Career Blog Part 22

Year 9 2008 (continued)

At the time, SAW was being published by Brash Entertainment. They were a mediocre publisher that snapped up movie licenses and pushed out mediocre games based on them. We were determined to not be one of those games. However, unsurprising, it turns out that Brash is in financial trouble and they go out of business.

We suddenly found ourselves without a publisher. The powers that be start scrambling to find a new one for SAW. The game is about half complete and has to be picked up soon or else we'll miss our release window (when the next movie comes out). If we were to release a SAW game without a movie, only the SAW die-hards would even look at it. We wanted that movie to be our marketing so that people would have the SAW movie in their heads and would find our game and find an interest.

I'm not really sure if that's how it really works, but that's the common thought with this kind of stuff.

We are able to get rid of some stupid stuff that Brash was expecting from us, such as multi-player (it would have been bad, trust me), and focus on the single player experience. They were also pushing some very bad design choices that we were able to nix as well, so that was a relief.

However, as it turns out.... Zombie had to get rid of people if they wanted to stay in business without a publisher for our game. They promised that, if another publisher was found soon, we'd be offered our jobs back.

And I found myself without a job again, Christmas of 2008. :(

Year 10 2009

Konami to the rescue! They saw some sort of value in what we were working on, got the rights to publish, and funded the rest of development! After a month or so of unemployment, I was back at Zombie and cranking on SAW once again.

But still, SAW isn't really turning out too great. I'm disappointed as I really did feel that it could have been a really intense experience. I try to take pleasure in the fact that my work is getting showcased as much as it is, but at the same time, the perfectionist in me is really wanting to at least voice all of my concerns so that I can at least come away saying, "I told 'em!" as opposed to staying silent.

Over the rest of the project, I meticulously write bug reports for everything that I feel should be addressed. I mark them as "suggestions" or "low priority" where appropriate (as gameplay suggestions really aren't as high a priority as, say, bugs and crashes). While a few ideas are done, the vast majority are turned back as "Won't Fix."

Most of these problems stem from repetitiveness. We had several mini-games in SAW, but they were all used far too often. The mini-games themselves weren't all that original either. You had your "rotate tiles of tubes to get power to flow through the maze" minigame, you had your "match colors around a wheel" minigame, your "match pictures from memory" minigame... nothing that hadn't been seen before a dozen times.

But anyway, that was just how it was and I had no power to do anything about it. I do feel that, aside from the gameplay, we did get a good grasp of the feeling of dirty, rusty, dread that the SAW films do so well. The environments, lighting, and music all had that going for it. It was really a shame that the game itself wasn't all that great.

In October 2009, SAW will be released. Before it is, we all decide it'd be fun to have a betting pool. Everyone who plays along chooses a review score between 1-100 and if your score is the closest to the AVERAGE review score on sites like metacritic.com, you win the money that everyone contributes ($5 each). I throw my $5 in and choose the rather controversial score of 60. It's the lowest score that anyone on the team chooses and I get a bit of flack for it. Everyone has invested so much of their time into this game in the last 18 months that most people felt it was a 75-85 game at least. Some even scored it into the 90s.

I won the bet. The average score (at that time) was 62, I believe, and I was the closest. People are upset, but can't fault what people are saying... repetitive... bad combat... uninspired puzzles... and of course, it's a movie tie-in so "it must suck" mentality that is hard to fight.

NEXT:

So... sequel anyone?

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Career Blog Part 21

Year 9 2008 (continued)

The next trap I was tasked to work on was what was referred to as the IV trap. This trap had a lot of design elements put into it for a relatively complex puzzle. This time, I wasn't in the meetings involved in actually designing it, and just got the final notes with a few sketches. I thought I'd read through this design doc and try to walk through the puzzle in my head so that I could visualize what it was supposed to look like and feel like to the player. As I played the puzzle in my head, I noticed a few things... like what would happen if the player went in different directions then the designer thought? Or how was the player supposed to know how to even play this puzzle? And how does the player win anyway? These seemed like fundamental things that the designer must have known about, so I sent him an email.

