SPS-334: Flying into Fiction: Video Games & NFTs – with Nicholas Narbutovskih

Nicholas Narbutovskih is a busy man! He’s got a career flying for the US Air Force, a new baby, a series of space opera books he’s writing, and a gig writing story for video games. In this interview he shares with James his interest in NFTs and how they might affect authors and other creatives.

Show Notes

  • How writing a novel is a brand new skill, even if you’ve read lots
  • Writing space opera as a trained military pilot
  • On writing for a science-fiction themed video game
  • How video games are evolving from a writing stand point
  • Should writers consider their novels as being adaptable as video games?
  • An introduction to what the blockchain is
  • Basics of creating a NFT related to books

Resources mentioned in this episode:

PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page

MERCH: Check out our new 2022 hoodies and t-shirts in the SPF Store.

TURNING THE TIDE: here’s how to help support the charity anthology for Ukraine

SPS LIVE! 2022: Grab your tickets here


SPS-334: Flying into Fiction: Video Games & NFTs - with Nicholas Narbutovskih

Narrator: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show:

Nicholas Narbutovskih: You would say, "Hey, I'm going to sign this. This is one of 200 that exists. You can own one of 200 original works of my first novel, all you have to do is buy this non-fungible token and here's the digital asset that I am hosting on this server that you can get to any time and you own it."

Narrator: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers. No more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?

Join indie bestseller Mark Dawson and first-time author James Blatch as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success.

Narrator: This is the Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.

James Blatch: Hello and welcome. It is the Self-Publishing Show with me, James Blatch.

Mark Dawson: And me, wearing a jumper in May, Mark Dawson.

James Blatch: It's weird that you're wearing that jumper. It's so hot in here in my office. I'm hot looking at you.

Mark Dawson: It's getting hot in here. So we'll skim over that one.

James Blatch: I almost said, "And you're with your hosts, James Blatch and Mark Dawson." We look very American. Well, we've got Huey haven't we, who introduces us anyway?

Mark Dawson: We do, yes.

James Blatch: People keep asking if we're going to get that re-recorded because I'm just starting out, but I am still just starting out so I think it works.

Mark Dawson: I think we're safe for the next five years. You'll still just be starting out. You'll have, what? Two books published by then.

James Blatch: I'm writing book three, which is going to be a novella, I think, anyway and I'm enjoying it. And I've got this scene in mind. I had it in mind right from the beginning. And the last word is the C-bomb and it's not a word you use lightly and I'm slightly nervous about using it. It's a really good sentence. It's a really brilliant end to the scene.

Mark Dawson: But it's just a word.

James Blatch: It's okay, isn't it? It's not-

Mark Dawson: Yeah, of course, it is.

James Blatch: ... going to get angry letters from people?

Mark Dawson: You might well do. I mean, you could. It is entirely possible you'll get bad reviews and I've had plenty for using words less potent than that one.

James Blatch: Right.

Mark Dawson: But I don't really care. They're just words. I mean, who cares? If you're offended by that, then find something else to read. I've got no time for that.

James Blatch: I had a long chat with my dad when I wrote book one set in '66 about the level of swearing in the RAF and that environment. And he said, "Never in front of women." Never swore in front of women and actually it was pretty ... You wouldn't hear it in the crew room very much but you would occasionally. So, basically, he said a lot less than you hear today.

Mark Dawson: Bloody hell.

James Blatch: Yeah, well, exactly. Damnation. I have actually had a review on Amazon.

Mark Dawson: My bloody wing's fallen off.

James Blatch: Oh, dash. Dash it all. That's going to ruin my whole day.

Mark Dawson: I'm going to blooming well-

James Blatch: Well the RAF is famous for its understatement, right? But I've got a review up on Amazon saying, "This is wholly unrealistic. Come on, grown men not swearing." I'm thinking, but it set in 1966 and I did ask my dad who was in that environment. But as we've discussed many times before, there's no point in worrying about reviews because it doesn't really matter what they say.

James Blatch: No.

Mark Dawson: They're entitled to their opinion. Doesn't matter if it's right or wrong.

James Blatch: They you are. Anyway, you'll be delighted, Mark, that our guest today, and I haven't actually told you this about him, Nicholas Narbutovskih, is a current serving military pilot.

Mark Dawson: That's why he's on the broadcast.

James Blatch: He flies out of Hurlburt Field down in Northern Florida or Southern Louisiana. Might just be over the border of Florida. I've actually visited this place. John and I, when we were meeting up with Mike Lewis, we had dinner with him and his wife. He's a former military ... He's an airline pilot now, former military author. And he took us to Hurlburt Field because he has a pass because he used to serve there. And it's the home of the Special Operations group in the US. And Nicholas obviously couldn't talk about what he does day to day, apart from the aircraft he flies, which he pilots, a P-12, I think.

But it's an interesting interview because it goes in a slightly unexpected direction. So the first part of it is, I think, always interesting to hear how people write, where they are on their journey. And Nicholas is a bit like me, he's at the beginning of his author journey. So we're not talking to a millionaire author like yourself, Mark, here. We're talking to somebody who's starting out, learned some lessons, done some book coaching, which I've done, been on the receiving end of it, I should say.

And then I talk to him about his digital stuff he does. So he writes for a video game at the moment and he is keenly enthusiastic about NFTs and the blockchain. Now, I know nothing about them. I know I suppose the bare minimum about it before this interview but he gives us a really clear explanation of how it is, how it works, what it is and why it might or might not pertain to authors.

Now, he's not somebody who's saying, "This is going to be the future, you've got to get involved in it." But I think the second half of this interview is really worth listening to if, like me, you are curious about it and thinking, "Well, do I put my cover onto ... Make an NFT out of it?" Or something like that and so on. So it's good to know, I think.

I was just going to tell you that, that this interview, the second half, takes a slightly unexpected turn. Like suddenly seeing a man wearing a thick jumper in summer. Just not what you're expecting.

