One shot: Arnold Hendrick interview
Posted by Randolph Carter on October 20, 2009
Arnold Hendrick is a veteran of the computer game industry who’s held positions at Coleco, MicroProse and Kesmai Studios, among others. In this interview he talks about his own gaming background, what games he enjoys playing these days (with and without his wife), some of the highlights in his game design career and what advice he has for those hoping to get into the industry.
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Arnold Hendrick’s website:
If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind discussing your background in the game industry?
You can get an overview of my computer game work history at the “about” page of my website, or logging into Linkedin and searching people for “Arnold Hendrick.” I keep both up to date, while the info below is pegged to this point in time (Oct 15, 2009):
I’m a 25-year veteran of the computer game industry, and prior to that worked in paper-and-pencil games. My first experience in computer games was at Coleco as a “designer” (which there included Associate Producer work) starting in 1983. When Coleco imploded along with the rest of first generation console gaming I joined MicroProse software and was there for ten years (85-95) as designer and producer (frequently both on the same game). That led to another few years at Bill Stealey’s successor company iMagic (95-98) in a similar role. Then I converted my growing interest in MMOs to something professional by joining Kesmai Studios as a senior producer. Kesmai was absorbed by EA, dismantled by EA, and then tried to constitute itself as Castle Hill Studios. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out very well. I then took some time for formal training in project management and a bit of consulting before going into “Serious Games” and virtual worlds at Forterra Systems (05-09). Forterra has run into some hard times, so at this moment I’m job hunting again – in the traditional game industry I know and love, MMOs especially. Know anyone who needs producer, senior producer or executive producer?
Had you done any game design before entering the computer game industry?
In fact, I’m old enough to have worked in the paper game industry before computer games came along. I’m probably best known for my stint as publishing director of Heritage Games in the late 70s and early 80s. I wrote various miniatures rules, acted as managing editor for a fantasy RPG, did some traditional boardgames, and along with Howard Barasch led the “Dwarfstar Games” division, including designing a fair number of them personally. Perhaps the best is “Barbarian Prince.” I recently ran into a game industry entrepreneur and studio leader who remembered that game with great fondness.
You were chief designer on the PC game Darklands for MicroProse. I actually played this game and remember thoroughly enjoying myself—particularly for the game’s open world. In fact, GameSpot lists it as one of the greatest games of all time. How do you feel the game turned out and did it turn out the way you had hoped it would?
Darklands as a game DESIGN turned out really well because so many people worked so hard to make it great. I also think the basic idea worked really well: build a fantasy RPG around the belief structures of the 15th Century Germanies, which are just close enough to conventional fantasy to be understandable to gamers, but just different enough to make everything seem novel and new.
However, as project leader I was a real “babe in the woods” about project management back then and MicroProse had literally no process whatsoever. As you might imagine, the result was working insane hours for months on end for a game that was late, over budget, and shipped with far too many bugs. More than any other experience, that game got me interested in project management, although it took me a while to find truly better ways for making games.
From all the games you’ve worked on, is there one you are most proud of?
As a game designer, I’m always thinking that the next game will be better than anything previous. I suspect most designers are that way. Of course in today’s game industry target markets, timetables and budgets don’t always allow you to work on what you’d like. This may not be all bad – look what happened when NCsoft gave Richard Garriott a blank check for Tabula Rasa!
Historically speaking, I’m probably proudest of my collaboration with Sid Meier on the original “Pirates!” game. We worked well together, and produced a really innovative game that held up remarkably well. “Gunship,” “Darklands” and “M1 Tank Platoon” were the most innovative at their time, while “Silent Service II” for the PC was a fine “sandbox” game. In paper games I always felt “Demonlord” and “Barbarian Prince” in the dwarfstar line were the most innovative. I keep getting inquiries about republishing rights for the “Sword & Spear” miniatures rules (ancients skirmish rules), although I believe the “Warlords” rules we were finishing as Heritage went under in 1982 were my finest miniatures rules set, largely because of their simplicity.
I should hasten to add that when it comes to computer games you are quite correct to say “games you’ve worked on” rather than “your game.” All computer games are team efforts, and reflect the team as much as any one individual.