I never really got a satisfactory answer for any of these things. He was busy designing other stuff and finally, after several email and in-person conversations, I just said, "whatever" and created the artwork. Low and behold, when it was play-tested, no one could ever beat it. Not even me, who made the thing! It was put on the backburner and I moved on.

While I never would tout myself as a great designer or anything, I thought I'd try mocking up some gameplay to see if they liked it. I had the advantage of the art skills so I figured I'd be able to get across what I was thinking by just showing it. Lock-picking was a large part of the game, and I knew people would be doing it often, so I started designing some lockpicking mini-games. I must have designed about 6 different mini-games where you used the two sticks to manipulate the picks and make it into a game to unlock the pins within the lock. Fallout 3 had already come out by this point, and I was impressed with their lockpicking game, so I didn't want to copy it. So my designs were a bit different from that.

While it was said that they liked them, none of them were ever used. Instead we went with some sort of color-match minigame that was on a wheel interface. I was disappointed, but oh well, I'm not the designer.

Batman: Arkham Asylum comes out and the design of the cryptographic sequencer is EXACTLY what I was trying to do... oh well.

Let me pause here and talk about the company and my input. When I was interviewed, I was specifically talked to about my ability to have input on a game. It was very encouraged for me to give ideas and critiques and so on. So, when I started working, I took that encouragement to heart. As I play-tested the game, if something felt off or was confusing, or if I just thought it was downright bad, I said so.

It seemed to get to a point, however, that I was viewed as a negative person. The designer even about bit my head off when I started talking to him about pacing and whatnot. Not that he felt pacing wasn't necessary, it's just that he didn't want to change the pacing that was there. Eventually, the designer left the team. I kept looking for his replacement but he never came. SAW just didn't have a designer any more.

That's not a good thing.

NEXT: Taking bets!

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Career Blog Part 20

Year 9 2008 (continued)

Let's begin by talking a little about SAW and how it relates to games. The core of the SAW franchise (at least at the beginning) is that it is all a game! Jigsaw, the villain, even refers to all of his endeavors as a game for those trapped within them. He develops these mechanically genius devices of torture as well as fiendishly clever mazes and booby trapped locations with puzzles and the whole 9 yards. Sounds like a video game to me! So, while I was turned off by the gore and the self-mutilation and torture, the "game" itself was something that I thought could make for a really interesting video game experience.

I was just an artist, though, so it really wasn't up to me! When I began working on SAW: The Game, I was simply developing props. My very first prop was a girder to be used on underground walls as supports.... nothing too exciting. My next prop was the tape recorder/player that has featured prominently in the films and it was a model I was rather proud of.

Coming off of Garden Defense and iWin's casual games as well as porting PS2 games to the PSP before at Buzz Monkey, I found I was a bit out of practice when it came to actually creating modern art assets! But I did get up to speed soon enough.

Not too long into development, the assignment of creating the first "trap" came to me. The traps, in the SAW franchise, are a pretty crucial component of the whole enchilada that is SAW, so it was a pretty cool distinction that I'd be able to make one. I was brought in on meetings and so forth about what the traps should be, how they should be done, etc. It became pretty obvious to me that this was going to be tricky. It seemed to me that there was no real consensus about how these traps should be handled, what the gameplay would be, and so on. As a lowly artist and not a designer or director, I stayed out of it mostly and tried to do what I was told. The result was a "back-breaker" table that a victim would be strapped to. Chains would be pulling the different components of the trap and the player would have to manipulate some sort of gear shifter contraption to somehow stop the trap from killing its victim.

To be honest, the end result of this trap was awful. Even my artwork was mediocre at best due to the very vague direction the design of the trap had. It was decided to put that trap on the backburner and for me to move on to something else while the designer worked out the kinks. My art director at the time thought I had done a pretty good job though, so he handed me the task of making the Reverse Bear Trap. The RBT was a very iconic trap from the SAW series. If you look up SAW, more then likely you'll find this trap. It was a helmet with large hinged teeth that would split a person's head in half when triggered. They had actually already gotten a model done by an artist they hired earlier but that artist literally quit after one day (his old studio offered him his job back with a raise... can't blame him!) so I got his left overs. I finished it up and they liked it. So that was good. But I wasn't very happy with it. I hoped to one day get another crack at it if time permitted.

