Author: Gautam Babbar Source: http://xbox.gamespy.com/xbox/oddworld-4/577488p1.html
How the pursuit of women drove Gautam Babbar to a job in game design.
A graduate of Entertainment Design at Art Center College of Design, Gautam Babbar began as a production designer for Munch’s Oddysee. He is responsible for production and game design, the real-time cinematic art direction, and contributed to the game script for Oddworld Stranger’s Wrath. He has also contributed to The Art of Oddworld Inhabitants book. In this diary he about the routine of level design.
“We do all the work and they get all the fame and chicks!” I’ve heard that said about various designers by non-designers. After much deliberation and soul searching, I must say, “Yes these claims are true, especially the chicks part!” All right fine, there are no “chicks to be had,” and we still do work. The good thing is we do get to write things like this diary, which is a little bit of fame.
The work that we do, when we’re not picking up the ladies and walking down the red carpet, is pretty interesting. Here at Oddworld a designer is responsible for a particular set of levels from start to finish. We all have the nebulous task of “making the game fun.” On Oddworld Stranger’s Wrath (Wrath from here on) “fun” meant many different things. In Wrath the player can talk to characters, buy things in stores, be in third person, and sneak or just go guns blazing into a fight. The game ends up mixing some traditional quest-based RPG elements with some pretty crazy action elements. We had to make sure all these things came together seamlessly to create a world and story that the player enjoys and didn’t want to leave once they’ve started playing.
On this project I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in many aspects of the game. I’ve worked in the production design department, helped with the pre-rendered cutscenes, worked on levels, and been involved in the story. One of the things I was most interested in learning about at the start of production was designing levels.
Ultimately, I’m guilty of being a fan boy. I Love games like Call of Duty, Halo, Half-Life 2, etc. Those games have moments that I love. If I’m playing those games you’ll hear me yelling and screaming obscenities a mile a way. That’s right; I yell obscenities when I like things. This again, like being a designer, helps with the ladies. I got interested in game design because I wanted to try my hand at making these moments. So during this project I got the chance to make a few levels. One of them was the Xplosives McGee level. I’m going to talk a little more about how that level came to fruition.
One thing Oddworld concentrates on is the story element of our games. We try to make an interesting story that has twists and turns over the duration of the game. The story is broken up into chunks and presented to the player in regions and then broken down even further into levels.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I’ve always loved that movie, even though for some reason people don’t seem to like it. The main thing I love is that crazy mine cart chase near the end of the movie. I thought, “Why not try to do something like that in our game?” It would break up the pace, and give the player something new to do for a little bit. It also fits perfectly into the Wild West-themed parts of the game.
The mine cart level started off like all the other levels: in blue cube form in our level editor. One thing I have come to find out on this project is I HATE BLUE. Every level in our game was made of blue shapes at one point or another. Early in production on everyone’s monitors you’d see bright blue gridded cubes that look like they’re out of Tron. At this blue stage we test and work out the main gameplay elements of the level. So for the mine cart level this meant making the mine carts work.
The first time the player was able to ride the cart in our game the result was pretty uneventful … it actually sucked. It was not fun by any means, there was nothing to do on it, plus it didn’t really work right. The player would fly out of the cart at points; they wouldn’t be able to move at times; and worst of all they couldn’t jump off the cart at the end of the ride no matter what they did. This meant I needed the help of some higher power, a programmer. Usually, when a programmer and I work together it results in a fight that the programmer usually will win because they are in better shape than me. But we managed to hold off on the fights till the end of the project.
After a few days of work we sorted out some bugs and the level grew in size and scope. This process was great. It was very collaborative and iterative. Someone on the team would say, “Wouldn’t it be great if you where riding this cart ride and the tracks blew out underneath you and you landed on another track and continued?” A few days later this was mocked up in the game. Someone else who was play testing would say, “You should have guys chasing you on their own carts.” And a little while later this was working. This continued till the level eventually became a solid proof of concept. Now we would actually take this and make it a level that ties into the main story.
Xplosives McGee was the outlaw boss that ran the mine carts. He was the major bounty for this level. He was whom the level needed to be built around. Knowing this I had to redo the proof of concept as a real level. This was a blessing in disguise because it allowed the team and I to identify weak spots in the level (technical and gameplay-oriented), and improve on them. At this point in the process, the art team got involved and figured out exactly how to build the miles and miles of track efficiently, how the level should be portaled, and other technical considerations. Now that the proof of concept phase was gone I had to switch gears, hunker down, work with the team and make the level final.
Getting to the final level was a rapid process. This is because the level had already been through a certain amount of design scrutiny by the team. Little by little all the blue cubes, tracks, carts, etc., were replaced with final assets by the art team. After the initial art pass the level bounced back and forth between art and design till it looked great and played great.
This process was what we used not only for the mine carts level, but for most of the levels in our game. The process was very team driven and overseen by the team leads and our creative director.
So this brings me to point of getting the chicks. Do designers get the chicks? One day we might, but till that day I hope, while walking around outside, to hopefully hear someone screaming complimentary obscenities at our game.