@thejessesnyder turns Q’s into A’s (September 2012)October 1, 2012 10:41 am Game Development
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At the end of September (2012), I was in the mood to write about some game development topics. Then people starting asking questions and giving topics I could give a short answer to, but were too long for twitter. So, I decided to just ask twitter what they wanted to hear about and I’d try to do my best to give good, honest answers. Below are the questions I could answer without losing my job. If I didn’t answer your question, it means it wasn’t worth getting fired over.
@thejessesnyder What stresses are there living up to a storied franchise in Halo? As well, talk about your being the first dev/lead at 343.
The “stress” question comes up quite a bit. I cut my teeth on Call of Duty, one of the largest franchises known to mankind. Having the opportunity to work on CoD taught me about the realities of making AAA games. While there are always surprises, having done it enough times it’s easier to know what to look out for and to avoid mistakes. You learn about what typical problems arise, you get a sense of what is possible to make or what an idea costs to make real, you can identify when something is good and when to push that idea or feature forward (or kill it) and so on. Halo is no different. While the Halo and CoD are very different games in many ways, the way they are developed is not completely dissimilar.
That’s the career side of things anyway. Having enough experience to enjoy the confidence of dealing with problems, and having enough experience to identify when you’ve struck gold.
Then there’s the more personal angle. Designing games comes naturally to me and it doesn’t stress me out to make them. When I was a young child, my mother and I used to take old Atari programs that were printed in books, type them into the computer by hand, and get them to run, then change them. I grew up on making games and made mods and map packs for Marathon when I was in middle school that many people played at the time. I love tinkering and I love making games out of pretty much everything in life. When I go to lunch, I invent games out of the sugar packets and silverware.
I literally have one of the best jobs in the world, and I’m pretty happy to work on shooters especially. There are always new problems to solve when making games and solving those problems out only nets me more experience, and makes me a better designer.
As a result, I have a pretty reserved, laid back attitude when it comes to making games. I’ve had other people tell me during a project “You should be freaking out right now!” which is always hilarious to me. Since when did that ever do any good for anyone? Maybe if someone is breaking into my house with an axe, but not when it comes to making video games. Everyone deals with stress differently.
As for being the first dev lead, I actually wasn’t the first dev, or lead at 343. I was the first designer hired at 343 (it wasn’t called 343 back then, it had no name). There were other designers there before me, but they were internal to Microsoft. They left pretty early on once we started hiring folks and building the 343 team. Technically, Ryan Payton would be the first “designer” hired (he left and Josh Holmes, the current creative director took his place), but I typically don’t count creative directors as designers since they oversee many departments (including design). I don’t see them as a designer, per se. Giving them a title of “designer” would also mean they should be given the title of “artist” and a “composer,” since they oversee the art and audio departments. It’s like saying the manager of a sports team is also a quarterback.
Also “dev” is a title thrown around a lot, but means different things at different studios. “Dev” can mean someone who specifically writes code, or someone just working on a game. In some places a producer would be considered a dev, while in other studios, not. But someone who writes code for a game is almost always considered a dev at any studio. They’re total squares, man (a square is considered a rectangle and a square, but not oh never mind).
@thejessesnyder where did you go to college?
Pacific University, Forest Grove, OR. It’s where I earned both my bachelor of science in computer science and my masters degree in teaching. I actually taught high-school for a while (about 6 months) before I worked on games.
@thejessesnyder do you like squeaky cheese from Tillamook Cheese Factory?
If you don’t like squeaky cheese the only reason can be because you are lactose intolerant. Made by Tillamook or otherwise. Cheese curds are one of the best things on Earth, no joke.
@thejessesnyder What do you do now? Down time for a bit? Immediately start on the next thing?
Halo-wise? Well, we did come out announcing a trilogy, so there’s that. But really, the team gets some R&R (the team deserves some well-earned vacation), there’s DLC to be made and so fourth. 343 as a whole has a lot going on, so there’s always something to work on. Most of which I can’t talk about in any real detail.