Over the next couple months, I became the "trap guy" on the art team. Anything related to traps or puzzles or mini-games, I got the art assignment. I'll be honest, I think that's pretty cool! I'm not a big SAW fan, but if you're making art for a SAW game, doing the traps and puzzles is the meat of the art, in my opinion!

Next: My opinion gets me in hot water!

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Career Blog Part 19

Year 9 2008

So, unemployed, I get married to the love of my life. :) Luckily, before the wedding, I had an interview with Zombie Studios and accepted a position there that would begin when I returned from my honeymoon.

In February, I began my time at Zombie Studios in Seattle. Zombie is a studio that has been around for a long time. For a 3rd-party developer to have been around for that long, they essentially had to be a work-for-hire style studio. This can mean that many of the games they've done in the past haven't exactly been blockbusters. They are only just now actually starting to get the chance to break out and make their own IPs and show their muscle. So, their pedigree in the past hasn't exactly been eye-popping. Lots of military games and ports and stuff like that.

But when I came on, they had begun working on two titles: a military shooter and a horror game based on the SAW film franchise. I'll be honest, when I finished my interview, I was hoping that if I got the job, I'd be working on the shooter... SAW? No thanks.

So, on my first day, I started work on SAW. As someone who isn't that much of a fan of horror, I had never seen a SAW film. That had to change. I started watching them all (5 of them by that point).

...ugh...

BUT, I did see the potential of what a neat interactive experience could be had with such a premise, so I was hoping the game would take advantage of those potentials!

Fingers crossed!

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Career Blog Part 18

Year 8 2007 (continued)

In July of 2007, I bid adieu to Buzz Monkey Software and started the process of moving to the Seattle area. I began working for iWin, Division 90. iWin is a casual games hub, similar to Big Fish Games. Division 90 was a new content team they started. It was a small team, composed of 6 people including myself. I was to be the Senior Artist and would be creating the brunt of the 3D work. Not too long after I was hired, we hired a bunch of interns to do the "grunt work."

Div90's game was Garden Defense, a tower defense game for the casual games market. An army of insects were swarming gardens all over the neighborhood and it was up to you to place an array of insect-eating plants as well as repelling gadgets to stop them. Such gadgets included the bazooka-toting garden gnome and the quicksand-creating cherub statue fountain.

It was a fun little game and I enjoyed my time working on it. I created all of the insects, plants, and gadgets in the game. The other artist on the team (my art director) created all of the background gardens. We managed to get it done in about 6 months.

(You can play it free if you want, from iWin's site.)

Around late November, we started brainstorming new ideas for our next project. I was enjoying the camaraderie of a small team again and actually creating art, even though the art wasn't super complicated or at all pertinent to the hardcore market. After a week or so of thinking up ideas, in early December, we got the news.

We were all laid off.

To put it mildly, this was a shock. It was the first time I was laid off with no warning or even any thought of the possibility. I was getting married in two months! I had just bought a house a few months ago! Christmas is coming! What am I going to do?

NEXT: Zombies! No foolin'!

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Career Blog Part 17

Year 7 2006 (Continued)

After NFL Street 3, I immediately got reassigned to the Tomb Raider Anniversary team. They had already been working on the game for a good 6-10 months, having started on it pretty soon after Tomb Raider Legend. Buzz Monkey was working with Crystal Dynamics to create the game, just as they had done with Legend. Crystal worked on the majority of the game design and characters, while we did most of the levels and all of the port work to other platforms, such as the... sigh.... PSP. I should also mention that we ported the game to the Wii and redid all of the characters ourselves to work with the Wii's much different graphics limitations. My buddy Jon Rush did a lot of that work.

As for me, I was 99% of the time porting the main PS2 levels to work with the PSP, much like I had done with Street 3. There's not a lot to say about it really. I pretty much ported about 50% of the game to the PSP. This isn't as easy as simply saving a file to another file format. I had to go through and decrease the polycounts of everything by a significant factor as well as create new, smaller textures to create the same effects as the larger game.

For the main game, I created myself 2 environments from scratch. A small underwater tunnel and a very large cave environment. I also created the art for a Challenge map that was eventually cut from the game. The cave and challenge map can be seen in my website portfolio for those interested.

