Monomyth, or the hero's journey, is the defined basic pattern that is found in narrative and adhered to by many of today's storytellers. It describes the fundamentals of what every protagonist goes through to become a hero.
This feature sets out to interview (former) mod developers that have managed to break into the professional games industry and turn their hobby and/or passion into a career. In the process, we'll share some insight and inspiration on how you too can turn from modder to pro and what you can do to better your chances. It's a journey that every mod developer contemplates at least once — the modder's journey.
For the first interview in this series I sat down with Diego Jimenez, a level designer employed at the lavish Swedish headquarters of DICE (Digital Illusion Creative Entertainment, for those of you in the know) to talk about his experiences so far in the game industry and how he managed to get his foot in the door.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in this interview are pertaining to the individual interviewed and are not necessarily those of DICE or EA.
Ryan Anderson: Hey Diego, thanks for taking the time out of your schedule to talk with me today. Why don't you introduce yourself; tell us what exactly you do for a living and where you do it?
Diego Jimenez: Hello there, Ryan! My name is Diego Jimenez, and I am a self-described jungle boy hailing from one of the last undiscovered little corners of the world. The land of fiery volcanoes, ill-humored monkeys and cunning street muggers [He's talking about Costa Rica - ed]. To everyone's disbelief I now find myself designing single-player levels for Battlefield: Bad Company. It's been precisely two years this week since I have been here, and we just wrapped up the game.
RA: Modding was a part of what helped you land your position at DICE, let's take a look at how you started out modding for games. Where did you get your start in modding and how many mods have you actually worked on?
DJ: I was 14 when I dabbled naively in mod-making for Half-Life 1 and Deus Ex. At 16, I had a newfound sense of purpose and would spend the next 4 years or so learning on my own and working on what would eventually become 7th Serpent. We put out the first episode in mid-2006 to generally good reviews, with a subsequent release being readied right now. I did the level environments, as well as designing the gameplay and helping to manage the overall effort.
I also spent an entire year doing environmental level design (ie. level geometry) in an as of yet unfinished project dubbed Mona: The Assassin for Max Payne 2 — essentially an unofficial level pack, which will likely be finally released later this year. I was always a bit selective on what I would put out there for people to play so strictly speaking, my name has only been on a a single public product up to this point — the aforementioned 7th Serpent episode.
RA: So when did you decide it was time to actually start getting paid to design games? Did you receive any interest from studios as a result of them just happening upon your work or was it something you had to actively pursue?
DJ: I was originally aiming for an environmental design position (art) so I felt there were still a number of skills I wanted to get before seriously reaching out for a job overseas. On an impulse I decided to probe the waters to see what would happen, applying to over three dozen companies for level design positions so it was definitively something I had to pursue very actively. One offer fell through because of US visa complications. And then there was DICE. I had figured they were a long shot given that they were a multiplayer game company, and the job was for a gameplay scripting position. But a hands-on design test and several interviews later, I was in disbelief —these famed Swedes were offering me a job!
RA: Costa Rica to Stockholm, Sweden is quite the transition, how comfortable was it? Are you fluent in Swedish yet?
DJ: Jag måste öva! :) I hate to disappoint your readers, but it wasn't all the culture shock it probably should have been. DICE made the transition very easy for me. I continue to fail the demands of the independent living —look no further than my overflowing kitchen sink or laundry basket— but I am not blaming Sweden for that (yet!)
However, when you move by yourself to a foreign country the language becomes a big barrier to truly feel at home. I like to think that my command of the language is such that no 9 year old kid in Sweden has currently got a thing on me. And I am steadily going after the 10 year olds now! :)
RA: When it came down to making the decision to employ you, how much of it came down to your modding history and portfolio? What were the other factors?
DJ: Given that this was a design job and the bulk of my portfolio was artistic-level environments — I wouldn't really say the portfolio had a lot to do with it. It was more on the non-tangible experience that you hint at on your resume and elaborate on interviews where I managed to convey my game design knowledge, leadership skills on a team setting and analytical mindset. Having managed the major mod project I had been involved with and overseeing the overall gameplay; it gave me valuable experience that I was also able to showcase by presenting design documentation, level layouts, etc on the interview.
A major element in the equation that allowed me to bridge that perceived gap between the job requirements and my past history was the design test that DICE sent me. They asked me to spend a few weeks designing a small level under a strict set of guidelines. No art, only gameplay and they liked what I came up with. That is how I was able to secure an on-site interview to "seal the deal".
From conversations with my colleagues after the fact, I ultimately I got my job not necessarily because of my (lacking) experience or the pretty pictures on my portfolio —which would have never been enough— but because I convinced them that here was a guy that was serious, proactive, who could work on a team setting and who delivered well on the task he was given. I can only thank DICE for being open enough to allow me to prove those qualities.
RA: When you mention the words serious and proactive, I'm immediately reminded of your large reference and texture database you compiled yourself which, I think, actually borders on obsessive. Since you didn't have any formal training, what sort of steps did you take to make level design your craft instead of just a hobby?