@thejessesnyder How long did it take you guys to design the “new” master chief?
That’s a good question. Kenneth Scott is a stickler for detail. He and his amazing art team will completely start from scratch on something that they might even consider being finished. As you know, the Chief we shipped with versus the original Chief reveal aren’t exactly the same. In some ways, you could say the new Chief took the entire project. I remember when I first got here, being in meeting after meeting with artists, trying to just justify and improve the black suit underneath the armor, something most people don’t even think about.
@thejessesnyder The steps taken between putting a design document on paper to bringing it to the development floor inside the studio
Oh boy. This is a doozy. I could write 17 posts about this, or one really long one. As tempting as that is, I doubt anyone would want to read it. It also varies from studio to studio. I have my own personal methods here, which I try to employ wherever I go, even if they need to be adopted to fit the team. But I’ll try to sum it up as best as I can, specifically for level and mission design. Keep in mind these steps vary (and are a lot simpler) for something like a sandbox mechanic. Roughly:
- Overarching theme for the entire game must be defined and fleshed out to a decent degree of detail.
- Mission / level designers come up with missions / levels they think would be cool within this scope.
- Designers should be encouraged to be free with ideas here. For example, a level might hang on a mechanic they think is cool in their mind, but doesn’t exist yet. But that’s okay, maybe we can make the mechanic the reality, and therefore, the mission.
- Story / narrative outline is developed.
- Narrative and mission teams begin “putting the pieces together” to see where a mission will support a particular story element, or vice-versa. The collision of the two can alter the missions and / or the story, and that’s okay. It’s part of the process.
- Basic mission structure and campaign outline is formed. Each mission is given to designers to flesh out in more detail. Designers must get buy in from the team and are strongly encouraged to work across disciplines for idea generation and buy-in from the team.
- Design document is iterated on a billion times. This means lots of meetings with leads to sign off at various stages, and with team members for more input and improvements. Sketches are made, words are written.
- At the same time, designer begins prototyping the “hooks” for the mission. Maybe it’s a new mission design (hubs, anyone?) or maybe it’s some new mechanic they need to cobble together in script. Either way, a rough prototype helps sell the idea.
- More iteration on the document and the prototype.
- One day in some “final” meeting, the leads, creative director, executive producer, whomever pulls out a big rubber stamp and says “Now make this.”
- Then the mission gets made.
- Oh, and sometimes it gets cut, or part of it get cut or changed in mid-production.
@thejessesnyder what’s the best way to get started in the industry?
I love this question. It’s pretty simple really: Start making something you’re passionate about. Really dig into it. Think of something you love doing and could spend hours upon hours doing it. You could wake up at 10 am and not sleep until 2 am doing this one thing. Now, is it writing some code? Modding a game? Building a level in the editor? If you can see yourself doing this, stop reading this and do it now. The reason I love this question is because its like asking “How do I lose weight?” Well, you could start with eating right and exercising. “But that’s hard!” Well, you could take a pill or get liposuction, but that fat is coming back. The only path to making games is by making games, unless you get lucky somehow. Hard work and perseverance will pay off.
@thejessesnyder What is your favorite running route?
Good question. I’ve run across the Golden Gate bridge and back. I’ve run in the snow in Whistler, right through the Olympic village. I’ve run past Llyod Wright houses. For all the “cool” and “exotic” running routes I’ve done, probably my favorite route are the roads and sidewalks around my home in the Seattle area because it’s versatile. I know it well. It’s got a good set of hills. I can easily modify the route depending on what I’m training for. It’s safe at night. It’s clean (mmm, Washington air). It’s familiar. Running the “home route” after having to run in other locales just feels right for some reason.
@thejessesnyder since your the creator of nazi zombies. do you like how much zombies has changed in BO and BO2?
Sure. Overall I think the people working on zombie stuff at Activision are “keeping the dream” alive, so to speak. There’s still a lot of good people there who are calling the shots when it comes to all things zombie and I trust in their decision making. Their love for the game shows.