It was during this time that I met my wife. :) We dated long-distance for over a year and eventually, I knew that my time at Buzz Monkey had to end. I started looking for a job closer to her and, one day, found one!

Year 8 2007

After about 8 months of working on Anniversary porting the game to the PSP, I sent in my two weeks notice and prepared to move to Washington, one state north of my location in Oregon. I had gotten a job at a small casual game startup. It was risky, but it got me to where I wanted to be... with my future wife!

NEXT: Casual games!?

NOTE: Sorry for the lack of updates.I just got a new job and it's been taking up a lot of my time! I guess that nets me some new material for this blog, eh?

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Career Blog Part 16

Year 7 2006 (continued)

Buzz Monkey was a great studio to work for. They took employee appreciation very seriously and made sure that everyone was well taken care of and that there were plenty of fun things to do on a regular basis. While it wasn't fun-fun-fun 24/7, they did enough that made it feel like a more close-knit team then it could have been with such a large number of people. For instance, they had a semi-regular outdoor fun day on a Saturday where they would team up and compete in a Nerd version of a Decathlon. Instead of crazy Olympic events, there'd be Frisbee golf or bowling. They also had a company-wide retro game tournament where the winners would get prizes. Things like that. Not to mention that with every shipped title, they held a Ship Party like I mentioned before. They'd give tokens of appreciation to all of the team members, and even better, with nearly every shipped title, you'd get a small salary increase. All sorts of things made Buzz Monkey a great studio to work in.

For NFL Street, after completing my warehouse "stadium" I was tasked with another stadium set in Alcatraz. However after a week or so, it was scrapped. I then got tasked with making another stadium set on the island of Catalina. It was actually going pretty well and I had it mostly completed when I got the news that instead of making the field for the PS2, it should be converted to the PSP. The PSP, at that time, wasn't as powerful as it is today as Sony had yet to "unlock" the system's capabilities. So I was forced to scrap a lot of the work on my Catalina field and it didn't really turn out that great.

That was the only real art I made for NFL Street 3, as the rest of the time, I was porting other people's fields from their PS2 versions to the PSP. As an artist, you might can understand that it's not very desirable to work on someone else's stuff, but it's often required. I eventually ported every field to the PSP!

Next: Tomb Raider!

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Career Blog Part 15

Year 7 2006 (continued)

I hired a moving company to ship the majority of my stuff and I packed my car as much as it would fit and made my way. The trip took 3 days of constant driving! Drove through Texas, through New Mexico and Arizona, and into the Los Angeles area. Then started north all the way up California, through the mountains that separate the two states, and finally into Oregon. I made it on Sunday, the day before my job started! Took all day unpacking my car and getting that stuff set up. It'd take another week before the rest of my junk arrived.

The next day I officially began the day as a Buzz Monkey Software Environment Artist!

My first project was NFL Street 3. Now I'm not the biggest sports game fan (I like sports, just don't like sports games) so I didn't know what I would feel about it going in, but I came to realize that, while I didn't necessarily like the game, I DID enjoy working on it. My first task was to create one of the 8 "stadiums".

The NFL Street series was like a successor to NFL Blitz from the old arcade days. Smaller teams, limited rules, crazy tackles and acrobatics. Not "serious" football at all. So the stadium I worked on was a warehouse. The game would be on the floor of the warehouse with tall shelves of boxes and machinery all around.

I was nervous! The only projects I had worked on before that were fantasy, sci-fi, and more fantasy; so to do a "realistic" style was something I hadn't done in a while. But they gave me several weeks, and I learned a ton! In addition to creating the stadium, I had to also port it to the PSP version of the game as well, which meant creating a much lower poly, smaller texture memory version.

In one of my first few weeks working there, they had a ship party for completing work on Tomb Raider Legend. Even though I had nothing to do with that title, I was an employee, so of course I could attend. It was the first such part I had ever been to! NONE of the games I had worked on prior to this had ever shipped, so of course I never had a ship party! It was so great to see that, yes, it COULD be done! Everyone who was on that team all got these awesome decorative swords with the buzz monkey logo on the hilt and a good time was had by all.