Mark Dawson: It's not summer here anyway, yet. NFT, what does NFT stand for James?

James Blatch: A non-fungible ... What does the T stand for then?

Mark Dawson: Token.

James Blatch: Token, that's it.

Mark Dawson: Well done. I didn't think you'd get the fungible.

James Blatch: Well, it's the token.

Mark Dawson: I thought you might say National Film Theatre,-

James Blatch: Right.

Mark Dawson: ... because that's what I was expecting.

James Blatch: Okay. So the interview's coming up in just a few seconds.

A quick shout out, now we're recording ... We have to say, we're at a slight disadvantage here but we're recording this mid-May because it's that time of year and people are going on leave and we need to get some recordings in the can to cover that period. But this is going out in mid-June, in a month's time, June the 10th. So we're going to be about 19 days away from our live conference. We will be at DEFCON 1. We'll be scared and nervous about everything at this stage but hopefully, hopefully, it'll be all looking okay for that event.

We've got some great speakers lined up. We've been back to the venue this week. John and Catherine went this week. We've got people suddenly dropping emails, wanting to be a part of the conference from a sponsorship point of view every day, which is lovely. So we're signing up some big names. I got an email from Brad at Vellum. I think one of the Brads at Vellum. I feel so fanboy when Brad from Vellum actually emails me because I love Vellum. I've been using it today, actually creating a box set for one of our Fuse authors. It's such a beautiful bit of software and I'm such a big fan of the Brads and they're so quiet and understated. We interviewed them very early on in this podcast and I am very lucky to have met them at NINC a couple of years ago.

Vellum were going to be a sponsor of the show, as well. Who would not want to be a part of our show, Mark?

Mark Dawson: I saw one email today from a ... I'll call them a self-publishing ... A company who assists people to publish and takes a sum of money. I don't know why. It was just a very strange email beating themselves up quite a lot. And didn't read the room very well. I'm not a fan of people giving money to publishers to do something which is reasonably simple to do yourself. So that one will not be followed up.

James Blatch: That reminds me, I think it's this interview. I think Nick has done something similar and I'm straight in there saying, "Now, this, to me, sounds like the sort of thing we would describe, not necessarily as a scam, but politely not good value for money and not the way to do it." And we have a discussion about that, why he felt it was the right thing for him. He's not using them anymore, but why he felt it was the right thing at time, what he got out of it and what he paid. So that's an interesting discussion. You just reminded me about that. So yeah, that comes up in this interview.

I think probably, Mark, we'll just give out the URL for the live show in case there's some tickets left and there might be some returns. You never know if it's close to the date and then we can have the interview. So the URL to go to ... What does URL stand for?

Mark Dawson: Universal-

James Blatch: No.

Mark Dawson: Actually, I don't know.

James Blatch: Neither do I. And we should also say that is the place to go to get your video production ticket, your video ticket of the conference. We keep it as cheap as possible. It's 25 bucks, 25 of your silver dollars, which is a bargain and you get a fully, professionally produced version of the conference delivered to your inbox a few days later. So you can sign up for that at the same page.

Mark Dawson: Uniform Resource Locater.

James Blatch: Oh, you're very good at coming up with that so quickly.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. Just popped into my mind.

James Blatch: Yeah, well done.

Mark Dawson: Didn't look it up.

James Blatch: I don't think I've ever heard that before.

Mark Dawson: No, I don't think I have either.

James Blatch: Anyway. I should show the link. Okay. That's it for our rambling at the beginning a little bit. A bit more rambling at the end, but here is that interview: Military pilot, Nicholas Narbutovskih. And Mark and I will be back for a quick chat at the end.

Nick Narbutovskih. There you go.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Hi, there. Perfect.

James Blatch: There you go. First time at your name. Almost first time. Welcome to the Self-Publishing Show. Lovely to have you here. You and I are going to try not to be too geeky about military aviation and talk about books, as well, but there's a bit of a military aviation theme coming up here. Fair warning.

Why don't we start with a little bit about you, your background and your writing and where you are with your self-publishing career?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Absolutely. I'm super excited to be on the show. Known about it for a while. And I've been, probably like most people, balancing the writing with all of the other things that exist in real life: Paying bills and still pursuing a military career, all of those things. So it's been interesting, to say the least.

But interestingly enough, I've always been writing. My first short story that I wrote was in high school and I wrote it because I wanted to, it was fun. I actually found it in a dumpster dive of my old archival things that have made it through all the moves and all the various hard drives and computers over the years. And I thought it was really long at the time, at 30 pages, and I could see that there was some cool stuff in there, but I realised that the writing was just bad because I was in high school and I wanted to move things through and make it better and see if I could learn a little bit more about the craft of writing.

So during the amazing year that was 2020, I wound up listening to a lot of The Creative Writer's Toolbelt with Andy Chamberlain. And I would just put one of those on when I was going for a run and I learned a lot by osmosis through that. And then I started writing short stories, wrote a whole bunch of short stories, sent them to a whole bunch of magazines, got some very nice rejection letters and then decided, "Well, I guess I shouldn't write short stories. I'm just going to write a novel instead, because why not?"

So I wrote the novel and I had it mostly revised and I didn't know what to do with it at that point. It was just sitting on my hard drive and probably would've just continued with my life, but a friend of mine sent me an email that he had been sent from a mutual friend that was about a programme that gets people to publish books. And initially I thought, "Okay, this is a vanity press." But I did some more research and I sent my manuscript in and found that this was actually a legitimate hybrid publisher where they provided full editorial supports.

You had to have a certain level of quality to get in the door and they had everything in house. They taught you how to run a crowdfunding campaign. They taught you how to build social media presence, weekly meetings with authors who had already done these things and were publishing. And then, at the end of it, you get a 50,000 word book spit out that is quality. I think the quality was great. It's a little short for me, but my crowdfunding didn't go as well as it could have. So I am not Brandon Sanderson, believe it or not.