@thejessesnyder The Pros and Cons of Adhering to Franchise Legacy. Do it.
I don’t want to get too far into the weeds here, because I could go into a lot of detail. Off the top of my head:
- Fans are treated with respect, and in turn, will enjoy the game. This keeps the who are vocal about your game happy, which is a nice side effect.
- Not changing things is “easy” in that it avoids having to solve a problem. You already have your blueprint.
- Canon is respected which makes for a deeper, more connected universe.
- Creative freedom is lessened. In a creative industry, this can be a bummer, especially when its the impulse of many in gave development to try new things and put their own mark on something.
- You may end up not changing a facet of the game that probably should be changed, for fear of upsetting fans or upsetting the balance of the game in someway that would be hard to repair.
- You run the risk of becoming to conservative with future decisions (a bad habit to get into) which can stifle innovation.
@thejessesnyder Favorite halo map of all time?
“Halo” from Halo 1. Great framing of the ring coming out of the pod, good pacing throughout the level, good feeling of exploration, saving the marines is a great objective and is executed well since the result has multiple outcomes but game progression continues, the level has plenty of good contrast with the level design (close to long distances, vehicle to foot combat, dark interiors to light exteriors, small spaces open to larger spaces and back again).
@thejessesnyder Also, on that note.. Why is there no Promethean melee weapon? =(
The Knight’s have that sword-arm thingy right? So that’s something.
@thejessesnyder Out of all the changes 343i’s made and added to Halo, what was the hardest one to accept?
I actually have a few here, but I can’t answer them. Like any good game developer, there are regrets and disappointments I have about stuff that didn’t make it in or was changed too far from it’s original vision, but if I told anyone they too would become disappointed. I don’t like to disappoint fans, so I need to take it to the grave with me, or tell people 20 years from now when no one will probably care.
New enemy class. The Prometheans by far. It’s was one of the first things we latched onto at the studio and knew it had to happen. I always make a World War 2 game analogy: How many times have you killed Nazis as an American in a video game? It gets old after a while. You want to shoot something else. There’s not a not of “new” there. Halo is no different, and adding new enemies was a clear path to offering new gameplay.
@thejessesnyder What level does your favorite Halo 4 encounter take place in? Why is it your favorite?
Huh. The very end of level 3. Mainly because we had to fight really hard to keep it in for a variety of reasons. I’m proud I was able to defend it to the end.
@thejessesnyder Favorite mission level in Halo 4? Just the number.
Oh man, asking me to play favorites eh? I like them all, but…
Well, in all seriousness, I really can’t pick one. I know it’s the cliche answer, but it’s true. I like them all for different reasons. Overall I’m really happy with the way the campaign turned out. We have a really talented team at 343, and they worked really hard to do the campaign justice. I’m sure people will have their favorites, and some levels will probably be “favorited” more than others, but I tend to look at the campaign as a whole and each mission serves as a key component to the awesomeness of the campaign.
@thejessesnyder Will there be any Promethean vehicles or are the Mantis and Mammoth the only new ones?
My answer here? I can’t answer that. Well not until the game comes out. By then you’ll have most likely figured it out on your own though.
@thejessesnyder Last three: boxers or briefs, pancakes or waffles, and favorite Halo multiplayer memory.
Boxer-briefs. Pancakes. Playing Halo:CEA in co-op over Live and 1000 pointing the game in the process.
@thejessesnyder best crunch tip?
Don’t give up the things that keep you sane.
@thejessesnyder Out of all the Halo games already out, which was your favourite campaign gameplay and story wise?
Halo 1 overall. I think some campaigns had better gameplay later down the road, but the simplicity of Halo 1 in it’s gameplay and story are what started it all. The story is easy to understand: “Space zombies got loose, stop them! But don’t nuke the galaxy!” Gameplay-wise, everything feels “clean.” For example, in later Halos, the pistol isn’t quite as good or the hub in ODST was hard to navigate or in Reach some of the characters died in a less than convincing way. These are all nit-picky, and I’m not taking anything away from Bungie. Halo:CE was just so good and I think still holds up well today. I especially like the moment in Halo:CE where you recover the marines video recorder on his helmet and meet the Flood for the first time. What a great intro to a new enemy.
