Thursday, May 13, 2010

Ancient History

Airmid asked a question that I (and I'm sure many other designers before and after me) have had to contend with in the course of their careers. "What would you do to help a content designer who is not completely familiar with the history of a game but has great intentions however marred by inaccuracies as they may be?" Short answer: he needs to do his homework.

Now for the longer answer...

We all know the saying about good intentions and the road to Hell. Depending on the game and the length of its history, I believe you should set some realistic goals as far as how much catching up you can do and then go at it. In a game like UO, there is simply no way someone who just started working on it (and never played it before) will ever be able to grasp the full depth of UO's history and legacy. That doesn't mean they shouldn't try nor should they feel defeated by the enormity of the challenge.

History is just that. Something that happened in the past and no longer is. The new designers shouldn't try to replicate the past but feed off of it. Learn from its successes and mistakes to give the game their own fresh new spin. History is a tool to help understand the community and the vision that drove the designers of old.

The developing studio and the veteran members of the team are often a wealth of information on the game. In a game like UO that has traveled so much and with so many changes in Dev Teams, information gets lost. But in truth, I always found that the greatest information actually came from the fan sites. And I have first hand experience of that.

In late November 2008, Draconi had told me that as soon as I was done with the Christmas gifts and events, I was going to scale down my involvement in Live to really focus on developing content for the Stygian Abyss expansion. He asked me what exactly did I know about the Stygian Abyss. And as I started fumbling through a lame answer, I realized that I didn't know didely squat about SA and not that much more about the Ultima Series because it has always been about UO for me.

I was beyond embarrassed and angry at my own ignorance. Draconi was very gracious about it. He didn't understand why I was beating myself up over it and very patiently gave me a quick run down of the story and asked me to start thinking of what kind of content I could come up with for it. Well, I felt humiliated and angry because I should have known better. Because I had known for over 5 months already that I would be joining the effort on the SA expansion. I should have asked myself that question long ago and done something about it. I should have been proactive, but I had not.

Guess what I did over the Holidays? I pulled up every web page, every fan site I could find on SA. Even got a copy of the game, but it wouldn't run on any of my PCs. By the time the Holidays were over, I knew the darn thing backward and forward and could even have filled some of the blanks for Draconi. Having finally done my homework not only made my job much easier, I was more help to my Lead as well and it gave me tons of inspiration for the content I developed (including the pushme-pullyou statuette for the stealable items).

Not every game has such a devoted community as UO does. But most online games (and even offline ones) have very well documented fan sites with old quests, world scenario walkthroughs, skill training guides, template discussions, game history, you name it. A designer that truly wishes to learn is only limited by how much time he's willing to invest towards that achievement. First, he needs to play the game. Second, read up everything he can get his hands on (again, set a schedule with realistic goals and milestones). Talk with the players. I have a few UO friends that are walking UO bibles and databases.

You can't learn everything about a game with a long history over night. But with genuine, reasonably paced effort, no mountain is too high.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Day One

There's nothing like starting a new job. I don't know if you're like me, but the night prior, even though I know Day One is usually mostly uneventful, I inevitably get a sleepless night of tossing and turning and reminding myself how not to mess up. And then the day is over and you're like "what the heck was I so nervous about?". But sometimes, like today, you get your first test which could very well set the tone for the next weeks, months or even the remainder of your stay at that specific job.

In truth, I kinda hate Day One. First, morning sucks big time. It's the never ending HR paperwork, presentations and what not, going over benefits, bla bla bla (yawn) then visiting the studio. To be fair, it was exciting the first time when I was discovering some cool and unexpected benefits. But in my case, I left EA in the US to join EA in Montreal (GO HABS, GO!). I had already visited the Montreal Studio, I already knew what the benefits were (though there are some minor differences, especially because of our different healthcare system) and I had already gone through the presentation about EA and its history. It was interesting though watching the reaction and excitement of the true newcomers.

But I was itching to meet my new team, settle into my new workspace and get cracking on the project!

Then came afternoon and I got my wish! WOOT!

I must say that I love smaller teams. That was one of the great things about UO (despite the downsides that also comes with it). But I find them so much more efficient than huge teams. There's less dicking around waiting for everyone and their brother (not to mention the janitor) to give their 2 cents about everything, only to get back to square one because we couldn't get a clear majority on anything :P

Small teams are all the greater when the members have compatible personalities. So far, it sure seems that way (did too during the interview). I'm keeping my fingers (heck even my toes!) crossed that it stays that way!

I was itching to get cracking, and cracking I got! After the smooth sail of the orientation morning and friendly lunch with the producer, I got my first assignment. Three hours later, the executive producer came knocking to see how I was doing so far. We have big week in perspective and what I'm working on will play a non-negligible part of it. My breath catches, I swallow painfully as my heart starts beating erratically.

Moment of truth...

He will either think I'm brilliant or wonder why the heck he hired such a moron. I guess I could settle for a third option where he thinks I'm alright. But who wants to settle? :(

Both the executive producer and the producer are standing in the room staring expectantly at me. I dive in and start giving my spiel. By the time I'm halfway through, I get an approving nod. I breathe a little better. My monologue then turns into a 3-way brainstorm expanding on one of the suggestions I had proposed to resolve an issue. By the time we're done, the executive producer tells me with a smile to keep doing what I'm doing then they both leave.

It lasted barely 10 minutes though it seemed like forever. Then the weight of the world got lifted off my shoulders.

In the end, I don't know whether they thought I was brilliant or not and frankly it doesn't matter. I realized at that moment that as long as they don't think I'm a moron, I will gladly settle for doing alright :P