How did you get into the industry?
At the time I interviewed at Raven as a QA tester, I was in the process of leaving another job in the Computer Science industry. The interview went well and I started my game career as a QA Tester the day after I left my other job.
In my spare time while working at Raven, I worked on level design using UDK and MW1 Radiant. Since my computer at home was not able to run UDK, I would come to work early and leave late working on my mods. About three months working at Raven, a job posting came up for a senior level designer. I quickly applied and was rejected because my work wasn’t good enough.
David Fifield, the design director at Raven, gave me the advice to focus on building in Radiant if I wanted to be a level designer at Raven. Around the same time I was given access to the Raven version of Radiant for my QA duties. I shifted my focus from UDK to Radiant, building a MP level centered on a large arch (modeled after the Arc de Triumphe). I also entered a few design challenges on Mapcore and World of Level Design. What I really focused on was getting feedback on the designs I was building.
I remember the day the Design Intern position was posted on the Raven website: I was currently entered in a contest on World of Level Design, had started a project at home that involved scripting with Radiant and the MP map. For a month, I sprinted to finish all three projects for their respective deadlines, working more than eighty hours a week (because I still had the QA Tester job). It was all worth it because I found out two weeks later that I was one of the new Design Interns at Raven.
Ever since my cousin showed me some levels he made for Doom 2 back in 1996, it clicked for me that I wanted to make video games for a living. Since then, all my notebooks have been covered in layouts, sketches of cool buildings, and random design thoughts.
I started out making levels for Half-Life in 1999-2000, specifically for a mod called Sven Coop. My most successful level of this period was a graveyard with endless hordes of zombies spawning. I mostly focused on model editing in the ensuing years. I really got into Team Fortress 2 in 2007 and began building levels for that, talking with other modders and making friends, eventually culminating with Valve buying a level I had contributed work to, cp_steel. My bud Jamie Manson who made it was offered a job at Splash Damage, working on Brink.
From there, I moved into Left 4 Dead 1 and 2, closed beta testing the authoring tools with two other people and giving direct feedback to Valve. Around this time Treyarch sent me a message and asked if I had a portfolio available for them to see. I bought a website and threw together a portfolio in a week, which was enough to get a phone interview and a level test. While I was applying for the Treyarch job, I noticed Raven had an opening at the same time.
Raven to me always had this reputation of having a foot inside the mod community and a foot inside the industry. I kept hearing about people getting hired for their mod work, and never thought they’d even respond to my application. A few weeks later Treyarch came back and said no, and the week after that Raven asked for a phone interview. Treyarch let me send over my level test, and Raven offered me an internship a little bit later.
I had worked on some projects remotely with some groups in the past, but I would say that my career started here at Raven as a QA Tester. That job was very helpful in getting an idea for the subject matter we were working on and also gave a window into understanding the inner workings of Raven’s production pipeline and the people working in various areas.
When I saw that Raven was hiring Design Interns, I decided to take a leap and apply. Raven issued me a design test and for 2 weeks all I would do after coming home from QA Testing was work on my Design Test. I knew that my degree in Computer Animation would help me in working towards building my level, but the engine’s tools were still new to me and it took some time to figure them out.
I also had the benefit of my QA knowledge which I definitely put to use in my Design Test when I could. The test was less stressful because I knew the preferred manner that things should respond and where certain game mechanics were expected, and whenever I was stumped or unsure about whether or not I liked something, I’d look for feedback to see what others thought.
Some days after I turned in the test, I was asked into a meeting room where I was offered an intern position. I gladly accepted.
What is it really like being a Design Intern?
Being a Design Intern is an amazing experience. Initially the three of us were thrown into a frat house section of cubicles where we built our own levels to learn the tools and then collaborated on a level together. Learning to work together and balance our ideas on a three way see-saw was nuts (we all took turns hating an idea) and not normally how building a MP level is done, but it was great team experience. Then Raven MP designers would play the map and give feedback: “I didn’t like that cover there”; “I wish I had an overlook here”; “I have line of sight all the way down that lane.” It was our choice to make a change or leave the level as is. Around three months, we were assigned out to mentors to work on different projects.
I was assigned to the SP team and started on the ground floor of a new project. I worked with my mentor on building the terrain and the layout of the buildings for the first two weeks. Then I was assigned by the project lead the last fourth of the map to script, design the experience and build the terrain. At every point of the project, I would show my plans or what I built to my mentor and the other designers for feedback on how to improve the experience. They would do the same and I felt involved in every decision as I was able to give feedback on their sections of the map.
