Zelenhgorm: The Great Ship Interview with Michi Lantz

Interview by Rosemary Young (November, 2002)
This game, The Great Ship, is the first instalment in the adventure fantasy saga named Zelenhgorm: Land of the Blue Moon.

It's a story of magic and demons, of forgotten legends ... and superstition, akin to the many epic fantasy novels that line the shelves of bookshops today. It is the first adventure game in a long time in which live actors and full motion video have been used extensively, and it's also the first game in a long time to have a woman at the helm. Michi Lantz who is producing and directing this saga has some things to say about her experiences in this brief email interview.

Rosemary: Hi Michi, knowing that you have a background in Music Videos, Film and TV, my first question is what was it that attracted you to make Zelenhgorm as a computer game?

Michi: When two friends and I started the Zelenhgorm project in 1997 I had already worked with interactive projects. Besides degrees from film school and University, I have diplomas in digital media and was given the great challenge to build an interactive department within a video production company. The project wasn't particularly sexy, it was business-to-business, every company wanted to have an interactive production on their show-reel in the mid-nineties (read multimedia).

I guess I'm always looking for some sort of a challenge. I introduced Magnus Welinder, the writer, to my partners and we asked if he would be interested in writing the best fantasy concept ever written. He said yes and we developed it from there. We pursued the challenge to make an interactive movie. We had little clue how to do this though. I'd never produced games before. We discussed several questions; for instance was it possible to actually tell a complex story and at the same time maintain the interactive freedom to explore the world in your own way? Was it possible to make an "interactive movie"? We were aware of previous attempts to do that, but we felt that they weren't that well performed. You didn't "believe" that the persons were "there", it was live actors in a computer world, not a real fantasy world. And the story telling wasn't good enough.

Everywhere we turned we received opinions and remarks like: "Well, fantasy/adventure games are dead." "It's old." "Live-actors!!" "You can't handle gameplay with live-actors," and so on. For me that was like a provocation, I just had to prove that it could be done. And the story of Zelenhgorm was great, the complexity and depth was fantastic. Magnus was a very good writer*. We wanted to create something new, unique and entertaining, with high-quality! The movie industry had tried making computer games out of films and most of them, in my opinion, failed. We, on the other hand, began in 1997 to create a concept with the computer game as the spine and films, books and novels as spin-offs. I guess the answer to your question is I fell in love with Zelenhgorm and wanted to combine my know-how in film production with interactivity. I wanted to produce a game I would love to play myself, but which hadn't been produced yet. It has been very educational. And I had the privilege to work with very skilled craftsmen and women.

*Tragically Magnus died on Easter this year. He suffered from heart failure and later from a stroke. He was waiting for a heart and lung transplant. But he did write very much on Zelenhgorm before he passed away. He was one of my best friends and I miss him.

Rosemary: I have no knowledge of the Music Video industry but in the Film and TV business today there is only a sprinkling of notable women behind the scenes. Women are even less involved in the computer game industry. Can you tell us a little about your personal experiences as a woman moving from one field to the other? Is there a great difference between them?

Michi: Hmm, that is a good question that doesn't have a simple answer. It depends on how you look at it, I guess. To me the bottom line is that whether or not you're a woman or man working in the entertainment industry you have to do a good job. You have to be prepared to work hard and do it with passion You have to use your skill and experience wisely and be brave enough to say when you don't have enough knowledge and get someone who does. People usually want to help if they can. But you have to be very clear and specific in telling people what you're aiming at. You have to have authority.

Personally, as a woman I can't say I've experienced a difference between the film and gaming industries. It's like you've said in your article about females and gaming, most games are produced by males for males. There aren't that many female directors that actually make a living out of it. In the beginning with Zelenhgorm, when one of my partners and I went to convention meetings the publishing executives tended to regard me as his secretary! They just assumed that he was in charge. Sometimes it was ridiculous, they addressed him with questions, acting as if I wasn't there or was just a pretty face. I was frustrated by this at first, but I refused to let it worry me and I remained convinced that we could do this, despite all odds! If I didn't stay convinced I knew I'd lose the battle of getting the game published. If I were to say some wise words to a female novice in the gaming industry it would be: don't lose your conviction, know your demons and be very picky in choosing your crew! And have a very good friend to lean on when the times are rough! You can make it to your advantage being a woman in a male dominated industry. If you're good at what you do, you're more easily noticed since we're a minority so far.

Rosemary: You say that you hope that Zelenhgorm might appeal to people who haven't played computer games before. This is exactly what we like to hear so can you say something more on this subject? What vision did you have of the 'market' you were aiming at? Why do you think that new players will be attracted to Zelenhgorm?

