Lorri Hopping

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This is a transcript of an audio interview. This transcript may contain errors - if you're using this material for research, etc. please verify with the original recorded interview. Source: ANTIC: Open Apple podcast Source URL: http://www.open-apple.net/2016/05/31/show-059-amy-kefauver-lorri-hopping-stuff4yourgs/

Interviewer: Kevin Savetz

Kevin Savetz: So how did you get started at Scholastic?

Lorri Hopping: Well, I started out just fresh out of college at a new start-up magazine called electronic learning - very, very first magazine there about when PCs first came out. So this was 1982. And so classrooms and schools were just getting their very first PCs. We had TRS-80s. That was the main machine, actually. We had the Radio Shack was kind of dominating for that short period of time, and I had never seen a PC before. And they put me on staff of this as a gopher, as a reporter, as an editorial assistant for the summer, and I had to learn computers 101 from scratch. I was a Liberal Arts major in English and French literature, so this was not completely unhappy with math - I liked math a lot - but I had no experience with computers. So that led to the job with Teaching and Computers - another spin-off magazine for teachers, where I learned basic program. And that was back in the day when you wrote basic programs. You typed them, and then you had to convert them for all the different machines. And then you printed them in the magazine. And teachers would precisely type letter for letter and hope they got all the semicolons in place, because, my goodness, if you missed a semi-colon, the program didn't work.

And so I wrote for - there was like a one or two year period before the software came out, before the software really blossomed. And teachers were just clamoring for material and programs. So basic programming gave way to program on floppy discs, right? So along the way you're doing floppy discs, and so Scholastic started a software division - I think it was the mid '80s. I could be corrected on that. Amy would know better because she ended up heading the editorial there. And they tapped me because nobody knew how to do this stuff. Nobody knew computers. Nobody understood user response. Nobody understood that your viewer is a character. And so they hired a lot of writers to do these who were all pioneering and struggling through this new medium, but because I had done a lot of "choose your own adventure stuff" - you know, the old books - and understood how the basic programming logic worked and understood this, the if-then loops and the conditional clauses, I went to town with it. I loved it. I loved my very first video game script that I wrote, this Escape from Antcatraz, launched me in this whole new direction, whole new career, whole new way of thinking of story. Relating to the user. Having a dialogue with the user and anticipating what they're going to do. Really, really, some of the most difficult kind of writing to do. And for me that was fun and a challenge. So I wrote in the period when Microzine was around. Gosh, I think it lasted, I don't know, four or five years. It was a sweet spot where you could be a writer on a video game and they would hire the writers first, and then the artists and then the coders. And that all got flopped around when the graphics took over, and we went into the CD-ROM era. And so for Microzine, the way it worked is there were no protocols, there was nobody knew how to do this, nobody... it was no best practices. People were doing it all different kinds of ways. I literally wrote almost like a movie script with hyperlinks embedded in text to tell where to go if the user presses this and that. And that works when you have a 64k machine, and your graphics are mostly static. I think someone in the middle of that they introduced two-part animation. That was a big thing. "Oh! We could do two-part animation now. We have room. We have space." Which means my antenna could go like that and then that.

Kevin Savetz: Haha.

Lorri Hopping: Two parts...

Kevin Savetz: Yeah.

Lorri Hopping:...Moved different ways and yeah. Big breakthrough for the graphics in this game. So really, like I said, a very interesting time to be a writer, because it was a golden era to be a writer for video games. There was no training, no degrees in that. It was the Wild West. It was wide open.

Kevin Savetz: Yeah. So did your method for creating change over time? Or did you stick to the thing you just described, with making kind of a hyperlink outline?

Lorri Hopping: Oh, the industry changed drastically. And I mean dramatically. The last of the floppy discs and when the graphics came in in the CD-ROM era, I did a lot of CD-ROM work for Microsoft and Edmark and IBM and Scholastic - Magic School Bus and things like that. Very very much more of a team approach, and very much more led by art and design...interactive design, so that you...the writing almost came later. Writing almost came as text filler in some ways in some of those games, and the visuals and the interactives became really the story telling engines in the CD-ROM era. And for good reason. I mean, really - it's video. They're video games. It really is a visual medium. And also the strength of the medium is interactive. The strength of the medium is that dialogue with the user, and that really needs to be nailed. I think primo, first, you have to define your character and define your relationship with your user first before you write anything. And scripting is still changing. It's still morphing and evolving...video game scripting, I think in a lot of different ways. The last couple of projects I've worked on have all been different. The writing process has been really, really different. I'm on what's more of a digital novel right now, more story than game. There's interactives. But I'm actually the narrative designer. And there's a separate lead writer, who's just doing text, and then there's a coder artist who's basically scripting in game. So you want to go look in the game. You want to be in the game and say, "What's going to happen here? Do we need any text? What do we do here?" So it's gone completely in-game and its gone very visual. The conditional loops are all done visually now, so that even I can follow what's going to happen, now the game states as you're writing. So that's been a huge change.That's what I'm working on right now. Called Inanimate Alice.