@thejessesnyder Here’s an easy one: which is your favorite weapon in each of the three classes?
I like the BR or the DMR. I’m a mid to long range precision shooter. The AR is a lot of fun though too. I like the AR a lot more in Halo 4 than in previous games personally.
@thejessesnyder how do you determine whats going to go into the campaing and please tell me how do you make the game so awesome please reply
I went over this above, but generally designers make up a bunch of cool stuff they want to do, some people in charge say we need to do X,Y and Z and they like A,B and C that we came up with. Then you put the peanut butter and the chocolate together which is pretty awesome by most standards.
@thejessesnyder Well you are the lead campaign guy, how were you and your team able to determine the direction campaign will go?
Lots and lots of collaboration. I try to get good ideas from as many people that are willing give them to me, then get people working together to make something we all think is awesome. I try to make some stuff myself that I think will help move things along. Then there are people that come in and tell me what to do sometimes and I try to do what they want if I think it’s cool, or try to convince them otherwise if I don’t agree with them. I don’t always get my way, but that’s fine, it’s all part of the job.
@thejessesnyder What goes into making a game challenging but not frustrating. And how you set achievements with that in mind.
The term “pacing” gets thrown around a lot. Think of a roller coaster. There’s some slow up hill parts, some fast downhills, some loops and turns, another slow part, etc. If the ride were flat the whole time, you’d be bored. If it were all loops, you’d barf. Game design is pretty similar. We try to slow things down sometimes, make things easier, then ramp up the challenge where it makes sense. Determining if something is frustrating or not requires play-testing, getting feedback from people then adjusting the game appropriately. Sometimes, it’s okay to frustrate the player in my view, if helps accentuate a high moment later. Dark Souls is a testament to this design philosophy. Not that I use it very often (or pretty much ever).
As for achievements, it’s kinda the same. We throw in some easy ones, some not so easy ones, and some really, really hard ones. We don’t necessarily plan for it, it just happens to work out that way. We do make adjustments if we have too many hard to get achievements. The designers come up with their own achievements for their missions and we try to be supportive of them. For example, there’s one achievement that was hard to get, then got REALLY hard to get based on a last minute production decision. We almost cut the achievement, then decided to leave it in there as a badge of honor for those who are up for the challenge. I tested it myself to make sure it was possible to unlock as well.
I wish I had more insight on this, but I don’t. On past projects, the art director worked directly with a marketing team and they would hash out some concepts and start iterating on revisions. Internally at studios I’ve worked on in the past, we put up posters of revisions to “prototype” covers and to generate a reaction internally from the team. We had a really cool one for CoD:WaW which was a gun planted in the ground and a helmet on the gun (designating the grave of a fallen soldier) which was black and white. Maybe some red in there. Not sure why it was changed. It was a really powerful image, but sometimes that kind of imagery can elicit too much of an emotion marketing doesn’t want the consumer to have. If I was in their position I would have gone with something safer too. Again, I’m speculating here, I had no insight on why it changed. The game sold really well, all told.
From what I know from 343, it’s pretty much the same. I think more people are involved with the decision here at 343. I think Kenneth probably made a few himself and worked with his concept art team who made a few, PR and marketing had some say, the franchise people had some say, and so on. I remember seeing the cover with the design team for the first time (before it was the cover) and all of us going “Yep, that’s it. That’s the cover. That’s awesome.”
See above. Really no clue, but I’ve seen covers do ten or twenty versions+. It’s crazy. It’s important since people do judge books (and games) by their cover, like it or not. By and large, designers and even leads (except from the art side maybe) aren’t involved in this process, at least where I’ve worked. I bet Valve does things differently.
