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Computer games stopped being ‘just for nerds’ a long time ago. As a male in my 20s, I can’t remember a time in my life when it was ever considered nerdy to go around to a mate’s place and spend an afternoon bashing away at the controller buttons. Hell, I’d go as far as to say that if you pitted the humble Mario Kart 64 cartridge against AFL football to see which one has helped found the most friendships since 1996, Mario would easily mushroom-boost over the line ahead. What has changed over the past few years, however, is the idea that almost everyone now seems to think video games are pretty great. Thousands of next-generation titles have been designed to cater to everyone from your sister’s best friend to your Great-Uncle Joe, not to mention the fact that traditional role-playing games (RPGs) and adventure formats have been continuing to make astonishing leaps ahead in gameplay and design. We certainly seem to be entering the ‘golden age of the game’. In light of this I chat with Dave Adams, general manager of Vigil Games (now under the THQ banner), a game studio based in Austin (Texas, US), to hear his thoughts about the industry and find out what goes into making a highly anticipated console release.
As the general manager, what does a typical day in the office actually entail?
A typical day sees everyone head down, doing their job. Making a game is three percent cool brainstorms, debates and sharing ideas, and 97 percent hard work. Programmers spend their days figuring out why the latest piece of code they worked on isn’t quite doing what they wanted, or is running horribly slowly. Artists spend the day modelling/texturing pillars or boots or heads (or whatever). The designers may be working up a spec on some game system to give to a programmer or running through a level making sure the character will re-spawn in the appropriate place regardless of where they die. These are just some examples, but there are a million little tasks that go on each day and contribute to the making of a game.
Personally, I spend a lot of time reviewing parts of the game or new pieces of functionality and then providing feedback to the people working on those aspects of the game so that we can iterate and improve on the game’s overall experience. Every once in a while you have the good days where everything comes together and you are all sitting in an office together giving high-fives because something you did was awesome.
How does a game actually get from the drawing board to our screen – where do you start?
The first thing you have to do is formulate a plan of attack. From my experience, those plans have about a one percent survivability rating, meaning that by the time you finish what you started, 99 percent of it has changed. Despite that, you still need the plan – it’s kind of like building a brick house, at some point you have to lay the first brick, and that first brick is the plan. From there, it’s a bunch of iteration: doing stuff, playing it, changing it, playing it again etc… and you do this until you have the secret sauce. Every project I’ve worked on has that moment where it all clicks and you think: ‘OK, cool, this works – this is the formula that is going to make the game great’ – that’s the secret sauce. Once you have that formula, building the rest of the game becomes more about organisation, managing resources (both people and time) etc… You still do a lot of iterating and tweaking to make the game great along the way, but if you got the sauce right to start with, it makes building the rest of the game more predictable – because through it all you can take comfort in the fact that you know the sauce is good.
Game design has obviously progressed in leaps and bounds since the early days, so what are some of the most impressive or aesthetically-pleasing innovations you’ve seen in terms of game design in recent years?
I see game development as a holistic process – it relies on good game play, graphics, sound, technology etc. It’s hard to say one thing is more important than the other. I’ve often heard people say: ‘The graphics don’t matter, it’s all about the gameplay’, but that’s not entirely true. Graphics are just the visual representation of the evolution of games in general. As graphics improve, so do all other aspects of a game – design, sound, etc.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint a single thing though, and it seems like it is all constantly changing. Every time a new graphics technology comes out, or a new console, or some new game design paradigm, I sit back and go: ‘Dang, that’s amazing!’ It’s going to sound cheesy, but for me one of the most impressive aspects of the art of game development is the fact that it is constantly evolving. Unlike some art forms (painting or writing, for instance), the tools available for building games are always improving and growing.
What was it that first really got you passionate about gaming? Did you have a favourite game growing up?
Growing up I played pretty much anything – pen and paper RPGs, board games, arcade games… everything. My first encounter with a video game system (aside from a Pong machine my parents picked up at some point) was the Atari 2600 – a friend of the family had one and I was instantly enthralled. I never owned one personally, but I played the crap out of that thing every time we visited that family.
The next big thing was the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) – which I wasn’t even aware existed until I went to a friend’s house and saw them playing Super Mario Bros. I was floored. I had to have one! I begged and pleaded with my parents until they finally caved and got me one. I would definitely say that the NES system is what really sparked my interest in video games – Super Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Kid Icarus, Dragon Warrior… I could go on forever. It was like a renaissance of games, and I was doing and playing things I had never dreamed possible. It was amazing.