James Blatch: Who is? Only Brandon is.

Did you start with a fuller length novel and ended up with a 50,000 word novel? Is that because of the editing process?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Yes. So my first draft was about 80,000 words and I wrote that in January and February of '21. So I did a whole bunch of planning and massaging the story around and then I just knocked out three or 4,000 words a day for two months, did that at night after the kids went to bed. And then once you get to the editorial process, this is not a self-guided tour really. So they have a certain word count that corresponds to how much money it's going to cost because the crowdfunding you do is also paying for the first print run of the books and everybody who ordered books gets that plus the editorial costs.

So everything was all calculated out and I only was able to publish 50,000 words of the book so I had to find a place to stop the story, I guess. And I think the quality of what I did put out, I'm proud of. I do think that it could have been longer. It's a space opera book, it's one of those things where people like to take their time in the world and really diving into it.

However, the sequel is already 85,000 words and climbing. So I'm going to have a hard time keeping that under a hundred K, I think.

James Blatch: And the sequel, you're going to self-publish by yourself?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Yes. Based on what I learned from all of the awesome people at New Degree Press, I'm just going to do it myself. I can do it for a lot cheaper obviously if I just do all the work myself, but I don't think I'm going to be skimping on any quality.

James Blatch: That's quite interesting because I think a lot of people listening to this will think, "That is a vanity press. You've paid for services. You don't need them. They've compromised your book." But you've used this in the same way that I spent money on book coaches and editorial services and I spent quite a lot. I spent thousands of dollars on that. That got me to the point where I was learning my craft and now I'm using far less of those services. It sounds to me like that's how you've used this.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Yeah, absolutely. It's put on by a professor at Georgetown. So it is very much an education driven, assisted self-publishing course, for lack of a better word. And the good part about it was I didn't actually pay any money out of pocket. Everything was funded through the crowdfunding campaign. And so people got their books, they got everything that they asked for. And then I also learned a whole lot about being self-published and how to do all the different processes. What's the difference between a copy edit and a proofread? All of those things, as well as the actual material, "Hey, you've got a hanging participle here," and some of the finer points of grammar.

James Blatch: Oh, yeah. We love those. I think that's really interesting. And, of course, I would advocate for our online courses, 101 and Ads, and the Facebook community to go along with that because I'm a part of that, but I'm open-minded to the fact that there's other ways of doing it. And this sounds ... It's interesting. Like I say, I think some people will be cynical. Other people will be interested in how that works.

You've been through it, you've learned a bit about crowdfunding, which most of us don't know too much about apart from, as you say, the big Brandon Sanderson story.

However you are now self-publishing your second book and are you feeling more confident about the writing?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: I really am. Interestingly enough, having to cut the initial manuscript in half and then going back and adding more to the story and expanding it, I introduced a new character and plot line to give a different perspective to the universe. The new character is more at the bottom of the socioeconomic status. So now you get a good split between the haves and the have nots and how does that work within the universe?

But I can see my original writing and my first manuscript and that's where I'm spending most of my time fixing things and cleaning it up. And everybody speaks in the same voice, and now I know how to do new and different voices. There's pieces where my point of view was a little fuzzy and you couldn't really tell who was speaking and little things like that. Very common errors.

James Blatch: I can pick up on errors of people when they're starting out, because you don't know the rules. I didn't know the rules when I started out.

However many novels you've read in your life, you don't really pay attention to how they're written.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: I think the experience with the first book with New Degree was the educational, "He who does the work, does the learning." And they don't just fix everything for you. You work with an editor who says, "You've done these things wrong. Go fix them." So I do think that my first book hits that quality level, but going back and looking at the unedited first draft from 2021, I'm, "Oh, okay. Learned a lot since then."

And I think, honestly, that's my goal with writing is I just want every book to be better than the last one that came out.

James Blatch: Yeah. Don't we all. Definitely. Okay. Well, we started with books and let me just ask you about your military career then.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Ah.

James Blatch: So you are still in the military?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Yes, I am. I fly the Pilatus PC-12 for the United States Air Force. So I have a good background in that and I've been flying that, pretty much, my whole adult life. I went to the Air Force Academy, graduated in 2008 and then pilot training in Del Rio. Flew T-38s and T6s there and then went right into Special Operations Command where I'm still at today.

James Blatch: Okay. And where's that base? Is that Hurlburt Field?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Yes.

James Blatch: Sharing my military knowledge. There you go. I think I've-

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Perfect.

James Blatch: ... got a coin here somewhere from Hurlburt Field. One of those challenge coins. There we are. I think Mike Lewis gave it me, which is why I know all about Hurlburt field and-

Nicholas Narbutovskih: There you go.

James Blatch: ... Special Operations. Oh, okay. So the pilots ... Which a lot of people obviously aren't as geeky as me ... That's a nice aircraft. I mean, that's an expensive, privately owned aircraft someone might aspire to if they've got a lot of money. But it's a beautiful looking aircraft and it must be fun to fly.

And, I mean, an interesting one for the military, people perhaps think C-17s and stuff, but this is a shorter range type of aircraft?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: It is. Yeah. So obviously anytime the military gets hold of something they do whatever they want with it, modifications and whatnot. So we fly it in crisis response, humanitarian efforts as a light fixed wing ISR plane.

James Blatch: You learn how to get in and out of places that you perhaps wouldn't take your nice privately owned Pilatus to?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Probably not, although I do often tell my wife, "Hey, I'm just saying, when we retire, we could buy a plane. I have a lot of time in this PC-12." And she usually just shakes her head at me and goes back to whatever she was doing.

James Blatch: And is that full time? Are you full time in the military?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: I am, yep.

James Blatch: And how long does that last for you? Obviously, you are an officer, I'm guessing?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: I am, yep. I have ... Gosh, it's 14 years in. So 16 more to go. So-

James Blatch: You've got 16 more to go?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Sorry. Not 16. Six more. Six more.