Okay, so I’ll talk about the physics stuff a bit. So with physics…
I well the physics you see…
I mean, yeah there’s code, but… I…
Okay, so there’s a lot involved with the physics of a thing and the way it’s implemented. The short answer is “There’s a bunch of numbers set on objects (mass, force coming from a bullet, etc.) and based on those settings something moves accordingly.”
Imagine a big excel sheet. Now imagine each object in the game has it’s own Excel sheet. Now imagine that thee are like 500 numbers in the Excel sheet, and based on what those settings are (some auto-generated based on the rough size of the object’s mass, some hand set… we want the hammer melee to really move objects around) some math happens and the object flies around… or it doesn’t. At it’s core, there’s some physics “engine” (think, Havok) interpreting these numbers and calculating what’s supposed to happen in the game.
Which can lead to funny bugs. Like change a number here, and Chief can punch a Warthog which will make it fly across the entire level, spinning wildly. Change a number there and Chief can jump so high that when he falls, he gains enough speed to kill himself. F = ma is an incredibly simple equation which is one of the key components to many games. Who said math wouldn’t be useful outside of school? I dare you to tell that to a Havok programmer.
@thejessesnyder How to get from sketches and thoughts, to the final level. That, or getting your first industry job.
Since I answered the paper design into a mission question, and a bit about how to get into the industry, I’ll add a bit to the industry job thing.
Once you’ve made some cool stuff, maybe you’re not sure what to do next. I started by modding games, then applying to studios directly. I would submit my resume and the suite of projects I had worked on, then waited. I wouldn’t hear back from people for months. Then one day I got a phone call. A few weeks later they told me “No.” Then 6 months later those same people called me back for an in person interview. Then they hired me. Prepare for lots of rejection. Also, be patient.
The game industry is small and hard to get into, but there’s always opportunity. People expect the most of you at all times. You need to be creative, productive, a good problem solver, easy to work with, have a good work ethic, funny, good looking, wait…
You get the idea. You want to be part of a professional industry? Be a professional. Make cover letters. Call people back. Do your homework. Play the games the studio has worked on. Know the good things, and the bad things about their game. Give criticism and offer suggestions on how you’d fix a problem, don’t just point out problems. Get good business cards. Make a nice looking website that showcases your work. Show that you not only care about making games, but how you present your work and yourself. Go to GDC and meet people. Don’t be afraid to talk to anyone. Treat everyone with courtesy respect. Don’t be a fanboy. Be prepared to answer questions about technical and creative topics. Do something else besides play games or make games. Make yourself a more rounded person and demonstrate that your passions are influenced by something unique to you. Make yourself indispensable. Work your way up from the bottom and be patient. Take feedback and criticism well. Always try to learn and improve.
I’m sure I could keep going, but you get the idea. I think most people know what it takes and have the means to do it, but they prevent themselves from getting there for some reason. If you’re passionate about something, go for it and don’t look back, and don’t listen to the haters along the way. Learn the difference between haters and good advice givers.
@thejessesnyder Large breasts and how they relate to the masses.
Don’t get me wrong, I like large breasts in games as much as the next person. I also like good characters with personality depth. Pretty much like real life. I assume plenty of other people do to. One day, I’d love to create a character like Black Widow that is super sexy, super tough, really smart and has a sense of humor, kicks ass, solves problems and outwits her opponents and so on. One thing this character would not do (or do often) is get put into a position where men have to save her. Been done to death. I think it would cheapen the character. Maybe like a hot female Doctor Who or something.
Lately, I’ve been falling in love with Skyler White, who keeps getting hotter with every season of Breaking Bad. Her characters is showing more depth, advancing the plot both using her brains and her feminine wiles. If you’ve seen the audit episode, you’ll know what I mean.
Well, that was pretty much it. Thanks for asking such good questions, hopefully you aren’t disappointed by my answers and you found them helpful or meaningful. This Q and A was a lot of fun for me to do, I love being in the position to talk about these topics. I wish that someone would have done the same for me in the past. Hopefully you’ll have more questions in the future!