Press Start
Industry Insider: Graduate Student

Today on Industry Insider, I was able to get a graduate student’s take on the gaming industry, learn more about a game designer’s career path, and got some new perspectives about the industry in general.

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Press Start (PS): What was your favorite game when you were young, like what got you into being a gamer?

Ken: Probably Civ 2 [Civilization 2] was the first game that I really played a lot. When I was young, there weren’t a lot of game companies around. So a lot of the games I played were these little downloaded games you get off of bulletin boards or what have you. But Civ is one of the first big commercial games that I played. It really got me inspired about gaming.

PS: What got you into game design specifically then?

Ken: I was definitely interested in game design and did make some small games as a kid and did stuff like play D&D. I was a Dungeon Master designing D&D campaigns. Though I never really thought about game design as a career until I had a friend who got a job as a programmer at a game company and they were looking for testers, so I wound up being a tester at that company. It was a small start up. And then after being a tester there for a while they asked me if I wanted to do some level design on a game. So that was the first time that I really realized that people actually got paid to do game design.

PS: I saw you have an extensive list of games that you have worked on, I saw MechWarrior a lot, which by the way I love, I grew up on that game. So then what was your favorite game to work on and why?

Ken: Uh, yeah, I don’t know. They’re all good. MechWarrior 2, maybe, for various reasons. It was the first big title that I had worked on, I had worked on smaller games before. And because of its history as vaporware, there was certainly a lot of pressure and there was very much a camaraderie and a team attitude among the people building the game. We had a short time to finish it and it was a large team, so there definitely was this sense of common purpose. We knew we were making a cool game. It was more successful than we had hoped. Certainly at the time we knew it was going to be a good game, but other games I’ve worked on it was like, “aw, well you know, maybe it’s not the best game, but you have to make it anyways.” But that was the game that we knew would be successful and I worked with great people on it, so that was probably my favorite game to work on.

PS: Can you tell me about your research project.

Ken: My current research is on design patterns and player behavior in First Person Shooter games (FPS). We have been looking at the current design patterns in FPS levels. These are recurring elements the designers use when they are building levels to try and create gameplay in a level. For example, a designer might put in a sniper location with the intent that it will slow down the pace of the game. It’s going to give the player kind of a chance to get their bearings and engage the enemy without being exposed. It’s going to slow down the pace of the game and reduce the tension, as an example of design pattern. So what we are doing is I have a version of the Half Life 2 engine that I’ve added a lot of telemetry to and we have subjects playing the game and we record the video and the data of them playing and we do some analysis of the data to see whether they are actually playing the way that you would expect from the design patterns. That allows us to refine pattern collection and provide designers with a tool. Like when you use this pattern a certain way, here’s what the results were. So that gives them a better ability to refine the game, to sort of refine the gameplay that they are trying to create.

PS: So how did you get to where you are?

Ken: Well I was working in the industry, as I said, as a designer and later I was an associate producer. I had a computer science background though and I decided to go back to school to pursue it and finish my degree. Then after getting my Bachelor’s, I wound up working for a defense contractor. I wasn’t able to get a job at a game company and I wasn’t terribly happy about that, so grad school was sort of the next choice to continue my education. Though at the time I wasn’t necessarily thinking about going back into the gaming industry, but being here at Santa Cruz with the game design program and working with people like Jim Whitehead, who are doing a lot of research on game design, kind of got me back into it. And now that I’m close to graduating I expect to go back into the game industry.

PS: What made you choose UCSC for grad school?

Ken: When I was applying and starting grad school they didn’t have the game design program here yet, so that wasn’t a consideration. I applied to several schools and I was accepted at many of them, but what sort of tipped the balance here was being close to Silicon Valley, being close to the tech industry I felt would be good for collaborating with the industry and having internships with the industry. So that was a major issue with my decision to come here.

PS: What was your most inspiring class/professor here at UCSC?

Ken: You don’t really have to take that many classes as a grad student. I TAed [teacher assisted] a lot of classes on game design that were very inspiring to me. Like working with the undergrads who have a lot of cool game ideas. Foundations of Game Design, CMPS-80k, is the intro class, it’s usually a very large class. There are several teams building cool little games. They don’t have a whole lot of time and they are mostly working with GameMaker, which is very limited in scope, but the fact that so many of the students have been able to make so many cool games with that is really inspiring to me.

PS: What are some of the biggest issues that you see in the industry currently and how do you think these issues could be resolved?

