Thursday, November 11, 2010

Speak Summary, pt.1

Below is a summary of the almost three-hour presentation I did at the University of Utah about my career development and choices, as they relate to being a designer in Utah in particular, and the industry in general.

  • I've been working in the Utah games industry for 16 years.
  • I started in art and ended as design lead on projects for Titus, Vivendi Universal, and Disney.
Growing Up
  • I grew up in Hawaii and as a white kid, got picked on until I retreated indoors to a world of comics, RPGs, movies, and games.
  • I drew comics with my friends and wanted to be a comic artist when I grew up.
  • I played more games than I drew comics. Street Fighter II was especially formative.
  • I grew up in a Mormon family, and went to BYU for college. I no longer identify with religion, but it explains what led me to Utah.
  • I studied games in college.
  • That is, I played MUDs until I was kicked out of college.
Breaking In
  • A friend found a job on the BYU job board for a game artist.
  • Never playing pitfall did it occur to me that I should be an artist in games.
  • But I was excited so -- knowing nothing about portfolios -- I gathered my sketchbooks, dated them, and submitted them.
  • They thought I had potential, and had me bring in my 286 Packard Bell computer from home to install Deluxe Animator on.
  • I was so excited with my job that I didn't even pee my first day on it.
Art Track
  • I did pixel backgrounds, animations, 3D art, and 3D animations.
  • My first 3D model was the flying car the pig cops in Duke Nukem 3D rode around in (yes, we did art for DN3D).
  • I got pretty far as an artist but wanted more say over how the games were made, because I loved games and cared deeply about their quality.
Odd Job
  • My first design gig was a strange design contract where Saffire was asked to critique Legacy of Kain (PSX) and server up ideas for a sequel. My submission was amateurish but I loved it.
StarCraft: Brood War
  • My second design gig was "additional design" on Brood War. Most people don't know Saffire did a huge portion of art and programming, and some participation in initial design, including story and unit design.
  • We were largely picked up for the project because of a very passionate pitch document that I and a few other employees worked hard on. We loved Blizzard and StarCraft.
  • As I recall, we were originally contracted to do one tileset and three color changes to it to represent three worlds. I remember convincing everyone that most of the work was doable and that we should do three different tilesets. I might be remembering it wrong.
  • As an artist on the project, I probably touched (not did) about 70% of the tileset art. I did a lot of organic base terrain tiles, and integrated base terrain with level objects (doodads) and other painted or rendered assets.
  • I learned to interesting things on that project:
    • One, every iteration makes a project better; Blizzard was incredibly fickle and constantly had us redo everything; my artist ego died a horrible death. Thank god.
    • Two, Blizzard is made up of normal dudes; we worked with talented people, but I never felt their ideas were vastly superior; they were just willing to try things and kept trying until they knew they had something special.
Xena: Warrior Princess: Talisman of Fate
  • My third design gig was for more additional design on Xena. Steve Taylor of Wahoo fame headed the project. It was built from scratch in 9 months.
  • I remember at some point hearing that Titus literally didn't care what was made as long as it was playable and had Xena on the title. It was amazing.
  • But we really had a fun time on the project becoming Xena fans and trying to put in as much fan service as we could.
  • Titus wanted another brawler and Steve left the company (I think) so this was my first opportunity to be a design lead. I was also, at the same time, an animation lead. Crazy times.
  • It was an original property, which was an amazing opportunity for me.
  • I fell into every ambitious new designer trap; I wanted the world.
  • I wanted to use a structure of the Dreamcast game Powerstone but use it as a way to deliver the strategy of a game like Street Fighter to the masses; I lacked the perspective to deliver this, and kept adding more features, like an involved story for every character, RPG elements, and untested combat features that were underdeveloped.
  • If we had just tried to duplicate Powerstone and add something, maybe we could have created something interesting.
  • Titus was going downhill and it affected Saffire; our team was missing many paychecks; over the project, we had 5 different producers each with their own set of wants.
  • And I still wanted everything to match a specific abstract vision in my mind's eye; I micromanaged everything, and ran out of time doing so as the team became increasingly disaffected by both pay problems, and worse (to me personally) my controlling hand.
  • I reflected a lot after Barbarian and hated how disaffected everyone working with me seemed; I strongly felt that even beyond pay, it was how micromanaging I had been that got everyone disconnected, and it had an awful impact on the game; I vowed to turn this around 180 degrees.
Van Helsing
  • Saffire got lucky and landed Van Helsing; it was my next shot to redeem myself as a design lead; I had no animation responsibilities.
  • Vivendi wanted a strict scope and asked us to essentially remake Devil May Cry; after my disaster doing everything my way, I looked forward to it; we deconstructed absolutely everything in that game, from the number of moves to rooms to monsters, etc., etc.; the major addition was the grappling hook, which was an addendum to Devil May Cry combat.
  • In terms of team input, I tried to involve everyone in decision making whenever possible, and prioritized passion when ideas were brought to the table; if an idea was sub-par (not often) but it was backed by passion, I would let that count as above-par and work with ideas to get them into the game; I felt this approach was a vast improvement.
  • After 18 months (and several team members were still behind on pay for part of this time), we made Van Helsing with a brand new engine from scratch; the team cared less about it being derivative, and more about it being fun.
  • The game had a lot of flaws, but I was able to dissect them much more easily than Barbarian because the game was much more derivative; I could spot what went wrong fast.
Moving On
  • At Saffire, I had occasionally been behind on pay by as many as three months, but I stayed partly because I only cared about potential; the industry struck me as tumultuous -- who knew Sega wouldn't make consoles, or EA wouldn't be the number one publisher, or that brilliant design houses like Looking Glass would go under -- if I saw potential, I would stay.
  • I learned a lot and was proud of the team, but I thought I might never be able to do what I wanted to at Saffire; they were a very generalized company, and I wanted to see them specialize in something to stay attractive to publishers; I started to feel held back by management, and I wanted a more progressive place that had the same goals I did.
  • I quit thankful for the opportunity I was given and the things I had learned, and left without having other work lined up and started looking for other jobs.
  • I had other offers but was tempted by Avalanche; staying in Utah meant working with people I knew and I was impressed by Tak 2; I thought Avalanche could teach me something.
  • It was a hard decision, but I stayed in Utah.
  • In hindsight, I should have been more wary of Avalanche; not at all because I regret my decision, but rather philosophically since my objective was to find a boss that thought the same way I did about games; John Blackburn, President of Avalanche made it clear that he didn't care most about making great games, but in making a place people wanted to work at; I was enticed, however, when he explained his reasoning that he couldn't control when lightning would strike and the opportunity to make something great would hit; he could only control having good people at his company when it happened; that was compelling.
That's a lot of text. I'll post part two tomorrow.


  1. Cool!

    I was actually still at Saffire when Barbarian started. I remember looking at art and design documentation for the game as it started to take form. For me, Barbarian always had a very Alan look. :)

    I think plenty of people were uninterested in me being on the team, and for my part I was becoming increasingly disconnected from the various groups in the company. I think I went to Spain a little while after Barbarian started. I can't remember the exact timing. After I came back, I was actually assigned to that team for about a week before I finally left the company. I think it was a pretty big relief for both me and Mike when I left. :)

    By the way, my experience leaving Saffire was similar in some ways to yours: Kier and I had nothing specific lined up, just the crazy idea that we'd make something happen. And I left on good terms (at least initially). I'd been there for 6 years, and Hal knew I always wanted to start my own thing.

    Sorry my comment on your blog post is all about me. :)

  2. No, it's good to know. I couldn't remember how your exit took place. It's interesting to see your perspective as well. We need to have everyone write something up. ;)