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“Design for Gaming”- An Interview with I.O. Interactive Lead Level Designer, Chris James.

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Beginning in the 1970’s, video game companies have built a multi-billion dollar industry in the area of multimedia gaming which continues to advance forward in technology and entertain our imaginations. Because of these advancements, these gaming companies inspired improvements in computer sound, graphic cards and memory. A major part in the evolution of video games and the gaming industry were the designers.

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One such gaming designer is Chris James. “C.J.” is a graduate from Confederation College in Ontario, Canada and has worked with many celebrated gaming companies such as Bioware, LucasArts, EA and more. CJ is now part of the I.O. Interactive team where he lends his talent as Lead Level Designer. CJ agreed to talk to Legendarium about his beginnings in the industry and gaming industry knowledge.

What interested you in the industry and how did you get started?

CJ: I have almost literally been playing games my entire life. Someone taught me how to play chess when I was 4, and then my grandparents would always bring me to their community center (the Moose Lodge) to play cribbage. From the Intellivision onwards, I owned almost every video game system, with the SNES being my favourite so far.

As a social outcast for most of my childhood and teens I had a small and really tight group of friends, and what consistently brought us together were video games. Also, my Magic: The Gathering habit took pretty much all of my money. Making games never occurred as something I could do, especially since I was from this small city in the middle of Canada. As I was graduating high school, I assessed my passions: directing theatre, creating music, and playing games. So, what combines all of those passions? At that point in my life I did what I thought the smart thing was to do: focus entirely on figuring out how to get into the games industry.
 
First stop was to taking a multi-media production course in college; and as assignments passed my way, I twisted the deliverables into something game-like: We once had to create an interactive résumé in flash, so I developed a (bad) top-down scene of a character walking around, picking up résumé sections. Anything extra-curricular was game development related: constantly studied game design (lots of reading), started a student IGDA chapter, went on my own dime to some game development conferences, and created a full RTS/FPS design document for an Unreal Tournament total modification. I even created a business plan to make a regional independent game development incubator, to which I won an award for, but backed out from because it was not about actually making games myself.
 
But I needed a skill where I could create works that contributed to a team deliverable or else I would have no value to anyone looking to hire junior positions. What I found that I had enjoyed the most (at school) was creating 3d models. So when it came down to my full-semester placement, that’s what I decided to focus on. After cold calling around 40 different studios (and a dose of sheer luck), I landed an environment art internship at a start-up in Vancouver – a city I had always wanted to live in.
 
Foot was now in-the-door. Though after starting I quickly realized that it wasn’t art that brought me into work every day, and why it was games that I loved. Plus modelling environments wasn’t part of my original three passions (theater, music, and games), which were completely missing from my day-to-day tasks.
 
I love figuring out what the player experience is, because of the choices they are making, while playing with people they know. Then, like a fog being lifted, my path was crystal clear: design, and it’s been an incredible journey since.
 
What are the initial process and decisions when creating a new game?
 
CJ: Starting a game is hard … well, harder than one would think!
 Yes, coming up with any idea is easy, but the right one takes a combination of emotion, gut instinct, and talent to push it through a production process and get it to blossom into an amazing playable experience. Start off with a vision, make smart decisions for a road-map on how you are going to get there, then be persistent in always moving forward.
 
The key is to continuously focus on the core game-play experiences you want the player to feel because of the choices they are either about to make, or have made.
 
It’s the most difficult hurdle to design for – especially for those coming from traditional storytelling mediums.  Player engagement is propelled by a multitude of meaningful actions (verbs) to choose from simultaneously. Forcing a single action in order to tell a specific narrative strips the essence of what an interactive experience is supposed to be about, and why many game stories fall flat.  What a meaningful choice is to someone, though, is an incredibly complex problem to solve, especially when you are trying to balance both rational (mechanics) and emotional (art) enrichment to motivate the player to keep playing. If done right, the solution will be the entire reason someone is playing your game instead of someone else, and what hopefully keeps them coming back. And if not, then to the Nevada Desert the unsold cartridges will go.

Spider-Man Edge of Time Walkthrough Video Guide (PS3, Wii,Xbox360)
 
Where do you see the gaming industry going?
 
