Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

One shot: Adam Martin

Posted by Randolph Carter on September 30, 2009

Community connection:


You’ve mentioned that you’ll be speaking at GDC next year. Do you know of any topics you plan to speak on?

I’ve submitted a proposal for using Entity / Component Systems in MMO development / game-engines. This could also be called “using functional programming to write your game engine”.

There was a prediction made at the LOGIN conference you attended back in May that the iPhone would become the dominant gaming platform within the next five years. What would be your take on this?

Yep, that was my prediction 🙂   I still believe in it wholeheartedly.  I’ve noticed over the past 6 months that more and more game developers seem to be “getting it” and at least dipping their toes in the waters (my impression is that it took much longer than this for people to commit to Wii development, by contrast – but note this is a very unscientific claim: there is a huge amount of selection bias in the people whose activities I’m aware of!)

Do you see the iPhone becoming a viable platform for MMO development?

Yes, I’m working on a multiplayer realtime dungeon-exploration game at the moment. It’s just a test project at the moment (although I intend to launch it on the App Store soon), and as much as anything it’s a chance for me to re-create (and then re-play!) the bits I liked from classic FPS RPGs (Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, Moraff’s World, etc).

The main difficulty is the GUI / interface, which is fundamentally different from everything learned about RPG interfaces on PC for the past 10 years.

Once that’s done, and launched, it’ll be a good point to start considering larger, more challengine iPhone MMOs…

Do you have a particular genre of game you prefer to develop?

Casual, because I like creating new gameplay, testing it, tweaking it, showing it to 10 people (and watching them play) all in one day.

Online, because … well, why would you ever want to work on a NON online game in this day and age?

Given unlimited funds and resources, what kind of game would you most like to make?

I’d make a large number of smaller games. I think spending a lot of money on a single game is self-evidently foolish, unless you know you’ll only ever be able to / allowed to make one game in your life. There are valid arguments around spending a lot of money on sequels, but even there it’s not without great risk. Of course, it works for some people, and they’re welcome to it – but I’d rather make lots of profit, or make a great game, neither of which tend to come out of huge budgets.

There are big companies whose stated policy is to only ever make the most expensive MMOs possible. I’ve tried working that way, seen the arguments from the inside, and it left me convinced that it’s not the right way for me personally.

In your infinite spare time you also appear to blog. What is your blog about?

Good question. I don’t really know yet. But I’d probably guess something like:

“Trying to be better – on a meta-level – at creating games, using technology, and building businesses. Preferably all three at once.”

The “meta-level” part is critical; most of the things I write about are more aimed at helping you to find better processes that make a wide range of things you’re doing all individually better. I try to steer clear of too many precise detailed things (except for bug fixes, workarounds, and documentation for projects that lack it – those things are worth doing in detail!). I prefer to try and find a few large underlying issues that we can solve or improve to get disproportionately large benefits.

In an ideal world, I’d like my blog to be the kind of thing that Tech Directors and CTO’s in the games industry found particularly useful.  The people who have to think a little bit more generically, a little bit more strategically, and a little bit more long-term than pure programmers.

Also … these are people who are still fundamentally involved in creating and delivering product. They haven’t become pure managers (yet). So … the nature of that product, and the practicalities of delivering it, still resurface for them on a frequent basis.

Why do you blog?

Because there’s so much good stuff I learn from others, or invent, or discover, or know … and I don’t have time to go around the world finding all the people who’d benefit from the individual bits and giving it to them personally. Blogging is the source/faucet of a distributed info-dissemination system that routes your valuable info to people who benefit from it.

Also … it’s sometimes *really helpful* to me to be able to join a company and see some old issue come up that I’ve already blogged.  Instead of starting meetings and writing explanations, and phoning people … I can just send around a link to the original blog post.  *Then* we can start the meetings, and conf calls, etc – but at least this way some of the people will have self-educated a bit on the topic, and I won’t have to repeat myself. OR … they’ll point out what a raving idiot I am, and I get the benefit of their superior knowledge and/or experience teaching me a valuable lesson ;).

(useful to myself too, sometimes, when I forget the finer details of something I previously researched in detail – it’s like a live, online, mind-dump)

Finally … and perhaps most valuable to me personally (as opposed to readers), is the fact that what I blog is constantly under peer-review. When I say something stupid, people line up to tell me so, and explain why. When I omit something important, ditto. This is great. Sometimes it’s a slip-up my end, but often it’s that I simply was unaware, ignorant, or ill-informed. All those commenters refine the content and help me better understand the things I thought I knew (like a mini version of Wikipedia, in some ways).

Do you see it as just a hobby or perhaps something more?

Absolutely a hobby. I can’t see a way in which it would ever become something more.

But also … in some ways a lot more important than “hobby” implies; I think it’s an essential part of your personal professionaldevelopment.

e.g. I get annoyed when startup founders stop blogging because they’re “too busy to blog”; IMHO that’s one of the best times to blog. You need the benefit of other people’s perspectives telling you if you’re smoking crack (people outside your own team). You also are living in a hyper-fast bubble, and will be learning 10 times as much as ordinary people every day … so that would be a damn good time to be sharing some of it.