The best thing I took from that party was the knowledge that at Buzz Monkey... games got made! But more importantly, games got FINISHED!

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Career Blog Part 14

Year 7 2006 (continued)

I arrived in Eugene, Oregon to interview at Buzz Monkey Software in early February. They are a mid-level studio, not tiny like Fever Pitch, but not gigantic either. They had about 50-60 people at the time. They were wrapping up work on Tomb Raider Legend for the PSP and were ramping up work on a sports game for the PS2. I talked to lots of people all day, art leads, engineers, junior artists, lead designers, etc. It took all day! They took me out for lunch and dinner and set me up in a hotel for the night. The next day, the interviews continued until around the afternoon when I had to start thinking about getting back to the airport to head back. The art director, Barry, asked me what I thought and I had to admit that I was still thinking that moving all the way up here just seemed crazy, but I didn't say that of course!

I just said that everything looked really cool and went along with the idea that, if it really comes down to it, I could always just say no to an offer. Typically, I wouldn't actually get an offer until several days after the interview process, so I wasn't anticipating getting one while I was there. Barry eventually got around to asking me what kind of salary I would want. I don't mind talking turkey about the past... probably shouldn't disclose my *current* info, I suppose, although, I guess a lot can be inferred from what I'm going to say... but whatever.

Anyway, in Texas, I was making around $40,000 a year. Not a lot, but not bad for a single guy with a handful of years of experience. I had looked into the northwest enough to know that the cost of living up there was a bit higher then Texas, so I said that I'd like to make around $50,000. Not a bad increase, right?

He kinda swiveled in his chair, smirked at me and said, "How about $60,000?"

It took all I had to not fall out of my chair! I just remember kinda stammering a little and saying "That... that's good too!"

Needless to say, I took the job right then and there. I would be starting in March! I had a few weeks to figure out how the heck I was going to get to Oregon from Texas, but I would figure it out!

Next - New job!

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Career Blog Part 13

Year 7 - 2006

As 2006 began, I found myself out of work for the first time since joining the game industry. (Don't forget my first job at Walrus back in 2000 wasn't actually games, that's why the distinction on my part.) Remembering how long it took me to get the first job at Fever Pitch, I wasn't very happy about my chances. However, this time around, I had 3+ years of experience and a professional portfolio that I could show off, as opposed to neither! I submitted resumes to practically every studio in the Austin area, hoping that I could get something relatively quickly and within the same area that I lived. But winter seems to be a really bad time to try to find a job in the game industry.

Most games are scheduled to ship during the summer or for Christmas. This means those projects are actually completed in the spring and summer respectively. So, during winter, most projects are probably already in full swing. (There are exceptions of course, but this seems to be the majority of my own experience when hunting for new jobs!)

I applied to what jobs there were out there and found many to be beyond my experience level or expertise. During my time at Fever Pitch, I had worn many hats... modeling, texturing, rigging, animation, particle effects. But I wasn't an "Animator" persay. I wasn't a "Texture Artist". So, jobs for those specific types of duties proved rather elusive for me. I managed to get an interview at Junction Point Studios, and had an interview with Warren Spector himself! That was quite an awesome experience. He commented that I was rather "green" in the industry to have already had a Lead Artist position, so I talked to him about that experience and about the game industry in general. I didn't know it at the time, but they were ramping up to start Epic Mickey. I didn't get the job though. Even though Epic Mickey kinda tanked, I would have loved to work with Warren and have had that experience!

But oh well...

For the rest of the month, I had nada! I lived as I could on unemployment and continued hunting for that elusive second job. February began and I continued the hunt. I decided that I should probably start looking outside of Austin, as it didn't look like I was going to have an easy time getting back into a studio there. So, I started looking for anything I qualified for around the country. One of those studios was Buzz Monkey Software in Oregon! They contacted me and, even without an art test (whew!) wanted to fly me up for an interview! I was excited, but rather daunted at the idea of moving so far away. My family were all within driving distance of Austin, so the idea of moving 3000 miles away... wow, seemed out of the question. But I wasn't going to say "no" to an interview, and I flew up! 
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