James Blatch: Okay.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: At least one kid in high school, one kid in middle school by that point.

James Blatch: Are you pretty settled, though? They're not going to ship you off to Europe or something or Japan?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: I mean, given the global climate today, who knows? We tend to move whenever we're told to move, but they've actually been pretty good about, at least relying on two to three years in one spot just for stability. As people get older and they have kids, there's a much more intentful focus in the military these days, the US military, at least, on family and providing a stable family platform for folks just because if people are worried about their families, they can't do the job.

James Blatch: Yeah, it makes sense, doesn't it? Didn't always used to be the case, of course, but-

Nicholas Narbutovskih: It did not.

James Blatch: I write about the military in the 1960s where that attitude did not prevail very much.

And, sorry, one last question on the military stuff. That probably won't be my last question on the military stuff, but I'm going to say that anyway. There's a danger you may be shipped out, have to move somewhere but, hopefully, not, but you'd presumably deploy if you are particularly in that type of area that you are working in.

Is that disruptive to everything else you want to do?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: It is. But, at the same time, you learn a lot about flexibility and about prioritisation and how to reprioritize things in life. So the deployments are just a part of being in the military, being a pilot. I think I have it probably better than some folks do, especially the tanker and the airlift pilots who, they may not necessarily be deployed, but they may be on the road for two or three week missions and then back home and then off and on again. So it's really hard on those guys, but it's almost something where we have a family checklist for.

James Blatch: I can imagine. And I know from my experience that the other halves, be it wives or husbands, do a lot of heavy lifting in those family arrangements.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Absolutely.

James Blatch: What's the plan in six years' time? Do you think that this writing might be a full time gig for you? Is that going to be an ambition for you?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Oh, man. I was just talking with some of my friends on the NavyCon Discord server. NavyCon is a national security/science fiction conference that gets together virtually and they're planning on doing an in person one, but it's where I did my first two science fiction related speaking gigs. I was talking with them and I realised that I have way more ideas for books than I will ever have time. And so that's just going to be the nature of things.

When I get out in six years, assuming I make it to retirement and everything else, my goal is to have this series that I'm working on done. I would like to publish one book a year. After that I think I can probably pick up the pace but, at the same time, kids are getting older, you can't predict the future with certainty, so I would like to be a writer more full time, I think, and continue to produce.

James Blatch: And why space opera? Why not military contemporary?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: I have a lot of military and strategy aspects to my space opera, but I have always loved big, huge stories, cosmic destinies, things that ... We're not talking about the fate of a world. We're talking about the fate of a hundred worlds. We're talking about the end of the universe, the heat death of the universe.

I grew up in Washington State and right down the street from my house was a little shop called The Bookworm and they would look at the cover price of a book you brought them and they would scratch it out and write half of it there and that's the credit that they would give you in their store.

James Blatch: Wow.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: And so if I brought in a $10 book and I get $5 in credit, I could go buy four more books that were each a dollar and had been recycled several times. So I would spend weeks over the summertime just doing this and taking books, taking them down to The Bookworm, bringing more back, reading them. And I fell in love with some of the huge stories at the time.

Some of the classics, for sure, like Heinlein, I found that my high school and my middle school library had a huge collection of Heinlein novels. So I read all of those from Friday, Stranger in a Strange Land, all of that. And then in the modern era, I've really been into Alastair Reynolds. The Revelation Space series really captured me. Everyone's favourite: The Expanse. I still run into people that are, "Oh, yeah, that's a great TV show." I'm, "Have you read the books?" And they say, "The what?" So I remember reading those when they first came out. But, yeah, so that's why space opera. I do have a lot of military in it.

Towards the end of my book, you meet a Force Recon Company, has a character involved there and I talk a little bit about the integration between the air or the space, the pilot side of things, and then the troopers and their armour and all that stuff and how that might work, data links. And I try and use a lot of brevity that I think people will recognise from today. So things like tally versus visual, that kind of stuff. So it's got a very realistic feel to the pacing and the talk in it.

I actually wrote my first science fiction story that was ever published was a near future sci-fi story set in the 2040s-ish timeframe. So that was through and through military sci-fi. No question.

James Blatch: I guess it's a danger if you are a current military pilot. Most of the military pilots we speak to are retired now and possibly flying an airliner. There's a danger of you breaching the OPSEC, the Operational Security side of things because you live and breathe this at work, then you're writing ... I mean, it might even be some people read your current novels looking for clues.

Is that a consideration?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: It absolutely is. That's why I try and keep things projected far enough out in the future. The only thing that I take into from my personal experience is things that I've learned, like my master's in Military Theory and Joint Warfare, things like fundamental principles: What is the inherent nature of aerospace power? And how does that apply to future conflict?

In my near future, my 2040s series, mostly that was me trying to envision what all of these different concepts that are floating around about joint all domain operations look like, whether it's the network of sensors, whether it's the changes in the command relationships for mission command versus centralised command and what would that look like?

I'm keeping a deliberate distance between the things I know that are relevant to my day job and then about 30, 40, 50 years in the future.

James Blatch: I guess you're right. 30, 40 years in the past or the future and that gives you a little bit of a safety. I don't think I can spill any secrets from the 1960s. In fact, people from that era talk to me about flying nuclear weapons because, of course, it's all decades out of date now, so that's fine. But so I don't have that problem.

Good. So there's another area that I know you're involved in that's a little bit ...

It's also secret, but not in a military sense, and that is the game side of things. You just want to explain that to us?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: I actually have the opportunity to be writing for a video game, as well. And as you probably have guessed, it's a science fiction themed game. But that has been an awesome experience because writing for a game lets you really embrace the story without having to worry too much about grammar and flow, aside from dialogue because you have to write good dialogue in a game, but you can do things like, "And then the character does this thing and walks around and then you see these things," and totally break the point of view, but you're just describing this to an artist who's going to go model the scene so you can really focus on just what happens in the story. What are the fundamentals? How is the character changing internally? What is the struggle they're going through? What is their goal and motivation and what would they do? And you don't have to go through a proofread. It's great.