Would you mind taking a minute and talking a little bit about your own gaming background (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?
I remember in 4th grade getting various toy army men and tanks, creating some rules for them (mostly tables for movement and damage), and dragooning my younger brother and neighborhood kids to play. The local kids didn’t enjoy the game much, since as rules inventor I always knew details they didn’t. I shamelessly used this advantage to always win. Eventually I had to play the games solo!
As a teenager I played Avalon Hill hex wargames with a passion – RPGs didn’t even exist then! With the advent of D&D and especially Traveler (from GDW) I went wild over RPGs. I played many of wargames solo too, which was probably good practice for computer game design. After all, even MMOs usually need a strong PvE component to succeed.
I believe all this gaming is what fed my academic interest in political and military history. That’s what my degree is in, and I retain that interest to this day. My experience learning about, playing and designing boardgames strongly influenced many of the MicroProse game designs. However, at this point the majority of computer game design “lessons” can now be learned from previous computer games, with only rare forays further back into paper games.
Would you say working on computer games has in some ways lessened your enthusiasm for playing games?
Nope, not in the least. I still spend hours every night playing games. Mostly its online MMOs, but sometimes I’m playing solo games (usually PC games, more rarely console titles). The best way to keep up in this industry is to keep an eye on what everyone is doing.
What games are you playing these days?
I have played MMOs with my wife since the early days of text-only games on GEnie (circa 1993-94). Starting with EverQuest we decided on a formula that has served us well for a decade. When playing a game together, we have one character each that we ONLY use when playing with the other. We always group together. Therefore, we advance at the same rate (unless the game has broken level-up logic, as Warhammer does). We’ve done this successfully in EQ, DAoC, WoW, EQ2, SRO, Conan and Warhammer, to name a few. She hates PvP and doesn’t have the hand-eye coordination to handle fast-action games (like MMOFPS titles), but fortunately there are enough “classic” MMORPGs still coming out that we expect to spend many more years gaming together. Having hit level cap in WAR, right now we’re back in EQ2 giving it a second shot (as a dark elven Shadowknight-Inquisitor team).
Outside of my gaming with her, I’ve recently been playing EVE, Champions and Fallen Earth – all games she wouldn’t like. I can’t play Aion because I’m one of the 5-10% whose ISP’s routers hate Aion’s comm layer, resulting in impossible lag spikes. Incidentally my ISP is AT&T in the heart of Silicon Valley running at 3.0 Mbps! Grrr, grrr. I’m also waiting for Earth Eternal to fix their sound problems so I can fully enjoy that – browser MMOs are VERY interesting (FusionFall was a lot of fun!).
I’m looking forward to APB and SW:TOR. My curiosity is both professional and personal. Both games are being very daring, although in different ways. By the end of next year we should know a lot more about how to design the next generation of MMOs.
Would you care to share a particularly memorable experience from your game design days?
Well, on the good side, it was sitting with Sid Meier, talking about the pirates game as we built it, going off to do my part, giving my files back to him, and seeing it all working just a week later. There is something magic about a game as it comes together. You don’t know that it’s great, necessarily. It’s just nice when it starts working as you envisioned in your mind’s eye.
What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into the game design?
Don’t get too caught up in grandiose visions. Great games are about doing a really good job with all the details – without driving the company into bankruptcy in the process! Never design for yourself – since nobody is going to have your knowledge and skill with the game. Instead, design for the full range of the game’s audience. Imagine yourself in their shoes, often as a total newbie, and how they’d experience it. Just because you can beat a level in 30 seconds or do your quest in your sleep doesn’t mean it’s too easy. One of the persistent errors made by newbie designers is trying to show off by making “impossible” levels, raid dungeons, etc.
Game design is learned by doing. Get a game with a level editor or a scenario maker or whatever and create something. Get some friends to try it. Don’t TELL them how to play. Instead, watch them and see what happens. Quietly observing how people play (or struggle) with a game is VERY educational.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gaming audience?
If somebody has a pile of money, I’m full of ideas for how to make some great MMOGs! To get some insights into my thinking about design and production of MMOs, feel free to take a look at www.mmotidbits.com.