Kevin Savetz: Awesome. So before, it sounded like it was super story driven. I mean, the story was everything. What constraints do you have to work around creatively?

Lorri Hopping: Creatively.

Kevin Savetz: Creatively.

Lorri Hopping: Creatively, you know, it was the Wild West. I'm just going to say. Even for an educational project, we had curriculum. We had a topic. All these Microzene games are programs for learning. It was first - there was first school audience, and a home audience, but really education came first. So the biggest constraint was a conventional one. It had to hit...it had to teach kids, you had to teach kids certain things. And it still had to be fun. And that's still a challenge. That's still the big challenge in educational publishing in almost any medium. So I think that was it. The second...the technical challenge really was the memory. Rreally was the computer memory. Really restrictive. And as a writer, you want to expand and do this and have this happen and go over here, and really in a very compact way you had to think about graphics economically. So one of the programs I did...one of the programs I wrote...twisted my brain around this, was called Safari, where, because the graphics were so limited, I set the whole thing in on place so you're in one Safari location, but you play as six different animals. So even though you go in to this setting six different times, you can play the game six different times. If you're a different animal, you're going to have different experiences and different reactions. You're the predator or prey, you have to find certain foods,there's going to be a certain adventure. But the graphics stayed static, essentially. And it allowed for a lot more other things then to happen in that. So you had a lot more room in the code to do other things by keeping the graphics simple. So that was one solution. Wouldn't have to do that these days. I mean, these days, you could take each animal out on infinite procedurally generated worlds of adventure, and endless Safari if you wanted to. That was definitely a constraint, was during the '80s. By the '90s that loosened up.

Kevin Savetz: So you did Antcatraz, you did Safari...what other games did you do for Microzine?

Lorri Hopping: I did Quest for the Pole, which was a lot of fun. Now this was interesting because Quest for the Pole was based on non-fiction, was based on a true story of the Franklin expedition in the Arctic. So I did a lot of research and did a lot of fact checking on this, but it's still a branching adventure story. It's still a survival story. Do this, you die. Do this, you don't. It's a pretty classic branching text adventure. And because it was based on a true story...I wasn't making stuff up. I mean, the endings were essentially real. You learned a lot about sled dogs and things like that. It was just kind of a departure in that-. Antcatraz was similar, in that you were learning about ants and it was fact-based, but the adventure itself was really science fiction, because you're not really an ant. You're not really trapped inside of an anthill. Whereas Quest for the Pole was was pretty straight-forward adventure. Oh, and I - yeah, yeah, I almost forgot. I did the Baloonatics, which was sort of a Jules Verne, you know, 80 days around in the balloon. But it was a language arts adventure, so you're just going in this balloon to these different locations and it was a learning game embedded in it. So, the text was really - the whole adventure was just a structure to get you to practice your grammar and your language. And it's for younger children, so Microzine Junior, the junior version I'm looking at now, is from ages six to eight. And the older version was nine and up, so.

Kevin Savetz: Did you ever get push back from editors saying, "This needs to be more educational" or "This is super educational but it's not fun?" Or [laughing]. How'd you find that balance? And did you have to work your table about that?

Lorri Hopping: Well, that would be Amy, one of my favorite editors on the planet. And no, she was great - really really great to work with. And Scholastic is one of the biggest educational publishers in the world, and so they're able to attract a lot of really top-level, skilled people at doing that. That's what they do. They understand the audience. They understand the kids. And Amy in particular was really really good about letting me shape the story. With Antcatraz, the first one I wrote, in particular, I just had a topic. She just gave me a topic. And I remember sitting there. Well, you want to be inside the anthill. But then what happens? And then I remember completely inventing every little chamber that you went to - every little section that you went to - all the choices that you made. And as long as the science was solid, as long as the ants acted the way they were supposed to in the sense of scientifically, if they were this kind of ant, they were going to behave this way. It was okay that they talked, you know. Even those with science can get talking ants. So there was some discussion about that. You know, there's scientists who would rebel a little bit about anthropomorphizing, and it's an adventure game - it's an adventure story - and the fun really came from the personalities of the ants. It had Arnolda, the soldier who was really strong from Arnold Schwarzenegger. I had some really corny stuff in there that they left in there. It was great! [Laughing] It was a lot of fun.

Kevin Savetz: Nice. Did you get any feedback about students and teachers?