James Blatch: I do far less gaming than I used to do, but I used to be quite avid in my 20s and 30s and people would always look at me sceptically when I talked about storylines in games. They didn't think they existed. But unless you pay attention, they are art forms in their own right today.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Oh, completely. I actually wrote a post on my website about the idea of immersive storytelling as a way of the future and I think that the gaming industry ... We still hear the word "Game" and we don't think serious. We think something that's frivolous, something that's supposed to be fun, but that is not at all where the serious gaming community is these days. It's not where the industry is going. It's not at all accurate.

James Blatch: I think it was ... What's the Japanese ... Is it Metal Gear Solid? I think I played a couple of incarnations of that. And some people would say, "Well, you sit through."

But I would say you sat watching 30 minute cut scenes, the bits in between you've actually being playing. And by the end of that, you felt you'd watch a trilogy of films and you'd taken part in it.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: And that's the thing, is being able to drop the character into the story and let the person reading, the person interacting the player, actually take on the mantle of the character or even create their own character. You look at some of the MMOs that are out there, Massively Multiplayer Online games, RPGs, that kind of thing, it's really about creating their own identity and then getting to live their own story through the game, which, when you talk about engaging the audience, that is the quintessential nature of it.

I played a game a while back called Control, not as well known as some but, honestly, it was set in an alternate CIA paranormal universe. It was amazing. And not a huge amount of heavy cut scenes where somebody is showing off their CGI or their ability to direct a movie, but the storyline behind it, the little clues and things that were left around, the way the artists and the writers worked together to create emotions and setting, realistic character development, all of these things were fantastic and that was what really opened my eyes to it.

James Blatch: I'm guessing this must be a very collaborative experience for you. You must have to work closely. You can't just sit there and go off on a tangent when you're writing for something like a video game.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: It's interesting. I am actually, as the one who's developing the narrative of this game, I am leading the charge as far as how things are going to go. But the nature of creativity is that the more ideas you have, the more ideas you have, right?

James Blatch: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nicholas Narbutovskih: So the more people that get involved in it, they have different ideas about this, "And what about these things and how does this look?" And we got our art design document back, and seeing what the artists have taken from the story and the universe that I built in just a few short pages of description background and a short history timeline is just amazing to see and it's things that I would not have thought to do.

James Blatch: And where does that go? You're in the middle of that at the moment. When does that come to fruition? What point do you step back as a writer?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: That's the question. The nature of games these days is you want to have continually outputting more story, more content. And if you've built a good enough foundation, then you can mine stories out of that for aeons, right? Larry Niven wrote every single novel almost in a single universe. So there's no reason you can't continue that.

So, hopefully, once this initial game launches, I'll be continued to be involved with the writing process. Maybe not just me. Hopefully, we can bring some other folks on and really get the creative juices flowing. I don't know. Five, 10 years down the road.

James Blatch: Wow.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: We'll see.

James Blatch: This is a long term thing. I think the nature of gaming has changed a bit over the years, as it used to be put together ... The writers would be on the next project while they were building the rest of it and then it was released. Maybe you get some technical updates.

Whereas today games are more or less online, isn't it? So, I guess, it keeps changing.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Oh, it's almost a requirement to have continually developed storyline, new content coming out on a regular basis. There's games like Borderlands and BioShock that had that awesome storyline to it, but once you were done, the game was done. I mean, there would be updates and patches would come out with new content occasionally.

But I think that model of game design and development is also going to the side as we evolve, to the point where now you'll have a game universe, a story will happen in that universe and then a new character will get dropped in and they will have more to tell you and more things for you to do and more story for you to experience. And it just builds into, I hate to say it, but into a metaverse almost.

James Blatch: I'm feeling very out of date because that BioShock, Call of Duty era, was my era and you'd play the campaign. I can actually remember towards the end of the time when I was gaming more, people did stop playing the campaign. They just jumped into the online, the interactive, and the focus went away from that a bit. I used to love it. Uncharted, I remember it was a launch title on one of the PlayStation, maybe 3, something like that, and I can remember going through that and absolutely loving the storyline, listening to the music, evocative, and there was a complete story. It's like reading a paperback.

So, yes, it's nice to think that they can keep that. Even if they created a much bigger universe where other stories happen, you can still have a complete story within that because I think that's important for kids, in particular, to understand how stories work and not just press buttons and kill people.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Oh, yeah. No, absolutely. And I think if you look at a game like ... Well, Uncharted was fantastic, by the way. So that was very much that genre of game, whereas a fully encapsulated story and the point of playing the game was to play your way through the story. But if you look at a game like Destiny, when it first came out, it's a looter shooter. It's a first person shooter. You go kill aliens, you take their stuff, you get guns, you get armour and you can then ... That's the loop just over and over again.

But as the player base matured and as the studio, Bungie ... Bungie's great, everybody knows Bungie, but they really embrace the idea of having good storytelling come out with each season where they would get the community invested in a character and then that character would be featured in a season, a quest line, that you would go through. And it would be a fully encapsulated story with all of the elements you would expect from a story and that would be the seasonal content.

James Blatch: Is this something writers listening to this podcast could think that their books might be adaptable to video games? And this is this an avenue they should be thinking about, as well as film and television?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: I think that any story that is good, that has a good solid foundation, that you've spent the time building worlds and it's internally logically consistent, is the big thing that I always say to people is, "Okay. Cool. Well, the mountain disappeared because magic got it." But you've got to tell me about the magic, right? You can't just have the mountain disappear. So if it's internally logically consistent, if you have a universe that is rich in detail and compelling and if your characters are realistic and relatable, then I think any story can be told in any medium. It just depends on how you want that story to be told in that medium.