CJ: The quality and experience given by AAA games will always be in demand; how they are produced, though, will be drastically changing. But this will not be by outsourcing alone, which has been part of the process for a least a decade already. Companies that want to develop high production quality experiences will need to be precision smart with their resources, and use technologies that enable creators to do their best work without having to struggle with inefficiencies. 
 
The one thing that game industry business people couldn’t foresee was the impact Apple and Facebook were going to have. Some of the key factors are:

-Open development on non-traditional platforms without an intense ‘quality’ review process or up-front licensing fees.
– Free-to-play pure digital distribution release models that is direct to customers, with self-administered micro transaction payment options.
– Tapping into established social media communities by creating asymmetric player driven feedback loops that drive intrinsic motivators.
 
Currently traditional key players in the industry are maneuvering to meet these evolved standards. For example, Sony is literally opening their gates on the PS3 and PS Vita to any developer who has a game they want to put on the system by removing much of the red-tape approval process. The real issue – for many companies – is that it’s taken them years to respond to these new industry circumstances, being in a reactive position rather than being a leader in the industry by being the trendsetters themselves.
 
But with new independently developed platforms being released, and more people in the world going online by having access to affordable – yet still powerful – technology, anything is still remarkably possible!

CJ worked on the Hoth level
CJ worked on the Hoth level
 
What is the future of gaming?
 
CJ: [Laughing] I think every single company is trying to figure this out right now. But here is what I think:
 
If we look at the strict definition of what game theory is, “…of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers” (thanks Wikipedia!), it’s obvious to me that the richest gaming experience you can have is against and/or with other human beings. We’ve tried very hard in the industry to emulate an artificially intelligent second player to be an opponent worthy enough to play against.
 
But why? This is because traditional console technology did not easily allow for a multiplayer experience.
 
“But they’ve always had two controller slots! And even can be made to allow up to four with an additional accessory.” Let’s look at that for a moment.
 
Did you have to get your parent’s permission to have your friends over when you wanted to play games together? Were they allowed during a school night? Were you allowed more than one friend over? For how long? Or … could you have a 16 multiplayer game of Halo whenever you wanted to, because you owned 4 Xboxes and 4 large-enough screens all networked to a dedicated LAN, and had the space to keep it permanently setup? And, with all 16 people, were they readily available to play whenever you had the time to? Or … did you or your friends own an NES Four Score? How many games do you remember that were specifically designed for up to 4 players?
 
If you answered ‘yes’ for some or even all questions, consider yourself incredibly privileged.
 
Basically, AI was needed to be there for all of those times that you want to play a game but had noone else to play it with. One of the great things to have come out of the first thirty or so years of creating AI for solitary gameplay, though, are proven design patterns for meaningful progression models in solitary games. But remember, that’s thirty years of designing games to compensate for not being able to (easily) play with other people. Pair that with having a singular distribution model – similar to a movie being released ‘straight-to-vhs’ … or dvd, or Blu-ray, or iTunes / Netfilx … And you have an entire industry that has learned to design and sell games from a restricted point of view.
 
With the advent of online services over the past ten years, breaking out of this ‘solitary gameplay experience’ confine became prevalent. But because the industry became somewhat dug into the habit of creating AI opponents, it was very hard to understand, at first. Also online networking technology was still in it’s infancy, and had (has) a lot of growing up still to do. First came the ability to play console games over a non-local network – Xbox Live forefronted for consoles – but required to use proprietary technology – Xbox’s could only talk to other Xbox’s. Recently the use of cloud servers has allowed for cross-platform networking possibilities – Portal 2 being one of the first to break this barrier – but for business reasons is still a struggle for just anyone to make games that allow for cross-console networking.
 
So, the future of gaming will probably be about developers better understanding how to make quality multiplayer game experiences, which are always on, under proven business models that make the most sense for the target audience, that can be connected to any and all possible platforms.
 
Did I mention that there is also an entire generation of people that grew up only using motion-controllers (Wii, Kinect, PS Eye, etc..), and touch devices, who will be driving the next generation of sales? That might also be important to note.

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What platform is favoured by game designers? ie: console, PC, etc.
 
