Name: Cliff Bleszinski
Company: Epic Games
Best-Known Works Include: Jazz Jackrabbit (PC), Unreal Tournament (PC), Unreal Tournament 2004 (PC) Recent Favorites
Games: Resident Evil 4, Katamari Damacy, MGS 3, Silent Hill 4, Champions Return to Arms, Splinter Cell Chaos Theory
Music: I'm all over the place. The Faint, Snow Patrol, Bright Eyes, Stereolab, Morcheeba, broadway musicals, 50 Cent, Ludacris, Jurassic Five, Paul Oakenfold
Movie: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
II. Expectations vs Reality n How a Project Evolves
How does the reality of being a game designer match up with what your expectations of the job were in the past? Was it about what you expected?
Chris Avellone: It's pretty much the same as doing pen-and-paper design, except you have to think more visually and you have to be much, much, much more detailed in your designs. Oh, and it's a lot more fun than I thought it was.
Cliff Bleszinski:You go from being a 16-year old kid sitting in your mother's house doodling and making what you think is cool at the time. Then you wind up getting a sense of the big picture and what gamers want, and what's considered hip. I turned 30 this year, and I talk to 18, 19, 20 year olds and I already realize there's a very significant gap there between what they like, and what I like and grew up with. Ultimately you have to make the games that you want to play, but you have to be also aware of the big picture and adjust for that. That's the biggest difference between being young and wanting to be a game designer, and being older and getting a perspective. You have to find a balance between those two.
Ken Levine: I remember being really surprised to learn about how technical game design was. A lot of people tell me: "I've got a great idea for a game." Frankly, who gives a crap? A great idea is meaningless. A great idea that leverages your existing technology, gets the team excited, is feasible to do on time and budget, is commericially competitive, and, last but not least, floats the boat of a major publisher... Now you have something.
Akira Yamaoka: There was not much of a difference between my expectations and the real world of game designing...although it was surprising that you have to communicate with a lot of staffs outside development, like sales and marketing department, etc., in the course of game production. I realized that many people in different fields are involved, from when a game concept is born until the fans get the finished products in their hands. The scale of a game project is enormous.
Question: How does the designer's contribution to a project evolve as the game comes together? Do you write the design document and then let the rest of the team figure it out? How do you involve yourself in the process?
Avellone: We're working on Neverwinter Nights 2 right now (most everyone at Obsidian is, although we have 10-15 people working on our next project, which is not a sequel). The way design usually works is that we blue-sky a vision document for the game's key features and fun factor. Then we make it more realistic, turning it into a "creative design doc" that the programmers break down into a schedule.
This creative design doc is revised, cut up into smaller pieces, each piece is detailed, and then it is passed off to another designer to fully flesh out. And this process is repeated until every aspect of design is covered and handled. The story and area design works much the same way as it did on KOTOR2. We take the overall story, chop up the planets and systems design, pass it off to individual designers, then they flesh out their planets and quests and make them game-ready.
"I love the atmosphere, I like the creativity, and I like implementing the ideas once the creativity has done its job. The hours can be long, but it's all worthwhile." -- Chris Avellone For Neverwinter Nights 2, I'm responsible for all the companion dialogues for the game, writing major non-player characters (and lesser ones), doing the vision quests, balancing and implementing influence mechanics, critiquing area designs, helping out with writing other parts of the game, and trying to juggle other manager and cofounder stuff, like prepping vision docs, providing input on game pitches, and helping out with designer hiring, looking over design tests, and [handling] interviews.
I'm also looking over stuff for our third coming project, which is being headed up by Kevin Saunders (KOTOR2). But he's handling it just fine without me, so he mostly just humors me and gives me reassuring pats on the head.
Bleszinski: Going from the original creative vision to what the game is eventually going to be…it isn't always about making the best game possible. It's about the tradeoffs you decide on as a designer. You're making the best game possible with x people, y months, and with z dollars. It's like playing an RPG where you have 20 points to allocate to strength, dexterity and intelligence. You can't have it all.