A movie has great visuals, video games have great visuals, but you lose a lot of that deep knowledge of characters' internal thoughts that literature has. So in literature, you can read a book and you can feel what the characters are feeling, you can hear their internal monologue if the author is given that to you. There's a lot of nuance to it. But all of the visual side of things is left up to you to develop in your own mind.

So I think it really just depends on what medium you're painting in.

James Blatch: There's an art getting that right, isn't it? I think Unchartered is one example. I remember feeling the emotions in that story. There's a betrayal moment in there and you feel angry on behalf of your character. And in Call of Duty: World at War, which I think was the dog days of the Second World War, I thought was the most fantastic edition of that. And you felt drained after the storming of Berlin, along with the Russians on your side, in those days. I mean, getting that right.

So that's properly using the visuals and the sound and the interactivity with a narrative. And, I guess, there's a real trick. This is what you must be immersed in at the moment of getting that balance right.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Yes, because you can't rely on describing a character's internal feelings.

James Blatch: No.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: You can't say, "And then the sweat dripped off her brow," or whatever. You have to show that, you have to show that in a shot, you have to use the emotive music to compliment the actions that are going on. It's almost like directing an orchestra, for lack of a better word.

James Blatch: Yeah. Very good. What an interesting area for you. So you have a busy life, Nick?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: I do, because-

James Blatch: How do you manage that?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: I make a lot of lists. So I wish there was ... Hold on. I let the cat out of the bag. Sorry. I should have built up to that. No, that's-

James Blatch: Lists is good.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: There's no secret to it. My base nature, I would say, is very anti-list. If I have a list of stuff to do, I'm, "Oh, God, now I have to do these things."

James Blatch: Pre-flight checklist, I hope?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Right. I mean, well, checklist in the plane is a tool, right?

James Blatch: Yeah.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: And it took me a long time to draw this connection between a checklist in the plane being a tool and that's why I'm okay with it, versus the checklist that I make for myself being, "Now, this is the list of stuff I have to do." It's a different way of looking at it. But if I look at the checklist that I write for myself as a tool, same as one in the aeroplane, it's just a psychological trick that makes me less list averse.

James Blatch: Okay.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: ... I definitely ran into the part where you do not have enough hours in the day to get all of the things on the list done.

James Blatch: Right. So a bit of juggling to do. I'm assuming the military ... We always imagine you guys getting up at 06 something in the morning and starting to work.

Is it a demanding, long hours day or do you find you do get a nine to five stability from it?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: So usually I'll get up early, but we have a baby right now.

James Blatch: Right. Yes. There's no other option.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Quarter to six.

James Blatch: Writing and having a baby. They're the two reasons of being up at O-dark something.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Yep. But the nature of my job is such that there's not a set, "Thou shalt show up at seven and you cannot leave until five," which I'm eternally grateful for. On the other hand, I do work at weird hours. If there's something that I didn't get done during the day because I had to go pick up the kids from school, then I will take my laptop home and after they go to bed, I will write up that performance report or something.

So it's a lot of flexibility, but the expectation is always you get the work done.

James Blatch: You mentioned in the preamble before we were on air, something to do with crypto. Was that to do with the game or is that something else that's going on, a third thing that you're doing?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: So it's not a thing that I'm doing, but it's a thing that I've become interested in and the idea of community verified, open ownership of things. So specifically related to non-fungible tokens or NFTs. I think it relates a lot to people who are in the art world, not just visual arts or mixed media or painting, but also writers because we look at copyrights, we look at that idea of ownership.

I think the future of crowdfunding, honestly, is probably on a blockchain somewhere, because instead of somebody just giving Brandon Sanderson $50 million to give them some books, what you're doing is you're selling the deed, the proof of ownership of that book to a person. And then they can say, "Look, this is mine." And they can trade it, they can sell it back and forth and it lives out there for everyone to see. So it's a little bit more of an open ledger concept, but also for creators, now you're not reliant on distributors, which was another place that I learned a lot about during my first book.

James Blatch: So some people listening to this are hearing white noise now. They don't get it. And I'm like that. I don't really get it when you talk about blockchain and you talk about NFTs. Are you able to talk to me like I'm your baby?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Yeah, no, absolutely. So first off, I am not an expert by any means at blockchain.

James Blatch: Yeah, you could be perfect to explain it.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: So my understanding of blockchain is, basically, it is a network that is run in a distributed fashion, so on a whole bunch of different computers across the world. And they all decide to run one protocol of this chain and they're continually solving more iterations of it and creating more supply in the term of blocks. Each one of these are individual and unique. There are fungible portions of it where they're all the same and that's usually the currency.

So for the Ethereum blockchain, for example, the currency that goes along with that is called Ether and it's, basically, just an expression of value, because what is money really? It's just the consumer saying to the producer, "I value this amount." We call it Fiat currency, but dollars. Or if you remember the old rubles that used to exist, that's also a Fiat currency.

James Blatch: So these Bitcoin or Ether or whatever, they are linked to blocks in the blockchain?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Yes they are.

James Blatch: Okay.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: And so they're constantly creating more supply because you can solve the end of the equation and putting more on. And then there's also a public ledger where anybody can see any transaction ever, basically. And it relies on a couple of different protocols depending on the type of blockchain.

Again, we're getting into the place where I don't fully understand it, but some of it is proof of work and some of it is proof of stake and it just changes the way in which these transactions are verified by everybody on the blockchain.

James Blatch: Okay. One thing I don't understand about the currencies is if they can be constantly added to, wouldn't that make them valueless?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Well, any government in the world can just print more of their money, right?

James Blatch: Sure.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: We saw that during the pandemic. The United States, literally, just sent people checks for dollars and we're seeing quite a bit of inflation on the other side of that. So there's also a mechanism built into every blockchain economy to burn the supply, basically, to destroy these tokens on the back end.

By creating a system that balances supply with this burn, whether that's, "Hey, you have to burn these tokens in order to make a transaction for this value to go from one person to the other." Or whether it's, "Hey, there's incentive to stake your tokens for promise of future gains where they're basically tied up in a smart contract," you're looking at balancing supply and demand there.