Lorri Hopping: You know, I don't remember getting a lot. I wasn't on that end of it. Amy would know for sure, because I know they do a lot of testing. Certainly the marketing people would tell you exactly what that is, but I really - as I think I mentioned to you, I - a couple years ago, somebody contacted me who was a Microzine fan. Microzine kidis are grown up now. Anybody who had this program or remembers it - you know, this was 30 years ago. Am I right? Almost 30 years ago. Yeah, they're now parents, right? So, some of these programs in games were the things they remember doing as kids, and I think there's a sweet spot when you're 8 to about 12, the things that you do at that age become magical. And when you become an adult, that's what you look back to. That's when trading baseball cards or whether it's collecting figurines or beanie babies or whatever it was you did from 8-12, in that sweet spot I think you end up with a fondness and a nostalgia for that I think is really sweet. And it does come back to me every once in a while. On Twitter, somebody contacted me and found Antcatraz and said, "Oh my gosh! You're the Antcatraz lady." And the guy's in his 30s or 40s, somewhere up there. And it's kind of fun. It's really a fun part of getting stuff out there, even if it's a floppy disc and not streaming.

Kevin Savetz: Right.

Lori Hopping: You know, when we were creating these things, we had no idea at the time how this whole industry would take off. You know, the promise was there, and certainly you saw computer were going to take over. I don't think anybody would have disputed that when the PCs first came on the scene. But it's now bigger than movies. The video game industry is now bigger than movies. And it's one of the mainstream mediums now for story telling. And to see the innovation over the last 30 years has just been unbelievable for me. My career, essentially, spans that. I mean, 1982 up till now. That's it. That's the tech innovation era for this kind of thing. So keeping up with it's been a little tough, but-.

Kevin Savetz: [Laughing] It's faster now than it did then. And it was fast then. So what other magazines - computer magazines - did you work on? Did you talk about them all?

Lorri Hopping: I just did the two. I started my career on those two magazines. I worked there for four years, and then I freelanced. Then I went freelance and worked for all the other Scholastic magazines, which were classroom magazines. And I worked in the software division. I worked a little bit for the television division there. So basically my career here is more of a writer and the computer thing was - I'm not going to say foisted on me, because I loved it. Nobody wanted to do it. And if you graduate with an English degree,and they say, "Oh, you're going to work at a computer magazine," that's a really tough fit. Especially back them, when nobody was really using computers regularly. They were all new and different. And so I think I kind of fell into that a little bit, and a little bit luckily. So, because like I said, it was a very golden era, and now you pretty much have to be a tech head to get a job on any kind of computer magazine, and I certainly wasn't t the time. So the I ended up editing a science magazine, because they thought, "Oh, you know computers, you must know science." I'm like, "Well, okay. [Laughing]. Like, they brought computers like. And that launched a whole science writing career. So edited science books, I did a math magazine. Same reason. "Oh, you've done computers, why don't you edit our math magazine?" I'm like, "Okay, if you choose to do that." So I ended up in the stem fields kind of walking backwards. They kind of just kept pulling me and pulling me into these topics which I - again, I made a really good career in science writing. I didn't when I started out, and now I really really love science. So that ended up being - probably the most thing that I've written about is science. And now, like I said, today I'm back to fiction. So back into my sweet spot, which was my literature major. Finally back to fiction.

Kevin Savetz: Nice. So this will be listened to by dozens, or perhaps hundreds of people who used Microzine and played your twisted plot games. If you could send them a message right now, what would you say to them?

Lorri Hopping: Oh, I would say thank you! And I would love to hear your memories. Because it's been so long! I really didn't get a lot of direct feedback, and I would really like to know what people are playing now. Where that led to. All those things we created--all those things we were pioneering in the very early '80s - probably up to '88, '89 - I see now iterated out there in different forms, like "Grow your plants and take care of them." We had a - we had a game like that at Scholastic, and now it's like Farmville. So I'm really really curious about that, about the evolution. So if people are Microzine fans, and something in there there's still on that same track, that set them on some kind of beloved kind of programming or some game that they love, I would love to hear that. Especially still being of industry. What resonates? What works?

Kevin Savetz: Is there anything I haven't asked you yet that I should have?

Lorri Hopping: Gosh, I can't think of anything. I think two of you get a chance to talk to some of the other writers. I just want to say that Amy - I can't speak highly enough of Amy, because she really was and is my favorite editor on the planet for pioneering all of this. Worked with a lot of talent - Scholastic can draw some talent, and some of the other writers were super, super proud and a little intimidated to be on the same plane with the. At the time, I was in my 20s, and they brought in some heavy hitters. They brought in some authors and some people who had to adjust to the medium. I can remember reading a piece about William Faulkner trying to write a screenplay, and what a disaster because - you have to have little tiny dialogue and sentences. And it really is a different way of thinking about story. And I think that was an interesting challenge - an interesting puzzle - and I never look back. That's the number one thing I like to do is interactive writing. And other people went back to novels, and I get the tax and the immersion in the story. So that would be interesting conversation - to see where the other writers ended up. If they stuck with it or went back to other media - what they did. I'm babbling. I feel like I'm babbling a lot [laughing].

Kevin Savetz: No, this is great. I have what I need, thank you so much.

Lorri Hopping: Great. Good to talk to you, Kevin. Thank you.