By AGBO Team | January 12, 2023

Bringing stories to life in games has always defined the work of Ryan Verniere, AGBO’s SVP of Story. Looking back at the writer and video game creator’s celebrated career, it’s easy to see how his passion for games guides his work. Before joining AGBO, Verniere spent nearly a decade overseeing Riot Games’ creative process for its franchises like League of Legends, which won a BAFTA award in 2015, and served as a narrative designer and writer at CCP Games. Earlier this year, Verniere joined AGBO as its SVP of Story, signaling “a new era of fantasy and science fiction storytelling,” Angela Russo-Ostot stated at the time. Verniere joins the highly collaborative team alongside Russo-Ostot, Anthony and Joe Russo, and Co-Presidents of Story, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. That’s a tall order, but Verniere is as humble and self-effacing as they come. When asked to explain his role in the simplest terms possible, as he would to a bunch of kindergarteners, Verniere says “I tell stories about spaceships and magic swords.”

Still, his work isn’t as simple as it sounds, and encompasses a wide range of formats in genres, from Adult Swim’s animated medieval fantasy spoof, Tigone, to EVE Online, “a community-driven spaceship MMORPG” which allows online players to choose their path from “countless options.” EVE Online was one of the first 14 inaugural video games included in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection of Applied Design. Veniere is also the creator of Blackbirds, the dark fantasy Ennie Award-winning tabletop RPG (role playing game).

Now, Verniere works alongside AGBO’s senior team to conceptualize and develop original film and TV shows. In his limited spare time, he hosts semimonthly games of Dungeons & Dragons, in person.

“That’s my favorite part,” Verniere shares, “getting a bunch of wacky friends away from the screens for a little bit. I love video games, and I love my computer. But it’s just nice to do something that’s analog like Dungeons and Dragons…. It’s almost a sacred ritual.”

How did growing up in the '80s influence your creative sensibilities?

I often think about it, because I’m now old enough to start seeing all the things I loved repurposed and fed back to me, like Stranger Things. I’m starting to see sort of a version of my lived reality. I grew up poor and very aware of spooky things like Chernobyl… I do think that the ‘80s felt like standing at the precipice of a potential darkness, and that informed my storytelling, in so much as that I like dark tales. But I like dark tales that have a sliver of hope in them. I always want there to be a way out.

‍Can you explain what narrative design is and its importance in story?

“Narrative design” is a term from the gaming industry. More so than anything else, and it usually was the component of story that was either brought to a video game after the gameplay loop was developed, or in conjunction with the designers. It helps express a story in that medium. [For example,] you might notice that a game like Pac-Man doesn’t have much narrative design to it, whereas modern games like The Witcher or Final Fantasy clearly do. And so it’s just the presence of a story interwoven into a game space, and I think it’s elevated that medium for people [who like for there to be] a story in games.

‍When you’re creating a new universe, how do you make rules for a world?

I always like to go to history, and since everything I’m working on right now is very secret, we can talk about Game of Thrones a little bit. When you look at Westeros and you look at what [George R. R.] Martin was doing, the Hundred Years’ War played a huge element in guiding unrest and political machinations of Westeros. His environment created this border… This knowable thing that I can look at and research to help ground my medieval fantasy story and find those touchstones. It’s [also] really key to establish anything authentic to the human experience at the beginning, a rule set that will look lived in and like what you know. Whether it’s a TV show or a movie or game, if the world building isn’t working, usually it’s because it’s too divorced from the known elements. So I look to history to mine for great rules and structure. And of course, [the task is to make] those rules and structures finite, fantastic elements.

‍What was it like transitioning from the video game industry to film and TV with AGBO?

It’s been an interesting transition: I spent nearly 20 years in the video game industry working on story and developing characters and places. And then I think running role-playing games for my friends has an element of narrative design to it as well. It turned out that after meeting with the Russo Brothers and the others here, we all sort of spoke a common language. We all recognized a craft like mine kind of came from a different vector than everybody else’s. But, we complemented each other, so it worked out.

‍How do you approach the challenge of innovative worldbuilding at AGBO?

Well, it’s no different than world building anywhere else. It’s a very strange alchemical process that requires, I believe, an element of worldliness, a deep knowledge of mythology and the ability to see where myths and symbols intertwine to become meaningful, resonant elements in a broader environment where stories can grow and thrive. It’s really challenging, because it's a moving target. You know really well designed worlds: They all sort of point towards sort of common themes. The [world of] X-Men, for example, is about unrest in the ‘60s and the inequality that African Americans were facing – there are people of different backgrounds, sexual preferences, and identities all emerging and feeling like mutants. You start to see that there was something hard-baked into that universe that makes it very meaningful. You’re always kind of striving to achieve that level of seamless symbolism – and it’s a tricky business.

‍Could you walk us through your creative process when developing new IP?

Honestly, it’s a lot of quiet time. It really depends on what’s being asked of me. Sometimes my creative partners and the creative leadership at AGBO have a specific sense of what they’d like. Other times, we’ll want to do something in the dark fantasy space [more generally], so it depends. It’s always nice to have something to go off of, especially when it comes from the brilliant minds of your fellow creators. But when it’s more free-form and abstract, it’s a long, percolating experience, and so I dip myself in art that’s similar to what I feel needs to happen. I’ll seek out exhibits or music that might be relevant – I just sort of immerse myself in the zeitgeist of that tone and look for a signal that’s original. Then, I try to pull that original strand out of the big static of human creativity, and forge it into something knowable.

‍What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

If you have content – a portfolio of stories, be it short stories or comic books or whatever – if you have something to show, it’s going to put you ahead of the pack. There’s a lot of people in the world who are creative and they might say, ‘Oh, I want to be a writer one day,’ and maybe they will. But for a lot of those people, they don't ever get to the writing part, which is kind of robbing themselves and maybe their potential audience. So just get your art out in the world. Get it on the page, because the second somebody actually is gonna be ready to give you a chance, you'll have something to show. I managed to show my first comic book to Bob Schreck, the head editor at the DC Comics office in New York. He was kind enough to take a meeting with me and for 40 minutes, told me why my comic book was terrible. But it was the greatest education I ever got about writing comics, and then he offered me an internship which exposed me to a lot of great storytellers.

‍Tell us about Blackbirds, the fantasy game you created,

Blackbirds is my tabletop RPG that I created with several friends. It was COVID, and we all sort of needed something to do beyond just working. I was like, ‘Let’s just write like how we feel, but let’s use a game as a vehicle to deal with these feelings.’ The game is a dark fantasy world, and once we got buy-in from the team, we set out to create the coolest dark fantasy book we could make. So often, [dark fantasies] are kind of clunky and from a different time, but we wanted to do something that had modern sensibilities, that spoke a little bit about how people were feeling during that period of time. And so it’s sword and sorcery, fantasy filled with cosmic horror. There’s always this chance for success. There’s this chance for love to win, or for heroes to succeed, or for villains to be undone. It’s won a number of awards and I’m really proud of it.