James Blatch: Okay. My other question is about NFTs. Could I turn my book cover into an NFT?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Yeah, absolutely.

James Blatch: And how would I even begin to do that?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: So all an NFT is, is a smart contract that lives on the blockchain that everybody can see and is, therefore, public and verified that denotes ownership of a certain digital asset. It can even be real world assets depending on the consensus of how this goes. So, I mean, this gets into the philosophy of ownership: How does anybody own anything? Well, we all agree to it. Well, how do we agree? Oh, well, we exchange dollars. Well, okay, we'll just exchange Ether instead. But this is something where everybody can see who owns what all of the time.

So in order to create an NFT for your work, the thing about an NFT is non-fungible. So each one of them is unique. When you're looking at art NFTs, the way that's done is artists will build a whole bunch of different layers and, say, if it's a character, there's 15 chest options, there's 17 different hairstyles, there's different ears, different eyes, all of the stuff. And they run it through an algorithm that scrambles it all and makes a unique copy of each one and then each one of those is unique so, therefore, non-fungible.

So to do this for your book, you can do something like a print where you would say, "Hey, I'm going to sign this. This is one of 200 that exists. And so you can own one of 200 original works of my first novel. All you have to do is buy this non-fungible token and here's the digital asset that I am hosting on this server that you can get to anytime and you own it."

So when you talk about value, though, is a book cover that has one of X on it and your signature, is that more valuable than the one that has two of X? And so you start getting into rarity and, again, the economics of supply and demand.

There's an artist that's really big in the NFT scene. Actually you may or may not recognise the name, but Beeple is what he goes by and he makes non-fungible tokens. But he's an artist and so he makes one of them. And this is, basically, proof of ownership of one of his art pieces. And so that's extremely rare because there's only one of them. And so, therefore, the value of it might be higher depending on who values it.

James Blatch: That's a really, really good explanation, actually. I'm a lot further down the road to understand than I was before. So thank you for that. And I think the fact that you're on the edge of this rather than mined in the middle of it, building blockchains is probably useful for that.

I think, again, I'm still thinking, and I know people listening to this will also be thinking, Al Bean's an astronaut who did paintings and I wish I'd had an opportunity years ago to buy one, which, if I had, they've gone up hugely in value. But I would have, had I done that, this physical painting on my wall or maybe wrapped up in the attic or something, that just feels very different to me than knowing that I own something on a server somewhere that I can look at anytime.

There is a concept to get around, isn't it?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: No, it absolutely is. And physical ownership of something is an interesting concept. I think a lot of it goes into generational changes that we're seeing.

James Blatch: You saying I'm old?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: No, not necessarily. I'm just saying-

James Blatch: That's fine.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: ... that things are evolving. Don't worry, I'm closer to 40 than I am 30. But people that start to identify themselves with their online personas and, at least in my mind, there's no difference between my Facebook account and me. We are the same person. Especially kids who have Facebook accounts, they say kids meeting minors under the age of 18 in the United States, but they are bullied on their Facebook account and they psychologically interpret that as an attack on their own identity.

James Blatch: Sure.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: And this is how closely those things exist in their minds. So there is no difference between a digital thing and themselves as far as identity goes. So I think the ownership thing goes in there with that.

The way I would leverage this, if I was going to crowdfund a book, is I would say, "Hey, I worked with this awesome artist. We have created 200 unique individual book covers of my next novel. This is not the cover that will be on the print book. You can own one of these things. You can mint this NFT. It will be yours and I will even send you a physical copy of that printed on the book. One that exists. All you have to do is mint this NFT, and I'm going to use that money to produce the book."

James Blatch: Okay. Interesting.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: So you can do those sorts of things. And if there's only 200 of them, but maybe you have a fan base of a thousand people, that value is going to be set by the community and that's why-

James Blatch: If someone's paid for one of those NFTs, they've bought one and then they sell it, do you get a cut? I think you get a cut, don't you, as it goes on?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Depends on how you write the contract.

James Blatch: Okay.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: So the smart contracts they're, basically, just an agreement between the creator of the asset and the consumer. So you can set a royalty fee in there anytime it changes hands for whatever percent you want. Honestly, generally accepted nowadays is 10%. It's going down to 5%, depending on how much volume you're expecting. So that's also, potentially, a future revenue stream. If I say, "Hey, here's one of these 200 book covers," and someone buys it, holds it for five years or whatever, and then they go and they flip it for a 3000% gain, I would then receive a cut of that on the blockchain, whatever royalty percentage I had.

James Blatch: It's a really exciting, interesting area. We should say, talking about doing a book cover as an NFT, you have to also be very understanding about the copyright issues here. This is something you do in conjunction with an artist.

In fact, I keep meaning to ask Stuart Bache, my cover designer, whether in his contracts today he talks about NFTs because I think he probably does need to. I think cover designers do need to think about this. Obviously, I have permission to use it on a paperback and an ebook but do I have permission to sell it as an NFT?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: And you see that would be ... I mean, this is all new territory, right?

James Blatch: Yeah.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: So who owns the intellectual property at that point? Did you pay your cover artist $2,000 and they transferred the entirety of the rights to you?

James Blatch: Or not.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Is it just first worldwide Electronic Rights?

James Blatch: Yeah.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Is it first worldwide Print Rights? Is that in the contract?

James Blatch: Yeah, probably not in the ... Well, I don't know what's in the contract. I think Stuart's a friend, so I don't think we have a contract. But so, yes, most people do have contracts and that's definitely something. Like a stock photo's gone into a book cover, so it's a complicated area. And that's old world law merging with the new world.