On top of this I had “tests”. Each test I did would deal with certain aspect of design. The most involved was a combat test: I was given a partially built level and was told to script combat in it. After I did scripted combat, I was told to script an event (which became helicopter support through the middle part of the level). Eventually it became a full five minute level including special FX, ambient noise, drones, helicopters and explosions.
I was moved to MP, where I was apprenticed to Mike Renner and worked as an extra set of hands on a multiplayer map, doing clipping, portalling, and game mode design. Once the work there was done I was shifted to working with Chris Foster in the same capacity on a different level.
That ended right as the new MP pitches were happening, which my boss David Fifield encouraged me to participate in (adding a dash of Merboth Awesome Sauce as he called it). I was able to pitch a few ideas and started work on my own level, working shoulder to shoulder with the senior designers.
I would say that being a design intern is easily what you make out of it. You’re given real work while you’re here at Raven and it’s up to you to put your best foot forward and make something out of it. It’s not all on your own though.
In my experience, my co-workers whether they be designers or artists themselves have been really helpful in answering my questions whether it’s a question on how the best way to script a certain sequence is or what the best tool to use is to get a desired effect. I do my best to not bother them all the time and a lot of learning I’ve done on my own just looking through various content associated with the content.
The whole experience has been very informative and enjoyable for me. I would say that the best part about the job is knowing that I am contributing to the project that we’re working on in a productive way and that somewhere down at the end of the road others will get to enjoy it.
What do designers do?
The best way to describe what a SP Designer does is that they are responsible for building the experience much like a writer or director does: they decide what goes where and when. Why does a battle happen here and not there? Why does the helicopter come in here? How does the level end? While there is sliding scale of skills a SP Designer has, a majority of their job is scripting, followed closely by building environments, and some project management to get the assets from Art and Animation they need to build the level and the experience they want.
A MP designer is responsible for taking an idea for a multiplayer level from conception to completion, constantly tweaking spawn distances, engagement locations, and even rotating/moving cover a few degrees to kill unwanted angles. It’s most equivalent to balancing several ideas on a point, and more often than not we swing too far in one direction. It’s all about finding that middle ground that makes ideas work, and the satisfaction you solved that problem in every aspect.
What is your most and least favorite part of the job?
I think they’re the same thing to me: problem solving. It is the most rewarding and the most challenging part of job. When you’ve banged your head against your desk all day figuring out how to make a helicopter get hit by an RPG at the right time by tweaking 20 variables or prevent a player from just running through your level without shooting an enemy on veteran, it is the hardest job in the world.
But when it feels right, when everything works just how you imagined, there is no better feeling in the world. And that’s the biggest problem with problem solving in design, it’s all based on feel: what feels right to me feels wrong to you. Finding something that fits multiple play styles and makes everyone feel the level is right is the biggest problem to solve.
My favorite part is getting paid for what I love doing. I’ve not had a morning yet where I dreaded going to work. Being able to be around people who have almost my age in experience building video games and getting to bounce ideas off of them and help contribute to their work is an incredible experience.
My least favorite part is that it is only an internship.
My favorite part of the job is rather simple. Ever since I was 5 years old and crafting enormous space ships out of random Legos (I’m talking the old school Legos not the nicely shaped custom ones of today), I’ve enjoyed making things. Now, I get to make things for people and watch them enjoy it. I honestly can’t describe what that experience is like, but it’s rewarding in a way that my 5 year old self would give me a high five.
As for my least favorite part, I’ve held too many other jobs that have never really held my interest to have a least favorite part about this one. I realize that probably sounds like a cliché, but I love the job and the people I work with. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
What is your advice for others looking to get into Design?
It’s easiest when you have a portfolio of strong work, so if you really want to get into design you want to start modding now and make sure you share it with a larger community. Find the modding community for the game you really love and start throwing material in there. You’ll meet people, learn new things, build cooler shit, and the cycle will repeat. Once you feel you’re good enough, start going after jobs! You have a very low chance of being approached, so approach them! We would recommend making levels that look pretty and also working with script: the better-rounded you are the easier it is to get a job.
Working in QA also helped because I could learn about design process in a major studio firsthand. It also helps in knowing how to make levels by seeing what bugs commonly make it to a tester, and fixing them before that. And face time with designers and directors opens more doors then a website with a bunch of pretty images/cool gameplay.
Where do you hope this job takes you?
I would like to continue to be a designer and am currently working towards a full-time Design position here at Raven. My career goal would be to become a creative director at a major studio.
The job taught me that being a designer was everything I hoped it was, and I would like to continue it into a lead designer position down the road, years from now.
Being a Design Intern, I know this is what I want to do for a living and I want to continue to do it here at Raven. I’m working towards an Associate Designer position right now and one day, after enough hard work and experience, I’d like to become a Design Director.