Stepping back a bit, what was your introduction to MMOs and what was that experience like?

I was one of the longer-term members of the MUD-DEV mailing list in the late 1990’s, where a large proportion of the designers, researchers, and developers of MUDs and MMO’s hung out. 

The list was extremely heavily moderated, and extremely high signal-to-noise ratio. When the list died in the mid 2000’s, everyone exploded off into the blogosphere, but a lot was lost never to be regained.

In game terms, I started playing MUD’s with Avalon, one of the oldest commercial MUDs, based in London.

I started playing MMO’s with Ultima 7, which played like a high-quality 2008-era MMO in solo mode, with no raiding.

I guess what you really want is my first “real” MMO that I played “too much”. I tried to get into beta UO, but my UK net connection was too poor. I saw EQ ruin people, so I played it casually for a while, but not for long. In the end, by coincidence (I went to the same University as the author) it was Runescape, back when it was about 5,000 players. I’d played it even earlier, but didn’t like it much. It was attempt 2 that hooked me.

Can you recall that first MMO “wow!” moment?

Never really had one, although luring griefers to their death via social engineering tricks (pretending to hate them, then gradually caving in, and offering bribes, and getting all whiny and apologetic, while leading them into a very-high-level zone, and standing and laughing while they learn the meaning of corpse retrieval) … probably comes close.

I don’t really see anything about MMO’s today to make you go “wow”, not once you’ve played games like Ultima 7, GTA IV, and Oblivion, and have developed a raging thirst for a “true” wide open world – which no MMO has come even vaguely close to so far.

Those are all “oh wow” games. I’ve not yet played an MMO that was (and I’ve played a lot of them).

Do you tend to supplement your MMO gaming with other computer, console, or tabletop games?

MMO gaming is a small fraction of my gaming. I have *extensively* played thousands of different games – nearly all of which I could describe to you the core game design, and compare and contrast to at least 5 other games, all off the top of my head.

I find this helps a lot when working on and evaluating games.  Especially at an early stage, when you have to see the potential, and especially at a late stage, when you’re looking for extra ways to add polish.

It also helps vastly when you’re working in a publisher, seeing incoming pitches, and you can ask really difficult questions to test how thought-out the project is. If they’re (accidentally – or maliciously!) reproducing an existing game you’ve played, you can quickly ask the questions they SHOULD have thought of, but might not have. Although that’s a really niche usefulness!

At your peak, how much time per week would you say you spent gaming? How about now?

Does playtesting your own games count? I’m running at probably 1-5 hours a week right now. For what’s it worth, I (deliberately) don’t own a TV, so the time that other people spend watching TV I’m either playing games or doing something more active. I’ve got nothing against TV – I grew up with it – but it’s just a lot less rewarding to me than interactive things, stuff where you learn, and/or spending time with other people.

Normally (I’ve got two dayjobs right now) I’d be running at 5-15 hours a week, not including any games I was forced to play for my job (market research and/or internal playtesting).

At peak, I’ve probably played 50+ hours in a single week. But then, I’m under the age of 35, which means I’ve had the luxury of playing while at school and university. I used to play some games, like the original Civilization (from 1990-something), and the original Shogun: Total War (about ten years later), all night, and see the dawn in. Ditto we used to play Micro Machines v2 all night, 4 player mulitplayer, on many occasions.

(its a crying shame that Codemasters let that IP rot and die. Its awesomeness is still strong…)

What advice would you give someone who is wanted to get into game development?

  1. Only apply for the job you actually want to do. DONT YOU FRICKIN DARE apply for a QA job because you really want to be a programmer or designer but dont think you’re good enough. If you’re not good enough DONT join the industry. (if you dont understand why this is a big issue, I’ve covered it on my blog a couple of times ;))
  2. Make more games. If a game is NOT shipped it’s worth exactly zero.  Even the world’s biggest turd – IF you ship it – is worth something more than zero.
  3. Read my blog, find the links on the right hand side, and click on the bits about “recruitment” and game-design/programming – I cover different aspects of this often.
  4. If you can find one, get a bachelor’s degree in a “traditional” subject (one that existed before 1990) relevant to your discipline.  i.e. Programmers: get a Computer Science degree (everything else is worthless), Artists: get a Fine Arts degree (everything else is NOT worthless, but is worth less), Designers: get a Literature or History or Psychology or Philosophy degree (Lit and Hist probably best), Producers: … get a degree in something scientific, like Physics or Biology or Chemistry or Maths … something that proves you’ve got an extremely precise, well-organized, empirical mind.

If you had a chance to do all of this over again, would you do anything different?

One or two, but nothing that’s going to help anyone else :), at least not without the long rambling explanation of “why” that would go with them…

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