Michi: Well, I wasn't a big game fan myself when we started to produce Zelenhgorm. I didn't find it interesting shooting up ridiculous monsters or racing cars. I liked the adrenaline rush, but the total lack of depth in most games wasn't appealing to me. I'd played games like Asteroids in the beginning when computer games found their way to our living rooms, and I did enjoy the text based adventure games, but I gave all of my attention to film. I was going to work with movies, that had been my goal since I was fifteen. When faced with this great opportunity to be part of Zelenhgorm we asked ourselves if we could do something that would appeal to a vast group of fantasy readers. I believe that there are many movie-goers, and sci-fi and fantasy readers, who have a computer but haven't played a computer game. I think these people will enjoy Zelenhgorm very much. I am representative of that group I think. I want a complex world to dive into, a story full of depth and magic, characters that are real, all of it. Mankind has always known story-telling, we want to tell and hear stories all the time. You just don't play Zelenhgorm, you experience it. In a strange way it's a game, a movie, a book, all at the same time. As one editor wrote in his review: "it's a strangely absorbing experience".

Rosemary: Your choice of making an epic fantasy adventure is particularly interesting to me as an avid reader of fantasy novels. Until recently (I'm thinking of Lord Of The Rings here) there have been relatively few fantasy movies. But in the book industry fantasy is rife and popular across the board. As you say, there's a huge market to 'capture' including a huge percentage of females. Did you think about this when making Zelenhgorm?

Michi: Absolutely. That was and is a high priority. When we started Zelenhgorm there was a low interest in the genre within the gaming industry. The focus was laid on optimising your hardware and how fast graphic-cards could handle polygons. Therefore the natural focus on sports and shoot-em-up games. But today I've seen reluctant hard-core gamers test Zelenhgorm, which is a rather slow-paced game, and they kept on playing. And liked it to my big surprise! *lol*
To be honest, I would love to see fantasy readers explore Zelenhgorm, because there is so much to experience. Not only in the game and the games to come, but also in other stories from the world that will be produced in other medias. Zelenhgorm is easy to play, though not that easy to solve. The interface is simple, you don't have to be a computer wizard to understand how to get into the game play. You should be able to dive right into the world and not be hindered by a difficult interface and settings. I think it's important to not intimidate the player, if you want first time players to buy your game. And as you said, in the book industry fantasy is rife and popular across the board, so there is a vast target group for Zelenhgorm.

Rosemary: Now before I leave this subject, I cant resist asking what books and moves you like?

Michi: As you can imagine I see a lot films and read a lot of books. Some films that hit my top10 are: Magnolia - P T Anderson,Lord Of The Rings - P Jackson (of course! J), Fight Club - D Fincher, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - M Scorcese, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon - A Lee.

My favourite authors are Ursula Le Guin, Lord Dunsany, Mervin Peake, Par Lagerkvist, C S Lewis, Orson Scott Card, Patrick Suskind and Anne Rice. There are more favourites, but these are just a few.

Rosemary: OK. Now some questions about the making of Zelenhgorm. Starting with the story. How did you meet up with Magnus Welinde? Was the story written especially for a computer game?

Michi: Magnus and I had gone to the same school when we were small, but we weren't friends then. We took the same digital media course in 1996 and became best of friends. So when I met my partners and started Malamute (now called Moloto), I introduced Magnus to them. They read his novels and liked what they saw. We asked him if he would be interested in writing the best fantasy concept ever written, with the computer games as the spine. He said yes and the rest is history as you say. But we didn't just want to do a computer game, we wanted to build a world, a real world. So Magnus has written several stories about Zelenhgorm and its inhabitants from different times in the history. He had built on Zelenhgorm since childhood. He was a talented writer.

Rosemary: So did the story evolve at all as you made the first Chapter of Zelenhgorm? If so did you have input in it's evolution?

Michi: Yes, if I understand your question correctly. Magnus wrote and some of us gave him feed-back and input and he continued writing. So a few others and I have influenced the construction and structure of Zelenhgorm and helped create some of the fantastic characters that live in the world! It wasn't an easy job sometimes. There were conflicts and disagreements, but that can be very dynamic if handled constructively. Magnus was in charge of writing the story and creating the world. But it took teamwork to bring Zelenhgorm to life, making it look like a real fantasy world.

Rosemary: The logistics of a new company organising this production and getting together the writers and programmers, actors, graphic artists, composers, etc, etc, must have been a mammoth task. Care to comment briefly? How long has it been in development?