Well, look, we have rattled on for a long time. It's been really absorbing. In fact, this section on NFTs, which has been the last 20 minutes or so, I think's been really useful. And I know some people do struggle to grasp, but I do, to be honest, but I can't help thinking it's an important area. And I remember, I think it's Gary Vaynerchuk who is ... Did I say his name right? Gary V, who said that he was absolutely maxed out. He had no time for anything, but he had this thing in his head thinking, "You should understand NFTs." And he took the time out when he couldn't do, learned about them and it's now a major revenue stream for him. So I think that's probably whatever Gary V does, it's usually heading in the right direction.

Look, thank you, Nick. It's been really, really interesting talking to you. I should say thank you for your service, as well. I know you put in all that ... And your family, as well, who have to do the service, as well, because that, as you say, is the supporting side of it. You live a very exciting life, I think, probably. Can't talk too much about it, but I imagine busy.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Yeah. A busy life.

James Blatch: A busy life. And I imagine your work, no couple of days are going to be the same, as well. So hope you keep safer in that field.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: I appreciate it.

James Blatch: And when can we see book two? And oh, yeah, just tell us about your author name and where people can find your book?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Yeah, absolutely. So my cover name is just NT Narbutovskih, just because fitting my whole name on a book cover is difficult enough with the 12 letters of my last name. But I have a website at I'm on all the relevant social medias. I even have a TikTok account, which I still need to recover. Thanks TikTok. So you can get at me there. I'm on Amazon, as well.

The first book that I wrote was called Steel in the Blood. I'm very happy to say that almost all of the reviews I've got have been very positive. The negative ones have been, "Hey, this is too short. Where's the rest?" And that's a good problem to have, I would say. So, hopefully, I will be able to go back and do an unabridged version of that and flesh that out.

James Blatch: I think you can't tell us the name of the video game or details at this stage can you?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: I cannot, unfortunately.

James Blatch: Okay.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: That's all very hush hush.

James Blatch: Okay.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: But when that does come out, I will be happy to shout it from the rooftops, because I'm really excited about that project.

James Blatch: Definitely let us know and we'll give that a shout out, as well so people can go and check out all we've been talking about. In the meantime, I suspect you've got a list somewhere to get through?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: I do. Actually it is checking through the second book and working on some of the feedback I've got from my editor on that. So Iron on the Tongue is what that one's called. So we're continuing the theme of biological and non-biological.

James Blatch: When do you think that will be out?

Nicholas Narbutovskih: My goal is to have it published by 1 October.

James Blatch: Okay.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: So, honestly, I think I'll probably have the ARCs ready, the Advanced Reader Copies ready by the end of the month. And so that'll probably go up on NetGalley and I might send that out to some of the reviewers and whatnot. Again, things that I learned in my time at New Degree. But, hopefully, cover design completed and then revealed sometime in August. I want to have all my initial contributors books to them in September.

I am doing a pre-sale campaign, as well. I'm just doing it on my website so people can order an assigned hardback first edition just for them. There's a couple of different tiers of how much you want to spend and awesome support things that you'll get out of it, swag and whatnot.

James Blatch: Right.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: But, hopefully, published in October. That's the goal.

James Blatch: Okay. Well, good luck with that. And good luck with everything, Nick. Thank you so much indeed, for joining us.

Nicholas Narbutovskih: Thank you so much, James. It's been a joy.

James Blatch: There's Nick. Now, you haven't heard the interview yet, so I can't ask you about it, but I'd be interested when you do hear it to what you think of the various things that we talked about. I think it was an interesting chat. A lovely guy, Nick. And I don't know if I thanked him for his service or not, but probably should because I know particularly the work he does is unpredictable, goes away for long periods of time. We talked a bit about that, about his family having to, basically, support, and he's got children. So it's a lot on the other paths in that situation when he's doing his secret squirrel stuff in his little aircraft.

Mark Dawson: Speaking of little aircraft, I saw one of your TikToks yesterday and I could almost ... For those who don't follow James on TikTok, and I wouldn't recommend it because it is very boring, but, anyway, James was walking his dog and a flight of venerable aircraft went over, including a Spitfire and some others and you were trying to identify what they were. Besides that, I could almost hear the squeal of pleasure that would've come out of your lips as the Spitfire went over.

James Blatch: There speaks to a man who sends me videos of jets over his house every now and again.

Mark Dawson: I did. I have. Well, I thought it was quite good. Actually one of the pilots-

James Blatch: Yeah. Mike Ling, one of the pilots, was dropped in.

Mark Dawson: Someone said, "Is this you?" "Yeah, that was me." That was a good indication of the reach of a viral TikTok video.

James Blatch: And a little behind the scenes on that. As soon as I saw it, I guessed who it was. I knew probably what it was and I could identify the aircraft. But engagement is one of the metrics in TikTok that they use to decide whether the algorithm's going to push your post or not. So it's a very good opportunity to say to people, "Hey, what's going on here? Do you know?" And then that works for you. You get lots of comments, a higher percentage of comments on a TikTok like that. So always looking for those opportunities. Okay. A bit of bonus learning there.

Right, Mark, that is it, I think, for us. I'm going to go into the sun. I don't know if you're going to melt, and we will see you next week. Hopefully, at some point we'll catch up again and be recording in the same week that this goes out, or within a week of it going out. But, at the moment we are in the summer period so we're recording ahead. So, hopefully, the world hasn't changed too much.

James Blatch: That's it? Okay. And in the real world-

Mark Dawson: That sounds ominous.

James Blatch: ... I'm coming to you next Tuesday, play a bit of golf, meet your Ukrainian guests, and the two of us are going to meet Craig Martel.

Mark Dawson: Who's Craig Martel?

James Blatch: He'll be on the ground.

Mark Dawson: On Elaine Bateman.

James Blatch: Boots on the ground in the UK. Craig and Elaine. So looking forward to that next week. We'll take some pictures and post them into the group. And I can't believe I've been invited to open the office. This is great.

Mark Dawson: Well, Craig's staying in the barn. You're staying somewhere else anyway.

James Blatch: All right. That's it. Thank you very much. All that remains for me to say and it's a goodbye from him.

Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye.

James Blatch: Goodbye.

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