You have to pick, what are the things you're going to do well in this game? There are three to five things we're going to do that no one has ever seen, that we're going to do better than anyone else, and commit to it. You start off with your grandiose design of what your first game in a new franchise is gonna be. And you have 800 million ideas. Ultimately you wind up with a fraction of them. If you have enough ideas, you've got plenty of material for the sequel. If you do a good enough job on the first game and establish the franchise, you'll have plenty of ideas for the rest of the games.
Levine:Game development is an extremely iterative, collaborative process. A designer who sits off in a corner by himself writing a game design doc is going to be pretty shocked at the reaction he gets when he gives it to the team to "figure out." Great games are great because they leverage all the tools at hand: people, technology, design, art, etc.
Yamaoka: We, the development team, hold meetings and spend a lot of time until we reach a consensus of opinion. We talk about everything from the promotional side of the game to very philosophical topics...like "crime and punishment," for instance, in Silent Hill 2. [We] discussed pain and anguish of a human being until everybody fully understood their part in the game development. My job is to make sure everything is shared within the team, from the theme of the game to individual opinions, so that the team can work efficiently. And this responsibility will continue until the game is complete.
Question: What do you like best about your job? What are the more unpleasant aspects of your job?
"You're making the best game possible with x people, y months, and with z dollars. It's like playing an RPG where you have 20 points to allocate to strength, dexterity and intelligence. You can't have it all." -- Cliff Bleszinski
Avellone: I love the fact it's not static. I love the atmosphere, I like the creativity, and I like implementing the ideas once the creativity has done its job. The hours can be long, but it's all worthwhile. In fact, there's plenty of times where you don't want to go home because you want to get a quest or dialogue just right, or you can see a way to make a part of the game that much better. Plus, the people generally are your age and have the same interests, so you can game with them and talk about nerdly stuff that would be out of place at, say, the patent office or a local accounting firm. Also, free soda is good. And movie days.
Unpleasant aspects? I don't know. It can be a little hard to sell publishers on riskier titles. It's hard not having room for all the applicants you think show promise. Tight deadlines are a reality, but sometimes it would be nice to do enough iterations until you feel it's perfect. But there's no real unpleasant aspects to it, in my opinion.
Bleszinski: The unpleasant aspects include the lag in having an idea and finally seeing it realized. Let's say you want to have a giant pterodactyl in your game. You're not going to see that pterodactyl attacking people for a month and a half. For that whole time you're waiting, it's easy to sit there and second guess yourself. "Are pterodactyls cool? I dunno, maybe it should be a bunny." Then when the pterodactyl is finally made, you realize "yea this is cool," and people see it and believe in the vision you have. Maintaining that faith while you're waiting for ideas to be implemented is difficult. It requires a good amount of patience, which I often don't have.
The best part is seeing something that started as a random idea in the back of your head come to life. Seeing customers pick it up and appreciate it, having people interested in the universe you created. You feel like a proud poppa when it's all done.
Levine: The best part of my job is nerdy dream fulfillment. When I was a kid, reruns of the original Star Trek used come on at 6:00pm on channel 11. The thing I loved about that show was the feeling of how cool it would be to work with a group of people who were absolutely experts at what they do, who could constantly surprise you with their creativity and resourcefulness. Also, I wanted to have sex with that green chick.
When you're on a good development team, you get that Star Trek feeling. You're surrounded by people who are all dedicated to making something great. I don't know anybody in game development that goes to work for the paycheck. They're here because they wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
For me, the only really unpleasant aspects of the job are worrying about money and having to say no to people. There's no part of the game design stuff I don't enjoy. I've been very fortunate. I've gotten to work on remarkably cool products, like Shock 2, Thief, Freedom Force, and BioShock. I'm not sure how I'd feel about my job if I was working on Barbie's Horse Groomer 2.
Yamaoka: Being able to meet people all around the world.
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