Michi: I'll try to comment briefly, but it won't be easy. J Yes, it has been a mammoth task. It was like being a president of a continent consisting of different countries and they didn't have the same language or culture. It took a year to get the crew in place, deciding which technique to use, develop the story and gameplay. The second year we started the production and we had to develop a production language we all understood. We started as three persons in my kitchen and ended up as 40 in our own studio. We did it all in-house. With freelancers and actors there have been approximately 200 persons involved. And I was in charge. God, it's been a roller coaster ride! But a very fun one most of the time. Not always though, there were times when I thought that I was just a naive idiot who didn't know what was up or down, left or right. Then our financier had to cut the company off, due to other business developments. Almost finished we found ourselves unemployed at the beginning of 2001. I was in the middle of a separation as well. So I was faced with being an unemployed single working mum with two children. Nine months went before I found new financiers. By then Magnus was ill and the rest of the crew was scattered. But the two lead programmers, the conceptual designer and one 3d-artist worked as free-lancers to help me complete the production. God bless them.

Rosemary: Mmm... I don't know how you did it especially as I see that as well as being the Producer and Director you were also involved with the game design and game play. Tell us how you approached the gameplay elements? What computer games, if any, might have influenced you?

Michi: No, Magnus was responsible for game design and game play. I and few others brainstormed together with him along the way. The approach was to try and use film language in a way that would be familiar to most people, (after a hundred years of film history we have consciously or unconsciously learned the language of film). In order to mix that with interactivity, we had to invent our own proprietary tools and new ways of thinking. Magnus liked Myst and Riven, but they were a bit too autistic for me. J But graphically they were exquisite.

Rosemary: I've scanned through the acting credits of Zelenhgorm and there are so many notable actors including some well known Scandinavian actors as well as some international stars who are more familiar to me. Unfortunately I don't know much about the Scandinavian film industry but I spotted Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett from Star Wars) and, of course, Kenny Baker (R2D2) and David Prowse (Darth Vader and also an old episode of Dr Who if my memory isn't playing tricks). How did you get these actors involved?

Michi: Through the founder of the Sci-fi convention in Malmo, Sweden, which had David Prowse, Kenny Baker, Jeremy Bulloch (all from Star Wars) and James Hong (Bladerunner) as guest stars. I got an agreement with these gentlemen in 1999. We filmed with them for two weeks and they were such wonderful persons and great to work with. All of us had a really fun time. I still have contact with them. I wanted to give them some good parts, far from what we were used to seeing them in. In this first episode we only see them for a few seconds. Their characters enter the story in the next and last episode of this first trilogy part - Zelenhgorm - The Great Ship.

Rosemary: So can you tell us some more about the over all structure of Zelenhgorm as I know there are more episodes or chapters to come. Are any of these already in production? Do you have any idea of how long we have to wait?

Michi: The storyline of the Zelenhgorm computer game is divided into a trilogy, three parts. Each of these parts will be further divided into episodes. So this first trilogy part, Zelenhgorm: The Great Ship, will have three or four episodes. How many episodes the other trilogy parts will have is not decided yet, though the story is there! The expected release of the next episode will be revealed within a few months. I want to see how the market reacts. So far the overall response is good, very good. It looks like Zelenhgorm will have a prosperous future.

Rosemary: Finally, marketing itself must be one of the most important and tricky areas for an adventure game. How are you tackling this? If, for instance, you follow the standard practices then you would be looking at the main stream multi-genre computer magazines. How will you reach the non hard-core gaming public or even those who haven't tried game playing?

Michi: We have different strategies, some secret and some more traditional. It depends on which target group we're focusing on. But I'm particularly fond of guerrilla marketing, interviews and having a close relationship with the gamers, letting them be part of the process. I have a personal relationship with quite a few at this time. I always answer personally all e-mails. One and a half years ago when the times were bad, when all seemed to fall apart, I literally asked for help from people who had e-mailed me asking about Zelenhgorm during the years. I explained to some of these anonymous Zelenhgorm friends what the situation was and I asked them to help me get others aware of Zelenhgorm. Suddenly my inbox overflowed with e-mails, some even from distributors. That was one very strong reason that kept me going. So I'm a firm believer in keeping a close relationship with your fans. They do care and want to be part of Zelenhgorm's development. If I, as a producer and a person, take care of that concern and show respect, I will get such great input in return and this will benefit Zelenhgorm. So thanks to all Zelenhgormians out there that cared and helped me continue.

Rosemary: And thank you Michi. I've recently finished Zelenhgorm and I look forward to continuing the journey.

Copyright © Rosemary Young 2002. All rights reserved.