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Scott Compton
Interviewed by Sylvia Leung

I met Scott when he commissioned me for some artwork. Fate had us living in the same city so we met, hung out, and became friends. He has not only enriched my life as a friend, but also taught me many things about the nature of the gaming industry and life. Id like to share with everyone his experience, knowledge, and humor.

Since I was 8 years old, I've played video games but never thought that I would end up designing them. Early influences such as the Atari 2600, Dungeons and Dragons and the Commodore 64 rewired my brain without me knowing it. By the time high school and college hit, I decided I wanted to become a biologist although I had been experimenting with my own designed role-playing games with friends. One day at work in the Stanford Biology department, I decided to play around with HTML and after a few weeks, I learned how it worked. I decided to reformat one of my role-playing games online for people to access free. After managing a huge database of MSDS forms containing about every chemical on campus, it hit me that I may have the skills to make video games instead of paper-written ones. On my first interview in the Video Game industry, I went to this unknown company called SquareUSA. Little did I know that they were extremely famous.

They hired me on as a 'video game designer' and said that I did not need to know any 3D tools for the project I was to start work on: Parasite Eve. Over the next two years, I had an awakening into video games and absorbed all of the nomenclature, jargon, and really what it takes to be a 'designer.' In a sense, I was lucky. Most designers already had some experience with 3D programs like Max or Maya, or had been testing games for years. For my first video game, I built everything in a database and programmers constructed a special programming code with us to make the game function.

After the game was completed, I went onto another videogame company called Kronos Digital Entertainment. They wanted me to help with the design of an animation-intensive martial arts game called Okuden. This game was quite different than the cinematic action-adventure Parasite Eve I had just completed. Once again, I found myself learning new things such as a 3D program called Power Animator on SGI machines.

But as game projects go with the politics involved, Kronos stopped production on Okuden and put the team upon another game called "Fear Factor" at that time, which was later renamed "Fear Effect." Chalk up another two years and Fear Effect was finally released on Playstation. Just a year later, Fear Effect 2: Retrohelix was designed, implemented and completed. But during the production process of Fear Effect 3: Inferno, our publisher stopped funding for internal reasons and Kronos Digital decided to also stop production and turn to making other game demos to attract other publishers.

In the course of 8 months, I had helped the conceptual designed another 6 games until Kronos ran out of money. With about 8 years of experience behind me, I quickly found work at Climax, where I am working on several confidential projects at this time.

Q: What does your job really mean? What exactly do you do for a game?

There are many breeds of game designers, and there is no set rule what a designer does because every game is different with a different design. Some companies use the same technologies over and over, which helps to define what a designer might do on a game, but often times each game project is unique and it is up to the designer to figure out what needs to happen to see the design come to level. Typically, some companies define differences.

Some are called 'level designers' with a specialty in building worlds and figuring out how a player proceeds through the world. Often, a level designer will first sketch out everything in a level and then implement that design in a 3D program. Some designers specifically work on the combat engine and figure out how the PC and enemies interact and function. Similarly, some 'battle designers' also have a programming background and might even write a little bit of code or scripts to make things function. Other designers might work on the camera systems if the game is done in a 3rd person point of view. There are even a few designers who only develop and sell their concepts on paper to a publisher and get paid for it, similar to a screenplay writer selling a script. But if a designer has been in the industry long enough, a designer needs to fill in all of the gaps and learns how to do everything from writing design documents to implementing every last detail into a game using a wide range of tools, hardware, and software programs. Eventually designers may get promoted to a 'creative director' type of position, which often is a little less hands-on when implementing the game (such as working in a database or 3D tools) and more focused on writing design documentation and making sure desired concepts are brought to completion.

Q: What do you have to keep in mind at all times when developing?

Developing a game is a team effort. Everyone is part of the entire collective. We are Borg. But a designer is a Borg with focus. It is extremely important to make sure personal desires come last to the desires of the team. Sure we have good insights, but the more a designer can communicate with the artists and programmers on a team, the better a project will be in the long run.

Q: What's the most challenging part of developing/designing a game? Restrictions?

Believe it or not, the most challenging part is to lock down ideas and to focus on exactly what a game is suppose to be about. When the conceptual part is known, everything falls into place for the artists and the programmers because there is common ground. Projects will shift during development, it's only natural, but if the design is solid up front, then very little has to shift as a game is made. Restrictions of game design have to do with the platform (memory issues, etc.) and programmers on staff. Everyone wants to make a game look pretty, but if a game is too pretty, often times the design suffers because of compromises that happen behind the scenes. For instance, if I want to make a monster really detailed and pretty, I might only be able to show 2 monsters on screen before the game becomes unplayable. In many instances, I would rather have 10 monsters on screen and average looking than 2 monsters that are really pretty because I can make the game more interactive and challenging to a player. Therefore, knowing the technology used for the game and having good communication with the programmers is essential.

Q: How do you engage the player with the characters in game? How you get the player to relate to the characters? (or is that even part of your job?)

Yes, as another issue of a designer, we often write dialog for storyboards. Also, we design out how a PC, NPC, or enemy animates to portray a certain emotion or expression. Breaking down movies is part of a game designer's life. We are encouraged to go watch things that evoke strong emotions, whether that is happiness, fear, anger, etc. The more we can dive into the human psyche, the more ammunition we have to design emotions into a game to help relate to a player. Additionally, other forms of art help the suspension of disbelief when the lighting is good, characters look real, and textures are stylized.

Q: How different it is to work for a big company like Squaresoft when compared to Kronos?

It was night and day. Squaresoft is Japanese run with a system of hierarchy in place. As a designer, ideas have to go through more channels. Often times, it's hard to speak freely because of 'seniority.' Kronos was exactly opposite. Everyone is encouraged to express his or her ideas freely and candidly. Strangely enough, both methods have their problems. If there is too much expression, then it is hard to decide upon any one thing and more time is wasted. Not having enough expression, employees may feel frustrated. Just like in life, everything needs balance.

Q: Any advice and/or tips for people who might want to follow in your footsteps?

Play every kind of game under the sun beyond video games (including board games, dice games, card games, role playing games, etc.) and start figuring out how things are done and designed. Break them down into their individual components to see why design decisions were made. Subscribe to the Game Developer magazine, which can be found at gamasutra.com. This is a very specialized industry magazine that everyone reads. Start attending E3 and the Game Developer's Conference. Learn 3D programs--it is very hard to avoid it these days but nearly essential at some point. Getting a degree in science, film, or liberal arts with focus on writing is probably a plus. You don't need to major in game design if you can learn programs on your own and gaming is already your hobby. For instance, pick up Neverwinter Nights, have a plan and design out a level with the toolset, objectives for the level, etc. This is very similar to what the rest of us do and a good start. Keep playing games...


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