CJ: It’s honestly not something I have ever really considered. Throughout my entire career I have had an Xbox 360 “dev/test kit” on my desk which was usually paired with a PS3 test kit. What matters is that what we create gets to as many people as possible, not for pure business reasons, but because we’re artists, and there is nothing better than putting our creation in your hands, and in turn you (hopefully) have a lot of fun.
 
What I really care about is: Capturing the player’s intended actions through a finely crafted input design because of what has been communicated by the in-game audible and visual events, and providing constructive + entertaining results that feed the player’s motivation to keep playing.
 
That seems cold, I know, but it’s meant to be a pure deconstruction of what it is I am trying to accomplish as a designer. So whether it is on a classical console or a new mobile platform, the goals are the same (matched line-for-line with the above statement); What does the player want to do? Why are they making those specific choices? How is their agency generating meaningful progression?
 
And that is platform independent. From a business perspective, though, the big question seems to be, ‘What is the winning platform?’ I think a better question is ‘Which new platform has crossed the tipping point?’Let’s say some new platform (console or mobile) sold through over 100,000 hardware units in it’s first month. As an independent developer, the early exposure is great as there is a good chance for a high attach rate. Also, since development was with a small team, selling 75k copies will probably recoup much of the development costs.
 
As a large AAA development team with over 100 people, selling 75k is not nearly enough. So they will continue to develop on all possible platforms with sell-through in the multi millions. Releasing on new platforms is usually only considered once an estimated tipping point has been reached, meaning that the additional development costs can be recuperated in the short-term. So what consoles do designer’s favor?
 
Basically, any of them … as long as I / we can create great entertainment, and the gameplay experience can reach as many people as possible.

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What are some of the hindrances when creating and releasing a game?
 
CJ: I mentioned “precision smart with their resources” in an earlier question, and I want to expand on what that means. A designer will never generate the ‘best possible’ design on their first try. I don’t mean that thoughtfulness cannot ever occur on an initial design, but it takes much iteration through trial-by-errors failures in order to learn what doesn’t work.
 
So a smart production schedule will plan for a designer to: Fail early. Fail fast. Fail autonomously.
 
This is why pre-production usually takes much longer than intended, because a game will (ideally) not get green lit until the core is really fun to play. And also why, in production, sudden changes are highly destructive: setups that no-longer work need to be hot-fixed based on gut decisions therefore running a high-risk of being incorrect (or not the best solution) since there is no design time planned for fail-based-learning iterations.
 
As for non-design recourses (yes, I’m referring to people as recourses), it’s a producer’s hell to have to organize an entire production team in pre-production, because there is not enough in-game related work to assign. Also, when the project is ramping down once production is complete, and there is no new project to move people onto, then there quickly becomes an abundance of idle recourses.
 
When releasing a game, there is a whole bunch of red-tape to cut through, like ESRB rating requirements, certification of submission candidates through first party publishers, region specific requirements (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_gaming_in_Germany#The_USK_and_censorship), and trying to get to 100% bug fixes – which never really happens (we call those unfixed bugs ISV’s – In Shipped Version).
 
When you create and plan a new game, are you also thinking about, movies, comics/graphic novels, and other such merchandising possibilities? Does this influence the type of game created?
 
CJ: Some people are definitely thinking about these types of things, but it’s not really a regular topic on the development floor. Usually the creative director and lead producer are acting as consultants for marketing plans, but usually no further than that.  If you’re lucky enough to work on a project that gets a highly visible marketing campaign, then you might see some swag and other merchandising be passed around, and usually land on your desk.
 
But overall – at least as far as I have experienced or seen – the development team is focused on delivering great in-game content. Any other extended universe material is mostly a reaction to an overwhelmingly positive response from a very passionate community of gamers. If post-release merchandising was pre-planned without first proving that there is an audience that wants to consume it, then it’s a big risk that could cost quite a bit of money with no return; that currency have been used to help fuel sequels or additional content for the already released game.

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Do you think that movies based on games are depicted in a way the game makers are happy with and do you think these movies help to market the game?
 
CJ: It comes down to the fundamental difference between what a game, and what a movie, provides an audience. A movie wants to take you on a fantastic journey. A game wants you to be the one on a fantastic journey. That’s not the same.
 
