A lot of companies didn't even like to use writers. Who needs a writer? I can write, you can write, it's just a story! That's all changed. I did Doom 3 and that was the first time that company had used a writer. And I made a real story world involving Mars and teleportation and monsters from hell. There's now an awareness that this requires professional skills, like a screenwriter.

How has the normal book world shifted?

There are two things: of course, the e-book thing. It's as important to a writer or publisher as regular books. The other thing is the transmedia tie-in. One reason Macmillan wanted me to do the book I did last fall and the sequel is that they've set up a division to develop books in house as films. So they're not just publishing books anymore and selling off film rights, but now developing the book, publishing it, and also being actively engaged in building it as a film property. That’s the right way to do it. [Publishers] should see themselves as a "House of IP": intellectual property. And a story could exist as a game, movie, graphic novel, book, action figures, plush toys, whatever. Right now, I think a lot of publishers are on the same page.

Is there such a thing as an e-novel that can shift seamlessly into a game on, say, an iPad? Does that exist?

Maybe not seamlessly. Every medium has its own demands. But there's no reason you couldn't be reading a book and at some point you could enter the book.

That would be the coolest thing ever.

It's completely doable. I wonder why no one's doing it. Maybe the revenue model's not there. Especially for a younger audience, it would be great. There's that moment in a book where you want to go into it. If you could step into that world, take as long as you want, and then come back into the book part, that would be very cool.

Speaking of revenue models, how does a writer make money at a point in time in which revenue models are all over the place?

They are all over the place. Book advances are down from what they used to be, and probably will stay down, but they're still there, so that models works to a degree. The positive end, on the game side, now that the game world knows that writers and creating IP is important, is that they're aware that a need is there. I'd argue that, as a writer, developing a creative skill set is even more important than before. A creative skill set that crosses the media spectrum. If you're going to be writing novels, why not also be playing games? Why not also be looking at graphic novels? Seeing how stories exist in all different platforms and playing with it? Don't lock yourself in one chute. There's still gold, no silver, in them there hills!

You seem to have the mind of someone who can easily shift gears like this. But I worry about those writers who don't necessarily think multimedially.

We can put them on an ice floe! I'm just kidding. When I do my labs, some older writers don't want to hear about it. I want to tell them that this is a new toy! It's not about intimidation, it's about something exciting. It's almost like you need to just take a breath and relax. If you play with something, it doesn't intimidate you anymore. That's part of what I try to teach.

Do gamers know that you write novels?

They do with the novels that connect to games. I did Rage as both a game and a novel, and have gotten fan mail from people who said they loved both the game and the novel. Novels are very different from games. It's good to know that gamers are reading books! I think when you play a game, though, you never think that someone wrote it.

You seem incredibly prolific. How many projects do you do in a year?

I do a lot of projects that don't happen. I'm always bouncing like three to four things. Each year maybe two or three of them happen. That means, every day, working a little bit on one thing and switching to the other thing.

Do you think that today's audience will always pay for good stories?

If you love something, you'll pay for it. There's a game that I'm developing now. Mostly likely it will be free to play, but once you get into it, and you'll want to do other things, you'll be asked whether you want to pay a little more for it. You'll pay a $1.99 to enter another part of the game world and find out things like the secret of the hidden mask. I think people will always pay for story.

Where do you think you'll be in five years?

I don't really think like that – I focus on the here and now, but essentially I'd keep being involved in story and the excitement I get from coming up with ideas for them.

Matt Costello will speak at the StoryDrive China Conference at 4:15pm on May 29, 2013.