What ultimately led you to decide to pursue a career in game development? How did you go about becoming the GM of a big studio?
Aside from a brief desire to be an airline pilot, which lasted until I was around 12, I’ve always wanted to work on games. The initial thing I did when I got my first computer was to sit down and figure out BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) programming so I could make my own games. Before I knew it, I was making my own text adventure games, and then eventually primitive RPGs. I don’t think there was any conscious decision behind it; it was something I enjoyed doing in my free time. So when it came time to get a job and make a living, game development was a natural choice. I went to school to be a programmer, and ended up getting my degree in computer systems engineering, which is sort of like programming, but not.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter. I knew from an early age that I wanted to work on games, and getting the degree was more of a formality than anything. I published my first game in college before I had even finished getting my degree. I spent the bulk of my early career in the games industry working for myself – first self-publishing through shareware, then getting one of those games ‘officially’ published, and finally working my way through NCsoft and then on to founding Vigil – which was then acquired by THQ.
What do you like most or least about working as a game developer?
One of the most satisfying aspects of game development is having an idea and then having the expertise, the time and the people to bring that idea to life. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing something finally come together. It’s a lot of hard work, and frustration, but ultimately when you are sitting there playing the fruits of your labour – and it’s fun – there is no better feeling.
Conversely, game development has its fair share of downers. At the end of the day it’s still a job – you work a lot, deal with a bunch of crap and then what you do may or may not work out, forcing you to accept that something isn’t as good as it can be, or you have to completely redo it – neither of which is much fun. The key for me is to always keep that end product in mind. You have to have faith that, despite any problems you have along the way, the end result will be worth it. For me, it always is.
What has been the most memorable and rewarding game project you’ve worked on?
Definitely Darksiders. It’s the first console game I’ve worked on and, as someone who began his love affair with games playing legends like Super Mario and Zelda, working on a console game felt like coming home.
Can you tell us a bit more about Darksiders? What sets it apart from other adventure games?
I think one of the greatest aspects of Darksiders is the sheer variety of things you do through the course of the game. For me, an adventure game is all about exploring, discovery and diversity. It means that at every turn you make, every rock you overturn rewards you with something cool and interesting. In this respect, I think that Darksiders is a true action/adventure game. You fight through an apocalypse on earth, explore a demon ravaged city, fly a griffon, ride a horse, shoot demon guns, fight angels, solve puzzles, swing around like Spider-Man, fight giant ash worms, punch around subway cars, swim through submerged tunnels, throw cars, purchase new powers and abilities, consort with demons… I could literally go on for several more paragraphs and still not cover everything you do in the game. Oh and you get to play one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse – how cool is that?
The current generation of consoles has seen a marked change in gaming habits with social, party and online options making for a much bigger impact; where do you see the future of gaming heading?
Hah! I’m not much of a prognosticator. I think the only thing I can predict for certain is that games will become more and more prevalent. Every time a new gaming segment is established – be it online, social, party or guitar playing – it only serves to grow the gaming audience overall. It’s not like people are going to stop playing RPGs because a bunch of people have suddenly discovered Facebook games.
Do you ever think online and downloadable games might overtake consoles completely, or do you think they will keep fostering each other?
I think console makers will want online and downloadable games on their systems (and they are all taking bigger and bigger measures to make this happen), so I don’t see one cannibalising the other. As a huge console gamer there is no substitute for sitting down on the couch and immersing myself in some awesome new game experience. I also play my fair share of online/iPhone/web games, and so I can honestly say that none of them are a good substitute for another. I think there is room for all, and that they will just build off each other by making gamers out of more and more people.
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists/game developers?
Be prepared to work your arse off. As I said earlier, making games is a lot of work; however, if you are passionate about games it can be one of the most satisfying jobs imaginable. There is no greater feeling than making something from nothing, and then having thousands – and possibly millions – of people share in that creation. If making games is your passion, there are also plenty of opportunities to get a taste of the development process on a smaller scale. There must be hundreds of games out there with released editors – all of them giving you the power to build your own experiences using shipped game engines. This is a great way to get your feet wet, see what you can do and get a sense of what games development is all about. DT
Images copyright THQ
From Desktop magazine.