It’s like going for a Sunday drive in a convertible car on a beautiful day: the passenger is having a completely different perspective of the experience than the driver, because of what they are doing – yet they are both in the same car.
 
So, you can’t create an intense road obstacle course experience for the passenger, as they have no ability to maneuver the car; and if the driver only paid attention to the scenery, many pylons will meet an unfortunate squishy death.
 
Point being is that the game makers are very focused and passionate about making an experience that the player drives through. When a spectator medium tries to emulate it, well, it just never feels quite right; instead what is emanates it’s own uncanny valley feeling.
 
Do movies – or any other marketing material – help market the game? I don’t know. When I was in retail, I was once told that a store makes it or breaks it solely on word-of-mouth. Good experience, or bad experience, a single person will tell five people, who will tell five people; and from what I’ve seen in the industry, this theory holds up.
 
The reverse is true though. If you release a game that has tie-ins or is of the same property of a blockbuster movie, it will generally do well. I suppose the best answer to the question is: Maybe. Basically, though, make a great game. Then, market it to your passionate audience. Then others who are a non-core potential audience will more-than-likely come to know about it naturally.
 
Hopefully. If not, and your core audience loves it, then that’s a great opportunity to then look into expanding the universe. It worked for Pokémon!

What advice would you give someone who wanted to enter into the gaming industry?
 
CJ: Make things. You may have the best idea in the world that will bring an incredible experience to the gaming world and change the industry forever. But if you cannot make it, no one will listen and it will go nowhere. Though you don’t have to make a fully working game to get your idea across.
 
If you’re an artist, show your idea through great art. If you’re a programmer, use technology in new and fantastic ways. If you’re a designer, develop a playable emulation of the intended experience. Make something that can be experienced. Get everyone you know to see it or play it. Take that feedback and iterate, iterate, iterate. Then show all of the steps between the start and finish. All failure, leanings, and successes, and be sure to explain how they shaped the end result.
 
This will be the start to a great portfolio. Also, only show your best work, not all of it. And put it online. 

Thanks so much for you time, Chris!

CJ: I just want to state that even though I represent whatever company I am working for, that my views and answers are fully independent, my own, and absolutely do not reflect those of my employer. There may be similarities, and there will be differences. In fact I’m sure that there will be interesting discussions generated from this, amongst my friends mostly. And I really do look forward to them – though only if they are intellectual debates that are “intentful” on being constructive with great learning on both sides of the table. You know, good vibes!

To see more work of Chris James and I.O. Interactive, you can visit the official site here.

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IO Interactive:
IO-Interactive (commonly abbreviated to IOI) is a Danish video game development company currently owned by Square Enix. The company was founded in September 1998 by the Reto-Moto development group. To date their most popular franchise is the critically acclaimed Hitman series. This team is also known for their references to their own games (such as 47 advertising clothes in Freedom Fighters or Kane & Lynch featuring several Hitman references such as a number 47 garage and 47 achievements). – Wiki

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The Author: Steve “Rifflo” Fitch – Legendarium News Director
Steve, also known as “Rifflo”, is a University MBA Administrator in Ontario Canada where he lives with his wife, Lisa and two young daughters, Alexa and Ava. Steve has an extensive background in corporate sales. Steve also worked for ISAF: International Security Assistance Force and the Canadian Military as a recruiter in Human Resources for the operations in Bosnia and Afghanistan. When not amerced in Tolkien works,sci-fi, and film, you can find him training in Muay Thai, Italian rapier, German longsword, and Mixed Martial Arts. Follow Steve on Twitter @HobbitSteve

About Steve "Rifflo" Fitch

Steve, also known as “Rifflo”, is a University MBA Administrator in Ontario Canada where he lives with his wife, Lisa and two young daughters, Alexa and Ava. Steve has an extensive background in corporate sales. Steve also worked for ISAF: International Security Assistance Force and the Canadian Military as a recruiter in Human Resources for the operations in Bosnia and Afghanistan. When not immersed in Tolkien works,sci-fi, and film, you can find him training in Muay Thai, and Italian rapier.