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'Expanse' Co-Creator Ty Franck On Writing, 'Star Citizen' and Why He Hated 'Mass Effect 3'

As 'The Expanse' TV show enters its second season, the author talks games and reveals he's been working with 'Dark Souls' creators From Software

Sci-fi epic The Expanse returns for a second season on SyFy Channel this week Credit: SyFy / NBC Universal

You may not know The Expanse co-creator Ty Franck by name, but over the last year, it's become increasingly likely that you know his work. Along with Daniel Abraham, the 47 year-old is one half of the literary duo behind James S.A. Corey, the pen name credited on the award-winning Expanse sci-fi novels that have been compared to Game of Thrones for their epic scope and style. But if we were to grant parental custody of the series to one of them following a divorce, it would most definitely go to Franck. Long before The Expanse was a twinkle in the publishing world's eye – let alone Hollywood's – Franck was busily crafting its bones, for use in an MMO that never materialized, and later a pen-and-paper RPG. It was during one of those tabletop game sessions that Abraham, his eventual co-author, would notice just how detailed and finely-wrought Franck's creation was. Soon after, Leviathan Wakes, the first Expanse book, was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2012.

Franck is clearly a writer whose creative roots are in games – both on and off screens. Our wide-ranging chat spans his earliest memories with games, his thoughts on Mass Effect 3's ever-controversial ending, and his (evidently) super secret gig writing for From Software, the Japanese studio behind the hard-as-nails Dark Souls series.

It sounds like gaming goes back pretty far for you.
Yeah, I played Space War on mainframes when I was in high school.

When was that?
That would've been like '81 or '82, maybe? No, it was actually earlier than that because my parents bought a Pong machine when I was in grade school and that was the first video game I'd ever played. Remember the old Pong machine that had like four games in it? It was like Pong and hockey and tennis? We had one of those. Then I started taking computer programming classes at the community college. It probably wasn't high school – it was probably junior high, looking back now. It was a community college, and they didn't have any money. It was already outdated technology but they had an old mainframe there, and one of the games that was on it was Space War. I found out later it is widely considered to be the first video game ever created.

So the late Seventies and early Eighties would've been your formative years as a gamer.
I was born in '69, so yeah. I was there all through when Pong first showed up at everybody's house and then ColecoVision and the Atari 2600 – that period for about five years where a video game arcade was in every city. I was one of those kids that used to deliver all my papers on my paper route and then ride my bike up to the arcade with all the quarters.

And immediately spend them all.
And immediately spend them all at the arcade, yeah. At the arcade I went to, they had this little board above each game, and if you got the high score, they would write your name down, and if it stayed there for a week, you got 25 free tokens. I had one game that my name was always at the top, and so every week, I got another 25 free tokens. I would immediately use the first one of those to put another high score on that machine. I think I stayed on top of that game for probably like a year.

What game was it?
It was a game called Vanguard. I don't know if you remember that.

Yes! It's the one where the ship shoots in four directions, right?
That's right! You had four fire buttons you could fire in all four directions. I had that shit down. I got to the point where I could play that game with my eyes closed. The music would change depending on which level you were at, so I would just listen for the changes. I could actually play through it with my eyes closed.

So could we map the trajectory from Space War to Vanguard to the The Expanse?
Sure.

We read that the origins of The Expanse are as a concept for an MMO and later a tabletop RPG. Is that right?
Yeah, that's right.

How did it end up becoming this franchise that spans fiction and TV?
It was an idea that I had been playing around with for a long time. I'm not sure if you're familiar with the book The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester? It's one of the most famous science fiction books, winner of the first or second ever Hugo Award. I had read that when I was 11 or 12, which is way too young to read that book because it's got some pretty adult stuff in it, but it really changed my brain. Part of the setting – and this is not the main plot of the book – but the setting is that the whole Solar System has been colonized and the people who live in the outer planets are fighting a war with the people in the inner planets. That's all just in the background, none of that really matters directly to the story, but that idea got in my brain at 12 and it just stayed in there. It never went away.

I'm an astronomy geek, so I was doing all this reading about all the various moons of the gas giants, and if people were going to live on them, how would that look and how would that work. I was writing up a lot of this stuff and thinking it would be a cool pen-and-paper game. Then a friend of mine whose uncle was a bigwig at a Chinese ISP called and said, "Hey they're talking about making their own MMO. Do you have any ideas that you could pitch to them?" And she said, "Yes, I totally do," hung up, and immediately called me.

She's another writer, but she just wasn't somebody that played a lot of video games.

So what happened?
I took these notes that I had and I started turning them into something that would make sense as a pitch. It didn't get very far – I think what happened was the people who had this idea suddenly realized that delivering a triple-A MMO is like a hundred million dollar proposition. They sort of backed away quietly, but that meant I had never been paid for any of this, which meant it was all still mine. I had this giant notebook filled with notes and astronomical charts and all this crazy stuff and just decided to try it out – go back to what it had originally started out as, maybe something for a game. I tried it out as a role playing game and ran three different versions of it over the next 10 years, probably.

Then the last one I ran was the one that [The Expanse co-author Daniel Abraham] was a player in, and after about the third session, he kept looking at my giant notebook, and he would say things like, "Since every company out here in the Belt has their own scrip, what does the economy look like? How does the money exchange work?" So I would explain it to him and he would say, "If we're in these rock tunnels, wouldn't the rocks be really cold? What do the tunnels look like?" I would explain that to him, and he saw that it was all in my book, and finally he said, "You've done all the world-building that people do for novels. Why don't we just write a novel out of this?" I was like, "Yeah sure."