DJ: It most definitively borders on the obsessive! But that was a personal obsession, mind you, not necessarily something I would recommend for other aspiring designers. :) You pose a good question. I think it comes down to being proactive (yes, I love that word!) and being eager to learn, which enables you to find growth opportunities everywhere. I would analyze games critically to try to figure what they made me feel —and how they managed to made me feel this way— what I liked about them, and what I thought they had failed at. I would troll Gamasutra and other industry websites to try to educate myself. But most importantly, I would always keep myself busy doing something. Nothing quite teaches you more than hands-on experience.
Formal education is one fine way to go about it, but if you have got the drive, I believe you can teach yourself to do just as much in this field. The tools are out there.
RA: How many others from DICE have come from a modding background?
DJ: Not so many artists or producers, but quite a few of the designers and most of the level designers come from that background. We have been growing fast over the last few years and the company has always been very open to hiring modders.
RA: You've lead at least one mod team right through to a final release. Did the experience you gain there transfer over to working in a studio environment?
DJ: Positively! If you can somehow collaborate closely over many months or years with people that are not getting paid for their effort and who work halfway across the world from you, surely you can get along with highly motivated professionals toiling feverishly at an arm's length. In mod-making you learn to be resourceful and focusing on getting things done, as opposed to being distracted by personal grievances or "team politics".
RA: What do you miss from the good ole' modding days that you can't do now? Do you still have any time for playing games/mods?
DJ: The single biggest thing I miss is having significant ownership over my own work. Sometimes in large projects a level designer, for example, may not get to see a specific level through to completion or for an extended period of time. You can get shuffled constantly to work on different levels at different times so the payoff can be a lot more diluted than on a focused one-man modding operation. It seems the industry is trending towards this kind of multi-tasking approach. It may well be the best way to produce a game or make a milestone, but it can be less fulfilling in some ways than making mods.
I honestly gave up on finishing games a long time ago. I am not the kind of guy that works 9 hours a day doing games and then goes home to do or play more games. To stay on top of the current trends I try to play games only for a level or two, figure out what makes them tick and then move on.
RA: DICE itself is a pretty large studio, which in turn is connected to EA — one of the goliaths of the games industry. Working within such a large corporate entity, do you still feel that you have any creative control? How much power to do you have to influence the design of a game from your position?
DJ: Fortunately for us, level design is at the core of the game making process; we essentially build the game from the tools and assets others do. So producers and leads aside, we inherently have more influence and added responsibility over the final gameplay experience than most other developers in the project.
RA: So in Bad Company, I know most of the time it's a collaborative effort, but is there a part in the game that you are particularly proud of design-wise as a result of your handiwork?
DJ: Not only is it a very collaborative effort, but due to the nature of the project we were shuffled around tasks quite often, so it's hard to pinpoint something that was mostly "mine". Towards the later stages I was responsible for a lot of the stuff you see in the second level of the game. The sequence shown here was a lot of fun to make: Gametrailers.com
RA: What's the most fun you've had while working there? Any crazy level design bloopers?
DJ: In this game about Abrams tanks and Apache helicopters, an off-beat golf cart with a definite charm seemed doomed by the inevitable internal scope cuts, but was immediately bought back to life after one of our senior executives suddenly took a liking to it on a casual playtest through the game. :)
There's a lot of fun bloopers on the Behind the Scenes material branded with the Gold edition of Battlefield: Bad Company.
RA: So Bad Company is the game that you've been working on in your entire tenure at DICE, can you tell us if it's coming to the PC in the future? I'm sure modders would love to mess around with the Frostbite engine.
DJ: I wouldn't hold my breath. From day one this project was conceived as Battlefield for consoles and our focus has always been to get that right.
RA: What advice do you have for modders looking to turn pro?
DJ: My advice to modders is of the practical kind. Work by yourself, or in small teams of people you definitely trust. Release your mod incrementally rather than in one go —episodes for single player, incremental releases for multiplayer. Resist the feature creep. Seize the opportunity to go learn, to experiment freely now that millions of dollars and entire family incomes don't depend on you being in touch with the market. Use that flexibility to your advantage: come out from left field rather than trying to outdo full blown studios with big budgets.
But most of all, enjoy what you do in the amateur ranks. Because if you don't enjoy doing it on your spare time, what makes you think you will when you do it for a living? Cherish that stage of your career. I love my job, but I will tell you, you will never get a lot of those thrills again when working with high-stakes, large-scale commercial projects.
RA: Besides Bad Company, are there any other games/mods on the horizon that you are excited about? What was the last game you played?
DJ: The last game I played through and through was Call of Duty 4 — mad props to Infinity Ward for managing to make more with less, as they always have. I look forward to progressive-minded efforts like Arkane's The Crossing, anything by Quantic Dream or Warren Spector's next project for Disney —whatever it turns out to be. Also, the concept for The Path by Tale of Tales fascinates me to no end.
Modding-wise, a while ago I played an incredible mod for Unreal Tournament 2004 called Hollow Moon, which turned out to be right up my alley. I love "edgy", experimental mods that are not afraid of trying new things. For nostalgia's sake, I am excited about Black Mesa Source (resist the feature creep and get it out already people!) and the forthcoming High Definition Texture Project for Deus Ex.
RA: Thanks for taking the time out of your schedule for this interview Diego and congratulations on completing development work for your first shipped, AAA commercial title!
DJ: Lest I pass on the chance to be a shameless plug, Battlefield: Bad Company is out June 24th. Buy the game, and keep me employed!