Ken: Um…that’s a tough question. There is this interest lately in these motion controllers like the Kinect and the PlayStation Move, which I think are being driven largely by marketing and not necessarily good for game design. People are starting to design games around them, but it was more of a push than a pull. The technology was there and so the manufacturers were saying, “we can provide this technology, can you use it in games?” Rather than the designers saying, “we want this technology, we have game ideas.” So they [game designers] are being pushed, rather than pulled. If you play games like GunStringer, they are starting to catch up and they are starting to figure out ways to use that technology. I think it was a bit of a problem at first that there just weren’t games that supported them and the games that did support them were not particularly good.

PS: Where do you see the industry going in the next 5 or 10 years?

Ken: There is definitely more of a push toward more social media games and multiplayer games, particularly social games like on Facebook or other social networking platforms. There is a challenge there in designing interesting games in that sort of platform. There are some limitations to the game design in those areas. Developing more Indie game systems like the Xbox Live and there is some similar system for the Wii, I forget what it’s called, where small publishers can make games and get them out to the public. Also the App store and Android Marketplace. So I think the industry will be going toward more smaller and shorter games, smaller budgets. There will still be these big budget blockbusters, but I think there will be more choice in terms of smaller Indie games.

PS: Is that something you are looking forward to?

Ken: I think that it’s a good thing for the industry. It will definitely shake things up for the big publishers.

PS: I’m sure you are aware of Tim Schafer’s KickStarter program and how successful that was. I’m just wondering if you have an opinion on that and if you see it affecting the industry at all?

Ken: I think KickStarter is a great idea. I’m more familiar with board games and such that have been funded through KickStarter than computer games. But I think in both cases there is the potential for the things that aren’t quite ready to get released…when things go through a publisher, they have the economic incentive to make sure the game is well tested and do the market research. To make sure the audience is there and that the game itself is ready. I think with some KickStarter projects there is the potential for things that aren’t quite ready yet, maybe they seem great to the creator, but they haven’t been tested with the general public. But when they get the funding from KickStarter, they can just kind of push it through without doing the proper testing and the proper positioning of the game. So I think that there is that potential for things that, maybe, shouldn’t being released getting released, but then that also has the benefit of things that might not have found an audience otherwise getting released. So I would just encourage people to use KickStarter to make sure they are doing the proper testing and that their game is going to be received by the public in the way they hoped.

PS: So you think that it’s kind of a double-edged sword in a way? It’s good, because you can get your stuff out there, but it could also be a little premature.

Ken: Well, yeah. It’s true for anything. There are people who self-publish ebooks now and you can get them on Amazon, but they are not edited as much as a book that is published by a major publisher. It may seem like a great book to the writer, but without an experienced editor reading the book and giving feedback and giving the author guidance on how to position the book and how to market it, you can’t be sure what you are going to get.

PS: All good points. What is the thing you have done that you are most proud of?

Ken: My dissertation project is a pretty big endeavor and I’m glad that it is coming together and I’m starting to get some good results. So that’s great. My master’s project was also really interesting. I procedurally generated training scenarios for a collapsed structure rescue game to help train firefighters and rescue workers on how to go into collapsed structures after an earthquake to rescue people. The system itself worked nicely. If I had more resources I might have been able to build a game around it that people could play, but at the time there just weren’t the resources. The actual system that generated the levels and gave an abstract representation was quite neat. So those are both big things that I was quite proud of.

PS: Going off of that, where do you hope to be after grad school? Do you see yourself in one of those indie companies?

Ken: I’m looking at various opportunities now. Yeah, we will see. I haven’t decided yet.

PS: Is there a particular company or creative director you would really like to work for?

Ken: There are definitely some big publishers that I do have some respect for, some studios I would like to work for. I’m not really at liberty to say who I have been talking to at this point.

PS: To finish off, what advice do you have for people just starting the game design career path?

Ken: Definitely build lots of little games and don’t get too married to ideas. You may think it’s great, but if you don’t have other people play it and give feedback and improve on your design then you don’t really know if it’s a good idea or not. There are certainly plenty of systems like GameMaker that make it very easy for people to design games and I would say go out and make as many little games as you can and iterate on those designs, have people play them. When you get new ideas, improve on them and definitely don’t get too fixated that your first idea is great. Your first idea is usually a good start, but as you build it you will improve your ideas as you get feedback from other people and your ideas will evolve. 

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Thank you Ken Hullett for your valuable time and for the interesting interview. Good luck on all your future endeavors and I look forward to picking up the next title you work on. If you would like more info on Ken or would like to contact him, go here