When was the MMO deal going down?
Man, that was a long time ago. It was right around the same time World of Warcraft came out. The reason that The Expanse is sci-fi is because our feeling was there's no way to compete with World of Warcraft in the fantasy setting. We had to do something else. That's why we decided to go sci-fi. It would have been an incredibly ambitious game. EVE came out and it had the same sort of feel as what we wanted, but you never get out of your ship. Your character is a space ship. What we were proposing was more like... What's that one that they've been in development for a thousand years that was a giant Kickstarter?

Star Citizen?
Yeah, and think of that in 2004. Basically, what we were proposing was an MMO version of Star Citizen, where you can get out of your ship and you can walk around in space stations. You can have a crew on the ship, all of whom would be in different work stations on and working together. I mean, there's just no way you could've done that in 2004.

You can see the series' origins as a game.
Even in the books, you can still see some of the bones in there. This is how I know World of Warcraft was out because I was aware of it and I knew that in there were two factions. There's the Alliance and the Horde. I was like, "Oh well, we'll be better, we'll have three factions." That's why we have Earth, Mars, and the OPA. The idea being that you would start out in one of those locations just like you start out in World of Warcraft as an Alliance or Horde and then gradually become involved in bigger and bigger events as you play through.

Did you ever play the tabletop RPG Traveler?
I played the video game version of it on my Commodore 64 in the Eighties. At the time, it was awesome. It was really complicated. Super high learning curve. That was one of those games where it could take you three hours to go through the character creation screen.

Were you a Nintendo guy?
No, I never owned a Nintendo. I had friends who owned Nintendos. I was very familiar with the games on there – I knew how to get infinite lives in Mario Brothers. But I never owned one. I was in my late teens so it always felt very childlike to me. All the games felt like kid games.

Were you more into PC games?
Yeah. Definitely on the PC gaming side. It was a more mature kind of game experience. The "Gold Box Games," Wizardry was coming out around that time... That was the stuff that really appealed to me. I was fine with putting 50, 100 hours into a game to see all of the stuff.

Do you play now much?
I'm still a gamer. In fact, my wife is also a gamer, so all of my friends hate me because in my TV room, I have a loveseat with two PlayStation 4s and two big screen TVs on the wall. Other people, I don't know what other people do, I guess they watch TV together or whatever. When my wife and I hang out, we're sitting in that room and we're playing co-op games.

3 disgusted me so much I swore I'd never play another Mass Effect game

What are you guys playing now?
We switched from the Xbox 360 to PlayStation 4, and at this point, there hasn't been a ton of really great co-op on the PlayStation 4. We beat Diablo 3 on maximum difficulty in hardcore mode. I feel like we've used up all the challenges that were available in Diablo 3.

We played a lot of Borderlands 1 and 2. Right now, we're playing through a little indie game called Tales of the Sword Coast that's kind of a re-envisioning of the Baldur's Gate games from back in the day.

Are you following what's going on with Mass Effect?
I played 1 through 3, and like everyone else, 3 disgusted me so much I swore I'd never play another Mass Effect game.

Was it the ending?
Yeah. You know, it promised so much. The first two and a half games promised so much and set up such a fantastic universe, and then the end of the third one, it just... It made everything that had come before irrelevant. It was just a fucking terrible ending.

It really felt like there was a fantastic ending that I had been promised, and then when I got to it... You know what? The ending of Mass Effect for me was like the ending of Lost, where [you] became aware that they really didn't know where they were going the whole time and they'd kind of just been making things up.

I'm a big fan of endings. When we hit book nine of The Expanse, that will be the last book – and we've known the ending from the beginning. That's because I like endings. I think great media, great art, whatever, is all about the edges of the canvas, and anything that you try to string on too long gets a little threadbare. I also think that because of that – because endings are so important – you better know what your ending is and you better be setting that ending up right from the beginning. Otherwise it just feels muddy and unsatisfying.

You sound like somebody who ought to be involved in an Expanse game, if that ever happens. You clearly have strong opinions about this stuff.
Yeah. Unfortunately though, I don't own those rights.

Who owns the rights?
You know the studio Alcon makes the TV show? Part of the deal is that they have merchandising rights.

And that includes games?
It does, yeah. I mean, to be fair to Alcon – I work closely with those guys – they definitely ask for our opinions on things. It's not like they've just taken the rights and run off and flipped us off as they ran away. It's not like that at all. But the fact remains that if they make a decision that I strongly disagree with, I can tell them that I strongly disagree with it, but they can still make that decision. So far they have not done that, but just to put that out there – that it's not something I actually fully control.

Would you still like there to be a game? What would it look like?
I mean, obviously, I think The Expanse is a mod pack for Star Citizen.

But first, there has to be a Star Citizen.
Exactly. A fan bought me a subscription to Star Citizen, so I've actually played it a few times with some fans. I didn't actually have to own a ship or anything. They already owned one and I just got on their ship with them, flew around. It is really cool looking. If they're able to pull off what they're trying to pull off, it's going to be game-changing. It's going to be astonishing. Obviously, there's a lot of work to do there. We'll see what happens.

How closely do you follow what's going on in gaming?
I have friends that are much more dialed in and will let me know when something cool is coming, but honestly, the site that I wind up going to the most is the one that keeps track of all the co-op game releases, because that's primarily what I play. I have a few single player games. I'm sort of trudging my way through Darkest Dungeon because that's a soul-crushing experience.

What about Dark Souls? If you like Darkest Dungeon, you may have a predilection for it.
Yeah, I actually have done some work with From Software so... I'm, like, writing stuff for them, so I'm pretty familiar with the Dark Souls franchise.

You're working with them now, or you've done work for them in the past?
I've done that in the past. It's all under NDA and stuff, but, yeah.

Okay, enough said. We can't wait for Space Souls...
I can guarantee you it is not that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.